A New Opportunity

Wednesday, Feb 27, 2019

It was meant to be, at least that’s the way I see it.   I have often told people that in one way I’m like the Grizzly bear, if you know what I’m going to do next, you know more than I do.

I had been looking to serve with Mennonite Disaster Service ( MDS ) in March or April, possibly in Puerto Rico or Florida.   I was hoping some of the young adults who had accompanied me to West Virginia last November might be able to join me, but I knew that was a long shot because of school and work.

I had been thinking about this during the last few days in Africa and as we arrived at the airport in Toronto on Sunday morning, I activated my phone’s data plan, only to receive an email sent on Saturday evening requesting assistance in Saipan.    As some people recall, I went to Saipan in 2016 to help rebui ld after a typhoon ( a typhoon is the same as a hurricane.   The difference is that it only occurs in the Northwest Pacific ) created significant damage to the homes on the Island and I journaled my daily experiences at that time ( https://ralfhamm.wordpress.com/category/saipan-2016/ ).  I took this as a sign that I should volunteer to go.

As we started to drive home from the airport, I sent a reply to Roger Sharp, the new Region 4 Board Chair, informing him that I was available and interested in helping out.   The need was for the first 4 weeks, starting on March 11 and volunteers were required to stay a minimum of 2 weeks.

By Tuesday I received confirmation that I had been booked for 3 weeks with an option to stay 4 weeks, if there was an urgent need to get my border crossing papers and flight itinerary in order so that I could leave on March 8th.  I am currently scheduled to return on March 30, but I could stay until April 7.

Below is the FEMA information that was sent to me:

Saipan is one of the larger Islands that is part of the Commonwealth of North Mariana Islands of the United States.

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) forms a chain of 14 volcanic islands: Agrihan, Alamagan, Anatahan, Asuncion, Farallon De Medinilla, Farallon De Pajaros (Uracas), Guguan, Maug (three islands), Pagan, Rota, Saipan, Sarigan and Tinian, stretching over 375 miles north to south, with a land area of 181 square miles. Although Guam is technically part of the geographic grouping of the Northern Mariana Islands; it is not part of the Commonwealth.

The islands are located approximately 1,550 miles south of Japan, 3,600 miles west of Honolulu, Hawaii and 1,550 miles east of the Philippines. The islands are located between 13o and 21o N latitude and between 144o and 146o E longitude in the Western Pacific Ocean. The islands are about as far west of the United States as Tokyo or Melbourne and about the same distance north of the equator as Mexico City or Manila.

The CNMI is a commonwealth in political union with the U.S. While there are 14 islands in CNMI, there are three major inhabited islands: Saipan, Tinian, and Rota. Most residents live on Saipan.

The standard time in the CNMI is Chamorro Standard Time (ChST), ten hours in advance of Greenwich (GMT + 10). The International Date Line is between Hawaii and the Marianas. Daylight Savings Time is not utilized in the CNMI since there is little variation in the length of daylight hours between the winter and summer months. Consequently, Monday 6 PM EDT is Tuesday, 8 AM in CNMI. Telephone communication from the U.S. west coast & Hawaii, when conducted during normal business hours and workdays can only take place 4 days a week, Monday-Thursday in the U.S. (Tuesday-Friday in the CNMI).

According to the 2010 Census, the population of the CNMI is 53,883, with 48,220 in Saipan, 2,527 on Rota, and the remaining 2,527 on Tinian. Of the total population, 50% are Asian (including Filipino, Chinese, Korean, and others), 23.9% are Chamorro, and 4.6% are Carolinian.

English is the official language, though Chamorro (related to Indonesian) and Carolinian are the native tongues and are widely spoken. You will hear Japanese in most hotels and some shops. Hafa adai (Hah-fuh-day) is the standard greeting, though the slang term “howzit” is becoming nearly as common. Many other languages are spoken due to the tourism and worker population, as well. Shaking hands is an appropriate way to greet people, and bowing the head is a respectful gesture to greet the elderly.

