“With a little hope …” – A Sunday Meditation

In my travels, I get to meet so many wonderful and amazing people doing truly beautiful and good things around the world. One of them is Jodi Mikalachki. She is a volunteer with Mennonite Central Committee in Burundi, where she works with The Christian Union for the Education and Development of the Underprivileged, a tiny Burundian NGO that helps the Batwa (or Twa people). She teaches and trains teachers at the Hope School of Nyangungu. After the jump, you can read her recent newsletter (shared with permission). It gives a window into what it looks like when people live Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom of God (which was the main subject of my books SMJ and EMC) in the nitty gritty of human lives and communities. In addition to the beautiful stories themselves, you’ll enjoy Jodi’s obvious talent as a writer. Quotable quote:

Peace is precarious here, domestically and nationally, and sometimes I feel that I’m walking like a privileged idiot through a minefield. But I am deeply grateful for the ways people are allowing me into their lives, not just as an outside “fixer,” but as someone who is part of a community working things out under difficult circumstances. May you all be so blessed where you are.

Dear Family and Friends,
I’ve been wanting to tell you a great (if complex) story about my student Jérémie, who gardens for me to earn his tuition. Jérémie’s father has refused to give him any financial support for school (Jérémie is sixteen), and also forbids Mama Jérémie to slip him anything on the side. One afternoon earlier this year, Jérémie told me he hadn’t eaten much for a few days because his father had told his mother not to feed him anymore. While he ate the big helping of rice, beans and lenga-lenga I immediately gave him, I tried to piece together what was going on.
Jérémie’s father fled Burundi for Tanzania at the beginning of the civil war in 1993, when Jérémie was about a year old. He didn’t come back until 2006, when Jérémie was already fourteen. As is not uncommon in these cases, Papa Jérémie returned from exile with another wife and children, whom he set up in a neighboring province. He shuttles back and forth between his two households. He drinks a lot, and is frequently violent with Mama Jérémie, who has born him another child since his return to Burundi. In December, he beat her so badly that he broke her arm. When Jérémie got home and saw what had happened, he called the police and punched his father in the face. His father was eventually fined 17,000 francs (about four weeks’ wages). It was not until two months later, however, that Papa Jérémie announced that his son could no longer eat because he had hit him.
This is the kind of case where I’m tempted to say, “Well, you can eat at my place after school,” or to wish I had worker housing so he could stay here. But I knew something had to be worked out in his family, or things would get worse. I didn’t know why Papa Jérémie had fled the country. Had he killed people? Could he do it again? So I told Jérémie that I was willing to help, but that we needed to involve some responsible adults in his own community. This led to our visiting the newly elected Mukuru mutumba (senior person on the hill), a middle-aged woman for whom I have developed great respect. Aware of the violence in Jérémie’s home, she had already called together a group of married people to counsel his parents. Not much had come of this, however, and after failing to come up with any other ideas, we fell silent in her small, dark house, listening to the rain that had soaked us on our way there. “Maybe God will work a miracle,” Jérémie’s older cousin suggested. “Not without us,” I responded.
Hélène, my wonderful cook who helps me in so many other ways, had already told Jérémie that he needed to buy his father some beer and tell him he was sorry. I had been (silently) appalled at her suggestion. This man should be in jail. But sitting in a dark house without any other ideas, I finally asked Mukuru mutumba if she could convoke another counsel, this time of fathers, to ask Papa Jérémie what his son needed to do to be forgiven. I turned to Jérémie and said, “You’re going to do this as though it were a play. You’re the boy who asks his father’s forgiveness.” “He’s not going to listen,” said Jérémie. “Will you try?” we all asked him. “Yes,” he said finally, “but if he keeps hitting Mama, I’m going to keep hitting him.”
It took a while to set up the proper ceremony, but it was eventually scheduled for a Wednesday afternoon. I gave Jérémie money to buy the beer for his father. (If you had ever told me I was going to be buying beer for a man who beats his wife when he’s drunk and is trying to starve his son, I would not have believed you.) I prayed all day Wednesday. Early Thursday morning, before school, Jérémie came by my house. He was BEAMING. “Vyagenze gute?” I asked (How did it go?). “Vyagenze neza cane!” he responded (It went really well!), before flying off to school.
