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Sewing hope

This story is from the eastern edge of the Congo Basin, from a little town called Rumonge in the mountain kingdom of Burundi.

Five years ago Eeva and I were travelling and volunteering in the Rift Valley in eastern Africa. On our way south from Uganda, we decided to go against the official advice and visit Burundi. We managed to catch the country in a rare moment of stability.

Burundi’s recent history has been overshadowed by Rwanda. So many people were slaughtered in such a short period of time during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, that the event rightly captured the headlines and dominated international attention. The following years have seen billions of dollars of aid poured into Rwanda, there has been a coordinated plan on how to use it (think along the lines of a Marshall Plan for Rwanda) and the standard of life there has improved dramatically.

However, a similar tribal conflict, between Hutus and Tutsis, had been playing out in Burundi but just over a much longer time frame. Burundi had its own genocide and hundreds of thousands of people were killed, but it happened over the course of years, and so did not have the shock impact of the Rwandan genocide. Subsequently it did not receive the same international attention and tsunami of aid. Sadly, years later, the problems persist and Burundi is again undergoing horrific social conflict.

Burundi remains one of the poorest countries in the world. It is in the bottom five, and depending which measure you use, it competes for the dubious honour with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Malawi and the Central African Republic. As you can imagine, all of the metrics are pretty grim: literacy, healthcare, access to clean water, human rights etc. all scraping along the bottom of global indexes. Like my current home, the Central African Republic, Burundi is a fairly hopeless place.

So in 2010, when we visited we were shocked to meet a man who was more full of hope than any other human being we’ve ever met.

Ezechiel Bazeduka met us on the bus from Kigali to Bujumbura (he is second from the left in the photo at the start of this article, his wife Esperance is in the middle). He was returning home from a school in Nairobi (around a four day journey) where he was being taught how to become a priest. I could instantly tell there was something interesting about him, there was a spark and a depth to his eyes which betrayed an keen intelligence that had fought through a lifetime of hardship.

We talked a little on the bus, but we didn’t get deep into conversation. That afternoon, as we arrived in the decimated capital city that is Bujumbura, he showed us huge kindness. He went far out of his way to organise us a basic hotel, make sure that we had food, contacts for taxis for the next day, where to go and not to go in the city. We exchanged phone numbers and Ezechiel said that if we were ever passing through his village, Rumonge, a few hours to the south of the capital, that we would be most welcome to visit him.

A few days later, after we had seen all we wanted to see in Bujumbura, we were debating which route we should take into Tanzania. We either struck out east, hitting Tanzania that same day across a border we knew was open, or we went south, down the shores of Lake Tanganika and tried to get across a border crossing we were far from certain was open. That Rumonge, Ezechiel’s village, was on the route south, sealed the deal.

We phoned him that day and asked if we could come and visit him. Those of you who have travelled in Africa will know how common it is to exchange phone numbers and contact details with local people. You will also know how rare it is to actually follow up and speak to the people again, let alone go and visit them. Ezechiel was over the moon, incredibly excited about what he saw as the honour of having two white visitors.

Later that day we arrived in Rumonge. A bigger village than we expected, more of a small town really. With lush rainforested hills behind it, the silver blue of Lake Tanganika in front, stretching out to the dark hills of the Congo in the distance, it was a magical spot. It even had some cobbled streets left over from French colonial times.

Ezechiel welcomed us warmly and the first stop was the Mayor’s office, where an official delegation had assembled to meet us. We then walked through the streets to his home. As we passed one old woman we heard her remark: “Oh look, white people are returning, things must be getting better in Burundi”. We were told that we were the first white people to pass through the village for three months.

Ezechiel’s house was a shock. Everytime we had met him so far he was immaculately dressed: a crisp clean brown suit, a black shirt and shiny shoes. That he lived in a one-room mud hut, with almost no furniture and a blanket on the hard earthen ground as his bed, was a real shock. He lived there with his wife Esperance and their four children. The mud hut was no bigger than the average garden shed.

That evening we dined on fresh fish from the lake and local spinach and we talked late into the night. Ezechiel told us his story.

He had been born in a little village in the mountains not far from Rumonge. He had lived there with his parents and his seven brothers and sisters. He grew up with very limited education, working on his parent’s small subsistence planation. As young man in his teens, he had the chance to go to school in Rumonge through sponsorship from a distant relative. He took the opportunity and at the end of his schooling he trained to be a mechanic.