CLIMATE – The climate is tropical marine, hot and humid. The Marianas enjoy a tropical oceanic climate characterized by relatively high and uniform temperatures. The seasonal variation in mean monthly temperature is less than 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The sun shines year round, except for the rainy season, and humidity is very high, with monthly averages between 79 and 86 percent, but fresh breezes provide a measure of comfortable relief. The months of greatest humidity are July to November.

  • Trade winds: Beginning in December and running through March, these islands are cooled slightly as the northeast trade winds bring comfortable breezes to the islands. The Marianas experience three wind patterns, the trade winds, doldrums and typhoons. The islands lie near the border between the Asiatic monsoon and the belt of northeast trade winds. On Saipan, easterly winds prevail about 45 percent of the time. From November until March or April, winds tend to be easterly and northeasterly. Average annual wind speed is 10.5 mph.
  • Rainfall: The wet/rainy season runs from July through October/November. Annual rainfall averages between 67 and 98 inches, with a mean approximately 83.8 inches. Sometimes the islands experience droughts generally occurring from December through June. Some rain does occur during the dry season.
  • Storms: Two principal types of storms influence the climatic character of the Northern Marianas. The first is type is small-scale storms, consisting of thunderstorms and squalls and generally occurring between June and October. The second is large systems of tropical storms and typhoons which can dominate an area as large as 300,000 square miles and persist for a week or more. The season of most serious storms is from August to mid-December. While typhoons do not occur every year, when they do pass over the islands, winds of 115 mph with gusts of 160 mph can be experienced.

Day 10 – Back Home

Saturday/Sunday February 23/24 2019

On Friday night we had gone to look for Hippos at a local viewing spot.  We didn’t see any, however we took advantage of the sunset to take some photos of Doug, Deanna and the children

as well as a picture of our team.

The first thing we did on Saturday morning, was to pack our bags in preparation for leaving to go back home.  We had been invited to a cafe for breakfast on Saturday morning, so we headed to the cafe.   Unfortunately we had to go back to the Swedish Mission shortly after we had left because I had forgotten my phone there.   When we got to the cafe, I had to order my usual cappuccino.

After a breakfast of cappuccinos, lattes and croissants, we drove to a private park along the beach on lake Tanganyika to debrief from all of the activities of the week.

Following the debriefing, we drove to a public park nearby, where we met the members of Grace Community Church, which is led by pastor Eric.


The church was having a picnic on the beach.   They were playing soccer,  swimming  and visiting when we got there.   Doug and Andrew introduced several of the members to a frisbee, which they thoroughly enjoyed.

Some of the members introduced Michele to a clapping game, which was a challenging game of co-ordination and timing.   They seemed to be having a lot of fun.

At 2 pm, we all ate a full course meal prepared by the members, before leaving for the airport at 3 pm and leaving for Addis Ababa at 5 pm.

We arrived in Addis Ababa at 9:30 pm ( with a 1 hour time change ) and we had a short delay before we left for Dublin at 11 pm.   We arrived in Dublin at 4:15 am ( 7:15 am Addis Ababa time ), just over 8 hours after we left Ethiopia.

We only stopped for an hour in Dublin to refuel and we weren’t allowed to get off of the plane.    When the plane had been fueled, we headed to Toronto for a 6.5 hour flight to Toronto.

We arrived at 7:20 am on Sunday morning and were met by Chuck Wiens at the airport, who drove us back to Virgil where we arrived at 9:30 am, glad to be back home again.

Day 9 – Ngozi to Bujumbura

Friday, February 22, 2019

It was a warm,  slightly overcast, morning at the hotel.   There was a beautiful view of the lush gardens with its many tropical plants next to the dining area.

We ate breakfast at the hotel, before heading to a ‘Discipling for Development’ meeting in a local building.   The ‘D for D’ program, was set up by pastor Eric to train leaders in the church so that they could go out and share the gospel and support each other.

