My Friend David Niyonzima

The day that I came to understand that my friend was truly a Quaker.

Fall 2003

The roads of Burundi are like fast moving streams and rivers. But the current is full to choking with people. People on foot, on bicycle, people in vehicles some with steering wheels on the right some on the left, people on bicycles hitching to the backs of lorries - children, lots of children. Animals too; goats, chickens, goats and chickens on bicycles, long horn cattle.

This mass of life flows in a form that could only be described by Chaos theory. There are no lanes for vehicles or pedestrians, they eddy and flow as they will. There is a declared propoer side of the road - but it is ignored. You cannot tell who is going which way. If you are in a car, you proceed at a slow but steady pace, honking your horn at regular intervals - it is their job to get out of your way. If you notice a lack of Angels in America it is because they are snatching babies off the roads of Burundi.
I have seen toddlers within inches of our tires.

We were driving up to Muramvya, David at the wheel, me sandwiched in the middle of the front seat, slowing through the clotted streams of a small town. I noticed a sea change. Without any indication of why, I became aware that the masses of people and livestock were all flowing one way - in unison - towards our rear. This seemed off, I had never seen Burundians move in unison before. David did not seem to be observing this.

"David" I said, "The people all seem to be moving in the same direction."
"Yes, they do."
"They seem to be going the opposite way that we are."
"This is true, Peggy"
"Why do you think they are doing this?"
"Well, I suppose that there is a bit of activity on the road ahead,
and they are moving to avoid it." (statement of fact - calm as you please)

'Activity' is a Burundian euphemism for a shooting war.
They use the word 'situation' for genocide.

(me, matching calm tone, but not possessing what I profess)
"David, if there is activity on the road ahead,
and these good people are smart enough to avoid it,
why are we moving towards it?"

(as if speaking to beloved, small child)
"Because, Peggy, our work is where the activity is."

And in that moment
I realized that I was riding with a true descendent of the valiant ones.
Mary Fischer on her way to the sultan,
Elizabeth Fry entering the prison,
Woolman going to the slaveowners.
Too many too tell of.

But it is no different today.
Our work is still where the activity is happening.

David Niyonzima, is a second generation Quaker, a former leader of Burundi Yearly Meeting, present pastor of Kamenge Friends Church, and director of Trauma Healing Services of Burundi, THARS.