Friday, December 21, 2001
A post-genocide Christmas: following a trip to Rwanda
Reverend Keith Greer and his wife Bonnie have just returned from a visit to Rwanda
"Ladies and gentlemen, due to health regulations, we will be passing through the cabin with a pesticide to fumigate the plane. If you wear contacts or are subject to allergies, please cover your face." It seemed apparent that although we were leaving Africa with some presents, there were some things the health authorities wished us to leave behind. The weight of our gifts far surpassed the 44-pound weight limit. Na kibazo, (no problem, as they say) because these were gifts carried in our minds and hearts and they didn't weigh very much, even though some of them were terribly heavy. I will never hear the phrase "Out of Africa" the same way again. Rwanda, the most densely populated country in east central Africa, is the size of West Virginia. Peaceful Uganda, troubled Burundi, complex Congo and Tanzania surround it. It was our privilege to be observers and participants in life there at this Christmastime for the past two weeks as we visited our son and daughter-in-law.
Mtoto, the gray parrot, woke us daily. I wondered if I could teach him the first four notes of "Silent Night," before we left. I would try. He was our companion on the porch many mornings as we watched the first common labor of the day for so many getting water. The new sun illuminated the stream of traffic to the ditches between the fields below. The size of the plastic water jugs they carried was proportioned to age and height, but not always. How I longed to speak Kinyirwanda as a muzungo, (white person), wanting to try to understand the cries that would have escaped from this valley eight years ago and before.
It has been two and a half years since our son Peter and his wife Laurel left for Rwanda, inspired by a college professor who introduced him to micro-finance. After the first year, his soon-to-be wife joined him, her childhood desire to go to Africa realized. Their home is basic, but very pleasant. Christmas stockings hang on a wall, and white and colored lights twinkle above them when the electricity works. Brick walls connect to an iron gate. Elie, the guard, runs to open it for our son's Suzuki that roars up a short, steep driveway and turns right onto their deeply rutted, red dirt "road." The challenge in this is not to lose momentum and still avoid hitting anything or anyone in a country where people and animals far outnumber the cars on the road.
The road to Kigali
Driving is only one stress of daily living. We hold on and bounce along over the gaping crevices of air to a paved road into the heart of Kigali. This is the capital where urban and rural living weave together to make the fabric of this post-genocide city. There is much to see and much to avoid. On foot we pass women dressed in bright and colorful getenges, who carry sweet, short bananas, avocados, bowls of shucked peas, or five-gallon water jugs on their heads and babies on their backs. The smoke from their charcoal burners (their stoves) surrounds us, as do many stares and the occasional call to us muzungos. A man stirs his ugali, a staple of boiled paste made from the cassava root. The market is a crowded mad/glad conglomeration of fruits, vegetables and people, mixed with the sounds of bargaining, street children yelling, "photo, photo" offering to carry our bags for a very small price.
Rocks and ruts led us through the maze of homes to an orphanage where our daughter Heather worked two summers ago. Several girls surround us to see a picture of her that we brought along with her greetings. They excitedly write long and longing notes in return. We reverse our steps in the dark and in the rain. Glimpses into homes lit by a lone candle leave an impression of little.
Our next visit was to the Ammani ya Ju (meaning "higher peace") sewing project, where our daughter-in-law introduced us to her clients. The intent of this project is "to empower women physically and spiritually," working together as women representing different ethnic groups (Hutu, Tutsi and Twa) "who have been marginalized and many times must carry the burden of poverty, corruption and war." I try to process what it must have been like for these women to be part of a genocide in which 100,000 people were killed in 100 days. Their hands at work are beautiful against the brightly colored fabric underneath. But the beauty of their countenance in having a job surpasses even this.
Later we arrived at a blue gate with "World Relief" written on it in big white letters and are met by Nepo, a small, spark-faced old guard who first peeked around the door before opening to let us in. As in many underdeveloped countries, theft is a large threat. The staff was busy preparing for a retreat on Lake Kivu on the Congolese border where all of World Relief's branch leaders would meet for planning and encouragement. First we must visit some of the clients on site, widows of the genocide, the "poorest of the poor," ones for whom the dazzle of Christmas is less, but the hope of Christmas is more.
