It’s 2018 and my new year’s resolution is to write a blog. Why? Well, I think I have a story to tell and I’m narcissistic enough to believe people may want to read it, but not committed enough to write a book (flippin’ millennials). So blogging it is.
Storytelling is the essential human activity. The harder the situation, the more essential it is.
This blog is my well-meaning attempt to write about faith, fertility and me, in that order of importance.
As a young married woman with a decent income, a mortgage, two cats and no children, I sometimes get asked: ‘Have you thought about having kids?’ This question is getting more frequent the older I get. It seems people I barely know feel morally obliged to remind me that my ‘body-clock is ticking’ and ‘it’s all downhill at 30’.
I asked Donna to tell us about how she first got involved in Burundi; her vision for the country; and what is currently happening with her Hope for Tomorrow Global charity.
I have been friends with Donna for a while, and knew much of her story, but still learned a lot about her journey from being a teacher here in the UK, to leading a charity in Africa which serves and blesses many hundreds of families in one of the poorest countries in the world.
First trip to Burundi
Initially I went to Burundi in 1999 to set up a school for orphaned children, sent by my church, to volunteer with an African charity.
When I met the lady who invited me, I didn’t even know where Burundi was, but I had a heart for orphans.
I lived in Burundi for almost 3 years. I grew to love Burundi, but then felt God asked me to leave. It was a confusing time, because Burundi was still in my heart and God has given me many promises which had not yet been fulfilled. I thought about the people that I worked with and the children every day, even though I had no contact with the country. I never expected to go back there.
Once back in the UK, I worked for Newfrontiers in Brighton, running short term mission teams around the world. I learned a lot about the church. It was a foundational time. I discovered that God wants to use his church as a vehicle for transforming communities around the world. I was especially impacted by what the church was doing in Zimbabwe, one of the places we sent teams to.
During that time, I starting working in Zimbabwe, and was in and out regularly.
Then I was offered a job with one of the Newfrontiers churches there and was making plans to move to Zimbabwe permanently but within days of accepting the job, my Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, so everything was put on hold.
After my Dad died, just 6 months later, I began to seek God, as I was feeling unsure about moving to Zimbabwe. It was a very confusing and difficult time.
Hope for Tomorrow
In the midst of my confusion, one day I felt God spoke to me and said, “Start Hope for Tomorrow”. I felt that God said to me, “Give yourself to this vision and trust me to provide.”
Hope for Tomorrow was my name for a vision God has given me while I was in Burundi in March 2000, 8 years earlier. It had felt like there was a download in my head, from God to me.
God spoke to me about the what he wanted me to give myself to. I felt that he wanted me to facilitate practical demonstrations of God’s love, in areas such as education, health, water, farming, church planting and caring for orphans.
I felt I was to play a part in seeing these things established and was to help resource and mobilise people.
This was not specifically about Burundi, it was a more pic
ture of God’s heart for the nations and for the poor and marginalised specifically.
I got very excited! I wanted to give my life to this. I just didn’t have any idea of how it would happen, but then I felt God very clearly said to me,
“Don’t do anything other than pray.”
That was hard! I had no idea I’d have to wait so many years.
So, in Jan 2009 I had resigned from the job with Zimbabwe and had no income. It was now time to pursue the vision. A new journey of living by faith was beginning!
God provided incredibly, but it was still a dark time, as I didn’t know how I would fulfil this vision or even what it really meant! I often saw God’s amazing provision for me but not a lot happened that was visible to others.
People were beginning to think I was crazy as nothing was really happening!
When I had left Burundi years earlier I knew that God has asked me to leave teaching, which I loved, and to give up my career. Now friends started to tell me to go back to teaching and get a proper job. Part of me wished I could but I knew God has spoken.
After more seeking God over many months, I finally felt he said, “Keep your eyes on me, be filled with the Holy Spirit, be faithful with what I put in front of you.” That’s what I tried to do, just giving myself to anything even vaguely related to the vision!
Two unexpected events
In 2010, two very important things happened.
Firstly, I received a Facebook message from one of the orphans I had taught in Burundi, who was now a young man. He said to me,
“Why did you leave us?”
This made me really want to go back to see the kids, and to explain why I had left.
The second thing that happened was that a few weeks later, out of the blue, one day I felt that God spoke to me and said,
“I want you to go back to Burundi.”
It seemed so random!
I called my friend Mark T (who was, at that time, an elder of the church I attend), and asked him if he thought I was crazy.
“I often think you’re crazy, but you do hear God. Why don’t you go and see what God might do?’ was his reply!
I didn’t have the money for the flight and was worried but that same day my friend Angela called and said to me, “You can’t wait for the provision to come. Faith must be activated. Take a step of faith first.” So, I booked the flight. The very next day I was given money to pay for it.
