The Batwa, also known traditionally as pygmies, are the most marginalized people in Burundi. Small in stature, they have also suffered greatly as the result of tribal conflicts and extreme poverty. In a nation that has been called the hungriest in the world, the Batwa are the hungriest of the hungry.
As with other countries in the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa, Burundi has become very densely populated, making it very difficult for the Batwa to maintain their traditional lifestyle of hunting and gathering. They have literally been pushed into the jungles and left without a place to call their own.
Recent political protests in Burundi have only escalated the overall tension in the nation. The current security situation has deteriorated to the point that many – an estimated 300,000 – have fled the country, adding to the global refugee crisis. For those who have remained in Burundi, there is deep uncertainty about the potential for peace and prosperity within their borders. Many people are losing hope, and patience.
But not Jean Marie. Far away from the centers of conflict, the life of one Batwa man has been transformed in a way that, if given the chance, may give hope to the rest of the nation. Peace may yet be possible in Burundi.
A short time ago, Jean Marie was living in poverty with his wife and four children. “My life was becoming worse day by day and I was watching my children starve.” In addition to the physical realities of being marginalized, Jean Marie’s people were suffering both socially and spiritually. “There was no one who cared about us, no one who advocated for us. In my heart, I thought that God had forgotten us, the Batwa people.”
“Then I heard a voice saying, ‘No, wait. God will come to visit you.’”
God did come to visit Jean Marie through a local ministry called Harvest for Christ. Soon after he heard the voice, he met Venuste, one of the workers with Harvest, who began helping the Batwa community in a variety of practical ways, including primary health care and education.
Through Harvest for Christ, Jean Marie got a job as the night guard at the medical clinic. It was not only the beginning of meaningful work; it was the beginning of a deep friendship. Venuste taught Jean Marie to read and write, as well as helped him build a new house. “When I see my family now,” said Jean Marie, “they are happy, they are blossoming.”
However, Jean Marie’s transformation did not stop there. His new friend, Venuste, began to teach him the Word of God and his heart began to change. By the time Jean Marie decided to follow Jesus and get baptized, his wife was also ready to take this step of faith along with his mother and father as well. A whole community was being transformed.
Since arriving in 2014, the MB Mission team in Burundi has focused their energy on investing in a partnership with Harvest for Christ, especially in their work among the Batwa. Team leaders, Doug and Deanna Hiebert, have had a strong relationship with Harvest for many years, especially with its founder, Onesphore (see Doug’s article in Witness Spring 2014 to read about their journey back to Africa: mbmission.org/return-to-africa). The Hiebert’s teammates, Tyler and Cheryl Schulz, have also devoted much of their resources during their first term in Africa to support the ministry among the Batwa.
“God has truly been at work in the Batwa community,” Cheryl recently shared. “He is reconciling people to himself, and people to one another. Our Harvest partners have acted out their love in daily routines that are proving more meaningful than we can imagine. Now we see people from different tribes eating together, children playing together, and now singing together.”
Jean Marie himself is singing. He is a gifted musician and has composed numerous songs based on verses from the Bible. Recently, he gathered some likeminded people together to start a singing group. “It’s a group that comes from those that were baptized together,” Jean Marie explains. “We are from all three ethnic groups: Hutus, Tutsis and us Batwa.”
Their voices, together, make the sound of peace.
Keeping in mind a painful history and current conflicts, the transformation that is being experienced in Jean Marie’s life, and in his family and community, is truly amazing. It is a glimpse of hope for the nation of Burundi.