The Future Leadership Institute* invited Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe College (Antwerp, Belgium) student Alexandra Boogers to write down her experience at the”World Congress for Jesuit Alumni/ae – Bujumbura (Burundi)”. The World Union of Jesuit Alumni/ae held her six-year congress from 23rd – 27th July 2009. This time it took place in Bujumbura, capital of Burundi. Alexandra Boogers, second year bachelor of medical sciences and alumna from the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe College Antwerp, Belgium was among them. The week before the congress she worked in a centre for children with HIV/AIDS. She testifies her touching experience.
For a better Africa: What did we do? What are we doing? What should we do?
Alexandra Boogers – On the 15th of July I got on an airplane in Brussels together with 2 Belgian youngsters. The World Congress we were going to attend would become an experience that will have an impact on the rest of my life. The journey is hard to put into words. The atmosphere, the smell, the colors … The only way to really understand, is by going there. Nevertheless, I will do my very best to put these experiences into words.
The goal of the journey was participation in the World Congress of Jesuit Alumni/ae. This get- together, which is organized every six years, took place in Africa for the first time. The Lycée du Saint-Esprit of Bujumbura was the hosting college. Prior to the congress, Experiments were organized for the young. In the spirit of Ignatian education, a handful of youngsters from all over the world took part in these projects.
There were 4 projects: 2 in Bujumbura, 1 in Cyangugu (Rwanda) and 1 in Bukavu (DR Congo). Mine was the FVS (Famille pour Vainqueur du SIDA) in Bujumbura. This Transit Centre takes care of about 30 up to 50 children in the ‘top season’. There were 3 types of children: orphans, seropositive children and kids who needed special medical help. The family (or what was left of it) was searched for. If no relatives were found, a foster family was selected. Our job was very easy but at the same time extremely hard: living like and with the children. We participated in their daily activities like sorting beans and rice. The contact with the children wasn’t that easy. Only a minority of them spoke French. But with some creativity, I managed to make myself understood. The children insisted on sharing their meal with us. The pastry of corn was formed into a ball with the right hand and soaked in a sauce of beans and white cabbage. It didn’t taste bad, but one would not recommend eating this every day – which is exactly what happens in the Centre. If you stop to think about our consumption behavior and compare it with the way of life at the FVS, you might get dizzy.
We spent the day with the children, this was at the same time easy and extremely difficult. We sorted out beans and rice, played dames, did the dishes. Communication with the children wasn’t always easy. In Burundi they speak Kirundi, a language from which you don’t understand a word as a foreigner. A small minority spoke or understood French. But with body language and some creativity we were able to communicate. Despite the language gap and the short period we spent with the children, we had an intense contact. The children questioned us about our family, our studies and asked us how streets and schools look like in Belgium. It wasn’t the first time they saw a white, but Europeans aren’t frequent visitors at the centre.
The love I received from them is overwhelming. In the morning, you get an enormous heart-warming hug from Jimmy. Or Sebastian who insisted to get up to get you a glass of water. I had brought paper and pencils with me and returned home with a bunch of drawings I got from the children. They used their colour pencils extensively and dictated Natasja, the only girl who could write French in a decent handwriting, their personal message accompanying the drawing. The children insisted that we would eat with them. Lunch consisted every day of a pastry made of mais and a sauce of brown beans and white cabbage. It didn’t taste bad, but was not vary variated. Some plates were put in the middle of the table and all the hands longed for the food. There were no forks, nor spoons. They were all going crazy when they could have a picture with us. They were very studious and wanted to learn how to take pictures. They asked us to teach them English. We taught them the numbers, the months of the year and parts of the body.
Every evening the goodbye was heartbreaking for us, the volunteers, but also for the children. They refrained us to leave by taking our bags and running off with them. Already on the first day, three children came to me and begged “gumaha!”, Kirundi for “stay here!”. Also “ndagukunda” was often said when we left, “I love you”. My point of view really changed during those five days of Experiments. The luxury that we have here in Western Europe is as aberrant from the norm as the poverty in Burundi. These are really two total opposites. Life in Africa is more than difficult, it’s an everyday struggle to survive. It is up to us to change something about this. This is also one of the things the congress was about.
The theme of the congress was: “For a better Africa: What did we do? What are we doing? What should we do?” There were speeches in the morning that made us conscious of the African situation. Thus we got a more general look than we had in the case study we lived at the FVS. In the afternoon we talked in small groups about these speeches and what we, as Jesuit alumni/ae, could do about this. We also met an important visitor, Father Adolfo Nicolás sj, the Father General of the Jesuits. The warmth with which he made contact with the participants really surprised me. He took the time to come and talk with us (the young) and hear about our thoughts on the Experiments. The congress of Jesuit Alumni/ae convened for five days about the theme: “Pour une meilleure Afrique: Qu’avons-nous fait? Que faisons-nous? Que devrons-nous faire?” There were very diverse speeches: from the causes of African problems till an appeal to brotherhood by Father General, Adolfo Nicolas.
