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Medad Birungi grew up in the war-torn country of Uganda in the 1960’s. He was born to a hateful father. And, after years of abuse, his father abandoned him, along with his mother and siblings, on the side of the road when he was only six years old. His life became increasingly difficult—his poverty increased, his hope evaporated and his future was nothing but decay. For the first twenty years of his life, he lived on a staple diet of anger and bitterness.
But God had his hand on Birungi’s life, and it would change beyond all recognition. Everything that was made ugly by pain and anger was turned to beauty by one incredibly simple yet revolutionary act: forgiveness. Though he started as a boy who begged to die by the side of the road, becoming a teenager angry enough to kill then a man broken and searching, he is now a testimony to God’s transforming power.
Currently Birungi is the coordinator for missions, evangelism and church planting in the Anglican Diocese of Kampala. He also lectures at the Kyambogo University. But one of his greatest passions is the charitable organization that he founded, World Shine Ministries. He is a father of nine children (five biological and four adopted). He and his wife Connie live with their children in Uganda.
Visit the author's website.
A Revolution of Forgiveness
Medad Birungi faced pain few imagine yet speaks of forgiveness all can experience
“My story changed beyond all recognition. Everything that was made ugly by pain and anger was turned to beauty by one simple, revolutionary thing—forgiveness.” Medad Birungi was once a boy who begged to die by the side of the road, a teenager angry enough to kill, a man broken and searching, yet today he is a testimony to God’s transforming power. In his life story, Tombstones and Banana Trees: A True Story of Revolutionary Forgiveness, Birungi charts his outrageous journey through suffering, abuse, despair and revenge to unexpected forgiveness and healing.
Birungi grew up with a violent father in the war-torn country of Uganda in the 1960’s. His childhood was scarred by extreme poverty, cruel suffering and unbearable sorrow that few of us can even imagine. Yet from that trauma came the lessons that we can all appreciate: the impoverishment of life without Christ, the redemption of the cross and the revolutionary power of forgiveness. His story deals in nothing less than pure, God-given transformation. Tombstones and Banana Trees has the dual quality of being both uniquely individual yet universally relevant, holding together the grandest of themes and the most intimate of testimonies. Birungi’s life is so comprehensively renewed that any reader sharing in his journey will feel the impact.
Through his story of healing, Birungi calls readers to find healing for their own emotional scars. He reminds them that when they forgive others they are doing something truly radical—changing relationships, communities and countries. They are welcoming God into the hidden corners of the human soul, where real revolution begins, inspiring others to start again and work for reconciliation. Birungi is “fascinated by forgiveness, drawn to it, compelled by it and delighted when anyone wants to join me. That is what revolutionary forgiveness becomes after a while—a passion. It draws us in, yet it does not overrule us. We must still make the choice to overcome our reservations.”
Tombstones and Banana Trees will take readers back to their own tombs and funerals and help them ask how God might turn them into new births and celebrations. Their eyes will be opened to the revolutionary change that God Himself has in store for all.
List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: David C. Cook (July 1, 2011)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
The Power of the Family
Life is good and I laugh a lot. You need to know that about me before we make a start. You need to know that I think of myself as being blessed with so much of God’s grace—far more than I deserve.
You need to know that as I look at my life I see there is much that is beautiful and much that is good. You need to know all this because what comes next will probably remove the smile from your eyes.
This is a book about revolutionary forgiveness. And in order to write about forgiveness, you must have something to forgive. For there to be change, you must have something to leave behind. In order to know healing, you must first have received a wound.
I did not think I would ever experience such sorrow or despair as the day my father beat me down from the pickup trucks and abandoned us—my mother, my sisters, my brothers, and me—by the side of the road at Kashumuruzi. We had no food, no possessions, and no hope of a future. All we had was the smell of diesel from the aging pickup trucks loaded with possessions, retreating down the road possessions that, just minutes previously, had been our own.
