Thursday, May 14, 2015

BJM Bujumbura Report 5: Why Ears are Most Important in an Adventure

As I write this, 10 days after leaving Bujumbura, the airport is closed and the borders are closed. The country has essentially been closed ever since April 26. The protests are small, hundreds or a few thousand in the context of a city of millions, but the sentiment is deep and lasting. My primary concern is with all the people that need to work to eat, and recent word is that water has been turned off as well. This is not sustainable, so please keep praying for peace in Burundi.

The country's story is far from finished, but my story there (for now) is finished, because as I described in part 4, we (meaning "my wife on the phone for a very long time") were able to rebook my tickets. The trip was scheduled to last 35 hours from takeoff to touchdown, but the longest part was the few hours on Monday during which I had the sinking feeling that I wouldn't be able to get to the airport at all.

We decided to be smart about how I would get to the airport, so I moved away from the university where I had been teaching, which was on the border of a neighborhood with frequent protests, and stayed the night at a house up on the hills east of downtown. The protests had been frequent north of downtown, and very frequent south of downtown, but no significant protests had taken place east of downtown. The airport was northwest of downtown, so it seemed like it would be a straight shot to take me to my flight.

In mid-morning, about three hours before I would have to leave to go, we heard the crowd noise of protest below. During political unrest, the most accurate news about what's going on is your own ears. Noise is news. Protests and the measures taken to control them make noise, and with all windows open to the Burundi heat, it's easy to hear what's going on for miles around. The crowd noise sounds like a football game, and even has the same kind of chanting and cheers. I suppose both noises are associated with uncertain outcomes, too.

We all thought the noise sounded very close, too close, although on the hills sound can carry in funny ways. I was hoping that a temperature inversion was bringing far sounds near. But it wasn't an auditory illusion -- there was a big protest just half a mile away, at the bridge at the foot of our hill.

It seems the protestors were trying to keep the police off-guard by changing their tactics. Like an opposing force probing for weakness, they changed their direction of approach and were all coming from the northeast. In my efforts to avoid protests, I had moved next to the day's hot spot.

I couldn't do anything but listen. I thought that I might have time to work on my book or do a little reading, but I couldn't think about anything else but listening for the sounds of conflict below. As the minutes ticked by I adopted a mental posture that was half-waiting, half-praying, and half-listening. I was nervous. Too much conflict and the airport would close, and who knows how long it would take to get another ticket? All the planes were full.

Then the gunfire started. At first there were occasional shots that sounded like rifles. The crowd noise would ebb and flow, and maybe there would be a smoke plume of a burning tire barricade below (or maybe someone was just making charcoal, I couldn't tell). After thirty minutes of "is that gunshot or a hammer?" there came a moment with no doubt. We heard a barrage of gunfire, more than I had heard in my life all lumped together in a few minutes, dozens of guns firing again and again and again. I thought for sure that a tragedy had begun below.

But, oddly, the crowd noise quickly returned. We listened for sirens to pick up any wounded, but heard none. Then more gunfire, and more crowd nose. Both the gunfire and the crowd noise gradually decreased for an hour. The last gunshot I heard was 45 minutes before I needed to leave (I was timing it very precisely as if collecting data for an experiment). If the gunshots were blanks, or fired in the air, then the roads just might be clear, although bridges would very possibly be closed. But if they were live ammo ...

At the time I was supposed to leave, I had my bags stacked up at the door and had taken to waiting in the lobby rather than on the porch. But then a phone call came that my ride couldn't make it because our bridge was still closed.

That's when I received grace. My hosts risked their own car and used their own rapidly dwindling gas supply to try for it. There was one bridge far west that might still be open. We had no way of knowing if police closed roads or bridges, or if the airport was open. We took back roads and a roundabout route -- and when I saw occasional traffic coming the other way at normal speed, I realized that our prayers might just be answered yes on this day.

I am as grateful to my hosts for their own personal risk as I am for anything anyone has ever done for me. It was not an easy trip to make and we were all on edge. This is was adventure is. It's stress, pure and simple. I have no desire to seek out more of it at this time. If you want to know what it's like, picture a motion like Disneyland's Indiana Jones ride without any of the cool ride stuff and the possibility that you'll be turned back at any moment. This is not an E-ticket attraction.

