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Crossing paths with compassion in Burundi

My second full morning in Africa, I got lost.

It was easy enough to do, I suppose. After flying for two days from the western United States and a hurried hotel stay in the capital of Bujumbura, Burundi, I squeezed into a truck for a two-hour, jolting ride to the small village of Kigutu, a place I had been dreaming about for three years.

That morning I was invited to listen to speakers at the Kigutu Village Health Works annual educational conference, followed by a boisterous and beautiful dance and drumming performance and a generous Burundi feast. I spent the rest of the day fighting jet lag and drinking in the village atmosphere.

As I awoke at 5 a.m. on day two, I literally threw myself out of bed to try and Skype with my husband and not wake my dozing roommates. Washing and dressing a bit later, I wandered around the campus to take some photographs and wait for breakfast. It was early, and I noticed a few stray souls clearly sweeping and setting up on a nearby patio. As I don’t speak a word of French or the native Kirundi, I only hoped to stay out of the way and come back when coffee was ready. Near the medical clinic, I came across a wandering girl, about 10 or 11 years old. I smiled at her and said hello in the only word I knew, “amahoro.” She looked at me and smiled in return.

“Shoes,” she said. Unsure I had heard her right, I repeated the word back to her. She nodded, “Shoes," she said.

As I glanced at her bare feet, a wave of sadness came over me. She didn’t know me, but she knew that any time a white person, a “muzungu,” came to the village, there might be free items given out.

I stayed a minute more and looked up to see several people gathering on the patio for the morning meal. I left the girl, walked up to the patio and began laughing. Clearly I was in the wrong part of the village, as none of my traveling companions or the other volunteers were there. I had gotten lost and stepped into breakfast with most of the Burundi staff, medical doctors, teachers, engineers, computer technicians and gardeners. At once, they stood and offered me a chair. Several spoke enough English to assure me I was welcome. I sat down and began to offer my empty cup for some delicious Burundi coffee. It was at this moment that I looked up and noticed the girl I had met moments ago. She had followed me. In an instant the men and women at the table extended their hearts, hands and smiles to welcome her too. Coffee was poured and bread was offered. I asked one of my new friends to question the girl and ask where she had come from and why she was here. Her answer was simple. Her mother was sick and was being treated at the clinic. Soon the girl’s shyness overcame her, and she begged to leave. I finished quickly and bid my thank you to all the staff.

Later in my trip to help establish a simple school library, I was invited on a morning hike in a nearby town. Clearly the weakest link in this excursion, I immediately fell behind in the brisk three- to four-mile walk up a 500-foot peak. The host generously saw my problem and assigned one of our soldiers to guard me and directed him to lead me on an easier route. Too embarrassed to quit, I followed along as the soldier began hiking. The trail got steeper and steeper. Finally I could see this was an experience where I was not going to look any better and perhaps fall on my face. I waved at my protector, who spoke no English, to let him know I needed a rest. After assessing the situation, he strode over to the trees and bush, took out a long machete and began to cut a walking stick for me. The noise attracted a local young man who came over to see what was happening. I am sure the two had a good laugh about the silly American woman who could not walk, and before I could say or do any more, the local man handed me his own beautiful, white, carved, walking stick. He indicated he would wait with us. It was no bother to him.

Feeling more than a bit helpless, I shared my water with both men and waited until my soldier indicated we should go back. After 20 minutes of walking back down the mountain, the young man bade us goodbye. I rushed to return his beautiful walking stick and wished only that I had the words to tell him of my appreciation.

These two African experiences left deep imprints on my heart. Now the words "Burundi" and "compassion" are interchangeable to me. I can’t help but think of the country, the extraordinary people there and their peaceful generosity. It is extended to all, without reservation. In Kigutu, working together is second nature. Everyone benefits in the end.

Katherine Leppek is from Medford. She is the founder of Books for Kigutu, a charity formed to supply books and educational supplies to the community of Kigutu, Burundi. The group works in partnership with Village Health Works, a medical campus opened in 2007 to bring health, education and financial stability to one of the poorest countries on Earth.

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Katherine Leppek founded Books for Kigutu in 2011. The organization is helping to build a community library. She recently spent 10 days in Burundi working with children like Michele, left, who reads French, Kirundi and some English. He is also an accomplished dancer and drummer.
Traditional drumming, dancing and singing is a big part of Burundi culture. Photos courtesy of Katherine Leppek