I’ve been reflecting on the events of 2015 in Burundi as we’ve re-entered a very different type of lockdown with COVID-19.
In 2015, it was election violence which led to our spending time hunkered down at home, rather than today’s threat of an invisible virus. We were not told to stay at home, but common sense dictated when it would be foolish to go outside. Youths put rocks fifty yards up our road to stop any vehicles passing. Another 200 yards away at the main intersection, trees were felled, and a barricade was set on fire.
Those seeking regime change wanted to stop all business. They wanted the country to grind to a halt to force change. I could walk out and chat to them. It was often peaceable. But there was sporadic shooting. Youths manned these barricades, but would disperse when trucks of policemen arrived and dismantled the former’s attempts at paralysing all road traffic.
Within a week of the crisis, all our key leaders met together and had the holiest meeting of my life. We went around the table, with the sound of gunfire and in sight of a burning roadblock, and counted the cost of active engagement in the crisis. For context, we remembered how after the genocide of 1993, someone wrote a tract entitled ‘Abantu b’Imana bagiye he?’ – ‘Where did the people of God go?’ Essentially in 1993, the Church hunkered down in fear, and failed in Her mandate to stand courageously against the onslaught and violence. Would such a tract be re-written in 2015? Not on our watch! It’s a whole other story, but we set up an informal network called Christian Initiatives for Peace, and got stuck in at every level in terms of engaging in the process and minimising bloodshed. Many stories can’t be retold because of their sensitivity, but it was a privilege to be a part of it, and it is still ongoing.
Amongst friends we had created a Facebook group to warn each other of where the demonstrators were marching, or fleeing from a surge of policemen with their truncheons and guns. “They’re heading up towards King’s School, away from Kibenga!” “They’ll be outside your house in a few minutes!”
They were strange times. There was an intoxicating mix of fear and hope in the air, depending on who you supported. On different days, the pendulum swung on who looked more likely to ‘win’, although what a ‘win’ would look like for whoever was hard to predict.
On one occasion I came across a dead man in the road, with lots of people walking past nonchalantly. But it wasn’t safe to hang around.
It went on for several months. Life has to go on.
Lizzie left our house one afternoon by car with the kids. At the end of our street, a man started removing the rocks blocking the road to let her go through. Another man came and smashed him in the face, and put the rocks back. Lizzie had to make a judgment call as to whether he’d do the same to her. She reasoned not. So she got out of the car, flexed her muscles like a superhero in front of the kids to diffuse their fear and try to make light of it, and removed the rocks. She drove through and no harm came of them.
A few days later, our kids were at a friend’s house. She heard a commotion on the street outside, and went to investigate. Demonstrating youths were running in panic past her house up the road, as a wave of policemen chased after them. Four sisters were lagging behind. She beckoned them in, and the first two made it easily. The third was grabbed by her T-shirt and had it yanked off, but made it in. The last one was too late, and was led away. Shots were fired on the street and our friend was told to open the gate, but she refused. These young women were screaming in panic and fear at the fate of their little sister as they interrupted our kids who were playing a board game with their friends in the relative sanctuary of the living room.
As the situation deteriorated, of course on one level I wanted to get the family out of the country. In particular, I didn’t want to risk the children experiencing anything that would cause long-term trauma (or worse). But I also knew as one of the ‘old guard’ that if we left, others would probably follow suit. We’re called to choose faith over fear, so our choice was to stay.
Then Josiah, who was five at the time, swallowed some popcorn awkwardly. He choked, and immediately his breathing became restricted and husky. We drove him past the barricades to an American paediatrician, who quickly made a diagnosis and said he needed a bronchoscopy to remove the kernel from Josiah’s lung – this couldn’t be performed in-country. So Lizzie and the kids took the next available outbound flight three days later. She had time to pack things up, the kids said their goodbyes to their buddies, and off they all went, much to my relief.
Thousands of people around the world were praying for Josiah at this point. Once back in the UK, ten days after he’d swallowed the popcorn kernel into his lung and the day before the invasive operation, he coughed and spluttered and out it came! The operation was no longer needed. THANK YOU SOOOO MUCH, LORD!
An attempted coup failed. Things got a lot worse, and many people suffered terribly. I remember sitting in a café, losing my battle to hold back the tears, knowing that millions of lives in the nation were being negatively affected and that the fallout and damage would last for years. Most people were truly frightened, and legitimately so. Their future was utterly uncertain.
The economy was decimated. About half the national budget was foreign aid, and almost all of it was pulled by the international community as they sought to pressurise the regime into standing down. Can you imagine our GDP being halved overnight? It beggars belief. And the outworking was very close to home. For example, our conference centre had 53 employees, and we’d had to let go 30 of them immediately. That wasn’t a number to me, it was friends who had wives/husbands and children to feed. What would happen to them now? I wept. Beautifully, even though they were totally strapped for cash due to crippling rises in food prices, the remaining staff members clubbed together and decided to tithe their money to create a fund for those who had lost their jobs.
Heroic. Sacrificial. Resilient.
I was praying with some Burundian brothers, and one of them prayed: “Thank you Lord that all our hope is gone.” I was thinking what a crazy prayer that was, but then he carried on: “We have nothing left now but you.”
Reminiscences over, now to today.
As I write, there have been just a few cases of coronavirus officially acknowledged, but public meetings, league football matches and packed church services are still taking place. It’s difficult to know what approach would be best for Burundi. Today’s article in the Telegraph highlights some of the issues. Social-distancing measures as recommended in the West simply cannot work in the same way in what is one of (if not) the most densely-populated countries in Africa. And you cannot force people to stay at home when they will only eat based on what they earn today, which is the case for many folks. There have been some alarming food price increases, which is a matter of life and death in itself. Talking to folks on the ground, some people are thinking everything is fine, whilst others are extremely frightened.
The elections are due to take place on 20th May, and everything will be done to make sure they go ahead as planned. Election cycles are often accompanied by spikes in violence, but the State has no doubt learned lessons from 2015 and won’t allow similar events to happen. In any case, the opposition is very splintered and weakened.
I’m not going to say more on the political situation, but there is much to pray into:
- May COVID-19 not spread and devastate the nation.
- May the Government have wisdom in managing the crisis.
- May food prices not further sky-rocket for what is already the hungriest nation in the world.
- May bloodshed be avoided in the upcoming elections.
- May the elections be truly free and fair, without intimidation.
- May it be a new dawn for Burundi, against all odds.
And how might those reminiscences speak into our own situation in 2020, in Burundi, in the UK, USA, wherever?
- God is still on His throne – it might not look like it always, but He is. Trust Him through thick and thin. The cliché applies: we don’t know what the future holds but we know Who holds the future. Let’s humble ourselves and pray – really pray! We had so many crazy answers to prayer in 2015 in the darkest of times.
- Share your hope. Be positive. Encourage. Everyone can do with a bit more hope, positivity and encouragement.
- This too will pass – The painful truth is that there will be future ‘COVID-19’-style crises in our lives, personally and/or (inter)nationally. God never promised us an easy journey, just a safe arrival. Burundians have developed such beautiful resilience through relentless trials. We can too.
- Choose faith over fear – ‘When fear comes knocking at your door, let faith answer it!’
- Learn whatever lessons you need to during this great shakedown. Let’s not go back to all the same (bad) habits once we’ve got through this.