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Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Burundian Story

Burundi emerges in folds and ridges, green, rumpled steep, then a snaking river that twists into one of the deepest and longest lakes in the entire world. Rice paddies and dusty roads and then the tarmac of the small international airport, we are in Bujumbura. A single rusted Air Burundi jet sits neglected by the old terminal, but we taxi past to the shiny silo towers of the new one. We stumble through the French arrival forms and smile a lot. Our bags are x-rayed as we LEAVE the arrival area, which sort of fits the general tone of isolation and suspicion. It's not an easy country to get into. Being from Appalachia, I wonder at the parallels, mountainous terrain where clans cling to coves and hillsides and remain inaccessible and independent.
Background: Burundi was colonized by the Germans, but not extensively. After WW1 the European powers transferred Burundi into the hands of the Belgians, until independence in 1962 (same year that Uganda and I were born). Though all three "tribes" speak the same language, the Belgians in both Burundi and Rwanda favored the Hamitic-descended Tutsis over the Bantu-descended Hutus as chiefs and administrators, and left the forest-dwelling BaTwa (pygmies) out altogether, setting up over decades the tensions that erupted in the 70's and 90's in genocide. Central, inland, Africa was one of the last places to be reached by missionaries as well, with the first protestant missions arriving in the 1930's. The small bands of North American and European evangelicals forged schools and a few hospitals with an unusual spirit of interdenominational cooperation. But years of war, destruction, the exodus of expatriates, left these missions devastated. In the last five years the missionaries have begun to trickle back, following their Burundian colleagues, a dozen or two now resident in a country of 8 million people. A church leader who spent years in exile in Nairobi started a school while there for the Burundian refugees, and as peace was established moved it back to Bujumbura as Hope Africa University. This university has grown from a few hundred to a few thousand students, with medicine and nursing (and Bible and education and engineering, a radio station, clinic, library, computer lab, dorms, etc.). Their motto: Facing African Realities. And the founder, Bishop Ellie, prayed for 15 doctors to come and establish a clinical training hospital at Kibuye, 2 hours into the hills, right smack in the middle of the country, where students in the nursing and medicine programs could be mentored and taught, discipled and molded.
Meanwhile, a group of young men and women befriended each other during their medical school years in Michigan. Two were MK's who grew up in Africa. All were committed to giving their skills back where they were most needed. The ophthalmologist and the surgeon married their school-mate sweethearts who had become teachers, and the family medicine doctor married the obstetrician, and all three couples joined the Samaritan's Purse Post-Residency Program designed to get young doctors to Africa for two-year apprenticeships. They called themselves "The McCropders", a synthesis of all their last names, for ease of reference. They were sent to Tenwek, a mission hospital in Kenya, where they added a medicine-pediatrics and an ER doc to their number. Six doctors and two teachers; 3 couples and 2 singles; 6 babies later . . they began to ask God where He would have them serve long-term. It had to be a hard-to-reach sort of place, needy, with a focus on teaching medical students. They explored several options, including Hope Africa University (through a friend-of-a-friend who read their blog and thought they might fit).
And while this was unfolding, they came in contact with WHM because the church they all attended in medical school had been impacted by Sonship. We arranged a lunch meeting a year ago when we were in Kenya for the CMDA conference, and kept in touch. As the Burundi option became more appealing to them, they looked for a mission agency that would be interested in sending them. As Scott moved into the role of Field Director, the evaluation of this potential new work became part of our job. Which is a lot of background story on how Burundi, the McCropders, Hope Africa University, the Myhres, and World Harvest Mission all ended up entwined this past week.
