To Mugina and Cibitoke for a special night

Trip Start Mar 14, 2013
Trip End Apr 05, 2013

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Flag of Burundi  ,
Monday, March 25, 2013

Yesterday I had been asleep half an hour when the phone woke me. It was Moïse. He started by saying "the plans have changed." He had just learned that his father had died. I tried to clear my head and listen carefully. I remember meeting his father several times; he was a dignified hard-working man and only in his early 60s. Moïse needed to drive north right away and couldn't wait until 2:00. Could I get ready quickly and he would pick me up. My immediate answer was to express my condolences and say “yes of course.” We hung up and I began gathering my affairs. Then as I became more alert, I thought the situation through again. I didn’t want Moïse to have to be my transportation while he was dealing with all he would have to do, and I needed to sleep. So I called him back and suggested he just call a driver he knew and have him come and pick me up at 2:00: I would rent the car and driver’s services for two days and could go independently. He thought a moment and said that would be much better. He said he would make the arrangements. After an hour of planning and packing to be ready, I went back to bed and got another two hours’ sleep. I got up at 12:30 and had a good lunch: steak and salad. I ate as if I wouldn’t have dinner, in case I wasn’t able to which seemed likely. At 1:30 Moïse knocked at my door; I was surprised to see him. It had taken him a while on a Sunday to find a driver, but he told me this was much better for him. I met the driver, Prosper, and told him I would be ready shortly. Moïse left to attend to funeral arrangements and other family obligations.

Prosper and I finally started out about 2:30. We drove north about 1 ¼ hours to the town of Cibitoke, passing through a strong rain storm as we approached. I hoped this wouldn’t make our service difficult in the evening or prevent anyone from attending. Prosper prefers English to French, so we spoke in English. He explained that he had a girlfriend from the US before and that helped his English. He’s a talkative fellow and whenever there wasn’t much dialogue it was replaced by monologue about all sorts of things: the Hutu-Tutsi violence in Rwanda for example His father is Hutu his mother Tutsi, he told me, and it’s very obvious he identifies strongly with the Hutu side and think they got a bum rap. “Hutus were killed too, but only Tutsis are mentioned in the memorials.” This isn’t entirely true in my reading and experience, but it is true that the overwhelming number of those murdered were Tutsi. We talked about East Africa, Africa in general, the huge problem of corruption in Africa, how things work in the West, his church and the church to which I belong, corruption among church ministers in Burundi, how to keep your wife happy (his secret: always let her know where you are, and always wear your wedding ring), and much more.

Once at Cibitoke, we stopped briefly at the Banana House Hotel (no comment) so I could meet the manager and have a quick look at the room. It would be fine for a night. Then we drove on toward Mugina, again passing through rain. Arriving and the turn off, we started on dirt (mud) road. Prosper wasn’t use to the little Toyota we were in, which apparently didn’t have as much clearance as he was used to. He bottomed out hard on several large rocks, which made me wince. If we punctured the oil pan or did any other major damage, I would miss the opportunity to stay at the Banana House hotel….

We slipped and slid our way to the location of the Church buildings, the major hall is still under construction, and found that Nathan Mokeshimana was not there. So we drove around to his house where I greeted him and his wife in the mud in front of their house. Everything was slippery mud. To walk around to the trunk of the car and give Nathan the booklets and Passover tray and small glasses I had brought for them, caked my shoes with mud, which I tried to scrape off before getting back in the car. After a few minutes, Nathan reemerged from his house in his nice clothes, and we drove to the church’s compound again. I put on my tie as we went. The heat and humidity really make one perspire here and I can ruin a nice shirt in a day if I don’t take some precautions.

 It was still raining lightly when we arrived, so we waited a few minutes in the car until there was temporary lull, and walked and slid carefully down the slight incline to the small church outbuilding, a sort of small multi-purpose room that is heavily used as they wait to complete construction of the main hall. Inside I found the unleavened bread and wine on the table, but the wine had not been poured into the glasses yet, since both the wine and the glasses had arrived so recently. I only took one photo because this evening is rather private and not the time to be taking photos. We poured the wine carefully, and I explained a few additional points about how we organize the New Testament Passover service. This was the first time that they would celebrate the Passover with an overseeing elder from our Church association, so there were a few things I suggested they modify. It was very helpful for me to be and guide and assist in this way.

When all was ready we invited baptized members inside, and after a few minutes to let everyone calm down and mentally prepare, we celebrated the New Testament Passover. Due to the storm about a little over half the members made it for the service. I will explain what to do for those who missed this evening. I made some opening comments, and then as we had agreed in advance, Nathan read Bible passages relating to the meaning of the day and the symbols. From time to time I would make some comments, which Nathan would translate, and I asked the blessings on the symbols before their distribution.

