Monday, July 20, 2009

Sunday School

Our minibus chugged, grinded and churned its way across the city, every mechanical part of it long past worn out. I liked our driver though, he was aggressive and driven, and I felt hopeful that we would make record time out to the Kamenge church. A few minutes passed between that thought and our bus slamming into the back of a car full of Sunday morning church goers. Before our driver even exited the bus he was on a full-fledged rant, bellowing and gesturing in a highly aggressive manner. Everyone on the bus stretched their necks to watch as he confronted the 5 or so people who climbed out of the car. Nobody was pleased and I was concerned about how the situation would progress from there. With my powers of prediction totally on the fritz, I was surprised when our driver pointed to a thin stream of blood dripping down the top of his sandeled foot clearly an injury sustainted during the accident, which had the amazing effect of defusing all tension from the situation. The car passengers immediately softened, smiled a concession and drove off. We were back on our way.

Once in church situated at the very back instead of the very front for a change, the many choirs of Kamenge filed on and off stage blasting the audience with exuberant worship songs. We were seated on the womens' half of the church and the bench in front of us contained a mixture of moms and young children. One mom had a napping baby on her back while her very young daughter stood on the pew entertaining herself with a very gruesome looking decapitated doll's head. The doll's pale skin was in desperate need of a washing, one eye pointed north while the other one was stuck looking south. One or two hairs clung to the head but were not enough for even the most basic comb-over. After a few minutes the girl's mother tied the doll head to the little girl's back with a bit of cloth the same way that all women carry children around. My focus on the child was interrupted with a long announcement coming from the church pastor. Our interpreter notified us that he was warning the church of a cholera outbreak in Kamenge.

Back at home, we sat on the HROC computers researching cholera. Love in the Time of Cholera aside I knew very little about it. Our investigation was interrupted when we heard a loud crash coming from somewhere nearby. We live a few feet away from a construction site and thought that the ruckus came from there, but the many people in the vicinity were not acting the least bit perturbed. Bethany went back inside our compound and discovered that the ceiling in the extra guest room, which had been vacated by a woman from Kenya that morning, had collapsed.

Later in the evening Shannon, Bethany and I were invited to Alexia's house for dinner. We spent many hours before the meal chatting with her husband, Charles and some of the dozen teenagers they support by way of housing and school fees. Charles is an intelligent and passionate man with a big heart. He is a leader in his community and church and if all goes well he will be obtaining his masters in the US sometime soon. I had some questions about the district of Kamenge, the part of town where the clinic is. Charles and Alexia live up in the hills, which is a much more affluent and peaceful part of town then the slum neighborhood of Kamenge, yet they and many other people within our Burundian circle of friends, choose to attend that church. The Sunday we sat up front in the church I stared at what I suspected and later had confirmed were machine gun holes in the wall behind the preacher. The roof has significant damage to it as well as many gaps allowing sunlight and rain to come through. In a city so full of church options and in the case of the clinic, so full of need, why was Kamenge singled out as the quarter that everyone focused on?

The first and most obvious answer was that Kamenge was a Friends Church and that was their denomination. But the more complete answer has to do with history. Alexia and Charles began telling the story of how they grew up in Kamenge. It was never an affluent area but it was an established neighborhood with nice homes comprised of about 80% Hutus and 20% Tutsis. In 1993, after years of colonial oppression which was managed by the minority Tutsis after Burundi gained independence, the Hutu majority democratically elected a president. This was a momentous turning point for the Hutus who in the 70's had been "cleansed" of all there educated members, leaving several generations to willfully remain out of the education system for fear that this would lead them to the same grave as their mothers and fathers. With the election of one of their own the hope for opportunity seemed possible. Four months after the Hutu president was elected he was murdered in a gruesome, drawn out manner. Every inch of him that was slowly severed sent a message to the people who had elected him.

Charles said he had never heard guns before that day. Following the the president's assassignation the sky exploded with bombs and over 300,000 people were killed. Kamenge was the front line in the civil war between the government army and the rebel groups. Everything but the church was demolished over time. Nothing lived in Kamenge for two years. Eventually some who fled the country began to trickle back and built homes over the bones of their neighbors and family. The first workcamp dug up many bones. I encountered the distal end of a femur when clearing the garden. It may have been from a cow, but Charles and Alexia saw the killing and would put their money on human. But still, in the midst of the story Alexia throws her head back and says "I love Kamenge".

There's so much I don't understand. I hear the stories from Burundians and listen to those around me rehash the conclusions drawn from academics, ambassadors and peace workers who have studied ethnic violence in the region. It's a big story coming out of a small country. In one day I can hear first hand accounts of unthinkable violence, yet see how a trickle of blood on a man's foot will dissolve the anger of the victims and absolve the guilt of the offender. The beauty in Burundi is how, after the ceiling has fallen in, Burundians have reclaimed what is theirs. They have taken Kamenge in its decapitated state with one eye up and one eye down, and tied it to their backs with the hope of nuturing it back to wholeness.

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