There is the familiar saying, "If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime." Our son's job with World Relief has been to establish community banks in which women in groups of thirty are given small loans ($40) and support one another to establish small businesses. Some sell vegetables or fish or cassava flour. Others make clothes or soup to sell for other workers. Each community bank group is trained through the local churches, encouraged, and dependent upon each other to get the next loan when each member fulfills her responsibility. The payback is 99.2 percent. To this date, 1,700 widows and their families have been helped. I've known that micro-finance works, but seeing it in operation and being greeted by those who would pour out their gratitude adds another dimension. Widows previously with nothing can buy medicine, send their children to school and eventually buy a basic shelter to call home. Food is readily available where there is income. Hope gives place for humor, as one tells us of enjoying goat brochette, cassava, tomatoes and other cooked vegetables, but raw carrots and cucumbers never. That is rabbit food that the muzungos eat!
This is still the city. There are people of great potential and little opportunity. I watch Richard, the night guard, cook cassava. He tells me that "Rwanda is good for growing food, but America is good for growing people." It is common for a woman to support many family members, some dying of AIDS, and a number of orphans. Other children remain homeless as their parents wear pink in prisons (the color of the prison uniform), 120,000 in all, as perpetrators of the past nightmare or innocent, yet incarcerated, awaiting trial.
Everyone has a story beyond comprehension! Can it be that this landlord who has come to fix the wall, this well-dressed man who smiles and puts on glasses to inspect the project, has lost six children? How was it that Pierre hid twenty-five Tutsis in his basement, buying no more food than normal to avoid being suspect? What were the cries from the valley that now echo a day-long choir practice? Why was the church so weak in a "Christian nation" at a time like this? Yes, there were the Pierres, but not enough. These are not easy questions to which I, as a pastor's-wife-muzungo, cannot offer a pious answer. What I do know is what I saw at the World Relief retreat.
World Relief retreat
The two-hour ride on a good road through many of the thousand hills exposed a land of fertile soil and remarkable beauty. The retreat center in Kibuye offered a view of the clean, clear water of Lake Kivu, and an occasional swimmer or two. Black and yellow weaver birds entertained us in their building and rebuilding their nests, dropping two at our feet to inspect. Why do they tear apart that which they have built? Of greater importance, what will this time together mean for us all? For many, it appears that it is being encouraged in the commitment to work with integrity in a culture that shames the one that does not provide rather than one who steals to provide. This is a difficult problem.
Fleeing during genocide
After much singing and some dancing, many reports and encouragement from staff, Patricia, a micro-finance loans officer, leans on her arm brace to go to the front. She looks out at the seventy or so mixed Hutu and Tutsi faces and begins to speak. She tells of fleeing with her daughter during the genocide while her husband and other children fled in another direction to the sorghum fields. Her five-year-old, protected like a chick under a hen, felt the fear and heard the cries of her mother as a machete inflicted the would-be deadly blows. Across the room, a deep and heavy wail escapes from the widow Odette's pursed lips. Several women, Hutu and Tutsi, gather by her side. "She will be all right," says Patricia. "She is remembering." In silence, a few of us muzungos try to comprehend the unfathomable loss of all of our family father, mother brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins.. and four children killed in plain sight. We weep with her. The rest understand all too well.
Patricia returns to her story. A friend showed kindness in taking her to the hospital and caring for her daughter. Since they thought Patricia would die anyway, she was left alone when the soldiers came through. Well enough to be in public again, she is caught and corralled. "Hutus line up here. Tutsis there!" She tries to pass, counting on certain facial features to hide her identity. and with her child, steps over the line. The rest are killed.
Reunited with her husband, they return to their hometown. At a checkpoint her husband is recognized by one of his former university students, and he is killed. Patricia speaks with confidence and hope. "There is no Hutu and there is no Twa [another ethnic group] and there is no Tutsi. We are one." I know of one reason she can say that and I believe it, but can only imagine the difficulty of the test. In our pluralistic society is there a place for one woman's hope? Patricia explains an understanding of her own heart that naturally, she loves herself more than any other person or any other thing or any other God. She knows too well the implications of tha t way of life. She has lived its horrors. She knows only one way out. Patricia has become part of a forgiven people, as one impressed by the One born in Bethlehem years ago! If she could be loved and forgiven by God in her hatred, could she not forgive others with the same heart as her own? How tender she was with those who she knew could not yet forgive. "It will take time, but God can help them."
We left Rwanda with the gray parrot Mtoto having learned only three of the four notes of "Silent Night" in a country that struggles to return to such a night. It will take time, but God can help.
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito