ICM Presence Remains In Burundi
By Sister Agnes Minerva ICM and Sister Josephine ICM
Sr Josephine serves in the Diocese of Bujumbura, Burundi, as nurse. Sr Agnes Minerva shares life with children with mental disabilities. They belong to the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the ICM Sisters, popularly known in the Philippines before as ‘the Belgian Sisters.’ The background to this story is the war that began after the assassination of President Melchior Ndadaye in an attempted military coup on 21 October 1993. Ten years of war led to 300,000 deaths, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The estimated population in 2004 was around 6, 200,00, but its difficutlt to get accurate figures.
The sky was clear as we reached Munanira, which my co-sisters had spoken about so often. It was indeed a beautiful place. I felt so much at home that I said to myself, ‘I’m in Bauko, MountainProvince.’ We were at the former ICM convent, in a place where the people of Burundi have known much suffering during the last ten years or so. We went straight to the chapel in the Sisters’ convent and thanked God for the gift of mission and asked pardon for the many times that as missionaries we hadn’t respected in one way or another, consciously and unconsciously, the ‘footprints of God’ in the land. I was grateful for this pilgrimage to Munanira, one of many places where we were celebrating 60 years of ICM presence in Burundi.
I started to go back to the past trying to imagine the life of our Sisters here when the war began. Words written in Kirundi, the main language of Burundi, on one of the convent walls caught my attention. ‘Ugasabikanya n’ubutmwa bw’umukristu wese . . .’ Sister Josephine explained that these meant ‘the mission of every Christian to share, to work with each another, each taking responsibility in mission work.’ She had lived, prayed, ate and slept in this house to serve the sick, and the babies and their mothers. I wondered how her life and apostolate had been; what were the hopes, fears and longings of the people during her time? Twenty-one years after first arriving in Munanira, how did she see it now? I couldn’t help but feel with her as she pondered the wonders of God’s re-creating love as she narrated her story.
Sister Josephine’s Story
Revisiting my first African mission post has deeply touched me in many ways. I couldn’t help my tears flowing as we prayed -- tears of joy and gratitude for new life, new beginnings. To think that in 1993 all teachers and local government employees, except one, were beaten to death and buried in a common grave. When we arrived in mid-morning the people, including Muslims, had gathered close to the church for an inter-faith service. So many stories, beautiful, painful, life-giving experiences, that I could only be grateful. I recall the nights when neighbors came knocking on my window because someone was sick or a baby about to be born. No second thoughts as to whether it was safe to bring someone to the hospital 40 kilometers away after midnight even though Sr Marie Louise, as I recalled, reminded us more than once that she’d met wild deer on that trip. I remembered another elderly, ‘stone deaf’ Sister who’d remind us at recreation each time the plane of Sabena, Belgian Airlines, flew over our house. We had two hours of electricity, thanks to our generator, but no running water.
One day when I was alone, a young man came whose mouth and jaws had been torn apart by a bull. But he was so trusting that I could slowly but surely suture everything together. What a first experience! What about the man whose tooth was gone except for its roots? No way to convince him to see a dentist in the next province. Where would he get the bus-fare? And the sad parents of the one-eyed, new-born baby. And an old man gasping for breath, bleeding from the mouth. With forceps and much physical strength I removed a well-nourished leech from his throat. At 4pm every Friday we had prayer together with the staff, each in turn preparing the readings and songs.
Some memories made me smile. One day four men carrying an inderuzo, stretcher, arrived with a man whom they had gone to bury earlier but who had then started to move! One Easter morning a young man came after me saying, ‘Mama tuvuye mu Misa ibiri,’ ‘Sister, we had two Masses.’ The Easter vigil had lasted till the wee hours because of the many baptisms!
I recalled that at one of the regular Thursday mass-weddings, a bridegroom carefully took his portable kneeler out of his pocket. It was a bra! And Boniface, a Mutwa, another ethnic group, who fell in line with the rest of the sick for Holy Communion, thinking he would be treated for his illness.
Eight years before our visit we ICM Sisters had to leave Munanira because we were caught between warring groups and were isolated for weeks. However, full of hope, we left everything in the hands of the people themselves.
Hearing Sister Josephine’s stories, and seeing Munanira now, I really feel that there was so much to be proud of and to feel good about. The house is still intact, not a single piece of furniture out of place, nothing broken, according to Sr Josephine. The local congregation of Sisters there now are a concrete manifestation that the people had valued our presence. Most importantly, what we ICM Sisters started in the parish continues without us. Our presence remains in and with the parishioners and the local Sisters as they themselves carry on the responsibility, a very precious gift for us ICMs on this occasion of the DIAMOND JUBILEE of our presence in Burundi.