Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Holy Week


That's the best way I can think of to begin this post. As I reflect back on the week behind me, I realize that no words or even images can do justice in describing the shift that has occurred in so many people over the course of just a few days. I, for one, will never be the same. The group from Texas is fired up, eager to get back to Community of Faith Church in Houston and continue the conversation of how to grow and build on their newfound friendships. The Batwa, as felt in the spirit of their song and the joy of their dance, have experienced a hope once long lost. Friendships have been forged. Real friendships. Friendships that have sprouted a restored dignity and respect for the Batwa.

"This is a holy week for the Batwa," Etienne shared with us as we left Mukike yesterday afternoon. I really hope they believe us when we share that the experience is reciprocal. It's been a holy week for all of us.


On Wednesday, the group traveled to the Batwa village at Bubanza. As we pulled up, on the left was a large greeting celebration - drums, singing, and dancing. To the right were smiling Batwa children, they ran to keep up with the Land Cruiser and were eager to welcome and embrace their Muzungu friends. As I stepped out of the vehicle, I literally lost my breath. Later, one of my new friends from Texas shared that she saw the expression on my face at that moment, an expression that said "I'm not sure I can take this!" She was right. I was so moved by the greeting I almost sobbed then and there.

As the trucks pulled up, the children ran to greet us.

They crowded together to be included in the greeting and the photos. Here they posed with Glori from Community of Faith Church.

The air was filled with celebration and song. The Batwa love to dance, and to me it was an expression of their joy. You can literally feel God's great pleasure and joy in their song and the stomping of their feet.

I haven't yet asked where they get their clothes. I assume hand-me-downs...some of them are really great!

I shot this video with my camera, trying to capture the song and excitement. (The pauses in between are photos I took while I was filming.)

As the celebration simmered down, there were a few brief words exchanged from both sides. The team from Texas recapped their friendship - how it had started a year ago at that very village after a few of the church leaders were invited by Etienne (Mutwa member of parliament) to see the conditions his people were living in. A year ago, the Batwa had questioned whether God had forgotten them. On this day, we celebrated that God never forgets. As both sides reflected on the kept promise of remembrance and of bringing others to see, friendships deepened.

After the announcements, the Batwa began to line up towards the group, each carrying a small handmade pot. Here, a people who have nothing...and I mean nothing...had spent days molding and forming and firing small pots to gift as a token of their new friendships. One by one they handed a pot to each person, including the two photographers.

After receiving this gift, I completely lost it. When everyone had received their pots, the group rejoiced in dance together. I captured only a few images of this before having to just stop altogether.

And then I just began to sob...along with many others. As we closed in prayer I fought back heaving sobs that came from deep within. On the drive home I was silent, processing the events and resulting emotions from the day. A lyric from one of my favorite songs stuck to me like honey, " a world of pain and suffering, how can I be so blessed?" It's true, there are many ways in which we are so rich - a wealth that certainly no Batwa will experience in their lifetime. But there are so many ways in which we are so poor - faced with poverty, sickness and loss the very last thing any of us would do is sing and dance. I have seen it, heard it, felt it...yet I still cannot fathom. I feel as though I have looked God right in the face, yet still can't completely grasp his presence. But, I tell you, his presence poured out over Bubanza like a river.

Mukike and Matera

On Friday, our village emersion experience became completely real. We packed our bags and split into groups that would spend a night in one of the villages. Our group stayed in Matera, which is the new land that the church has purchased on loan for the Batwa so they can build and cultivate without fear of being moved by the government (which happens frequently).

Before heading to Matera, we visited a village at Mukike (a word that's fun to say, by the way, and we exclaimed it out the windows as we drove to and from). We drove up a windy four-wheel drive road, through beautiful country and past green crops. The village sat at the top of the hill, surrounded by this beauty that the Batwa cannot touch. You could see the crops they did have were meager, especially when compared to those around them. Later it was explained to us that the land required fertilizer to grow...a luxury not afforded by the Batwa.

Again, they danced around us. They took our hands and guided us to their most prized hut - a modest 3-rooms built from mud and clay with a roof made of thin branches that leaks when it rains.

This particular hut was the best in the village. The door to the left was the kitchen (consisting of a small fire pit), and to the right a bedroom - which actually had a bed lifted off of the floor, a rarity for the Batwa.

The next day, we would journey back to Mukike to place tarps over their roofs. Far from perfect, but when the next rain comes they are more likely to find a dry place to sleep.

