Benjamin McFarland, PhD, Biochemist, Professor
- Graduated from the University of Florida with dual degree in Chemistry and Technical Writing
- Ph.D. from University of Washington in Biomolecular Structure and Design
- Post-doctoral fellow in Structural Immunology at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
- Professor of Biochemistry at Seattle Pacific University
- Author of A World from Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life, 2016
How This Biochemist Got to Burundi
In April 1995, I decided to become a biochemist. Exactly twenty years later, I found myself in a cinderblock music hall at a Christian university in the small African country Burundi, teaching future doctors about how a ribosome works. If you had asked me in 1995 where I’d be in twenty years, I may have said I’d be teaching future doctors, but I would not have said I’d be doing so in Burundi. God gave me the experiences and skills to be a sort of biochemical missionary, able to help students become doctors half a world away.
It’s OK if you have to look at a map to find Burundi. (I did too.) Burundi is a twin nation to Rwanda and sits at the north end of Lake Tangankiya in the Rift Valley of Africa. My in-laws are medical missionaries who have worked through Hope Africa University in Burundi. Since I have a Ph.D. rather than an M.D., I thought I wasn’t “that kind of doctor,” and assumed I’d never be able to take part in that kind of work. One day they told me that Biochemistry III hadn’t been taught at the university in five years because no one was available to teach it. The official curriculum required the class, and if it wasn’t taught, the students would not be able to graduate and treat patients. They asked, could I do this?
I couldn’t find a good reason to say no. The timing was good because I had a sabbatical scheduled for that time and I was wondering how to fill it. I prayed and heard God telling me that I could take this time and fill this need, so I volunteered to teach two full Biochem III courses in six weeks, with a hundred students in each class.
After I was committed, worries popped up like weeds. I wrote in my journal that “this is such a different experience that I’m not even sure what to be nervous about.” News reports of East African violence gave shape to my worries and prayers. In the face of this, my wavering spirit was strengthened by a long-planned Bible study on Romans that I taught at that time. Through Paul’s teaching I realized that education, too, is mission. Our study group became a support group in every way. I’m not sure quite how to explain this, but the prayers in this study were like the labs in my chemistry classes – times of practical preparation.
The biggest challenge was linguistic. Not only would I be teaching to large groups in a foreign culture for the first time, but most students were far more conversant in French than English. My “second language” was Latin. Then I came across an ad for a tiny, bright projector as small as a package of Ramen noodles. This fit in my luggage so I could project two screens, one in English for me to talk about and one in French for the students to read. Google Translate turned my English slides into a literal sort of French, which was then corrected by a wonderful Burundian medical student named Elvis.
My travels to Burundi happened without a hitch, but during my first week of teaching, each day had a problem. First I couldn’t get the plugs to work for 10 minutes, then only 50 students showed up because 50 more were taking a Histology exam. On the fourth day, I had made 110 copies of a quiz but 173 students showed up to take it, so I improvised and said they could collaborate on this first quiz. When the power went out, I turned to the rough, chalk-crusted blackboard and did the best I could.
It wasn’t easy. How could I do anything with so much need in such a short time? The verse “Faithful is He who has called you, who also will do it” appears at least four times in my journal. I wrote “Every day here in Burundi I must receive, and that makes me constantly anxious. And sometimes things are not there, yet always, I am given enough to get by. I’m still anxious, suspended, but at last I’ve done enough to see my path laid out before me. … How will I ever change to actually receive what God gives with gratitude?”
Eventually I realized how I had been prepared for each challenge. Drama and singing experience had taught me to project my voice all the way back to the 173rdstudent in the class. I grew up in Florida, so I could tolerate the African heat. Latin was useful after all, because it allowed me to better compare French and English terms. Because most of my exposure to spoken French is from the terrible accents in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, my French pronunciations would always provoke laughter – which helped loosen up the students.
Burundian students are culturally conditioned to listen, and do not move as much as American students, so at first I couldn’t sense any non-verbal feedback. It felt like teaching to a wall. My discomfort eased as I learned that their focus as students was intent and they were not expecting me to entertain them (which is a good thing, because entertaining another culture isn’t one of my gifts). The wall melted as I picked up on their subtle gestures and responses, and also as I used quizzes to get feedback on which concepts were sticking. They passed that first collaborative quiz, didn’t pass the second, then passed the third. We were getting somewhere.
After I had taught 10 of 12 sessions for my first three-week class, I started to feel more comfortable. I kept reminding myself: SLOW DOWN. ENUNCIATE. One of my biggest challenges was "Molecular Genetics," which is a broad field with a lot of biochemistry between the cause (the bad gene) and effect (the sick patient). So in the middle of that I brought in something I often do in the states: I talked about how DNA is a "line" and that is like a language, and in Psalm 19, the word for "language" literally means "line" (as in, "their LINE has gone out into all the Earth"). So God speaks through even the lines of molecules if we can learn how to listen. After this, more students began to approach me after class and asked me questions about faith as well as science, and the class as a whole improved on later quizzes.
The stand-out moment came when I was able to talk about sickle-cell anemia. The gene that causes this is particularly common in East Africa, so I told them there were many carriers in that room. I was able to show recent papers directly connecting sickle-cell anemia to malaria, which underscored how current science could explain their own health. Several students asked me for the original papers after class.
But something was also wrong that day, because the class was about half its usual size. In the states I would attribute that to it being Friday, but in Burundi it was something else. The students knew local politics and saw bad news ahead. Some were even fleeing the country. I had no idea.
On Saturday, thePresident of Burundi announced that he was running for a third term. Burundi’s constitution contains considerable ambiguity on whether a third term is allowed. Opponents of the third term began protesting in the streets.Although the protests were not large -- hundreds of protestors in a city of millions -- they were random, moving targets, and the city shut down as a result. Shops closed. People stopped earning money and started going hungry. Public transportation stopped and students couldn’t come to class.
A week went by. Each day I wondered if the students would be able to come. Each day they couldn’t. The sounds of protest and occasional gunshots moved near, then far. A constant tension came not so much from fear but from a frustrating, static tedium. Things weren’t falling apart, they were frozen in place. After discussion with my colleagues, I reluctantly booked airline tickets to go home, but I was nervous about my students graduating. Was all our work wasted, like water poured out on the ground?
Once again, God’s grace covered me, this time through my own natural habits. I have a habit of recording all my classes and posting them online. I thought I’d grab my old battery-operated audio recorder for Burundi, just in case. In the states I often forget to record, but in Burundi, somehow I remembered every day -- which meant I had an audio copy of every lecture to that point.
I condensed my last three lectures into three hours of instruction, recorded in front of a few students, wrote a final exam, Google-Translated it into French, and organized everything so others could play the audio and show the slides instead of me. Then I flew home. After a month, when I had been in the states for several weeks, the students gathered, played the audio, watched the slides, and took the final. The vast majority passed. At that point the entire course was recorded and the second group of students took it by listening to the recordings and watching the slides.
It was disappointing to have plans cut short, and a stressful to be living with random, potentially violent protests. Even driving to the airport was stressful as we dodged moving protests (the adventurous details are on my blog). Through the conflict, I remembered my verse. Because God called me to fill a need, God would use what I could offer -- maybe not the way I thought, but that was not my concern. I also asked my friends to pray that the students could learn in this sub-optimal situation, and according to the final test grades, almost all of them did.
When all’s said and done, more than 200 students earned credit for that biochemistry course when that couldn’t get it otherwise. As I write this, the country has settled into a sort of fearful suspense, but classes have resumed, and somewhere there’s a doctor treating patients because of the class I was able to give to the students out of the education that had been given me. I was not sufficient to face the challenges but grace was given me in many ways, and now there are doctors who can give grace to others.
It's heartbreaking to be so powerless. I feel a twinge every day for being in my US middle-class life. But it's a real reflection of the powerlessness they feel. It's a strange privilege to be able to understand their world. Their reliance on God for literal daily bread helps me understand the Lord’s Prayer better, too.
You don’t have to choose between science and healing people. Through any field of science, you can teach healers that can go out and heal others. God is able to give these gifts even in a distant land and even in the face of political turmoil. The challenges are real, but the results can be lasting.