Some random scenes from our household life.
This is our outside kitchen - we were roasting bananas in their coats.
The fabled "three-inch" hissing cockroach. They fly - slowly - making a racket. They can hover. And they like to die in my tub.
This is the charcoal delivery service. I tried to move a full bundle of charcoal once - well better than a hundred pounds. I have seen a Bicycle carry three. The bicycles of Burundi SUFFER.
Bristol City Limits
The last in my series of 2010 Africa posts.
For about six weeks I was a celebrity. Being a white woman walking around downtown Buja still makes you unusual, but it is no longer a rarity. If you are a white woman driving her own car you are a bit more rarefied, because all the white women working for the NGO’s have drivers. But middle class Burundian women now drive, so you don’t get too many looks. But a white woman, riding a moto, with a beautiful Burundian girl sidekick, in matching green fluorescent vests on a shiny new red bike equipped with strobe lights, well, you are officially a spectacle. You not only get looked at and pointed at, you get cheers from the sidewalks, and you become the answer to the dinner table question,
“Well, what did you see in town today?”
But as with all celebrity, the reaction wasn’t completely unmixed. It was about 85% Hosannas and the other 15% considered us to be an abomination to God and an insult to African manhood. Especially the part of man that would never own a moto. There is always a part of the crowd that wants to see you fall. I couldn’t always tell the difference.
On one of my regular shortcuts there was a beer hall on the street and the men there always greeted me with a distinctive call. I always smiled and waved.
Kama Kawaide, it was up to Dani to educate me.
“Peggy, those men are not cheering for you.”
“Really, they seem very friendly.”
“They are very drunk. And they are ex-rebels.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because that noise they are making is their battle cry, it is what you hear coming from the bush before they come and kill you.”
“Ah, do you think they plan to kill me?”
“Probably not, they want to scare you, and make you crash the bike, then they would laugh, and maybe steal the bike, and maybe...”
Better informed, I developed my own version of a rebel yell to give back to them; they threw a few pebbles, but eyes on the road, Milagro never faltered.
The cadre of fellow moto riders, almost entirely taxi-motos, was much more supportive. They understand solidarity. On about my third day they accepted me, and I rode as one of their own until the end. They called me “Madam Moto-Mazungu.”
One day, on one of the terrifyingly complex roundabouts, at the height of morning rush hour, a moto stalled mid-stream. Death. The swarm that I was a part of surrounded our comrade and stopped en masse, raised our throttle hands, and shouted in Kirundi. Can’t kill us all (probably). Traffic stopped, and we escorted the man and moto safely to the side of the road. An Ad Hoc repair committee was formed and the rest of us rode on our way. Hakuna Matata - it’s just what we do.
By the end of the six weeks I was well known, and I recognized many of them as individuals. Be-beeps of greeting in the morning and at night. They work 12 hour shifts 6 days a week. I was more irregular, but always welcomed.
Then my time ran out. I wanted to arrange an escort to accompany Milgro back to Miracle Motors, but with little functional Kirundi, I did not know how to arrange it. So with an escort of Angels we quietly surrendered our steed. We did sing the doxology at the top of our lungs for the final three blocks. Mr. Muni Raju was out to lunch so I wrote a thank-you note and gave the key and helmets to the secretary, and walked away - Lone Ranger Style. I did leave the deepest blessing I knew how to give, on the bike and the man who would become her new master, though I knew him not. I adjusted my African explorer hat and became a foot soldier again.
I took a regular taxi home. The car taxi men are a union all their own, and also very tight. They pride themselves with a "knowledge" of the town and its goings on that would make a London cabbie blush. This man kept sneaking hard looks at me. Finally he said “Why are you in my cab, Madam? Where is your moto? You are the one? No? Madam Moto Mazungu?” I explained that I was on my way to America and that the moto would stay. “Ay, this is a sad day for the moto boys.”
