Although I was hoping to reach 300, it is quite astounding for me to see the body of written work I have created in nearly weekly installments about the events of the past 6 years. I treated the task as a ‘spiritual discipline,’ a public journal to allow others to share in the experience of a North American Christian family working and living in a small Francophone African country. I am thankful for the grace to have been able to complete it from beginning to end.
While there is much that I was not able to say in a public forum -- indeed some of our most difficult struggles are left unmentioned -- I do feel pleased that I was able to create some narrative unity in the experience we had there, including some of the true highlights and challenges.
Not surprisingly, the reflections chronicle changes in me more than anything else. The zeal for going out and doing something like this is not the same impulse that makes creating life and community as an ex-pat. a sustainable reality.
As far as value, the blog did serve as a useful distraction if nothing else. Even during hard times, on a bad day, I could take some small solace in being able to retell our woes on the blog. In more practical ways, quite a few people who were moving to Burundi found the blog and even became friends; a few others made connections to our partners and started to support projects. All of these were unexpected positive outcomes.
I hope in the future, it can become meaningful for our children to read when they are older and want to understand who we were as parents, and a family when they were young.
I admit, I have found myself frequently re-reading old entries to remember not only the event, but the creative re-telling of it.
I read two books on the way home, one was Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, the other was Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. They are in no way similar, but both do deal with the theme of ‘re-telling’ events to bring out or perhaps create meaning, understanding, hope. While I do not consider myself a writer in any serious way, I do feel the deep joy of ‘telling’ our story and somehow enobling the ordinary, raising it, modestly, to the level of myth or legend. I think there is an honest, and a dishonest way of doing this, and I hope I did this with integrity, not confusing story-telling with lying.
To put on the final chapter: We have completed our two week break between departure and re-entry which we spent in several places in Europe. The primary reason for stopping there was to participate in an official debriefing, run by an organization called Le Rucher, which prepares missionaries and long-term workers for return back to their home countries. Although they specialize in trauma and crisis situations (ex: hostage-taking or death of a team member) they also do general counseling for missionaries returning after a long absence to one’s home culture, a process which has complications of its own.
Our European soujourn began in Zurich where we spent a night at the home of a friend of Rebecca from grade school. Caroline and her family welcomed us to spend a night there.
The condominium was the beautiful perfection of Danish modern décor. In fact, I finally truly understood the real appeal of IKEA. Every square inch of the place was white except the blond wood floors. Even the piano. The beds were covered with a single duvet. It was very simple, yet elegant. The 4 floor walk up gave us a nice view out the window. The neighborhood was quaint and the public transportation was incredible.
We left at noon the next day to travel by train to Stuttgart, Germany where we spent 4 days with Tanja and Stefan Hoffman and their three boys Silas, Nils, and Luis. These were some fellow missionaries who were in Burundi for 5 of the six years we were there. Nils was one of Oren’s classmates during the entire time. Their family had returned home to Germany last summer and we really missed them. It was really nice to see them again, and to talk about the realities of re-entry that they have already experienced -- a bit of peer counseling, maybe.
We did some outings and hikes in the area around where they live. They live in a village outside of Stuttgart in which every tree is a fruit tree—plum, apple, peach, cherry. You could just walk around and pick a fruit to munch on the way. We visited a castle in part of the old city.
For Rebecca and I, a highlight was being able to swim in a fabulous pool every morning while their kids were in school. There was an incredible public pool facility a short walk from their house. It had 5 pools and several water slides. One of the pools was a 50 meter lap pool. The water was so shimmering clear -- you could see from one corner to the far corner! -- and the people swam in such an orderly way that it was almost intimidating. After being used to swimming in an opaque pool in Burundi where people swim somewhat haphazardly, this was too good to be true.
We were able to swim 3 of the days we were there. Oren loved the water slides. David found the water too cold much of the time. (The water was not cold but the air is much cooler and drier than Burundi.)
We left them on Sunday and headed by train to Geneva for our debriefing. The location of the debriefing was in a small town (Cessy) just outside Geneva across the border in France. Someone from the center picked us up at the airport train station and took us there.
The accommodations at the Le Rucher center were comfortable, on a large property in the countryside. There was a view of the Alps and Mt. Blanc right in front of us (although mostly hidden by clouds). The food was also very provincial including many cheeses and other dairy products. My favorite was a gigantic bowl of crème fraiche that was brought out for us to share every morning.
