April in Rwanda: A Foreigner’s Story

It’s been twenty-two years since Rwanda’s Genocide began. Twenty-two years ago nearly one million Rwandans were killed over the course of one-hundred days…all while the world watched, still.

As for me? I hadn’t yet turned three and was safely tucked away in Northern California with my parents…who I’m sure couldn’t even have imagined that two decades later I’d be living in the very same country they were watching on the television.

Today, my community graciously allowed me to join in their memorial ceremony and asked that I share my experience with “other countries who do not know the truth about Rwanda”.

This blog isn’t going to serve as a history lesson, but if you want to learn about what happened in 1994, please go here: Kwibuka.rw.


 

Technically, I was here last April. “Technically” in the sense that I was in Kigali, far from my village, mourning the loss of my friend David. I knew that, following Peace Corps’ memorial service for David, I would be unable to give the support that I knew my community deserved. So I stayed in Kigali until the memorial week had passed and then I went back home to Kibilizi.

So this year, it was extremely important to me that I stay in my community for the entire memorial week (April 7th-April 14th). (Though, as I mentioned before, Rwanda’s Genocide was prolonged until July 4th, 1994, at which point nearly 80% of an entire group of people had been killed.) I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about how today would go. No matter how many years I spend in Rwanda, no matter how many people recognize my efforts to learn Kinyarwanda, and no matter how many people kindly say “You are Rwandan now,” … I know that I am a foreigner.

During this week in particular, I am a foreigner who hails from a country that actively stood by and chose not to intervene in one of the world’s greatest (and preventable) tragedies. Americans watched as Rwandans tore themselves apart because of an ethnic rift that Western societies deepened as they came to colonize East Africa. I’m remaining as politically neutral as I can on this topic (I’m trying, Peace Corps…), but I hope you all can understand that I woke up this morning knowing that I represent a country that failed Rwanda and its people.

I’d spent the better half of this week trying to determine which of my co-workers would be attending the ceremony in our Sector; I didn’t want to go alone. I finally set a time to meet one of my nurses at the health center this morning so we could walk to the ceremony together. Naturally, he went home to shower and change clothes (he was on duty all night) at just the time we were supposed to meet. I didn’t want to be late, so I started walking to the Sector office by myself.

Just as I was starting to second-guess the whole “going solo” thing, I ran into my friend from the Red Cross outside the Sector office and he offered to walk in with me before he had to go set up the PA system. As I walked over to the fairly small group of people, less than fifty at this point, I noticed that the benches had been set up in a half-circle underneath the most beautiful tree.

As I wandered over to the silent group, I started to sweat a bit; I had no idea where to sit. I was worried that I would end up with the Sector officials or an area reserved for widows of the Genocide. Luckily, I saw one of my co-workers and asked her where I should sit. She kindly walked me, hand-in-hand, over to a fairly empty bench and plopped me down next to a very old woman who was pretty wary about sitting next to an umuzungu (foreigner). I don’t blame her; for all she knew I could’ve been one of those awful people who decide to visit Rwanda during April specifically to drop in on memorial ceremonies, take some photos, and promptly return to their hot showers.

[Quick aside: You’ll notice that I’m not using any names and won’t be getting too specific with individual stories aside from my own. Remembering the Genocide and choosing to share stories is a deeply personal choice and I won’t be making that choice for any of my friends and co-workers.]

After I was seated, we waited about thirty minutes for more people to arrive and then got started. The priest from the huge Catholic church in my village (that was built long before 1994) started off the ceremony with some scripture and a few prayers. Then came one of the most memorable parts of the morning; the children’s choir. About thirty children (from age four to twenty) sang gospel in between sermons. I’m not really sure where our vocal chords go wrong in America, but I’ve heard church choirs before…and none of them sound as achingly beautiful as these kids’. Sitting in the morning shade and listening to the children sing about the rebirth of Rwanda moved me in a way that I hope I never forget.

The sermons and singing went on for about an hour while the Sector officials blessed our newly built Sector memorial building (with the names of those who have perished written on the walls inside). Afterward, we (the crowd, now well over five-hundred people) donated to the church and to the orphans who remain in Kibilizi. (Many of these orphans are the sons and daughters of women who were raped and succumbed to AIDS as a result of the terrible war atrocity.) Following the sermons, we all walked over to my health center (right next door) to view the newest Genocide memorial. A statue was constructed to commemorate the health center as it served as a place of safety during the Genocide and treated thousands of Kibilizi’s people.

