The news has been good. In the last four years of working alongside our Batwa friends each mother has safely delivered her child; each baby announced her arrival with a hearty cry into the Burundian sky, squinted his eyes at the glorious glow of the African sun. Not a single baby has been lost in childbirth.
Until now… The call came early in the morning that the baby entered the world with uncharacteristic silence. Stillborn.
The community of men carried the baby away for immediate burial in the hills of Matara. The women crowded around the clinic offering comfort to the bereft mama. We shared our prayers and presence; we all suffered this loss.
The word hit like an anvil against my head, against my heart. A baby died in Matara today. How could this happen?
The seasons have been kind to Matara, turning the land into a place with fresh milk and honeybees. Clean spring water and abundant crops keep everyone healthy. No one dies from malaria anymore. The woman with a fistula was treated at the local hospital, her neighbors walking her down the hillside and her husband had enough money to pay for a taxi. Death has no business among the Batwa anymore.
Until now… When a baby is pushed into the world minus the capacity to live. Dead on arrival.
I cried all day long. I couldn’t squelch the tears long enough to have cogent conversations with my friends. “This isn’t supposed to happen in Matara anymore,” I sputtered out into the emptiness. “I thought they were past this. I thought we’d moved on from senseless deaths and were kicking infant mortality in the ass,” I ranted.
I forgot that babies still die. I forgot birth is still precarious – and mysterious.
There are so many good things afoot in our communities right now. Sustainability is within reach for the Matara families. Clean water wells and a new school have come to Bubanza. Women are getting fresh business opportunities through our community bank in the city. Everything is humming along with hope.
Until now… This still child reminding me that not all is right with the world yet. Death still visits.
What this death did was yank me back into loss, back to lament. I had forgotten the world before hope. But now I sunk into the mire of it, inconsolable for days. Death stings. The unresolved hostilities, broken vows, babies without families, children without resources all point to piercing brokenness we cannot full escape.
I remember a sermon preached on Isaiah by Walter Brueggemann; the sweep of the narrative moves from loss to lament, on to hard work and finally to the hope of the New City. Today it feels like my own story. We came to Burundi and sat in the loss with our friends, we grieved together the injustices that kept them on the margins of their society. Then we decided to do the hard work of reclaiming and restoring some things together- thus the crops, cows, wells, loans and school. And we’ve been high on hope lately. We’ve seen glimpses of the New City in Burundi. And it’s so beautiful it makes you forget what came before.
But until we inhabit the New City, glimpses are all we get. Until then we will always cycle back to loss and lament. We will, as Frederick Buechner says, need to “obey the sadness of our time.” We cannot forget the loss just yet. Lament must remain in our vocabulary and our liturgy for a while longer. But we continue with hard work, trusting we’ll be lit with hope once more.
For now I remember grief work is hallowing work. I allow myself to weep over a lost baby buried in the sweet soil of Matara. I let the sadness in and hold it like a seed. I forgot the lullaby of lament – until now.