We arrived back again yesterday in Burundi after a summer of speaking at multiple meetings around the UK and also many precious times with family and friends.
It’s great to be home. Yes, Burundi truly is home.
However, that doesn’t mean all is well here. Far from it. I was shocked to see how much visibly thinner a friend was who just came by to see me. Most people are very, very hungry. Many others are very, very frightened. The future remains very, very uncertain.
I stopped in on a friend, and voiced my feelings of joy at being home, but also of deep concern for the children and wanting them to be protected from the many potential scenarios my imagination offers up in its darker moments. She replied: “It’s so good you’re back. Your presence with them here is an act of defiance for all those naysayers wanting to see this nation fall apart.”
Jos' summer birthday party - he loves his superheroes!
I like that. Presence as an act of defiance. Hope edging out despair.
The situation remains fragile, but more stable apparently than when I brought the family back in January (see 17th December blog Packing for an Uncertain Future and 1st January's Toughest of Calls to Make). That felt a much heavier decision, going against the advice of most of our Burundian leaders. One senior UN friend in Geneva had deeply discouraged me with his verdict at the time:
The Burundi that you and your children and your wife remember and are nostalgic for is gone and will not come back. That chapter in their life is closed. Which does not preclude that at a later stage they return, and a new, different Burundi chapter may start. But not any time soon.
More positively, one of my closest Burundian friends had also written:
I just finished reading your last message announcing your arrival soon. To be honest with you, since you informed us that you had resolved to come back, I've been thinking of you every morning when I wake up with one question: can I/should I advise him to bring back the family here or to stay on in the UK? Honestly, my sincere answer was “no, they should stay”, “I don't see things improving as soon as we would have hoped or wanted” At the same time I knew that you had chosen to come back not because things were better or were going to improve soon but because you feel called to be part of what things are now. And, when that calling comes from God, all our 'wisdom' should stop since we can't be wiser than Him. That is why I have been unable to tell you what I thought. I feared I would have told you the opposite of what God had said! I like very much your rationale about security, God's will, and our (im)mortality (we’re immortal until God calls us home). You know that I share it 100%. The challenge is to always match the words and the deeds. Every time that it happens, we should thank God who enables us to do so. So, welcome brother!
That was back in January. I’m so glad we took the decision we did, because being here during the last tough stretch was important in terms of encouragement and solidarity with others. You vote with your feet.
Although the security situation is definitely more stable than then, the poverty is only deepening. Our contribution remains literally life-saving many times over.
So we’re back for another stint. Kids start the new school year this Thursday. Friday to Sunday we’re having our strategic ministry leaders/spouses team-building retreat. These folks could have fled, as many have done so, but they’ve chosen to stay and try to be a part of the healing and transformation of beautiful broken Burundi.
By our presence, choosing to stay.
With His presence, the only Way…
We returned two weeks ago in time for Lizzie’s ailing Mum Rosemary’s 80th birthday, during which we went out for a very special celebratory ice-cream. Her condition quickly worsened and after spending most of last week in hospital, she graduated to glory in the early hours of Monday morning. She’d wanted to make it to her other daughter Sarah’s wedding on the 23rd of this month, but in the end it wasn’t to be and she has been released from her substantial pain. We are so grateful to have been in country and now to be able to be with and help Gramps (David). There will be a Thanksgiving service for Rosemary at Highfield Church at 230pm on Wednesday 13th July, to which all are welcome.
It’s been beautiful to read Facebook comments and receive letters expressing gratitude and fondness for Rosemary’s life and the impact she had. She’d been a nurse in India, where she met David. David's job as vicar then took them to Kent, and then onto Manchester, before spending their retirement very actively in Southampton. I am so hugely grateful to her and David for their total support to Lizzie and me in our call to Burundi, they have been amazing grandparents. And of course, without her and David, I wouldn't have landed Lizzie!
