- Joelle Inashaka & Kelley Nikondeha
How often are the Batwa in Burundi asked to attend an international conference, let alone asked to stand up and be applauded? Salvator and Francois from Matara lived this experience this week in the capital of Bujumbura. Both men were invited to the 3rd regional ACECI conference focused on malaria awareness.
Unbeknownst to the public, for the past year the community in Matara has been participating in a pilot project on the cultivation of the catnip (also known as ‘catmint’) plant. This plant possesses essential oils that have mosquito-repelling properties. The hope is that production of this plant and extraction of the oil could aid in malaria prevention in the region.
Matara community was selected for the pilot project because it met the three basic criteria.The village was comprised of a disadvantaged community. It was a well-organized village and able to collaborate with the local governmental authorities. Lastly, the community had land available to cultivate for the catnip experiment.
The good news is that the harvest was strong resulting in a successful project. Although the project will be expanding to in the neighboring Commune of Nyabiraba, where 5 hectares will be cultivated, there are other good outcomes.
- The success of the project means that Burundi will start producing it’s own natural insect repellent at affordable costs.
- The residents of the Nyabiraba, of which Matara is a part, will have new work opportunities in the fields cultivating the catnip and in the extraction process of the essential oils.
- There are new prospects to pioneer a new kind of soap. Francois and Salvator got to attend a short training on making soap using catnip, eucalyptus and citronella based oils. A perfumed soap with the added insect repellent properties would be so beneficial for the people of this region in terms of health and hygiene.
How wonderful that innovative agriculture and malaria prevention remedies were piloted on the soil of Matara. How great that our community leaders were given the opportunity to share their learning and contribute to national solutions. How amazing that our friends are pioneers, advancing good health with local made products in their own soap shop!
In Isaiah the prophet says that when we return and commit to rebuilding our cities, we infuse them with hope and we are given a new name: ‘repairer of the breach, restorer of the streets where people live.’ Isn’t that what’s happening in Matara? Our friends are restoring the streets, making the region a better (and healthier) place to live!
The industrious spirit is alive and well in Matara – spilling over from the mountain-top village down to the street. Alongside the main road connecting Bujumbura and Ijenda our friends built a collection of kiosks to bring their business closer to the action.
They wanted to make their goods and services more accessible. They wanted to ensure they were seen. They also thought building and owning their own structure was a good investment – no more renting from others.
Benjamin makes shoes out of tires. He also repairs shoes of all sorts. He has little overhead and lots of energy. He offers great customer service – such a welcoming smile and eagerness to serve.
Jean Bosco opened a traditional kiosk stocked with sundries and such. Folks from the mountains don’t need to traipse all the way down the road to get some casava flour, sugar or composition books for school. Friends who want some peanuts or a Fanta don’t have to wait for market day – the kiosk is open everyday! Bringing basic goods closer to the Matara neighbors is good business.
Right next door is the Matara Soap Shop where locally made soap can be purchased.
These friends decided together to construct the kiosks. Without asking for a loan, they simply started to save and plan. They provided their own labor increasing their sense of ownership and pride. And together they stocked their stores and opened their doors for business.
Setting up shop together has been a great business strategy for these friends. They dreamed, planned, saved, built and launched this venture together. They showcase what is best in Africa – initiative, togetherness, goods and services that benefit the local community.
Through the lens of community development this is a huge success because we didn’t build it – they did! They didn’t ask permission – because they know this land belongs to them. They advanced their businesses because this is how they support their families – their own work, not NGO hand-outs. This is when (our) less is more!
Theologically speaking it’s a success because a viable and vibrant community has taken hold. The collaboration of friends speaks to a mutual respect that God instructs us to live out together. Their resourcefulness and productivity points to the Proverbs which praise practical wisdom and work that benefit community life. God’s at work in the kiosks, too!
Business is booming! There are smiles all around.
September is a hard in Burundi. Most parents struggle to afford school uniforms, supplies and tuition for their children. Banks offer special back to school loans to help parents afford all the necessities. Employed parents ask bosses for advances on their salary so they can pay fees and purchase goods. Families can expect to lend and borrow money from each other to cover costs for all the children, each and every cousin that can afford to go to school.
