“America is heaven on earth!” These words caught my attention as I sat listening to a short talk several months ago. Egide Nimubona, a man born and raised in Burundi, Africa, was given the opportunity to say a few words after the conclusion of the Mass at my local parish.
After having benefited from God’s bounty in America, he had launched a campaign to raise money so that as many children in Burundi as possible could afford a Catholic education.
Still, I was curious as to why Egide would say what few Americans are saying today: “America is heaven on earth!” Such a glowing account of this nation is rare indeed.
In any case, he went on to explain that he took refuge in North America from the Burundi and Rwandan genocides that were responsible for killing nearly a million people in Rwanda and more than 300,000 in neighboring Burundi; mostly from the Tutsi tribe. As a result, in July of 1994, Egide seized the opportunity to flee his country. Eventually he took refuge in Canada. Several years later he finally settled in Wisconsin.
I later found out that his wife-to-be, Revocate Niyizonkiza, fled Burundi two months earlier to visit a friend in America. After a short stay, she was cautioned not to return to her native country. Like Egide, she too took refuge in Canada. In fact, Egide and Revocate met at the Casa El Norte, a Catholic ran shelter for refugees in Fort Erie (on the Buffalo border).
Both of them feel deeply indebted to assistance the Church provided in their time of need.
While the genocide in Rwanda lasted 100 days, the ethnic cleansing in Burundi lasted 13 years. Egide said that in October of 1993, after the first democratically president of Burundi was assassinated in a coup attempt, his political party and Hutu ethnic group launched a campaign to slaughter (with machetes) the minority Tutsi group.
Egide explained, “Students in some Catholic boarding schools were burned alive in dormitories, the countryside was devastated.” Even Revocate had to go into hiding. Both of them had witnessed untold human atrocities. They discussed how fear of death and distrust of neighbor can permeate every aspect of life. When human comforts fail, all that remains is trust in God. Egide gives the following account:
“When the shadow of a machete follows you everywhere, including to Church on Sunday, when you stop trusting your neighbor, your friends from childhood; not knowing who your enemy is, you feel that the end is near and you completely put yourself in God’s hands.”
Believe it or not, there was something more important to Egide than merely surviving a brutal execution. It was a life that he was introduced to as a child- the Life of Christ!
Egide and Revocate had benefited from the painstaking efforts of Catholic missionaries (Jesuits, for example) who magnanimously ventured into a foreign land in order that Christ might be more widely known and loved. In fact, it was the year 1917 that the first Catholic church was built in Burundi. And in 1924, the first secondary school was established.
Years later, Egide would be one of many beneficiaries of Catholic evangelization and education.
During his testimony he also recounted having to run bare feet to school for about two hours straight in order to get to school on time. And when the school day was over, he had to run another two hours back home before the sun would set. After all, there were no street lights to illuminate his travels at night. In fact, the average native in Burundi was so poor that to own shoes was exceptional.
As for Egide, he owned his first pair of shoes when he was fourteen years of age. Burundi has 4 times less GDP per capita than Haiti: $160 a year compared to $646. (source IMF, World Bank 2010)
In any case, Egide instinctively knew that to receive a Catholic education and benefit from the evangelization that attends it, was to be liberated from the a life of not knowing Christ. As Pope Leo XIII said, “The greatest of all misfortunes is never to have known Jesus Christ.” This is a wonderful vantage point for those of us who were born and raised in the Catholic Faith. It is possible to take for granted even the greatest of blessings. As for Egide, he knew the contrast between a life without Christ and a life with Christ; not only did he personally experience this contrast as an individual but he had come to see the contrast on a cultural level too. He said,
“Not only the Bible and the New Life in Christ were introduced, but access to modern life was offered. On a personal level, the Catholic Education (both in elementary and secondary) meant experiencing a new life with a path to prosperity. It meant the only way that guarantied the breaking the vicious cycle of poverty in my family. Suddenly, the world view changed in many ways. The hills of the sunrise and the sunset were no longer the limits of the world.”
After having received the light of the Gospel through Catholic education in Burundi, Egide was to see, with his own eyes, what blessings that light can bring to a nation. Indeed, after having his life threatened in Burundi through ethnic warfare, after having known a life untouched by grace and after having known real poverty for so long, when he had come to set his eyes on this great country of ours, he was inspired to say, “American is Heaven on Earth!”
When I first heard these words, I thought he was overstating his impression. After all, America is facing so many challenges. But after hearing his testimony in full, I have come to understand what America and the Catholic Church can mean to a person. I have also come to better appreciate just how blessed we are to be Americans.
Egide now heads a Catholic education foundation for the children of Burundi. What he has received, he wants to give back; this, so that the hills of the sunrise and the sunset are no longer the limits of the world for other children.
To visit his foundation supported by the Catholic Foundation for the Diocese of Green Bay, click on this link: http://educateburundi.org/donate.php
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.