Hooligans Without Borders, Politics, the Book of Esther, and a Chinese Toast: Voices From My East Africa Journey

Maison Shalom, Burundi: Maggy Barankitse with Emmanuel Katongole, me in background right

Listen to the complex sounds of our Duke team’s recent two-week journey through Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, culminating in 100 African Christian leaders gathering from the Great Lakes region in Bujumbura, Burundi on beautiful Lake Tangyanika to engage the challenge of the church in the face of politics (see  blog post from Mennonite Central Committee friends for a rich report, with thanks to companions from MCC, World Vision, and ALARM).

On the plane to Uganda …

“Do you even know where Uganda is?” A testy Ugandan on the plane from London, to an enthusiastic mission group of Americans wearing t-shirts emblazoned “Uganda 2010:  ‘That the Whole World Might Hear.’”  “Actually, no, I don’t know where Uganda is,” admitted one group member

The 26-hour bus journey from Uganda through Rwanda to Burundi…

“For us it is very painful”    Angelina Atyam, whose daughter Charlotte was one of many abducted girls in northern Uganda.  The girls are the subject of the movie-in-the-making “Girl Soldier” starring Uma Thurman.  Hollywood, said Angelina, is about “excitement”—for her what they have gone through is another matter

“You are big for nothing!” A Ugandan from our group to a muscular, angry man who insisted our bus driver pay an exorbitant amount for backing into the bumper of another car.  The big man broke into laughter.  We got away paying much less

The voice of founder Maggy Barankitse at Maison Shalom in Burundi, home for thousands of war orphans…

“Tell the truth of the past not for revenge but to see the future”

“Dig-NEE-it-tee” Maggy (more comfortable in French), pronouncing one of her favorite words

“I am not the founder of Home of Peace.  It’s the mission of God.  It’s why I am not afraid”

“Love. Love. Love” How Maggy says she first filled out grant applications for her vision, objectives, and achievements

“Welcome to the house of foolish people.  If you lived at Shalom House you would be as foolish as I am” Her opening words to our group

“People asked ‘why not build this hospital in Bujumbura (the capital)?’  I wanted to start in a small place.  Just like Jesus was born in Nazareth, a small place” The hospital is huge and immaculate

During the gathering…

“For Such a Time as This:  Politics, Leadership, and the Christian Calling” The theme of the gathering, drawn from the Book of Esther, made electric with national elections in Sudan in April; Burundi presidential elections this summer and Rwanda in August; Uganda in 2011 amidst growing concerns of violence and political intimidation; and Kenya national presidential elections in 2012, with the horrific events of 2007 still fresh

“The country has been called into globalization too early.  The world rushed to Congo to get rubber.  Then uranium.  Then gold and diamonds.  Now Coltan.  And Congo has never benefitted” A Congolese participant about his nation’s history.  Coltan is used for computer chips— 80% of global supply comes from Congo

“Many powers in the world do not want the Congo to have a stable government” Another participant, who contends powerful nations prefer to grab the materials they can out of the chaos rather than a stability which might favor one nation over another

“The church is told to keep quiet, to keep to preaching the gospel, and back off from politics.  Churches are full of believers but life is empty of God” A Ugandan

“I have not come to your church to baptize.  Why are you interrupting with politics?” What one president in the region often says to church leaders

“Hooligans Without Borders” A Burundian, fed up with the efforts of countless NGO’s in the region

“The beauty of the Great Lakes Initiative is family” … ““We don’t have accounts of good things (in this region).  This is why this initiative is so important” A Kenyan and a Congolese about the four-year journey we’ve shared since our first gathering in 2006

“Great things happen with God mixes with man” Words of one song we sang in rich times of worship.  A gentle yet fiery Catholic sister from Uganda was quick to whisper, “But not only man, women too!”

“O Lord Almighty you are creating a fire through this initiative.  Let the fire grow!” Angelina Atyam during her powerful prayer closing the gathering.  When “Mama” prays I feel I’m in the presence of an Old Testament prophet

Signs of a region in flux …

“Cling, cling, cling” The sounds of a robust toast over abundant wine by a large group of Chinese at a nearby table, during lunch at our Bujumbura hotel.  Another business deal closed?  Chinese influence is sweeping the region

“15,000 barrels a day” A rugged-looking American with a Shell Oil logo on his coat, on the plane from Uganda to London, talking about the discovery of oil in Uganda, “about $450 million worth”

Voices of new friends …

“The girls are not enough” Sister Rosemary, winner of a 2007 CCN heroes award and founder of a home for war orphans, about her Ugandan name “Nyirumbe,” given by her father who wished he had more girls.  She was delighted when I decided to give my daughter this nickname; I love my boys but I sure wouldn’t mind another girl

“The pilot was rolling me water bottles from the cockpit to the back!” A Kenyan, laughing about her plane ride on a 10-seater where she was the only passenger with one pilot, he in front, she in the far back to balance the plane.  Another Kenyan talked about airstrips in Sudan where the pilot buzzed low to clear cows before landing.  The friendships and shared laughter have become deep after four years of gatherings

“Maybe Africa should adopt you” A Burundian friend, upon first seeing me after a year apart

A voice from Scripture …

“Wait for the Lord; Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the Lord” From Psalm 27. I chose it randomly during my quiet devotion one morning.  But it seems it chose me.  Thirty minutes later during corporate worship as a team, the leader chose the very same psalm.  A bit scary—I am paying attention for sure

About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.  He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. He writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers.

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