The next day I was downtown with Eli and Dani. We walked past the biggest motostand in the core. I smiled and bonjoured the boys but not a one of the acknowledged me. They did not recognize me without the helmet and bike and vest. I was once again just some old white woman. Sigh. Fame is so fleeting.
I understood in a new way, “He came into His own country - to his own people - and they did not recognize Him.”
Subversion Shopping edition
One of our favorite moto games is shopping downtown.
Certain types of shopping, I never do, because the prices triple when I show my face. So Dani does my purchasing for me. This allows us to act out a wonderful charade on the local stage.
It is odd for me to be on the moto - that we have well established. But the conundrum that is Dani, is not as well plumbed.
The moto boys are pretty sure that I am not a commercial enterprise. But sometimes they wonder, they have seen different people on my pillion. The back seat is the seat of the purchaser, the usual power position. But white is power up, and old is power up, and we subvert both those paradigms when Dani is behind me. It confuses them.
We compound this when we shop. I ride up to the moto stand, and discharge Dani then pull into line with the rest of the boys. She hands me her helmet and says in nice Kirundi “Please wait, I won’t be long.” I say “Oui, Mademoiselle” They are confounded. They try and quiz me, but I have no Kirundi, Well, I can say “Sindabizi Ikirundi” which ironically means “I can’t speak Kirundi.” Their puzzlers are puzzed.
I twiddle my thumbs and watch traffic just like they do. When Dani comes back with her packages, I say “Iko Wapi?” Where to? In Kiswahili. She replies “Home, please” in her nice French and I say “OK” in universal, And I grin at the boys, and off we go.
“Who IS that GIRL????
“How does she rate a lady Mazungu driver??”
“Maybe she is the daughter of the president?”
“Don’t be stupid! There would be guns!”
And the boys have something to think about all afternoon.
Previous Milagro post here
The lesson of the day had been from the Sermon on the Mount. “Do not worry about what you will eat or what you will wear; your Father in Heaven knows what you need.” I had listened to student testimonies of provision. One student spoke of being at boarding school with no pocket money when the whole school went on short rations of one meal a day with no meat or veggies due to a budget shortfall. That is what African boarding schools do - short of money? Stop feeding the students. Hungry, the student said that she walked into a nearby vacant lot and found that it was abundant in wild cucumbers. God is Good.
Teacher had a different need that day. Milagro the Moto had become increasingly difficult to start. It had taken 37 kicks to get her going the morning in question. I had taken her in to Miracle Motors for a check-up, and the young mechanic had declared her fit and Mr. Muni Raju had taken pains to re-educate me about the kick-start process. The starting problem was declared to be mine. I disagreed. I had borrowed younger male legs, and I had borrowed experienced moto legs and they had no better luck than I. Mr. Raju respectfully suggested that my femininity was a problem. I almost respectfully asked Mr. Raju to demonstrate starting the bike with his male bits, but thought better of it. I pointed out that the bike was idling very low. Mr. Raju agreed with this, but told me that I should just ride with the choke on all the time. I knew this was bad advice, and that I was fouling the plugs enough as it was, and she was still stalling at stops on a regular basis. And in Buja, every time she stalled, I had an immediate throng of amateur mechanics and riders offering me advice in Kirundi, often all but pushing my feminine self off the bike to show me how it was done. This was irritating. I needed a second opinion, I assessed my limited resources.
On the day I had acquired Milagro a man had walked through Miracle Motors and introduced himself to me. Kenny Johnson was a Burundian born son of Plymouth Brethren Missionaries. A sturdy, kind looking man a few years my senior, he was an owner and restorer of a stable of vintage bikes. We discovered that we had F/friends in common and he graced me that day with a small, battery powered, blinking light to add to the moto for extra visibility. He also told me on that first day to look him up if I had any problems. “Just ask about, everyone knows where Kenny Johnson lives!”
Three weeks later I desperately wanted to have a motorcycle chat with someone knowledgeable and neutral. I especially wanted to have this chat with someone who did not consider it to be an abomination against God or the gods for me to sit my female self on such a machine.
