FWCC Clerk Simon C. Lamb writes about his visit to Friends in Burundi, the third largest group of Friends in the world.
Since returning from Africa I have been wanting to write to you all about the wonderful experience three of us had in visiting and being hosted by members of the Quaker community in Burundi.
Following the very busy and joyous Africa Section Meeting held in Kigali, Rwanda and the much smaller but just as busy meeting of the Central Executive Meeting (CEC) of FWCC, which was held on the shores of Lake Kivu in the western part of Rwanda, three of us travelled on to Bujumbura, Burundi. Gretchen Castle, FWCC General Secretary, Myron Guachalla Montano, a Young Friend and member of the CEC from Central Yearly Meeting in Bolivia, and I flew south a half hour to visit Burundian Friends.
On arrival in Bujumbura we were greeted at the airport by Charles Berahino, Mugisha Aime and Joyce Nahimana. Charles is one of the world committee’s representatives on the QUNO Geneva board, while Aime, who had been at the Plenary Meeting in Pisac, had been planning this visit with me for six months. Joyce was a supurb host, connecting us with local church leaders and with the American Friends Service Committee office in Bujumbura.
For the first two days we stayed in Bujumbura, a bustling city full of life, traffic and lots and lots of people! Beautifully set on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, this city has grown and is clearly still growing at a rapid pace.
On our first morning we arrived early at Kamenge Friends Church where Aime arranged for us to speak at various sessions throughout the day to a large gathering of 150 Young Friends from across Burundi and its two yearly meetings. The morning started with a thoughtful biblical exposition on the story of Ruth by Pastor Ntahuba Parfaite. She is the pastor of one of the city centre churches in Bujumbura.
Aloys Ningabira, legal Representative of both yearly meetings, spoke of the growth of Friends in Burundi, now the third largest group of Friends after Kenya and the United States. He talked about the values that are important to Quakers in Burundi as spiritually oriented action: building churches, schools and hospitals; leading mediation, reconciliation and conflict transformation; and encouraging leadership in areas of human rights and dignity. He said, ‘As we want to have a greater impact on the world, our actions speak louder than words.’
We each were given 45 minutes to speak on a variety of Quaker subjects. While Gretchen presented a picture of what Friends are like around the world, Myron preached a short sermon and talked about being a Latin American Young Friend. I took the opportunity to introduce those present to a brief history of the beginnings of Quakerism and to an examination of the biblical basis of some of our distinctive theological ideas.
Fabrice Iranzi, a journalist, spoke on behalf of Young Adult Friends. He asked Young Adult Friends to ask who they are and where they want to take the Quaker church. He called for training and better use of their talents within the church. The Young Friends then broke up into small groups for discussion, returning with many provocative questions and comments. They spoke up and received an open response from Aloys and others. It was very challenging and also positive.
Throughout the day we sang songs of worship, some in English and some in Kirundi. The Young Friends involved in organising the event gave us a wonderful opportunity to engage with many of the future leaders of the Friends Church in Burundi in a really effective way.
With the conference over we spent the evening having a wonderful meal at the home of Charles Berahino and his wife, Alexia.
The next day (Sunday) started with the three of us returning again to Kamenge Church for morning worship. With between 1200-1500 Friends attending, the morning got off to a very lively start with 9 choirs leading musical worship for almost two hours before anything else happened. With a variety of children and youth choirs, university and college student choirs and a number of adult men and women’s choirs we were spoilt for choice in gospel music. The standard of singing was very high with a true sense that Friends were taking pleasure in the joy of the Lord!
That morning some 50 very young children from nearly newborn to young toddlers had been brought to the church by their parents to be prayed for and to be welcomed and recognised by the whole worshipping community. This happens every couple of years. The event was both joyful and very noisy and I was uplifted as the pastoral team prayed tenderly in Kirundi for each individual young child. Each set of parents or guardians were given a certificate at the end of the ceremony.
After this we settled into some prayer and communal singing with a short sermon from the Burundian Friends’ Legal Representative Aloys Ningabira. Aloys has a smile that would bring joy to anyone.
Near the end of the three and a half hour service, Myron offered to sing a gospel song that he and the local young people who were part of the church band both knew. Kamenge probably got it’s first ever Spanish language performance on the church stage! I have to say Myron sang really well.
Throughout both the all-day conference on Saturday and the Sunday worship session local Young Friends took turns to interpret all that was said for us and we were grateful for both their skill and kindness to us.
With worship over, we moved to the church hall for a lunch with many of the Church leaders from the two yearly meetings who had come from all over Burundi to join us. We spent several hours in discussion with them about the core issues of concern to Burundian Friends and also about what FWCC and Burundian Friends might offer each other. We spoke about local ecumenical work, Quaker United Nations work, and the way we Quakers tend to work in small circles to bring about change. I think this was a worthwhile meeting for all concerned.
On Monday Gretchen visited the local yearly meeting offices and met with Moses Chasieh of AFSC and Dometian Sabongewa, formerly of Evangelical Friends Church – Africa Region, before heading home, while Myron and I started our short tour of the country and various Quaker social projects.
Quakers in Burundi showed us enormous generosity by lending us the use of a large Jeep and providing a very skilled driver (Joseph) to take us on our three-day tour. We took the road from Bujumbura towards Gitega, the country’s original capital.