I’d taken some counsel along the way from the priests at the seminary, and a former MCC worker who has set up some of the country’s most successful peace programs. Bridget (the latter), encouraged me to tell Jérémie that he wasn’t just playing a part in a play, but was in fact showing his father a better, nobler way. When she put it that way, I realized with a thud that the greatest danger for Jérémie was growing up to be violent like his father. The priests, although deploring Papa Jérémie’s violence, also told me that Jérémie had broken a taboo when he hit his father. They said he could do anything else to protect his mother—holding his father’s hands; coming between them; putting his mother in another room and blocking the door—but that he couldn’t hit his father. When I’ve asked Jérémie since how things are going, he says they’re okay, but that his father is still hard on his mother. “What do you do then?” I ask him. “I do the things you told me to do,” he answers, showing me how he holds his father’s hands or puts himself between his parents. Some Burundian women have told me they think the second wife is pushing Papa Jérémie to hurt or even kill his other wife and child. As the priests say, “This long civil war of ours has many sequels.”
Jérémie brought his whole family to my house one Sunday afternoon. I cooked a big frittata for them and chatted amiably with his father. It turns out that the high-quality lenga-lenga I have in my garden (which is always admired by Burundians) comes from seed Papa Jérémie brought back from Tanzania. “I taught the boy how to do all this,” he told me as he surveyed the great work Jérémie has done in my garden. (I checked this later with Jérémie, and apparently it’s true.) Later that week, he sent Mama Jérémie to the house with the gift of a duck, which was expertly slaughtered and cooked by Hélène. After we said our goodbyes, Mama Jérémie turned around, raised her hands in the air, and said “Dushimiye, dushimiye, dushimiye!” (We give praise, we give praise, we give praise!)
I give praise to God and to Jérémie, a sixteen-year-old who is putting himself through school, protecting his mother, and negotiating a very difficult relationship with a man he didn’t really meet until he was fourteen. He’s smart, hard-working, funny, tender with his baby sister, and usually the first choice of his peers when they’re voting for classmates at school, where he is a very loyal friend, even if it means trying to cover up for a buddy who’s been caught cheating. (He is hampered in this by his inability to lie with a straight face.) His French, however, is very weak. Please pray for him (and so many others) that his intelligence will overcome the deficits in his primary schooling.
Sequel: Since his visit to my home, Papa Jérémie has sent his son to ask me for food, seeds, gardening tools, and a 20,000-franc loan to buy vegetables cheap and sell them dear in the city. I sent the food, but have said no to the rest. “How did your father take it,” I asked Jérémie when I said no to the loan. “He was a bit angry,” he said. “Did he hit you?” I asked. “No.”
Sequel 2: Recently, Jérémie told me his father has been sleeping outside and refusing to eat anything cooked by Mama Jérémie until she pays him 10,000 francs (a sum she will never find) to receive his forgiveness. “No money, no forgiveness,” he told Jérémie when his son tried to offer counsel. (It’s relatively common and acceptable for children to offer counsel to their parents here.) “What counsel did you give?” I asked Jérémie. “Bakundane, bumvikane,” he answered (“That they should love one another and listen to / understand each other deeply.”) Good advice for all relationships, if not always easy to follow. “But things are going great between my father and me now,” he added. “It sounds as though your father always needs to have someone that he’s angry with,” I reflected. “Sometimes it’s you; sometimes it’s your mother.” Jérémie nodded. “Was he like this before the civil war?” I asked. “No,” he said.—”What was he like before?” – “He was calm.”
Peace is precarious here, domestically and nationally, and sometimes I feel that I’m walking like a privileged idiot through a minefield. But I am deeply grateful for the ways people are allowing me into their lives, not just as an outside “fixer,” but as someone who is part of a community working things out under difficult circumstances. May you all be so blessed where you are. Thank you again for all the ways you support me and this wonderful work in Burundi.
Love, Jodi
PS The academic year ended at the Hope School on Monday. I thought you might like to know how some of the students I’ve written about this year did. Jean Mvugerigende (I Speak Even If No-one Listens), one of the boys who stopped coming for a while after Batwa in his commune murdered a Hutu man in ours, came first in the class. Aléxandre Nsabimana (I Depend on God), who is almost always sick, lives in a grass hut, and has been abandoned by his mother, came second. Both are Batwa, and we are so proud of them. Estella Niyonsenga (I Pray to God) came third, having survived a bout of Bilharzia and several weeks of not being able to see well before she could replace her broken glasses. We are also very proud of her. In all, 17 of the 26 students who started the year with us passed and will enter Grade 8 in September (Imana ibishatse—God willing). Three students dropped out, and six failed their year. Three of the latter have already failed Grade 7 once, and are forbidden by Burundian law to re-enroll for a third try. Please pray for them: Alice, Anne and Jonathan. I cried when we proclaimed the results, because I know how hard they tried. But I also cried for joy, because I see what obstacles these kids are overcoming, whatever their place in the class. It’s amazing what young people can do with a little Hope. J.