As parents prepared to send their children to school throughout the Lowcountry, Anna and Russ Bennett of James Island were prepping their family for a totally different experience.
For the second year, the Bennetts will spend August to June in the African country of Burundi.
“I didn’t know where Burundi was eight years ago,” says Russ, a pastor at James Island Christian Church. He certainly knows about it now, as do his wife and four children.
There are 11 million people in this country and less than 5 percent enjoy running water and electricity. The country in recent years has experienced regional instability that included ethnic cleansing and genocide. It is now one of the world’s poorest populations. A typical Burundian family meal is sweet potatoes, corn and peas. Meat is eaten only a few times a month.
Why there, why now?
The Bennetts four children are ages 11, 5, 4 and 2. They will not see their grandparents here in Charleston until they return next summer. In the meantime, Russ and Anna are committed to reaching and teaching the people of Burundi.
“It’s been a great experience,” says Russ, 39, “because life slows down there.”
He and Anna have also dedicated themselves to helping different Burundians start businesses. This is no small challenge when considering that the average family of six lives on less than $2 a day. However, it has created an opportunity to connect with people and to make a difference.
Anna started a small business with local women, making clothing and jewelry. The name of the venture is called Babazi, which in the Kirundi language means mercy.
Russ brought together seven Burundi men to form their own taxicab service. Their business is named Dukarane, which in translation means, "let’s work together." The profits from these businesses go back into rebuilding the community.
“Burundians are amazing people,” Bennett proudly professes. “They want their country to change and they’re some of the most generous and kind people you’ll ever meet.”
The Bennetts are there in answer to a higher calling, but they, too, are simultaneously receiving encouragement and inspiration.
A changed perspective
The Bennetts expect to spend at least one more year on this mission trip. In a country that has so little, this family is receiving large life lessons. Burundians are not prisoners of the clock. A relationship is valued more than a goal or task.
There are no seasons, per se. It’s either wet or dry. The biggest danger is not lions or hippos, but a mosquito. Every member of the family sleeps under nets and nobody is allowed to go out after dark. Malaria remains a huge health risk.
“These people have very little, but they’re full of joy,” exclaims Russ. “Their daily situations would crush us, yet, they’re thankful.”
Very few of us will ever view people or their problems through the same lens as Russ Bennett and his young family. He and his wife, Anna, are trying to make a difference in one of the poorest places on the planet.
It would seem they’re making progress. This past year, one of the churches he serves decided to donate half of what it had in its budget to help widows and orphans in another community.
These lessons in charity, care, love and understanding continue to strengthen the Bennett family until their next trip home.