After class, I started asking about, and soon had a phone number for Mr. Johnson. He was home, and we were welcome to stop by. We were warmly received by Ken and his assistant Deo. They had a truly fine and complete motorcycle repair shop. We took her apart. The idle and the idle mix were both off. The plug was filthy from running so rich. Several bolts including the one holding the shift rocker pedal had been worked loose by the daily dirt bike track that was our neighborhood. And finally they discovered that the shift cable was slipping. All these things were adjusted. Every bolt tightened. Tire pressure adjusted. Ken test drove her. I started her with the crew watching. She started on kick number 2 - good enough.
I expressed my profound gratitude and started to make ready to excuse myself. In the African milieu leaving is a protracted process. Then Ken’s wife Meli invited us to eat lunch with them and their family of 10 adopted children. Dani looked at me imploringly. I accepted for both of us, and we washed hands with the little kids and were seated at the head of the main table. The fish and chips were hot and tasty Lake Tanganyika Sangala. The vegetable salad was dressed with a rich cheese sauce. The conversation was delightful. The household was peaceful and happy and busy. We were deeply blessed. After seconds, the dishes were cleared and I started to make noises about leaving again. Meli said “What about a piece of chocolate cake and a cup of coffee?” I had been on simple Burundian rations for a month. I almost wept. Dani laughed and accepted for me. When the last molecule of cake was gone, we both expressed deep appreciation again.
Then Mr. Ken Johnson brought out two lime green fluorescent safety vests. Mr. Ken Johnson is a great believer in Safety. Dani and I met eyes and smiled, fashionistas the both of us, we knew we were wearing our new coats home. We donned our gear with as much dignity as green fluorescent allows. More gratitude and a walk out to the bike to discover that she had acquired two more blinking lights taped on with green fluorescent tape to her front. Deo grinned. Mr. Ken Johnson was pleased. One of the little boys said “You look like the president’s escort!” and so we did. The escort of some president in a doctor Seuss story. More admiration and gratitude and then Milagro leapt to a run and we drove home. The stares and gestures of the last few weeks were raised by a magnitude of ten. We were officially a spectacle. I was about half way home when I started laughing. Dressed and fed and cared for by the grace of God, for our wellbeing and joy. Visible like a City on the Hill. Letting our Lights shine. So visible that Dani’s comment upon disembarking was “Well, if they kill us now on the road, it will be Murder!”
Joyfully subversive - African edition
Subversion is my Charism.
My two previous trips to Central Africa gave me some real good indicators of what African paradigms needed subversion.
I believe that God has hidden God’s self in every culture and people. But where God goes, evil follows. Evil is actually better at following God than we are. And evil has sticky roots. So every culture must be compared to Gospel Culture, Gospel Order as Friends name it, and some parts are to be treasured and some parts eradicated. Mind you, I am not unaware of how badly my own culture needs this. And I speak to that as well, but my call is more apostolic than that. I care about the bigger picture. I care about how all the pieces fit together. When God shows me a piece that needs fitting I work on it.
Burundian culture is much closer to the Biblical culture of Jesus’ day than is our own. They really know from sheeps and goats, for instance. One of the cultural beliefs that they share with that place and day is the notion that if anything is going bad in your life, the first thing to consider is how badly God is mad at you. Natural disasters are God’s wrath, what else?
My young students in Buja had great science knowledge for their age in some categories. Chemistry for instance. Earth science not so much. That is why I built environmentalism into our curriculum, to buck up their Earth science. But my underlying agenda was their Theology. They, like many of us, are not accustomed to finding theology under the microscope. Silly us.
