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Reflection from Burundi, Africa

Sister of Providence Deborah Campbell says the Catholic Relief Services Lenten rice bowl will take on a special meaning for her this year.

Note from the Sisters of Providence leadership team: Sister Deborah Campbell is currently in Burundi, Africa conducting an audit for Catholic Relief Services (CRS). As we approach Lent this seems a fitting reflection for all of us; we invited her to share it.

Reflections from the Field
Bujumbura, Burundi
February 14, 2012

I just ate lunch, such as it was, and am realizing how lucky we really are. Most of us, including me, have no idea how the rest of the world attempts to survive on a subsistence diet. The CRS Lenten rice bowl will take on a special meaning for me this year.

The meal that we have for lunch is prepared by a local woman who cooks the food in her home, and then sends her son to serve the food and collect the money. For many of our CRS workers, this is the only meal they will have today. The portion of rice, beans, cassava and little potatoes seems generous to me, but I have access to breakfast in the hotel restaurant every morning and the promise of something else later this evening. Additionally, I really don’t have to eat this at all. I can bring my own food or skip lunch knowing that I can dine at the restaurant tonight.

The food is served all together in what I’ll call a large cereal bowl. The bowls are pre-made when they arrive. The employees stir up the ingredients and create a sort of casserole or stew. Yesterday, in place of the potatoes we had boiled bananas. I’m told that the basic ingredients don’t vary much. The rice, beans and cassava are always present. Bananas, potatoes, and french fries are rotated. Yes, I did say french fries!! Perspective and attitude are certainly important here. I look at the lunch and say, “rice and cassava again!” Others look at the lunch and thank God that they have something, anything, to put into their stomachs. I wonder if the boy who brings the lunch even eats lunch. He takes back what is left in the bowls. Is that what he eats when he gets home?

I felt guilty yesterday and today because I didn’t eat all the food. And… because this isn’t the only food I’ll have today, I still could afford to be choosey and only eat the part I liked… the rice. To ease my conscience a bit about wasting food where so many have so little, I’ve asked for only rice tomorrow. But imagine my surprise and embarrassment when the man interpreting from French to Kirundi for the cook’s son questioned my request for rice only. He clarified my request with me twice, thinking perhaps he had misunderstood. I don’t think he was insulted, but the two were certainly shaking their heads. Who was this woman? Did they think I was arrogant in turning down the food they treasure? I’m not sure.

Ash Wednesday is next week, and I’m wondering what I can do for Lent. Maybe I should try eating the entire meal and having nothing else the rest of the day? Will that teach me how it feels to be hungry? Will making food unavailable, so that I can’t snack whenever I want, teach me anything?

But does it really mean anything if I do it knowing that it is temporary? Knowing that once again when I am back in the states, I will have access to quite a bit of variety and as much or as little as I want?

Approximately 90 percent of the 6 million people who live in an area the size of Maryland make their living from agriculture. Most of these are subsistence farmers. Can anything I do really make a difference in even one person’s life?

The World Bank ranks Burundi as the poorest country in the world. There are a few other rankings, so even if you want to argue that it isn’t number one, all of the others will list Burundi in the top five.

How can I really make a difference here? How can all of us or any of us make a difference? If the answer comes to me, I’ll let you know!! In the meantime, I’ll try to be more thankful for what I do have, and to be more conscious of those who have nothing.

In Providence,

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Sisters of Providence

The Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, are a congregation of Roman Catholic women religious (sisters) who minister throughout the United States and Taiwan. Saint Mother Theodore Guerin founded the Sisters of Providence in 1840. The congregation has a mission of being God's Providence in the world by committing to performing works of love, mercy and justice in service among God's people.

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