(warning: this blog post contains shameless introspection and unabashed navel gazing)
Among the team of long-term missionaries here at Kibuye, I am the oldest member. I am 44. In Kirundi there is a word for “old man” which is Umutama. In Burundi, it is an honor to carry this title. After our arrival, once we sorted out that I was in fact 2 months older than George Watts, members of our team began to address me by this title, not so much as a sign of respect but rather as a reminder that I am no longer a spring chicken. In fact, one of the missionary kids on our team started calling me Umutamakazi, which means “old woman”, just in case I had any delusions that my new nickname might actually be for the purpose of honoring me. Some of the Burundian hospital staff have also started calling me Umutama. By the way, this title came with an “umutama walking stick”. With my dying breath, I am to pass this stick along to the next in succession, perhaps to George.
I do realize that I am far from what most Westerners would consider to be “old”, but given the constant reminder of my revered position on this team, over the course of the past year, I have started to reflect more and more on my life, and what it will look like at the end. This reflection has not necessarily been a moribund or negative process, but rather has caused me to think more deeply about what is really important in my life. As the author Columba Stewart wrote, “Awareness of mortality exerts a unique power to focus the mind and the heart on essentials”. There are still a lot of things I want to do. I want to travel to New Zealand. I want to visit the Lagavulin distillery in Scotland. I want to learn how to play Settlers of Catan. In reality, I probably will not get to do all of the things left on my “bucket list”. Lets face it, Settlers of Catan is a young man’s game. I might live for another 50 years, or I might die before I finish this …. sentence.
But above all of these bucket list items, I want to be able to say at the end of my life that I loved my family well, that I served in my profession with dignity, diligence and compassion and that I ran my race not for my own glory but for the glory of Jesus Christ, living a life that was a display of His Gospel. Have I been doing this? Not perfectly and not nearly as well as I would like. There is at this point in my life unrest within me that I need to address.
I want to be able to share the Good News, which someone once shared with me, with my children, my friends, and my patients at the hospital. In order to do the latter, I need to learn Kirundi (as most of our patients do not speak English or French). Their response to this offer will never determine the physical care I provide to them, but I want them to at least be given the opportunity to respond. Learning a new language is not easy to do when you are an Umutama. There was an article in Time a few months ago that said that scientists have determined the age after which you can no longer become fluent in a new language. I opened the article with much anticipation, hoping the magic age would be around 50. It’s 12. That certainly extinguished any flicker of hope left in me that this might be possible. But I will keep trying and I hope and I pray that one day, maybe in a year, maybe in 40 years, I will be able to express, in Kirundi, the Gospel of Jesus and what He has done for me to the people of Burundi. By then, I think I will have truly earned the title I was given 40 years earlier. Now, if someone will hand my me walking stick, I’ll be on my way.