Within ten days of speaking to Mark, I was in Burundi!
When I got back to Burundi, it was clear that God was doing something. Evariste met me at the airport. He had helped to get the school set up when I lived in Burundi before. He took me to see his home in a rural village. I had not seen rural Burundi before, due to the civil war making it too dangerous to travel.
We went up into the mountains to see where Evariste was born. Prayer mountain looks out over the countries of Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Congo.
Evariste shared his vision; it was based on a promise from God that he would see transformation wherever his eyes could see. It would be a transformation of the land and of people’s hearts.
In that moment I knew that God had taken me there for a reason. This is where Hope for Tomorrow would begin.
Evariste was already starting to bring transformation to his village. He started by buying two fresian cows, which he took to his village. Long-horned cattle are the traditional cattle of Burundi, but they give very little milk (only 1-2 litres per day.) Evariste showed the people in his village that a fresian cow is much more profitable, as it gives 10-15 litres of milk a day.
Burundi is a very malnourished country. Having milk to feed your family, as well as extra to sell, is life changing. No one believed Evariste for two years, in fact he was ridiculed for having fresians. People said he was feeding them something different, to make them produce more milk. He finally gave two families the fresian cows and sold the surplus milk in the city on their behalf, giving them the profits. They were lifted out of poverty in weeks! The two families could now afford to send their children to school; as well as ‘luxuries’ such as tin roofs for their mud-hut homes. People in the village could see that their lives were changing for the better.
Evariste wanted more fresian cows for the village. By this time, 30 families had cows. I decided to I’d try to help him to get more cows seen as God had told me to be faithful with what he put in front of me. I felt sure God had taken me there for purpose.
We bought more cows, and I then somehow I ended up helping him to set up a commercial dairy, working with a team of volunteers who built him a pasteuriser!
During this time, people started to give money to support this work and so my little charity, Hope for Tomorrow Global charity was set up.
We sent the new processing machine to Burundi together with 7 solar powered fridges.
Then the charity started getting involved in other areas in Burundi, such supporting a community after flooding and landslides, which cause many Burundians to lose their homes and livelihoods . Many lives were sadly lost.
Gateway church soon started getting involved with Burundi together with many churches from the Regions Beyond family of churches. We’ve helped two communities, one of which was displaced and the other which had been badly flooded.
Hope for Tomorrow Global has continued to support the milk business called Milk for Transformation. Now there are well over 400 families who have been lifted out of poverty, thanks to the fresian cows.
We’ve recently started training Burundians in Foundations for Farming (so that they can feed their families, and sell their crops). This has been amazingly successful already. We are also helping people to start small businesses and supporting those in crisis with food and milk (with the Milk for Transformation enterprise.)
Donna, what would you like us to know about the people of Burundi?
Often our view of Africa is formed by TV aid appeals, with pictures of starving children. These images are true in some ways, but are certainly not the full picture.
Burundi is one of the poorest nations in the world but what people might not know is that in Burundi people are so resourceful and resilient and joyful despite their circumstances. There is a contentment about them that is so humbling. But they long for dignity and they want to change their circumstances. They do not want to be dependant on others. They long for opportunities to change their futures.
Poverty is not just a lack of money but it’s a lack of choice and opportunity. If we can help give our Burundian friends opportunities, which come through employment, learning trades, and education, this will make a huge difference to their lives.
If everyone did what they could with what they have, we could all make a huge difference. We can’t change everything overnight, but there is hope. It’s simply not the bleak picture that the media paints of Africa!
God can do the impossible. God changes hearts and minds. He has a plan to help people practically, as well as through the hope and truth found in the gospel.
The challenges that are faced in Burundi are enormous, but there is hope!
The poor need hope for today and for the next day, hope for tomorrow – before they can have hope for their future.
In the Carama community, 212 families are displaced, and they have no homes to live in or means to sustain or feed themselves. Humanly speaking they are destitute, although this is through no fault of theirs.
Recently, the Camara leaders asked if we would help them to start up a church. They said to us that we had taught them how God sees them, through Psalm 113, and it has given them hope. They want to share that with others.
1 Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, you his servants;
praise the name of the Lord.
2 Let the name of the Lord be praised,
both now and forevermore.
3 From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
the name of the Lord is to be praised.
4 The Lord is exalted over all the nations,
his glory above the heavens.
5 Who is like the Lord our God,
the One who sits enthroned on high,
6 who stoops down to look
on the heavens and the earth? 7 He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; 8 he seats them with princes, with the princes of his people.
9 He settles the childless woman in her home
as a happy mother of children.
Praise the Lord.
