10 Top Lessons from 20 Years in Burundi…

Ten Things

TED/MAP talk in North Carolina at New Wineskins Conference

Hello, my name is Simon Guillebaud. I’ve recently completed 20 years working in Burundi, a conflict zone in Central Africa, and one of the most beautiful but broken countries on the planet. That’ll do on introduction, time is short. This TED/MAP talk is just 15 minutes to share my top ten lessons from two decades of cross-cultural work – isn’t that an impossible task? I’ll try.

So I’m picturing Paul in his cell in Rome, and he’s about to be led away to have his head chopped off (he probably died that way). He’s been told he’s got 15 minutes with one person of his choice, and he’s chosen a passionate young mentee (let’s call him/her) Jo – that’s you – and he’s downloading the most important life-lessons from his adventures he can think of. He’s got to be quick, they’re coming soon. He’s talking fast, and so am I. Are you ready? Write this down, Jo!

Here are my ten top life-lessons from two decades of working in Burundi:

It’s all about…

1) …grace – A young lady recently started working for our charity, Great Lakes Outreach, in Burundi. She was found down a toilet where her mother dumped her after giving birth. Someone saw this discarded piece of flesh in the filth, reached down, and picked her up. They cleaned her off and got poo on themselves in the process. She was still alive, was fed through a straw like a little bird, weighing just a few pounds. My friend who adopted her gave her the most beautiful girl’s name. When I married my wife Lizzie, I said to her that if ever we were blessed to have a daughter, I’d like to name her after that girl. So they share the same name. Grace!

The start of her life is a picture of the gospel, our message, the bedrock of our lives – it doesn’t matter whether we’re multi-murdering, raping, pillaging idiots in Central Africa or self-absorbed people in America (UK, wherever), all of us need God’s grace. And He in Christ reaches down from heaven to earth, bridges the chasm, picks us up, cleans us off, takes our filth on Him, and says to you and to me: “You’re my beautiful child. I love you this much (arms stretched out wide on the cross), now come, live for me!” That’s grace, and that’s our message. You can’t earn it, you just live in response to it. May that underpin everything we do. It’s all about grace, so let’s live grace-fully.

2) …gratitude – This is linked to grace, but building further on it. I had a man come to my house with a grenade to blow me up. He’d written me a letter saying he was going to cut out my eyes. Was that a fun experience? No, but it was one of the most defining experiences of my life. Let me tell you why:

Faced with the imminent prospect of losing these two little things (my eyes), let alone my life, I was consciously grateful for the first time for the gift of eyesight – which is a gift, not a right. Your challenge is that you live in an entitled culture and we are an entitled generation. It’s all about our rights. The best gift Burundi has given me is the gift of gratitude. Nothing is a right, everything is a gift. Food, health, education, security, friends, family, clean water, the list goes on. When I’m tempted to be self-pitying or thinking I’ve had a hard lot in life, I list off all those gifts. It’s a game-changer! Stop complaining. Don’t take anything for granted. Be grateful. Grateful people make happy people. You’ll be nicer to live alongside and therefore more effective in your work.

3) …humility – We usually think our culture is the best. We are so wrong! There is so much wrong with our greedy, individualistic, consumerist (I could go on) respective Western cultures. There is so much richness in our host cultures, because every culture has good and bad in it. Dig for the gems. Learn the language, the proverbs, the stories. Listen, listen, listen! Don’t criticize. For example, the African says to the American/Brit/etc: “You have watches, we have time!” They might just be late for your meeting because someone was dying on the side of the road as they came to meet you. How dare I arrogantly reproach them for their lateness, their ‘African time’, when they did ‘the Good Samaritan’ whilst I would have walked on by to honour my punctuality proudly whilst leaving someone to die…? Seriously? People are more important than schedules, aren’t they? Humility, humility, humility.

4) …relationship – One of my life mantras is ‘Everything is about relationship’. You can’t microwave or fast-track friendship and trust. Spend time with people. An African proverb says: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

In 2015, Burundi teetered on the edge of total implosion. It’s too politically sensitive to go into details, but we had the holiest meeting of my life with our key leaders. Were we willing to stand up and preach non-violence, forgiveness, and dialogue, when the Church at large had completely gone to ground in fear? Yes, on somber reflection, we were. But how could we do that and be effective? Because the context of our relationships was that we had been meeting monthly for breakfast for five years together, so we loved and trusted each other. Honestly, it was amazing. We counted the cost. Thankfully nobody died in our team, but we were ready.

It’s all about relationship, so live connected, invest the time, be patient, seek out and embrace genuine accountability with key folk, and you’ll go far together

5) …people – People, not stuff. Please care more for the folks you aim to come alongside than for your possessions. Live more simply. People, not stuff, and then people, not pets. The biggest criticism of missionaries has often been that they show more love for their pets than the people around them.

