The Testimony of the Vines

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In February, when we first arrived in the southern part of France, all the vineyards were bare.  They were gnarled trunks, devoid of leaves, branches or any signs of being alive. They were dormant, a condition the dictionary describes as “biological rest or suspended animation”.  I watched the vineyards near our residence daily for any evidence of life.  Since we’ve lived on the equator for much of the last eight years I’ve missed the turning of the seasons and the breaking of winter with the first signs of spring.  This year, I hoped to have a front row seat for that annual reawakening from the sleep of winter in a place so lush with horticulture.  I was not disappointed!

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By mid-March, a few green sprigs began to emerge from the dead-looking trunks.  There vines were not dead!  Within their veins new life was pushing out in bright green sprigs of baby leaves.  Over a few days nearly every vineyard we rode past was giving testimony to this turning of the season and the unstoppable force of life bursting forth.  Always a joy to see this dramatic transformation of winter to spring, dormant to awake, seemingly dead to new spring green, this transition was particularly poignant to me.  Death tolls from coronavirus were increasing every day in Italy, Spain and France (where we were).  Much of the world was in grief, despair, lament, horror, sickness and death.

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But not the vines.  The vines were bursting with new growth, with the promise of flowers, fruit and produce. As were the almond trees, peach trees and a whole variety of other produce grown in  the region.

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This became a daily, tangible image of hope for me over the weeks we lived under French  confinement.  An image strong enough to confront the grim realities of the daily news cycle.  It spoke of the unseen force of life that renews, restores and is not controlled by anyone other than the Author of Life.  It reminded me of God’s promise that He is making all things new.  It humbled me to marvel at the goodness of God that is always there even when I can’t see it.  Daily this testimony gave witness to me to not despair or be afraid, for just as new life springs forth from seemingly dead trunks so too the life of God’s spirit in us will bring forth the everlasting fruit of love.  Then I began to see the ways that Spirit of Love was also springing forth in the world—in the nightly cheers to health care workers across the different countries, in the creativity of people using music and art to lift others up through the internet, in the adherence to confinement orders out of the respect and value of human life and in so many unknown, sacrificial acts of kindness and care.

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I am encouraged to live in the promise of new life in connection to Love.  I know I can only do that if I’m connected to the source of life, the Author of Love.  Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.  If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)   My desire and hope is to stay connected to the Vine and bear the fruit of love—new life—even as I’ve witnessed this season in nature and in others.

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Vineyards along the Canal de Midi, a favorite biking route.

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Sabbatical Turned to Forced Confinement

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Paris

We left Burundi in the middle of February with a plan to start our sabbatical in France.  The plan was to improve our French language skills by living in France for three months.  This would also put us in an easier position to return quickly to Seattle for the terminal illness of our last living parent.

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Leaving Burundi

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Charles du Gaulle Airport in February

We arrived in France without a specific plan as to where to live.  Most of the leads we’d looked into for housing had fallen through.  So, we head south to Avignon since we had few winter clothes.  We began searching for a living situation in a community big enough to have a library, several churches, tutors or language school but without a lot of English speakers.  After several  more dead ends, by God’s providence, we found a small apartment in the rural environs of the southern town of Béziers.

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Cathedral of Béziers

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One of Béziers’ town squares

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Entrance to our apartment.

We were set!  Ready to dig into improving our language skills and start de-stressing from the work we’d been doing.  We bought bikes for transportation and exercise (no car).  We found a tutor through one of the local language schools.  We got library cards and checked out books in French.  We were warmly welcomed by a small local evangelical church our first Sunday.  We marveled at all the ways God had provided just what we were hoping to find.

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Countryside around Béziers

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Bikes–our transport!

 

Then it became March and the pandemic was declared.  Within a few days we went from social distancing to self-isolation to enforced confinement.  Everything closed.  Flights were cancelled.  Borders were closed.  By God’s providence we are here, in France.  Not in Burundi.  Not in Seattle.  Not in a lot of other places but here, where we are the most socially disengaged than we’ve probably ever been.  We (of mid 60’s) are probably in the safest place we could be, since we only see each other, but we ache for others and find we can do little.

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Social distancing–waiting to go into store

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Inside of bus day before forced confinement.