He was in his late twenties, living in Rumonge, when the genocide started. As a Hutu, his life was in danger from roving Tutsi militias. The first thing he did was return back to the mountain village to find his mother, father, brothers and sisters. When he arrived, he found that they had all already been killed. Their bodies were lying out in the open, hacked and bloody, in the small compound of his parents house.

After burying their remains, he knew he had to flee and he headed south-west towards Tanzania. It took him ten days to get to the border on foot. He only moved at night. Walking during the day was a certain death sentence at the hands of the machetes of the Tutsi militias.

In Tanzania he was placed in a refugee camp. He would live here for the next 10 years of his life.

Not content to simply exist, and despite the fact that he had never been trained as a teacher, he decided to start a school for the children of the refugee camp and teach them what he knew. Soon he recruited others to his cause and he found himself as the headmaster of the main school in a refugee camp of tens of thousands. In the camp he met his now wife Esperance and they had their first child.

When it was finally safe to return, he walked the same route back to his village with his wife and child, and then down into Rumonge where they now lived. Rather than continue as a teacher or as a mechanic, he had found his calling to become a priest and “spread peace in Burundi”. He had found some very basic sponsorship to train at a school in Nairobi, with the promise of a job and a basic stipend in Rumonge afterwards.

Despite the horrific events of his life (the kind of things that would put the average Westerner into therapy for a lifetime) plus the terrible conditions he had lived in and the future prospects of his country looking dim, he told us this story with constant references to his hope for the future. He wasn’t depressed or sad or angry. He accepted the hand he had been dealt in life. He was stoic in hardship, joyful for the good things in his life and he clearly counted his blessing every day. Truly an inspirational man and wonderful approach to life.

We spent a further two days with him before saying warm goodbyes and our ourselves moving south, along a similar route that he had taken fleeing as a refugee all those years before. Before we left, we helped him set up an email address and we promised to keep in touch.

Our experience in Africa on that trip had made us quite sceptical of the aid efforts that we had seen (a topic for another day). So it was really down to how motivating his story was, plus that Ezechiel never asked us for a penny and that he insisted on paying for himself even when he was with us (not normal in Africa), that when we returned home we decided to help him with some money.

His youngest child had a problem with his eyes and we paid for them to travel to Bujumbura for (some successful) treatment. But it was the effect of the help that we gave his wife that really surprised us, and this is the reason why I am telling this story now.

His wife, Esperance, wanted to buy a sewing machine so that she could set up a small business repairing clothes.

This sounded like a great capacity building way in which we could help, so we sent him a 100 US Dollars by Western Union and she bought a sewing machine.

Five years later and her little business is going from strength to strength. She has a long list of clients and is known in the town as the best person to go to clothing repairs. Combined with the income from his work as a priest, they have moved into a bigger house and they can now afford to put all of their children through school.

Last week I received an email from Ezechiel with some fantastic news.

He told us that his wife has just set up a “Woman’s Development Association”. She is now teaching a group of ten women how to use sewing machines and how to set up their own businesses.

What wonderful news!

Five years ago we gave someone we believed in $100. I am generally deeply sceptical of aid and aid organisations, but the effect of that money, given to the right person, backed up by a personal relationship from donor to recipient, has been to change lives and give hope to a family. Not just that, but down to the inspirational approach of these people, that hope is now spreading to other families in their community.

I am not a religious man, but Ezechiel keeps telling me that God meant for us to meet. Maybe he is right. What I do know is that in the closest I ever get to saying a prayer, I always hope that Ezechiel and his family escape the violence in his country. We are now thinking about how we can help support the new Women’s group his wife has created.

There is a lesson here about aid, about how it must be small scale, personal and above all empower women, but that is for another post. Right now I just want to share my excitement and joy that despite all of the frustration and disappointment that you encounter in Africa, occasionally when you sow a small seed, it can produce fantastic results.

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Having an "office job" isn't so bad when occasionally your desk is a speedboat on a Congo river. Everyday wonders of the rainforest #4 Multi-coloured, giant grasshoppers. It's caterpillar season in the Congo Basin, which means that there is seasonal speciality on the menu. This photo was taken in a local market. Dinner anyone?
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