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On January 27th a devastating market fire razed thousands of businesses in Bujumbura, Burundi, effectively straining the country’s economy for weeks, if not months to come.  The minister of the Unitarian Church in Bujumbura, Rev. Fulgence Ndagijamana, shared the following information.  People’s Church in Kalamazoo, MI is coordinating contributions to the church to support its response to the devastation: Update: The International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) is now coordinating contributions.  Contributions sent to the Kalamazoo church will be delivered to Burundi via ICUU.   Online you can donate with credit cards or from your bank account via PayPal to treasurer@icuu.net or checks may be sent to the ICUU Finance Department, att: Susan Greeberg, PO BOx 300, Hastings on Hudson, NY 10706 USA.   

Rev. Fulgence Ndagijamana in the Bujumbura Market, November 2012.
Rev. Fulgence Ndagijamana in the Bujumbura Market, November 2012.

It’s 7 Am on Sunday morning (January 27, 2013).  Many people are still sleeping and others are getting ready to go to different churches.  I get a text message from Nepo, one of our church members.  The text is very short “Pastor, the central market is burning”!   Under chock,  I made a few phone calls to check on the people I know who work in the market or who have relatives or parents working there. Some were not aware and others were already in town hoping against hope to save something!I kept working on the last details of my sermon and I left for church at 9am.  As I was driving outside the gate, I could see a huge black cloud and people say it was over 20 meters high.  I met neighbours who under chock were just watching the fire 6,5 kms away.

But as I was going to church, I wondered to myself how to make sense of this tragedy, what to tell people and how deep to dig to have signs of hope for the concerned but for all of us.

It is 10 am when Sylvain N. arrives at church.  He has been to the market with his aunt since morning; they only could watch how her business went into flames.  He was crying.  At the same time, I got a phone call from Donavine, she was crying too. She is one of the 15 women doing business in the central market and beneficiaries of our microlendig programme. They lost everything.

At that point, I could feel the Sunday service needed to take another format. We light an additional candle as everyone spoke of how he or she was affected, the friends people know, the phone calls they got and the anger they have against many things and …people.  Many cried and we sat there listening and comforting one another and in the end we had a dance meditation and went outside holding hands 2 by 2 as sign of solidarity among ourselves and with the victims known and unknown.

Around 2 pm, I drove to what used to be the central market.   As people came to see what happened, many fell down and fainted, the Red Cross and the Doctors without borders were overwhelmed; ambulances and police vehicles are taking injured people and those under choc to different hospitals.  There were calls from megaphones and radio stations that medical personnel who are on different shifts go back to work.  The scene is pathetic and in my life time, I am 36 rainy seasons old, I have never seen anything close to that!!

It is important to note that our economy is mostly an informal one.  This market is home of over 5000 business people, big, medium and small.  To this figure, we need to add young people selling things moving here and there, thousands of intermediaries between potential buyers and sellers and you easily get close to double the number of people whose livelihood directly depends to the central market.

A world bank commissioned study last year said that daily transactions in the central market are worth $5000, 0000.  This is the first business in the country far before the brewery (Brarudi) which serves Rwanda and the Eastern part of DR Congo.

It is clear it will take years before people get back to their feet.

The situation today is that thousands of families lost everything, food prices have tripled especially for rice and beans (which is what people eat everyday). Some churches have announced they are already receiving people and many threatening to commit suicide. We do not have psychologists who can help with this situation and churches will have to play the role.  Already on Sunday, a woman with a baby on the back went into the flames and another man of Senegalese origin forcefully entered into the fire and was consumed by it.

Some journalists were comparing this situation with 9/11 – not in the origin of the fire (unknown so far) but in the consequences and taking all the necessary proportions into account!!

The Unitarian church in all that

We have 3 people who were doing business in the central market.  They lost everything.  The micro lending beneficiaries who lost everything, we are in the area where many people depended on the central market either as intermediaries in transactions, informal sellers of things or people who carried things on their backs or heads.  All those people will be, at least in the short term, living on relief aid and will need some counselling as well.

Yesterday alone (tuesday), 5 people came to our church asking for food and we expect the number of people asking for help to increase. The Roman Catholic parish down the street got even a bigger number. The parish priest, whom I spoke to over the phone this morning, told me that some people asked to stay there and he accepted. We may have some who want to stay at our church too.

Since yesterday, there are 2 members at church ready to talk to people who come and to give needed support and comfort.  Those who can offer time will take shifts and the situation will be assessed daily by a pastoral committee put in place for this occasion.

We may be able to offer space for those especially homeless people who had the market as place to stay and offer support and comfort to those in despair.  But limited resources will mean relief aid will be a challenge.

Your prayers, good thoughts and monetary donations will be appreciated.

Money transfers will be coordinated between you, our partner church in Kalamazoo, MI and the church here so that we save on transfer fees.  Please contact People’s Church in Kalamazoo, MI.Update: The International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) is now coordinating contributions.  Contributions sent to the Kalamazoo church will be delivered to Burundi via ICUU.   Online you can donate with credit cards or from your bank account via PayPal to treasurer@icuu.net or checks may be sent to the ICUU Finance Department, att: Susan Greeberg, PO BOx 300, Hastings on Hudson, NY 10706 USA.   

In solidarity

Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana

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Rev. Eric Cherry

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