The past weeks here in Bujumbura, Burundi have had me (and all of us living here) spinning in circles. We have faced flooding, an ambiguous covid19 situation and now elections are set to take place on May 20th. Each of these issues have presented their own set of pressures that have proved to be demanding, even in the most optomistic of lights.
Our city borders Lake Tanganyika, one of the longest and deepest lakes in the world. It is more like a sea than it is a lake in that it has tides, rough and smooth water and it is slightly salty due to it only having one river outlet. The rains this year have been extremely heavy in this region so all of the water from the countries surrounding the lake, and there are many, dumps into Tanganyika. Water levels have risen exponentially causing the lake, and rivers that feed into the lake, to rise and break their banks. The beaches have disappeared under water, homes and villages nearby the lake have been inundated without much relief in sight. Thankfully, in the past week, the rains have finally started to taper off and the waiting game for the waters to recede has begun.
The tens of thousands who have been flooded out of their homes now live in absolute squallor, in makeshift camps under conditions that no human being should have to live in, waiting for someone, anyone to bring relief. Children run around in the dirt and mud, women try to cook with whatever cooking fuel they have and the men work to build shelters out of grass, plastic and any other materials they can find. There is no potable water, no toilet facilities and no food – their situation is dire. We were able to raise some money to bring care packages to 200 families last week but this little amount proved to be far from what is needed. As we were distributing the relief, it was painfully apparent that in less than a week the food would be gone and they would once again need assistance.
While we were handing out the packages, even though covid19 has infected Burundi, there was no observing of social distancing or washing hands. How can people be expected to distance when their children are hungry and they fear being left out? How can people wash their hands when there’s no clean water? I didn’t realize that we ourselves had put ourselves at higher risk of infection until arriving on site – I simply said a prayer and carried on.
Next week, on the 20th, as Burundi goes to the polls, there is an underlying fear of outbreaks of violence that this country/region is known for. Fear is a powerful emotion that can cause people to react violently even when there is no cause. Tempers can flare easily when a large number of people are afraid, people can react violently when they feel they are in danger. Our recourse? Dropping to our knees in prayer for these people, this nation and region that has long been the target of painful uprising and death.
This afternoon, as we do every Thursday afternoon, we have an outreach to the area surrounding our church in Bujumbura. Most of the time it is easy to step out and participate as we talk to people of the hope that is in us, that brings us to serve this nation. However, the past few weeks have been a faith-walk for me, rather than the usual exciting time of outreach. I find myself pushing hard to keep up and move forward while so much is whirling around me.
At times like this, when life presses so hard that you feel the water has gone over your head, it’s tempting to wonder (like I have) if your usefulness in your work is done or even give up. What is the use of working in the face of an ocean of need when all I have is an eyedropper to address it?
While I can’t do everything, I can do something and the small something that I can do means a lot to the one or two I have been able to reach. Many of you likely have read the story where a young child was on a seashore that was covered in starfish that had washed ashore. The child was busy throwing starfish back into the water, one at a time. A man walked up to the child and asked if the child thought he could clear the beach of all the starfish? Did it really matter? To which the child replied, it matters to this one, the one he was holding in his hand.
The needs of this world are so vast, so complex that there’s no way I’ll ever be able to meet even a fraction of them. But to the one or two I work for, it will matter. Lives matter, all lives big or small, young or old, black or white – and what I’m responsible for is doing what I can. It may just be one starfish – but to that one it might just make an eternity’s difference.
Psalm 66:12 “You let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance.”
You may wonder, since covid19 is all around the world, why we are able to distribute aid and carry on working. In Burundi we have not been in lockdown during this pandemic. Our borders are closed as is our airport. Handwashing is encouraged and somehow people are trying when they can to socially distance themselves. Ours is a unique place in the world, please pray for us!