There was one other family there. They were German with 3 kids coming back from 6 years in Afghanistan. The debriefing was for our two families, and there were 5 debriefing counselors that worked with us through the week.
It was a very interesting and helpful process, particularly since it was geared to every member of the family. We usually began together in the morning with some singing, then the adults and kids were separated and the kids did their own debriefing session with 2 counselors. The adults would meet as a group briefly and were given an assignment to work on. Then we would get several hours each of individual counseling sessions with one of the counselors.
The assignments we did included making a detailed timeline of the past 6 years identifying areas of change, concern, criticism, conflict, and crisis. We talked about these with the counselors. Toward the end of the week we focused on re-entry and what we could expect, how to start to make new ties, etc. One of the interesting things they said was that coming back from such an assignment, you will find yourself with a great deal of highly specialized experience and knowledge that will have no practical application in the context to which you are going. This can be very difficult to deal with as few people will actually be very interested to hear all about your experiences. We were reminded that as much as we have changed, nothing in the place we are returning to has remained stagnant either. People have changed in your home as well. Don’t assume you are coming back to the same culture you have left.
The kids did a similar thing in a more visual way. They made a timeline with our help. But they also made "hot air" balloons and attached strings to them, then attached symbols of things that had tethered them to Burundi. The next day they had to cut the strings and decide which of those things would be left behind and which could go in the gondola with them. On the 3rd day they added new strings of things that would tether them to the new place they were going. Both Oren and David enjoyed doing this.
They were also asked about their reaction to leaving. Our kids are in opposite camps on this. Nine-year-old Oren is thrilled to be going back. To him America is all about Grandparents, zoos, museums, and theme parks. Five-year-old David is devastated. He deeply identifies Burundi as home, for him this is not returning, but emigrating to the US. At one point someone asked him if he was excited about his upcoming Birthday. “NO.” was his reply.
When asked why not, he said: “Because I am going to a country I don’t know where I have no friends.”
Even though David is 5, the debriefing seemed to be valuable to him and I am glad there were counselors there that were able to process loss and grief with him even at his young age.
The only disappointment about the whole experience was that Rebecca had a terrible cold that was at its worst during 2 of the days we were there. It was hard for her to be fully present at all the sessions while feeling so miserable.
We left the center on Friday and returned to Geneva where we rented a car. The last 3 days of our time in Europe were to be spent in Adelboden, Switzerland, a very quaint village in the Swiss Alps. Rebecca’s friend Caroline had invited us up to their vacation home, (a chalet on a highland farm that had belonged to her husband Phillip’s grandparents.) I joked that I was very relieved that I did not live in this place, because if I did, I could imagine only being disappointed by the Kingdom of Heaven after I died.
The town was the perfection of Swiss quaint beauty. Every house was a chalet that looked like a cuckoo clock, in dark wood complete with flower-filled window boxes. The landscape was all lush green meadows populated with towering Chrismas-tree shaped evergreens with a back drop of snow covered mountains rising into the blue sky. The meadows also contained many wildflowers and contented cows wearing gigantic bells that echoed in the hills.
The air was fresh and crisp, the water was melted glaciers, the milk and cheese were produced right in front of our eyes. At one point we even went into the home of one of the nomadic herders and saw the large copper kettle on a woodstove where they made cheese. In his cellar were shelves upon shelves of aging swiss cheese. We could not resist buying some to bring home with us. I can only imagine that Tolkien got his inspiration for the life of Hobbits in the shire from the Swiss.
We took several hikes into the Alps and rode many cable cars to get around to different places. Cable cars were like public transport and you could actually buy a day pass to get around to different places. In the winter, of course, this is all for the purpose of skiing. (The first cable car ride Oren almost refused to get on because he thought it was a roller coaster that was going to descend 1000s of feet at top speed. He was relieved to find they were, in fact, slow.)
We arrived on Swiss National Day, which they celebrate with fireworks like our 4th of July. Oren and David were thrilled to be able to light some off with Benjamin, Caroline’s son. They would now like "playing with explosives" to become a regular family activity. :-( Caroline’s parents were also with us, who had been friends of Rebecca’s family when she was growing up in Bangladesh.
The whole stay was magical, although several morning the weather did not cooperate until after noon. But we enjoyed the whole time thoroughly. Oren got a souvenir Swiss Army Knife on our departure.
