Thursday, May 28, 2009

Toward Engagement

Last Friday my brother in law, Augustine, took a step toward engagement.  In Burundian culture this is the first in a collection of ceremonies that lead to marriage.  This first ceremony is called gusaba irembo and is for close family only.  This ceremony is where the families first meet and the man's family asks for the door between the families to be open for connection, conversation and eventually marriage.  

The ceremony begins at the door, when the women of the family bring baskets of goods to offer to the woman's mother.  In our case, the women with baskets are my sisters-in-law and aunts. (Augustine wanted me to be part of this entourage.  While I am honored that he selected me and even believed I could balance a basket on my head... I am glad Claude persuaded him otherwise!) The baskets are filled with bags of rice, beans and bottles of beverages.  These gifts to the family indicate that this is a significant visit.

Once the baskets are given, our family is ushered to the front lawn where there are tents set up in anticipation of our arrival.  The Nikondeha clan sits together on one side of the tent while Martine's family sits on the other side.  We are served drinks and there is hushed conversation and murmured laugher among each family.  This goes on for about an hour.  

You can see here my Augustine tucked in the corner, sitting quietly, surrounded by his sisters and aunts.  The protocol dictates that he not say anything to Martine's family during this ceremony.  He does not speak for his hoped-for-bride, this honor is delegated to the elder of the family.  If our papa (Andre Nikondeha) was here, the responsibility would be his.  But in his stead, stood his brother Aloys.  So Uncle Aloys would represent the family, speak for the interests of Augustine and ask for the open door between the families gathered under the tents. But he would not speak until invited to... by Martine's father.  And as I said, we sipped fanta for over an hour before that part of the evening was initiated!

But at long last Martine's father, a military man, did engage the family in conversation.  And as is the tradition, he began by noting the gifts brought, indicating that this was a special visit.  So he asks the nature of our visit tonight.  (Keep in mind, we all know why we are gathered here tonight, but for the sake of the ceremony, everyone plays along with the etiquette.)  Then Uncle Aloys speaks.  His opening remark included the acknowledgement that while it is his tongue speaking, it is the word of Andre Nikondeha being communicated on behalf of Augustine.  Then he rehearsed the merits of my brother and how beloved he is by the family seated here.  Then he reminds all of how Augustine and Martine first met.  And then the question... if the door between the families can be open for conversation.  At this point we all clap and everyone takes a sip of soda.

Then Marine's father says 'ego' (yes), we can be in conversation.  More clapping and more sipping of soda by all!  Then he says that certainly our families can talk together, and that he hopes we will visit he and his wife and friends often.  (The joke is not missed... because the ones really wanting to visit one another are Martine and Augustine!)  But there is more clapping and drinking.  Then it is Uncle Aloys' turn...

This goes on for a while, the back and forth of speeches, clapping and drinking.  Part of the conversation included the recital of family history.  Uncle Aloys shared that the Nikondeha Family came from a certain province and a certain mountain and is of a certain clan.  (I learned, for the first time, that we are from the Sons of Tiger clan.  This is a highly esteemed clan in Burundian culture, apparently.  I would have learned this had Claude and I had an gusaba irembo of our own - but we modified a few traditions in our union!)  Then we learned about Martine's family profile, though with fewer details.  But then the two family men spent quite some time debating the clan history and who knew the historical lore better.  All the while, the rest of us clapped and drank at regular intervals.  (Here is Uncle Aloys, seated in the middle. On either side are Claude's older brothers and their wives.)

We were invited into the house for a lovely meal and then came the after dinner drinks.  The military family certainly drank more lavishly than our family of pastors!  I think our reserve disappointed them.  But this is how it is when different families open the doors to relationship - we learn about what we hold in common and where we differ.  

You may wonder why there is no mention of Martine's role in the evening and no photo of the lovely bride-to-be.  This, too, is part of the protocol.  She is unseen, cloistered in the house for the entire evening.  (Augustine told me that he imagined her watching through one of the windows, peeking from behind the lace curtains!)  But she is invisible in a ceremony that will begin a shift in her life.  This is a reminder of how women are often seen in such cultures and in ages that predate us.  

I was told that the next phase of the engagement will be the negotiation of the dowry.  Uncle Aloys will come to see Martine's father and have a more private and candid conversation about the financial gift that is part of the tradition.  Here is where he will make his case for what he believes his daughter is worth.  (This is hard for us to imagine as Westerners, but it is part of the process to this day in Burundi.)  Once the price is set, the next step will be the ceremony involving the exchange of the dowry.  I am told this includes more family members, more speeches, the presence of both Martine & Augustine and... more clapping and drinking!  

But this is the beginning of the engagement.  Now the door has been opened between our families.  

P.S. As I observe all this, I think Claude got off pretty easy!  He did not have to bring baskets of food, negotiate a price, host more ceremonies....  But I think that over time he has certainly paid the price for his bride!  

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


There is something about Burundian residential architecture that has often fascinated me - the open bricks at the roof-line of each room.  These bricks appear in a variety of patterns that vary from home to home, and they are all screened to prevent unwanted things from entering the home (like bugs, I imagine).  The purpose the open bricks - to aerate the home.  These openings in each room keep air moving through the home at all times.  Instead of air-conditioning, Burundian homes have air-circulating!  

