Very rural Burundi

Trip Start Jan 20, 2008
Trip End Feb 10, 2008

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Friday, February 1, 2008

I went to bed early last night and woke early this morning. I was breakfasted and ready to go at 7:00. We had a different car and driver. It was a not-too ancient white Toyota Carola station wagon. I believe it had today the hardest day of its now shorter life. When we got in the car, I reached for the seatbelt, my reflex. It was broken, hanging down limp at its full extension; it wouldn't rewind. I didn't like that since it's always better to wear a belt, especially here. I said an extra silent prayer: "Father, I tried to put on my seatbelt, please help my unseatbelt." But as we drove out, I was told I had to wear the seat belt. When I replied that it was broken and useless, the reply was that the gendarmes would "bother me" if I didn't wear it. So I put on the great worthless loop, to avoid any bother I could.
We picked up a few bottles of water before heading out of town to the north. The road was fairly good, but there were deep potholes here and there and the driver liked to drive fast so we took a few holes pretty hard. I asked him to slow down, which he would for a minute, before gradually creeping back up to where he wanted to be.
We passed the airport, then a huge UN camp with barracks, a huge motor pool of transport and tanker trucks, and dumps of non-descript equipment. The perimeter was fenced and there were manned guard towers every so often. The guards, with their automatic weapons were clearly visible. Soon after the UN camp, we passed the edge of a huge forest of oil nut palms. It looked like it went all the way to Lake Tanganyika, quite large. Mo´se told me, the rebels used to stay in there during the war. "They may still be in there, they're just quiet now" he explained.  I had mixed feelings about seeing squads of soldiers along the side of the road every few kilometers. It was reassuring to know they are there, but unsettling that such measures are needed. That's quite a few soldiers just to guard a road. I was told they are there from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm. This reinforced my desire to back at "Buj" before dark.
As we rose higher in elevation, I could see the valley down below, in which Lake Tanganyika lies. The Rusizi River in the valley is the border with the Congo, here for Burundi, and not far after Cibitoke, for Rwanda. It was very beautiful, and reminded me of game parks in Kenya and Tanzania. The driver, slaloming in between potholes would casually change the radio station or check his cell phone. I preferred to have his full attention on the road, but to no avail.
At one point a bridge had washed out, so we had to drive down to the bottom of a deep cut, and over a low-water crossing made to allow traffic to pass. We went through a few towns before arriving at Cibitoke for which the province is named. It wasn't much, but apparently it's enough to be the provincial capital.
Another ten miles or so we came to a fork in the road. To the north-west the road led to Cyangugu in Rwanda and Bukavu on the Congo side at the bottom of Lake Kivu. At the top of Lake Kivu is Gisenyi on the Rwandan side and Goma in Congo. The latter is where all sorts of refugee camp atrocities occurred when the UN peacekeepers ended up protecting the genocide perpetrators who hid among the refugees and held them hostage in 1994.  This is a rough neighborhood.
The other branch of the road, the one we took, went to the north east. We drove a few miles on pavement before turning onto dirt for a few more miles in order to arrive at Buseruko right at 9:00 which was our scheduled starting time. As we drove in toward the school complex in town, we passed some people on benches under tarps that had been suspended from bamboo poles. Since we drove right by without stopping, I thought it must have been some other group preparing for a meeting. But I was being taken to meet the director of the school, who has kindly let this congregation use a classroom on the Sabbath for services. Brining in a foreigner to meet the director gives the group a little more credibility in the eyes of local people, so I went and chatted with him for a while and asked about the school. They have 600 students at both grade-school and high-school levels. He hinted at needs the school has and mentioned how underpaid they are all. He said "I think in America teachers are truly appreciated and are very well paid." I told him my wife was a teacher and considering how much education was required to teach, they weren't very well paid at all. He laughed when I said, I didn't think teachers were too well appreciated anywhere in the world.
Then we walked back over to the tarps. Sure enough that was the group we were coming to meet. We were right on time, 8:30, but since in Burundi, like in most of Africa, if you say 8:30 people start arriving at 9:30, there were only a handful of people there. Nathan went out with the driver and car to round up the others. While waiting, the people present sang hymns accompanied by one drum.  
We started about 9:00 with about 50 people, and had a full church service. This gave me a chance to see how they do things so we can discuss our similarities and differences. They had several prayers by different people, then Nathan welcomed visitors (several from town had come to see the mzungu minister) and introduced me. I was given a moment to introduce myself and thank them for their warm welcome. The choral sang. They took up an offering, which they do every Sabbath. They use cooking pots, and while singing a hymn whoever has an offering to give comes up and sneaks it under the lid. I debated internally whether I should participate in this, and finally decided to make a small contribution. Then someone came forth and asked a very impassioned blessing on the offering and on those who had contributed to it. I couldn't understand the words but it was heartfelt and passionate.
Then I was introduced for the sermon. I spoke about the length of a split sermon. Listening to a phrase by phrase translation is quickly tiring; it's hard to keep up with the flow that keeps getting interrupted. I spoke about what it says in Revelation 17:14 that those with Christ at his coming will be the "called, chosen and faithful." That gave the chance to talk about God's calling, how we have to respond to it, and the necessity of perseverance. It seemed well received.
During the service at recess times from the school nearby almost the whole student body came to listen in on what was being said. The church group had tried to arrange a "sound system" a loud speaker powered by a stick of D cell batteries. Resourceful, but it did more harm than good, producing mostly feedback, so I'm not sure how much the visitors heard.