We drove to the Zurich airport on Monday morning and boarded a British Air flight to Heathrow and then on to Baltimore. For me the flight was really the true transition from our old life to our new one and I was happy it was long.
In Baltimore we were greeted by Rebecca’s parents and my Dad and cousin Gabriel. (My mom was at home with one of the other cousins.) They drove us to my parents house where we spent the first night. The kids were so excited to be back that despite jetlag they stayed up to nearly 11 pm to play with all the toys at Grammy’s house that they remembered.
The next day we did many errands including registering the kids in school. We saw some friends and family, particularly Rebecca’s brother’s family Paul and Gwendolyn with cousins Miriam and Gabriel.
But the other friends we saw were Naja and Thomas Spanner with their kids Elias and Aviaja. These were our Danish friends from Burundi who left last year to come to Baltimore to work with World Relief. Elias was also in Oren’s class in Burundi and will be at the same school Oren is attending. It is actually very nice that they will be here this year and perhaps ease the adjustment back as they share many memories of us of our past life.
Rebecca and I are currenly at MCC headquarters for a day to do our final work debrief and ‘hand back the keys’ so to speak. We were asked to share some our personal experiences. Here is a bit of what I had to say:
It hard to convey the deep satisfaction that we feel for the work we were able to do in Rwanda and Burundi. We felt called by God to do this and the experience has been transformative for us. But it was not sustainable, put another way, it was sacrificial. We were blessed to do it, but it did wear us down. It also remade us. Who we were when we left is not who we are now. That is both a blessing and a challenge. Among the things we learned in life was how to find ways for renewal that are built into rituals of routine, daily, weekly, and in larger cycles. Daily, we found the ritual of physical acitivity (swimming) followed by Bible reading and prayer to be very lifegiving. The weekly ritual of yoga and brunch, church and small group, the quarterly folk dances, the annual vacations, all became important in helping us sustain ourselves during our assignment. Even the writing of the blog was important part of the ritual of living there.
One lesson I have learned in general is that the motivations that push us to take an action may have nothing to do with what actually happens. And that is OK. As a cautionary tale I will say that one of our big motivations for going was to give our children an exposure to a culture not their own. (Like we ourselves had as children.) In our fantasy we would expand their world view and they would learn a new language and appreciate a culture very different than their own.
In practice, the experience was difficult and even traumatic for Oren. Children will have a very different experience than you will. For some language learning comes easily, for other it is difficult. In Burundi, taking a child on a field visit, for instance, subjected them to a level of curiosity by local people that bordered on harassment. They were stared at, often touched, pinched, squeezed, laughed-at, and even taunted. Sometimes Oren would not even get out of the car and was treated like a goldfish in a bowl with hundreds of onlookers.
I have no regrets about our desire to expose our children and even for the experience they had. They will process it and hopefully it will be redeemed to them fully in the future. But I want to emphasize the fact that no matter what we imagine the future to be, we make choices, but WE DO NOT CONTROL EXPERIENCE, for ourselves, and even less for our children. We do the best we can, but we are always boarding a raft on white rapids and hanging on for the ride, paddling does very little to affect the course.
We are out of one river and are about to enter another. I feel a bit like this is more of a canoe ride on a slower current.
We don’t know what is next for us, but I am glad that we bring back with us a faith in God that gives us both hope and perseverance to face the good and the difficult things we will encounter as we move forward.
This is the end of this blog. I am amazed that I have come to this point, I still have such vivid memories of the beginning. As a former choreographer, I do believe a work of art, a creative act, must have an arc. A beginning, a climax, and a well-conceived ending. So this is my ending of the story of our journey to Burundi and back. I thought about extending a bit into the re-entry experience, but I think that we will do that more privately. It has been a pleasure and an important part of processing our experience to be able to re-tell it to those who have been interested in reading.
I thank the many friends who we know and don’t know who have taken this journey with us vicariously through this blog. I know many friends from Poughkeepsie, our sending church PUMC as well as friends family and churches in Baltimore (Valley Baptist, NBMC, Long Green Valley) have been following faithfully the entire time. We picked up many friends and followers along the way, especially fellow ex pats. from Burundi. But many other friends from Facebook who we have known in our lives have kept up with us as well.
I don’t know who you all are who had followed this blog, but I appreciate anyone who took the time to read the stories and reflections that were shared here. I hope we will meet again sometime. If you would like to leave a comment on this final entry, I would appreciate knowing who you are.
Dieu vous benisse
God Bless You.