Here are five observations from Gladys’ and my recent two week visit to Rwanda and Burundi:
Peacemaking is tough: When I was in Gisenyi, Rwanda, talking with the people we work with in Goma in North Kivu, Congo (it is too difficult for me to get a visa now to enter North Kivu as I have to get it in the US where I don’t stay), they told me that on the next day, August 13, there was going to be a general strike for peace in Goma with parades and demonstrations indicating that the people were tired of all the fighting. I remember in 2002 when AGLI’s AVP facilitators who were in Bujumbura, Burundi, participated in a similar action with the Friends church and others. Here is Zawadi’s report on the strike:
Oh my goodness, you heard about it? It was planned that the peace activists would do a demonstration but it did not take place. The government issued a warning to those who would get involved. Shopkeepers got scared and closed their shops in fear of looting. But in the afternoon a MONUSCO [the UN peacekeeping force in the Congo] car hit a pedestrian who died instantly and the local population in retaliation mixed with anger beat up a MONUSCO soldier almost killing him. Some say he later succumbed to the injuries but we cannot confirm that. Now the situation is calm.
Housing above Gisenyi: As I drove down the steep hill into the town of Gisenyi, Rwanda, on the border of Lake Kivu, I noticed a town where there were many new houses with shinny corrugated iron sheets. I had been told when I had seen them a few years before that the Rwandan government had moved people off the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains so that they would not be killed by landslides and gave them a plot in the town, and funds to build a new house. They were like the houses favored by the elite in the region with very steep roofs which I estimate take twice as many iron sheets as a regular roof would – iron sheets are one of the most expensive items in building a house. As they were when I first saw them a few years ago, most did not have doors or windows and were empty. The peasant farmers with their allotment had built much bigger houses than the funds that they received and so they were monuments to the African custom of dreaming bigger than the reality of the funds available. The countryside in the region is filled with partially completed houses. I sometimes say that if every house in the region which had been started were completed, then the population would be well housed.
Tale of tress in two countries: As I traveled the steep climb out of Bujumbura to the top of the mountains of the Rift Valley, I noticed that men were laboriously digging out the stumps of the ancient large tress which had long before been felled for firewood. The stumps were being used to fire bricks as there was a lot of building going on in Bujumbura and the surrounding communities. As a result there was hardly a tree thicker than four inches since all had already been cut down — even small trees were being cut to make poles for roofing. Eucalyptus trees grow about ten feet per year in this region even as they suck the moisture out of the ground. It wasn’t until I was about forty miles from Bujumbura that I began to notice more mature trees.
Rwanda around Kigali had the same problem. About five years ago, the Rwandan government banned the making and burning of bricks. People were required to build with cement blocks which are much more expensive. The result, though, is that now there are many trees in the area around Kigali that are six inches in thickness and in future years will grow much bigger. Whenever roads are rehabilitated, one to three rows of trees are planted alongside the road so that, where they have become six inches in thickness, there is a pleasant wooded roadway.
A success story – Kibimba Hospital: I first visited Kibimba Hospital, owned by Burundi Yearly Meeting, in 2000 or 2001 when the civil war was still hot. The hospital was a disaster as one would expect in the war torn countryside where active fighting was taking place. There was no doctor – at one time there was a Congolese doctor, but, after one month at the hospital, he vanished. I remember seeing the incubators for the premature babies. There were four of them, all broken with only an electric light bulb to warm them; there was also a fifth one which was no more than a carton with a blanket at the bottom, another light bulb, and a top with some holes in it. The staff was doing the best it could with its limited resources, little medicine. I remember that one the AGLI work camp teams from the US took four 70 pound boxes of medicines, donated by one of those NGOs that specializes in this activity, to the hospital. I had been somewhat concerned when I saw that lots of this “medicine” was no more than vitamin pills. But the next time I visited the hospital I was told that the vitamins were extremely useful. The area around the hospital had a malaria epidemic and where normally they would have about 4,000 cases of malaria in a year, they were suddenly swamped with 46,000 cases in a few months. When patients came with severe cases of malaria, if they were given the vitamin pills along with the malaria medicine, they recovered much more quickly. So I was wrong – the vitamin pills were useful.
Now the hospital has metamorphosed. There are five doctors and thirty nurses. The number of beds has expanded from sixty to two hundred and the beds were full. The premature room was heated with eight functioning incubators – and the hospital had a back-up generator if the electricity from the grid failed – each with a premature baby and a woman taking care of the really tiny babies. What a difference! All the buildings – and there were many newly built ones – were tiled with ceramic tiles on the floor which made the hospital look bright and clearn and, as Gladys noted, makes cleaning the floor easy. In addition there were ceramic tile “benches” along all the walls where patients could sit and tiles up to five feet on the walls. I asked about family planning and was shown the falling planning office where all methods of family planning were available at the choice of the woman. Since the mostly Catholic hospitals in the region would not dispense family planning methods, this was facility was quite busy with 150 or so women coming in each month.
How did this happen? Dr. Elisee Buhenda was born in the hospital a few years after it had been opened in 1952. He was a doctor there from 1990 to 1993, but had to flee when the civil war broke out. He went to Ivory Coast where he had done his medical training and worked there until 2006. The peace treaty in Burundi was signed in 2005 and so he returned to the hospital. In a previous visit in 2007 or 2008, I was told that he had to fight off interference by the leaders of Burundi Yearly Meeting in order to develop the hospital. He has been supported by Mid-American Yearly Meeting in the US, an evangelical Friends yearly meeting who had done much of the missionary work in the past in Burundi. Friends of Kibimba Hospital (kibimba.blogspot.com) is the organization founded to support the hospital. Their mission statement includes, “Our desire is to make available both medical and spiritual healing for the community by improving staffing, facilities and equipment at the hospital.”
I like their passage from the bible, Mathew 9:35, “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.”
Work camp community celebration: From June 24 to July 18, AGLI and HROC-Burundi held a work camp in Mutaho, Burundi, with Rema, (meaning “to be comforted”), a women’s group at Mutaho Friends Church led by Pastor Sarah Gakobwa. Rema had already built a social hall so the task of the work camp was to build the first two of eight rooms so that people could spend the night at the facility – I hope in the future when I visit Mutaho, I can stay there rather than the Catholic monastery five miles down the road. The work camp had ten Burundian youth – five Hutu and five Tutsi – and two international work campers from the US plus a number of the women who would come each day to help. The work camp began with a basic HROC workshop and the four main projects in Mutaho – Rema itself, the bio-sand water filter coop, the Peace and Democracy Group, and the women who received goats — each gave a presentation on their work, again attended by the local administration. The people of Mutaho are saying, “God had remembered Mutaho and sent us ‘wazungu’ [foreigners]. The last wazungu who slept in Mutaho were the missionaries in 1934. Isn’t this amazing.”
At the end of the work camp a community celebration was organized that included the local government officials and the AFSC Burundi director (the AFSC had helped with financing part of the work camp). A historic soccer match was held which brought two teams of mixed Hutu and Tutsi players on each side – something that had unsuccessfully been tried by the country’s vice president.
I met with the Rema women on Saturday, August 17. At the same time the local commune (the smallest governmental level in Burundi) leaders were having a gathering nearby to recognize all the recent accomplishments in the recent past – the 2015 election campaign is already beginning. Pastor Sarah was then called away to the gathering to be honored by the government officials because of the work she had been doing in the community. According to the government plans there were six guest houses planned for Mutaho and the Rema guest house was the third. AGLI, HROC-Burundi, and Rema are planning another work camp for next summer.