At the airport, getting through ticketing and security took an hour and my plane had a two-hour delay, but I hardly noticed. After all morning sitting and listening, I was so shocked that I actually made it to the airport that I could only continue sitting and listening till I was on the plane. Those must have been blanks that we heard, and the police must have maintained their discipline in the face of approaching protestors. That is what I had specifically prayed for the night before (along with, of course, "getmetotheairport" about 50,000 times), and, that day, it happened.

The rest of the flight was long but relative to all that, it was easy. And I got to ride on a 787 for the first time. It's a nice plane -- but after 20 hours, you're still glad to get off.

And I'm glad to get home to my family and my country. Thank you to all who prayed for me. It was a close call, and all I can do is be thankful for the grace I was given that got me through. Now keep praying for all those still there. This has gone on for far too long, and the country needs healing and peace. It needs salvation -- as I heard the pastor say, "Burundi needs to be saved." Salvation in this case is tangible. So please pray with me for that, and let's watch and wait to see what grace will come.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

BJM Bujumbura Report 4: Know When to Fold ‘Em


The past week has been both quiet and loud at the university. A week ago Saturday, the President of Burundi announced that he is running for a third term. Burundi’s constitution contains ambiguity on whether a third term is allowed, which the Burundi courts are deciding. Opponents of the third term are protesting in the streets.

Although the protests are not large, hundreds of protestors in a city of millions, they are random, moving targets, and the city shuts down as a result. Shops must close, people must stop making money for food, and, closest to my situation, public transportation stops running so students can’t come to classes.

So I have not held class since Friday April 24 (and that class was relatively sparsely attended). Each day we wonder if the students will be able to come. Each day they can’t. The sounds of protest move near, then far, although the university and clinic across the street are guarded. Sometimes I hear gunshots, although I think they’re mostly far away.

So what is a professor of a three-week course to do when the last week of the course is cancelled? Keep calm and carry on and use your audio recorder.

I’ve gotten into a habit of recording all my classes, and posting them on iTunesU. When I started doing this I used a battery-operated handheld recorder for the audio. Since then we moved to a system involving processing the files  online, but I thought I’d grab the audio recorder for Burundi, just in case.

The biggest hindrance to audio recording is my own forgetfulness. Usually about every third class I forget to record. But here for some reason I remembered to record every class -- which means I can solve the age-old dilemma of how to be “here” and “there” at the same time.

I condensed my last three lectures into three hours of instruction and cancelled all remaining quizzes (no complaints about that have been logged as of yet). Since some students live on campus I let them know I would be recording the lectures in a classroom and that they could listen if they wanted. About 10 students showed up (out of a class of 170) and even asked questions. We finished all the remaining topics assigned for the class.

Then I wrote a final, translated it into French, and organized everything so they could run the class without me. When things calm down, the students will gather, play the audio, and watch the slides. Someone else can hand out the final, and the course will be completed.

As for the second three-week course that I was going to do, those students have several years before they graduate, and if they want, they can listen to the whole course as recordings. I’ll write quizzes and a new final for them if needed. So they can fulfill their biochemistry requirement and I can go home.

It is a little disappointing to have plans cut short like this, and a little stressful to be living in a place with random, potentially violent protests. My wife was able to change the plane ticket and now I fly home on Monday (arriving back in Seattle Tuesday afternoon, with a 10-hour time difference that subtracts time = about 40 hours).

I have more to say about what it’s been like the past week but I’m saving that for a later post. For now, I’d ask for continued prayers. This country really needs peace. Most people are in lockdown mode, and I’m sure cortisol levels are way up across the city. Pray that the country takes more steps along the road to freedom. And I would also appreciate your prayers for my 40-hour journey home. I’m a little uncertain about the simple act of getting to the airport! So how much more uncertain must my students be?

I believe that God called me to fill a need, and that He’ll use what I can offer in some way, maybe not the way I thought, but that’s not my concern. Pray that the students will be able to learn from the materials I leave behind.

When all’s said and done, about 300 students will have had Biochemistry 3 here that couldn’t get it otherwise. I can say “Mission Accomplished” even if it’s as yet incomplete. “Mission (On the Way to Being) Accomplished.” But isn’t all life like that?

