As we passed the tubs of concrete along the bucket brigade, our Burundian colleagues began to sing. The song was call and response—one of them sang a line in Kirundi, and everyone yelled either Kora! (work) or Cola! (soda) in turn. We couldn’t understand exactly what the song was saying, but the meaning was clear: work hard, so we can relax together and drink a soda.
This work day was one of many during the young adult workcamp trip to Burundi in early June. Located south of Rwanda, Burundi is consistently ranked among the poorest countries in the world. In 2017, the GDP per capita was just $818, according to the International Monetary Fund. Burundi has a history of genocide, and more recently has experienced political tension. Just a week before our workcamp started, the country held a referendum that sparked election violence, resulting in the deaths of 15 people.
Burundi is incredibly beautiful, and there is a sense of life and vibrancy throughout the country. Banana trees lined the mountain roads we used to get from town to town, and villages were populated by families wearing colorful fabrics and carrying all sorts of produce. Men on bikes held on to the back of trucks for a lift up each hill, and cheerful schoolchildren walked together on their way home from classes.
This beauty stood in stark contrast to the realities of everyday life in poorer regions of the country. Even as I admired the women and children walking along the roads in their colorful patterned clothing, I was reminded that these walks were often miles long and undertaken for survival rather than recreation. Every adorable gaggle of schoolchildren was followed by another gaggle of children who weren’t wearing school uniforms. Tiny children, barefoot along dirt roads, carried their even tinier siblings on their backs. Our group saw firsthand the extreme poverty, lack of healthy political dialogue, and trauma inflicted by genocide. The joy that these Burundians displayed often disguised the harsh reality that there is a lot of humanitarian and human rights progress to be made.
In response to this need, there is a significant amount of non-governmental organization (NGO) activity, from both the international community and local organizations. Our workcamp was hosted by one of these local organizations, called Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services (THARS). A partner of the Church of the Brethren's Global Mission and Service office, THARS offers trauma healing and economic empowerment services to those affected by Burundi’s history of violence.
One of the programs that the Church of the Brethren funds through THARS is a mid-day meal for Twa schoolchildren. Children had been skipping school, afraid that their parents would eat meals while they were away. To increase attendance, THARS began feeding the children lunch before they went to class.
The impact of this program was made clear to me as I passed by the Twa children one afternoon. I smiled and waved at one boy as he ate, and asked in English how he was doing. Kirundi is the language most commonly spoken in the country, followed by French for business purposes, so I wasn’t expecting more than a smile and wave back. I was pleasantly surprised, then, when the boy broke into a big smile and told me he was doing very well—in English. His response was a testament to the education he is receiving.
Something that is often emphasized in modern peacebuilding and humanitarian work is the importance of local leadership and the empowerment of beneficiaries of aid. This makes the work of the US church in places like Burundi complicated. We seek to be helpful and to have a healthy dynamic between the US church and our international partners, without approaching the situation from a place of arrogance or pity. This is easier to theorize about than to accomplish.
I asked two of our Burundian colleagues how the American church can relate to countries like Burundi in a helpful, healthy way, and received the same answer from both: relationships. David Niyonzima, founder and executive director of THARS, said of the workcamp: “It’s like we are all partners in the whole thing. It’s like you are raising up our service team and sharing and telling us that we are all in this together as human beings. As God’s people. In fact, we have a saying in Burundi, ‘We are who we are because of others.’ I believe that this relationship, the partnership, the collaboration, is very important for us Burundians as we go through the healing process that has already started.”
In other words, our physical labor in Burundi was significantly less important than the relational work.
In countless instances, workcampers and our new Burundian friends got to experience the quirks of one another’s cultures. One evening, we returned from the Gitega market with bolts of cloth we had purchased. The Burundian women taught us how to wear them as skirts and headpieces—and followed the lesson up with a dance tutorial.
Another day, workcamp participant Alexis Charles taught the THARS national staff how to do yoga during a work break. As we chugged water and tried to find shade, she introduced them to stretches like “cobra” and “downward facing dog.” Later she reflected, “In that moment, God showed me how I could use my talent for yoga to build relationships and community with the people of Burundi. [Even in] a country where there was a slight language barrier, love was shared, laughs were made, and yoga brought us closer together.”
The experiences that meant the most to Colby Patton included the informal Kirundi lessons she got during the workday, the rural church service and drum ceremony, and hearing firsthand accounts of the Burundian genocide. “I have learned more about myself on workcamps, like in Burundi, than what I could have learned anywhere else. I have also fostered strong friendships across the world woven with the love of God. I encourage anyone to go somewhere new and embrace the people there, because we have so much to learn!”
The impact of intercultural relationships isn’t reserved just for interactions between Americans and Burundians. Solomon Ntibaharire, another Burundian who worked with us, spoke to the practical use of relationships in peacebuilding work in the context of Burundi: “Relationships go to love. You can’t say I love somebody if I am not relating to him. Here in Burundi we have differences hanging on tribes. I may be a Twa, I may be a Hutu, I may be a Tutsi. So for me to relate to these other tribes, I have to create a way I can meet them. To visit them where they are in trouble, or to come to my home when I have something good.”
This is a valuable lesson for those of us interested in peacemaking. We can love humanity in the abstract as much as we want, but we can only start building peace when we get to know our neighbors—both locally and globally.
When we travel and visit with one another, our relationship becomes less abstract and more meaningful. As we seek to be in community with people and cultures from around the world, we must truly desire to build relationships and listen to one another. This is the true value of a workcamp. The work itself is peripheral to the conversations, songs, jokes, and cultural discoveries that take place while we live and work among our fellow humans.
As our work song implied, the work isn’t the goal. It’s the cola at the end of the day, shared on the lawn with the people who labored alongside you.
Victoria Bateman is associate in the Church of the Brethren Office of Peacebuilding and Policy, serving through Brethren Volunteer Service.