By: Morgan E. Painvin
As I stepped down from the car, youthful Kinyarwanda singing wafted up from the fenced-in playing field. My eyes darted towards the sound and searched the sea of big brown eyes for a glimpse of recognition. My heart raced as I was approached by the shy young boy and girl that I knew only from photos, and my eyes filled with tears as I knelt to their embrace.
Rwanda is often associated with the horror of a genocide that devastated the country in 1994. An estimated one million lives were taken in 100 days as one ethnic group sought to exterminate another. No mercy was shown to members of the Tutsi group—whether child, wife, or parent—nor to those who helped them.
My mission in visiting this land was simple: To build a home for two widows, share my love with orphaned children, learn more about the genocide, and finally meet face to face the children my husband, Arthur, and I sponsor. Two weeks later I would realize how much I, too, had been changed during the visit.
Arthur and I arrived in Kigali with two suitcases each. Limiting ourselves to two pairs of jeans each, a handful of shirts, and toiletries, we used up the remaining baggage allowance by filling our bags with gifts: soccer balls, stickers, bubbles, notebooks, coloring books, crayons, and clothing.
As we settled in for the two-and-a-half-hour journey south to Huye, our home for the next 10 days, the familiar stale urban scents of dismal subways and a hurried population were quickly replaced with lush vegetation, winding roads, and the warmth of people who set their pace to the ticking of nature’s clock. I was immediately struck by the overwhelming beauty of a land once ravaged with war, and by the joy of its survivors. The sweet smell of flora captivated my senses, and my eyes took in the countryside aptly named “the land of a thousand hills.”
BUILDING TOWARDS RECONCILIATION
In Huye we were greeted by crowds of barefoot children. Small, dusty faces filled with curiosity peeked out shyly from behind older siblings and friends, and the kids grabbed our hands as they guided us up a dirt road to the building site.
In the days that followed the children that flocked daily to the worksite from surrounding villages to see the Mazongos (white people) quickly became my friends. I spent my breaks telling stories, blowing bubbles, playing Duck Duck Goose, and singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” overcoming language and cultural barriers along the way.
At the worksite we received warm hugs from the two widows who would benefit from our labor, and were then taught how to build a Rwandan home. The structures are made of wood held together by twine; the insulation and exterior is a mélange of dirt, pebbles, and water. The dirt is taken from land surrounding the home and fetching water is an ongoing chore that requires a lengthy trip downhill followed by a steep uphill climb, with the prized five-gallon jug of water balanced on one’s head.
Our local building companions demonstrated the simple task of forming balls with the mud and throwing them onto the structure. I was humbled as locals giggled at my inexperience and shared their superior know-how. I eagerly took on this task of “mud slinging.” We learned Rwandan songs, slung mud, and jested with our newfound friends as we built, but their eyes often shifted downward and glimpses of sorrow shadowed their smiles.
I learned that our companions were “TIG” genocide prisoners. Richard Gasana, executive secretary of the district, explained that TIG (a French acronym for community service) was a program designed to help integrate genocide participants back into society through community service. Launched on February 25, 2008, the program offers those who have confessed to, and sought forgiveness for, genocide crimes an alternative to time in prison—a community service sentence that obliges them to aid in rebuilding the communities that they once destroyed. In the district of Nyamagabe, 876 men and women have entered the program.
I was taken aback; I simply couldn’t comprehend that the men and women surrounding me had participated in such crimes. Part of me wanted to be angry—to show them the brutal images I’d seen of their crimes and ask, “Why?”—but all I could see were men and women who felt empty inside and longed to strip themselves of the horrors they had committed.
MURAMBI GENOCIDE MEMORIAL
I thought I’d be prepared for the Murambi Genocide Memorial. I told myself that it couldn’t be as difficult as my visit to Auschwitz just a few years before, but nothing could have prepared me for the museum’s raw depiction of what had taken place. About 30 minutes outside of Butare, near the town of Gikongoro, I stood on the ground of a school once falsely proclaimed a safe haven for Tutsis. Approximately 50,000 civilians sought refuge there in late April 1994, only to be ambushed and annihilated in one evening. Small metal signs indicated the mass graves that lined the property. Lines of classrooms displayed exhumed bodies preserved in lime, and the unforgiving stench made the horror of the tragedy all too real.
