Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Year and Some

Its been just over a year since I arrived in Africa. A year of glass bottle Coke, dusty roads, dodgy electricity, and young men in faded fatigues wielding Ak-47s with blood shot, malarial-yellow eyes. I’ve learned that the true meaning of TIA (this is Africa) is randomness and it’s a facet of life that needs to be embraced to maintain sanity. I’ve learned that Westerners have watches and Africans have time (think about it). But most of all my life has been shaped by the amazing people that have helped me, frustrated me, and taught me so much.
Bar none, the most satisfying aspect of life in Africa have been the connections I’ve made in the Burundian community. The temptation for a “mzungu” coming to Africa is to isolate themselves within the expatriate community, connecting only with people that share their culture. For a number of different reasons doors opened for me to create sincere and meaningful relationships with Burundians and other Africans on a scale I didn’t think possible. The experiences I’ve had and the lessons I’ve learned (at times painfully) have changed who I am and how I think for the better and are now a part of me.
Most people when they come to Africa say, “I’m going to change Africa”. But it’s true that you don’t change Africa, Africa changes you.

The first week of May I traveled to the province of Karusi to speak at a conference for pastors and church leaders. Karusi is located in the North East portion of the country and was visibly poorer than most other provinces of Burundi I had been in previously. Considering Burundi is the third poorest country in the world this is a significant feat. The roads are now being repaired and renewed but during the years of the war the route was nearly impassible. Karusi could be blocked off for weeks at a time before outside aid could get in, weeks that were filled with bloodshed and terror for the residents. Even the main city center in the province had few working lights and the poshest hotel in town didn’t have running water.
In spite of this lack, the people at the conference were remarkable. They asked insightful, challenging questions. Their eagerness to learn was evident. They even organized different church groups together to repair roads and participate in a goat sharing cooperative. The level of synergy within the different communities was like nothing I have seen in Burundi where the norm is division and squabbling over money and power.
A week later I assisted a dental team from South Carolina as they set up clinics in rural areas. Only basic teeth extractions and cleanings were performed, but the effort that these men and women put into Burundi won’t soon be forgotten by the local people. In two weeks the team saw 2000 patients. It was common for the students to pull 50-60 “tips” per day (each tooth has 4 tips?). According to them a normal student in the States wouldn’t do that in 4 years at dental school.
They worked themselves literally to exhaustion. We set up in two schools and a prison and they even opened a clinic in Bujumbura on the day of their departure. Amazing.

Zambia and the World Cup!!!!
Yes that’s right folks I was able to go to the World Cup!! I left June 3rd to fly down to Zambia and spend two weeks at our central African base of operations in Livingstone. Even though Burundi is only a few hundred miles away from Zambia the entire trip took 24 hours because of the lack of direct flights to or from Bujumbura (in fact when I was buying a ticket in Dubai in February the travel agent said he the computer system didn’t register Burundi as having an airport). TIA.
I was able to meet with the leadership of my organization and establish a solid plan of action for the next year (more on that later). It was a great break from routine in Burundi and a chance to re-connect with the great people that are employed by Overland Missions.
We had friends visit from Chicago, and while touring the breathtaking Victoria Falls park a baboon stole a bag containing chocolate, nuts, and my friends passport. Don’t worry, we were saved by 14 Dutchmen.
On Friday the 10th my brother, his wife Rachel, our friends Chad, Sean, and Kevin from Chicago and myself flew to Johannesburg. We arrived just in time for the opening match between South Africa and Mexico. What an experience! We found a rowdy little street in Johannesburg filled with pubs and restaurants watching the game. It was electrifying to be part of the energy and the tension as an entire nation came together and watched its team. People poured out onto the streets when South Africa scored first and suddenly the guy next to you who you’ve never met and who grew up in some random part of Africa became your best friend.
And that’s what struck me: a game had the power to bring together people from all over the world, who most likely didn’t speak the same language, but they had a common denominator to overcome any social barriers. Futbol.
Even arriving in the airport was an experience. They paid people to blow the infamous ‘vuvuzela’ horns inside the terminal. So you were surrounded by cheering and horns and chatter in 50 different languages. People even came off the plane dressed up in whatever national costume they had: Mexicans in sombreros, Algerians in long blue Burubur robes, Americans in cowboy hats, and Dutch people in Orange from head to foot.
And that was just the airport!
Quite simply, the World Cup was the greatest sporting event I’ve ever been to. A whole nation of people obsessed over one thing. I’ve never seen anything like it.
We had tickets to the England vs. USA match in Rustenburg. Normally, the drive took 1.5 hours but it took us 5 because of traffic. Along the way we stopped and aided a serious car accident victim. Thank God Rachel is a nurse because she literally held some drunk guys fractured skull together until an ambulance came. Although his brains were protruding slightly from his head he was coherent and kept saying “Well, you just got to look on the bright side…” but then never finished the sentence. I hope he’s ok.
The stadium was about 70% English fans and my initial trepidation of being shanked by a English “hooligan” was quickly dispersed. The atmosphere was positive and people generally enjoyed the game without letting their emotions and excessive alcohol consumption lead to too many tricky situations.
We were six rows off the field and when Altidore hit the post in the second half I was about 50 meters away. Again, unreal.
I could go on about it but I will stop here. Suffice it to say I am already looking for ways to get to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. Want to join?
Peaceful Elections
So far things have been peaceful! Keep praying and tuning in to news here in Burundi. Email me for a more complete update if you are interested.


