I've been back from Burundi for four weeks now, and the country is still deadlocked and shut down. The most puzzling thing to me, as a Westerner, was the deep fear I could sense in my students when we talked about the future. On the first day of protests, I was waiting for my ride to church on the library steps. A student I didn't know walked up to me and asked, "Are you out here because you're worried?" Actually, worry was the last thing on my mind, but I suppose my face might have looked worried to an African. Of course, my first thought on hearing that question was "I wasn't, but ... should I be?"
On that day, I decided I'd gauge the severity of the situation from the size of the protests. Bujumbura is a city of several million. If thousands protest in several places around the city, then I might start to worry that the situation is unstable. But if only hundreds protest, I figured there would be no reason to worry because they were such a small percentage of the total. (My context for protests was the WTO "riot" in Seattle, where I think a Starbucks got its windows broken.) I was pretty sure from talking to people that only hundreds would protest. Burundians are quiet people and don't protest recreationally.
I was right and I was wrong. Only hundreds protested. But they also protested the next day, and the next, and the next. Each day I looked down on an empty parking lot and knew my students couldn't make it to class. Yet couldn't they just go around a protest if they ran into one?
There are so many things I didn't know. I was the student here, getting a crash course in East African history and politics. Burundi's civil war ended a little more than a decade ago. These students remembered unspeakable things. Even though we were behind a high wall and guarded by army and police, the students were still afraid. It was this paralyzing fear that I didn't understand. Yet it was entirely logical.
I didn't understand it, until my fellow university professor forwarded a TED talk about it on Twitter, that is. I know, TED talks are so, like, five years ago, right? But this TED talk isn't about technology. It's about the fears that lie behind poverty.
Poverty is not about resources anymore. It's about public safety and rule of law. The ability to feel protected so you can walk to the resources the Westerners have provided. And if that's not there, then the resources might as well not be there either.
You have to be able to walk to school to learn. Transportation is on the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy here.
As much as I would have liked to move past the fear I saw in my students' eyes, to inspire them to dodge the protests and the tear gas and not get caught running the wrong way down the street, I knew that it's not something I could solve. I could only make a few recordings for the future, for a time capsule to open when they could resume the class (a time still in the future), and rebook my flight to leave the country.
It's heartbreaking to be so powerless. I feel a twinge every day for being in my luxurious US middle-class life. But it's a real reflection of the powerlessness they feel. It's a strange privilege to be able to understand their world. I'm not sure what good it does, but it does remind me to pray. That may be enough.
Maybe this is what I learned in Burundi. You can only do so much, and sometimes you have to wait. In that waiting, as a Christian, at least I can still pray out of my powerlessness. And I pray that we see a work of power in Burundi that's like what we saw in South Africa. It did happen there. I believe it can happen again. Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down.
Dear reader, I hope this for you. Not the fear and the danger, but the understanding of what it's like to live another life, in this case, to live in the second-poorest country in Africa. And to know that, behind it all, despite it all, and because of it all, my students have faith. Despite their fear, when this calms down, they will brush themselves off, hop on a bus, and learn. (After seeing the dedication of the African students I'm going to be a little more frustrated when my American students can't even put down their video game controllers long enough to study!)
If we can put our fingers on the real problems, then maybe we can apply pressure to change these real problems. Maybe we can push back the fear and make a country people can trust in. If Burundi can come as far in the next ten years as they have in the past ten years ... then maybe they can reach that.
Watch the talk, I promise you, it's worth it (I have a few quibbles but it's too important to list those right now):
And if you have thoughts, let me know what you think. I will shift this blog back to science now that my life has shifted back to science, but to my Burundian friends: I'm always thinking about you and praying for you from a corner of my mind. May the Lord bless you and keep you and give you peace ... and patience till it comes. Till we meet again. Yours, BJM