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.

 

 Over the rough roads and up the hills

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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Mango, Our New Friend

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Mama Mango

Meet our new friend, Mama Mango, or Mango for short.  She has been living with us for about 4 months now.  In March, our other dog, Glo, died of what we believe was a pituitary tumor.  He was probably ten or eleven years old and was beginning to show his age, but once signs of the tumor began his decline was rapid.  We had adopted Glo when another family moved upcountry and couldn’t take a dog.  He’d been with us three years.  We had all become quite attached to him, even our guards, who had grown very accustom to him, so his death was sad for all of us.

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Glo when he first came to us.

In general, Burundians are afraid of dogs.  Perhaps due to not having many dogs in the country. The only dogs are guard dogs of one type or another, who bark loudly and look like they will bite you if you approach.  People who don’t have enough to eat don’t have a dog.  Any animals owned–goats, cows, pigs, chickens—are a source of food or income for food.  So, the idea of a “pet” is not part of this culture.  For the most part, it’s only ex-pats who have dogs here.

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Glo on guard duty.

No one who knows us, would describe us as “animal-lovers” or “pet owners”.  The only other time we had a dog was our seven years in the inner-city of St. Louis where, having experienced one robbery we decided a large dog was the best deterrent to further intruders.  That dog, Charlie, was both a watch dog and a companion to me during the many nights Randy had to stay at the hospital.  But after that, even when our children lobbied often for a pet dog, we knew the expense, effort and commitment of dog ownership, coupled with being an “on the go” family, we never entertained the idea of having another dog.

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Mango on guard duty.

Living cross-culturally brings many new things into one’s life, like night guards and owning a dog.  Thankfully, we live in a warm climate, so any dog is an outside dog. An added bonus is our house worker, makes her food, feeds her twice a day and takes her on a run (as he did with Glo).  Really it’s little work on our part to have a dog but with all the benefits of a watch dog.  After Glo died we knew we needed another dog to help guard our house.  To our surprise our guards also favored we get another dog, another indication they too had softened their view of dogs or pets.  Our only requirement was it had to be a nice dog because we have so many visitors and children staying with us.  And so, the search was on.

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A little skittish at first.

Unlike Glo, Mango was really nobody’s dog.  She lived around one of the missionary-church compounds where she seemed to scrounge for food and hang out.  Some short-termers who came with their own dog from the U.S. started taking care of her.  She played with their dog, went for runs with them and stayed by their door.  They were real animal lovers. They even took her to a vet when they saw she had an infection from a recent delivery of puppies.  The infection caused her to have a hysterectomy, which they paid for, and watched over her as she recovered.  They got quite attached to her but then it was time for them to leave.  Although they wanted to take her back to the U.S., they knew that would be prohibited.  A mutual friend put us in contact with them as we were looking to find another dog after Glo’s passing.  That’s how Mango came to live with us.

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She’s very gentle with children.

Mango was acclaimed for her sweet disposition.  An unexpected surprise from what you’d expect for a dog who seems to have been essentially a street dog.  I’ve witnessed her run across the yard, leaping up into the air to grab a bird taking flight and eat it.  To stay alive she’s had to be a survivor.  Yet, she wants to be loved and craves attention (not unlike most humans).  She wags her tail, lays down to have her tummy rubbed and eagerly runs to us whenever we return home or come outside the house.   She’s gentle with children and has quickly learned to “sit” for cookies.  While it’s taken about three months for her to begin to act protective about our property, barking at night when someone passes outside the gate, it seems at last she senses or accepts “belonging” here.   We are thankful for our new friend, Mango, for the deterrent she is to thieves but also that she is a really nice dog with a sweet disposition, even after her disadvantaged beginnings.  As did Glo, she is growing on us all, causing us to become more pro pet-ownership, at least for now.

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JUICED (something new in town)

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Entrance to JUICED

Some friends of ours opened a smoothie and juice bar at the entrance to the public gardens, called “JUICED”.  Like many small businesses here it’s built from a shipping container.  They were able to get permission to have the container moved right on to the garden’s property, adjacent to the entrance, but behind the garden’s fence.  They pay rent for the location but they get the advantage of the garden’s security.  Also, they were able to put in their own entrance so you don’t have to pay the garden entrance fee of 500BF (about a quarter) if you just want a smoothie.

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Last meeting before the summer break.