Monday, April 26, 2010

Somewhere in Between the Cape and Cairo....Love is in the Air

Beloved, I will try to offer you a recap of the last two months in Burundi with all its twists and turns. At best this blog is a random collection of anecdotes and themes that accurately describes the varied nature of my life as I attempt to lay the foundation for my organization. Enjoy!
Elections in East Africa
East/Central Africa is one of the most interesting places in the world right now. In a years time every country will have, at least, a presidential election. Sudan is having their first election in 23 years as I write this; Burundi is having its first popular election in 17 years (starting in April and going into September for all levels of the government); Rwanda in August; Uganda in early 2011; and I’ve heard that Tanzania , the DR Congo, and Kenya will each their own elections soon enough. Can anyone feel the love in the air?
I will refrain from making any scandalous remarks about governments in the area, but if history is any indicator of the future please pray and fast for peace! For real.
I was idling down the road in traffic next to a parade of people shouting slogans for a certain political party when one of the members spotted me and shouted “Mzungu!” (white man). Immediately, he inserted “Obama” in the chant they were shouting where previously the name of the desired leader had been. It took about 3 seconds for others to pick up on it. We all found it amusing and I had to restrain myself from pumping my fist out the window and shouting with them (just to rile them up more). They sure do love politics here.
It is my observation since being in Africa that the communal nature of society here makes being a part of a large group very attractive for the individual. Community means power and power means survival. The bigger the group you belong to the better. But at the same time this tendency creates the concept of “the other guy”, creating a de facto schism in most every aspect of society. This can be harmless or it can be terrifying, as the fractious history of Africa tells us.
But what do I know?
I am witness to a powerful hope and courage among the Burundian people right now. I see people who choose not to be weighed down by the past years of war and who push forward in faith believing that Burundi will turn a corner with these elections. True, there are many who are leaving the country, but streams of hope, radiating out like rivers of light, are visible among youthful spirits who believe that faith as small as a mustard seed can toss mountains into the sea. Join them! Join them in prayer and fasting. Proclaim that Burundi will be a blessing to the nations. I promise you you don’t want to miss out on this opportunity.
India and Dubai
Before I landed in Burundi I spent two and a half weeks in Dubai and India, mostly India. Dubai, how can I describe it? It’s brilliant in the fact that the Emirates turned a massive construction site into one of the hottest tourist destinations in the world.
I heard a saying about Monaco once: it’s a sunny place for shady people. That’s Dubai. It’s kind of like the Wisconsin Dells (a Midwest tourist trap) for Russian billionaires. Indeed there is a lot of money there despite the financial woes of the world economy and Dubai World. In the tourist areas people parade their Ferraris and Lamborghinis and Bentleys. One of my favorite memories of Dubai happened when I saw a guy in a million dollar Lamborghini who couldn’t parallel park into this huge space. I thought it was quite the picture of the whole place. Lots of money and no idea what to do.
But my dad treated me well, as always. I think I gained 10 lbs on the fabulous restaurants and leisurely life style in the three days we stayed. We saw lots of firsts: world’s tallest building, most expensive hotel, most expensive cocktail, etc. The most expensive shot was a particular single malt Scotch served on ice cubes made from water from Scotland. It was a billion dollars or something.
One aspect about Dubai my dad picked up on was that we rarely ever met anyone from Dubai. Most people were guest workers from Jordan, Kenya, or the Philippines. Maybe we needed to tool around in a Ferrari and make fifty point turns to parallel park to fit in.
And then we were off to India!
India is a bit different than Dubai to put it mildly. The main difference being the tremendous amount of people and the tremendous gap in wealth between the average citizen of the either country. The poverty and the density of people isn’t all that different from Burundi. If anything India is much more developed than Burundi but that doesn’t take away from the plight of the average Indian.
Our hotel had one of the most highly rated Indian restaurants in the world and let me tell you I still think about it to this day. Most of the cuisine was grilled meat, highly spiced served with an equally spicy brown stew that blew my mind. Lord have mercy!
We stayed in Delhi, saw such extravagantly historic sights as the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal (actually in Agra). The Taj Mahal itself was simply the most stunning man made structure I’ve ever seen in my life. The mathematical and structural detail that went into it cannot be overstated. The outer layer of marble is a special brew that absorbs whatever light is projected on it: at sunset and sunrise its pink, under a full moon its whitish blue. Precious stones from all over the world inlay the stonework and actually refract the sun and moon light, making it appear to light up like Christmas lights. Lord have Mercy!