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Health Center Memorial

After a moment of silence at the health center, we all returned to the Sector office for introductory speeches courtesy of the Sector officials. During the second speech, I was shocked to hear my name. When I looked up, I noticed that everyone in front of me had now turned to look my way. My co-worker, who had now found me and was sitting next to me, turned to me to start translating. After a couple seconds, the man giving the speech switched to English, introduced himself as the Deputy Executive Secretary, and proceeded to repeat his speech in English. (This is where things get a little hazy as I started tearing up and had to bite my tongue, literally, to prevent myself from becoming a blubbery mess.) The man thanked me for coming to today’s ceremony and went on to give thanks that I came to Kibilizi nearly two years ago. Then came the part that got me so emotional. The man said that he was grateful that I had given up a life in America to come be a part of Rwanda and the community in Kibilizi. He asked me if I would please act as an ambassador for Rwanda and show America what this country – his country – is really like.

I was barely holding it together at this point. And I hope you don’t think I’m tooting my own horn here, because I’m not the remarkable part of that speech. What’s remarkable is that a man who has spent two decades repairing our community through reparations and programs of forgiveness asked if I would please tell America what it means to be Rwandan. He asked me to share the truth of this culture, his people, and his home with those back in my home…those who will never have the opportunity to see this truly fantastic place and meet the kindest people I have ever known. For him to ask me that, on a day like today, reminds me why I’m so torn about going back to the U.S. It’s not that I don’t miss my family or friends or creature comforts…it’s that Rwanda has become home for me, as well.

Just after the man’s speech, another gentleman stood and introduced himself as today’s “historian”; he would be reminding us how the Genocide began and what transpired over the hundred days between April 7th and July 4th, 1994. Alas, before he could truly get started, it started pouring in true Rwanda-wet-season fashion. Five-hundred people picked up benches and made a run for the tiny indoor conference hall. And, in true confused-Rwanda-wet-season fashion, the sun came out and starting beating down on the tin roof ten minutes into the man’s story.

Thus, we spent the next three hours huddled together, shoulder to shoulder, in a tiny stifling room, listening to other historians and a few incredibly brave individuals who had volunteered to tell their personal tragedies. (I’m sure you’re wondering why anyone would volunteer to relive the worst moments of their life, yeah? Well it’s in the theme of Rwanda’s “Kwibuka” to remember, unite, and renew. A huge part of a preventing anything like this from happening again is to remember Rwanda’s immense tragedy.)

I was surprised when one of my co-workers (the same one who walked me to my seat earlier in the morning) stood up and told her story. My other co-worker, still faithfully translating by my side, started to translate but I stopped him. It took an incredible amount of courage for our co-worker to stand before a crowd of five-hundred and share her tragedy; I certainly wasn’t going to take away from her experiences just because I couldn’t pick up every last word. Her emotions were obviously heavy and, though crying is very much not a part of Rwandan culture, there were few dry eyes in the hall. Every person was reliving his or her own terrifying experiences and loss.

It was in that moment, that I felt most like an outsider.

Each of us born in the United States (or a similar developed society) has a privilege that we are almost never confronted with. We were born into a country with relative safety and nearly endless opportunity…and we did nothing to deserve it. We were just born.

I did nothing to deserve the safety I was afforded as a child. In addition to being born in the U.S., I was born white, able-bodied and to middle-class parents. While I was learning to read and trying to get along with my pre-school mates, children in Rwanda were asking where their parents were…or, worse yet, had seen the fate that befell their parents in 1994.

We are so, so lucky. So privileged.

And yet.

Despite Rwanda’s Genocide, the people of this country are compassionate, giving, and forgiving in ways I’ve never seen. The idea of “us versus them” is too often perpetuated in the development world but, in this instant, it’s necessary. Because they (Rwandans) are a kinder, gentler people than history books let on. They are remembered for tragedy that they own, yes, but that they were not entirely at fault for. They continue to strive hard, every day from before sun-up to long after dark, to provide for their families. They work to ensure that future generations will remember what happened in 1994, but not repeat the same mistakes.

