Tuesday, August 7, 2007

she's back!

Why is coming home so hard? Since returning from Burundi I have shared my struggles of living an American life again with many friends and family and I have found that I am far from alone in my struggles. What is it about America, about the West that is so difficult for me to navigate once I have been immersed in developing world Africa? The answer: almost everything. It is strange and unsettling to be in a world that doesn't look ANYTHING like the world I was just living in. Values are different, climate is different, language is different...it's like I'm trying to figure out how to be "me" in both worlds, and I'm not sure if I am myself in this awkward time of transition. But I am so thankful for all my friends and family that have been supportive and continue loving me through all my weirdness. It gets better day by day.

When I was first preparing to come home, I was trying to ready myself for culture shock so it wouldn't hold me back or push me down when I arrived home. Little did I realize that the more I pretended to be fine with being home, the more numb I became to the experiences I had, and that was a scary realization. I know now that it is healthy for me to mourn the things I have seen, the people I have left behind, and integrate those experiences into who I have become, and who I will be.

I am incredibly blessed with a supportive church family and a community of friends who understand my heart and my vision. I don't think I could move forward without all these people in my life, cheering me on. It is with their help that we are welcoming Freddy Tuyizere and Simon Guillebaud this September to speak to us about Burundi, war and the power of Jesus in Africa and the world. I will let you know more specific details as the dates approach.

I wanted to let everyone know that I am currently applying for a grad school program in Theology and Development at the University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. I see this as the next step towards realizing my dreams and goals for sustainable development work in Africa. Please pray with me for wisdom and guidance as I move forward with this process.

Also, thank you for your support through purchasing Burundian coffee and handmade cards! What do we think about having Burundian OR fair trade coffee every Sunday after church? A good idea, I think...

Sunday, April 15, 2007

new vision

I won’t even apologize for the enormous gaps between my updates, it just hasn’t been possible! But unfortunately for you, that means I write novels when I do update. So here it comes:

I have been stretched and challenged in ways I couldn’t have imagined in Burundi, but I believe this is the reason that I am here. Just three weeks ago I was in Gitega hosting a team from BC Canada. It is always a joy to show the orphanage to fellow Westerners and watch how the kids transform these visitors over three or four short days. I hope people at home in Chicago will also get this chance in the not-too-distant future. But while the orphanage is being blessed with visitors, these kids and the YFC staff have been struggling to hold things together. Over the past three weeks, five of the thirteen kids have been in the hospital with serious malaria, and both moms were sick with malaria themselves. After the Canadian team left, I ended up staying 5 extra days to help be a mother of 8 African children. Wow, if only you could have seen me. I wore the same clothes everyday, was cooking over coals to feed the kids and staff, washing dishes and clothes by hand, and all the while trying to love on, discipline and raise these orphans. We made regular trips to the hospital to bring food and encouragement to the sick ones, and you honestly wouldn’t believe the conditions of this hospital. Earlier on in the week five year old Blaise fell and cut his head, and I was responsible to take him to the hospital for stitches. First of all, I want to say that God has GRACE with those who want to serve him because normally I can’t handle blood, and it was gushing from this boy’s head. It’s amazing what we’re capable of doing when we have no choice, I received some sort of supernatural motherly strength. Being in the hospital with Blaise, there was a crowd around to see the muzungu as usual, but it was far more irritating when I was worried about my little boy. Blaise received four stitches without any anesthesia, because it wasn’t available, and the way that Blaise looked at me as I held him down and they put the stitches in I will never forget. He must have thought I was letting these people torture him. Poor child! Thankfully, he is healing well now. As Blaise and I waited in the hospital I saw conditions that would be unacceptable even in the poorest hospitals in the States. I saw an old man being carried by four nurses because they don’t have a single wheelchair in the entire hospital. Can you even imagine it? And the lack of doctors on staff can be credited to a generation of educated people lost to war and disease…remembering my experiences at the hospital in Gitega has kept me up some nights. I have always taken for granted the necessities of medical care back home, and I have been made aware that the conditions aren’t good in poor countries, but it becomes an awfully inescapable reality when you live it, when you see it with your own eyes. What can we do to ensure that the people of Gitega have access to basic medical care? Let’s think about it together. There shouldn’t be such an enormous gap between the way people live in America and the way people struggle to survive in Africa. Where you live should not decide whether you live or whether you die. On the drive home from the hospital with Blaise that day I was thinking about the situation we were in. The orphanage is located about an hours walk from the town center and two hours walk from the hospital. All of the neighbors surrounding the orphanage don’t have access to a car, and only some have bikes. If any of their children had a serious accident like Blaise did, I don’t know that they would have been able to reach the hospital in time. After 2 hours walk Blaise would have lost so much blood…I wonder how many children, and adults for that matter, lose their lives because they simply live out of reach of any medical treatment? I am thankful that YFC is praying and planning to build a medical center on the orphanage campus. It will not only bless the children, but the entire community in immeasurable ways. It can be easy to be overwhelmed by the need I see around me in this country, but I find hope in the ministries and NGO’s that are accomplishing so much good. Seeing the potential of national leadership for development in Africa makes my heart beat faster. I think I have found my place in supporting these local initiatives.