And on a lighter note for your amusement (I know Rosemary enjoyed it), here's sharing one of my favorite recent family pictures. We had a horrible journey back from Burundi, which included four flights, and two of the three children vomiting countless times, beautifully decorating my sweatshirt amongst other things. I myself was battling malaria and/or amoebic dysentery (was taking meds for both) and thankfully didn't leave a mess on the plane, holding out until back in the UK, whereupon within five seconds of sitting in my kind friend's vehicle, which he'd committed to lend to me, I'd lost control of my faculties and it was a veritable shitastrophe! Meantime, Lizzie had driven another car back to Southampton with more pukings in the mix, and arrived without access to the place where we were staying. So below shows the wreckage of the Guillebaud clan, with Grace passed out on the grass verge, and Zac sprawled on the roof of the car, inside which Josiah was fast asleep. The joys of family travel - we can laugh about it now!
Below are my/our summer plans, just keeping you in the loop in case you want to come along:
21st June – arrive back from Burundi
22nd June – Rosemary’s 80th birthday
25th June – Men’s breakfast at St Luke’s, Wimbledon Park
26th June – 1030am St Paul’s Catholic College, Burgess Hill, then 3 Counties Church Haslemere at 7pm
27th June – ANCC, Kick Off
28th June – KCC youth, Hedge End
30th June – Isle of Wight, 730pm in Newport
1st – Sunday 3rd July – annual mates’ weekend
3rd July – 2 morning services at Sunnyside Berkamstead, evening St Andrew’s Chorleywood
4th July – Lunchtime event and then GLO board meeting
5th July - 7.30pm Church of the Holy Spirit, Aylesbury
6th July - St Mary's, Beaconsfield
7th July - St Mark’s Battersea Rise Happiness auction event
8th July – King’s school assembly
9th July – family cricket match
10th July – All Saints Marlow, 915am and 11am
11th July – King’s School assembly
12th July – Wonersh Parish Church
14th July – evening Hutchinson event
17th July – St Mark’s Battersea Rise, 3 services
21st July – Men’s event in Harpenden
23rd July – Sarah and Kevin’s wedding
24th-29th July – New Wine, daily talks on Isaiah 48
30th July – Men’s breakfast at Christchurch, Virginia Water, 8-915am
31st July – Hertford Baptist Church
1st August – Jos’ birthday
2nd-17th August – Family holiday in France
20th-27th August – Lee Abbey, a week of talks on 'Encounters with Jesus' - Never the Same Again
30th September – Back to Burundi
Oof! See you sometime at one of those events maybe. If not, have a great summer your end!
I'm not sure what's going on with the blog, but you were sent one from last February yesterday, and the previous one came through twice. Sorry about that. Trying to work out the glitches. Have a great day!
10 riders, 3 support crew, 800km, 48,000 feet of climbs in 7 days.
Those stats don’t do justice to what was simply an incredible week on what was the fourth annual GLO cycling tour. Due to the insecurity in Burundi, we had to do it in Rwanda instead. I was sad about that, because I wanted to expose the lads to Burundi and her amazing people, but Rwanda’s hills and our chosen route proved a significant step up in challenge. In fact, Geoff, who's now done the tour in both countries, said this week was twice as hard as back in Burundi. Oof!
Words can’t do justice to such a week; but it’s mission accomplished for me when I get to pack them off back to their loved ones today alive and (relatively) well, when we’ve raised close to $45,000 for the poorest of the poor, when repeatedly I’ve seen grown men weeping either by sheer physicality of the challenge or during intimate times of raw sharing in our evening team times – beautiful.
I (and the others) feel physically wrecked. Some of you knew (and prayed) about my bust finger which I thought might preclude my participation. Thank God it wasn’t an issue at all. Instead many of us battled flu, asthma, bucketloads of snot etc, probably caused by the extreme changes in climate as we went high and cold and hot and low through mountains, jungle, valleys and more.
Schoolkids rushed out of classes screaming us along, busses tooted their encouragement, and each cyclist tooted his own encouragement due to the 1,639 bananas, 722 cliff bars and 421 gels that were consumed and played havoc we our gut.
