We are always busy, I don’t think I’ve ever had a dull day, nor a dull moment, of work in Africa. However, the past three months have been packed with activity. At the center of this activity is the Covid19 pandemic, paired with extreme flooding we experienced here in Burundi. These further complicated the already tenuous living conditions of the people. Thousands from areas swallowed by the floodwaters crowded into camps lined with tents made from whatever materials could be found. Children play along the outskirts of these camps using scraps of plastic tied into makeshift soccer balls. Women haul water from streams filled with trash. Men work to build more secure housing for their loved ones as seasonal rains will soon begin.
Not One For The Spotlight
Burundi is a small, out-of-the-spotlight country in the heart of Africa. Not much is broadcast in the news from our hidden part of the world. Most of the time, if Burundi makes the news, we are diminished to ticker-tape status along the bottom of the screen. Whatever the reason for our obscurity is, it has been both a blessing and a curse.
Our obscurity has been a blessing in that we have remained authentically African. Western ideals, while present, have not swallowed our culture. Tradition and custom still play a major role in the lives of the people here. Unlike much of the world whose cultures are ever-evolving, Burundi has clung to her culture, resisting pressure to change from the “developed” world. The Africa I live in is what only can be described as “authentic.” It may be that in generations to come, culture will change, but for now at least we remain deeply African.
On the other had, obscurity has also been a curse. Facing pandemics and crises of the magnitude of the floods, the plight of the people has gone unnoticed to the rest of the world. When civil war enveloped the country during the 1990s, despite a 400,000+ death toll, relatively little attention was directed toward Burundi. While we remain in the shadows, Burundi has soldiered on despite internal conflict, food insecurity and external pressure. The resilience of this nation is to be admired.
Today, food insecurity is one of our main, if not the main, issue we face. According to the World Food Program, Burundi is the second poorest nation in the world. We face more than 50% food insecurity, meaning more than half of the country faces food shortages. An astounding 1 in 3 Burundians are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Even though I live in Burundi, and have lived in other poor nations on the continent, the poverty here is still striking. That people have found a way to survive in these conditions is a testament to their strength.
Another Harsh Blow
In March this year, due to the Covid19 pandemic, Burundi closed her borders and airport. This early shutdown might be what has saved our country from the virus raging out of control, who knows for sure? There has been no shutdown in the country. People depend on their small trades to live from day-to-day. If the country were to shut down, people would literally starve. Hand washing and social distancing are encouraged. Coupled with the floods, our people have been dealt another harsh blow.
We have worked with partners to gather food relief for the most vulnerable in the camps: families with widows, elderly and orphans. For the past 3 months we have been able, by the grace of God, to deliver significant help to 200 such families.
Amassing such quantities of food (we go with supplies calculated to last a month for families of 6-8 people) is a Herculean effort for us. As an obscure missionary in an obscure nation, the profile for our mission isn’t on the top of any Google search. We are fine, God is good, but make no mistake: what we do each day gets done by the grace of God.
In order for us to acquire the hundreds of kilos of food we distribute, we have found partners in local markets to supply our effort. We don’t have trucks or lorries of our own to move anything. We find local transport and pay day workers to move hundreds of sacks of food to our church, where we prepare it for distribution. Once ready, more trucks and day workers are hired to transport/distribute the parcels. The process of purchasing and packaging alone takes 2 weeks. The distribution finally takes place over the course of 3 days.
The weeks spent preparing for our effort are often frustrating due to food shortages in the country. We’ve often wondered how God would get us the food we need, but true to His form, He has supplied faithfully. I just wonder, what will happen next month? Our third and final distribution takes place this week. Word is that the government is looking to disband the camps in the coming weeks. Their reason for this is the upcoming seasonal rains; the tents in the camps will not be able to withstand any of the heavy rains that will soon begin to fall. Where are these thousands of people supposed to go? God help us help them.
Behind Every Number Is A Name
My heart is drawn to those whose stories we have heard throughout this process. Often, when we work in situations like these, lives are reduced to numbers, to statistics. What is sometimes lost in outreaches like this is the simple fact that behind every number is a name. Behind every number is a story. Behind every number is a soul.
Dahlia is a 60 year old widow living with 2 of her granddaughters. Before the floods, they lived by her granddaughters selling charcoal after school. Dahlia was unable to properly care for her family because she had a condition that caused her to tremble uncontrollably. Her extended family had shunned her due to her trembling. It was impossible to miss her shaking form during our first distribution. We sent her to a local hospital where she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and Parkinson’s. Today, Dahlia has the medication and strength she needs to live life and care for her granddaughters. We hope to continue helping her with medical care as well as finding some kind of housing and small business to help sustain her little family.
Another widow, Mariya, is 99 years old and due to poor health and immobility, is unable to come to our distribution site. She lives with her daughter who is also a widow and her two granddaughters. Mariya was in an accident 15 years ago that resulted in a severe restriction of her mobility. Because of this, we personally deliver food to her as well as handful of others who are physically unable to come to retrieve their assistance.
Time escapes me to write of those we have helped get new glasses, transport to the hospital and pay medical bills. The work is hard, but the reward is priceless.
As I write, I’m in the middle of working on opening a “Hope Center” in the area where we have been working these past 3 months. At the center, we will work to continue reaching out to those we have already been helping. Ultimately, we will go beyond meeting only immediate needs. Also, at the center we hope to help these families with schooling for their children and, for those who are able, help start small businesses. You could say it will be a one-stop-shop site where the community will come and find some hope.
At the center of it all is Jesus. He is the only One Who we can turn to in situations like this one. It is in Him alone we have hope. At the center of His hope life is found. If not for Him, why else would I be here? There’s nothing that could keep me here except knowing that He cares. He can use anyone (even a misfit like me) to get the job done. My prayer alone is to be found faithful with what I have been assigned to do.
An Answer To Someone’s Prayer
None of us will ever know the full impact we’ve had on the lives of those we touch. Most of it will not likely be understood until we slip into eternity. Jesus tells us to “pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into the harvest” (Matt. 9:38). The harvest is everywhere, hurt is everywhere so opportunity to help is everywhere. It may be that your going to help someone is the answer to someone else’s prayer to send.
I can say for certain, when you answer the call to go, you’ll never have a dull day, a dull moment. Every day will be fresh, full of opportunity for something new.
Proverbs 19:17 ERV “Giving help to the poor is like loaning money to the Lord. He will pay you back…”