It began with a desire to be healthy. Claude Nikondeha, Director of Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Bujumbura, Burundi, felt that he and his kids could do more to be active. He decided that he would wake them up before their school day to go on daily walks.
His kids, Justin and Emma, both 13 at the time, were less than enthusiastic about this plan, but once Claude’s mind is made up, very little will stop him. After all, this is the man who realized women in his country did not have enough access to financial loans, so he started what is now a thriving bank that focuses on underserved people. He is the man who reformed an entire rural community: now the people of Bubanza have access to clean water and safe food supplies.
And this is the man who, when he learned there was an easy and affordable fortified porridge recipe that could ensure that children in Burundi had all of the nutrients they needed in one bowl, launched a new company. The machines for the new porridge-making factory arrived a few weeks ago; the nutritious fortified porridge will be in the hands of the children of Burundi this year.
A new walking regimen with his kids? Not a problem for Claude—even if they weren’t that excited about it.
But Claude didn’t expect what happened next.
At age 13, it wasn’t always the easiest for Claude to connect with Emma. He loved being with her—she had been his little girl since she had come home as an 18-month-old—but the emotional terrain of her life felt different now as she moved into adolescence. He still loved her, but he wasn’t always sure what to say to her—her mom Kelley seemed to understand more naturally how to handle the ups and downs of Emma’s days.
Claude started walking with the kids every morning. He woke them both up at 5am, two hours before school started. They went out of their gate onto the road, and together they hiked up the hill near their house. From the top, they could see most of Bujumbura, Claude’s beloved city, spread out below him. Then they walked back and showered in time to go to school.
By the end of the first week, Claude noticed something: Both of the children groused and grumped about getting up so early. But once on the road, Emma worked at it. There was a well of determination in his daughter that was deep. She was able to move past the early frustration and worked herself into a good attitude. Claude could tell—Emma was starting to enjoy these walks.
A few days later, Claude tried an experiment—he let Justin sleep in. Justin had soccer and other activities that Emma didn't like as much. And Claude wanted to see whether it bothered Justin not to go. It didn’t. Soon Claude and Emma's walks together were part of the family's routines.
For the next six months, the two of them got up almost every morning and spent time together.
It was a small thing, really. It felt good to start the day with a walk, but Claude was surprised how much he looked forward to time with Emma too. In the mornings, sometimes she was companionably quiet; sometimes she chattered away about school and friends and he loved to hear what was happening in her life, things she might not share when her more gregarious brother was around.
They were connecting, in ways they never had before. It’s not that Claude wasn’t a very engaged father—he was—it’s that the subtle shifts from little girl to preteen girl had happened almost without him noticing. On those walks, Claude relished time with this in-between-girl, not quite small and not quite grown up.
They still remember it as one of their happiest seasons together. And the benefits lasted long after the walks ended.
They moved houses and the hill they loved to walk to was too far for daily use. Their new house had a pool and suddenly they found being active wasn’t a problem—swimming is always in season in Burundi. Emma started practicing the piano in the mornings; Claude got ready every day to the strains of Emma’s music.
But things had shifted between them in an important way. As Claude says, “Walking every day wasn’t easy, but it was good for us both. We grew stronger, but more importantly we grew closer. We found our rhythm on that road while everyone else was still sleeping. ”
And if you ask Emma what her favorite sport is, she’s quick to reply, “Walking with my papa.”
Otter Pass asked Claude if we could share his story because it points to two things that seem incredibly important in today’s busy world: there’s a lot of focus on spending time with babies and toddlers, but as kids get older, we as parents talk much less about what we’re doing to connect with our preteen kids. Shuttling them to soccer and band and swimming and gymnastics, it can be hard to find quiet moments together. And those quiet moments are incredibly rich—for us as parents and for our kids.
When we heard Claude’s story of finding a simple moment to connect with Emma, it felt like the perfect idea—easy and meaningful and something anyone can do.
And we kind of love that the walks weren’t something Claude did forever. It can feel sometimes that you have to start some sort of life-changing regimen with your kids and that, if it lapses, you’ve failed and might as well quit. Instead, we’re inspired by Claude’s dedication to finding moments to connect with his kids. The walks worked with Emma for six months, but he’s found other ways to be with Justin. These are things that are ever-shifting as his kids get older.
What doesn’t change is Claude Nikondeha’s dedication to Justin and Emma. They are at the heart of his desire to do help other kids, too—the kids of Burundi are lucky to have Claude and the porridge factory he’s starting will be life-changing for many of them. But in the midst of his busy life, he’s a dad we think does an excellent job of finding everyday moments to connect with his kids.