New view of the village after just an hour of work in attempt to waterproof their homes

After our first visit to Mukike, we stopped at a guesthouse for a bite to eat, then headed down the road to Matera. We arrived late at night, probably around 10:30 or 11pm, and were greeted by Batwa who guided us up a steep incline into their new village.

At the top was more celebration...more singing...more dancing. This will never get old! They showed us to our accommodations, for which we were all so moved and eternally grateful. Even though they were just moving into the land themselves, they constructed special huts just for our visit. With the help of some external funding, they were able to place straw on the ground for padding and brought up mattresses and blankets for our comfort. Again, these are not luxuries afforded by the Batwa, but they wanted to do this for us. They even constructed a small bathroom for those in the group not exactly used to what can be described closest as camping.

Two identical huts were constructed for our visit, one for the women and one for the men. Pictured here are Myra and Leah (her daughter), who are here with their family. I have thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them. Bob (the dad) and I were both chastised by the group for our geeky zip-off camping pants and our headlamps, but later looked pretty smart!

And then we sang and danced near the fire until late in the evening. We learned that worship music in Kirundi was a lot better than our songs in English! They had songs you could groove to, and all we could throw back was "Jesus loves me", which in that environment sounds pretty lame (sorry Sunday school). Their version of "God is so Good" is even better than ours, even though it's the same tune!

Singing and dancing with the children near the fire

Later they brought out fresh goat, which was butchered and cooked over the fire for this very occasion. We gladly accepted (though I'll admit the goat was a little tough), and they were so thrilled that we warmly accepted their gifts.

Goat kebabs were served over a bed of plantains

You have to understand, the Batwa are a seriously oppressed people in this country. To the Hutu and Tutsi people surrounding them, they are considered "weird", "ungrateful", and "hopeless". They are hardly considered human beings in this land, often overlooked for basic civil liberties afforded to the Hutus and Tutsis dominating the region. Most would not accept an invitation into a Batwa village, and they certainly wouldn't accept their food. Years of this kind of oppression have left the Batwa almost believing in the concept that they somehow are not worthy of love or friendship. But here, a bunch of muzungus gladly danced around their fire, shared their food, and slept in their huts. We toured their land, held their babies, and hugged each other out of mutual respect. This, later explained by Etienne and Liberate (both Batwa members of parliament), is what made the occasion a holy one. For our acceptance of their friendship they are eternally grateful. And for their acceptance of us, in our fancy clothes and pampered lifestyles, has been even more humbling for us. They received us with more hospitality than I have ever experienced before.

After we ate, the party began to die down. People retired into the huts and the song turned into a low murmur of voices around the fire. I, on the other hand, was not ready for bed.

More song and dance, gathered around the fire. Beautiful!

For me, something magical happens around a fire. I sat, a lone muzungu, staring into its flames as conversation carried on around me. Although I couldn't understand what was being said, I felt as though I was part of the conversation. Every once and a while the group would burst out in laughter in response to something that was said, and there was a Mutwa constantly tending the fire - poking it with a stick every now and again just to see the flames go higher. I realized that exactly four weeks ago, I was doing much the same thing with my friends in Colorado. We sat as a large group around a campfire, exchanging stories and memories and recapping the events of the day. We laughed, sang and danced around that fire - much like what we had just experienced with the Batwa. In that moment I felt safe, welcomed, loved, and right at home. I could have been back in Colorado and I wouldn't have known the difference.

As I sat entranced by the fire, a friend who had joined us earlier in the week at the hotel, Epitas, came over and sat next to me. He unwrapped the sheet he had draped over his shoulders for warmth and cuddled up next to me to share it. We laughed together, along with a couple other Batwa, pointing at objects and exchanging the words in our language. Fire, wood, finger, eyes, ears (none of the Kurundi words I remember, unfortunately). They giggled at the English very different from theirs, and laughed even harder as I tried to pronounce their words. That was a beautiful time...probably my favorite from the whole trip so far. I will always treasure that memory around the fire.

My signature star trails shot...taken with a large group of curious Batwa looking over my shoulder!

I wish these images, words, and video could capture the emotion. I wish you could feel the hope that permeated the air, and the love extended outward by the new friendships. I wish I could articulate the impact and significance of this week. The experience filled me with a sort of perfect storm of joy, sadness, and sweeping compassion I have never felt before.

I am eternally grateful for this experience, for these relationships, and for the addictive persistence and perseverance of the Batwa. They have shown us grace, compassion, love, and acceptance unlike any other.

In my memory, the Batwa will shine like a sparkle in the eyes of Jesus.