My initial reaction was feeling  “stuck”, then helpless.  This has been quickly followed by disappointment, anger, grief, then grave concern as the spread of the pandemic has closed country after country.  We are deeply concerned for all but especially for the most vulnerable persons and countries (like Burundi and much of Africa) that have very limited health services and poor populations.  Like most everyone else, I experience all these emotions daily but there’s little I can do but keep away from others, follow the guidelines and PRAY.

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In the quietness and slowness of confinement not only am I humbled again to admit I have no control over anything (except my choices and reactions).  I’m continually having to make the conscious choice to graciously accept what has been given to me.  We could have been in so many other places or situations.  No one could have predicted this at this time.  Yet, here we are, while some others have it much worse and some better, this is where God has us at this time.  So as I’m given breath again this day, I will choose, as best I can, to live in humility with thankfulness, compliance with the confinement for the good of others and prayer for all those things beyond my control.

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Medical “Kits”

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Medical backpacks with their tools–“kits”

Often we give things to unknown people, perhaps through a donation, without any idea if it was helpful, useful, appreciated or in any way beneficial.  We see the ads on TV to support a child’s education in some far-off country and wonder if our dollars actually make a difference.  We send Christmas shoeboxes or backpacks for schools in hopes of blessing some unknown person’s life in a way that will go beyond a few happy moments and really change their life.  This is a testimony and affirmation to the benefits of giving and the recognition of a very generous donor who knows God sees the heart of the giver and the impact of their gift.

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First group of medical graduates from 2016 to receive “kits”

In 2016, this very generous supporter of the medical education at HAU donated about 200 medical backpacks, equipped with the necessary items to begin practicing medicine.  Most of the graduates since that time have already received a medical backpack and use it in their daily practice.  They have been the envy of all medical graduates in Burundi because not only is medical equipment hard to come by here (as are all things imported) but the cost makes them prohibitive to most, especially new medical graduates.

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In the last few months this same generous donor sent another 100 backpacks.  What generosity!

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Next wave of backpacks and tools.

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Medical students helping organize backpacks.

The backpacks, along with all the tools to go inside them, arrived in a container for Kibuye in the late fall.  One Saturday morning, Randy invited several of the graduating medical students over to assist in filling each backpack with the thirteen basic medical tools.   The students were happy to help—and see the contents, but would have to wait to receive their backpack until graduation in February.

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Excited to get their very own!

At the medical graduate’s party, Randy, along with two of the Kibuye doctors, Carlan and Ted, delighted in congratulating each graduate by name and giving them their long-awaited medical backpack.  It was so much fun to see their smiling faces as each one went up to shake hands and walk back to their seat with the equivalent of their first “little black bag”.  Many opened them right away to check out the contents, even though they already knew what was inside them.  They left that evening sporting their backpacks and huge, appreciative smiles.

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Handing out medical “kits” at party.

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Happy smiles!

Happily, this is a gift that will keep on giving.  For each doctor who has received this basic medical backpack goes on to use these tools to administer health care to a medically impoverished population that has for too long had too few doctors.  Just as we’ve been a part of changing that scenario so have many others who’ve given in a variety of tangible and intangible ways.   To all of you we say: Thank you!  We hope you will be affirmed in the power of giving and be reminded just how far reaching its effects can be.

 

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Riding the Wave of Affirmation

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HAU medical graduates of 2013 & 2014 with Dean Randy

Six years ago, when we arrived in Burundi this group of medical graduates was just beginning their training. Over the past six years HAU has graduated about 300 medical students, but this particular group stands out.   They were the ones who were just beginning their training when we arrived and Randy was unexpectedly, given the role of Dean of the medical school.  For him there has been a special connection with this group as he’s shepherded them through six years of classes, clinical training, obstacles, finances, failures and successes.  Graduation days are always events of great pride for all concerned but this one had more personal investment due to this unique connection.

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Kibuye colleagues

Together with colleagues from our sister team at Kibuye, other professors from HAU, dignitaries of the Free Methodist Church, the Ministry of Education, and proud parents and guests, we assembled to award and witness the graduation of over 600 students from a variety of departments.  For most this was a very long awaited day, representing many hurdles that had been overcome.  One student I had taught in an English graduate class a year ago stopped me for a photo.  She had come from Rwanda on a bus, 36 weeks pregnant, just to take my Advanced English class,  so she could finish her graduate nursing degree.  Now, a year later, she had completed all her requirements for a master’s in nursing.  She showed me the photo of her son, who was born shortly after the class I’d taught, then took my picture to show her family.  Just one such encounter makes all the hardship pale in comparison to the joy realized.