Can you imagine – taking a loan or a pay advance to purchase back to school supplies for your kids? Sounds absurd to our western ears, but this defines the September struggle for Burundian parents.
But this September our friends in Matara received a great surprise – school supplies! In an effort to give this community a boost our friends showed support for the school children and solidarity with the parents by donating all the necessary goods to fill each backpack. Pencils, composition books, erasers – all given to bring some economic relief and a long distance high-five to all the kids ready to go back to school.
It’s hard to tell who was happier – the kids or the mamas! But really, everyone was thrilled to get tools for learning delivered to their doorstep. Godis, the Educator-in-Chief, stood especially tall and especially proud as her community (and family) got out-fitted. (Godis is the equivalent of the PTA president for the entire Matara region, a leader in local education.) Something so simple communicates so much, allowing people to celebrate school and not worry about the pocketbook so much.
There are 20 new students this year – all entering the first grade together and beginning their school career. These children were all about 2 years old when they came to Matara – now they are entering school as a normal part of life. It is a new generation, indeed!
As Joseph organized the supplies, parents took time to pray for their children, the young students. Education matters in Matara and parents asked God to bless teach child with discipline, intelligence and kindness for the school days ahead.
School starts on Monday. The children of Matara are ready! What a great September surprise.
Didier is our first high school graduate from Matara. He graduated from high school late this summer in Bujumbura. He was one of the students living in the Student House downtown. After years of dedicated study he graduated and made the entire village of Matara proud.
If Didier looks familiar – it might be that there is a family resemblance. He is the son of village leader, Francois! The family invited friends from the community to join them on the bus ride to town so they could all be there to watch Didier get his diploma and celebrate together. (You might see Jean Bosco and Salvator amongst the celebrants…)
Francois has had a banner year – the birth of another child and the graduation of his eldest. What fruitfulness for his family. He has every reason to ‘walk tall,’ as he once told us he would do.
What is worth considering is the difference between the first born and most recent born son. When Didier came into the world, there was little hope for a proper education or a viable future for him. Prospects were quite dim. But with life in Matara, expectations have clearly changed. The reality has changed! Now this little one cradled in his arms will grow with expectations of education, this little one will watch his siblings all go to school and graduate. He will one day follow in his big brother’s footsteps across the stage for a diploma with his name on it! Papa Francois has every reason to hope for the best for all his children now.
Our God gives that kind of hope. He changes our circumstances from famine to abundance, nameless squatter to voting citizen, drop-out to high school graduate. God transforms landscapes, lives and expectations.
We celebrate with Didier, Francois and the entire Matara community for the new story unfolding up on this mountain. This is a place where every parent can anticipate throwing a graduation party for their sons and daughters!
P.S. Didier’s sister, pictured above, is next!
As I sat under the pavilion laced with vines and beautifully tied flowers blowing in the cool wind, I thought “what a celebration!” For me, a celebration of being blessed to have known my sweet Batwa friends for two years; for the Batwa, a celebration of 3 years of life on the mountain of love. The place where God has been working alongside them creating opportunities, one after another.
For Jean Bosco it was a day of celebrating freedom. As he stood before his Texas friends his face beamed with glory for the accomplishments he has made in his life. Sharply dressed, in his best, he told a story of when he made 50 cents a month – a story of not knowing how he would end up, a story of slavery and abandonment. A story of sadness changed to a story of growth into a world of prosperity and happiness. Jean Bosco went on to tell us that every month, with his 50 cents, he would walk to buy soap so his master would not complain of his odor. But now, look at him now! He smiled and laughed as he said obviously his appearance alone was worth much more than a mere half dollar.
At that time, I saw a man with a heart worth much more than any monetary value could possess. I saw a heart filled with Jesus, pride, love and excitement for what the future may bring. A heart that gives all of us hope and peace in knowing that alongside God, we can do anything!
We can be anything and that no matter who we are, Batwa or Texans, God will never forget us. We are his people and we will not be forgotten.