Friendships were renewed or deepened. New resolutions were made. Humbling appreciation was recognized that we weren’t born in such a difficult part of the world and that therefore we are answerable for the incredible privileges we have been given.
We finished last night with a surreal and fantastically entertaining night at the British Embassy, celebrating the Queen’s 90th birthday. We appreciated her thoughtful consideration in helping the tour end with a bang.
I just love it that I repeatedly heard in different formulations: “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
So that’s a snapshot of the 2016 Tour, the hardest yet. Thanks for praying for us, thanks to those who sponsored us, thanks to Kimberly of Team Rwanda who helped in organizing it, and famous retired Kiki of Rwanda’s national cycling team who coaxed us up the steepest inclines, thanks to Bosco, Jean-Paul and Eric for driving ridiculously slowly behind and in front of us and cooking us amazing food, and thanks ultimately to God for His protection, the beauty of His creation, and for the chance of a lifetime for this group of men to regularly cry out in pain, disgust, and jubilation as the adventure unfurled.
Fancy joining the five of us already signed up for next year?!
The longer I am involved in work in Burundi, the more strategic I see the role of education is.
Education is crucial to seeing Burundi transformed, and sadly the old style of learning by rote as taught in the vast majority of schools (with class sizes sometimes over a hundred) simply cannot produce critical thinkers who can creatively contribute to the economy and society as a whole.
In 2008, a kindergarten started across town from us with an intake of 80 little children. It was of such high quality that the parents begged my friends Jesse and Joy Johnson to add on primary, and now years later, a secondary school. It is called the Discovery School. They have currently reached up to seventh grade, and are adding a grade each year. So now there just over 800 children, and it will end up being 1,300 in total. Each day begins and ends with prayer. Each class has a Bible lesson but that doesn’t stop a number of Muslim kids also attending.
The fees are $15/month, which is way too much (hard to believe for outsiders from wealthier countries) for most people, but parents will make whatever sacrifice it takes to get their kids the best education available. Discovery School aims to keep the education as affordable as possible, so chooses to keep the fees down to benefit the maximum number of people. I asked Jesse about the school’s impact on students’ lives, and he said: “Well, it’s not just the kids. Many of the 65 staff, when they started with us, were skinny as can be, only eating one meal a day, and only owning two shirts, but now they’ve filled out and are able to provide for their families.”
Such is the popularity of the school that kids are coming from the other end of the capital. This has meant the need for several busses to ferry them to and fro each day. When the crisis kicked in last year, many fled the country and others were unable to pay, which meant a loss of $17k of unpaid fees. Still the school is financially surviving, amazingly, and needing to build new classrooms each year to accommodate the growth. Even when they could easily justify holding onto all their profits, they choose to make monthly contributions to the church-planting efforts of their umbrella organization, the Emmanuel churches, which is so beautiful in the context of such crushing need – because they know they are blessed to be a blessing.
So this summer, they’re using their remaining profits towards building more classrooms, but urgently need funds for another bus. Their current busses are 36-seaters and take 90 kids at a time! Laws are applied differently out here, so it is acceptable but not ideal! The busses pay for themselves in two years, so the idea of buying – rather than hiring one or doing double trips which will take so long and make kids late for school – is a no-brainer.
Can anyone help by pledging towards the $20k needed for a reasonable second-hand bus? Discovery School is a huge success story, all the more as it is a going financial venture in the poorest country in the world and is more than surviving in the midst of the direst of economic situations. Please dig deep if you believe in the value of education. 800 kids every day are being taught in a loving empowering environment, and many of them will end up as key leaders and influencers in the future in Burundi. A new bus is critical to the smooth-running of the coming academic year.
It’s another beautiful story in the midst of all the brokenness we’re living in. If you can help, please donate here, with whatever contribution (large or small) to help keep the show on the road (and specify 'for Discovery School'). Thanks so much!
