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Seven years ago, I took a teaching sabbatical in Burundi. When I set foot on U.S. soil again, I had the exact opposite of a sense of accomplishment. This ambivalence would continue. In fact, I’m still processing it now.

Just this month, a faculty workshop reminded me of this when slides warned of the inevitable “disappointment and mistakes that accompany racial justice work.” I was challenged to practice a mode of teaching and living “that listens to and partners with minoritized communities.”1

Years after my sabbatical, here I am, still asking myself, did I do that? Not entirely. But now I can see that some seeds planted in 2015 grew (if slowly) and bore fruit.

The first good seed started before the trip: As with so many things in life, I was not looking for this, but it was looking for me. Through a long chain of intermediaries and coincidences, the dean of the medical school at Hope Africa University asked if I could teach medical students Pathological Biochemistry, an area of need for accreditation. No one in the country could teach it at the time, and I had sabbatical time coming up.

My biggest concern (and potential excuse) was that Burundi is a Francophone nation, meaning that most students’ native language is Kirundi, and they learn French in school. English is the third language for a minority. I myself only know two spoken languages: I took German in college, and in high school, Latin.

But technology and friendship helped bridge the gap (and even my Latin helped familiarize French words). I found a tiny but bright digital projector to show a second screen, allowing two side-by-wide projections in English and French. Google Translate turned my English slides in a serviceable first draft in French, but it wasn’t good enough.

A Burundian student named Elvis fixed my slides. While I was still jet-lagged, he met with me for a marathon editing session. Elvis was a study partner, a friend of the sort I hadn’t had since I was an undergraduate. He continued to check in on me throughout my time there and is now checking in on his own patients as an Ob/Gyn practicing in Africa. This friendship was a second good seed.

Of course, my first lecture was filled with mistakes. I tried to connect by mentioning that my hometown Seattle Seahawks were Super Bowl champions but got blank stares. I should have known that everywhere else, the important football is not American football. Then, I was explaining basic lab instruments and said that a centrifuge works like a salad spinner. Burundians don’t eat much lettuce, and don’t have much use (or money) for gadgets like that. I spun my arms around, which got the point across.

So I kept trying and listening. The colorful caps for blood collection tubes were something they had seen in the clinic, so I could tell that this mattered to them, and I took extra time explaining these. I emphasized jaundice because it was something they encountered on rounds. And my preparation did count for something: I had collected some papers published that year explaining the connection between sickle-cell disease and malaria, so they may have been the first in the nation to learn that now well-established fact.

After a few weeks, I was getting the hang of it, but then, we were caught up in national events beyond our ability to control, a complex constitutional crisis. Due to political instability and protests, the university shut down before my classes were finished.

After a week of waiting, it became obvious that normalcy was far away, and I had to go. So I transitioned to emergency remote instruction (I never even suspected that we would all do this five years later with COVID.). I left behind a few recorded lectures and a final exam, hoping students could convene and finish the course at some point. But I wasn’t sure of anything – hence, my ambivalence upon repatriation.

But the quizzes, slides, and audio recordings I left behind were also seeds. They grew over the rest of the year, and through the years following, until about 100 students worked their way through the material and completed the quizzes and exam, meeting the curricular standards.

So after I stepped off that plane in 2015, I would have to wait for years to see the results. In 2018, 79 medical students graduated from Hope Africa University, resplendent in the bright green stoles of their discipline. Almost half of them were women. In February 2020, 96 more physicians graduated, including some I had taught in 2019 through a remotely broadcast course thanks to improved internet (at a time of day that was pre-dawn for me and pre-dinner for them).2 They endured more than we can imagine — riots, months of delays, and constantly shifting governmental standards – to earn their doctor’s coats.

In August, this blog carried an essay by Perry Glanzer titled “Rugged Dreams: What Today’s Students Lack” contrasting a 70-year-old widow who chose to serve in Russia rather than retire in the US to the common desire for comfort and quiet. A commenter, Shirley Roels, replied “Students in the Majority World are more likely to have experienced rugged contexts where things fall apart.”3

They certainly have. When Burundi fell apart in 2015, I lost control of my teaching, but it was completed thanks to the work of the students, as facilitated by Dean Dr. G. Randall Bond and Dr. Alyssa Pfister, among others. I planted, they watered, and Burundian doctors are now practicing medicine.

At the same time as I read “Rugged Dreams,” I was also reading Willie James Jennings’s The Christian Imagination, who called in a different way for us to forsake comfort. Jennings says we need to take “the real risks of faith, a risk found only in the space of possible joining, and a destiny marked by love. We are in need of a vision of the journey of faith imagined as the joining of peoples now separated by violence, poverty, or race.”4

This is a tall order that I didn’t achieve. This joining of peoples has only just begun, but some seeds were planted between the times when Elvis and I edited the French slides and when the students completed their final exams. These seeds grew into branches and tangled tendrils in the ecosystem of lives comingled.

I didn’t risk as much as my students did in day to day life, and our interrupted time together was even shorter than expected. But I hope within these strict limits that some connections of what Jennings calls a “global kinship network” were formed.

Kinship means that you listen to your family and trust them and put them first. In Burundi, I slowly got better at that. Jennings gives a stark history of colonial education where that did not happen, where “a robust Christian pedagogy made little difference in the social situation.”5 The colonial powers taught precepts of doctrine but failed to respect South American and African students. Now those branches have withered.

I combine Jennings’s history with my own experience using the lens of Romans 11, where Paul tells the Gentile Romans that they have been grafted into Israel: “And if … you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.” (Romans 11:17-18 NKJV)

On my sabbatical, I was a visiting adjunct, grafted in and then broken off from that community too quickly. But God, who uses broken things to his glory, still gave good fruit.

In these difficult times, I don’t often feel rugged, but I can remember that my students were, and are. I think of the Burundian doctors practicing today, and how my teaching led them through a few steps on the path to practice. I take this on faith, not knowing how or what they are accomplishing. Despite all the hardships, these branches are bearing the fruit for the healing of the nations today.

Footnotes

  1. Lori D. Patton and Chayla Haynes, “Dear White People: Reimagining whiteness in the struggle for racial equity,” Change 52, no. 2 (2020): 41-45.
  2. About 90% of these students stay in Burundi to practice medicine, meaning there might be 150 doctors practicing there today who learned from my voice (whether live or recorded). The entire country only employs 613 doctors according “Healthcare in Burundi.” https://www.worlddata.info/africa/burundi/health.php. Accessed September 8, 2022.
  3. Perry L. Glanzer, “Rugged Dreams: What Today’s Students Lack,” Christian Scholar’s Review Blog, posted August 22, 2022. https://christianscholars.com/rugged-dreams-what-todays-students-lack/
  4. Willie James Jennings. The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. (Yale University Press, 2010), 286.
  5. Jennings. The Christian Imagination, 284.

Ben McFarland

Ben McFarland, Professor of Biochemistry, Seattle Pacific University.

One Comment

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    I am reminded that the One who called the universe into being by the power of His word, created us in His image and likeness from dust, and sends demons fleeing in response to His command, can handle the sometimes horrible messes we create and bring fruit that we cannot imagine because He is all-powerful, holy and good.