Stay tuned for more updates on what the past week has been like.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

BJM Bujumbura Report 3: Teaching in a Language You Don't Speak

Having taught 10 of 13 sessions for my first Biochemistry III class (not including the final exam), I'm finally feeling a little more comfortable. I'm still not entirely comfortable because 90% of the class are native French speakers (or native Kirundi speakers), and when I try to pronounce French I usually provoke laughter. (I will note that this does loosen up the students nicely.)

To solve this problem I turn to technology. I brought a second projector small enough to run on batteries with me. I wasn't sure it would be bright enough but yes it is! On this projector I put the French translation of the English on the slides I'm using. I've never been one to read slides aloud, but now I have to, because it's the only way some students can understand me. Sometimes I will point to the French word as I say the English word, which I hope helps a little. I also have to keep reminding myself: SLOW DOWN. ENUNCIATE. DON'T TALK LIKE SUCH AN AMERICAN.

I've found that Google translate is almost good enough to help me write quizzes, but what works best is to keep it simple: stick closely to the written slides. The students learn those assiduously, and given the language barriers, I can see why. The first quiz I had to let them work on it in groups since I ran out of copies. The second quiz the average was not passing ... but the third quiz the average was 75%, which is solidly passing. I think I'm adapting to them and they are adapting to me.

The topic that is one of my biggest challenges is "Molecular Genetics," which is broad and also covered by another class "Medical Genetics." I decided the biochemistry focus should be on how DNA is copied and sequenced. But to do even this small part I have to start way back away from medicine and the students are unclear on where this is going.

So in the middle of that I brought in something I often do in the states, where I talk about how DNA is a "line" and that is like a language. Then I talk about how in Psalm 19, one word for "language" is literally "line" (as in, "their LINE has gone out into all the Earth"). This shows that God speaks through even the molecules if we can learn how to listen. I wish I could tell you it was a breakthrough, but I really don't know. I still can't read their body language. But the following classes did seem to have a subset of students that were more engaged. (I also said "Thank you Lord for power" when the electricity came on, and they "got" that joke-not-joke.)

I was able to talk about sickle-cell anemia with a population that may actually carry the gene, and that helped show why this biochemistry could be relevant. DNA sequencing can reveal sickle-cell anemia, so that's a connection, and I found a simple test that can detect sickle cells in blood, and maybe someone will remember that someday and give it a try.

The bottom line is that the challenges continue but we solve them with flexibility. Please continue to pray for this endeavor, for power and student interest, and for peace. I'll let you know how the first final exam goes in a week.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

BJM Bujumbura Report 2: Teaching Biochemistry to 173 Without Electricity

I just finished my first week of teaching. Every day there was some problem. My first day was delayed 10 minutes because I couldn’t get the outlets on the display wall to work. Then only 60 students showed up because 100 were taking a Histology exam (I thought about 50, but was wrong, as you will see from what happened on my fourth day). My second day was delayed 10 minutes because another class was taking a test and stopped exactly when my class started. My third day was delayed by an intense thunderstorm. My fourth day I had made 110 copies of a quiz and then 173 students showed up to take it. (I improvised and said they could share copies and discuss this quiz since it was the first one.) My fifth day the power was out for the first half hour, so I used my battery-powered projector and the blackboard.

Teaching is an actual workout under these conditions. The room was built as a music hall, not a classroom. It is hot in there as I teach, but I can see many ways in which I feel prepared for this. I sometimes teach 70 students at once in the states – 173 is not completely different from that number. (Plus, most of the students passed the first quiz!) I grew up in Florida and can tolerate the African heat just fine. I don’t know French, but I know enough Latin that I can compare French and English and see how they lines up.

One preparation that’s working particularly well is that I bought a small, bright, battery-powered LED projector. On this, I project French text to go along with the English text and pictures on the bigger but electric-powered projector. I like to point to the pictures and words as it is, so this gives me another set of “targets” in the French words that I can point to. I think I’m learning to speak slowly and clearly so the students can understand my English as they read the French. (About 10% of the class is stronger in English, but most are stronger in French.)

