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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Behold The Graduates!

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Behold the graduates! Entering by department.

Yesterday was another HAU graduation.  Four hundred and sixty-five graduates with B.A.’s, Master’s, medical degrees or licensure of one sort and another.  A day of pomp and circumstance, formality and ediquette, crowds and colors all flowing over into deep joy and celebration.  For individuals who have worked hard to obtain their degree it represents an in credible achievement.  For families who have sacrificed, supported and gone into debt to promote their child’s education, it represents a unified pride and future hope for a better life. For those of us who have participated in some way through teaching, administrating, supporting financially, it is the evidence of our endeavors on behalf of others.

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Faculty entering, Jason Fader among them.

It is easy in the day to day-ness of these endeavors to loose sight of this moment of celebration and accomplishment.  It is easy in the struggles of teaching and administrating in underserved, under-developed systems and places to feel overwhelmed by the stresses and problems to diminish these moments of progress and completion.  It is easy to not pay attention to this day of celebration because of all the other days of irritation and frustration.  That, however, would not only be a shame and a missed opportunity for thankfulness but a negation of God’s grace and the slow turning of justice in a place that has long-suffered for it.

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In Burundi tradition the Tambours announce and open the ceremony.

The word “behold” means to “see with attention”, “lay eyes on”.  It’s an English word we don’t use in day-to-day language but is relegated to the stage and Christmas time.  But it seems an appropriate word for this event and these graduates.  So:

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Randy, Eric and Alliance leading the 38 medicine graduates.

Behold the graduates in their accomplishments!!!  Behold their families full of pride!  Behold the professors, administrators, all who work at the University to combine to make this education possible!  Behold the supporters and benefactors, financial and otherwise, who provide the unseen but necessary links to accomplish this task.  Behold the justice of God coming down through the lives of people moving forward with hope!

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Graduates throwing hats in air as they are congratulated by Rector.

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Some of medical graduates and faculty

 

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Families celebrating their pride in their graduates.

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A model of HAU made by engineering students.

Thankful we can be a part of this great movement of grace, both in the daily work and this moment of culminating celebration!

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Snipets

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Beautiful Burundi in the rainy season

Realizing I haven’t posted anything on this blog for nearly two months causes me to want to share some of the highlights of the past while. We are so thankful to have the privilege of living in this beautiful country, working along side others of like mind who desire to promote the education, leadership and well-being of its people.  So here’s some snipets of what we’ve been up to.

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Advanced English class debating an issue.

Teaching. Again I taught an evening, graduate course of Advanced English for an intensive 2½ weeks.  Also, I taught an English 2 course for academic writing with nearly 50 students (medical and theology).  I was able to have most of the medical students for two semesters, which was really nice for continuity.  Randy has also been teaching many classes this semester as well as his daily morning seminar.

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Students taking their final exam.

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Driving through Bugarama where everyone wants to sell you something through the window of your car.

Trips to the interior.  We make frequent trips to Kibuye, which is a 3-hour drive on a windy, two-lane road with many trucks, potholes, people and other risks for accidents so we are always thankful for safety and no mishaps.  In the last two months I’ve gone up three times—to observe and encourage at the mission school, for the opening of the pizza oven the team built and just recently for the annual Saturday Thanksgiving (complete with it’s own 5K turkey trot for those of us who braved the rain!)

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Students at Kibuye Hope Academy.

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inauguration of the pizza oven.

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5K Turkey Trotters braving the rain!

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Our sister team at Kibuye with a few visitors and Burundian docs

New adventures. Some friends from Bujumbura are working with another school about an hour out of the city.  They invited me to visit their school where they have started a new kindergarten program and have just opened a library for the students. I’ve been able to join them three times thus far and hope to continue, as the students are so enthusiastic and desirous to learn.

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Students at Muramvya enjoying the library.

Refreshment. Two avenues of refreshment for us in the past few months have been our church home group and a week away at a very quiet, nothing to do place in Rwanda.  Our home group is made up of other ex-pats who are native English speakers but from a variety of countries, backgrounds and work within the country. We meet once a week for a simple dinner of soup/bread and a time of thanksgiving and prayer.  As we are a team of just two, this group has become a really encouragement to us.  Secondly, we were able to carve out a week to go away “on retreat” which was really helpful for de-stressing and nurturing our spiritual health.

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View outside our retreat site.

For the precariousness of life, we all need support, encouragement and affirmation. ( This is our house worker who recently replaced all the old window screens of our rental house.  Pretty sure this would not fall under worker safety standards!)  We are thankful for the many ways we are cared for.

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Replacing window screens.

Sometimes we need someone to step in and save us.  (This rabbit was a gift to Randy from a parent of a patient most likely to be eaten, instead he passed it on to one of the Kibuye kids to join her other three rabbits.)  We are daily saved in the protection of our heavenly Father.

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A life saved!

Sometimes we need to celebrate the beauty around us. (A small attempt to capture the beauty of this country.)  We continue to see the beauty and wonder of God’s hand at work in and around us.

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Wall hanging made from Burundian fabric.

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Rejoicing and Giving Thanks

“Give thanks to the Lord for He is good,

His love endures forever,

to him who alone does great wonders,

His love endures forever.”

(Ps 136:1,3)

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For the Trinity team of nine who came for a week,

            We are rejoicing and giving thanks!

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For their care for us and others in many tangible ways,

            We are rejoicing and giving thanks!

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For giving their expertise and sharing their skills,

            We are rejoicing and giving thanks!

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For encouraging others through a smile, a shared moment,

            We are rejoicing and giving thanks!

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For their encouragement, flexibility and eagerness to participate,

            We are rejoicing and giving thanks!