One afternoon presentation caught me at most, especially as a second year medical student. A few people with medical background testified about the mess that HIV and AIDS had brought to this continent and is still bringing. Father Michael Czerny, coordinator of the African Jesuit Aids Network (AJAN), testified from his experiences with projects that receive and treat seropositive people. Communication about aids is life important for AJAN. “Communication is the vital capillary and nervous system that makes us to be one body,” says Czerny, s.j. He showed us much impressing numbers about aids: “The report from UNAIDS of 2008 totals 22 million seropositives in 2007 in Black Africa. That is 67 percent of all hiv-positive people in the world. From all the aids-deaths worldwide, three-quarters are located in Africa.”
But why is the fight against aids that difficult? The answer is the HIV never comes alone. The entire cultural, familial and spiritual reality plays an important role. Moreover, the statistics are discouraging and superficial. Very often means fail, both in prevention as in treatment and medication. Aids is most frequent in Central-Africa. This region has been struck by wars too often. This makes it difficult to make people aware of the danger of this disease. In addition, because of the many rapes that happen during war, the virus is spread even faster.
Along Czerny s.j., aids is a kairos. With this ancient Greek word, he wants to emphasize that the moment is there to act. It is up to us to make a change in this pessimistic situation. He sees us -as Jesuit Alumni, but as Christians more generally- capable to see through this despair and come forward with ideas. Professor Jean-Jacques Muyembe, the second lecturer, studied medicine at the University of Kinshasa. He cooperated with AIDS-expert Peter Piot, who was head of UNAIDS for a long time, at the search of the Ebola-virus. His message is clear: “It is time to act, to think about what is really going on in Africa.” Nice to know is that professor Muyembe taught the Burundese vice president, Dr. Yves Sahinguvu, during his medical education. Dr. Yes Sahinguvu was present at the formal moments of the congress, like the official opening and at Adolfo Nicolas’ speech. The third speaker was Reginald Moreels. The Belgian ex-minister has done much of development cooperation. According to himself, this war surgeon is ‘a realistic optimist’. ‘A slight improvement is also progress,’ dixit Moreels. He described his (work) experience on African soil as ‘une aide simple et modeste à la dignité’. The last part of this afternoon was for an Alumnus of the organising college. Christian Munezero graduate at the Lycée du Saint-Esprit. He testified about his experiences in Tjaad where he worked for JRS, Jesuit Refugee Service. ‘About 18.000 pupils were able to take classes in schools built by JRS. I have the feeling to work for the realisation of hope.’
What I remember best about Africa are the people. In the first place we have a totally different culture than the local people. It was enormously enriching to be able to get into contact with this culture. Secondly, I should mention the international group of people I met in Africa. There was a relaxed atmosphere. Everybody talked to everybody, there were no barriers at all. When I had to address the entire audience, Bernard Thompson (president of the World Union of Jesuit Alumni/ae) came up to me. He comforted me by saying that I didn’t have to be nervous about addressing all these people. This simple gesture was very special to me.
Without education, no knowledge. Without education, no future.
I met aids not only in speeches and formal talks. I met aids in everyday life, aids with a face. Nina -one of the children who live at the FVS- came to sit next to me on the second day of my experiment. She told me she and her sister were seropositive, but she didn’t make a drama out of it. Just like every child she had her dreams, lots of courage and drive. I admire her very much for this.
Aids medication is free in Burundi thanks to the money from abroad that NGO’s can contribute. This
financial aid is very important for the Burundian people, because working 12 hours gets you 1,2
The congress wasn’t only about aids. The most important speaker was Father General, Adolfo Nicolas. He opened his discourse with ‘Dear brothers and sisters.’ He emphasized the fact that we are family more than once. The paradox of the 21st century was never far away. We never had as many means of communication as now. Though, there was never been as many solitude and indifference as now. A second point that Father General stressed, was the importance of the young Alumni. We made immediately work of this by erecting a Young Alumni Wing inside WUJA. Aids is a disaster for Africa. The worst part is that the disease is the most frequent is countries were there is the least socio-economical development. The solution lies not only in financial support. Support isn’t what Africa needs. Support leads to dependency. Cooperation is the solution. There has to be interaction so that Africa can be independent after some time. One investment is from crucial importance: education. Without education, no knowledge. Without education, no future.
Graduating at a Jesuit college doesn’t only mean receiving a diploma. It is an entire education young people take with them for the rest of their lives. As alumnus/a you have the right (and this is more important than the duty) to help in building Ignatian projects. Let us take AJAN (African Jesuit Aids Network) for instance. Every personal input is appreciated, whether it is financial, logistic or by working for them. At the congress everybody had the opportunity to share their questions or remarks.
During my stay in Burundi I went to church about four times. I wasn’t used to this high frequency of masses. However, every time I felt this moment of prayer to be appropriate. You really need some time of silence to digest everything you see and hear. “We are all brothers and sisters.” This is a sentence that I heard more than once in Burundi. Even more, it has received a real meaning for me. The brotherhood that I discovered between the children of the FVS and the contact between the Jesuit Alumni/ae is indescribable.
by Alexandra Boogers
Alexandra Boogers is a second year medicine student at he University of Hasselt, Belgium. She would like to specialize in Tropical Diseases and Urgent Medicine. Last year, she discovered Africa and lost her heart over there. The fight against HIV and AIDS became a life goal after meeting seropositive children. In her spare time, she practices to get her private pilot license.
(*Between 2007 and 2011 the Institute carried temporarily the name ‘The Wall Street Journal Future Leadership Institute’)
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