The Death of a Friend in Burundi

John Riches

I’m gutted to say my old friend John Riches passed away this morning.

I first met John 24 years ago. I was living in the North of Rwanda doing language study, and he swung by to greet my Aunt and Granny for ten minutes on his way back to Burundi from Uganda. Off the cuff, I jokingly asked if I could hitch a ride with him to visit Burundi. He gave me three minutes to pack my bag, and we were off!

So began a great friendship. The war in Burundi was ongoing, and there was an international embargo as well, so he was generously bringing in lots of goodies for friends in his beloved Landrover. At regular intervals, on what was just about the most dangerous road in the world, he told me of previous close escapes, through ambushes, of charred dead bodies in the wreckage of taxis that had blasted past him a few minutes earlier… He lived by faith, was ready to die, and was a kindred spirit.

He had arrived in Burundi as a divorcee in his 40s. Brilliant with his hands and a methodical problem-solver, he was as good a mechanic and electrician as anyone I know. He saved us many thousands of dollars in our construction projects by sending back faulty materials or creating cheaper and more effective complex solutions.

Meeting and marrying Nadine gave him a second chance at creating a happy family. She was a few decades his junior, and kept him young. Their mutual love was deep and genuine. They had six children together, and their home was full of noise, chaos and laughter.

In obituaries (which I guess this is), the tendency sometimes is to exaggerate or overstate the deceased’s qualities. To avoid that happening here, let me just say that John was perhaps the least linguistically-skilled person I’ve ever met – after thirty years in Burundi, his Kirundi vocabulary extended to about a dozen words, and to listen to him attempting to communicate in French was sheer comedy! But despite the language barrier, he always got his point across eventually and got the job done.

About five years ago, he was working on our roof, setting up a solar panel. It was pouring with rain. I was sat reading a book when I heard the most almighty crash. Fearing the worst, I ran into our bathroom to find torrential rain pouring through a gaping hole. John had slipped and come smashing through the ceiling. He was hanging precariously from a metal beam, that stopped him falling fifteen feet onto the concrete below – which a 70-year-old surely wouldn’t have survived. I rushed him to the hospital to the X-ray machine (the one that he kept in working order!). Thankfully nothing was broken… and in his dazed bruised state he insisted he needed to go back and finish the job on our roof. “No John, you’re going home!”

That’s the kind of workhorse he was. He spent the last thirty years tirelessly keeping sound-systems working at churches, concerts, schools. I preached from the prison to the palace with him in the background overseeing the sound desk and rescuing the situation when things went wrong.

Unfortunately, he was such a soft touch that he seldom got paid for his work. Be it a medical centre, a school, or a friend, most had tight money situations and so John let them off or the bill got lost in his pile of disordered paperwork. I used to hassle him in frustration on behalf of Nadine: “John, you’ve got to charge for your services. You’ve got to take care of your family!” He would reply: “I just can’t. The work needs doing, they haven’t got any money. God will provide for me, He always does.”

And this morning, after three weeks of battling against Covid, John has graduated to glory. He would rank right up there as one of the most servant-hearted and kind people I’ve ever met.

Nadine is now left with six children in her charge. They have significant hospital bills to pay (hopefully mostly covered by insurance), have been asked to vacate where they live, and a future ahead of them without the main bread-winner. Please be praying for them all in their grief.

As John has blessed so many people over the years, I want us to bless him (and them) back. When he said: “God will provide for me, He always does”, that usually happens through His people.

So I invite you to be a part of his story and testimony. It’d be wonderful if we could raise enough to help Nadine own a family home, have funds to get all the kids through school, and start-up capital for her to exercise her entrepreneurial gifts.

If you want to help, you can do so here

Thank you! God bless you!

11 Comments2909 views

11 comments

  • Thanks for sharing Simon, I love stories of great saints like this. He sounds like he will be much missed by many.

  • Friends are so important, what a testimony to that! May the family be blessed as you say!