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Proud graduate, Theresa

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Medical graduates entering

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Handing out diplomas.

While the actual day of graduation, full of its pomp and circumstance was grand.  The next day’s  party for the medical graduates was by far “the icing on the cake”.  The students handled all the arrangements for the event (location, food, program) within the budget that had been given them.  Their camaraderie and community spirit were evident in every detail of the evening.  They gave time to honor those who had particularly aided them in their education from the librarian to professors to Kibuye doctors.  They wrote a special song about malaria, played a question/answer game with the different tables, featured one of their own who sings and plays guitar.  There was even a surprise wedding proposal during the program as one young man got down on his knee in the middle of the floor to pop the question to one of the graduates!  The young lady said “yes!”,  Of course, with the crowd of friends cheered her on.

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Graduates celebration at a local reception venue

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The surprise proposal!

Even with all this, the highlight was when the graduates honored Randy by lifting him up for an impromptu crowd-surfing and African dance.  It was a demonstration of their affection, appreciation and honor to him and the fact that they knew he would take it in good fun a further testimony to their mutual amity.

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Randy crowd-surfing!

As he said to them in his speech, their success has been his success and he is with them in his heart.  He sent them out with this commissioning “to whom much is given, much is expected”, and as they have been given much by many who have contributed to their education, they can  go, serve, and care for the sick and needy of their countries.

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Happy moments!

It’s moments like these that give us perspective and affirm our call to this place.   Our day-to-day work has a bigger impact in its cumulative effect.  Often it’s more than we can see. But these graduates reinforce why we came to HAU in Burundi, and why we continue; which is to train up a generation of leaders with capacity, integrity and compassion.  We stand with all those who have enabled them along this way, cheering them on as they go to do greater things.  Congratulations graduates!  Well done!

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Proud graduate, proud parents, proud dean.

 

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Thanksgiving Burundi Style

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Since Thanksgiving is a very American holiday it does not exist as a holiday in Burundi.  But the past six years our sister team at Kibuye has celebrated it on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  We are very happy to be invited each year, along with many other friends and the Burundian doctors from the Kibuye Hope Hospital.  While it’s a bit different than the U.S. holiday there are many similar elements–food, feasting, families, friends, thanks, inclusion, diversity and fun.  Do you know that old Thanksgiving folk song “Over the river and through the woods to grandma’s house we go?”? So here’s a Burundi version.

 

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Over the rough roads and up the hills

To Kibuye Hope we go

Aloys knows the way to stir thru the fray

Of obstacles high and low.

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Over the rough roads and up the hills

Oh, how all life does flow

It fills the streets with those it meets

As on their way they go.

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Past tea fields as we drive

We’ll share a cup to warm us up

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When Kibuye at last we arrive.

 

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See the goods on market day

No need to stop for all have brought

The foods for our feasting day.

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See how the children play

And look who’s here the new interns dear

All giving thanks today.

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Over the rough roads and up the hills

We’re all gathered here

To share the feast and bounteous peace

Of friends from far and near.

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What a great blessing to be apart of this community and celebrate our thanks to God together.  We are very thankful for all of them and for all of you who make it possible for us to be here.

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Up Into The Hills

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Another opportunity to get out of the city and take a walk in the hills presented itself before the rainy season began.  Six of us drove about thirty minutes east into the hills covered with small farms to walk/run a nine-mile circuit.  With the map downloaded to several phones the route was reviewed as we would be separating into a group of runners and walkers, and there are no trial markers or street signs here.

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Very quickly we were accompanied by curious children and greeted by others on the dirt road.  Not many “buzungus” (white people) come to these places so far “off the beaten track”, which made us the news of the day.  Unsure of the route we (walkers) were stopping often to consult the downloaded map on one of the phones.

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If we’d been able to ask the children in Kirundi which way the “buzungus” runners went, they could have easily told us.  When we strayed off the route, looking for the “turn to the left, up the hill” it was the children who were quick to tell us with gestures and pointing, ‘not that left, another left’.  Helpful as they were their number grew from just a few too many, making it a bit distracting to keep our pace.

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We were looking for a footpath that would take us off the main road and up to the top of a ridge.  Each hill is covered with a multitude of narrow footpaths leading in all directions to the different small plots of land with houses on them.  It’s easy to get sidetracked to a path that leads to someone’s house.