Our first day was the busiest starting with a visit to Kibimba Yearly Meeting headquarters where we first visited the Friends church and school. This is one of the earliest Friends Churches in Burundi and Kibimba is also where a number of the early missionaries from Mid America (formerly Kansas) Yearly Meeting are buried. We then visited Kibimba Friends Hospital to see the wonderful work being done there by Friends. This hospital which has over 250 beds is a vital service for the whole community and while it still receives support from Friends in Mid America among others, it endeavours to be as close to self-funding as possible. It does this by providing guest house facilities as an income generator and is in the process of building private hospital rooms for patients who wish to and who can afford to pay more for their hospital care. I was really impressed with everything that is being done in this wonderful facility.
From there we continued towards Gitega with our next stop being the rather isolated village of Musama, Aime’s home village. We took off the main road and followed a rugged and in places very rough bright red mud road for about five or six miles. Joseph did a wonderful job of negotiating the mounds and potholes and eventually we arrived at an open square which is the centre of the village. We were greeted by a couple of hundred people waiting outside the Friends Church which stood at one side of the square. Having been welcomed initially by Aime’s dad Nibirantiza Ernest we were brought into the church where 500-600 Friends, including absolutely loads of children, were there to greet us.
Following our welcome with a show of local dancing, and having been showered with sweet smelling flower petals, Myron and I were offered the opportunity to introduce ourselves. I took the opportunity to pray with and for this community.
Over a tasty lunch provided by local Friends we discussed with village elders the issues that are of major concern to the villagers and those in the outlying community.
The clinic was originally a satellite project of Kibimba Hospital and served up to 30,000 people in the village and surrounding areas, and it closed some five years ago due to a lack of staffing. However Aime is in his final year of medical school and will qualify this December and it has been his dream to reopen the clinic. The clinic building is still in very satisfactory condition although new equipment will have to be purchased for the project to restart as all the previous equipment was returned to Kibimba
We also heard of the need for support with education and agricultural projects but when asked what their major priority for the village was the elders united in the need for the reopening of the clinic. Since returning home I have begun to work with some Irish Friends and others to try and help Aime to fullfil his dream of doing that next year.
Following our lunch and goodbyes to the hundreds of children in Musama we headed back to the main Bujumbura-Gitega road and drove to the headquarters of the second Burundian Yearly Meeting at Kwibuka.
Here we were greeted again by our Friend Aloys (the Legal Representative) who gave us a guided tour. The facilities at Kwibuka include a theological college to train pastors, a garage and workshop to train young people to be mechanics, several schools, a church that isn’t big enough and was being expanded considerably, and another medical clinic which was very busy when we visited it that afternoon.
As we left the clinic and were returning to our Jeep it started to rain rather heavily and we ran towards our vehicle. But suddenly Aloys called for us to change our direction and we ended up in a square in the centre of the school and theological college buildings. Aloys called us to stop in the centre of the square and we stood in front of what appeared to be a simple memorial with numerous names on it.
And there we heard of the arrival of rebel soldiers and of the eight young Bible College students who during that day in October 1993 were separated from their classmates because of their tribal background and butchered while their friends, their classmates and their brothers and sisters in Christ looked on in disbelief. And as we stood silently in front of the memorial gradually getting soaked by the rain, we were no longer bothered or concerned by the weather.
On leaving Kwibuka we headed to Gitega where we had further meetings with church leaders during the evening.
The following morning we visited the offices of MIPAREC (Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation under the Cross), a large Quaker organisation which endeavours to engage communities all across Burundi in peace building. This work has made a critical contribution following the period of genocide that did so much damage in most communities in the country.
We then had a meeting with the Governor of Gitega province.
As many of Burundi’s Quakers live in the province of Gitega and the original work by the missionaries in 1934 started in and around the city, the members of the Evangelical Friends Church now make a valuable and influential contribution to this community.
I received a very warm welcome from the Governor and had a very friendly discussion with him. He seemed to know a considerable amount about the work of Burundian Friends.
Having done our share of Quaker work, Joseph our wonderful driver then took us on a two-day tour of the country. Burundi for being such a small nation has a wide variety of scenery from breathtaking waterfalls to wonderful mountain passes. We travelled from the cooler climates and open higher countryside east of Gitega to the warm almost tropical climates along the shores of Lake Tanganyika. We visited and drank from the source of the Nile and explored a national park to seek out various types of baboons and gazelles. We had a truly wonderful experience seeing one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited.
On the night before returning to Bujumbura we were invited by Aime’s parents Immaculee and Ernest to have a meal in their home. Being part of their family for the evening was a joyful experience and they took such great pleasure in offering us hospitality. This hospitality seems such a core part of the Burundian culture everywhere we went. We were made to feel welcome everywhere. Finishing our trip to Gitega with a visit to Aime’s home seemed a wonderful end to our time there.
Our host Aime and our driver Joseph could not have done more for us. They demonstrated the love of Christ in everything they did. Our dear Friend Aloys also left a lasting impression on all of us, and through his exuberant contented personality revealed something of the very nature of God.
The whole Quaker community in Burundi were a joy to be with and we give thanks to God for the witness they bear to their Love of Christ in that part of the world.
Kwibuka YM and Kibimba YM were formed a few years ago when the members of the 40,000+ strong Burundi YM decided together that two Yearly Meetings would be easier to administer than one. However they still share one Legal Representative on behalf of the two Yearly Meetings. The position of Legal Representative is a uniquely Central African requirement among Friends. You will find Friend’s Legal Representatives only in Burundi, Rwanda and the Congo. They are a requirement of the governments of these countries. While in most parts of the world Friends would turn to their Yearly Meeting Clerk or sometimes their Yearly Meeting Superintendent to represent them to the outside world, in these three countries, despite having both Clerks and Superintendents, it is the Legal Representative that plays this role and is often seen as the key leader in the Quaker community.