We arrived at the meeting at 10 am.

When we entered the building,  they were singing a hymn.

After the hymn, introductions were made and a few of the members shared their testimonies.   For example, one was a lady who been in a wheelchair and spent many years begging.   With the help of people from the church, she can walk, she farms, she sells the produce and she disciples other people she comes in contact with.   One gentlemen, had to live on the street when his mother died and ended up getting involved with drugs.    Through the guidance and assistance of church members, he has turned his life around and now he counsels other kids.

The stories were all very moving.  After the testimonies, the pastor prayed for our team and then Jeff gave them some words of encouragement.

Doug prayed for the members of the church before we left and then we got back into the van and headed back to Bujumbura.   The drive took a little longer than expected.     The road was closed for some time and we were ordered to pull over  until the Burundian president and his military entourage drove by.   After he passed by, we were allowed to continue.  After a few short stops along the way we finally arrived back at the Swedish Mission by mid-afternoon.

As soon as we got to the Mission, we checked into our rooms and then Doug took Jeff, Michele, Andrew, Gisela and Rachel for some shopping at the market.  When they returned, we all drove to a local spot on the lake where occasionally hippos can be seen.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have any luck so we preceded to a restaurant for supper, after which we returned to the Swiss Mission to pack and get some sleep before the long journey back home.

The map below shows the routes we had taken as we travelled around Burundi.

Tomorrow we plan to visit a get-together with pastor Eric’s church before heading to the airport at 3 pm for our flight at 5 pm ( 10 am EST ).   We have a ~2 hour flight to Addis Ababa, followed by a 2 hour layover, then a 7 hour flight to Dublin, Ireland for a short stop before continuing to Toronto on another 7 hour flight.   We are scheduled to arrive in Toronto around 8 am Sunday morning.

Day 8 – Gahararo ( A Twa Village )

Thursday, February 21, 2019

After a normal breakfast and a quick hot shower for some of us ( because we suddenly had running water ) we packed our bags into the van and waited for Deanna to arrive with 2 pastors, Eric and Sam, who would be joining us and are currently ministering in the rural area that we would be going to see.

Deanna arrived at 9:30 am and after filling the van with diesel and picking up the pastors we headed east to Muyinga.   On our way,  Doug relayed a story regarding a memorial that we passed.

This memorial was built by the government in response to a horrible tragedy, in which hundreds students and teachers from a school in the area had been killed in the early 90’s.   A large group had been locked into a gas station before it was set on fire and people were waiting with machetes outside in case any people got out of the building.   Only a few individuals made it out and were able to get away.   The reason behind this brutal incident was that they were of the wrong ethnicity.  Below is a picture of the gas station, beside the memorial, in which the incident occurred.

We drove to Muyinga, where we transfered to different vehicles due to the rough roads we would encounter.

When we arrived at the village in Gahararo, we were met by the Twa ( more commonly ‘Twa’  or  Pygmy ) who immediately started to dance for us.

About 3 years ago Etienne, the site coordinator from the Harvest organization, started an outreach program with the Twa in Gahararo.   Prior to this, the area was mostly, if not all, a Muslim community.   Since then Pastor Jeff has been working with the Twa in the area.

We spent some time discussing the work and needs in Gahararo.  Houses have been built for the Twa in this village and a water pumping system with a tower has been installed to pump water up to the village.   This water is shared with the neighboring villages.   Unfortunately, the village doesn’t have a building to meet for church services or training, so they asked us to pray that this need.  

The new homes which are made of clay bricks that replaced the straw huts,can be seen in the background of the picture below.

After praying for the work being done, we walked to another village, nearby.

We were shown the huts where the Twa of this village live.  Pastor Sam entered one of the huts but there was barely room to turn around.  The particular hut he entered was used by a family of 4, but some huts have to accommodate larger families.

There are 40 huts in this village that Harvest is preparing to replace with clay brick buildings.