One afternoon as I was helping to prepare yet another dinner of rice and beans and aubergine, I was reminded of cooking over a fire when I’ve been on backpacking or canoeing trips. It is the same kind of experience in many ways: everyone is wearing the same clothes day after day, you all haven’t showered for a week, and you eat the same food everyday because you don’t have access to anything different. The difference is, these people don’t have a choice, and this is certainly not a vacation for them. This is how they live, they can’t go back to enjoy the comforts of a shower and warm comfortable bed. I was even lucky because I had a mattress on the floor, most of our neighbors in Gitega sleep on straw mats. For those of you who have backpacked or done any sort of wilderness trip, try to imagine living like that for your whole life. I know, you can’t even imagine. But that is the best way for me to describe the experience I’ve had in Gitega. I have been privileged to live like a struggling Burundian for a short time, and I will never be the same.

I feel that the lens through which I viewed life and people has had a prescription change. When your vision improves, you can see everything more clearly, the good and bad. That means I see the vibrant green of the mountains, the rich redness in the soil and the bright rainbow of colors worn by Burundian women, the shining white smiles against midnight black skin of the kids as the laugh and play. But I also see the brown soiled clothes of the boy called Erique who takes care of the cows. He has only one shirt. One. I see the deep lines in the faces of young men hired to build the orphanage. These men live on less than a dollar a day, and are aging prematurely because of years of hunger and hardship. I see the scars of ringworm on my own skin, and compare it that of the kids at the orphanage. I am grateful to have these scars, because it means I won’t be able to forget. I have shared their infirmities, and that has bonded us. No longer will I be able to look away. I pray I won’t be able to look away. This is something I have noticed to be true of most Burundians. Even the family I stay with in Bujumbura, they have known the hard life in their past. So they don’t treat the street kids any different than they treat their own children. Because they understand hunger and they understand what it is to have nothing, they can’t turn their faces. What if we couldn’t look away from homeless guy begging on Michigan Avenue? What if we saw the same people with new eyes? I don’t mean to preach, but I just want to give you a little piece of what my heart and my brain have been mulling over in these past weeks.

There is more to tell! But perhaps this is enough for now, my next update can tell about my week in Rwanda, where I met the land and people over which I have studied and analyzed and mourned, and my excursion to meet the gorillas that live on the volcanoes of Rwanda…I don’t feel worthy to receive all the opportunities I have had in these past months, but I am definitely grateful for each and every experience.

I hope that life back home is good, and maybe the weather is starting to warm up. Bujumbura has been unseasonably hot, 34 degrees Celsius during the day. I can tell you from my experience, global warming effects equatorial regions like nowhere else in the world. If you knew how these people have suffered and died from drought and flooding ruining their crops and leaving them hungry, you would make a drastic change in the way you live. All my Burundian friends say they have never experienced extreme weather like this before, only in the last five years. Maybe when I come home I will commit to riding my bike everywhere. Dad, I’m sure that makes you smile.

Imana iguhezagire. God bless you all.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Mugenzi (my friends), where can I begin? I could begin by telling you how hard it has been to have all my documents deleted, to find a computer that works, flash drives without viruses and internet that is not ridiculously slow. But that would all be too boring to elaborate on. Instead, I will give you the best update I can for a month and a half in Burundi, although this may be a difficult task.