All we could hear was the sound of rejoicing that came from the hands and mouths of the rest of my father’s wives and their children as they jeered from the trucks. All we could see were the villagers
slowly peeling away from the scene and returning to their tasks, now that the drama that had entertained them was over. All I knew was that my mother, my sisters, my brothers, and I were weeping into the dirt, hoping life would end soon.
I did not think life would ever get worse than this. I did not think there was worse to come.
Yet there was. Far worse. But those are other stories for later pages. Right now I need to explain about the road and the pickup trucks, and in order to do that, I must tell you about that day.
It had started the way many mornings did. I woke up to the sound of singing carried in and out of my home on the wind, like sunlight playing in and out of the clouds. The music was coming from the church or the school on the other side of the valley. They always started early. I had never really belonged to either of them.
I was a typical six-year-old boy from a typical village in western Uganda. I had no need for shoes, was naked from the waist down, and was beginning to be aware of making the transition from infant to child. That meant I was becoming more adventurous, starting to move away from the compound where we lived, and finding out what was on offer in the land that surrounded it. Out beyond the pressed, swept earth, I was learning how to use my hands to make things out of the broad leaves of the banana trees that flooded the valley where we lived. I would use the broadest, thickest ones as mats on which I would sledge down the muddied slopes toward the stream. The rocks added the element of danger, and our scarred and bruised buttocks were the scorecards, clearly showing how often our games ended in pain. Thinner leaves I would use to make slippers for my feet. They only ever lasted a day, but I felt like a man when I wore them.
I was getting stronger. That meant I was starting to join in with the older children in the twice-daily trips down to the stream to collect water. My clay pot was small, but even five liters was heavy enough to make the task of carrying it a challenge. Especially when there were consequences to arriving back at home with a less-thankfull load.
Our home was halfway up a steep hill at the north end of a wide open valley. Two generations ago there had been nothing in the area but forest; a sprawling forest that, if you saw it from the other side of the valley, looked like an ocean churned up by a storm. Up close you could see that the sides of the steep hills had created land at the bottom that was dark, musty, and alive with insects that fed on the rotting vegetation. That is what our village is called: Rwanjogori. It means maggots.
Why would anyone want to live in a place like this? Ask my grandfather—he was the one who first settled here, clearing back the forest and building the first home halfway up the hill away from the maggots that ruled the earth at the bottom. He had discovered it when he was looking for places to hide the cattle he stole from distant farms. He was the son of Bukumuura, son of Karumuna, of Bituura, of Ruhiiga, of Ngirane, of Kasigi, of Muntu. Every one of these men was a renowned polygamist, especially Ruhiiga, who had thirty-six wives. My grandfather’s name was Kasabaraara—and it means “one who grinds people who sleep in your house.” Yes, my grandfather was given the name of a killer and became a professional thief who colonized a land in which nobody would have dreamed of living. They say it is hard to get a clean bird from a dirty nest, that true change is difficult when you come from a difficult family background. I know there have been times in my life when I have wished the maggots would return and consume me for themselves.
The day my father abandoned us had started typically. The sound of children singing, cups of millet porridge to drink, a quick trip down the hill to collect the water that flowed out of the ground
when you poked it with a stick. But after that things changed. It was moving day, and we were leaving Rwanjogori forever.Or so we thought.
My father had been friendly ever since he had returned home after his year-and-a-half disappearance—which itself is another story that we will get to in good time. Of course, his warm smiles and happy chatter could not fool us, and we remained suspicious—even six-year-old me. But my father was full of talk of great plans and big changes, all told with wide eyes and grand gestures made by hands
that commanded the air. It did not take long for him to convince us that our overcrowding was a problem for which he had the perfect solution.
In Uganda, as in much of Africa, a home is made up of three elements: your house, the area immediately around it—often called your compound—and the land that you farm. My father owned a
large slice of land that ran down from the top of the hill, flowing through to the valley below as it flattened out. His father had planted hundreds of banana trees, some with black trunks that offered
matoke, or plantain, as you might call it—a savory type of banana high in carbohydrates, cooked and served with a groundnut sauce or red beans. The green-trunked banana trees grow smaller fruit, but
these little bananas are sweet and delicious. You have never tasted a real banana until you have pulled a handful from a tree and allowed their sugary sweetness to delight your taste buds.
