Archives For ibarnes

Inside a simply finished home overlooking Burundi’s capital city, Bujumbura, I listened. With my voice recorder between us, I listened to Uvita and Zenon recount their previous struggle to meet their family’s needs. Blessing, the youngest of their six children, played nearby, stopping every few minutes to beam a smile in our direction, clearly aware of his charm. Captivated by this family, an earnest prayer welled up inside me:

Father, would you continue to bless this family. Provide for them above and beyond their wildest dreams. As they flourish, may they be like a river, bringing refreshment to all they meet!

To be honest, this sudden, emotional prayer caught me off guard. Where did THAT come from? Having never faced scarcity, I couldn’t relate to Zenon’s feelings of helplessness as he worked so his family could get by—but the loneliness he described sounded familiar. I remembered a past season when my work and life felt meaningless. And with little hope for change, I had felt trapped and alone. I was getting by, but I wasn’t thriving. So as I reflected further, my prayer began to make sense. Continue Reading…

Burundi has changed. And perhaps I’ve changed, now seeing this country and its people through different, older eyes. But perceptions aside, the people of Burundi now approach uncharted territory, collectively gathering their breath for a series of tests to the country’s democracy. And as the powers that be move and countermove in these weeks prior to national elections, I’m reminded of the proverb: When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

From the air, Burundi is an undulating patchwork of greens and browns—that much hasn’t changed. On the ground, the changes are a bit more evident—and it feels different from six years ago. The capital city, Bujumbura, is still its tropical, charming self, but with even more cars, moto-taxis, bicycles, and people navigating the clogged, albeit newly paved, roads. Signs of increased commerce are everywhere, with more air conditioned restaurants and swanky cafes—not to mention internet speeds that no longer rob users of their youth and sanity. These mostly urban developments impact only a small percent of Burundians, but something deeper is taking place throughout the country.

When I lived in Burundi from 2008 – 2009, I spoke with many families just returning from refugee camps and other camps for internally displaced peoples. They were starting their lives again after Burundi’s long civil war, and while many expressed hope for the future despite their present reality, others feared for their survival without employment or land to cultivate. Today, traveling outside of Bujumbura with my HOPE Burundi coworkers, I’ve met some of the people—church partners, pastors, field coordinators, and participating groups and individuals—that are part of HOPE’s savings and credit association program. And I’m hearing a different, more hopeful narrative.

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Use your power. Ask them for whatever you want. You’ll be surprised at how eager they are to please you.

This, explained the instructor, was how we, six representative shopkeepers, were to deal with the other 120 participants in this 30-minute game meant to simulate the social and economic realities for millions of families who live in extreme poverty.

The setup was simple. An open conference room outfitted with plastic tarps, one per family unit, supplied with newspaper and a bucket of water and flour paste. To pay for rent, food, and perhaps health care, these families would make paper bags. These were then sold to shopkeepers like myself in units of 10.

While the setup was simple, the psychology of the game proved to be anything but. As shopkeepers, we were informed that in this game we held the power over the families. We were to pay little for their product. So little that most families couldn’t afford to pay their exorbitant rent at the end of the 10-minute “week.” We could yell and demand extra favors. Our job was not only to cheat, but also to systematically and emotionally oppress their will to do anything but hopelessly make more bags.

The simulation began with loud rock music. We walked between the frantic families, hunkered over ripped newspaper and paste, clapping and yelling at them: “Work faster!” The first family to approach me bowed respectfully and presented their 10 bags. I paid them well, compared to the next shopkeeper, and consoled myself that I wasn’t THAT bad.

But soon, to my surprise, I changed.

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