I have worked with two teams from both America and the UK since I have been here, I have travelled back and forth from Bujumbura to Gitega helping to meet the needs at the orphanage, which are endless. I have done everything from buying sheets and clothes for the kids, to cooking for kids and visitors, to milking cows (I’m getting good!), to hauling bricks for the new building, to loving on the kids and welcoming 6 new orphans. I have met regularly to speak English with a Korean missionary in Burundi who is attempting to learn English, French Kirundi and Swahili. And I thought I had it hard! I have been meeting with a Kirundi tutor regularly for the past two weeks, I have worked with street kids in Muyinga, 3 hours north of Buj, I have participated in bible studies with Buzungu, and joined in church services, leadership meetings and days of fasting and prayer with Burundians. I have watched politics take dramatic and positive turns over the past two months, and I have shared joy with Burundians as they thank God for this new season of peace in their nation. I have made friends from all over Africa and the world, and I am letting relationships and life stories shape who I am becoming. While I have done much in these two months, the most important parts of my time here cannot be measured in quantifiable terms. God is working on me, building me into a person with a strong foundation. He has had to rework the theology I lived life by, and make it His own again. He has had to speak truth into my life so I am not held captive by doubt or fear. He has made me aware, once again, of the spiritual battlefield in which we live. He is building me into a spiritual house where he can make himself at home. He has reminded me that the prayer I should be praying is not: “Lord give me a sign and give me direction”, but, “Lord I long to be near to you, to hear my heart beat in rhythm with Yours.” It is through this nearness to our Father that he will reveal his plans for us. Trust must come before the answers are revealed, I am learning this day by day.

Africa is a great place for Americans to learn that we have a lot to learn. For example, I had no idea prior to this week that the Nairobi red-eye fly actually carries a chemical on its body that can burn a hole in your skin if you touch it. I am currently suffering from these chemical burns. Who would have known? I have also learned that Kirundi has 16 different classes of nouns, making this a daunting language to attempt to master. Honestly, I am just happy to understand if the orphans are hungry, or they want to play. By the way, I’m sure you’ll all be excited to know that I can count to 10 in Kirundi! Learning a new language is certainly humbling. I have learned to drive in this country, which is not fun AT ALL. I am very happy to be driven around, even if it means I have less freedom. When my friend Surpeace drove with me the first time, he quietly commented Christine, you shouldn’t hit that car right there. Thanks for the advice, friend! I have also been reminded of the value of cross-cultural friendships. Both Americans and Burundians love to laugh, although I admit that we often laugh at very different things. My host mother, Josee, almost fell off her chair laughing when I told her that we drink iced tea in America. I just smiled and nodded. But they didn’t understand why I thought the man walking down the road with 12 mattresses balanced on his head was incredible. On a side note, I have attempted to carry a jug of water on my head, which is quite difficult. I have a new found appreciation for all that Africans manage to carry on their heads. But it’s what Africans carry in their hearts that is changing me. The friendships I have here make me rethink my life completely. One of my dear friends, named Alice, is 26 and works full-time at the YFC office in Bujumbura. Both her parents died when she was 8 years old, and she grew up with her sister in a government funded orphanage. She works mostly as a volunteer at YFC because there isn’t money to pay her a proper salary. All her life, she has struggled to get by. The other day Alice showed me the passage in Exodus where God provides daily manna for the Israelites in flight from Egypt. Through tears, Alice told me how this is how God is teaching her to live. She trusts that God will provide for her needs day by day, and she can’t worry about tomorrow. How many people do you know that live by that kind of faith? I wish you could be here, I wish you could meet the friends I’ve made.

Please keep Burundi in your prayers! There have been floods in the past weeks that have killed and displaced thousands of people in this country, causing widespread starvation. Among the YFC staff, 5 of us have contracted malaria, and Freddy, my host dad has come down with a sickness that the doctor’s have not yet identified. And I already mentioned the Nairobi red-eye…please pray the burns would heal quickly. There have also been many YFC youth who have lost friends and family members in the last 2 months. Pray that they would find a supportive and loving community within YFC while they grieve their losses. We also need prayer for continued funds for the orphanage! We have received 6 new children, there are a total of 12, and $50 a month will support one child. Funds for the second building have run low, so 14 people are currently living in the first building of the orphanage. We would like to have no more than 9 kids per home. If you feel led to give to this cause please email me at cbuettgen@northpark.edu. Please remember that your prayers are heard! Write these prayer requests on a post-it and put it on your bathroom mirror, or near your coffee maker so you can remember every morning to keep this struggling nation in your heart and on your mind. God Bless you, each and every one.

Christine Merle

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Burundi Namahoro (Peace in Burundi)

Loved ones!!

