The sun rises here to a cloud of dust, the sound of roosters crowing, and women swaddling their babies to their backs with pagnes. My host sister tells me, “you’re supposed to use a yellow crayon to color the sun, but here in Rwanda the sun is orange.”
I love my host family. I have two younger sisters, age 7 and 8, and a younger brother, age 4. Every day, I get up at 5 am and catch a ride with my host mother from the house in Kibagabaga to school in Kacyiru. We go along a bumpy red dirt road with a cloud of dust trailing behind us, turn right at the genocide memorial, and then weave our way in and out of lanes the rest of the way. The roads are often two-lane, but sometimes people drive two motos and three cars wide. At school, I gather with the 12 other students and we learn about the history of Rwanda, genocide prevention, and post-genocide development. It’s been a little over a week in Kigali and already I have learned so much.
One of our most difficult days was a few days ago, when we visited three genocide memorials. First, we went to the Gisozi memorial, which had mass graves and museum-like exhibits teaching about the events of the genocide and showing clothes, photos, and personal possessions of people who had died. The most difficult thing to see was the children’s room in memory of the children who were killed. The last words of some children were written: “Mom, where should I run to?” “UNAMIR will come.” Next, we went to Ntarama, a Catholic Church where people gathered during the genocide thinking they would be safe. It became the massacre site of thousands of people. The bones were still there, some arranged in coffins or on shelves and others still in piles on blue tarps. The brick walls had grenade holes and blood stains. Next we visited Nyamata, another church massacre site outside of Kigali. What surprised me most about these church massacre sites were the people across the street. Across from Nyamata was a new church, well-attended despite the betrayal people must have felt after the violation at the old church only 22 years ago. Across from Ntarama were houses built by the Red Cross and people tending to their everyday business, leading cows and carrying hens. The most horrific thing about the genocide that I learned is that the killings were carried out by everyday people – neighbors and friends armed with machetes from China.
Equally as amazing is how much Rwanda has transformed in the last 22 years. There is so much construction and development around the city- road improvements, new housing developments, strengthened infrastructure, business centers and malls like you might find in a big city anywhere. Kigali is bustling. Those I have talked to say they don’t even recognize the city from three years ago, let alone from before the genocide.
There is so much juxtaposition of progress and remembrance, wealth and poverty. Right outside the locked gates of a mansion on my street are chickens hopping out of the way of a moto. There is a man with no legs sitting outside the city shopping center. And surrounding Kigali are beautiful rolling hills – les milles collines.
It is a beautiful and interesting place to learn about discrimination, genocide, and peacemaking. I was told before coming here that the issues of the conflicts I am studying are African problems. Now I am here in Rwanda I see how much these issues are about human nature. Division, prejudice, discrimination, and violence are present in American society, too, even today. My host sister told me she was concerned because she heard there was going to be a new U.S. president that was going to kill all of the black people in the country. This is the perception of American politics and values that children have. There is so much to learn from how people can live here, side by side, despite everything that’s happened, and work together to develop a thriving society. I think this experience will be so important for the development of the project. I’m contemplating questions like: What is peace after tragedy? What are the roles of NGOs in Rwanda and Uganda? What is the dynamic of western aid in these regions? How can programs understand and work with cultural differences? What does a sustainable initiative look like?
I have found that the dust is still settling in Rwanda. How beautiful to be able to be here and watch the way it is settling.
Personally, I’m doing really well. I am loving being immersed in another culture. I got sick a few days ago (I think from drinking “African tea”, which is warm milk that I think may not have been boiled for very long or at all), but I am feeling fine now. It’s wonderful to see so many birds and lizards and plants that I don’t know yet. I wish I could speak more Kinyarwanda – I only know about 25 words so far – but I’ve been trying to learn with a house helper at my homestay who is also trying to learn English. We draw pictures and use a phrase sheet to teach other new words. Yesterday he taught me how to count to ten, which is much more difficult than it sounds with long words! I like the group of students that I am with, and am really enjoying hearing everyone’s perspectives on the things we are studying. They have all different majors and come from all over the world. Already we are a close group. We are good support for each other. In our free time yesterday, we went downtown for coffee and to rent traditional wedding clothes for the wedding of a friend’s cousin tomorrow. I have made a few Rwandese friends so far, and tomorrow I will meet a future Lewis & Clark student here.
So many friends have been worried about my safety. I’m here, all is well with my body and spirit. I’m learning a lot, and though the topics may be difficult, they are important. And I am enjoying traveling. Please feel free to send me any questions or ideas you have! I may be able to answer emails or texts on weekdays.