I See You, Burundi

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We landed after thirty-plus hours in transit. Jostling carry-on bags and excitement, we made it to the bottom of the stairs, stepping foot into the tarmac in the pitch dark. No lights anywhere. The terminal ahead stood black against the night sky.

I scurried across the tarmac, herding my children like chicks, until we reached the threshold and the arms of my awaiting husband. Airport workers and travelers alike were armed with cell phones, not flash lights. To the glow of iPhones, passports got stamped and luggage was claimed. It was an odd kind of carnival as we recognized friends by small, soft circles of light and greeted in shared darkness. It seemed only our laughter punctuated the molasses air, thick with humidity.

We drove away from the airport, finally having the high beams of the car. We moved toward the lights of the city, twinkling ahead and beckoning us home.

It would take the crew nearly two hours to get the electricity up and running back at the airport, stranding a jetliner and passengers eager to fly elsewhere. That’s how darkness works, sometimes.

Birdsong announced the morning, as it always does in Burundi. My husband wanted to get us out of the house and into the city to see it again, embrace it again. And so we ventured out into the steamy streets of Bujumbura.

The crippled economy, now limping for more than nine months, created pop-up markets along most roads. The corners were crowded with rickety tables piled high with mangos, pineapples and bunches of pale yellow bananas as women with babies strapped to their backs presided. Kiosks with limes, cassava and potatoes were on the next street, more mamas hoping to make some income for the day.

School children in khaki uniforms walked to school in clusters, some serious and others with an obvious silly bone. Men peddled bikes heavy with charcoal. Motorbikes with women in heels sitting sidesaddle whizzed through traffic. Young men and women shook hands, flirting with the day’s possibilities. People were going where they could to do what they could.

I was watching the slow work of the little country that would.

The following day I sat in the restaurant garden of a downtown hotel. Very few people were taking lunch. It’s not affordable for most these days. I had a cold bottle of sparkling water as I wrote and read in turn.

Claude was teaching a seminar on entrepreneurship in the room next door. Amid economic freefall, he dared to gather people and listen to their ideas and fan the flames of their dreams that will only flourish in a better economy.

During a break his training colleague joined us. “Are we crazy to do this?” she laughed.

“You are cultivating hope in hard times,” I tell her. “You are preparing the seeds for future growth, confident that day will come. It is brave–this kind of hope that doesn’t give up.”

She agreed. These men and women, spending a day exploring ideas for a future economy, will be ready when the season changes.

We see hope in this seminar room on a non-descript Wednesday.

Only a few days ago Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the UN, visited Burundi. There was some “noise” on the outskirts of the city that night, as we knew there would be. Rebels like to make noise, a euphemism for gunfire and grenade attacks, when diplomats are in town.

Yesterday the roads were in a tangle due to the arrival of five African heads of state–all their motorcades and security details. They came as a delegation from the African Union to meet with the president. And amid the almost Biblical downpour that night, as expected there was other “noise” in a downtown neighborhood, lest anyone forget there are other voices that demand to be heard.

Official reports always say talks were substantive and progress was made, but not many people believe in press releases anymore. But I’ve come to appreciate the fact that in nine months of conflict, diplomats keep coming. Multiple delegations continue to make their way to this small, landlocked country to try and broker peace. The world is not looking away.

And so I feel some small solace that the world continues to see Burundi, to see her people. When, or if, they forget us we will become invisible.

The prophet Isaiah says seeing people on the margins and calling them out into the light is holy work.

See the mothers with babes wrapped round their backs.
See the men and women on motorbikes weaving their way to work.
See the aspiring entrepreneurs.
See school children studying for the world of their dreams.
See the families in need of a better economy.
See the fractured political situation in a hardly-known country somewhere inside the belly of Africa.
See. And then call them out into the light where there are futures to be had.

I see you, Burundi. I see you in your brokenness and exhaustion. I see you in your desperate attempts to get by and make ends meet. I see your trauma-induced stupor but also your hints of resilience. I see you fumbling in the darkness with nothing but the glow of a cell phone to light your way.

I want to tell you what you already know–the darkness is here. But also this—the Light is coming. Until then, I see you, sweet friend. I will not turn my gaze from you until we can walk into the Light together as sisters.

Please keep your eyes trained on Burundi. She may not grace the front page of the international news section all that often or make the prayers of the people in church each Sunday, but she is here and in need of our solidarity.

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Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is also the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (Eerdmans).
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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