Last Saturday afternoon I noticed the movement of the air as I drifted into a welcomed nap. The air brought in more than just ventilation, it carried an aroma of the food being cooked in the house next door.  I could smell the tomato, the spice, the sweet note of the sauce simmering over the charcoals.  I could also hear the music playing from a few different homes at once - an African beat, some Fifty Cent and the ubiquitous Celine Dion all at once.  It was a cacophony that was circulating around my room and interrupting my attempted afternoon sleep.  But these openings are never shut, and so you are ever exposed to the sensation, sounds and smells of the outer world.

These openings are like portals to the neighborhood around me.  I hear the favorite music of my neighbors.  I know when they are cooking - from both the aroma wafting from their outdoor kitchen and the sound of clanking dishes.  I hear, un-muted and un-muffled, the rooster chorus each morning, the workman constructing the wall next door with heavy-handed hammers, the laughter of friends in the cool, darkening evening.  These openings keep me connected to my surroundings in a very unmediated way.  I feel the very rhythm of my neighborhood, I experience it with my senses.   

The structured openness of Burundian homes is something I am coming to enjoy.  It is also something I am realizing I need to learn from.  I need to have a practiced and perpetual openness to the world around me, to aerate my soul in ways that keep me immediately aware of my surroundings.  It is easy to live behind locked windows, shuttered from the things that are around me.  I can choose to shut out unwanted influences, or I can just become acclimated to living with the windows shut and not even notice how out of touch I am with my environment.  I can miss opportunities or the voices of those in need can be muted, never gaining my attention.  But I don't want to live a life that is closed off.   I want a ventilated soul - open to the world around me.  Now learning how to do this... that is something I will need to explore.  But I want to be exposed, to be open, to not miss being where I am.

This Saturday, before the above mentioned nap, the family went to Bora Bora for a pizza lunch. They have a great thin-crusted pizza garnished with fresh basil that I love!  But the view... stunning!  And the air was certainly circulating, the breeze coming off of Lake Tanganyika.  Life is good... so I want to remain open to receive and savor it!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

One Week In

We are one week in to our Burundian season as a family!  This is the first photo of the kids back together after 2 months apart.  They are adjusting quite nicely!  Today we had a relaxed Saturday around the house.  Claude and the kids relaxed in the front room together while I read upstairs.  Later Claude and I sat on the porch discussing transformation, reformation and redemptive suffering over tea.  

Then Aimable and Mutama helped prepare a little plot of dirt for the seeds I brought.  Once the dirt was tilled, they decided it was too poor to plant anything. So they walked down the street, to a field where things were growing in abundance, and brought in bags of top soil one by one. The soil now was dark and rich - ready to receive the seeds!  So carefully Aimable and Claude dropped the seeds into the ground in long lines.  Rosemary, sage, arugula,  parsley, basil, thyme and mint all have a place in the garden.  Now I look at the square of soil with such glee and hope!  Maybe in a few weeks I will begin to see sprouts of green herbage peek through...

Our friend Nicole dropped by to welcome me to town.  We shared lunch then moved to the patio for conversation and cool beverages.  It was nice to relax together and enjoy an unhurried afternoon of conversation.  Claude is hosting another set of friends as we speak - it is now Saturday night, after all!

P.S.  It has been raining on and off the past few days.  One thing I have been reminded of is that when it rains, we often lose our internet connection.  We were without it for the last 24 hours. So friends, if we do not respond to your email promptly - check the weather report, it might just be raining in Bujumbura!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Seeing Orange

Claude found us a brilliant and vibrant house... it is orange!  In Burundi this makes perfect sense and is part of the local aesthetic.  I think it is so wonderful... this would never fly in many HOA's in the States, but here it is part of a colorful palette that makes our neighborhood pulse with life.  I am posting a photo so you can share in the smile that crosses my face every time I turn the corner and see our home...

We have a patio that is well suited to morning tea, afternoon chats and evenings when you want to find the cool spot to recline.  I am thinking this might be a favorite spot of mine...

I have previously mentioned that there some interesting things I was packing for Burundi, among them some decor items.  And to honor the local protocol, I brought a picture of our president.  Yesterday we had it framed and hung... and so we now have a proper African home! I was told today by a friend that there is already an Obama Shop in downtown Bujumbura - the proprietors changed the name of their store to honor Africa's most recent export!  And I have already seen an Obama bus... that was a given, right!  (For those who don't share Africa's affection and enthusiasm for the president, kindly refrain from comments on this post.  I am sharing part of the story here as I experience it, so no need for debate. Thanks!)

We also are working on a few other rooms... living room and dining room among them.  You know how pulling a home together is a work in progress, but we are taking strides.

This morning I enjoyed a few other favorite things I packed for the season in Burundi... I sat in the warming morning and enjoyed some rooibos tea sweetened with sugar in my orange mug.  I am pages away from completing The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, a great book on confronting our inner creative battles.  Not that I see life in Burundi as a battle (anymore!), but it is good to have some encouragement to not let Resistance keep me from fully engaging in my life, call and blessing here.  "When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us... we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings.  Ideas come.  Insights accrete."  So I am sitting down to work - waiting for lightning to strike!  Well, maybe not something that dramatic - but I am confident that faithful work will yield God-given fruit!