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For making new friends and finding common ground,

            We are rejoicing and giving thanks!

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For opening their lives and invigorating hope,

            We are rejoicing and giving thanks!

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For witnessing the works of the Lord to tell others about,

            We are rejoicing and giving thanks!

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For sharing the beauty of another piece of God’s great earth,

            We are rejoicing and giving thanks!

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For the answered prayers for safety, wellness, patience and grace,

            We are rejoicing and giving thanks!

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For the unspoken blessings given to each one of us by His fatherly love,

            We are rejoicing and giving thanks!

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For the body of Christ made visible in the unique, complementary gifts of each,

            We are rejoicing and giving thanks!

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For experiencing in ever deeper ways the presence of the Lord,

            We are rejoicing and giving thanks!

“Give thanks to the Lord for he is good,

            His love endures forever.”

To God be the glory!!!

 

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Learning To Eat My Words

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“Happy Birthday” cupcakes

Sometimes eating our words can be a pleasant experience.  But that’s not the kind of “eating” I’m thinking of here.  Perhaps a more fitting title would be:  “Things I thought I could never do but I was proved wrong and pleasantly surprised”.  So often in my life I’ve said “I could never do that” or “I know that’s a good thing to do but I don’t have what it takes to do it”.

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Our 1st apartment in the inner city.

The first time was just after we got married when we moved to the inner, inner city of St. Louis amid sidewalks of broken glass, vacant buildings and racial hostilities to be part of a new mission church.  I wanted to but didn’t think I would be able to.  I felt I lacked the courage, boldness, faith and willingness to risk.  But on one weekend in August, just six weeks after our wedding, we moved into that neighborhood, along with about 30 others to form a new church and learn to live in community within that neighborhood.  Thus began the amazing adventure of being stretched beyond what I thought possible and learning about trusting, risking, loving in relationships in so many wonderful and surprising ways.

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Advanced English students 

This became such a recurring pattern in our life such that I stopped say “I could never . . . “ because every time I said that it was like a challenge for God to prove me wrong and show me that I could do what I deemed impossible with Him.  So I stopped saying that and tried instead to be more adventurous, courageous, willing to trust and take steps of faith into unknown areas (I don’t have space to list them all).  I guess that’s why I’m now living in Burundi.  And you’d think I’d really learned this lesson, but even so I get caught thinking or believing—“I could never. . . “ or “I wouldn’t be able to . . . “.

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Working in small groups for discussion

This is what I said about teaching evening classes for HAU.  But once again I’ve had to eat my words!  I just finished teaching an “Advance English” class to over 50 adult, graduate students.  Something I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I would or could do.  Not only that, but to my surprise and delight, it was really fun!  I really enjoyed the time with the “students” and felt they received something from it too.   It turned out to be one of my more pleasant Burundian experiences meeting, conversing and engaging with this diverse group of adult students, even though it meant driving across town in crazy traffic and returning home after dark.

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Small groups for discussion

I am grateful to the students, who made our time so enjoyable and interesting by their engaging participation even as most of them were coming from their own workday. I’m thankful too for another opportunity in which “eating my words” has not just been stretching in ways that are good for me but in ways that were sweet to experience.

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Wrapping Up Another Semester

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Catching up, making up, wrapping up—these are some of the words I think of as I think over the past semester for me here at HAU.  This is my fifth year of teaching English here and my fifth time to teach the English I course to the new, incoming university students.  It should be getting easier, right?  While some parts are easier (thankfully), there are always the unknown variables that make each semester challenging and unique in their own way.  This semester there were two situations in particular that were new challenges.

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The first was a very interrupted semester due to my leaving for a month in the middle of it. This meant having to do lots of make-up classes before and after the month I was absent.  Generally a class is formed with students from one department. They take all their courses together which is supposed to make scheduling easier.  I taught three groups this semester: one for Department of Medicine, one for Department of Engineering and a third one a combination of two departments– Ophthalmology and Public Health.  Trying to schedule make-up classes is difficult enough but when one group is made up of two different departments with different schedules it’s nearly impossible.  Somehow we got most of the make-up classes in which meant some weeks I had six classes to teach instead of three.  It made for a very fluid and irregular semester and not the most optimal for learning a foreign language.

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The second situation was the size of one of the groups.  Most HAU class sizes are 40-50 students.  If there are only 20 students they will combine two departments to get around 40 students for the general courses.  This is an economic reality in regards to paying professors, which I understand but since I don’t get a salary or any monetary reward for my teaching I try to draw the line and request groups not more than 40.  To my delight I was asked to teach the new medical students, a group of only about 25.  But then I was also asked to take two other groups—the combined departments of 40+ students and a third of the engineering students.  Little did I know that the engineering department had admitted over 250 students so my “group C” was about 85 students!

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This is where the motto of the university, “facing African realities” takes on a whole new meaning.  It becomes a day-to-day choice to do the best you can with what you’re given and what you’ve got at your disposal.   Something most Burundians accept with grace and little complaint.  But for me it’s been some thing of a trial and error process to figure out how to teach and connect with more students than there was space or chairs for.  I’m not sure I ever found it but we made some kind of rapport with each other.  I did hear students speaking more English in class, engaging in the exercises given and telling their classmates to be quiet while I was talking (often one student was translating for others so there was often lots of talk going on).  I felt like a celebrity at the end as they all wanted to take a picture with me (wondering where all those pictures will end up).

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While I’m glad for the opportunity to teach, I have to admit I’m glad to see the end of this semester with it’s irregular challenges, which I hope not to repeat. I again applaud the students for making the best of their situations.  I realize that what was a frustrating semester for me has been a way of life for them, which they accept with humility and handle with grace.  Again, I find I am still a student of life and my students have much to teach me.

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