Maybe I’ll say more on this in the Q&A, but as far as you can, seek to work alongside the best local leaders of passion, integrity, gifting and vision. Our job is to encourage, equip, release. If you back a person of average passion/integrity/gifting/vision, the ceiling is set at mediocrity. Our work was so stunningly fruitful because I had the advantage of living in country and patiently observing and praying, so we were able to identify the best of the best, which meant the sky was the limit in terms of fruitfulness. I’ve lots more to say on that but time is ticking.

6) …patience – Rome wasn’t built in a day. When God wants to make a delicate mushroom, he does it overnight; but when he wants to make an sturdy oak, he takes decades. We want long-term fruit. Don’t over-estimate what you can do in one year, but don’t underestimate what you can do in ten. I look back and am blown away at what we’ve been able to do by God’s grace. But in any given one-year time-frame, I might have felt discouraged and overwhelmed, and not seen much obvious progress. Short-term missions have their place, but let’s be realistic on what can be accomplished in anything less than chunkier time-frames.

7) …now!  Yes, it’s all about patience, but it’s also all about now! We want to live urgently. ‘Now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation.’ I once preached about living ready, being all in, people need saving and rescuing, etc, and two days later, those listeners were killed in a big rebel attack. Our message and mission is urgent. Live like you believe it’s true. Don’t waste time. You’ve got 1,440 minutes today that you’ll never get back again, so use them well. Be focused. Is this activity good use of my time? As C.S.Lewis said: “Anything which isn’t eternal is eternally out of date.”

8) …rhythm – Yes we should live urgently, but we have to work from a place of rest. Work hard and play hard. Don’t try to ‘go faster than grace allows’ (Brother Lawrence). Put first things first, which means being a worshipper before being a worker. Guard the secret place. Seriously. Be very accountable with somebody on this point. Cultivate intimacy with God through meditation, Scripture, prayer, etc, it’s an absolute priority if you want to be built to last. How are you doing on that one?

9) …the Kingdom – Kingdom capital K, or Church capital C. You’ve got your little patch. But remember the picture is so much bigger. Be part of the bigger whole. It’s not a competition. Help others around you. It’s not win/lose or lose/win. Go for win/wins. Their big slice of cake doesn’t mean my slice therefore has to be small. Let’s bake a bigger cake together! I fundamentally believe as you try to help others, God’s grace boomerangs back and smacks you hard in the face!

10) …faith – Choose faith, not fear. There’s lots to make us afraid. But no. Driving along one of the most dangerous roads in the world, my colleague leant across one day, and said to me with a glint in his eye: “Simon, isn’t it exciting, we’re immortal until God calls us home!” He’s right! Perfect love casts our fear. This life won’t last for ever, it’s not our home or end destination. My marriage proposal to Lizzie was: “Are you ready to be a young widow?” That was tested in the 2015 crisis, by this stage with three kids in tow. Fear said leave, but faith said stay, which links in with my next point…

11) …staying – Many years ago, I was on a short-term mission trip to Sao Paolo in Brazil. We went to work with street-children, who were in ample supply – the plan was to rescue 7 million in 3 weeks – I say that somewhat tongue in cheek because having the right expectations is very important. We went to the main square, and I’ve been in much more dangerous situations in Burundi many times over, but this was the most traumatic incident I’ve ever experienced. Fear often comes through not understanding the dynamics at play.

Essentially, we were mugged by a gang of street-children. These weren’t cute little urchins but damaged and dangerous little thieves who survived through knifing people, stealing, etc. One of them about 10-years-old came over to our 6ft4in team leader, cursing and spitting. He pointed at him angrily and spoke with venom and hatred: “You may be big, you may be strong, but there’s only one of you!” And then they attacked us, throwing glass bottles at us, which shattered on the floor around us as we fled and sought police protection.

That night, we processed the experience in the safety of the compound, sat around in a group. I simply wept. I wept that we’d met just a handful of the seven million screwed-up precious little street-children of Brazil. As I cried, the team leader gently came alongside me, put his arm around my shoulder, and said something that has left an indelible mark on me for the rest of my life. In fact, it might have been the one thing I’d traveled all the way to Brazil to learn: “Pity cries, and then goes away… but compassion stays!” That rocked me. I returned a different person, resolved to never walk away.

Jesus chose to ‘stay’, and so must we, to be authentic and consistent with His call on our lives, engaging with people’s pain. But ouch, it can hurt. It can be geographical, but ‘staying’ is more a heart attitude. It’s tempting in the face of so much @£$% that life throws up and all the overwhelming needs we get confronted with, to harden our heart, but no, we insist on staying soft. As Jackie Pullinger said: “God wants us to have soft hearts and hard feet. The trouble with so many of us is that we have hard hearts and soft feet.” Stay soft-hearted, hard-footed. Choose to stay.