They welcome foreigners into their homes, into their lives, and all they ask for in return is for us to share the beautiful culture that I’ve come to love for all its imperfections.

From Kibilizi (and me),

thank you for sharing in this culture.

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It’s the Final Countdown…(to becoming a Peace Corps Rwanda Volunteer)

Beware: This post is not exactly a happy one. I’m tremendously happy, but there have been some emotional moments in the last month.

As of today, we have thirteen days left in PST! I have very mixed feelings about it being done with. I’m so excited to not have language class every day. And to be able to make my own decisions about what to do, where to go, etc. But, I don’t have a house yet. It’s hard to get excited about moving (even though I cannot wait to live alone!) because I can’t picture it. At this point, my living situation is entirely up in the air and, as someone who plans everything down to the last detail, that’s really quite scary. I do recognize, though, that part of the reason I joined the Peace Corps is to experience life in an entirely new light. I’ve got to be patient.

One of the main reasons why my housing situation is up in the air is because there was an awful bus accident three weeks ago on the main road going from Rwamagana (where I’m currently located) to Kiramuruzi (where my site is located). Motor-vehicle accidents are devastating, here in Rwanda, for a multitude of reasons. Obviously the buses lack many of the safety features that America requires, but also there are three, maybe four, main roads in Rwanda; and the country is very small. So, when accidents happen, it’s likely that someone you know was involved. My titulaire’s (supervisor’s) wife passed away in the accident three weeks ago. One of the other volunteer’s supervisor passed away, as well as 16 other people. After we found out, there was a flurry of emotions. Yes, things like this happen in America. However, America is huge so it’s easy to shy away from an accident across the country. Trying to navigate a discussion about grief and loss in English is difficult enough…it’s even harder in a language I barely know. I’m definitely nervous about going to site and speaking with my titulaire; he has two small children and I can only imagine how much stress he’s under.

Because his wife passed away, he will no longer be moving to house he built (where I was supposed to live). Given that, I have no idea where I’ll be living. Peace Corps has known about all of this for three weeks. And yet, for some reason, I’ve heard no final answer about my housing situation. It’s stressful (since I move in 15 days), but I can only assume that they know what they’re doing and, in due time, it will all be taken care of.

In the last month, we’ve also learned a lot of technical skills. It’s been entirely interesting learning how to do things without even the most common of tools. For example, hammers are few and far between here. When you can find them…they’re ridiculously expensive. Here’s a hand-washing station we built outside one of the boutiques:

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Building a tippy tap for hand-washing!

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Finished building a tippy tap!

We’ve also gone one a few trips in the past month. The most memorable of which was to the Genocide Memorial. I can’t even begin to explain how emotional the trip was. Looking around Rwanda, it’s so easy to forget the tragedy that happened here twenty years ago (in my lifetime!). Everything is so well developed and the people hide their emotions too well. So walking through the different exhibits was rough. Necessary, but rough. I enjoyed that the exhibits explained just how involved Europe, Belgium, and America actually were in the Genocide. There was also a section of the Memorial that went over the various genocides our world has experienced (Bosnian Genocide, Namibian Genocide, Armenian Genocide, the Holocoust, and on and on and on…) Growing up, you hear about all of these travesties, but they seem so far removed…so deep imbedded in our pasts. Here, in Rwanda, it’s only been two decades. We’re just barely a generation removed. The children here don’t know what happened…the teens are barely aware…but the adults are reminded every day about the events of the Genocide.

One of our supervisors (bravely) told us her story. Her parents were killed during the Genocide, by her neighbors. Now, twenty years later, she lives next door to those very same neighbors. She explained that every morning she walks outside, sees her neighbors, and says hello. When they ask her for forgiveness, she says no – not until they tell her where they buried her parents.

