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Burundi, poverty, and God – Welcome to Disneyland

July 1, 2013

Well, here I sit in my office. Recovering from some jet lag, a nasty sinus thing, and a weird mix of emotions and thoughts from my recent experience in Burundi, Africa.

A big part of my role on this team was to listen closely, film and document our activities and help bring back a story to my church of how to best help an impoverished village in a distant part of the world. This morning I gazed over about 1000 clips of video and probably another 1000 still shots and I must admit I’m overwhelmed. I don’t really know where to begin. I mean this wasn’t exactly a vacation – far from it. And it’s more complicated than showing some exotic poor place or sad pictures of cute kids with dirty clothes and distended bellies.

The story here is much bigger and deeper than I had imagined. I realized this trip had less to do with raising money, sending food, or even building shelters than it did with building long-term relationships, fostering a sense of dependable partnership, and imparting some dignity to a population of people who desperately need to be heard and loved. They have some serious trust issues. And given the recent history of genocide and poverty in this region, it’s easy to understand why.

Burundi is a small land-locked country in central Africa. It’s about the size of the state of Maryland. It’s population is around 10 million. It is estimated to be one of the 3 poorest countries in the world with 80% of the population living in poverty. We went to serve the needs of the Batwa – a shunned people group that make up about 1% of the population. (Twa means Pygmy, Ba means plural, Ma would mean singular). They’re basically allowed to live in the undesirable areas along the side of mountains where the ground is not conducive to sustainable agriculture.

My observations and experience last week left me with following initial take-aways that I’m sure will be refined and developed over the days and weeks ahead.

  1. Sin: The same desire/ attitude that caused little children to push and argue over something as trivial as balloons being handed out is the same sin that motivates leaders and rebels to kill and rape and burn and destroy. (the same selfish desires/ attitudes that causes individuals to lie on taxes, cheat on spouses, or shoot up movie theaters and school campuses.)
  2. Blindspots: We all have them. In one established village we heard of mothers who secretly took their sick children to the witchdoctor instead of getting free care at the new clinic. Instead of getting a simple anti-biotic for free they felt safer going to what they knew. It’s what they learned growing up, it’s what their parents, grandparents, and great-grand parents did. They view any ailment as “death”. (Sometimes death stays, and sometimes death leaves.) So they pay a witchdoctor to try to cast out the spirit that’s causing the illness. Just like us, they tend to stick with what they know and they don’t like strangers telling them it’s not right. They have a history of leaders, rebels, military, priests, pastors, and missionaries telling them what to do and then being hurt and taken advantage of.
  3. Assess needs: and priorities based on input from village elders. “come along side”. The biggest thing we accomplished was to show the Batwa that even the white man can come alongside and help, get dirty, work hard, and not ask for or take anything. It’s critically important for all parties understand that the Umuzungu (white man) is not God. And God is not some cosmic Santa Claus, who just shows up occasionally with a big bag of stuff.
  4. Holistic Services: – a combination of meeting resource needs such as shelter, food security, and water, with emotional and spiritual support. It must be comprehensive and givers need to be committed for the long haul – willing to return.
  5. Develop Ownership and Sustainability: – Insure buy-in and manageable duplication at the village level. Tie products and services with ownership and productive work that is manageable and reproducible.
  6. Develop Indigenous leadership: within the village before delivering services.
  7. Changing Worldview: to one of care and concern for self and others. Let them know that there is a God (we’re not Him) and he loves them unconditionally. That joy and peace are not directly tied to circumstances or lack of pain. We saw glimpses of laughter and smiles under the poorest of conditions. Conversely, I’m sure we all know people with considerable material wealth that are perpetually negative and emotionally miserable most of the time.
  8. Identify and Disciple: the “peacemaker”. Raise up one person to lead then bring parents along in literacy and introduce the Bible. When possible encourage and allow husbands to be the ones to teach and nurture their families and children.
  9. Allow time for “discovery evangelism”: Let people wrestle with scripture within small groups and give the leaders tools to guide the discussions. Watch for light-bulb moments when leaders and families “get” the gospel, and the message of salvation. They must internalize and own their faith. Otherwise it can be nothing more than rules and memorized ritual. This may not develop until 1.5 to 2 years into the relationship. Can’t just waltz into a village, preach at them, then leave. Remember their history of being talked down to and being oppressed and abused? It relates to trust and God also.
  10. Reconciliation: We heard a story from a worship leader who was abandoned by his mother when he was 2. His father didn’t want him, and his mother’s new husband (a Christian) didn’t want him. There were stories of people seeing their friends, or parents, or families murdered and escaped to tell about it. The weird thing is these were common stories. Most people in this area are survivors of these attacks and either are or know someone who escaped physical death. They realize the only way to peace is to speak about their hurts and forgive others. This only seems achievable thru a Christian world view. Unlike other “great religions” the Christian worldview is one of forgiveness and reconciliation. A love that flows from God to all people.  Imagine what it would take to seek out and forgive someone who you witness kill your father and leave you and your siblings to die assuming that you’d have no sustainable means of support. -Understanding that they, like so many, acted out of a fear and hatred that was born out of ignorance and fueled in great part by radio news propaganda across the boarder. Most everyone in the country understands this now but forgiveness and reconciliation is hard. It’s not what we naturally do. But it’s critically important to any type of survival.  Here, if pride, bitterness, anger, and the need for retribution are not aggressively and intentionally taken control of and replaced by forgiveness, the future of the entire population will be very bleak and hopeless.  Forgiveness matters …a lot.