When we got to greenhouse gasses my students could give me the chemical notation for Methane. When I asked them what caused Earthquakes, the answer was God. This is a problem because they live on the Great Rift - and one third of my class wanted to be architects or contractors. They knew the name of the Rift, of course, just not the implications of that rift. The bottom of that rift was a few dozen kilometers from us at the bottom of Lake Tanganyika. There has been a good-sized quake in Bukavu, DRC, 100 klicks north in the last decade but none in Buja in these kids’ short life spans. When I posited, as a near certainty, the occurrence of a quake in Buja in their lifetimes, most of them shook their heads, some laughed. A couple, including Dani, looked concerned as I have a bit of a rep as a prophet in those parts. I made it clear.
“I do not have this from God, I have this from Science.”
“It cannot happen here” one said.
“Burundians pray too much - we worship so beautifully.”
“Do not the Congolese in Bukavu pray?”
“The Congolese are wicked - this is well known - they rape their own women in Bukavu. God is angry.”
“Ah, good, then there is no rape in Burundi. That is good.”
It got very quiet.
They had heard the story of Hurricane Katrina, of course, and the God's wrath explanation of it. I told them more of the story. How every little church in the ninth ward was destroyed and how the wicked French Quarter stood high and dry. How the black people died and the white people escaped. “Racism!” they cried. “What? You do not think God was mad at the little churches and their black worshippers?” I told them that the rich escaped and the poor did not. “Kama Kawaide.”(things are as they always have been) “So God is not mad at the poor?”
And I took them to the Gospel of John, where they ask Jesus who sinned, the blind man or his parents. And Jesus says “It’s not like that.” And I asked them what the Sermon on the Mount had to say about the contractors in Buja who mix too much sand in their concrete to save money. When the rains come these buildings melt, what will happen to them in an Earthquake?
Will that be God or man?
It took me three days to get them to ask questions. I was starting to worry. Dani told me to be patient. Partially, they still did not believe that I wanted to be questioned, and there was some reticence about forming questions in English. This was double-dip new territory for them.
When the dam broke, the flood was positively diluvian.
We talked race, we talked tribe. Yes, they asked about gays. Much more controversially, I took a stand on birth control. A few of the boys argued against it. The girls were eyes and ears wide open. We talked about female ministry and women’s rights. We talked politics - that is serious stuff over there. Election season was in full swing with its concurrent “Isolated grenade attacks.” They talk about grenade attacks like weather. There had been some this summer but they were not considered serious. They have rankings of grenade attacks there. We were having the localized and light variety. But still, talking about politics is dangerous business.
We carefully, but seriously, assessed the problems of corruption, not only in the government but in the Yearly Meeting. We talked about Burundian Quakers in politics and about traveling with guns, and about the Peace testimony. Their assessments were truthful and merciless.
We did all this in the context of studying the Sermon on the Mount, one verse at a time, with concurrent English language instruction. These students know their Bible - better than about 90% of American Christians. Their knowledge is largely oral tradition, just like their academic knowledge. They know their Bible from preaching, and they, like us, have some pretty wacky preachers. One of their greatest outrages is illiterate preachers. They believe that every pastor and evangelist needs college level Biblical education, I do not disagree. We often stumbled upon things that they had been told were in the Bible, which could not be found. For instance, they had been told that Jesus could not read and write. They had been told this by an illiterate preacher, of course. We found one verse in the New Testament that affirmed that Jesus was not a formal, life-long Rabbinical student like the Pharisees, but I assured them, with evidence, that all Jewish boys, then as now, could read and write by their 13th birthday. They were offended on Jesus’ behalf at the slander.
I spent a lot of time putting mortar into another gap. Despite their deep Biblical knowledge, this knowledge was rarely preached as applying to daily life situations. The Bible preached unto repentance and then slowed way back. The Bible also preached righteous living, but this was that tired old list of evangelical do’s and don’ts that didn’t go much past drinking, smoking and sleeping around. If you carefully walk through the Sermon on the Mount, you can’t stop there. We laid out every implication. You can’t lie - ever. (Deeply UN-Burundian culture) Hierarchy is un-Biblical. (Enormously UN-African) Tribes and genders matter not at all. (Contrary to all human experience) etc. etc. etc.