It has been too long since my last update, but this is not for a lack of effort! I have had problems with my laptop, internet connection and flashdrive, but after jumping all these hurdles I bring you an update from a well-adjusted and happy American girl in Burundi. Perhaps the computer situation is just a small taste of what life is like in Africa - you can't count on anything at any given time, so I have had to develop patience, flexibility, and a sense of humor about it all. We use the term "African time" which translates to "late everytime". When you want to meet someone at 3pm, please don't expect them to show up anytime before 4pm, and don't be surprised if they arrive around 5pm. And the demand for variety and reliable service is unheard of here. At restaurants, you may want to order a salad and beef with rice. But on this particular day, they don't have salad or any kind of meat, in fact, all they have are peas and rice. So, that is what you eat. No Burundians complain about the lack of choice, they accept it as the norm and are thankful that they have money to eat at all. It has taken some time to adjust to these cultural differences, but I am learning how to make it work. For example, I wake up every morning knowing that my day will probably not go according to the plan I have set in my head. Then, when the unexpected comes my way, I am able to be flexible and even enjoy the spontaniety, because it's required for life in Africa. I have also learned to bring a book everywhere. That way, when I am waiting for meetings with people I don't get annoyed or frustrated, I just get lost in a book. I haven't read this much since I graduated 5 months ago!
I am starting to fall in love with these people and this place, and this makes adjusting that much easier. I realize that people are late because they take the time to talk with everyone the meet on their way. Everyone is greeted with a handshake because every person is important, valued. The sense of community here is natural, so the bonds are strong and it feels of family. Perhaps that is why I feel at home here already.
Many friends from home have expressed a common sentiment: "I can't even imagine what your life is like in Burundi!" The funny thing is, there are days when I can't imagine what my life will be like that day either! I am still being introduced to these people and this country, and to all the ministries that are part of YFC. My life has varied from attending house prayer meetings and visiting english classes around Bujumbura, to time spent in the mountains of Gitega milking cows, learning to cook Burundian food for 20 people over a fire, hauling bricks to build an orphanage, planting avocado trees and learning Kirundi from 4 year old orphans. Life is not yet predictable, but maybe I like it that way. Every night I have been going to bed with the feeling that I have truly seized the day, that I am living life to the fullest that i know how. I trust that my time here is the beginning of deeper relationships and broader cultural understanding that will benefit not only myself and the people of Burundi, but all of you back at home. I realize that to have so much contentment is highly unusual back in the States, that we are always seeking something greater, better, and more efficient. I don't think that sense of seeking is gone from me, but I seem to have more patience and trust than I did before, so I am able to find joy in everyday life with more ease. This is something I have learned from Africans - how to find joy in any situation. Because life in Burundi has been filled with hardships since the colonial era, Burundians are experts at surviving well: laughing despite their empty stomachs, dancing even though they aren't given the opportunity for education, and singing even as the death rate from HIV/AIDS climbs.
Yet there is hope! Especially in this month of January, it seems that Burundi is entering a new season of peace and development. The president has taken a stand against corruption in his own party, and peace looks more attainable for this nation than ever before. I would recommend www.allafrica.com for regular updates on the political situation in Burundi.
I will be updating again soon with more details of happenings at the orphanage. And hopefully pictures! Also, thank you to everyone who has commented! I love reading your feedback, even if I don't have time to respond to everyone personally. Know that your comments make me smile and transport me home, even for just a moment.

Peace and grace from across the pond,
Christine Merle

P.s. Boo Bears. I heard the news today. Most people here don't even know what American football is, much less what the superbowl is. Life goes on!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

I have been welcomed into the Burundian life for a week now, and I find it astounding how much a person can learn in such a short period of time. Many of the things I am learning I “knew” before I came, but there is a much deeper understanding and truer knowledge that comes when you share life with people who struggle daily to overcome poverty, disease and the aftermath of war. I am beginning to comprehend what living a life of faith and hope might look like. The Burundians I have met choose to live in this way, praising God for the miracles they see occurring everyday. Miracles like a working vehicle to travel for ministry, three new cows to provide milk for the orphanage, food on the table everyday and vision for the future of God’s people in Burundi.

My first day in this country I was welcomed by my new Burundian family into a life very different than the one I had been living just the day before. I was taken to my new home near the center of Bujumbura, the capital city that is home to 1 million people. The city is crowded, but where I am staying it is quiet with tropical green surrounding my home, including an avocado tree in the backyard. After it rains, the mountains can be seen in the distance, a deep blue-gray that invites me to come and climb. I inquired about hiking, but the rebels have had camps in the mountains during the war, and while the war is over, my family has advised me to exercise caution for the meantime. I suppose hiking can wait. After dropping off my things I was taken to a crocodile and snake farm, where I gained both courage and wisdom: courage in the art of overcoming fear, and wisdom as I declined an invitation to grab the tail of one particularly large crocodile. I firmly believe some risks are just not necessary. While getting to know the crocs, I met Simon Guillebaud, a missionary from the UK that has been in Burundi for almost 8 years. He has been a great blessing to these people during his time here and I think he will also be a blessing to me while I navigate this new African culture as a Westerner.