12) …communication – It’s not what you say, but what they hear, and therefore understand. Can you hear the difference between gusura and gusura? No you can’t. One means to visit, the other means to fart. Tonal languages are subtle. I want to make sure I’m visiting the government minister and not farting on him!

My friend Vicky’s flashlight broke, so she asked the hospital guard to walk her home, except the word ‘walk’ and ‘have an affair’ are virtually identical in Malagasy. He took her home thinking he’d struck the jackpot, and she had a narrow escape.

One US lady was sharing her testimony in Francophone Africa. She wanted to say in French that her past was divided into two parts. Instead of ‘passé’ she said ‘derrière’ (behind, backside). She went on to say that one part of her butt was black, one part was white, and between the two there was a great chasm!

There are both funny and serious examples, but suffice to say, so many problems come through so many layers of complexity across cultures. Misunderstandings are easy, so tread carefully. Communicate clearly. Choose the right means of communicate. Get folks to state back to you what their understanding is. Two ears, one mouth, listen listen listen! And don’t listen to just one side of any story, it’s never the full picture.

And remember, it’s all about grace, gratitude, humility, relationship, people, patience, now, rhythm, the Kingdom, faith, staying, communication. And there could have been more said on each point or even further points, but that’ll have to do.

Thanks for farting with me, I’ve enjoyed your visit! Go for plenty of walks, avoid having affairs. And may your derriere’s testimony be powerful, leading to many changed lives!

And more seriously, thanks for listening to my talk, which wasn’t quite 15 minutes, or even 10 points as I’d agreed, but that was an unrealistic expectation from an African – and I am indeed a proud African, a Burundian, one of about a dozen white Burundians in the world!

So, if I’m Paul, and you’re Jo, well I can hear the guards’ jangling their keys at the cell door. I’m off to my graduation to glory. Whether it’s by head-chopping, hanging, or feeding to the lions, ‘for me to live is Christ, to die is gain!’ What a privilege! I’ll see you on the other side in due course. Be assured, the call on your life to serve wherever in the world is absolutely worth everything you’ve got. Yes, you’ll definitely receive plenty of sucker punches along the way, but hang in there. It’s totally worth it. I say this, and I know our heavenly Father says it, “I believe you’ve got what it takes to be who He’s called you to be! Get out there, and change the world, one person at a time!”


18 Comments8165 views


  • This blessed me today. Thank you Simon for the years it took to write.

  • What a fantastic talk, thank you so much, I feel so encouraged and blessed from reading it. Praise God for the witness He has given you

  • Good stuff. Powerful. Thanks

  • Thank you for the challenge shared through your life experiences & for your commitment to serve! I’m encouraged & inspired by the difference made by just one with Kingdom vision!

  • Thank you , Simon, for sharing the perspective and wisdom you have gained from your 20 years in Burundi. Great advice!

  • Thanks Simon
    Your ‘rawness’ in life experiences and your humour remind me of Jesus, and He’s my lovable hero.

  • Thanks for your 10 lessons Simon; so encouraging and so challenging at the same time. I felt the Lord reassure me as I read along. Thank you.

  • Inspiring as ever – thank you! No in a retirement home, I don’t have a wide choice NOT to stay – but in this community of humans relationships count a lot and we are not all easy to relate to! So what you write is applicable and helpful here too! Blessings

  • Thank you Simeon: Reading this from m the airport ready to head to NI for a few weeks and then back to Rwanda . You have yet again encouraged and challenged me

  • Thanks for posting this Simon, it’s good to remind myself of the challenge of living life radically in a culture of excess!! Hope you’re managing to not let the lovely West Country culture stiffle your radical lives. Praying for you guys.

  • Top notch, Simon! I’ll have Bill print it for me and I’ll share it with others!

  • Thanks Simon, very challenging. Still learning how to do it in old age! David

  • Simon, thought of making this a video?

    • If you do, it could be just a talking head or standing in front of camera – presumably as you gave it, TED-style.
      Or you might flash it up, a la “More than conquerors”…
      Either way, it’s great, thank you.
      I am sharing it as it is.
      But I am increasingly conscious that there are some who either will not read or would defo prefer video to text.
      Anyway, thank you for sharing it as it is. It’s gold.

  • Thank you Simon. You have so much wisdom. Don’t Ever stop sharing with us knuckleheads!

    Donna Cartwright

  • […] Top Ten Lessons from 20 Years in Burundi – Fascinating, eye-opening, inspiring. Simon Guillebaud reflects on his time in Central […]

  • I just came across your work by chance. Credit to you Simon and keep up the good work.

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