They took it about as well as the Disciples of old. On the third day they screamed “We can’t do it! - It can’t be done!”
I broke our English-only rule, and replied “Et Voila!” And then we all repented and tried to figure out what to do next.
So There I was...
ready to start day one of the Kamenge Institute for Future Quaker Leadership, a grand African name for a three-week English intensive covering Biblical theology, Quaker history, tolerance and environmentalism.
In the Central African milieu teachers are supposed to be strict - A variety of strict that Americans haven’t seen in generations. They say it is “The Belgian style” but then they blame a lot of things on the Belgians. In the lower grades teachers manage 1-100 student ratios with corporal punishment that would make the CIA blush - force a rowdy 8 year old boy to kneel for an hour on broken glass and bottle caps? Classroom management. In the upper grades they expel students for the slightest provocation. They discourage questions. Thinking for yourself is the last thing that they want you to do. They speak the truth and expect to see it back on the test. There are no textbooks - so students write their own, comprehensive notes. They grade so tough that 50% is passing and you are likely to be at the top of your class if you clear 70%.
I am famous at Kamenge for being soft, and I intended to turn the teaching model on its head - I wanted them to THINK. I wanted all their questions and I planned to present them with questions that had no answers. Everyone who attended would pass. But before doing that I had to establish at least a modicum of respect. So with the help of a Kamenge elder named Joel I attempted to at least give the appearance of rigor. The Institute was announced at Kamenge for a month in advance. Student criteria were published. We made an application process. We gave an admission exam - I did want them to start with enough English to benefit from my teaching.
Thirty students sat for the exam. They were expecting grammar, spelling and construction questions. They got three short essay questions asking them to imagine a better future for themselves, The Friends Church and the country of Burundi. They were a little confused. Teachers did not usually care about their imaginings. I had to promise confidentiality before they would honestly assess their church and national leadership. I was already getting looks.
My students were attending on their only break of the year. Many of them were simultaneously studying for their national exams - the extremely difficult test that would determine if they were admitted to university. Some were already University students and Bujumbura U. had scheduled their own break intensives. I discovered that my students were planning to try and attend both - coming to my class one day and getting notes from the other class and then reversing it on the next day. I was concerned about them jeopardizing their actual academic future for my enrichment opportunity. I counseled the most promising to prioritize their other work - but they were not dissuaded. I felt the deep and sincere pressure to make what I brought them worth their sacrifice.
Twenty-Seven of them passed. Their names were posted in the church yard on Saturday morning. On Sunday Morning they were called up to the front of the church to be blessed along with their new strange teacher. After church, Joel reported that quite a few young people had come up to him and asked if it was possible to be admitted at this late date.
Showing up late is pretty much standard operating procedure here. Joel and I both hated to say no, but we had agreed that this was going to be our respect earning strict point. The door was closed.
I fully expected to turn a few away on Monday morning. I steeled myself to the task. I told Daniella that I was going to be tough because equality required me to treat them all the same, and to respect those who had followed the process. Dani agreed that this was right. I was ready.
Only one extra showed up. His name was Victor. I prepared my best kind but stern words. His supplicant attitude and posture were perfect. Dani whispered “Be strong.” The other students were watching as he approached me. Victor made his initial plea in English that was tentative and sub-par. I reminded him of the process. He said he had been up country and had not heard the announcements until yesterday. I told him that we were making no exceptions. He looked discouraged. He stared at the ground and then took a deep breath and looked up at me and made this speech, in perfect English.
“Teacher - I understand what you are saying, and I respect your rules. But teacher, when I heard about this class yesterday my heart leapt within my chest, and I knew I had to be here. Elder Joel explained to me that this was not possible, but this morning when I got up for prayers my heart had not changed. So I have come. Teacher, you may chase me away, and I will go, but do you see that low wall there? If you send me away, I will go to the other side of that wall and sit and try to catch what you are saying. But teacher, I beg you, please may I sit on this side of the wall?”