It is 11 :00 on a Monday morning in May 2008. I find myself riding in the front seat of a car racing down a winding, narrow road through the heart of Burundi, Africa with a man I only met two days ago. My three oldest children are with me. I begin to wonder if I’ve lost my mind. It seems the driver is bent on having us killed with the way he is driving. What am I doing here?
It all began in 2008. We arrived in Rwanda with the hope of traveling to Burundi somehow and so we race down the road. We arrive at a Batwa village in Bubanza. It is a dry, dusty no-man’s land. No water. I don’t notice at first because my senses are totally consumed with the dancing and the music. It is the welcome dance, and everyone, from toddlers to the elderly, is dancing and singing for all they are worth ! Joy, at our visit, evident in their faces, hides the fact they haven’t eaten in almost a week.
We gather in the center of the village to talk with the village elders. Our guide, translator, and soon-to-be good friend Claude, asks the chief his name. « Me ? I am Ntazina – « no name » - he replies. « My parents said, « you’re a Twa, there’s no future for you . » We are the forgotten people. Everyone has forgotten us. Forgotten by the world, even forgotten by God ».
In this desolate spot, the dream of a new day for the Batwa was birthed in the hearts of all of us, and an amazing story of hope began. The next two years saw the establishment of the village of Matara, founded on a mountainside green with water, lush with vegetation, fertile for growth.
With the help of their new friends, Community of Faith, the Batwa people were encouraged to create a new future for themselves and their families. It has been a miraculous journey to witness.
One day, I asked Claude why he was driving like a mad man on our first visit to meet the Batwa in 2008. He calmly told me that rebel forces had been firing across the road the night before, and he was afraid that we might get caught in the gunfire that day. I threw my head back and laughed ! That is the picture of what God has done among the Batwa. In spite of the seemingly impossible situation, God’s hand has been upon these people. He has good plans for them. God remembers and we will remember, too.
If you wanted to create a compelling community development project with the best chance of success, I don’t imagine this one would have met any of the classic criteria. We were not credentialed community development practitioners - Kelley was a theologian with knowledge of the Biblical text and I was a social entrepreneur with an intuitive understanding of people and how to solve problems. We sensed that God wanted to do a new thing among the Batwa and that our lives were somehow connected with theirs in way that would affect everything. We began fueled with hope, love and prayer as much as anything. This how we decided to create Communities of Hope (COH).
The Batwa, when we encountered them, were deeply dispossessed, marginalized by every measure and notoriously hard to work with. Local development people warned us about working with them, some predicted that we were doomed to fail and those known for their wisdom suggested we work with Burundi’s other tribes instead. But God has heard the cry of the Batwa. As is often in God’s best stories, these unlikely partners began working together, in the summer of 2008.
After months of hunting for the best parcel of land we found it ! The land would turn out to be the most amazing and catalytic gift – fertile, with a water source within the property line, a short walk from the schools and health clinic and marketplace. We remember the first time we took the Batwa leaders to survey the land, they could not believe their eyes. « This could be ours ? » This land called Matara was their promised land. It was brimming with milk and honey – or clean water, cabbage and cassava ! It possessed in abundance what the Batwa needed for a new life, a new way forward, and a new future. Soon the men would come to the land – stopping at the road and staring with awe.
Then a month later, once the houses were ready, the women and children came. What a homecoming ! Our friends danced, drummed, sang new songs that revealed the overflow of joy coming from deep in their hearts into their feet and every limb.
In the next thirty months, the Batwa families worked hard. They cleared land, planted crops, enrolled children in school for the first time, had access to a health clinic, fought off bouts of malaria, built homes and a bridge over the river. Then came some milestones : the first birth, the first harvest, the first grades from school, the first cow, and the first cup of milk. Thirty months when every mother survived childbirth, every child was born healthy, no one died. Within these months, the families achieved food security, new businesses sprouted up, including a soap factory, shoe making and even honey cultivation – generating income for families. They got identity cards, birth certificates and marriage licences and they voted in local elections. They stepped into leadership as elected leaders in regional government , leaders in education and even on the local justice council.
One man shared that when he first came to Matara, he could not think straight. But, he continued, once he had good food in his stomach he could think clearly and discovered that he is a businessman ! This is a story echoed by other families in their own way – once they had tools for health (food security, clean water, access to medical care) they realized their own capacity for success. This is what we had hoped from the beginning – that the families would accept our help to start but move toward sustainability that would be grounded in their own skills, capabilities and dreams. This is a viable community, one that can endure without susbidies or perpetual external support. For us, it is the realization of our dream to truly empower others to break out of the cycle of poverty to live a vibrant life based on their own capacity coupled with an awareness of God’s active participation on their behalf.
What most impressed us was watching the Batwa love their neighbors against all the odds. They encountered hostility from the first day they moved to Matara. They responded to accusations of stealing by donating cabbages, when told not to cross over onto others property they donated land and build a road giving neighbors better access to the highway, when told they would poison the neighborhood the Batwa created jobs for their neighbors. Their commitment to love God and love neighbor transformed the entire community.
It all started in May 2008, when I attended the Amahoro Gathering in Kigali, Rwanda.
During the Gathering, I was given the opportunity to share the story of the Batwa people of Burundi in general and my story in particular and this is how I met the Shook and Nikondeha families. I took that opportunity to invite them to come and visit one of the Batwa villages in my home country of Burundi.
Days later, I had the privilege of taking friends from Community of Faith to one of our villages in the province of Bubanza, about 45 minutes outside the capital city of Bujumbura. This visit was unique because something happened in the lives of the friends who came from Community of Faith and our lives in the village.
We danced, shared and dreamed together as if we had known each other for a very long time. We knew that God had brought us together for a much bigger purpose than just a usual visit of people who are just curious to see how Batwa live, how short they are and what poverty can do to a community. A beautiful friendship was born between this community from Texas and the untouchables, the Batwa of Burundi.
It was a really humbling experience to see those friends listen attentively to Batwa stories to see them cry because of our pain, sharing our pain.