It is touching and sobering to take the Passover in such simple conditions. We sat in a two-room, mud-brick building with a dirt floor and a tin roof. Those attending sat on long roughly-hewn wooden benches. The women sat in the rear room because it was larger and there were more of them, and because there wasn’t enough space for people to move around much for the foot-washing service.  There were only four basins to be shared by 36 people, and we shared about 6 towels between us. Not everyone around here even has a bath or hand towel; they may just use broadcloth pagnes for such needs. Since many had walked far in the rain in sandals or old broken shoes, many of the feet to be washed really needed it. The used water that was thrown outside after each use was often quite muddy.  I handed my little flashlight to Mrs. Mokeshimana in the women’s room so she could help them see to wash each other’s feet; there is only one light bulb in the building and it’s in the front room.

We continued with the bread and wine part of the service and then began the scripture reading. As Nathan was reading, the electricity was cut and the room went pitch black. The flashlight came in handy again; Nathan continued reading by its light until the power came back a few minutes later. At the end we sang a hymn and then most people departed for home, though those who had come from the farthest away had to stay over. It was too far to walk in the dark.

I asked Nathan to meet me at the hotel in the morning for coffee, so we could debrief after the service and then Proposer and I drove back through rain once again to the Banana House. It was late for dinner, and I really just needed to sleep, so I asked if I could have a sprite before heading to bed. The answer was confusing. “There is no Sprite here”, the response seemed to be, but we have Coke and lemon Fanta. If you want Sprite you will have to walk across the road.” I responded that a lemon Fanta would be fine, and we sat down at a table. After a rapid exchange in Kirundi, Prosper translated that they needed some money to buy the Fanta across the road. Apparently I missed something, but now you know as much as I do about what was going on. I handed over 2000 francs ($1.30) for the Fanta and a big bottle of water for Prosper and we waited a few minutes while they were brought. I said goodnight and went to my room to set the mosquito net while I sipped Fanta and at a few pieces of the beef jerky I often pack for such occasions.

Making mosquito nets work properly take a little know-how. I learned this the hard way at age 19 when I worked on the Ambassador College project in Thailand. We lived 6 months in the Golden Triangle, on the border with Laos and near the border with Burma. We had volunteered to work with Laotian refugees from the vestiges of the Vietnam conflict, teaching them English or French and elements of Western culture to prepare them for emigration to the US, Canada, Australia and France. On the edge of primordial jungle, we slept on simple bamboo and foam cots under mosquito nets. The first few nights there, in spite of using my net, I woke up with bites all over. Finally I asked a more experienced hand, what I was doing wrong. I was told to make sure the net was tucked carefully under the mattress all the way around, and that there were no holes at all, even a small one would be found and a sort of flashing highway on-ramp indicated in the mosquito realm. The other important thing before going to bed was to take a flashlight and go all the way around the perimeter top seam of the net on the inside, to look for fifth columnists. I don’t know how, in those minuscule brains (I guess they have brains), they knew to hide there, but they did and do. And if we missed even one, she’d have a feast on our face all night long.

So having done the mosquito net ceremonial, I turned in for the night. I woke a few times but was able to go back to sleep and was happy in the morning not to have any mosquito bites, though they were present in the room and especially in the bath room where the water is found.

I got up about 6:30 and had a bucket bath; there was no running water. At 7:00 I ask the manager if we could order some coffee, and how long it would take. He said we could, and it would be ready by about 7:30. I ask him for coffee for three and walked around a bit enjoying the cool of the morning. There was the usual morning traffic on the blacktopped road: children walking or being given a bike ride (often three small children on one bike with an adult riding) to school, taxi and trucks roaring motor cycle taxis (one slowed down to give me the chance to raise my hand), and adults walking we don’t know where. A large percentage of Africans must spend a great deal of their time walking.

I also noticed the gentle hint that people should not sit around the plantings in front of the Banana House Hotel’s compound. Broken glass should do the trick. The manager found me at this point and asked me: “café fort ?” (“strong coffee?”). To which I replied “oui, fort.” I was curious how strong it might be. As this exchange was occurring I noticed in the dining room, that they had locked the television in a steel cage to prevent theft, which is very common in hotels and restaurants in sub-Saharan Africa.

My cell phone rang. I looked at the number: it was from Burundi. “Allo ?” I answered. The garbled unrecognizable voice of a woman asked me “Où êtes-vous ?” I wondered who this was, someone in Burundi with my cell number, “it must be the authorities” I thought “maybe they checked my hotel and found I wasn’t there and now they want to track me down.” That was a slightly disquieting thought. I answered in French: “I’m in Cibitoke.” She asked me to repeat. I did. The call was cut off. Seconds later my phone rang again. More questions, what was my name, where was I, how long would I be there, was I going to Bujumbura soon? I became suspicious that I was somehow being maneuvered by this unrecognizable female voice, but to whom did it belong ? I answered evasively until I could find out more. Finally I asked “Qui est à l’apparait ?” (Who’s calling please?”). The voice said “Marjolaine.” What?