The Twa enjoy dancing and on our way back to the vehicles, Michele entertained the Twa with some dance moves, which they thoroughly enjoyed.

We made our way back to the vans, drove back to Muyinga, transferred to our van and then drove to Ngozi to check into our hotel.    On our way we noticed many rice patties in the valleys below.

After checking in we went to a local restaurant for a meal and finally made it back to the hotel at 10 pm.

The route we took was from Muramvya to Muyinga to the Twa village ( another 40 minutes by car ) and to NGozi for the evening.

Day 7 – Muramvya

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

It was a comfortable morning and there was a mist in the valley below the lodge where we were staying.

After breakfast at the Lodge, we drove to the Harvest School at 9 am, picking up water along the way.   It is very common for Burundians to carry items on their head, particularly women and children.

I couldn’t help wondering if there would be any demand for me to start a class for teaching people in Canada to do this.

When we arrived at the school we continued to put plastic covers on the library books.

For a while we had to close the windows to the library because of a heavy rain with high winds that passed through the area.

We again had the opportunity to join the teachers for lunch, after which we participated in their club classes.   These classes are held every Wednesday afternoon and it gives the students time to participate in activities they might be interested in.

Some of the children were participating in a drumming session. 

Gisela led a class in singing a few English songs.

Jeff and Michele led a games class with 60 children, with Gisela’s assistance.    Meanwhile Andrew, with the assistance of Doug, Matthias, Rachel and myself, led a science class.

At the end of the school day the primary school children line up in front of the flag and sing the national anthem while the flag is taken down,  before going home.

When we got back to the Lodge, we had supper, debriefed about the day and then some team members played a game, while others relaxed before going to bed.

Day 6 – Muramvya

Tuesday, February 29, 2019

The temperature had cooled down overnight to 15 C which was a nice change from the hot sticky nights in Bujumbura.

We had breakfast at the Lodge and then headed to the Harvest School.

Onesphore was instrumental in the foundation of the Harvest program.   When he had approached the governor of the area about his plan for evangelizing the  Burundians, the governor told him that he would only support the initiative if he would do more to help them than just trying to evangelize them.

The Harvest organization was initiated in order to give a wholistic approach for helping the Burundians.   When Onesphore presented his plan to the him, the governor took a chance on Onesphore and donated land for the project.   This Harvest complex sits on the side of a hill and it helps the Burundians with education and health, as well as giving them Christian training.

The original school has grown to become a big complex,  largely due to the support of the members at Cornerstone Community Church.   The work at the school targets students, particularly the Pygmy ( aka ‘Twa’ ) which are the poorest of the poor.

We spent most of the morning touring of the facilities to see the school in action.  The first building we saw was the junior primary school.

Here, we were introduced to the children in the classrooms.

The primary school also has a library, where we brought the 741 books ( weighing about 350 lbs ) which had been donated by Cornerstone.

There is also a senior primary school, where the backpacks that Cornerstone had donated previously for the children, were neatly hanging on pegs outside of the classrooms.

On a terrace below the primary school, there is a high school that is almost finished and is partially occupied by senior primary classes.

On a terrace below the high school is an area for a future sports field and below that construction has started on dormitories for the students.

There is also a small hospital, which contains a pharmacy, a laboratory, a maternity ward an examination room,

and an operating room for minor surgeries.

There are brand new washrooms donated by a Cornerstone parishioner.

There is also a dining hall for the children and a kitchen with a large wood burning stove used for making lunches for the children and the teachers.   The children receive a hot porridge for lunch and for some of them, it is the only meal they will have.  The stove had recently been modified by a Paraguayan volunteer group in order to stop the smoke from entering the dining area.

Work was underway on the repair and completion of the multi-purpose building with the money donated by investors.

After our tour, we spent a little time helping to cover books in the library with plastic in order to increase their longevity.

We were fortunate to have lunch with some of the teachers before we were taken to the valley below the school so that we could hike up to some of the homes of the children from the school.