In the evening, there was a welcome/farewell party for my arrival and the departure of four South African volunteers. It was complete with a concert of traditional Burundian drummers. How cool!! They wore traditional robes in their national colors: green red and white, and they performed with these huge drums balanced on their heads! When Burundian boys are young, they learn this tradition of drumming, and it is performed at most special occasions in Burundian culture. During the performance, my host father, Freddy informed me that the drumming was a way Burundians can share themselves completely, welcoming me to be one of their people. What a tremendous honor. I have never felt so welcomed anywhere.

This week has been a time to get to know my new family, the staff at YFC, and this
new city and culture I am attempting to blend into. Blending in has been one of the more difficult tasks. On a three day trip to Gitega, the town where YFC is building an orphanage, I heard shouts of “Muzungu!”, or “white person!” everywhere we went. Gitega does not get as many muzungus as Bujumbura, so I stand out like a sore thumb. My attempts to blend in include learning three languages. I have spent extra morning and evening hours reading through my old French books and studying the Kirundi and Swahili that my family has graciously been teaching me. I am learning every moment of everyday. This new life is like one giant classroom for me! My family speaks English quite well which has been a great blessing to me in this time of transition.

Freddy and Josee are my host father and mother, and are also the founders of Youth For
Christ- Burundi. Freddy is a pastor that was trained at the Evangelical Seminary of Southern Africa and has a heart for God’s people in the heart of Africa. He was drawn to the vision of Youth For Christ to reach the youth of Africa, to raise up leaders who will love and serve and create a more hopeful future for this continent. I could not have asked for a better family to live with these next five months. They have welcomed me in and made me a partner in their lives and their work. With each new day I learn more about their culture, their values, their humor and their joy in the Lord. Thank you for everyone who prayed for my family here! God is listening.

This past Monday, I traveled with Freddy and another YFC volunteer to Gitega where YFC has begun to build an orphanage campus. Gitega is breathtaking, and the orphanage is being built on beautiful farming land on the hillside, nestled in the middle of a mountain range. The country is beautiful, but the poverty is deep. There are many orphans in this country. These children have lost their parents to war and to AIDS and there is a great need to care for this generation that could carry so much hope, if we allow them to. So far, two buildings have gone up and there are 8 orphans living with their “Aunt” Felicite. In my next post I will tell you the story of some of these orphans. Seeing the heart that Freddy and YFC has for this orphanage, I am reassured that God has not forgotten his children in
Africa. The vision for the land in Gitega is to build 13 more homes for the orphans, as well as a primary school and health clinic to serve the orphans and the surrounding community. The vision is big, but we serve a God that cannot be contained, and Freddy has great faith that God will provide where there is need. There is great need here, so we pray and expect God to move in a great way.

Family and friends at home: I cannot thank you enough for enabling me to take this journey to the heart of
Africa, closer to the heart of God. I am not on this journey alone because you, God’s people, have partnered with me. Let us be in prayer together for Burundi. There is much pain and much hope. I believe we can be the hands of hope if we open our hearts.

I am finding my place, my purpose, my path here in
Burundi. Please continue to pray for me as my journey is just beginning!

With Peace and Grace,

Christine Merle

Sunday, January 7, 2007

32 hours

It is late in the evening, I am mostly packed, and I will be on my way to Burundi and life in Africa in a few short hours. I will travel for over 32 hours before arriving in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. Thankfully I fall asleep with ease on planes and in airports. I'll have Barack Obama's new book to keep me occupied in addition to practicing my french, and I will have much needed time to pray over the 5 months ahead of me. I can't believe this day has come! There are many emotions in my heart and thoughts on my mind. I feel I have been waiting so long for this, but I find that my heart aches to leave a community that has loved and nutured me so well, a community that has made me the person I am. I am not sure how I will love two worlds at once, but I can hope to learn.

My churches: both Winnetka Covenant and Reba Place Fellowship have made this a possibility. The support I have received spiritually, emotionally and financially have encouraged and empowered me to go out with the blessing of my church family. I am thankful for your prayers, support and astounding generosity. I am humbled, but also feel this is an affirmation of my call to Africa. Thank you for taking this journey with me! And this is only the beginning...