On this trip we visited:

  • a memorial next to an abandoned gas station to where 100 high-school students were escorted by the school’s director, locked inside, and then burned alive.
  • a Batwa village that has been established and receiving services for approx. 5 years. There are now about 20 block houses built, some education options, food security, and basic medical services thru a small clinic. In addition, a group from Watermission in South Carolina established a pipeline from the bottom of the mountain to the top with a filtration and storage system. Before clean water the village experienced about 6 deaths/month (primarily children under 5). After the water and clinic were establish village mortality dropped to about 3 deaths in two years!
  • a new Batwa village, that has never received services or support until now. We helped teach bible school to children. We helped the village leaders and builders construct 2 houses. (each house will replace a 8 ft. round hut that housed 7-9 people.) We helped the village leaders distribute food to the heads of all of the 100 or so families. ($10 of rice and beans, enough to make meals for 2 weeks).
  • a fabric shop that made purses, bags and other items. The company is operated solely by women who were rescued from the prostitution trade.
  • a small beach “resort” (who knew?) There were bathrooms with a toilet that flushes and beverages that were somehow cooled.
  • a small interactive “Zoo”. (guests can hop into a ring with a live alligator if they wish).
  • a church where we broke into two teams to help lead workshops for local pastors and worship leaders.

Basically, we witnessed and experienced a new approach to missions. Much different than the methods used in the 1950s. The goals are the same which is to reach people with the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The freedom that comes from life-giving power of grace and forgiveness along with the relief of pain and hunger that flows from the giving heart of those who love Him. We saw groups of people helping themselves, caring for each other, and giving thanks to God in their own churches with their own leaders. We saw and heard stories of reconciliation between each other and trust built with outsiders. We saw glimpses of dignity and a renewed desire to live. We spent the week serving with leaders from an amazing organization who are sold out determined to change the trajectory of this entire impoverished country. We sat with a village pastor following a church service up-country who gave thanks and humbly prayed over warm bottles of orange Fanta soda. Nothing is taken for granted.

There’s a difference between being impoverished and being poor. We have poor people and homeless people in our country. For various reasons, they don’t have access to adequate money to purchase and maintain goods and services. In the majority world, impoverished people (their friends and neighbors) don’t have goods and services. Even if they had access to jobs and could get more money, the reality is there is no food, their is no clean water. There’s a loss of dignity and spirit. They live in a daily ongoing condition of hopelessness and helplessness. They have little reason for joy and little reason to try. Many believe no one knows they exist and no one really cares.

Following WWII the cold war introduced the term “Third World Country” which later became synonymous with extremely poor, and non-industrialized nations. It became a stereotype to refer to poor countries as “third world countries”. The term later evolved into “Developing Countries”. More and more we’re hearing the more accurate term “Majority Countries” because the reality is that the majority of the world’s population lives this way.

So as I landed back in Cleveland, OH I just couldn’t help but think to myself “Welcome to Disneyland”.  -Where there are toilets (and most flush), stable electricity most of the time, running water (and even hot water), stop-signs, center lines, and traffic laws, water that’s usually safe to drink, food that’s usually safe to eat, ice cubes for beverages, and the absence of life-threatening mosquitos.


From → burundi/ africa

  1. Good insights! You are so right about building long-term, trust-based relationships. And also that throwing money at the problem will not solve it. On the other hand, money can buy a sewing machine and donate it to someone there who can start a home-based business providing or repairing clothing for others – and through that business they can provide food and shelter for their families. Money can buy a van, which can be donated & used as a taxi to shuttle people to & from that resort you mentioned, providing for another family. Money can buy a cow – which can be donated and used to provide milk & cheese – which a family can use for themselves and/or sell, etc. So money helps — but it’s HOW the money is used that makes the biggest difference in terms of effectiveness for the individual families and for the Kingdom of God! Sorry I’ve rambled on here — but we’re pretty passionate about all this. I’m so glad you’re being used by God in this way! May He bless you in every way!

    • garyyonek permalink

      Absolutely Karen. Practical needs are enormous.
      I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Steve Corbett called When Helping Hurts:

        How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor —and Yourself

      If you’re not already familiar with it I would encourage you to check it out.

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