It's hard to believe I launched the This Is How We Met series a year ago. Amanda Williams kicked it off beautifully and now here we are 35 amazing guest posts later. I have been blown away by the stories shared and this one by Kelley is no exception. I've gotten to know Kelley in recent months and have come to truly adore her. I won't even be mad about the way she totally leaves us hanging here. After all, that's precisely the point: stories of how people met. The rest, then, is history.
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My boyfriend and I entered fellowship hall. There were maybe fifty people, if that, milling around with Styrofoam cups filled with church coffee and nametags stuck to their lapels. We’d come for conversation on reconciliation and committed our next three days to it.
Like many such seminars, small group interaction was on the agenda. During the first morning break, introvert that I am, I sought out my boyfriend. On the other side of his sturdy build and big laugh stood an African man, someone in his small group, he informed me. “I’m Claude. I’m from Burundi.”
I’d never heard of Burundi before. Was it an African region, a country, a city maybe? How embarrassing to not even know – I felt ignorant and a bit ashamed.
Claude spoke with a French-like accent, and there were many English phrases that seemed to elude his understanding. He informed us that his mother tongue was Kirundi, but due to colonization the national language of is country was French. Even with his heavy accent, we communicated well enough for me to begin to learn about his homeland, the history of tribalism and civil war, resulting in his urgent interest in reconciliation.
Each time we broke for coffee or lunch, Claude joined us. His connection to Africa and thus, African animals, fascinated my boyfriend (who was into conservation). Claude seemed nice enough, so I didn’t mind – much.
The conference ended after three days, but Claude stayed in town for another ten days before his scheduled flight back to Burundi. His hosts seemed to lose interest in him and so his first visit to the States seemed to be petering out fast. But my devoted boyfriend rushed to the rescue with undaunted hospitality…
So each day when he’d pick me up from the bakery where I worked, guess who was in the back seat?
We took him to In & Out Burger, a steak house in Malibu over looking the ocean, outdoor malls lined with twinkle lights and other favorite local spots. We did our best to make his remaining days in town memorable.
As we spent more time together, I grew accustomed to the French lilt of his words. I listened better, understood more and found myself learning more about his world. I’d never met someone from such a distant, different place from my sunny California coast. Yet here he was, so different yet accessible through a shared language. As we became more familiar my questions came more easily and without as much embarrassment. The direct access to another world hooked me.
The three of us laughed a lot. The connection seemed natural after all those hours spent together in cars, around dinner tables and walking the Santa Barbara beaches. We were friends.
On Claude’s last night in town, my boyfriend had an evening work meeting he couldn’t miss. So it would be just Claude and I, for the first time, making conversation in an English-style pub. Nothing about sitting close and sharing a basket of fries felt odd. We just kept talking about the things that mattered to us, the things we wanted to see in the world and how we might be part of it all.
I remember at one point he got serious. “You know he’s not right for you. He’s a great guy, but you know there’s someone better out there for you, right?” I was a bit startled by this twist of topic – but I’d known for a while that my boyfriend wasn’t the best fit. This wasn’t news – just interesting that confirmation came from this Burundian friend.
When we parted that night we exchanged email addresses on scraps of paper. We promised to write. Who knew if we’d ever see each other again, because really, our paths were not likely to cross again. But a genuine cross-culture friendship, rooted in a shared hunger for reconciliation and the ability to find laughter in the same places, had begun.
Whether he wrote or not, he already had changed my world.
Kelley Nikondeha is a thinker, connector, advocate, avid reader, mother of two beautiful children, lover of God's justice & jubilee. She leads theological conversations at Amahoro Africa and is community development practitioner in Burundi . Kelley lives her life in transit between Arizona and Burundi. She’s in transit between continents but also in terms of her own experience of motherhood, discipleship, theological engagement and living into God’s dream for the world. She savors handwritten letters, homemade pesto and anything written by Walter Brueggemann. She is fueled by space and snacks (and Diet Coke).