It’s very tastefully designed with a shady, flagstone patio and a grassy area so you can meet up with friends to enjoy your smoothie.  Our book club met there this month as well as the last women’s Bible study before taking our summer break.  It was delightful!  If you want to get some exercise, you can pay the garden fee, walk around the outer track several times, then end at JUCIED for a healthy, refreshing drink.  With a constant supply of fresh fruits there’s never a shortage on ingredients or a lack of new combinations to try.  That, coupled with affordable pricing, as they are the lowest priced smoothies in town, makes JUICED a new favorite for many.

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Menu

This past week I visited JUICED every day because our friends, the owners, were out-of-country and asked if I would “business-sit” for them.  I was happy to oblige since the last time they asked, I was unable to do so since I also was out-of-country.  It was a time full of good challenges and blessings for me.  One challenge meant driving every day into the chaos of the city during the week of parade practice for Independence Day (July 1st) when many roads when closed with detours.  This provided me with more opportunities to exercise patience and humility towards other drivers and to be thankful for continued safety.  (This is a little “tongue-in-cheek” for those who know about driving in our country.)  Another challenge was it pushed me into more situations to speak French as I searched for certain items, like straws or chocolate powder, things not on my usual shopping list.  Stepping out of my usual comfort zones was energizing because I was doing it for someone else and was happy to do so.

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Inside of the container–making smoothies.

 

The blessings came in getting to know the friendly, competent staff over the week, trying different smoothies and being surprised by the spirit of generosity shown to me in several situations.

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Claudine, manager.

For example, I asked the staff where I could find a red cabbage (since my usual store didn’t have one), they mentioned several places which I thought I’d try the next day. When I arrived the next day at JUICED, to see if they needed anything, the manager, Claudine, placed a huge red cabbage on the counter.  She said she’d gotten it at the market for me. I was so surprised that she’d done this for me!  I had no idea if she’d made a special trip, if the market was on her way to or from work (nor would she tell me) but the fact that she even remembered, bought it and carried it into work was humbling and impressive.  Thankfully, she did let me pay for it, which was cheap for me ($1.00) but likely expensive for her, and I’m sure she got it for a lower price than I would have.  Our friends have said what a great staff they have, my experience this week certainly confirmed that.

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Red cabbage compliments of Claudine.

Whereas I am not ready to take on a business myself after this experience, I am happy for those who are opening businesses that fill a niche, use local resources and promote good customer service and business practices while providing a quality product. I can only hope JUICED will inspire other similar types of ventures and I will happily “business- sit” again should the need arise.

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This one made with Japanese plu

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Beautiful Burundi

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Every time we make the 3-hour drive to/from Kibuye I’m struck by how beautiful this country is with its steep hills, patchwork farms in all shades of green flowing down the mountain sides dotted with banana and palm trees.  While many people are walking the paths between these plots of land, we are driving by in a car, unable to meander through the fields or enjoy the vistas.  I so often wish I could just get out and hike around the countryside. Last weekend my wish came true! One of our friends said he was organizing a hike in the Kibira National Forest for anyone who was interested, I jumped at the chance.

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Burundi is a very small and very populated country, with nearly every piece of available land is farmed to feed it’s 10.5 million people, but it has reserved three areas as national park lands, protecting its unique natural treasures.  So, twenty of us interested ex-pats took this opportunity and joined the hike.  We set out early from Bujumbura in five cars to the Kibira National Park located in the northwest of the country, about a 90-minute drive. Kibira National Park is situated among the extensive Teza tea fields.   For as far as our eyes could see there were the tea fields covering every hillside in undulating waves of bright green.  It was truly amazingly beautiful!

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One must have a guide to hike in the National forests, which our friend had already arranged.  We met them at a designated place where two guides got into our cars along with the two guards who would watch our cars while we hiked. (This is not because our cars would be unsafe but another employment opportunity.)  There were also the obligatory craft sellers with wood carvings of monkeys, crocodiles and walking sticks (in case you forgot yours) looking for an opportunity to sell their wares.

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The guides directed us on a long, 30-minute, drive through the tea fields.  Most of the driving was on one-lane, dirt roads but sometimes it became what seemed like footpaths they were so narrow. Eventually, we came around to what looked like the place we had started from.  When our friend asked the guide in our car about this the man said it was the “touristic route through the tea fields”, as in “Didn’t you want to drive through the tea fields?”  We were getting the whole experience for our park entrance fee.  Finally, we parked our cars on the side of a hill to follow our guide into the rainforest, leaving the other guards to “watch” our cars.

