I’d (Wayne N.) like to start by thanking you the congregation for allowing us to represent you in Rwanda.
Cathy, Karen, Peg and I had an amazing, thought provoking and mind evolving trip last month. The hope-filled kids of the Rwamagana Lutheran School paired against the historic backdrop of the country’s attempted ethnic extermination cannot be easily put into words, but I would like to tell you as best as I can a little about what we saw, learned and felt about our experiences.
Rwanda is a landlocked East African country lying south of the Equator about the size of Maryland; its called the land of a thousand hills. Its renowned Volcanoes National Park is home to mountain gorillas and golden monkeys. It possesses ancient rainforests that are habitats for chimpanzees and other primates. The capital is Kigali, located in the center of the country on the Ruganwa River. Rwanda is a geographically small country with one of the highest population densities in sub-Saharan Africa.
Rwanda possesses a long history of monarchical rule; however, the demise of the Rwandan kingship came about through a grassroots Hutu-led upheaval that occurred before the country became independent in 1962. The Rwanda genocide of 1994 was a planned campaign of mass murder that occurred over the course of some 100 days from April to July. The genocide was conceived by extremist elements of Rwanda’s majority Hutu population who planned to kill the minority Tutsi population and anyone who opposed those genocidal intentions. It is estimated that some 200,000 Hutu, spurred on by propaganda from various media outlets, participated in the genocide. More than 800,000 civilians—primarily Tutsi, but also moderate Hutu—were killed during the campaign. As many as 2,000,000 Rwandans fled the country during or immediately after the genocide. Civil war and genocide at that time left Rwanda’s economy and social fabric in shambles. The years that followed have been characterized by reconstruction and ethnic reconciliation.
My personal affinity with Rwanda began in the mid 1990s when I was visiting welsh friends in our former village in Hampshire, England. Over several pots of tea, the family patriarch, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and Monty’s North Africa campaign asked me about this new thingamajig called the internet, and I explained about unlimited access to information and unprecedented connectivity in the world or some such, and I offhandedly concluded that the then recent Rwanda genocide could have been stopped at the outset because average people like us would have demanded the world intercede.
Some years later, I heard Robin Strickler speak at CLC about the Rwamagana School Project, the first steps they had taken and the seedlings of an idea they were beginning to see sprout. And so began for Peg and me our support of the Rwamagana Lutheran School and its students, and when the chance came together to join Cathy and Karen this summer and travel to Rwanda we jumped on it.
I’ve been to some of the scarier places in Africa before, but from the moment we arrived it was clear Rwanda was not like that. Instead we found it welcoming, appreciative, open. And it is young; because of its past the average age is 30 or so. When you walk down a street in Kigali or a village road you rarely see older people. But what you do see everywhere along the countryside are people – young children maybe 4 or 5 and adults – carrying yellow colored 5-liter water jugs. Along a single country road that we drove for a few hours to the north, we saw people carrying these jugs to and from Japanese donated hand pumps situated some 5 kilometers apart. If you were to ask them if they would rather have water or electricity in their mud brick houses they would answer water of course and seeing the lines and the hours in transit I can now understand.
The School itself is located about an hour outside of Kigali in the town of Rwamagana. We arrived the morning they were doing their school talent show, which comprised traditional dancing, skits, even a comedian, and it was an honest look at these kids having fun, hamming it up, being kids. Kids then gave us the tour of their growing facilities – boys dorm, the new girls dorm, classrooms, new basketball court, cafeteria and so on. Everything is pretty much generated there – power from solar panels, water from a rain cistern. We spent the next morning in a raucous, fun church service with them and then spent hours after taking their pictures posing alone or with friends with the polaroid camera Peg had brought. We spent time talking with Devotha and Geoffrey, who are just really nice kids. If you can, spend a moment after church in the Narthex looking at the pictures of them and a lot of the kids.
When you have the opportunity to talk with a school kid they always say thanks. They know what’s on the other side of the fence; they know you are helping them receive one of the best educations around; they know you are giving them a chance.
I grew up listening to my uncles’ war stories around the kitchen table, learning that the Nazis were really bad and did really terrible things. Rwanda taught me that man’s inhumanity to man can extend well beyond a deranged political ideology, where neighbor on neighbor violence can be manipulated and inflicted wantonly and en masse.
We toured the country’s many amazing and incredibly sad sites and learned some hard-taught lessons on the fragility of humanity. But I also learned the effectiveness of a simple tennis ball, a trick my dad did years ago with the kids in Mexico, and we hand-out the CLC kids decorated balls to many at the school and throughout the countryside and in some cases, play with them for a while. We spent hours talking with school kids CLC previously sponsored, namely Bosco, Ignace and George who are now young adults and are attending college and have many questions on what to do next and no one to talk to, and I find myself answering questions, offering advice, realizing we’re not yet done with these guys, and they thank us repeatedly and ask what we want in return, and we say simply for them to succeed. I give them copies of my company’s subsea cable map, explain the world’s inter-connectedness, and hope this technological revolution I am a part of means their home will never again experience such self-caused mass lunacy.
But Rwanda is still a country in transition.
Just last Wednesday, the Rwandan Catholic bishops’ conference urged the government of President Paul Kagame to preserve religious rights after government officials closed thousands of churches and mosques because of what it said were health and safety issues, including lack of toilets, plastered walls and paved access roads.
When asked simply how it was to visit Rwanda, I answer it this way – Rwanda is a country of extremes, specifically emotional extremes, from utter gut-wrenching sadness to amazing exhilaration.
My friends, this is what I learned – in supporting the kids of the Rwamagana School Project we are supporting the next generation of leaders in Rwanda; these are the men and women in the near future who will be making the tough decisions for their country. We have that once in a generation opportunity to shape and mold them positively to rise above the excesses and hatred of the past; we have the chance to leave our world a little better than we found it.
So, when Pastor Annabelle asked me to highlight where I saw God in Rwanda, I would have to say that it’s simply in the faces of all of our kids in Rwamagana. Take a look and see if you can see it, too.