As splendid as the Taj was our journey to and from Agra was anything but. We rose to catch a 6am train, scheduled for an hour and a half ride. But apparently there is a problem with the fog during the winter in India and when our train finally rolled in around 9:30am it took another 6 hours on the train to get to Agra. Arriving so late we rushed to meet our guide and get into the area around the Taj before it closed at sunset. Our ride back was even more harrowing. Since the train schedule was now 9 hours off track we had to hire a car and drive back into Delhi. We grabbed a quick dinner, got served beer in a coffee pot (T.I. India?) and then spent 5 hours driving back through pea soup fog (a trip that normally takes 1.5 hours in good weather). Nill visibility coupled with fast moving cars took a toll on my dad’s nerves. I quickly decided that I would leave the matter in God’s hands, said a prayer for safety and tried to get some sleep. Needless to say after 14 hours in transit on Indian infrastructure we laid low the next few days in the hotel, not wanting to over indulge on such experiences all at once.
After a week in Delhi we flew south to Goa. Formerly a Portuguese colony, Goa has a flavor all its own. During the 60s and 70s it attracted a Bohemian, wandering, hippy crowd and still maintains the reputation. The palm trees and water seem to extract any tension from your system and you slide into the laid back beach culture without a second thought. We drank G&Ts and planned ways to avoid the midday heat. Goa offers an array of old church sites and plantations as well as picturesque beaches. All in all a great place to stay for a few days.
After Goa we flew back to Dubai and my dad and I parted ways. So thanks Dad for a brilliant trip!
The Water Cooler
Bits of February and March went by slowly. It was a processing time on how to establish Overland Missions as a legal entity in Burundi. The one thing I love about Africa is that anything is possible. The one thing that frustrates work in Africa is that anything is possible.
I’ve realized one of the hardest things in life is getting momentum. It’s like I have to put three or four times the effort into any given task because I have to figure it out from scratch each time. In French.
Really its all about meeting the right people, trust worthy people, who can navigate you through the labyrinth of social networks (remember the only way to move bureaucracy is from the top down) in a foreign place, language, and culture. I thank God for opening doors to the right partners. Now that a basic network has been established the questions are: what is the best move for the organization? That is, how can OM best achieve its goals as to maximize benefit for the people of Burundi? And as any good business plan, its flexible, changing- it’s a boat being built at sea.
One goal I have here is to have all projects OM undertakes funded by in-country enterprises. In a word: sustainable. Of course the greatest limiting factor here is the lack of finances. The de facto posture is to receive, and rely, on western donors. Okay, I see that this is necessary to get people on their feet but long term does it make sense to rely on others? No- evidenced by the recent financial crisis and the collapse of so many projects here. I think there is a difference between development and relief. I am not an expert on development but it just seems logical that for long term development a people have to support themselves. Is this too western? Too naive? We’ll see.
So with that in mind I am researching various business ventures. Because I also think this: what if its done right? What if business and politics and everything else was done right here in Burundi and East/Central Africa? History tells me that it hasn’t up till this point. Someone once said that if you don’t know history you’re doomed to repeat it. No one is perfect, no one country or region has it completely right but if you don’t see flaws in any system you’re not looking hard enough. And if you don’t want to improve on those flaws you won’t be much use to anyone.
What is “right” then? I think if there was an easy answer we would have found it, but my version (conveniently plagiarized from the Bible) goes something like this: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Trust that God is really the one that will provide for you and care for you because He has such great love for you. Then you won’t have to strive and manipulate and worry to survive. Memorize Luke 12:22-34.
So, my work in short has been arduous but its sharpening me.
And in April I helped act as a guide with teams from the UK and from the US with some local partners here. They were a great encouragement and it was amazing to see them used by God in such powerful ways.
World Cup??
I think I have a ticket to the World Cup!!!!!!!! The US England game on June 12! I will travel down to Zambia in early June to help out with AMT and other efforts on OMs base in Livingstone, Zambia and then fly to South Africa for two days to see the game. This will be such a fantastic break. I can’t wait.
Life Lessons
I felt like I’ve already sermonized enough but I’ll leave you with some quick life lessons that have been impressed on me: 1) Perseverance. When life is hard, when its not ideal and you feel alone, keep going. You can rationalize a million good reasons to quit but keep going. Successful people in life are the ones that keep faith even when it’s not convenient. 2) The only thing that truly changes people is the Grace of God expressed through the person of Jesus Christ over time. Relentless grace, that is grace and love over time, will change even the hardest of people. That seems to be what the Bible is about. Argumentation, no matter how polished or rational, doesn’t change hearts.
That is all.