Emmanuel Murangira, one of only four survivors from the massacre, shared his story with us. Accompanied by his wife and five children, he had joined his fellow Tutsi brothers and sisters at the school, seeking protection. He remembers the beginning of the attacks, but a bullet to his head soon knocked him unconscious. Emmanuel awoke to find that he had been stripped of his clothes, his family, and nearly his life. He witnessed piles of bodies, both dead and living, buried in mass graves. Realizing all was lost, he made his way south to Burundi. Reaching the border after three days on foot, he managed to find help; he was clothed, the bullet was removed, and he was treated for the malaria he had caught along the way.
Emmanuel now spends his days recounting his torturous experience in remembrance of his family and those who were not spared. As I listened to his story, I couldn’t help but wonder if one of my building companions had taken the lives of Emmanuel’s family. I was secretly thankful that we hadn’t visited the memorial before meeting our TIG team, because I knew I may not have embraced them the same way. But at the end of our time with Emmanuel, he said he feels the TIG program is helping to bring Rwanda back together.
The effect of the genocide on Rwandan children runs deep. Orphans are numerous, as are child-headed households, children of rape, and little ones affected by AIDS. This, combined with the nation’s poverty, inspired my relationship with Bernard and Leoncie, whom husband and I chose out of a pile of World Vision photographs three years ago. Our pledge of $35 per month per child provides nourishment, education, health care, clean water, and AIDS prevention and counseling.
Arriving at World Vision’s Area Development Program in Nyamagabe I was anxious to meet the staff and learn more about the program. I quickly recognized the impact of sponsorship as the team introduced themselves. The room was lined with volunteers: parents of sponsored children, community members, and sponsored children who had since graduated. The team explained the criteria for entrance into the program, how supplies are distributed, and that, once sponsored, children are visited at least once a quarter by staff to assess their health, their progress in school, and the needs of the family.
I had heard others’ anticipation and anxiety about meeting their sponsored children. Pulling up to the community center, my thoughts were no different. Will Bernard and Leoncie really be here? Are they real children? Did they receive all the letters that we sent?
My feet touched the ground and joyful sounds of singing welcomed us. I remembered the words they had written over the years: “I hope to meet you some day,” “Maybe one day I will hold your hand and play games with you.” My heart raced as two familiar faces appeared and were led to us by our translator.
Our joy turned to concern as we saw that seven-year-old Bernard was ill. His excitement to meet us was overpowered by fever and fatigue; we could see he needed medical attention. Only minutes later, we waved goodbye as World Vision staff drove him to the hospital. We feared for Bernard’s health, but were comforted knowing that the insurance we help provide would likely save his life.
We spent the remainder of the day playing with eight-year-old Leoncie and Joseanne, Bernard’s younger sister. We shared gifts, sang, danced, drew, and learned about each other. Their appreciation was apparent in their eyes and embrace. As we said goodbye, Bernard’s mother, Vestine, smiled shyly and handed us a small, tattered photo album. We lifted the cover to see ourselves smiling back. She had every photo we’d ever sent, and her eyes expressed the hope that we had given to her family through sponsorship.
Two days later, we visited Bernard at his home. He had been diagnosed with malaria, but his excited eyes and open-armed sprint to embrace us reassured us that he was recovering.
Back to the United States I still struggle with the painful stories that my Rwandan friends shared about machete massacres, vicious rapes, and other inhumane conduct, but I am thankful for (and challenged by) the forgiveness and reconciliation that has taken place since 1994. My original mission has been accomplished, but my life was changed in the process. I am saddened that history is repeating itself in areas like Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and I’m anxious to help the many people in need. In the small district of Nyamagabe alone, 1,279 more children are waiting to be sponsored.
Wondering how you can help? Here are a few ways to make a world of difference:
• Commit to World Vision’s sponsorship program by donating $30–35 a month.
• Support local artisans through organizations like Keza.
• Send a letter to your members of Congress to let them know what issues are important to you: SeekJustice.org.
• Donate mosquito nets through Malaria No More.
• Give clean water to one person for the next 20 years for only $20 through Charity Water.
• Help rebuild Rwanda and shelter orphans of the genocide at www.1DollarCampaign.org.
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- Send a letter
- Malaria No More
- Charity Water
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