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.