I’ve not posted this picture anywhere else, because it seems indecent, but here’s one of the exhibits that hit me hard:

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Genocide memorial in Kigali, Rwanda

There were four cases lined with skulls and other bones. Some were very evidently cracked (by a weapon) and others were so tiny you knew they belonged to children. Upstairs, there was an exhibit that took everything out of me. I had to sit…and I just cried. In America, there’s no way to imagine the level of devastation Rwanda experienced during the Genocide. But, at the Memorial, it was thrust in our faces, for just reason. The upstairs exhibit had large photos of children murdered during the Genocide. The faces of twenty, or so, kids stared down at me. Each one was accompanied by a name, age, favorite food/activity, and the way they were murdered. The one that affected me the most was an 8 month old little girl whose favorite activity was “smiling”…she was murdered as someone stabbed a machete through her and her mother.

It was definitely one of the hardest days of my service, thus far.

Anyyyhow…sorry to bum you out…

Here’s a picture of me and Keza (next door neighbor to our teacher). She’s perfect and sweet and awesome!

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Our class’ uber-cute neighbor!

And here’s a photo of Joseph:

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Joseph is only 7-years-old and yet he takes care of his grandmother and has to forgo school because of it. He’s the sweetest boy; he never fails to say, “Mwaramutse, Melly” and always asks how my day went. Every morning, I carry water to his house, so he doesn’t have to stop cooking breakfast for his grandma. I just wish there was more we could do for him. I wish he could go to school.

Here’s what my breakfast looks like every morning:

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Heart-shaped, half-way stale bread. And milk tea with coffee. I hate the stale bread, but I eat it because it makes mama happy. And because she makes the milk tea just for me because she knows I like it best. Again…I love my family.

I had the first of three birthdays I will have in Rwanda. I turned twenty-three. I can’t think of a cooler place to spend my early twenties. I had lunch with all of my fellow trainees (it was a language class day, so no ‘turning up’). When I got home, my family took me out to a bar for six hours. I drank four Fantas and ate endless goat brochettes. I’m having a truly awesome time in Rwanda. It just feels right. I try to explain it to people, but it’s difficult. It’s akin to how I felt waking up in college. I knew that I wasn’t in my hometown, but I felt at home. I get the same feeling here in Rwanda. I definitely have my down-days, though. Some days I just can’t deal with the men in this country. They have little to no awareness when it comes to personal space. I mean – hell – I’ve been followed to class by some man trying to talk to me in Kinyarwanda. I understood everything he was saying, but following someone isn’t exactly the way to invite friendship. If everyone could be like my host-brother, Benoi, life would be perfect.

Lastly, we got two new volunteers! Phil and Robin…from Kenya. Kenyan volunteers were evacuated two weeks ago because things are getting intense. Even after the mall shooting last year, Peace Corps decided that the situation was safe enough for them to continue service. However, rebels began targeting foreigners, so Peace Corps decided it was time to pull out. They then put out the call to other African countries and asked if they would be willing to accept volunteers from Kenya who wanted to continue their service. Rwanda offered to accept four volunteers, but Peace Corps only sent one our way…the lovely Phil. He’s a year into his service, so he’ll only be here for another 12 months. Even still, he’s awesome and we love him. Then…things got cray in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. Ebola everywhere. There are over 1,000 deaths from this newest strain of ebola. And, unfortunately, the WHO doesn’t see a stopping point in the next six months. At that point, if things continue going the way they are right now, the death toll could reach 10,000. We really have no clue. One of Phil’s fellow volunteers (who was also evacuated from Kenya) was then evacuated from Liberia (where she transferred to). She’s now with us! She’s amazing and a complete badass.

At this point, we have no clue if ebola will make it to Rwanda. We’re hopeful that it won’t, given how prepared the government is. All border crossings are thoroughly secured and everyone exhibiting flu-like symptoms is being checked and quarantined if need be. But we do know that it’s spread to Nigeria and Uganda. A couple of days ago, Volunteers Serving Overseas, in Uganda, received an SMS message from their superiors confirming that there is a case of the most current ebola strain in Uganda. As for us…we have yet to be notified of anything serious. At this point, there are no confirmed cases of ebola in Rwanda. We’re all hoping it stays that way, given that we don’t get RPVC status (or our benefits) until a year into service. In the meantime, I’ll be taking extra safety precautions and being more-than-a-little careful around people with the “flu”. But, honestly, there’s nothing to worry about. Rwanda is one of the safest African countries…I feel safer here than I do in some American cities!

Keep your fingers crossed that ebola stays out of Rwanda, so I can stay in!

Umunsi mwiza! (Have a good day!)