If you follow our movements closely, you’ll know that we’ve been through some pretty challenging times recently, and sometimes there is more bad than good news. So I wanted to write a little about a friend of mine called Francois, who is as inspiring as it gets. Here are a few stories from his life:
He became a follower of Jesus in his teens and he just wouldn’t shut up at school about his newfound faith. He preached all the time - in lunch breaks in the open-air - and lots of staff and students came to listen to him. He was exhausted in lessons as a result, and the teachers were unhappy with him. People were getting converted which antagonized the authorities, so he ended up getting expelled for preaching the gospel. Others who had converted received written warnings, and their parents were summoned to a meeting. Francois told his school friends not to worry about him, that he’d be back at school on Monday morning. God would be faithful. One of the parents at the ensuing meeting asked the headmistress: “So let me get this straight, you have expelled this boy for telling the kids not to cheat, steal, lie, sleep around etc, but you have never expelled a student for lying, cheating, stealing, or sleeping around?” The headmistress was caught and cornered, and accepted Francois back on condition he agreed only to preach at the school Christian Union meetings! He told me he had 13 Bibles confiscated during that time, but always managed to get hold of another one.
During his university years, he felt compelled to go on a road trip around the whole country with just $4 to his name. Everyone thought he was crazy, jeopardizing his future job prospects, but there was always ‘someone’ whom he bumped into when he arrived off the bus at each town, and who would feed him and provide for his onward journey. The result of his apparently foolhardy venture was that he planted a staggering fourteen clubs in different provinces, and they have stood the test of time, with some incredibly dynamic young leaders emerging from them.
When he and his fabulous wife got married, penniless as they were, they knew of two abandoned girls with AIDS who needed a family. Trusting God would provide, they took the girls in, and have since had two sons of their own.
For the last three years, they’ve been working with the marginalized unreached Batwa (pygmees) in the North. He initially moved up there on his own and lived alongside them in a tent, just building trust whilst serving them rather than letting them see him as ‘provider’ to meet their needs as ‘beneficiaries’. Those despised folks were beautifully empowered to rise out their destitute states and many came to faith in the process.
So there’s a little snapshot. Francois is so dynamic and inspiring, he’s been called back to the capital as he can wield more influence on the movement as a whole rather than just in that particular isolated Batwa community. With his extra charges, he was already struggling to provide for all four’s schooling when they lived upcountry where costs for living are much less. Now in the capital, they will definitely be needing more to survive. He trusts God, of course, as he’s seen his needs met in the past, but I wanted to write about him to see if anyone wanted to get behind him.
What a privilege to be able to sow into such a family’s life, I reckon! Through them, many lives have been and will continue to be impacted. Contact me if you want to help them financially, and do pray for them as they live the beautiful life.
It was what was written on Francine’s T-shirt that grabbed my attention.
It simply couldn’t be more inappropriate, of course, because here she was, languishing with about eight hundred other impoverished displaced people in the most miserable of conditions.
Lots of worry, little happiness.
Just over two years ago there was terrible flooding on the outskirts of Bujumbura, during which more than 130 people died. Over four thousand houses disappeared in a few hours, some of them literally without any remaining trace. Francine was one of those caught up in that time, after which she and these other precious folk were dumped on a small plot of land 5km outside the capital at a place called Carama.
For the last two years then, we’ve been involved in helping them with food, and for the last year have provided the children with 100 litres per day which has massively reduced the hideous malnutrition rate. Gateway Church in Swindon and others from the New Frontiers network have sacrificially contributed so that there is a monthly food distribution to these people who are clearly amongst the poorest on the planet. Without this help, many would have died by now. No doubt at all.
And Evariste, whose initiative it all was in the first place, organized the most basic of classrooms for the 280 kids to receive an education – that’s 140 kids in each class, and we’ve hired a few teachers – hardly ideal but at least providing some hope and structure to these cast-offs of society.
I often tell the story of a little street urchin in the slums. He believed in God and another boy was teasing him one day: “If God loves you, why doesn't he take care of you? Why doesn't God tell someone to bring you shoes and a warm coat and better food?” The little lad thought for a moment, then with tears starting in his eyes, said, “I guess he does tell somebody, but somebody forgets...”
