Recently our friend, Brian McLaren, joined an international group of friends from Amahoro Africa on the trek up to Matara. This was not his first visit to the mountain, he has been coming periodically from the start in 2008. We asked him to share his reflections after this latest visit to Matara and the newer project in Bubanza.
Burundi has a special place in my heart … the beauty of the people and their culture, the green and fertile land, the red soil, the beauty of Lake Tanganyika, the tragic yet resilient history, and the faces of friends have drawn me back again and again. In May I had the privilege of participating in the Amahoro Gathering in Bujumbura, with the mountains of Eastern Congo to our west and the hills of Burundi to our east and the great lake stretching south.
I always feel ambivalent speaking at these gatherings. On the one hand, I want to serve and offer any encouragement and insight I can. On the other hand, I sincerely feel I have more to learn from than to share with my African friends, and I am keenly aware of the problems of white non-African guys talking too much in Africa. So, although I did speak, I spent nearly all the rest of the time listening to and learning from my African friends. As well, I had the privilege of hearing Ruth Padilla DeBorst share from a Latin American perspective – this cross-pollination is extremely important and valuable.
And I had the chance to witness some of the beautiful projects unfolding there as an expression of faith in Christ. African led, with important financial partnership from the US and the UK, these projects are downright inspiring as well as instructive.
On my first visit to Burundi, I met three men of the Twa (formerly known as Pygmy) tribe. I heard their stories – how their people had endured centuries of landlessness, being deprived of basic human rights, being excluded from education and health care, being targets of prejudice. At the end of the gathering, they pulled me aside and asked if I would make a vow never to forget them and to try to help them. In subsequent visits, friendships with the Batwa have grown as I’ve had the chance to visit some Twa villages and see the sub-human living conditions first-hand.
In recent years, I’ve had the privilege of seeing a beautiful project take shape to help the Batwa. My friends Claude and Kelley Nikondeha, with support from a wise and generous church in the US, were able to help a group of 27 Batwa families acquire their own land in a place called Matara. They secured the expertise of another gifted Burundian (also named Claude) who helped them with state-of-the-local-art agricultural know-how. A nearby Catholic convent has provided additional support – with a school and health clinic. And so Matara, the first of many anticipated “Communities of Hope,” is taking shape.
Seeing Matara this time was more inspiring than ever. The land is being well-cared-for as it is gradually developed and farmed. Beans, corn, cassava, cabbage, elephant grass, trees … pigs, cows, rabbits … homes, a meeting structure, a latrine, and a water supply … all come together in a beautiful community of grateful and hope-filled people. Joyful dancing, exuberant singing, clapping, foot-stopping, and jubilant testimonies tell the story of people who were homeless, landless, hungry, despised, and vulnerable … but now are living the lives human beings were meant to live. They’ve even created their own village council – a beautiful example of grass-roots democracy, and they’ve earned the respect of the Hutu and Tutsi people living nearby.
We also visited Bubanza – a larger area where the government has been allowing Batwa (as well as Tutsis and Hutus in need) to settle. The physical location leaves a lot to be desired. The land is not well-suited to farming. There is no local water supply, which requires children to spend hours each day fetching water for drinking and cooking. Without much water, hygiene is a problem. And it’s a long walk to a market, clinic, or job.
With thousands rather than hundreds of people making Bubanza their new home, the feel in Bubanza is more like an IDP camp than a sustainable farming village. Yet there is hope in the air, amidst all the chaotic energy of laughing children and shushing adults …
The traditional dirt-floor grass huts of landless people are giving way to sticks-and-mud homes with thatch roofs, which in turn give way to mud-brick homes with tin roofs and cement floors, and for this reason alone, the people feel this is a big step up from where they were before, living as vulnerable squatters.
The good people of Communities of Hope have stepped into these challenging conditions. Bubanza now has a teacher and a social worker. They are helping Batwa people – especially women and little girls – get ID cards, which entitle them to the legal protections of citizenship and health care. Classrooms are being built – not enough for all the children of the village, but enough for a good start so that education becomes a desirable option that all can aspire to and eventually attain.
Matara and Bubanza show creative and loving responses to different needs and opportunities. And that’s what it takes – whether in Africa or anywhere else – to make a difference in our world: creativity and love … two of the prime characteristics of God, revealed in Christ, and embodied in Communities of Hope and the people who build them.