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Very quickly we were on a narrow trail covered with a canopy of thick foliage as we walked deeper into the rainforest.  There were some huge, old trees that reached way up to the sky along with the carpet of ferns, vines and smaller shade plants that filled the spaces all around us.

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We walked for about thirty minutes, slowly going downhill until we stopped at a large slanting rock face that had water pouring down it, creating a small waterfall before it tumbles into a winding creek. The guide said when there is more water the rock face becomes a slide. One of the more adventurous of the group waded in and sat at the base of the rock with the water flowing over him.  I think he would have tried it as a slide if there was more water.  The rocks at the bottom caused most of us to forego the experience.

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We continued on, now climbing upward, until we eventually emerged at the top of one of the tea fields.  Working our way through the tea bushes on the paths between the plots of growing plants we rounded a corner to find our cars where we had left them.

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It wasn’t a long hike, only about two miles in all, nor was it too strenuous a hike, but I was thankful for the guides because it would have been easy to get lost in the thick foliage.  Although we had heard there are some monkeys and different birds in this forest only one person said he saw a monkey.  I’m sure our large group walking, talking and tromping kept them well hidden.  All in all, it was a fun adventure into the countryside.  All of us ended the hike feeling deeply privileged for having experienced this corner of Burundi. It was such a pleasure to be able to walk through the rain forest, the tea fields, to see this beautiful place and to appreciate the conservation of this natural treasure.

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Little by little grow the bananas. (Congolese proverb)

 

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Stalks of bananas are sold everywhere along the road in Burundi

Five years ago when we were looking for a house to rent in Bujumbura, one of the things I had truly hoped for was a yard with at least one or two fruit trees.  Fortunately for us, the rental house we liked best had two mango trees, an avocado tree and an orange tree.  These fruits all grow in abundance here.  But the main fruit crop for Burundi is bananas.  Our yard was lacking a banana tree.  So one day I asked our knowledgeable house-worker, Gilbert, if we (he) could plant a banana tree in our yard.  The answer was of course, “Yes!”  (Maybe he was thinking what took you so long to ask.)

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Our neighbors banana trees

While I looked online to find out about how to grow a banana tree, Gilbert had already asked the neighbor, who had several trees for a baby banana “sucker”.  Before I could finish reading about how bananas grow and what they need, he had already dug a large, deep hole and put the baby banana plant into it.

 

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 Gilbert knew about planting banana trees.

Then he proceeded to dump our daily compost around it and water it.  Clearly he didn’t need my help or the internet’s

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I was surprised at how quickly it began to form new leaves.  Within no time it was becoming a substantial tree with large dancing leaves.  In just a little over a year it grew its first banana stalk with a banana flower.  As the flower opens you see the little green banana fingers beginning to form, ending in the flower at the end of the stalk.  Gilbert found a strong wooden pole to prop up the branch with the stalk on it as the bananas would need to grow for another few months.  I counted 9 “hands” of bananas at that time.

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In about five months it’s looking very healthy.

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Beginning of the first stalk of bananas.

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Stalk continuing to grow and a new baby tree is growing up next to it.

As we left for the U.S. in December I was wondering if we would completely miss the harvest of this first stalk of bananas.  It was almost ready.  Just before we returned some of the friends who stayed at our house while we were gone said they had eaten some of our new, ripe bananas.  We arrived back to find our refrigerator full of multiple, large hands of bananas and there were still some on the tree.  We had not missed out completely on the harvest!  We ate many, shared many with others and made lots of banana pulp for the freezer.

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The last of the bananas on the stalk, Gilbert left for us to see and eat.

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The bananas were good, but the thing that I enjoyed most was watching the process of the tree growing and producing fruit.  It has become an object lesson to me of progressive, ongoing, steady growth that is so often unperceivable day by day but its cumulative effect becomes visible as it produces the fruit it was made to bear.  I walked past this tree every day but only every so often saw a demonstration of its growth in a new leaf, another inch in height and eventually in the stalk of bananas.  And all that happened without much help from humans (once it was planted).  So on days of unperceivable growth in some arena of my life (relationships, faith, character, understanding, work, activities) I’m encouraged to think about this banana tree, which is already growing several other new trees to make more stalks, and affirmed that there is grace at work in me growing the fruit I was made to bear.

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