Word Pictures: Burundian drummers, tall, red-robed, springing handstands and jumps and claps, flashing sticks, chanting hymns, wild enthusiasm and rhythm. The winding smoothly paved road that snakes up from the lakeshore capital and into the hills, clay-tiled roofs, fields and villages flying past. The carefully handwritten lists of tests and patients in the laboratory, malaria, malaria, malaria. A peek into the operating theatre where a visiting short-term retired missionary doctor was amputating a young girl's severely infected arm, medical students watching, drapes and blood and a clutter of equipment. Bright kitengi-clad mothers lined up on the benches, waiting for care. Wide boulevards in the capital, cobblestone side-streets. The multi-story Hope Africa University buildings, solid and fresh, rising from the dirt, disgorging hundreds and hundreds of young people from multiple countries in Africa, with their jeans and braids and cell phones and chatter. A peek into the grocery stores, sparse goods neatly arranged, too much space. The noisy clatter of the University dining hall where we chat over lunch with professors from Congo and Canada. Fresh cement, the whine of wheelbarrows and clang of hammers, more buildings under construction. A young boy in traction for a broken leg, his x-ray hanging over his bed, so poor in quality one can hardly tell the bone from the background. The thrumming of a grain mill where the church manufactures a nutritious porridge for malnourished children. Walking down the dirt paths of Kibuye, imagining houses for the team somewhere back in the weedy perimeter. Dredging up new Swahili skills when the taxi driver kept stopping and changing direction; hearing the echos of Lubwisi in KiRundi; resurrecting college French as others spoke. Whipping wind and rain as a massive storm moved in one night, flashes of lightening, powerful, while we ate dinner under and open-walled pavilion.
Highlights: For a three-night, four-day trip, we packed a lot in. But the biggest highlight for us was our traveling companions, three of the McCropder group. After almost a year of goodbye and transition, we were looking ahead. We laughed, more than we have in a long time. Should we admit this? It was fun. And, we sensed God's presence with us. My Bible reading prior to going fell in Ezra and Nehemiah, which was amazing timing. The parallels between Burundi and Israel at that point in her history are striking: small country, over-run by war, now with exiles returning to a destroyed infrastructure, rebuilding, facing opposition and doubt, balancing prayer and practicality, depending on God while also asking for financial help, repenting and reconciling and ready to be a blessing to the larger world. Our first night we met with some Burundian Christians who said the same thing, let this nation be rebuilt to bless others, even though we are small. The passion for tackling the problems of poverty, disease, tribalism, discrimination, witchcraft, hunger . . . was infectious. It is the Burundians who are leading, and they are asking for a few outsiders to come alongside and help, to train and teach and encourage until the 6 Americans are replaced by the 15 Burundians the Bishop prays for.
The story and the Author: When we touched down at the airport, we warned the McCropders that we did not have a very good track record of being met at airports (my first trip to Africa it took me days to find the people I was supposed to serve with; our entrance to Uganda we waited hours and thought we'd been forgotten). Sure enough there was no one waiting for us . . . but they soon arrived. Bishop Ellie's daughter La'Charite, and a retired missionary couple the Vibberts. And within the first hour, we realized the way God had prepared for us. It just so happens that the Vibberts' son was a friend of ours in Uganda, working in Bundibugyo, of all places. They embraced us like long-lost family. And it just so happens that Scott and Bishop Ellie attended the same seminary at the same time, Trinity in Chicago. God delights in these details that remind us that He is the author of this whole story. We don't know how this one will end. The next chapters will unfold this year as we present the potential for the new field to the WHM Board, and as the McCropders apply to join the mission. I don't know if we will join hands, but I hope we do. Either way, I'm sure that the McCropder's story, and Burundi's, and ours, will have suspense and drama and comedy and hope, and in the end, love will prevail.


Sally said...

I can't wait to see what God will do!

Travis and Amy said...

Praying for clear direction and, yes, MORE LAUGHTER in days to come! So glad to hear! Amen.

Pamela said...

So exciting to hear of this potential development and possible new field in Burundi! May God continue to lead the way...

Sarah Halter said...

I came over from the McCropders blog. Thanks for sharing.
We are another young medical family preparing to serve in East Africa.

I got down to the bottom of the page, saw your family's picture and was pretty sure I recognized you as the family I prayed for during the Ebola outbreaks several years ago. I did a little searching and realized that, yes, you are the same family. Not totally sure why, but I just wanted to share that.