“Marjolaine.” Yes, it was my wife of 28 years, whose voice was so changed by the phone connection that I didn’t recognize her. I remembered then that calls from home do sometimes show up on caller ID as from the local country. Marjolaine hadn’t recognize my voice either. We talked for a few minutes but it was more frustrating than anything else, we couldn’t hear well or understand each other. I said I would call her back when I got to Bujumbura and we could talk more clearly. We said goodbye and hung up.

Five minutes later Marjolaine called back; her voice was clearer now. “What is your mother’s name?” she asked. I told her my mother’s first name. “And her middle name?” I told her. With that proof she was finally sure that I was me. She wanted to be sure that everything was OK and that my phone hadn’t been taken from me by someone pretending to be me; the voice modification was troubling. We both relaxed and laughed, and chatted a few more minutes, the line was for some reason clearer now and we could converse almost normally. As we hung up again, I was proud of my lovely, courageous wife. She is concerned for me, wants to watch my back, and wouldn’t give up until she was sure everything was normal. Yet another proof, though none are needed, that I definitely married the right woman! She quietly puts up with a lot of stress and worry so that I can serve in these far-flung areas.

The coffee was ready in a big thermos at little before 8:00. I went and tapped on Prosper’s door, and told him there was coffee. I waited a few minutes for him and just before he appeared Nathan arrived. I asked about Moïse and his family. He things were going as well as could be hoped. I poured rich black coffee that got stronger the farther down the thermos we got, by our second cup there was a lot of thickening sediment. I concluded that this had been prepared Middle-Eastern, and there would be a thick magma of finely ground coffee. I stopped at two cups, which was enough anyway.

Prosper had some calls to make, so Nathan and I were able to hold a short “ministerial conference” about the service last light and how things are going in the congregations he serves. Some events have been encouraging, some challenging or are harbingers of possible difficulty in the future. He asked me to cover a few topics in sermons, to deepen the understanding of the members on certain key topics. I made mental notes and wrote them down later.

After an hour, he needed to leave for the funeral of Moïse’s father, so we said goodbye until tomorrow and Prosper and I headed back to Bujumbura and the hotel, which took about 90 minutes.

I arranged for Prosper to come back tomorrow to take me back to Mugina for the day. For the rest of today I will work on some sermons and other office work and rest some more too in preparation for the rest of this trip. I have another heavy travel day coming up starting Saturday night, so I want to get caught up as much as possible. 
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Mary Hendren on

Hi Joel,
Thanks for the commentary and description of Passover. What a moving service that must have been with sharing the basins and towels, the rain making a need for washing feet, the power going off--the brethren must have been grateful to have an elder there with them. Thank you for including the photos--the glass encrusted shrubbery, the enclosed TV--they give us a sense of place. We pray for your continued safety and the encouragement of the brethren.


Clyde Kilough on

Hi Joel, Please give greetings to the brethren there from those of us here in Calgary, Alberta. We had 20 last night for Passover, and at the beginning I mentioned about the two young men you baptized earlier that day. Even though most of us will never meet in this life, and the conditions in which we live are dramatically different, we share a deeply meaningful common bond. Take care and thanks as always for taking the time to write.

Marguerite Evans on

As always, the pictures helped to understand the context in which you found yourself. It was interesting to see the room where the Passover took place and hear about the foot washing. I'm glad that you were able to take the Passover with the brethren in Burundi. I'm sure they were greatly thankful for having a pastor with them this year. I'm very happy also that Marjolaine and you were able to talk some. I have no doubt that it gave her peace of mind and brought her joy. You continue to be in our prayers.

Beverly Lofty on

just a note to say thank you so much to you and Marjolaine both for all the sacrifices you both make :-) thanks again, hope to see you late Spring :-)
Beverly and Bruce

Tess Washington on

Hi Mr. Meeker, I'm just catching up with you in this blog...thank you for describing to us the 1st Passover done by you in this part of the world...please let them know that we are thinking of them. Thank you also for the laughs about the mosquito net and mosquitos! I used to live in a country where we also have to use the nets but not to the extent that you described. You and your family are in our thoughts...thank you so much for all the sacrifices you've made for the sake of the brethrens...God's love is flowing through you and your wife!

Elisa Botta on

Very nice to hear you speak about your "better half" with such respect and approval. One can only imagine what she and your family must endure in your absence, especially during the holy days!

I am only now, well after the LDUB, catching up with your latest travels because of the hectic nature of the holy days. So glad to hear Mr. Kilough, in the latest "In Accord," give your blog a well-deserved plug; those of us "in the know" have been following your writings with delight, but it is time for everyone else to enjoy them, too.

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