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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