As always thanks for reading if you made it this far. Please send updates if you can. They are always an encouragement

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Everything is Green and Inviting

I've returned to Burundi! I spent nearly two months in the States and got to see Dubai, India, and Morocco whilst in transit. While in America I drove 4500 miles to see family and friends and for work. Whew!
Again, I am so grateful for particular aspects of American culture: efficiency and honesty among others. For example; one of my daily struggles in Burundi was trying to get our truck fixed. It took nearly four months and I was pressured to buy a cow as a bribe. In America, my car had problems in Nashville. In 24 hours I had parts, an honest mechanic, and was on my way shortly thereafter.
I will share with you the rather dramatic story of re-entering Burundi. Here's the set up: To enter most countries you need 1) a Visa and 2) a return ticket. I had neither, reasoning that I could just buy my visa at the airport and thinking that they wouldn't care about the return ticket. Here's how it went down.
It was 4am and I was running on 6 hours sleep in two days. I showed up at the airport in Dubai worrying that they wouldn't issue visas at the airport in Burundi because of an email my friend sent me. What turned out to be a bigger problem was that I didn't have a return ticket. Ethiopian airlines wouldn't let me on the flight! So I rushed to get on the internet, ended up going to the ticket counter to buy a flight home but the guy couldn't find Bujumbura on his computer as having an airport! So I told him to book me one from Kigali(Rwanda borders Burundi). I thought it was close enough. I ran to the ticket counter with ten minutes to spare. But they said the ticket wasn't valid because it was not out of Bujumbura. Makes sense. So I begged mercy and they let me one the flight. BUT I had to sign a paper that said "You're an idiot and if they refuse you at the border you have to pay a 5000 Euro fine". I had 30 seconds to make a decision. And you know what? I had no idea what to do, not even an inkling. There was a small voice in my head that said "this is where God wants you", but to be honest it wasn't very loud or convincing. I figured I needed to get to Burundi so I went ahead and signed the paper with trembling hands.
I rushed to my gate and got my laptop out to find a flight from Bujumbura to Kigali as quick as I could (theoretically to complete my return ticket). The plane was actually boarding when I arrived and the connection was slow. Then a shouting match broke out at the ticket counter which delayed everyone. I was sweating, staring at the screen that says "processing request" as people were walking on the plane and they made the last call for the flight. But I found one! I booked a flight the last minute and got on the plane.
I was somewhat relieved but my stomach was still in knots the next ten hours thinking they might not have visas at the airport which would leave me liable for the fine. It was not a pleasant time. Just sitting and waiting for something to happen.
I experienced a slight calm as the plane descended into Burundi. Ducking below the thick clouds I saw the green wet-season mountains and high grass. There's something about green vegetation I find inviting and comforting. When I arrived at the airport I walked in and saw that they were selling visas! Hallelujah! So I got in and felt the weight of all the stress slowly unwind from my stomach, chest, and head.

So that's how I got back in. It's kind of a picture of my time in Burundi. That is, chaos, scrambling, and hot nerves followed by a Grace that smooths it all over.
I will post a brief blog about my travels in Dubi, India, and Morocco when I get the chance. And I have a camera now! So I will battle with the slow internet to post pictures to make the reading a bit more interesting.