As the sermon ended, Mo´se asked in a whisper if I wanted to call for any repentant sinners to come forward. It appears they practice a version of the alter call. I said we didn't do that, so I would leave that to them. It was a bit awkward since Nathan made the announcement, and no one came forward. Then they pulled a mat out in between the congregation and our tables and chairs and people started coming forward and kneeling on them. I asked what was going to happen. It was for people who specifically needed the pastor to pray for them either because of a trial or a temptation. The mat filled quickly then Nathan, the pastor stepped forward and stretched his arms out over them and ask God to bless and help these people. Not something we'll start, but is was touching in its simplicity trust and faith. The chorale sang again, I was given a chance to address them once again - I thanked them for their welcome and wished them well until we could meet again. There was a closing hymn and a closing prayer and the meeting ended. It was a typical format of their Sabbath service (though it was Thursday), so this gives me a good idea of where we are to start with. We saw some similar things when we started dealing with the Remnant Church of God in Ghana ten years ago.
It was nearly 11:00, the time we were supposed to leave. I took a group photo and said goodbye to everyone and we drove off about 11:15. We drove over to Nathan's house where he has lived for 20 years. I met his wife and children. Inside the mud brick house with its tin roof, we each had a Fanta at the table in his living room. We took some photos, and headed quickly back to the car.  
As we drove off, I asked how near the other congregation was. It would take an hour to get there. The estimate was wrong. We drove back to the paved road, back to the fork, and turned north east toward Cyangugu. A few miles up we turned right onto a dirt road. Let the games begin! This was one of the worst road trips I remember in Africa. The heavy rains had washed out the road in some places, turning the road into a barely dry and in someplace still running river bed. The driver was from the city and didn't know dirt track driving too well. It was 90 minutes of pounding, shaking, bottoming out, fishtailing, spinning tires, backing down to run at tough hills again, and over it all the fragrant aroma of burning rubber and a frying clutch. We had to get out several times and walk up hills, and a few more times the car had to be helped over a rough spot by human muscle.
I was thinking that I had to be back in Bujumbura by nightfall, the car has nearly bald tires, is taking a beating, and could break something stranding us all out in the middle of nowhere until? I beat my silent prayers down fine: please protect the tires, the oil pan, the chassis, all the joints, the transmission - especially the clutch (I thinks that's officially part of the transmission), the fan belt, the gas tank, and most of all the passengers.... As the road got worse, I asked how much further we had to go. "Oh we're nearly there" was one reply. "We're too close" (a typical French-African construction), was the other. Actually we were a little over halfway, but I think they were afraid I was having second thoughts. Later I asked how often Nathan came here and how he traveled. "Well I come two or three times a month and usually I go the other shorter and easier way, but the bridge just washed out on that road, so we had to come this way." Now he tells me.
After an hour and a half we arrived in Ruziba, a few minutes before 1:00 pm. The members from Nyamakarabo have also come. There was another temporary tarp structure on a freshly cut terrace on a hillside. About 80 people were present. They were dancing and clapping and singing as we arrived. The children were staring with open mouths; mzungus don't come here often. According to our schedule we were supposed to leave in half an hour. That wasn't going to happen. I said we could stay until 2:00, but I felt the need for a safety margin of several hours to get back to Bujumbura. The service was shortened on the fly. Not all the chorales would be able to sing, a few hymns were cut. But the welcome addresses were still there, the offering and passionate blessing, my sermon, the blessing on those requesting special help, and the closing prayer. After my sermon there was a special hymn with dancing to thank God for the message, I've never had such a reaction from a congregation before after one of my sermons. I think we should actually consider doing that in other regions, it's quite encouraging....
As we gathered for the group photo before leaving, three soldiers with AK-47s walked up. They were just watching. I invited them to join the group photo, but they declined with a smile. As Nathan and Mo´se were trying to get everyone in place, I chatted briefly with the soldiers (always helpful to be on good terms with men carrying rifles). They said this region was secure and that there were no problems.
I take the photos and head for the car.
It is nearly 2:30. Children crowd around my open window (front seat passenger side where the driver would be in the States). Their faces are wide with amazement: a mzungu in their village! One little fellow about 10 was staring at me intently, I raided my left hand to wave at him. When he saw my hand come up, he flinched. Who knows how mzungus behave, maybe I was going to hit him! When I waved, he relaxed and smiled back, beaming.
We all piled in and started down the terrible road. But at least this time we were going down. We bottomed out a few more times and once were stopped cold, which killed the motor. The clutch began squealing which it hadn't done earlier in the day. The noise got worse.
Finally we made it to the blacktop after the time when I was supposed to already be back in Bujumbura. We started driving faster and the clutch kept complaining. The driver kept concentrating on the radio and answering or checking his phone while driving at high speed. My prayer life grew deeper. One time he was tuning the radio and didn't see a deep pothole until we were right on it, he swerved abruptly to the right toward three fellows sitting with their wears on the shoulder. They saw us coming and flew in all directions like in an action movie when a car heads into a crowd.
We were stopped once, and the car papers were checked. No problem. Then something good happened. A Red Cross Land Cruiser pulled out in front of us, and our driver decided to follow them. This made him slow down and gave him warning of upcoming potholes which the other driver could see better since he sat up higher. The rest of the trip back was less stressful.
We arrived back at Bujumbura a few minutes before 5:00. Mo´se and Nathan asked me if I wanted to tour the city before going to the hotel, but after this trip, I said I'd save the city tour for tomorrow night.

We all made it back, including the car: prayers are answered.
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