When I was talking to the rector of the school, he mentioned that students are culturally conditioned to listen. I notice that they do not move as much as American students, and don’t give the same type of non-verbal feedback. I’m looking for the ways I can pick up from them, but they are good at focusing on the class and are not expecting me to entertain them (which is a good thing, because entertaining another culture isn’t one of my gifts!).

This is harder than I thought it would be, and a bigger job than I thought it would be, but I have to trust that I have been prepared for such a time as this, and that I can give the students the specialized knowledge they need to graduate as doctors. Please pray for me as I work these things out.

Monday, April 13, 2015

BJM Bujumbura Report 1: How the Biochemist Got to Burundi


Readers of the blog who don’t know me may be surprised to find me posting from Burundi. It’s OK if you have to look at a map (I did too). Burundi is a sort of twin nation to Rwanda and sits at the north end of Lake Tangankiya in the Rift Valley of Africa. It sits at a split in the African continent, where the land is stretching apart in a big crack.

It sits on some political faultlines as well. Some of the tribal conflict that led to genocide in Rwanda led to similar but lesser conflict in Burundi. For the past decade, the nation has been working hard to stabilize itself. It is the second-poorest country in Africa by some measures.

I am in Burundi because they needed a biochemist. My father- and mother-in-law are medical missionaries who provide medical services to places around the world, and have taught medical students at Hope Africa University in Burundi. Through them I found out that it’s been so difficult to find an instructor for Biochemistry III that the course hasn’t been taught in five years. Since I had a sabbatical coming up and heard a calling in this, I volunteered to teach two full Biochem III courses in six weeks. (There may be about 100 students in each class.)

Six months later, here I am, sitting in an apartment in the capital city of Bujumbura with a view of Burundi’s green mountains. I’m about to start my first class in a few hours.

One of the major themes of this blog is the combination of science and faith, so I want to blog about my experiences here not only to let you all back home know what it’s like, but to let my academic friends know that teaching in a foreign country is a way to serve God and others. I can’t be a medical missionary, but I can teach biochemistry to future doctors, to help them go and heal their fellow citizens. Maybe some of you can do this too someday: biochemical missions.

There are some known unknowns here. Burundi is a very different culture from what I’ve ever worked with, and most students are much more comfortable with French than English. I learned Latin and German, not French! But I can understand it when it’s side-by-side with English, so that’s how I’m going to teach, with two projectors running slides in English on the left and slides in French on the right. Still getting used to “DNA” being “ADN”.

We’ll see how it goes. I’m always nervous before a class starts, but this is such a different experience that I’m not even sure what to be nervous about, so I’m nervous and calm in equal measures. When I look at what I have to teach I’m excited about learning how to teach it to these students and helping them know what they need to know. But I’m also well aware that there’s hidden cultural distances even when we have a common purpose and common faith! I’ve been enlisting prayers from all my friends and if you’re the praying sort, I’d welcome your prayers too.

I’ll keep posting here to keep you all up to date as I continue here.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


Even if it feels like you may have read this story before, you haven’t. It’s boy meets girl, as in German boy meets French girl in WWII France, but it’s also about the nature of Nature itself.

The boy is a fixer, a natural engineer, and the reader follows his education in Nazi Germany, so you can see how the Reich trained a generation of soldiers for the war. Doerr comes close to describing the diabolical power of the Nazis so that you can almost see where this historical abomination came from.

The girl is a natural biologist originally at the Museum of Natural History in Paris and later on the coast city of St. Malo. They are bound together by a scientific, educational radio broadcast. Through all this, Doerr describes the action with sparing but sparkling language.

And that’s not even to mention the Nazi treasure hunter and the cursed jewel at the center of the plot.

This book is excellent, and almost a classic. I’d like to have a new angle on why the Germans became the Nazis, and it just doesn’t go quite deep enough. It’s a little too soft in places. But ultimately, this is one of the world’s fundamental stories, told impeccably and set in an old setting that seems new again in the hands of Anthony Doerr.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Book Review: Mr. Bliss by J.R.R. Tolkien

Is this the first Tolkien book that wasn't really worth it for me? Probably. It was intended as a children's story after The Hobbit was so successful. But, honestly, my bedtime stories for my kids are better than this. The hand-drawn pictures are interesting to me, and it does make you laugh. But as a purchase or a re-read? Nope.