Burundi 2019: Prologue

Those of you who have been following along for some time now will remember a series of articles written and posted from a little country in the center of Africa called Burundi.  The long and short of it is that a Non-Government Organization called Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services (THARS) invites a team of American mental health professionals and pastors to teach seminars on specific topics requested by THARS.  The American professionals are organized by a nonprofit called Development and Research Innovations (DRI), and are divided into three distinct teams: clinicians, pastors, and the youth team.  If you just want the long of it, by all means, read on.  I’ll be posting a relatively lengthy series of articles on this year’s trip; our plane leaves May 30th.

It is important to note the spirit with which these trips are executed.  THARS invites DRI, who assemble the teams of experts (and also handle the fundraising to make it happen).  This was originally the brainchild of David Niyonzima, founder of THARS, and developed as a collaboration between DRI and THARS.  Additionally, DRI’s team does not perform trauma therapy on the Barundi directly.  Instead, our professionals educate their professionals, so as to give them the ability to repair the country themselves from within.  This is not Americans going to Africa to “save the locals from themselves.”  This is those in this world with means passing on the benefits of those means to a population without.  Teach a person to fish, and all that.

But why is all this even necessary?

Burundi’s history is not a peaceful one.  Originally part of the same colonial province as Rwanda, the European occupying forces created the same power disparity in Burundi as they did her sister to the north, leading to a mirror image of the violence seen in Rwanda in the ‘70s and ‘90s.  As a result, the topics requested most by THARS are therapeutic treatments for trauma, emotional first aid, and a treatment method called EMDR we touched on last time around.  It requires specific certification to be practiced in the U.S. (and has been proven effective), so after our counselors touched on it in 2017, THARS specifically requested more information on the subject.  Responding to this, DRI recruited an expert in EMDR to join us on this year’s trip.

Barundi counselors aren’t the only ones whom THARS seeks to educate.  THARS and DRI, while not specifically Christian organizations, are operated by people of faith.  As such, THARS also requests a team of American pastors to teach Barundi pastors, and last time, they couldn’t get enough.  We discovered a culture of congregational subservience to the leaders of the Church on the last trip, which is the opposite of the example Jesus gave (see the events leading up to the Last Supper: John 13).  Using Scripture, the pastors from the U.S. illustrated for them how being servant leaders would electrify their congregation and exemplify for them the same servant leadership as Christ: humility, self-sacrifice, and acceptance.

The third and final component of THARS’s master plan for Trauma Healing in Burundi is a youth outreach program designed to do a couple of things. Primarily, Burundi’s older generation needs a fuller understanding of the importance of investing in the next generation, and building upon that, harmony among children of different age groups (as well as teaching these children a couple coping mechanisms for trauma).  The biggest, most lasting issue in this part of the world is the cycle of hatred and violence; breaking that cycle with love and harmony is what will move Burundi—and thereby the world—forward.  Our job is not to do the actual instilling of values, but to assist THARS in establishing this program and teaching them to teach.  It’ll be an object lesson for the folks at THARS, and we plan to leave them with a firm idea of how to continue in their efforts to educate the young ones of their country.

Does any of this actually matter?

A thing I keep coming back to between trips is, “Are we really making a difference?”  Burundi remains on the State Department’s “Do Not Travel” list, despite those who are least safe being the people who have nowhere else to go.  Let me tell you without a doubt in my mind that we are having a profound impact on the Barundi, the people of Burundi.  I’ve already mentioned the pastors’ enthusiasm last trip, and that’s only the beginning.  Counselors who have taken our workshops in past years have gone into other parts of Burundi and taught more counselors what they learned at Gubganeza (the THARS facility).  The church leaders who, at the beginning of the week, thought that the Church should be serving them stood up (unprompted, I might add) and helped to serve food to everyone else before themselves—including children that society practically ignores—at a celebration for all the participants at the end of the week.

If that’s not concrete enough for you, the numbers will complete the picture.  Over the last three trips combined, about fifty counselors have received the training.  This year, sixty are signed up, and it seems very likely that more will appear.  Our plan is to focus in on the most pertinent details from past trips, and kick everything up a notch.

Don’t forget this is a travel blog.

It’s abnormal for me to be this excited to return to a place I’ve already been a few times; normally, new places are what excite me.  I will be seeing Ethiopia outside Addis Ababa International Airport for the first time, but that’s an afterthought.  It’s Burundi I can’t wait to see again: the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.  The country’s central highlands are quiet and ancient; people have been living there almost as long as there have been people, but Gubganeza just got 24/7 electricity.  There’s a profound paradox there, but perhaps that just makes it more beautiful.  Whenever I try to write about what it is I love about being at Gubganeza, all words leave me and I just keep sighing dreamily about this place of pervasive beauty, and, perhaps a bit ironically, peace.

I don’t mean to sound down on the Ethiopian portion of this trip.  As I’ve said, new places are something I always look forward to, and I’m told we’ll be seeing some of the earliest Christian churches in the world, dating back to the time of the Romans.  More on that later, I promise.

For now, I’ll be getting my affairs in order to leave the country for three weeks, and it’s likely you’ll be getting another article with more specifics before we leave.  In the meantime, find yourself a hometown adventure you’ve never tried before; a restaurant, hiking trail, or the like.  Let me know in the comments what you find!

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