I took a picture from the home of one of the students at the school, named Oswald.   His mother passed away many years ago.   He lives in this house with his father and basically has to fend for himself.  A few years ago he was offered a chance to go to the school and it gave him hope to dream about a better life.  He is now 14 and he has to hike down about 300 meters in elevation and then back up again.   The walk to school can take up to 3 hours.    If you look closely you can see the complex on the mountain facing his house.


We climbed a little bit further and met some other ‘Twa’ and listened to some of their stories, which were very interesting and humbling.

When we had climbed an approximately 350 meters up to an elevation of 2058 meters ( 6750 ft ) we started our way back down again.

When we reached the river, we climbed into the van and drove back through the river

and back to our lodge.  Shortly after we arrived at the lodge, the teachers from the school joined us for a meal.   After the meal, Doug presented them with sweaters that Cornerstone donated for them.

The work at the school is impressive and it is definitely worth the investment.  The students that attend the school are eager to learn and when they graduate, they will be able to become professionals, businessmen or leaders in their community.   It has already made a profound impact.   It is a good example of a program that allows the people to help themselves instead of just giving them money.

Day 5 – Muramvya

Monday, February 19, 2019

Unfortunately for Gisela, it was her turn to have a bad night’s sleep.   On the other hand, the cups of Neocitran and cold medicine that Matthias took on Sunday, helped with his cold and he was feeling better in the morning.

Doug picked us up at 8 am, after our usual breakfast and we headed to the Harvest offices to meet some of the team and pick up our paperwork for travelling in Burundi.  The street where the offices are, was blocked off by the police because a government official was going to be driving by the street , however, they let us go through.   One of the Harvest employees gave us a tour of the office and then Doug explained a few of the initiatives undertaken by Harvest.

It was after 9 am before we were back on the road again.  We drove through the switchbacks along the mountains.

Bicyclists frequently hold onto the back of trucks in this area in order to help them get up the mountain.

Some truck drivers have modified the back of the truck so that the bicyclists can’t do that.

When we arrived in Muramvya, we were met by Bernard, the pastor of  Shammah Temple Muramvya ( and off-shoot of the Shammah Temple in Bujumbura ) and accompanied us to the Hotel Baze.  

We checked in, put on some work clothes and drove to a entrance of the path leading to a house that is owned by a family that the church is supporting with money donated by Cornerstone in order to rebuilt the roof.   We hiked up the long winding, mud path through the farms to the house.   

At the house we met the owners and the church members that were there to help put the clay tiles on the roof.

We had some fun with children and Jeff entertained them with some magic tricks.

Pastor Bernard had a short service message for the people there and then we prayed for the family.   We took a picture with the wife and one of the sons.  

The father was bringing up clay tiles and when he heard that we were about to leave, he ran up the mountain to meet us.

We hiked back down the mountain and when we got back to the van we were surrounded by a curious throng of people, however, Doug managed to get us out of there and we drove back to the hotel, changed and then drove to the place where the Shammah Temple Muramvya is being built.   Cornerstone supplied the majority of the funds for the church and it will be an impressive building when it is finished.

Pastor Bernard posed for us in the church 

and in front of the church with Jeff.

On our way to the hotel, Matthias, Andrew and I walked back and were soon surrounded by people after a gentlemen from the church stopped to talk with us.   We continued on our way and arrived at the hotel to relax for a while before supper.

At 6 pm, we got together at the hotel with the leadership team of the church and we each told the group a little about ourselves, discussed the challenges facing each of our churches and then prayed for each other.    It was close to 7:30 when our meal was ready.  Matthias, Gisela and I tried a local dish, which is similar to manioca and had been recommended by Doug.

The rooms we have at the Baze Lodge are very nice, however, shortly after we arrived, there was no running water in the rooms, so we had to use large pails of water for washing.   We are so spoiled in Canada.   In Burundi they have very little and the people are happy.