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This 40-something, white American woman just experienced a developing country for the first time; and not just one, but several. I readily admit my sheltered upbringing in the heart of the U.S., but believed my daily work for Stop Hunger Now had prepared me. What I discovered is that there is nothing like seeing, hearing and smelling firsthand. Even so, the adventure would mean little if I did not share a few thoughts. So, here we go.

buru-LMAP-mdAlong with my colleague and friend, Nina DaSilva Batista, I recently set off for Burundi (noted in the map to the right) in the Great Lakes region of Africa, south of the equator, to visit a few of our impact partners. The travel plan included layovers in Ethiopia and Kenya before we landed in Bujumbura, the largest city in Burundi. During our stay, we visited Rukago, Ngozi, Gitega and many small villages throughout Burundi, as well as Kigali and Butare in Rwanda. My impressions of Africa that I’d formed from school, books, magazines and public media were soon challenged. Assuming you may be surprised too, I’ll share four things you should know about this vast land.

1)     Africa is diverse and rich in cultural heritage. It is a gigantic continent, not a single country (despite grade school geography, this still trips up many.) More than 50 countries exist within Africa’s borders. Africans in the Great Lakes region travel from one country to the next as easily as Americans travel from state to state – undeterred by customs stops. Our new friends included people from the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Netherlands, England, Ireland, Canada – and even the U.S.

We heard Swahili, Kirundi, Kinyarwanda, French and English spoken regularly and learned greetings and phrases in more than one language during our stay. There are a few words that fortunately seem recognizable by all natives, like “bye bye” and “toilet.” Derivatives of Swahili are spoken in many African countries even though it is not always the native tongue, so a safe greeting is “jambo” (pronounced yahm-bow), which means “hello.”

If your skin is pale, you will become all too familiar with “mzungu!” (white person), which children love to shout to announce your arrival. Natives of Burundi and Rwanda learn French when they enter primary school, so basics we know in the U.S. like “bonjour” and “oui” are helpful. English is not learned until secondary school and very few finish; so there are even fewer who speak English fluently. Recently, Rwanda adopted English as its first language to support foreign investment and economic development; the impact can already be seen in Kigali, the capital city, with its modern high rises and pristine landscape. This was in sharp contrast to most communities.

We noticed a cross-over of cultures not only in language, but in music, foods, art and architecture. While the U.S. may be considered a melting pot, globalization has similar effects in nations around the world.

2)     Africa is not just savannas or desert with soaring hot temperatures. The terrain and climate are just as varied as in the U.S. In Burundi and Rwanda – although I’d seen photos prior to our visit, I was awed by land ripe with mountain ranges and deep valleys full of springs, rivers and lakes. The red clay earth and lush vegetation with towns and cities built upon the hillsides reminded me of the Mediterranean or Central America rather than Africa.

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Because the countries are so close to the equator, the climate is mild and temperate year-round – usually in the 70s to 80s. The temperature in the mountains is of course cooler, and then much warmer in Bujumbura along Lake Tanganyika. Proximity to the equator also means that the days are shorter; daylight begins at 6 am and ends around 6 pm. The early sunset required a mental adjustment for me. Rather than summer and winter, Burundi has a wet season (February – May) and a dry season (June – September).

3)     While the landscapes were beautiful, the real Africa is not at all like the artistic photographs found in National Geographic. Those images on glossy paper glamorize the raw, gritty reality. While larger cities have seen advancement during the last decade, Burundi and Rwanda are still very poor countries and the poverty is evident. The Pygmy people in the remote hills still live in grass huts, while common people live in shanties made from red clay bricks or mud. If you have a little money, your home may be built with oven-fired bricks – but you likely still have a dirt floor. Most do not have plumbing or electricity in their homes and must carry water in yellow plastic jugs from springs or community fountains.

Poverty can not only be seen, but also smelled. When we first arrived in Buterere, a slum outside Bujumbura, an offensive odor lingered in the air and I could not identify it. It was not until the next morning as we drove down the narrow, red dirt roads that I recognized the noxious fumes from plastic burning in trash piles right outside the doors of crude homes. The Buterere market consisted of makeshift kiosks built from random lumber scraps and resembled children’s lemonade stands. The images and smells were surreal. This was just the first day, before our visits to remote villages where I met barefoot children with swollen bellies, a telltale sign of severe malnutrition.

4)     African people are happy. They celebrate the small stuff, as well as key life events. Everywhere we visited, the people welcomed us with song and dance. The Burundian drummers in the Bujumbura roundabout. The teen girls in Rukago. The tiny, toddler orphans and Salesian sisters in remote Kiyange. The secondary school boys in Ngozi and Buterere with their traditional drums, African hip hop and American pop tunes. The street kids in Gitega, who shouted and leapt with joy after nightfall. The Pygmy villagers who clapped and serenaded us as we arrived and departed. Live music filled the night air in Bujumbura, long after the sun sank.

Not only do the people dance, they insist you join along. Don’t bother refusing; they will pull you out on the dance floor anyway.

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No matter their personal circumstances – poverty-stricken or comfortable, rural or city dweller, the joy expressed by the African people was overwhelming and contagious. Early in our trip when I was sharing a little sadness about the adversity and few modern conveniences, Nina reminded me of their happiness. There is no doubt that there are basic human needs which go unmet – and organizations like Stop Hunger Now work diligently to provide them. Yet in our enthusiasm to help others, those of us in the developed world often get it wrong when we start believing that people must share the exact same opportunities to live a full and happy life.

Stop Hunger Now supports transformational development in Burundi, including feeding programs for schools, vocational centers, health clinics, and orphanages, through the work of our impact partners, Salesian Missions and LeSEA Global Feed the Hungry.