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.


unkleE said...

Excellent. Look forward to it!

Unknown said...

Dr. McFarland,

This is Justin Hylarides (took biochem from you in 2010/2011), and just wanted to say, I am stoked for you! Way to try something off the beaten path-- I know your students must feel overwhelmingly grateful to have you leading out! I believe when you give like that, you always get so much more back.

-Justin H.