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A Letter from Jodi (October 2011)

Dear Family and Friends,

I recently visited Bishop Sixbert Macumi of the Anglican Diocese of Buye in northern Burundi. We had a wonderful meeting, during which Bishop Sixbert shared with me his understanding about partnership. He said it's about learning to know one another, learning about the world, learning about how we can pray for one another. He illustrated this with a Burundian proverb: 


Umwana atagenda yibaza ko nyina wiwe ariwe azi guteka.

(The child who has not traveled thinks that only its own mother knows how to cook.)

I feel I learn something new everyday about how Burundians "cook." I'm trying to return the favor by helping local youth "travel" into our language and culture, by offering informal English sessions to secondary students from several schools in my local area. They come in the afternoons in small groups, by grade level: Grade Sevens on Monday, Grade Eights on Tuesday, Grade Nines on Wednesday, and Grade Tens on Thursday, which completes the junior cycle of high school in Burundi. On Friday, everyone is welcome, and we've been talking about what they'd like to do then. Requests range from drama to a choir to sports to discussions about human rights and development, or, in the striking words of one 10th Grader, "The shaping of our future -- How will I manage to save my people?"

So far, we've been gathering at my home. We sit around the table in my living/dining room, and the students show me their English notebooks and text book, pointing out what they're having trouble understanding. By Grades Nine and Ten, they have a lot of material to assimilate. Teachers in Burundi tend to use the "talk and chalk" method, writing a lesson on the board and then going over it orally, with perhaps a little time at the end for some exercises. Many students are so busy trying to copy the lesson and exercises into their notebooks that they don't really follow what the teacher is saying. Without notes, they'll have nothing to study for tests and exams. Yet without listening, asking questions, and speaking for themselves, they have little chance of really learning a new language.

In our afternoon sessions, I use my laptop as a blackboard, typing in new words or expressions, clarifying certain points of grammar or vocabulary, and most importantly, improvising exercises for them to complete orally. From time to time I give them a few minutes to take notes. The fascinating allure of the laptop helps keep their attention focused on what we're figuring out together, and the small-group size requires everyone to speak frequently, and allows me to query them individually about what they do and don't understand. While some are at the computer, others experiment with my camera to document the beginnings of what we hope will be a local youth program. (You can see a debut photograph by Estella Niyonsenga, along with some of my own, on our website, where a version of this letter also appears: www.onthegroundinburundi.org).

I'm impressed at some of the lessons I've seen in notebooks: the difference between "little" and "a little" when expressing relative amounts: "I have a little money" (neutral or modest) vs. "I have little money" (negative); a short text demonstrating various uses of "to get": to get on a bus, to get to a destination, to get one's suitcase back after a fellow passenger has thrown it out the window. Most of all, I'm impressed at how eager and quick they are to learn. One Grade 7 girl named Médiatrice Hakizimana came out on a rainy Monday afternoon when I assumed no-one would show up. She arrived wet, shivering, and completely determined to master the current lesson in her class. She told me she'd failed 7th Grade on her first try at a school in Bujumbura because of chronic illness. She came home to our region to try again at a local school. I met her after attending a service at the Quaker Church on my hill, a church Médiatrice has joined because she experienced healing there. "I want to learn English," she told me, in Kirundi. Over the course of her lesson at my house, I realized that she really doesn't understand French at all. This is one of the great challenges facing rural students -- their low level of French, which is the language of instruction beginning in Grade Five. But what they're all asking me for is English. There's a proposal to make English the third official language of Burundi, and I wouldn't be surprised if it became the language of instruction ten years from now, as it already is in Rwanda.

The other thing students and adult professionals alike are asking for is computer training. I've told the youth that we hope that will come, when we have our own center, perhaps with solar panels. I look forward to the day when a group of motivated well-wishers visits us, each transporting a laptop in his or her luggage. There's so much potential here -- intelligence, determination, and a genuine love of learning. Internet coverage is expanding rapidly in Burundi. (I posted text and photos to our website from a beer joint a few kilometers up the road from my home.) As ON THE GROUND IN BURUNDI gets established in North America, we hope to meet expanding electricity and internet networks in the hills of north-central Burundi. So much good can and will happen here.

I hope and pray that much good is happening for you also. Thank you for the messages of support you send me, and also for your news. I feel at times that I'm living in another world here. It's a world I love very much. But I want and need to stay in touch with you, too, some of whom have known me since I was a child, or since we began university together over thirty years ago. Thank you for keeping me in your thoughts, and for reaching out to me from the other side of the world.