Beautiful story from Burundi …

My friend Jodi Mikalachki works among the Batwa people in Burundi – people for whom I have a special affection. She works at the Hope School, part of the “Christian Union for the Education and Development of the Underprivileged” in Burundi. She recently sent this beautiful story … it has resonances (especially for people who know the politics of the region) with the Good Samaritan story.
More on the Batwa here …

Dear Family and Friends,
Happy Valentine’s Day! In honor of the day, I’d like to share a story of love.
You may remember that in December I described two boys – Jean “I Speak Even If No-one Listens” and Philbert “I Have No Home.” They’re the boys who cross the river and walk every day from the neighboring province of Karusi (at least a 3-hour round trip). Jean came first in the class at the end of the first term, and Philbert, tenth. I don’t think either has missed a day of classes since the beginning of the school year, despite their long journey and the prevalence of illness in this area.
Two weeks into our second term in January, a murder was committed in their commune. A Hutu man named Kazimir who lived not far from our school in Nyangungu went to Karusi, where he had some kind of conflict over money with two Batwa men. A fight broke out, and Kazimir reportedly grabbed a knife from a shish-kebab stall and stabbed four Batwa men. A group of Batwa responded by throwing bricks at Kazimir, eventually stoning him to death. The wounded men are in healthcare centers, at least one Mutwa is in jail, and others have fled. Kazimir was buried the day after his murder, leaving three wives and nine children, all living below the poverty line.
Jean and Philbert are Batwa. Their route to school passes directly in front of Kazimir’s house, and his father’s. Because of this, and their fear of retaliation on the part of other Hutus in Nyangungu, they stopped coming to school. We tried to find ways to bring them back, offering them a place to stay until things calmed down a bit, but they and their families still felt it was too dangerous for them to come to Nyangungu. Many local Batwa and other well-wishers shared this view.
Two weeks after the murder, the Parents’ Committee of the Hope School met to address the situation. We decided on a threefold course of action: (1) to bring Jean and Philbert back to school and house them locally for a while; (2) to ask the Administrator of our Commune of Mutaho to hold a meeting of local leaders to guarantee the boys’ safety; and (3) to pay a condolence visit to Kazimir’s father and his first wife, who is also the mother of one of our second-graders, a girl named Dancine.
The day after the meeting, a Mutwa elder returned to Karusi to talk to Jean and his family, and on Monday, Jean came back to school, accompanied by his father, a hard-working subsistence farmer. His father (“Papa Jean”) agreed to find Philbert, who had fled to another area. He presented him the next morning. Before starting his long journey back to Karusi, Papa Jean went to see where his son had slept the night before so that he could be sure he was still alive. Until then, I hadn’t really understood how much courage it took for the boys to come back, and for their families to see them do so.
The next afternoon, we went to visit Kazimir’s family. I had been told that the local custom was to offer a bereaved family “firewood,” a metaphor meaning things that will be useful. I consulted with my cook Hélène, who went to the market and bought salt, sugar, tea, cassava flour, palm oil, dried fish, soap, notebooks, pens, and a blanket (a family will often use their only blanket to bury the deceased). Then we went together with colleagues from UCEDD and the Hope School to visit Kazimir’s father and his senior widow and children.
The family had been informed of our plan to visit them, and had gathered low benches for us to sit on in the entrance to their small, windowless, dirt-floored, unfired brick house. I wore my “imvutano,” the traditional Burundian dress for ceremonies and feasts, and my colleague Béatrice Munezero, the founder of the Hope School, was resplendent in a Congolese “Bubu” and wrap. Kazimir’s father (“Papa Kazimir”) welcomed us, along with the local chief and Kazimir’s first wife (“Muka Kazimir”). A younger wife joined us later, nursing her baby.
After thanking us for coming, Papa Kazimir told us what he had done after he buried his son. He walked to Jean and Philbert’s commune in Karusi to tell the boys and their families that he had nothing against them, and that they should return to school. He also asked Hutus in Karusi not to seek vengeance for his son’s murder. The local chief told us that he himself had visited seven chiefs in Karusi to ask that the boys be left unharmed.
This is an area littered with burned out houses from Burundi’s long inter-ethnic civil war. Hutus are an overwhelming majority here, while Batwa are few in number, largely without influence, and easy targets. Kazimir’s family and the local chief (all of them Hutus) are clearly poor in material things. Kazimir’s death robbed them of one of the few good incomes in the area (he was the miller at the seminary). Nobody has the means to take on the care of his nine young children and three widows.
During our visit, Béatrice offered to educate all the children for free at the Hope School. I spoke the phrase the priests had coached me in when I asked how to express my sympathy to the family: “Tuzobashigikira” – “we will support you.” The chief told us that the people of this area are very poor, and that it was almost unimaginable to them that people like us would pay them a visit. They thanked us many times for having come. As is the custom, they accompanied to the edge of their settlement, where Muka Kazimir returned the basket in which we’d brought the gifts. This is the proper way to acknowledge a gift, but no-one would have thought the worse of her for keeping it.
The day after we visited the family, four of us met with the Administrator of Mutaho Commune, who agreed to call a meeting of local chiefs to guarantee the boys’ safety. It’s been two weeks since their return, and no-one has bothered them.
I’ve heard so much about inter-ethnic violence in Burundi, especially in poor areas where there is never enough to go around. I’ve been told that it is no longer possible for Burundians to trust each other – no longer possible for them “to appreciate” one another, as one Burundian told me. In the face of these claims, which I don’t pretend to dispute, I think of Papa Kazimir, who is probably illiterate, making that risky trip to Karusi so that two Batwa boys would stay in school. I think of the courage of the boys themselves, and of their desperately poor families. There’s no way to phone home here, no means other than a long journey on foot to obtain news of a child’s safety. I think of the solidarity of the local Batwa leaders who went to Karusi to encourage the boys’ return. I think of the local chief, members of our School Parent’s Committee, and other Hutus who have chosen to respond with decency rather than violence. I think of Béatrice’s promise to educate nine children when we can hardly make ends meet in our fledgling school. I think of Muka Kazimir giving me back my basket.
During our 7th Grade Religion class, where we are studying Christianity and Tribalism, I told the students they had a right to feel proud of their region and their elders. In a situation where violence could easily have begotten more violence, instead, human dignity rose above selfishness. Love overcame fear. Thank you, Burundi, materially poor as you are, for showing how the richness of the human spirit can spring up in the most devastated ground.
That’s the good news from Nyangungu, where all the women really are strong, some of the men do beautiful things, and all the children are brave.

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