Our house was made of mud that had been stuck onto a sturdy wooden frame. The walls were thick and the roof was thatched with dried grass from a nearby marsh. Because my mother was my father’s first wife, our house was the biggest, with three rooms: a bedroom for my parents, another for my sisters, and a main living area in which my brothers and I slept and where we all ate when it was too wet or cold outside.
Our compound stretched around our house, and in it could be found our goats, maybe the odd cow, a dog or two, as well as the charcoal fire where my mother would cook. The earth was hard and dark, flattened by the feet of so many people living there. A few meters along from our house was another, slightly smaller. In it were my father’s second wife and their children. Farther on still was another house and another wife and more children. And then another.
You could call our overcrowding a form of domestic congestion or an “overextended family,” but whichever words you use, the truth was simple: My father had taken too many wives. My mother was his first, but as his anger rose along with his drinking, so too did the number of wives. In one year he married five other women, and by the end of his life he had fathered a total of thirty-two children: twenty-six girls and six boys. So, yes, there were too many of us. Too many wives fighting for his attention, too many children desperate for a father, too many mouths left hungry by too little land. “I know how our poverty will be wiped clean,” said my father one day. On his travels away from us he had found a large piece of land, two hundred miles west, where we could all live in plenty. Each wife would have five acres of land, more than enough to feed us and keep hunger away.
So he had sold our home and the land we had been squeezed into. On the morning of our planned departure, every able body was loaded up with possessions and sent off down the hill, past the spring, through the banana trees, and out onto the valley bottom, passing by the unmarked boundary that signaled the edge of my father’s land. Once out on the valley floor we then carried our sleeping mats, cooking pots, animal skins, water jars, and low tables down the track for another mile to the village of Kashumuruzi.
Kashumuruzi was an exciting place. It was the link with the outside world. Where Rwanjogori was home to only a few families and nothing else, Kashumuruzi was different. Not only did it have a trading post—a shop that sold everything from home-brewed beer to pots and cloth—but its houses and compounds were all stuck on one side of a main road that, in one direction, ran to the distant local capital of Kabale, while the other way pointed to the waterfall of Kisiizi and, beyond that, the new land my father was taking us to.
At this time in my life I was not poor. True, all those extra wives and children had put a strain on our resources, so the move was something we all welcomed, even if we did so cautiously. But my father was a dealer in animal skins, and he was good at his job. He was a charismatic, attractive man. People listened when he spoke and readied themselves to follow when he led. We had status.
So there we were, sitting at the side of the road, our possessions piled high beneath the tall tree that gave a little shade in the gathering heat. It was a big day in the life of the local villages, and as the trucks arrived, so too did a small crowd of onlookers. My father spoke to the drivers as soon as they arrived, gave them instructions about where we were going and how to load the possessions. This was a side of him I had not seen much of before: commanding authority from other adults who seemed to lower their eyes and obey him quickly. I was used to seeing my siblings or my mother hurrying to obey his commands, avoiding eye contact and hoping to avoid his rage, but not other men. With the bystanders he was different: He seemed unusually happy, as if he was enjoying being the center of the show, like a magician preparing for a grand finale, smiling to himself at the knowledge that what was coming was sure to leave an impression for years to come on the minds of those watching.
We loaded everything we had onto the pickup trucks and then climbed on. We might not have been poor, but we were certainly not wealthy enough for me to have been in the back of a pickup truck before. We were certainly not that wealthy. As we prepared to drive through villages and even towns—yes, there would be towns on the journey!—I was excited beyond words, a six-year-old boy about to experience the most thrilling thing of all, on display for all to see as we made our way to our new life. To my mind this was already a very good day, what with all the excitement of carrying things down from our home and having so many people gathering to watch us. And it was about to get even better.
My mother was a kind woman, and a wise one too. She was also a woman of prayer. She knew how to pick her battles, and she had ushered my sisters and me up into the final pickup truck. Let the other wives fight for the status of riding in the first one with our father in the cab. It was probably best to keep a low profile anyway: My father had been acting strangely around my mother, my siblings, and me for months.
Before the engines started, my father got out and made his way back down the line. He stopped by our truck and looked at each of us in turn; my mother, me, my sisters, and my two brothers. Those wide eyes that had been sparkling and dancing for days were suddenly different. Darker. Narrowed. I did not want to look into them. “All of you,” he said. “Get down.”
I could not move. I had received so many beatings and scoldings from my father that panic was never far from my heart whenever he addressed me. Usually I would run or fight, but this time I remained still, frozen.
“You have been a problem to me. You fought against me, and I cannot migrate with problems.” He quickly stepped around the back of the vehicle, reached into the brush behind the tall tree, and pulled out a stick. He wielded the six-foot flexible weapon with skill, bringing it stinging through the air, lashing us across our cowed backs .I do not know whether I fell, jumped, or was pushed down from the truck, but it did not take long before we were facing the dirt, surrounding our mother, crying.
The beatings hurt, but they were nothing new. My father knew how to hurt us, and there had been plenty of occasions in the past when he had inflicted pain on us in cruel ways that left scars visible even today. But these beatings at the side of the road were not the main event; they were a warm-up to something big. He was merely tenderizing the meat so that we were truly ready for the fire to follow.
It had been six months since my father had returned from his self-imposed exile, and every day he had been back at home with us he had kept a particular bucket close by. Each morning he had filled it with ash from the fire, and my mother had always asked him, “What do you want this ash for?” He only ever gave the same reply: “One day you will see.”
As we crouched there, huddled around our mother, the tree towering above us, the hill stretching back behind, the trucks to our side, the road at our feet, and an increasingly large crowd watching from the other side, my father dropped his stick and reached down for the bucket that he had also hidden in the brush behind the tree. Suddenly he was not a raging father or a stick-wielding disciplinarian. He was an actor, playing to the crowd opposite, his body half turned so they could all see the bucket of ash swinging in his hand, hovering over our heads. His voice, loud and formal, rang across the road as he announced to everyone: “I am leaving my children with their inheritance.” With that he tipped the bucket upside down, the great cloud of ash getting caught on the wind before much of it settled on our bodies.
“My children,” he said, standing above us with an empty bucket swinging in his hand, “I am not leaving you with cows or property or anything else. This ash is your inheritance. And just as it has been blown away, may you, too, be blown away with your mother!”
I do not know precisely what happened after that. I saw my father’s feet carry him away, heard a truck door slam and three engines cough out their lungs like waking monsters that patrol a small boy’s nightmares. As the vehicles pulled away, his remaining wives and their children began to sing and drum their songs of celebration. They had our property. They had left us behind. They sounded happy.
We, meanwhile, started to weep. All of us—my mother, my three sisters, my two brothers, James and Robert, and I—wept with the pain of humiliation, of fear, of shock. But as the noise of the trucks
and the victorious wives diminished, another noise broke throughour sobs. The onlookers were laughing, cheering, and shouting their own abuses at us.
“Be careful, women: She will steal your own husbands! She’s a bad woman—she cannot be trusted.”
“Their time has come at last! She thought she was so superior all those years.”
“Typical Rwandese. Typical Tutsi: always bringing trouble with them.”
I was too young to understand all of their words, but I knew we were alone now.
My mother had fled neighboring Rwanda some years earlier, escaping the start of what would be a continuing campaign of genocide against her native Tutsi people at the hands of the Hutu. We had no family left to depend on, nowhere left to go. And now that our father had so publicly rejected us, we were utterly and completely alone. We were like dead dogs at the side of the road, devoid of rights, denied dignity, and completely worthless. The only difference was that we were still breathing. But what good was that doing us? In that moment it would have been better had we died right there and then.
