Defining “community” across borders

The Global Health Corps experience, and life in rural Burundi specifically, has strengthened my personal value of the idea of “community.” An email I received from a friend recently that said “may you be surrounded by much protection while outside the reach of enfolding arms” made me realize just how much. I was happy to tell her that, despite my current location across the world from where I’ve spent the entirety of my life previously, I don’t feel alone. I do, in fact, feel protected here, as I have since my plane landed last July.

During our training at Yale, my co-fellow, Francis, introduced me to the Kirundi proverb “ubwenge burarahurwa.” The proverb combines a word signifying “wisdom” with one that describes the act of collecting fire from a central flame in a community and bringing it back to one’s dwelling to provide light, warmth, and fuel for cooking—the makings of a home. The proverb, however, blends these terms into a conceptualization of the idea that, in a community, victories and life experiences are shared, and that everyone is welcome to partake. It suggests that knowledge and compassion breed deeper, more expansive knowledge and compassion, and that these virtues can be spread as easily as fire. In a phone conversation with my father after I arrived in Burundi, I told him about the concept, and he later told me that he used it to explain something during a meeting in New York. I was impressed at how quickly the very idea of the proverb had manifested itself.

I have seen “ubwenge burarahurwa” realized through a Burundian man who works at the site operated by my placement organization who, I was recently informed, attended an agricultural training hosted by a different NGO and subsequently went home and taught his entire community how to employ the techniques he had learned in their own cultivation processes. I have seen it in the willingness of doctors, nurses, and administrators at every health center I have visited in Burundi to welcome me, show me around their workplaces, tell me about their patients, and genuinely hope that I am learning something from their stories. I have seen it in the patience exhibited by my co-fellow and other colleagues in helping me to improve my Kirundi and my French. Above all, the daily acceptance I receive from the locals in my rural commune makes me believe in the idea.

The best thing about “ubwenge burarahurwa,” however, is that it is universal. While at home in the US last month for the holidays, I was surprised at how conscious I was of perceiving its presence everywhere: in the local vendors who, after hearing about my work, agreed to help me raise money for my organization to build a health clinic by selling handmade Burundian necklaces in their shops; in the way my family members took care of each other when one of us was sick; and in the staggering diversity of New York City.

On my journey back from Newark to Bujumbura, the demographics of the flights changed noticeably during layovers in Amsterdam, Nairobi, and Kigali, but the courtesy of fellow passengers did not, and it made me think about the elements of community that are not defined by borders, but are simply human. I am excited to see what similarities a comparison of experiences among fellows in all six GHC placement countries will yield when we reconvene for our midyear retreat and at the end of the year, and feel certain it will help me to explore this question.