Honestly, it felt overwhelming and hopeless to be amongst those landless dirty hungry people. Life in Burundi on most levels feels overwhelming and hopeless these days. Yet I know God doesn’t forget. Gateway Swindon haven’t forgotten. And I don’t want to forget.
Francine didn’t know what the writing on her T-shirt meant. She was grateful beyond words for the bag of maize and beans she received. She and her grandson Eric will live another day. Don’t worry, be happy…
If you also don't want to forget, and are able, please do help by clicking here.
I’ve asked one of my Burundian soul-mates who is having an amazing impact in the nation to share with you from his perspective some of what we are up to these days. Over to him:
"Since the current crisis began in Burundi about a year ago, Simon asked me to head up and coordinate what we decided to call ‘Christian Initiatives for Peace.’ As GLO partners over the last number of years, we have met monthly to encourage and sharpen each other. Simon’s vision for GLO was to create a tight informal relational network of passionate local leaders, all of whom were having a strategic impact through their respective ministries in the country.
We were determined to play our role in our beloved nation at this difficult time. Confusion reigned in the Church (as well as in the country as a whole) as some supported the President and the ruling party whilst others wanted to see change. We deliberately positioned ourselves as a non-political body so as to challenge all sides and insist on the sacredness of life, compassion, Ubuntu, and personal responsibility. Whatever folks believed in the political realm, as followers of Jesus those four components were non-negotiable, and must guide how they responded in seeking to maintain the status quo or see change come.
Let me tell you it was scary at times to stick our necks out, on TV and radio, using tens of thousands of tracts, at conferences, bringing youth leaders together, mobilising churches, trying through every means possible to stand for non-violence during violent times. People recognized us wherever we went, and as things became ever more polarized, radicals on each end didn’t like what we were advocating. I often wondered if I would pay the ultimate price of my life for what we were doing, but I (and the others with me) considered it worth the cost as followers of Jesus and because we love our nation so much.
Just this last week, GLO sponsored a pastors meeting, during which a Bishop said to me: “We have failed as a church. We have not been able to use our prophetic voice. All of us are looking to you folks at CIP for help.” That was both encouraging to me, and sad. Encouraging because we are so obviously playing a key role, but sad because he was recognizing and confessing the tragic failure of his church (and much of the Church at large) to embrace its mandate to be a mouthpiece for moral authority and righteousness.
We have so much work to do. But what I love is that GLO is purposely unknown behind the scenes – not seeking credit for these initiatives, but simply working to facilitate powerful meetings that lead to reconciliation and healing. Some of what we’ve been involved in is too sensitive and can’t be talked about. Maybe we’ll be able to share those stories in ten years’ time!
But for now, I want to thank you so much for your support and ask you to continue to pray for us in Burundi. These are very difficult times. We have a long way to go. Nobody knows how things will turn out. Please continue to contribute to GLO so that we can continue to leverage our networks here for peaceful strategic change in precious Burundi."
You can contribute here at www.greatlakesoutreach.org
Below is a fantastic story of perseverance under relentless trial. I’ve lived it alongside Jeremy, with whom I meet weekly for breakfast to talk and encourage each other. I love what he has done, is doing, and will do, alongside his precious family and devoted team at The King’s School. My favorite image of this challenging time was when oral exams were taking place to the sounds of gunfire up the street – at all costs the show must go on! Be stirred and inspired. Jeremy writes:
Burundi’s now, apparently, the poorest, hungriest and most unhappy country in the world. The recent crises have had a devastating impact on the country, its economy and its prospects. So why bother?
In 2012, I moved my wife and four of our five children to Burundi where I had been given the awesome responsibility and privilege of running The King’s School – a Christian, English-speaking, international school in Bujumbura that was established over 15 years ago to educate children from a local orphanage; and continues to do so to this day along with fee-paying students.