Those trucks were carrying whatever was left of my own happiness. I was six years old—old enough to know that, as the oldest male in that heap of wretched bodies, it was my duty to do something to help us get out of the horror. For my father had taught me one lesson as he had brought his stick down fast upon me: When a man is consumed by anger and hatred, he can change the lives of those around him in an instant. Anger can rage like a volcanic eruption.
As our tears fell to the ground, it was as if they turned to blood. If you have ever been to Africa, you will understand what I mean when I say this. The soil in Africa is rich and red, stained by time and struggles. On this day, it was made darker by the tears of a small boy who wished he had enough anger and hatred within him to change the lives of his mother and siblings in an instant.
I wished things would change at that moment. I wished I did not have to look at the feet of the few villagers who remained nearby to watch us in our shame. Those feet seemed to taunt me, with their cracks and scars deeper and broader than my own. They had carried their owners through many struggles over many years. What hope could I have of surviving? What hope did I have of holding on to life? I could not even stay on a truck.
There is a saying that was written down by an African: “Time and bad conditions do not favor beauty.” It is true. For some of us, growing up in Africa has brought suffering and hardship, right up close, time after time. Life has been robbed of its beauty.
Yet is that really so different from the American family that is crippled by debt and held back by too many jobs that pay too little money? Or what about the child from the European inner city who grows up with his nose pressed against the window of privilege and opulence—who sees the cars and the money and the ease of living— and knows he can never achieve such wealth for himself? Africa does not have a monopoly on time and bad conditions, any more than the West has a monopoly on health and happiness. Beauty can be taken from us all.
My father had tried hard to take the beauty out of my life. As we crouched on the roadside, ash in our hair, tears leaving trails though the dust on our faces, we must have looked like the ugliest people on earth. Who would want us? Who would care for us? Who would rescue such miserable people? Surely we had been left to die. We were rejected, abandoned, disowned, and cursed. Our security, our self-worth, and our significance were crushed.
Eventually there were no more tears. We begged the ground to take us right there and then, but it did not. At that moment I wanted to die. I did not want any more of this life where one man could cause so much pain. I wanted the earth to become my tomb
If our lives are seen as stories, then this was the start of the chapter of bitterness that became my staple diet for twenty years. The poverty got worse, hope evaporated, the future was nothing but decay.
But my story did not stay that way forever. It changed beyond all recognition. Everything that was made ugly by pain and anger was turned to beauty by one incredibly simple yet unbelievably revolutionary thing: forgiveness.
These pages that you hold in your hand will show how a boy who begged to die by the side of the road grew to become a man who was able to forgive. These pages will take you and me back to our tombs
and our funerals and ask how God might turn them into maternity wards and celebrations. These pages, I hope, will open your eyes to the change that God Himself has in store for you.
Even today I remember that time at the roadside, beneath the tree, and wonder what God saw. Of course I know He saw our pain and our rejection. He saw the hatred that spilled over from our father and would continue to infect the lives of others in the village. He saw the rapid descent in our fortunes, from a family with a future to a collection of outcasts with no power, no voice, no potential.
But I also think He saw us stay with our mother. He saw us hold on tight to one another, remaining by one another, our tears and cries flowing together. It was a small step, and it did not feel as though there were any other choices on offer, but there is power in unity, power in the family. My father migrated and rejected, abandoned, disowned, and cursed us. But not Jesus. He is a caring God who stays closer than anyone else.
Our time at that tree by the side of the road did not last forever. Soon God brought a kind man to rescue us. Years later He would guide people to bring messages about His steadfast love to us in the midst of other periods of pain. And even after that, as an adult, I would one day descend from a bus at this very spot, my life having changed forever, forgiveness staging its dramatic revolution in every fiber of my body.
In time, everything would be different.
Copyright 2011 Medad Birungi. Tombstones and Banana Trees published by David C Cook. Publisher permission required to reproduce in any way. All rights reserved.