Now the people of Camara see themselves as God does. They started to change, because they don’t see themselves as victims anymore. How God sees them has transformed them.
We are seeing the power of the gospel at work!
God is transforming the people of Burundi. They are learning to farm successfully to provide for their families and for profit; and small businesses are starting up. Many have given their lives to him. The church is growing. People whose lives were so bleak before, now have hope.
Paul Kalanithi was a man who spent his life trying to find Truth. First he searched for it in literature, then in neurosurgery and neuroscience. He studied at Stanford, Cambridge and Yale.
He wanted to understand the difference between brain and mind; between the physical and metaphysical. He was always acutely aware of his mortality, and was never afraid to face it.
‘When breath becomes air’ is a beautifully written autobiography of a man who had to make the difficult transition from a doctor who saved lives to a lung-cancer patient who knew that his would not be saved.
He continued to work as a surgeon despite aggressive treatment, and never gave up on his search for Truth.
This is an intelligent, thought-provoking and emotional story, and I would wager probably the best written book that I will read this year.
Paul talks about how even when we live, we are dying.
Often our search for beauty, truth, for why we are here, sits in the tension between life and death. We feel immortal, cannot grasp not exising; yet are faced with the inescapable truth that one day we will die.
Beauty is often found in the physical representation of our mortality: a flower that will soon wither; a sunset whose light will suddenly fade; a short-lived rainbow. Their very mortality makes their beauty even more sweet.
If we choose not to avoid our mortality, but instead stare it in the face, I believe that our search for Truth will be enabled. The pretence that if we don’t think about death then it will never find us, just blurs our vision.
Paul Kalanithi was a man with his eyes wide open. It’s stunningly refreshing.
January. Such a weird time of year. Many of us have eaten, drunk and spent too much over Christmas, and are now expected to come up with an unrealistically long list of things that we are going to achieve in the coming year. We are supposed to be healthy, have big goals and look forward with unbridled joy to the the amazing new year. Sod that. I have always thought that new year is such a disappointment.
Cancer hasn’t helped with that. For the last few Januaries, I have not wanted to look back over the past year, nor look ahead too far either. That’s the thing with cancer, it tries to steal your future, even if you have been given the ‘No evidence of disease’ good news.
I went to a NYE party at a friend’s house this year. It was just what I needed- a chance to be sociable, be silly and absolutely no pressure to look cool for social media (in fact, I’m pretty sure I was the opposite), to or get raving drunk to ‘prove’ how much fun I was having.
I realised that it’s been several years since I haven’t either dreaded or ignored the new year celebrations. For the last few years, that was thanks to cancer and its long list of treatments, side-effects (such as social isolation) and associated illnessses; and before that thanks to pregnancy or having a baby and not a lot of sleep.
So how do I feel about the start of another year?
Well, it’s hard to be too positive, as 2017 was supposed to be my going-back-to-normal year, when in fact it was a succession of illnesses and other unfortunate events. There were a few of highlights, such as having all of my family together; two cute arrivals; and Christmas, which I really enjoyed (and actually felt well on the day! 😁)
But, generally, I am feeling cautiously optimistic. I have a few Very Good Events to look forward to in 2018. Having a life-threatening disease is great at helping you to value every celebration; every birth and wedding and new start, because there were never any guarantees that you would be around to see them.
And when you have been told by the doctor that you are unlikely to be around for too many more… but I am able to live in the moment and not worry about the future, now that I can’t take having a long life for granted; in a way that nobody who has never been confronted with their imminent mortality just cannot understand. It’s a blessing in disguise, because it helps you to chuck out the junk of life, while holding onto the precious, much more easily.
I know that whatever happens this year, I will be glad that I am here to experience it, even the bad stuff.
If there was one thing that I could wish you, it would be that you could see how amazing this gift of life is: never perfect, often surprising, and far too short to waste worrying about all the junk, like how cool you look on social media. 😎
In July, after a few months of illness, I was diagnosed with bowel disease.
Today my doctor undiagnosed me.
When the test results came back and I was told that I had colitus, I refused to accept it. I knew that I was ill, but I knew that I would get better soon. There was a long conversation with a nurse who insisted that I had bowel disease, while I countered that actually, it was just an infection that would heal. She was pretty bemused.
She offered me medication. I said no thanks, I’m going to be better soon. She made a follow-up appt with the doctor, and gave me her direct phone number, ‘just in case’.
When I got home, I spent the next few weeks claiming healing for my body, in Jesus’ name. After all, he did heal me from breast cancer, so colitus would be easy, right?
Today when I saw the consultant amd he asked about my symptoms over the last few months, he told me:
“It looks like it was just an infection. You don’t have colitus.”