What followed was an exhausting mixture of spiritual attack and fiery trials that ought to have finished both us as a family and the school. Here are a few of the high(low)lights:
2012 – Six weeks into the job our administrator disappeared, having emptied all our banks, whereupon I discovered to my horror he had creatively played off numerous creditors in the school’s name, leaving us in the catastrophic situation of being hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Our international supporter base rallied with some extra funding and I embarked on a tough restructuring of our finances. On a positive note, this brought us to our knees as a community and led to an increased reliance on God, and hunger for Him. Amazingly, by His grace, and the flexibility of our creditors, we were able to keep the school open.
2013 – Part of the fallout of the above was the further discovery, as Burundi’s tax system became more systematized, that years of unpaid tax were being demanded by the authorities. The school had paid for local teachers, but not for foreign ones, which turned into a huge retrospective bill. Our school bank accounts were suddenly frozen. We found ourselves catapulted back into a second similarly-massive crisis, but yet again, by God’s grace and the compassion of the tax authorities, who want us to succeed, we restructured debts and were able to remain afloat.
2014 – Although our belts were severely tightened to address the ongoing consequences of the previous two crises, I became progressively more excited at the sustainability of the business model, as with a full intake of 600 students, our debts were diminishing at an impressive rate. Maybe we’d even be able to actually invest next year…
April to July 2015 – Political disagreements resulted in conflict and an attempted and failed coup. The school closed early, a number of staff were forced to leave and many students fled with their families. Most fees for that summer term were unpaid so there was nothing left. Small amounts could be given to local staff, but they went unpaid for June and July.
September to December 2015 – The school opened in severe debt and with only 60% of the original student numbers. Heavy fighting on December 11th further reduced student numbers.
January 2016 – The bleak situation forced us to make drastic financial changes to the school impacting many staff who were already struggling to survive.
But by God’s grace, we still pulled through. We’re still here. We’re not giving up.
The last 3½ years have been a fight for survival...and the school might not have pulled through. Yet in these impossibly difficult times we have seen God work through and be glorified by some amazingly dedicated people.
- had to go unpaid
- conducted iGCSE and A-Level exams to the sound of gunfire and explosions
- taken pay cuts
- continued to serve God and the students
- continued to deliver a high standard of education
- continued to innovate and develop the school
- remained devoted to the school and the students
- persevered in the face of massive uncertainty and changes
So why bother? Is it worth it?
There have been more times than I can count when we could have just given up. It looked impossible. But this is God’s school and we’ll never give up, the stakes are too high and the impact is too strategic.
And what a story! In spite of multiple and relentless attacks by the enemy, the school has refused to die, refused to drop its standards and refused to give up on its goal to create future generations of godly leaders.
Now, more than ever, Bujumbura needs a strong, vibrant Christian school standing out from the crowd as a beacon of hope in the nation. Many of these kids will be running the country in twenty years time. It’s so utterly strategic. We simply refuse to give up. We are a school that won’t quit on Burundi... and it will still be here long after I have left.
We are still only surviving... and we want to thrive! So much effort is spent balancing the books, managing the debt and keeping things moving... but we want to invest in more resources and facilities, and appreciate the people who are so committed to the school. We’ve shown how, despite insurmountable challenges, we’ve been able to pull through, and there’s not much more that we could have thrown at us. I’ve said that I’d love just one year where I can concentrate on growth and investment.
So why bother? We bother because we love God... because we love Burundi... because God loves Burundi... because, although we’ve been tested, God is not giving up on us or Burundi... because now is a perfect time to share and show the love of Jesus.
Jeremy done, back to me:
I can so relate to the anguish Jeremy feels, knowing his colleagues are struggling to eat as a result of their slashed salaries. 85 staff, with maybe another 400+ children as their dependents. Education is key. As he said, these students, having attended one of Burundi’s premier schools, will be the nation-shapers of the future. £50k/$70k will get them over the hump at this time, and then we trust as student numbers pick up this lean establishment will begin raking it in and thriving again for God’s glory. If you can help, please donate here and earmark it for The King’s School. If you can’t give, they’d value your prayers. Thanks so much.