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A New Yorker goes to Burundi

A Christmas celebration in a small East African town

A New Yorker goes to Burundi

A footpath in Kibuye, Burundi (Emily Belz)

A Burundi moment:

Merry Christmas from Burundi. I’ve been traveling in the East African country of about 11 million people, located just south of Rwanda. The country is full of rolling hills covered in tea and coffee trees, which are a brilliant green right now due to the rainy season. It’s stunning, but it’s also one of the poorest and hungriest countries in the world, and recovering from recent armed conflict.

On Sunday morning, I went to a Burundian Free Methodist church in Kibuye, a small rural place a few hours from Burundi’s capital that hosts a scrappy and successful mission hospital. (More on that another time.) The churchgoers were celebrating Christmas, and conveniently the country’s colors of red, green, and white were draped in fabric across the church’s stage.

It was about 75 degrees, with tropical birds singing through some of the church’s broken windows. The American mission hospital’s doctors were sprinkled with their families throughout the Burundian church. Some congregants were barefoot. Everyone sang praise songs in French and Kirundi.

The Kibuye pastor, a nurse-in-training who hopes to work at the hospital when he finishes his studies, stood to read (in French) Isaiah 40:1-5.

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’”

The pastor preached a simple gospel message about how God’s coming to us was the only way we would be saved. The message has born fruit in the region: After the service, another pastor baptized 23 people. Outside the church was a roughly 8-foot-deep hole, into which several people draped a tarp, then filled it with water. The Burundian churchgoers packed tightly around the hole to watch and sing.

As the baptisms wrapped up, one of the American doctors left to do rounds at the hospital. There was a time for spiritual healing, and now also was a time for physical healing.

Worth your time:

Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration, from 1992—speaking of Africa, and Isaiah 40. This album revisits Handel’s Messiah through gospel music; I’ve listened to it dozens of times (especially at Christmas) and it doesn’t get old.

This week I learned:

What a weaver bird is. A group of weaver birds built their incredible nests in a tree near where I stayed in Burundi.

Culture I am consuming:

Continuing my Billy Wilder project, on the long plane ride to Burundi I watched two more of his films: Double Indemnity (1944) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Both are excellent. Wilder is so good at endings, which are in my experience very hard to pull off in writing, so I imagine they’re hard in filmmaking too. The final lines of Double Indemnity are perfect.