Spiritual solace in a recovering land
BUJUMBURA, Burundi — In a country that has endured many years of harrowing conflicts, members of the Baha'i community have found an occasion to celebrate.
The golden jubilee of the establishment of the Faith in the country was a time to reflect on principles of unity that show a way out of the difficulties that have saddened Burundi in recent times.
The country has suffered terribly from the sustained violence that erupted in 1993.
Baha'is have been among those killed during the fighting, and many others have fled to neighboring countries.
The community suffered in other ways, such as the destruction of regional Baha'i centers in Bubanza, Carama, and Cibitoke.
Despite the difficulties, the Baha'is of Burundi have been active in organizing prayer gatherings, children's classes, and study circles. They have opened these activities to the wider public, providing participants with spiritual solace, a respite from their sorrows, and a vision of a united, peaceful future.
In a message to the Baha'is of Burundi on the occasion of the jubilee, the Universal House of Justice expressed its wish that "this historic gathering may be a source of inspiration to the friends as they endeavor to further advance the Cause of God in Burundi."
Other congratulatory messages arrived from a former member of the Universal House of Justice, Mr. Ali Nakhjavani, and his wife, Violette, and from the Continental Board of Counsellors in Africa.
During the celebrations, held at the national Baha'i center in Nyakabiga, Bujumbura, on 27-28 August 2004, a member of the Continental Board of Counsellors in Africa, Ahmad Parsa, spoke about the important role the Burundi Baha'i community has played in this region.
"Despite all the difficulties in Burundi, the Baha'is could keep their ideals and continue working for all the people of the country without any distinction," Mr. Parsa said.
"People are often looking for material assistance that will help the country to come out of its problems," he said.
"In reality the biggest need is education to a new and spiritual mentality that will assist the people to understand that they are members of the same family -- this is what the Baha'is have done and are doing in Burundi," he said.
Mr. Parsa said many residents of Burundi who were originally from Rwanda and the Congo region became Baha'is in Burundi and then returned to their homelands where they have contributed to the Baha'i communities and wider societies there.
The jubilee gathering was a time to hear about the history of the Faith in the country.
The Faith came to Burundi in 1953 when Mary and Reginald (Rex) Collison from the United States and Dunduzu Chisiza, a young Baha'i from Malawi (then Nyasaland), arrived in Ruanda-Urundi (now the independent countries of Rwanda and Burundi).
The Collisons, a retired couple, had previously rendered many services in their Baha'i community in New York, through extensive travels in the United States, and in Uganda.
Mr. Chisiza was their interpreter in Ruanda-Urundi. Government policies required the Collisons and Mr. Chisiza to leave the country some 18 months after their arrival but by the time of their departure, there were about 20 Baha'is in the country. The first person to accept the Baha'i teachings there was Selemani Bin Kimbulu, of Congolese origin from Bukavu.
For establishing the Baha'i community in Ruanda-Urundi, the head of the Faith, Shoghi Effendi, awarded Mr. and Mrs. Collison and Mr. Chisiza the accolade of Knight of Baha'u'llah.
At the jubilee celebrations, one of the first Baha'is of Burundi, Fidele Simwakira, 75, spoke about his recollections of the early days of the Faith in the country.
Mr. Bin Kimbulu, the county's first Baha'i, who now lives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was unable to attend the festivities because the border was closed. However, his grandson, Sylvestre Kitenge, was present as a member of the choir that entertained jubilee participants.
Others who addressed the jubilee gathering about the history of the community were Zuruzuru Ezekiel, Barbara and David Sunstrum, and Jean Baptiste Habimana.
Jubilee participants also enjoyed some artistic presentations. A member of the Baha'i community recited some of his poetry on peace and presented a sketch about the principle of unity, and a group from Kinama performed traditional dances.