The people here are warm and friendly, quick to smile and wave. They are a beautiful people. I especially like their smiles, which light up their whole face. Their smiles are wonderfully described by Tracy Kidder in the book Strength In What Remains when she says of a young Burundi man's face, "It was a night sky full of lights, a picture of eager, trusting friendliness."
The women dress in colorful long dresses, often with matching head scarves. More times than not, they will have a baby wrapped around them on their back and a basket full of something on their head. They dress very modestly here, much more so than we do at home.
Their society works a little different than ours. Here is a Ubuntu legend that gives you some idea of what I'm talking about:
An anthropologist proposed a game to a group of African tribe children. He put a basket of fruit near a tree and told them whoever got there first won the sweet fruits. When he told them to run, they all took each others hands and ran together, then sat together enjoying their treats. When he asked them why they had run like that, as one could have had all the fruits for himself, they said, "Ubuntu, how can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad?" Ubunto in the Xhosa culture means, "I am because we are."
Here in Burundi, the needs of the family are paramount. Thus, if any one member of the family does well, he is obligated to share his good fortune with those in his family who are not doing well. If you have more, you must give it to those with less. This is great for those with less, but not very motivating for someone who is thinking about striving to do better. Maybe that is why there are so many beggars on the streets here. If you have more, then surely you will give some to them. It is hard to have so many people begging you face to face for money. What do you do? How do you react? Do you give to the disfigured child but not to the old woman? To the man with no legs but not to the mother with a child in her arms?
April 7th was the Day of Remembrance that commemorates the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda. Twenty years ago the Hutus started massacring the Tutsis and killed almost one million of them in the space of 100 days. In Rwanda, yesterday President Kagami lit the torch of sorrow which will burn for the 100 days of remembrance. Here in Burundi yesterday was a holiday as well. They commemorate the loss of their president who was killed in an airplane with the president of Rwanda the day the slaughter began. Many were killed here as well. But I do not think Burundi has put the dark days of their civil war behind them as well as has Rwanda.
Feelings about the killings are still evident in Burundi. Two years ago the Church donated wheel chairs to be given out to people who needed them. A woman with a small child who was paralyzed with polio went to the branch president here to request a wheelchair. The branch president told his clerk not to give her a wheelchair because "she is a Hutu. She can't have one." That former clerk is now the new branch president, and today he enlisted our help to go to see if we could get a wheelchair for this woman's child who is now 6. We were unsuccessful at our first attempt, but we will keep trying. I think the new branch president has felt bad ever since the woman was first denied and wants to make it right.