Mzungu Memoirs

Healing the Burundian Genocide

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.  James 1:27

My first major project serving here in East Africa was joining a design team in Burundi, returning to the land where I served in 2005.  Burundians are warm, hospitable and friendly.  Despite a dark past, they have a hope for the future.

Denise Patch spent several years of her childhood in Burundi with her missionary family.  Leaving Burundi at the age of 15 to return to the United States, she was forever changed by her love for the Burundian people and her family’s compassionate lifestyle.  Eleven years later, in 1993, Burundi erupted into ethnic conflict that eventually wiped out hundreds of thousands of people, mostly men.  Many of them were husbands and fathers of families Denise knew personally.

The civil war lasted for more than a decade leaving in its wake thousands of widows, orphaned children and struggling families.  The average Burundian widow, in her 40s, is caring for at least 4 children and commonly additional orphans.  In this culture, widows are outcasts.  Having no income, no government aid and no advocates, they are frequently victimized.  Burundian widows struggle to meet the basic daily needs of their children and themselves: food, shelter, medical care, clothing, and education.  Although public education is available for children, they cannot attend school without proper supplies and clothing.  Without an education there is no hope for a better future.

Joy Buconyori has true empathy for her widowed countrywomen in Burundi.  In the ethnic violence of 1972, Joy’s childhood was shattered by the country-wide massacres that eventually struck her own village.  All five of Joy’s older brothers were killed.  In 2004, Denise contacted Joy about a way to help Burundian widows and orphans and it was a God-ordained match.  Joy had already been carrying a great burden for the plight of the widows and orphans of her country as the wife of a prominent bishop and the former director of a child sponsorship program.

Both women were convinced that doing nothing was simply not an option. Merging their spheres of influence, Joy began profiling widows for sponsorship and Denise began sharing the opportunity with the women of her church.  By December 2004, dozens of widows had been connected to sponsors and Sister Connection began.  You can read more at

Our team of eleven from four different countries met in Bujumbura, Burundi to serve alongside Sister Connection to master plan a site donated to them due to their recognized service to the widows and orphans of Burundi.  The site is on half of aptly named Mount Hope just south of Gitega in the highlands of central Burundi.

Our team L to R: Jackie Branberg, an agricultural & IT specialist from Colorado Springs, CO; Chad Gamble, a civil engineer from Sacramento, CA who served with eMi for seven years, including six in the East Africa office; Jennifer Ho, a Hong Kong-born architect from Toronto, Ontario; Byron Meliefste, an electrical engineer from Edmonton, Alberta; Amanda Ruksznis, a civil engineer from Seattle, WA; a crazy mzungu living in Kampala, Uganda; Patrick Aylard, a civil engineering tech from British Columbia, who was our team leader and serves in the eMi East Africa office; Miriam Wallace, an architect from Alice Springs, Australia; Jessica Fitz-Gerald, an intern landscape architect serving in the eMi East Africa office and attending the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada; Steve Ulrich, our team co-leader, an architect from Calgary, Alberta who has served with eMi since 2000 and founded the eMi Canada office in 2003; and Hannah Beatty, an intern civil engineer from Shreveport, LA serving in the eMi East Africa office.

We developed a phased master plan for the hilly 20-acre campus to include a central campus with auditorium, dining hall and administrative offices, dorm complex to house over 500, vocational classrooms, site staff housing, guest and teacher housing, conference center and agricultural demonstration fields.  We also schematically designed most of the buildings for the campus, developed water supply and wastewater strategies, electrical demand strategies and agricultural recommendations.

On one Sunday, our team attended a rural church where Denise and her family had worshiped years ago in the bush outside of Gitega.  An Anglican/Romanesque brick church atop a prominent hill, this structure had been used as headquarters for a guerilla faction army during the atrocities of the civil war that ravaged this country.  Now a vibrant energetic church, I was struck by the contrast of its recent past and the birth out of the ashes.  It is a reminder of how God can create good from bad and how the battle is already won.

I ended up preaching about a 15-20 minute sermon at this church as our team was asked a couple of days prior to ‘share a few words.’  As we entered the church, I was asked to join several pastors and the ministry leaders of Sister Connection on the platform at the front of the church.  The sermon is typically presented at the end of African church services, which tend to be 2-3 hours long.  Needless to say, I was quite nervous, sweating and feeling much like Moses…not gifted for speech.  After our entire team was introduced early in the service, there were many songs, choir dance presentations, prayers, announcements, two offerings and, after what seemed like an eternity, I was on deck.

It started raining very heavily just before I got up to speak and after I gave a greeting in Kirundi and several halleluias and praises, an incredible clap of thunder clapped.  I responded with, “So then God speaks!”  I told the crowd of 400+ (although one of our team members counted rows and thought there was more like 1,000) that I was going to try to become a Burundian.  I grabbed a local cloth and draped it around my body like many Burundian men wear.  I then asked Miriam, one of my teammates, if she thought I was now Burundian.  She responded, wiping my very white arm, and said, “Nope, you’re still a mzungu!”  Then, I had another idea, taking a wood staff, often used by men and asked the same question.  Again, I am still mzungu.  I then asked if learning to play the drums would make me Burundian.  Miriam’s response…”You can’t sing very well and you don’t have much rhythym!”

It was a huge hit and I tied the object lesson into the fact that I will never be Burundian and I cannot escape the way God made me.  I used 1 Corinthians 12 which uses the analogy of the parts of the body and the body of Christ.  I told them that each of them was special, made by God and unlike anyone else on the planet, tying into Ephesians 2:10.  I then talked about my gifts as an architect and that I use them for the Kingdom.  I shared that I have colored pens and markers that I use to design buildings and master plans.  I told the church that each of them are like those pens, each with a beautiful color that has a place in the work of the Kingdom.  I told them that God can paint a masterpiece with our colors.  I then wrapped up with an encouragement from the end of Romans 8, explaining that nothing on this earth can take the gift of Christ or the love of God away from them.  A couple of other team members also shared a few words of encouragement, including Chad Gamble and Patrick Aylard.

I also had the pleasure of visiting a project site I helped design in 2005, briefly visiting the ministry leader from that trip and visiting yet another ministry site I assisted with 3-D drawings in 2006.  This ministry is also pursuing eMi for potential design assistance with the next phase of expanding their campus in Bujumbura.

I have been impacted and moved by many of the ministries I have worked alongside throughout my years of serving with eMi.  However, this ministry struck me as being very near the heart of God, ministering to some of the most vulnerable in one of the poorest countries on the planet.  I feel God is honored by the work of this ministry and I have been blessed to be just a small part as the hands of Jesus to help design their campus.

posted by Robert in Uncategorized and have Comment (1)

One Response to “Healing the Burundian Genocide”

  1. Janet says:

    I love reading your stories about your adventures. Robert, I liked your object lesson. Heather, I like reading about your learning experiences in your daily life with Caleb and Robert. Your family is being such a witness! May God continue to bless and hold you up. Love, Janet