I visited Burundi last week on behalf of Archbishop Justin, and personally, to encourage Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi, the bishops and people of the Anglican Church of Burundi at this time of deep crisis for their nation. Relationships matter; face to face meeting is important in showing that we care. Prayer matters; by it we express our concern and commitment before God. In the mysterious ways of God as we pray for people thousands of miles away it is effective in encouraging others.
The House of Bishops came together for a morning to share with me what is happening around the country. Our news, where there has been any reporting, has focussed on those fleeing the country into Rwanda, Tanzania and Congo. Possibly 150,000 have now fled of a population of around 11 million. Amongst these are many leaders of the political opposition. The other focus has been the demonstrations against President Pierre Nkurunziza standing for a ‘third term’, the attempted coup of May 13th and the continued demonstrations since. The picture they painted for me however was of much larger numbers of people who are internally displaced. But they are not in camps. People have moved away from Bujumbura particularly to stay with family and friends elsewhere in the country. Imagine your home suddenly having up to four times as many people living in it. Add to that that many Burundian homes are small, the plumbing and drainage are poor (or non-existent) and food is becoming more expensive. For just how long can this internal disruption affecting many more than the refugee numbers be sustained? In talking with the pastors of churches in 3 of the most affected areas in Bujumbura on Sundays recently their congregations are down by 30, 50 and 75% simply because people have moved away. Streets that are usually teeming with people are quiet and almost empty.
In the south Nyanza Lac has seen 45% of its population cross into Tanzania. Many of these people only returned from Tanzania in recent years. As they have left they have sold many goods, including the iron sheeting from their roofs. One organisation told me their research suggests leavers have been selling their goods for only 15% of the real value. Once that money runs out on what will they live? When they return how will they rehabilitate their homes again?
But in the north some who have left have started to return and life largely goes on as normal. Here most schools are open whereas in many places they have been closed for the past few weeks. The universities are all closed; hundreds of students sleep rough opposite the U.S. embassy compound. All the boarding schools (that is most of the secondary schools) are closed too. When so many young people are simply hanging around what do they do in their frustration, anger and sheer boredom? Demonstrating can become a way of life for a period.
The word I heard most over these 2 days was ‘Fear’. There is real fear of the violence, and of how it might grow or how violently it might be suppressed. There is fear of the youth militia which appears heavily armed. There is fear of the police taking people away at night, and of torture in police and prison cells. There is fear of a return to the civil war that ended in 2003. One bishop described Burundi as no longer the land of a thousand hills but the land of a thousand rumours. Rumours circulate like wildfire, even with the closing down of social media. Unbelievable things have already happened, so why not believe more unbelievable rumours?
There is deep fear about a developing food crisis. This is not rumour, it is genuine concern expressed by all the NGOs representatives with whom I met. It was the word of a group of women in one of the poorest parts of the city. It is harvest time but with people fleeing not all the harvest will be taken in; where it is it might be hoarded rather than sold. Even greater concern is that because of uncertainty people will not plant in this next season so that there will be no harvest at the end of the year. In a nation where most people simply live from harvest to harvest this would be serious disaster. Oxfam, Christian Aid and others are already trying to plan for the possibility of major humanitarian aid being required. Inflation is rising; without a solution soon this will only become worse. The Central Burundi Bank does not have the resources to hold the Burundi Franc artificially high for very long; especially if the international community withholds funding until free and fair elections are held.
On one level it is hard to be anything other than pessimistic for the next months, whatever political settlement might be reached. So much damage has already been done. Yet I had one of the most stimulating discussions I have had with a group of young men in a long time over lunch by the beautiful Lake Tanganyika. Young Christian business entrepreneurs, young leaders of Christian organisations like Alpha all passionate about wanting to serve Christ fully. Staying put because they love their nation and believe it can have a hopeful future. They want to exemplify integrity and genuine participation for all. There was the Mothers Union group continuing to meet for their literacy and micro-finance meeting. Whilst expressing deep fears they were also expressing a determination to keep living and to keep developing for the good of their families and community. There is the remarkable broadcasting work being supported by Great Lakes Outreach. When independent radio stations have been trashed and forced off the air the Christian radio and TV stations are regularly putting out programmes talking about peace, promoting and encouraging all Burundians to work for the good of the nation, not self interest or power.
There is the quiet determination of Anglican and other Church leaders to promote dialogue and peace in all communities and at the head of the nation. There is the conviction that prayer matters; so 24-7 prayer chains are established in many churches.
For me the challenge is to stand with my sisters and brothers in prayer and to encourage many others to do so. Burundi is one of the very poorest, least significant nations on earth. This is exactly why in God’s economy it really matters. God bless Burundi.

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