We are now entering our sixth week of our eight weeks here in Huye, Rwanda and this week has been full of many considerations – of what we can do with our time left here, have we actually been able to make an impact, and what to write a blog post about so that our site coordinator will give us the dark chocolate he has been bribing us with. Each week, really almost every day, there has been something significant enough to write about, but it is not my first instinct, and myself and the other Duke Engage students discuss what is happening rather often leaving little room for more personal reflection. However, I am beginning to realize just how fast our time here is dwindling and it will only become harder to choose something to write about.
One of my first ideas was to share all of our mishaps: the geckos in rooms, power going out mid-shampoo, how I really should have packed some of my own Clif bars, being the only people at the stadium on Independence Day, and how it has all ended well and with laughs. The next idea was to share all the random events, like happening upon a street race, discovering our favorite restaurant, and having kids try to race us as we go on jogs.
However, this past week’s reflection inspired me to discuss something a bit more serious. Our reflection assignment was to pair up and interview one of the Kuzamura Ubuzima (KU), the NGO we are working for, staff members. I had reservations about this assignment as it was to take at least an hour and all of the staff members are incredibly busy, with their responsibilities at KU like feeding 110 patients two meals every day, running an organic farm, teaching health, wellness, and agriculture classes, and trying to keep it all afloat, in addition to all of their other jobs outside of KU like side businesses, families, and volunteering. Despite my concerns, this assignment turned out to be the most enriching and worthwhile. The staff shared incredibly personal stories and explained to us how they grew up and how they came to be where they are in their lives. We learned a bit more about some of their experiences in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide which caused me to think back to our visit to the memorial in Kigali during our second week. Hearing the stories of these people who have become our friends brought the trip back to me and made it so very real.
As a disclaimer and important point to make, there is so much more to Rwanda and its people than the tragic events of 1994 and it is ignorant and unfair to forever associate Rwanda with “oh where that genocide happened”. The country has grown and flourished so much in the last 25 years and has so much to offer, of course, there are still obstacles to overcome as is the case in any country – including the United States. We have been lucky to see the wonderful progress of infrastructure and technology and to experience the beautiful culture and nature throughout this country.
That being said, the Kigali Genocide Memorial was a very powerful experience, made even more so because three of the KU staff members accompanied us, and for two of them it was their first time visiting this memorial. We visited on a Friday afternoon and it was quite busy, every seat in the introductory video room was full and we had to squish to accommodate all the visitors. In the room, there were many other muzungus, white foreigners, as well as many Rwandans, including a large group of older women all dressed alike in the classic Kitenge wear. There were already several tears falling around the room as the video came to a close and we headed to the courtyard outside to await our private tour guide. As we sat in the shade on wooden benches the easy conversation and boisterousness our large group had shared just an hour earlier at lunch was replaced by complete silence as we sat preparing for the experience awaiting us inside.
The museum began with an overview of the colonial days of Rwanda and how that set the groundwork for ethnic discrimination, this is also where I realized I did not enjoy standing and listening to our guide. In general, I much prefer to go through museums and galleries on my own and read everything and our tour group inside the memorial caused a back-up and crowded the halls, so I continued on my own as did one of the KU staff members. The two of us walked in near silence throughout the memorial, taking in every photo and story posted on the walls, the content becoming gradually more graphic and heavier with each additional section. At a halfway point we both stopped off and sat in a prayer area to take a minute, she went outside to be alone and I sat trying to keep my composure. I had prepared myself for the shock and horror of the atrocities committed during the genocide but at that halfway point there were explanations of how the United Nations acknowledged the genocide and voted to do nothing, how the French were involved, and how the whole world failed to intervene. The world’s apathy to the genocide disgusted me and left me in complete shock, even more so as I later reflected and realized how I had not come across much of that information in my research at Duke. In the previous fall semester, I wrote an essay for a class about terrorism and was able to choose the 1994 Rwandan Genocide as my topic, yet in all the readings for that essay, I did not come across anything that explained the role of modern Western powers in the tragedy.
As we continued, the content grew gruesome and myself and the KU staff member both had to pause in front of the section that explained how a church had falsely offered refuge for people and then turned around and brutally slaughtered all those that had trusted in the priest and the church. We had continually visually checked in on one another and it was at this point as we sat on a bench together that she turned to me and asked if I was alright, to which I responded, “me – what about you?”. She who had lived through this at the age of three, she who had lost people, she who had grown up in the struggle that followed, she who had endured the rebuilding of her country. The amount of compassion she showed me when I thought I should be doing more to support her floored me, such a small act and yet I could not believe she had the capacity to check in on someone else at that moment. And this capacity for compassion and empathy is not unique to her, the vast majority of the statements from survivors spoke of forgiveness, of understanding, and of healing. Many people spoke of wanting to be able to forgive the perpetrators so they too may find some peace after the tragedy. I know this attitude and ability took work, years of healing, and great commitment from the government and all the people, but I was still in awe that it actually worked.
Now today looking back on that experience and thinking of what we learned of the lives of our KU staff members I am immensely inspired by their perseverance and determination to create better lives for others, having suffered themselves in many different ways through various traumas. The ability to survive an atrocity and come through with a renewed passion to help others and to live without hatred and anger is an ability I will always admire. It would be well within many of their rights to find an easy way of living, but they continue to give so much of themselves for others, and happily so. I truly think the world would be a better place if it was filled with more people like those at KU, people who practice gratitude every day, find peace in what cannot be changed, and those who choose love and compassion to guide their path in life.