Burundi, one of the smallest countries in Africa, has been going through a social and political crisis that erupted in 2015. A country with a 94% Christian population, it has been helped in these difficulties by a number of different communities of religious sisters. ACN International spoke with the Carmelite missionary sisters in Burundi, known to the local population as “mothers” for the way in which they have welcomed the ordinary people and helped to lead them along the path of reconciliation.
What was it like when the first sisters of your community arrived in the country?
In the beginning, in 1973, four sisters arrived, all of them Polish. There was deep poverty everywhere, and the only dispensary in the area was the one run by the sisters. At first it was very difficult for them, because they could not speak the local language, Kirundi. Fortunately, our sisters were warmly welcomed, having been accepted by the local authorities. The people are very respectful of authority, so that if the regional authorities accept the sisters, then the ordinary people will know that the presence of these missionaries will be good for them. Our chapel was the first point of contact with the local people, and although we still couldn’t speak Kirundi well, the people still came to the chapel to be with us, and so we began to establish a friendly relationship with them. Today, thanks be to God, our community has no fewer than five houses in Burundi. We are well aware that we are needed in this country, and that this is where we must stay, supporting the many people here who are suffering and in need.
Do you recall any particular incident that happened to any of the sisters during those first years in Burundi?
One of the Polish sisters who first came here helped with the birth of a child to a mother who was in extremely poor health. The baby was born healthy, but unfortunately the mother died. So the sister took charge of the newborn child. The baby was premature and needed to be placed in an incubator. Given that the nearest hospital was two days walk away and given the dire economic situation in the area, this was impossible. Having no other alternative, the sister put the child in a cardboard box, carefully wrapped up. And she took him with her like that wherever she went. After a few weeks, thanks be to God, the little boy was able to survive and develop normally.
How do the people of Burundi see your community today?
The presence of our community here was a veritable revolution. And it continues to be so today. The sisters have brought about many changes and thanks to their presence the people have begun to find support they never had before. The people call us “mothers”. They see themselves as our children, receiving good counsel and help in their necessities, and they sense that we understand them. Little by little, the spirit of reconciliation between the people has been growing. With the arrival of our community, we have been able to strengthen the education of the children and young people. The families greatly appreciate the presence of our community, not least because they find here a special meeting place, especially at weekends. From the Saturday onwards, children, young people and adults gather here for religious instruction, talks about faith or to prepare for the Sunday Eucharist. Some people gather well before the celebration of Holy Mass on Sunday, and many others stay on after Mass to share time with the sisters and the other families. Given the lack of sporting or cultural activities in the region, the people take great pleasure in this opportunity to meet together.
Your community is doing a great deal for the ordinary people in the areas of healthcare and economic and educational support. But your community is both an active and a contemplative one at the same time. How do you succeed in maintaining this contemplative life?
We were convinced that the contemplative life is a way of responding to the task of reconciliation in this country. Nevertheless, in the face of the many, many needs we encountered, the great challenge we faced was undoubtedly that of not neglecting our life of prayer. During the day we have many powerful moments devoted to prayer, above all in the morning and night-time, although we also pause at midday to pray together. The contemplative life continues to be a response on behalf of the Church and the world. For us prayer is the food which enables us to continue providing the spiritual and material support that people need. At the same time, for us it is a moment of physical and spiritual renewal.
Moreover, we are very careful to ensure that all the sisters have moments each day, each month and each year for this renewal. It is this that enables us to continue to be very active in an ongoing way, and we hope to be able to continue doing so in the future. Fortunately, this way of life continues to be attractive to a number of young women today. In 2021 we accepted five new aspirants, who have begun on the path of their vocation. And so, we are confident that the Lord will continue blessing our community, so that we can continue to fulfil our mission in this country.
What are the principal intentions for which you pray?
We pray above all for Burundi. Since we have arrived here, the war, the prisoners and the injustices have been reasons enough to pray for this country. We also pray that the Lord will continue to bless our work in this place. We keep in our intentions the Holy Father, the leaders of this country and, needless to say, our benefactors, also. Even in the most difficult periods this country has experienced, we have not given up, but rather found still greater strength. We have continued to work for reconciliation. We go out to meet the material needs of the people, helping the sick, welcoming refugees, supporting all these people in their sufferings. All these activities have motivated us to intensify our prayers and to pray above all for reconciliation in this country.
We also pray that in the future we may continue to be able to count on the support of ACN International, since thanks to your financial support we have been able to launch various projects to provide support for the people. We pray that the sisters who are in training may be able to complete their studies. One of them is training to be a doctor, two others to be nurses, one to become a teacher, and we are hoping that another sister will be able to receive training in Carmelite spirituality, which is the foundation of all our prayer.
The Carmelite sisters of the Infant Jesus are being regularly supported by the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN international) so that they continue their apostolate, notably with the construction of a chapel and a house for their sisters in Bujumbura, the economic and commercial capital of the country but since 2019 no longer its political capital.