Burundi, a largely agricultural country in eastern Africa, has suffered from ethnic violence between its two major tribes—the Hutus and Tutsis—since it won its independence in 1962. In 1993, after years of military dictatorship, Burundi held its first democratic election. Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, won. He was killed by Tutsis attempting a coup d'ètat less than four months into his term. His death triggered a civil war during which 500,000 Burundians died. Three of those killed were close relatives of Gerard Nsabimana M.Div. '11.
One of nine children, Nsabimana grew up working on his family's farm. They raised most of their own food, as well as coffee, the major cash crop in Burundi. "Each child had coffee plants so we could get money for school fees and a school uniform," he says.
Farming, however, meant more to him and his family than producing food and income—it was an arena for fellowship and faith. Once a week, Nsabimana, whose late father was a Methodist minister, accompanied church members to the farm of a needy neighbor. While the women sang hymns, everyone plowed the fields by hand.
Nsabimana's route to Duke Divinity School began in 1995, when he fled his war-torn homeland—first to the Democratic Republic of Congo, then to Tanzania and Zimbabwe, his last stop before immigrating to the U.S. in 2002, at the age of thirty-one.
While still in Zimbabwe, he had studied agriculture and natural resources at Africa University, with the help of the United Methodist bishop in Burundi. He received a bachelor of science in 2002. After arriving in the U.S., he continued his studies at Oklahoma State University, earning a master's degree in agricultural economics in 2005. While there, he became friends with the director of the Wesley Foundation on campus—a Duke Divinity School graduate—who encouraged him to become a minister. Their friendship and lectures by visiting professors from Duke on topics such as peace and reconciliation influenced his decision to study at the divinity school.
Christianity and agriculture remain inextricably tied in Nsabimana's experiences in the U.S. Last summer, he interned at Cedar Grove United Methodist Church in Cedar Grove, North Carolina, where, in addition to planning worship services and making pastoral visits, he helped plant and maintain a community garden.
The garden, called Anathoth Community Garden, originated as an attempt to restore peace after a murder in Cedar Grove. For Nsabimana, it served as a bridge between his own agricultural and religious background and the farming tradition of rural North Carolina church members. While working there, he says, he connected with the land, his fellow volunteers, and members of his congregation. Every week, with help from two youth volunteers, Nsabimana harvested flowers and vegetables from the garden and delivered them to elderly church members.
He knows firsthand the risks and vagaries of working the land. He advises aspiring farmers to rely on prayer and God's grace to provide favorable conditions. "Being a farmer," he says, "brings me closer to God than anything else."
Nsabimana says he would like to return to Burundi someday, but more ethnic violence is expected after this summer's elections. When he does go back, he says, he hopes to share a ministry that teaches reconciliation and forgiveness; he believes that before they can escape their ugly history, Burundian farmers must be taught to honor each other—Tutsis, Hutus, Catholics, Protestants, and followers of traditional indigenous religions—in the same way that they honor their land.