— Guest post by Anna Womac
As we celebrate July 4th and our many freedoms, what replays in my mind is the recent celebration in Matara. Our Batwa friends gathered on a clear afternoon to commemorate 3 years of life in this new place, on this new land, among these new neighbors.
I wanted to share what it means to them – in their words.
“Even the angels will be surprised that the Batwa have arrived…” A chorus of children danced and sang this freshly written song which belied even their own surprise at having arrived to such a state of fruition! What a picture – angels whirling in the throughs of excitement and utter delight as the Batwa families parade across the mountains of Matara.
“It has been 3 years and no one has died,” announced Salvator as he initiated the string of celebratory speeches. The opening words rang like a headline – and everyone cheered wildly. It is precarious to be Batwa. You can easily die due to sickness, violence, harsh labor, weakness due to malnutrition and dirty water. But young and old have thrived since their arrival to Matara – not a single one has died. It is a bold statement about a new quality of life, a change in the course of their history.
“I always dreamed to have my own home… now look at my home! It is mine and not built for anyone else!” Benjamin pointed to his very own home, made with his own hands and the help of his friends. There was such pride in his voice as he told his personal tale of grand reversal from being a slave to becoming a home-owner and businessman.
“Giving birth was a problem instead of a celebration for us. But it has been three years and no mother has died, no babies have died!” Leonie shared from her mother’s heart. The plight for Batwa women was especially hard, the maternal and infant mortality rates particularly high, death during childbirth commonplace. But a new song rises, and now each birth is good news and each child has a good name.
“I used to get paid 50 cents a month, but look at me, now the clothes I am wearing today are worth so much more than a mere 50 cents.” Jean Bosco modeled his clothes as a testament to his new stature in life. No longer a slave with money only for soap, now he is a community elder and business leader. Now he creates income enough to support his family and give generously to his neighbors.
“Remember what God did. Never forget what God did. Today we will remember and celebrate the peace, love and joy at Matara.” Nathaniel, village pastor and elected government representative, shared from the story of Moses. In a passage that remains formative for this community, he told them again to remember where they came from, what God delivered them from and encouraged them (like the Hebrews before them) to live well nourished by those memories of God’s provision.
“I didn’t think I’d live this long but look at me – strong as ever!” Francois shouted with such joy! Batwa men do not expect to live long. But Francois has beat the odds with good food grown on the fertile hills of Matara, fresh water, milk from the cows and security in his village. He celebrates his strength and is a picture of strength for this community.
These are the words from the Batwa families of Matara on their 3rd anniversary. They celebrate the freedom of living well by God’s grace. They celebrate living well due to their interdependence on one-another. They celebrate living well because they have friends abroad who know them and care for them.
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.
This glowing smile would seem out of context anywhere in Burundi these days. While the rest of the country is suffering a deep food shortage and increases in the cost of living, the people of Matara are enjoying God’s goodness. There is an abundance of life bursting forth this week everywhere you look!
First came the birth of two precious new babes… both arriving on the very same day!
INEZA means ‘we are so happy’ and MANIRUNVA means ‘God heard us.’ Such joyful names for babies born amid famine and economic woes. There seems to be this realization that God is present with them amid the hard times, transforming their land with a fecundity that only He can deliver!
The next day there was another birth… a new calf!
And later that same week came some kids… baby goats.
And as if that is not enough… there were piglets born that same week!
One week with so much life bursting from every corner of Matara – it is almost embarrassing! It brings to mind another group of people who experienced such robust growth… the Hebrews in the brickyards of Egypt. Exodus 1: 7 tells us that they were “fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” Everything they touched prospered and grew – and it was noticed by the Egyptians. I wonder if our neighbors notice the teeming life in the village of Matara…
Our friends in Matara, aware of the hardship others are experiencing, decided they did not want their abundance to be a threat to the neighborhood but rather a blessing. So they all agreed to give the piglets, 20 in all, to the neighbor families so that they could share in the life, in the goodness, in the extravagant blessing of God.
Claude returned from Matara with bright eyes and a joyful heart. How could you not after seeing God’s goodness on such glorious display? He just kept commenting on the new life in Matara against all the odds – only God could bring such transformation in land, livestock and lives!