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Eventually the runners turned back to help us find the correct path which would ascend most directly to the top of the ridge. As we started up the path our runner companions were able to encourage the large group of children to stop escorting us.

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After a long ascent we found the top of the ridge and to our surprise a building under construction (perhaps a school).  We all contemplated how they had brought all the building materials up to this spot as there were no roads, just the footpaths we had climbed to get there.  Most likely all the materials were carried up on the same paths, balanced on the heads of those who live in this community.

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It was a beautiful view from the top.  Even in the haze of the dry season you could see the overlapping layers of hills off into the distance, dotted with farms all the way to the top.

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We followed the ridge line down and up again to the hill on the other side.  At one point we found we were off the trail so we had to cut through several plots of land with gardens and houses on a steep hill.  We were slipping on the steep trail in our tennis shoes but the locals were easily traveling up and down these trails in bare feet often with a basket or sack balanced on their head.  How do they do that? I kept wondering.  Though I’ve seen it hundreds of times it still amazes me.

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Eventually we found the road that would circle us back to the place we’d parked the cars.  On our descent we could look back on the ridge line we’d walked.  It had been a long walk!  Nearly 10 miles.  Once again it was such a privilege to experience the flora and fauna of this beautiful country, to walk in the countryside, to see those who live on and work the land, and grow in appreciation of the different ways people live upon the earth.

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Another Semester of English

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Five years ago, I wrote on this blog about how teaching students at HAU was one of the greatest privileges and joys of my living in Burundi. As I’ve just finished teaching two courses—one an English writing course with the new medical students and the other a graduate course, “Advanced English”—I can easily continue to echo that same sentiment.

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Although my expertise and experience has been with young children, teaching adults has been an unexpected pleasure.  I’m also very thankful that I was again assigned the new medical students, as it was a small class, only about 30 students and all very eager to improve their English and work hard.  For them taking the course was not just checking the box of completing the required general courses.  They understand the importance of English competency to enter into the larger global world in which English is the common language and in which most medical research is done.  So, they are ready to participate in any activity that will facilitate their learning and proficiency.

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Perhaps it’s my early childhood education background, I try hard to engage them in the learning process thru interactive learning, such as, small group tasks, activities that get them up out of their seats and journal writing, rather than allowing them to be passive learners by just lecturing and writing on the board.  The first few classes they don’t know what to make of me or what I’m asking them to do but they quickly warm up to it and take the invitation to engage.  Another added bonus this time was we were able to schedule their class twice per week which not only kept the momentum going but also allowed us to finish the course within two months rather than stretching on for four months, which is generally more beneficial in a language course.  I also really enjoy the fact that I got to teach the same students Randy interacts with as Dean of the Medical School, making our worlds overlap all the more.

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As the resident “native English speaker”, I have become the de facto Advanced English teacher for this graduate course.  This was my fourth time teaching this course and as the three times before I learn as much or more than the “students”.  The only drawback of this course is it’s an evening class since most of the students are working during the day.  That means I have to drive home in the dark (there are not street lights on the streets here) which is always a harrowing experience (dark people in dark clothes on dark streets).  Though I drive slow I’m always so afraid I might run into someone or something that I can’t see.  I’m truly thankful for God’s protection of me and others as I make the treacherous ride home over the three weeks of evening classes.

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Aside from that one drawback, I really enjoy the opportunity to teach this course.  There are always such interesting people in it and I get to hear about development in many areas of Burundi.  Usually there’s three or four different departments represented (community development/social work, law, nursing, business, theology, educational leadership) with a wide range of ages, jobs and experiences.  Most of the graduates know English but don’t have much opportunity to use their skills day to day, since everyone defaults to French and Kirundi, so I structure the course to get them to talk and listen using English as much as possible.  To this end I use a variety of topics to facilitate lots of small group discussions, role plays, debates and each student must give a five-minute presentation in English, in their domain, to the whole class.  Everyone brings something to the table and they are very willing to share and listen.  In their presentations I learn so much about what is happening around the country and the many obstacles they are facing as they live and work in Burundi and how these are being overcome.  I leave class each night energized by their enthusiasm, engagement and commitment to make life better.

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As these courses finish, once again I find I’ve received more than I gave.  I feel affirmed in what I had to offer and my life has been enriched by the sharing of hearts and minds.

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