  • I remember John… I remember thinking “i wish i could stay here and learn from him”… He made an impression on my heart in that short time.
    I am sad with you all that he’s gone.

  • It was a privilege to have known John and have been the beneficiary of his handyman skills on a number of occasions over my years of visiting Burundi. He as always pleasant and more than willing to help. Often people who make the greatest impact for the Kingdom are unassuming like John. His life was a testimony to someone who let his light shine before men with deeds far more than words. He will be missed by man as he is welcomed into the presence of our Savior.

  • Yes! A beautiful story … and beautifully written. Thanks Simon. I have confidence that the LORD will indeed see them through!
    Yorke

  • What a beautiful tribute to John, he was an amazing man, my life is so much richer from having known him. Nadine and children will definitely be in our prayers.

  • Simon,
    This was a wonderful “obituary” for such a good friend. We at I-TEC spent a lot of time together with John in Burundi on various projects. We got to meet his wonderful wife and children. He will be sorely missed. The Lord will definitely care for his family. He was always a blessing to see and chat with. His skills were innumerable. The entire world is struggling with this pandemic and we have lost others to it. John was always willing to help, whether it was to drive a group of electricians into the Congo, or bring a young friend along to the Sister Connection project who also had/has a great interest in learning the trade. You may remember sitting with me in the Rwanda airport as I was heading home to a dying daughter in the US. You encouraged me then and still encourage me with your writings. God bless.
    Gary

  • I will always remember John, Nadine and their children dressed in matching gitenge clothes coming to Kumbya. John was a wonderful man, so selfless and caring and has left a legacy in Burundi.

  • Simon, thank you for this beautiful story and picture of John’s legacy. I shadowed John in 2019 during Kumbya Conference, trying to learn how to maintain and upkeep the equipment around the peninsula. What skills he had brought such blessing to others, and his smile (though as his dentist was lacking many members!) never turned upside-down. A great simple memory was that of a kumbya VBS short term visitor who wanted to use her gifts of hairdressing to bless the missionaries. She was devastated when she plugged her 110V clippers into the cabin and fried her adaptor, thinking she would not be able to serve. Before you knew it, John had rigged the thing to now work in any USB adaptor, making it even better than before. The smile on her face, and all the free haircuts and styles said it all. What a blessing, but sadness to see him go. Will be praying for Nadine and the kids.

    Jesse

  • Simon – Thank you for honoring your friend as he honored Jesus in his service to others. His last name Riches is only an example of the riches awaiting for him in heaven for his faithfulness and kind heart. I will send a check soon for his wife and children through GLO USA. May your heart be blessed as you remember your friend, John Riches!

    Mary Lou

  • Thank you Simon, years have past and few words spoken without the difficult communications in Burundi, yet, yet we hold treasured memories and a heart of worship to Jesus for John who would always call and bless us and tell us news and inform us of his ‘quiver of arrows bundle’ and newest delight! Another ‘gift from God’ his family remain here continuing his passion to serve. We were privileged to know John, Nadine and Keren as a toddler, sharing house, preparing, inventory and packing lists for boxes being sent overseas and organising priceless donated or purchased items ready for shipment in one of many 2nd hand LandRovers with extra spare wheels and machinery for the journey. Taught us how to cook rice the ‘proper way’ and although we ourselves have never been able to visit Burundi, our time spent chatting over a meal, or Christmas or celebrating the birth of a Riches newborn, always bought such joy and thanksgiving to our Father in heaven who continues to abundantly bless, and provide for! Our prayers continue for The Riches family and we voted Keren the loudest screamer (shrill) of any 2yr old I’ve ever known……defo – loud ‘Shout to the Lord’ (and he’s always answered positively !) sending you all Our Fathers blessing, to you, your mission and our gift is sent with a heart of sincere love and comfort for Nadine and family. Much love Rafe & Claire Kirkcaldy – Norfolk- UK

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