Saturday, January 9, 2010

Rwanda and Its Discontents

With our first major milestone behind us, we set off a couple weeks after the workshop on a puddle jumper to see about our neighbor to the Southwest. Rwanda, a country the size of Maryland best known for a genocide that took place in 1994, knows a bit about post-conflict. We were headed there for ten days to learn some lessons on education in the aftermath of violence.

Our trip centered around a visit with Karen Murphy, the international director of our mentor organization, Facing History and Ourselves. Their latest of many international programs is located in Rwanda and works with teachers to introduce effective education on themes like citizenship, tolerance and democracy. We also visited the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, a center with a progressive approach to education for children orphaned by the genocide. This was my first visit to country, so it was also my chance to see the genocide memorials, beautiful scenery and a decidedly different political and economic climate than Uganda’s.

Upon arrival in Kigali, one could easily feel like she landed in a suburb of New York City, not a landlocked African country surrounded by nations at war and recovering from its own genocide that took place just 15 years ago. Lush flowering trees lean over well-paved roads, traffic obeys an organized order and people bustle about in heels and suits to and from glossy high rise office buildings. Food is indulgent and city streets are safe, though we found this came at a price. Tourists beware – Rwanda is a gorgeous choice for a visit to Africa, but not a cheap one.

Visiting Karen along with the Rwandan teachers and kids involved in the Facing History program was far and away the highlight of the trip. We arrived to the cavernous classroom of a boarding school where everyone was convened for a winter break workshop with Karen, greeted by the smiling faces of total engagement. The theme was United States social movements and governance – the kids were preparing for a trip to the US in March for an exchange program with high school students in the Boston area. Icebreakers, role plays and theatrical interpretations of the Declaration of Independence ensued, and the energy and creativity was contagious.

These kids were asking tough questions, interacting with each other with support and critical feedback and dealing with their own country’s past by courageously drawing nuanced connections.
We later visited two of the Rwandan teachers in their hometowns – one a Priest who toured us around the convents and cathedrals of Butare and the other a veteren teacher from the town of Gitarama.

Late in the week, we left Kigali for Nyamata to two genocide memorials at sights of attacks that took the lives of 15,000 people in two days. Musty brick churches became relics of atrocity – clothes of those killed were piled on pews once used as peaceful venues of worship.

Jewelry and ballpoint pens hung on threads strung from the ceilings and children’s lesson books from the days of the attacks left half-empty on tables in the Sunday school classrooms. Holes were blasted through the walls by grenades, bloodstains and bullet holes peppered the ceilings, and floral offerings were stacked on alters.

As we walked around the Nyamata memorial, our guide stopped in the middle of his historical narrative and pointed to a corner of the church. “This is where I hid,” he said. This young man had spent the 6 hour attack on his church crouched in this corner and the following 31 days hiding in a swamp nearby. His honesty and introspection painted a picture of loss as well as ethical complication in the aftermath. “I met the man who killed my mother here,” he explained. “I had to forgive him. We are made to forgive.”

Rwanda is a deeply scarred country whose attempt at recovery is, like any other, full of success and failure. We got a glimpse of this tension on our visit, thanks to the brave, informed insight of people dedicated to Rwanda’s future generation. Rwanda has done well to provide aesthetic beauty for it’s citizens and visitors – it’s litter-free and landscape-heavy, flowers and well-manicured lawns everywhere. The bigger challenge here regards intangible democratic freedoms. This transition, like so many of it’s kind, calls for serious attention to the limits, challenges, absences, and possibilities of demanding justice and a more peaceful, inclusive future. For more information, read current Human Rights Watch reports on Rwanda, and watch this video featuring the late Allison des Forges, an exemplar of human rights activism whose impact is greatly missed.


Addendum: Congo

Journal: December 18, 2009

From our hotel room porch in Kibuye, Rwanda, a town on the shores of Lake Kivu, we can see across to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Kibuye and the lake are pictures of peace – rolling hills shrouded in greenery and humming with wildlife. But directly across the lake, a war rages in DRC .

I can point to Goma - we are among the embattled Kivus, one of the most violent environments on Earth. I can see crossfire across the lake - the sky lights up similarly to when African lightening strikes—quietly, with small flashes. But it is more centralized, smaller, and always close to the ground. It lights up pink and peach against the dark sky, and now that I’m listening for it, I can hear the pound of explosion, like distant fireworks. I am a direct spectator of war. Not of the aftermath, not of the tears of testimony or confession, not of the political violence of kidnapping or armed robbery that follows ten or twenty years in the wake of armed conflict, but of war.

Being American, living in Uganda and visiting places like Rwanda, it is easy to feel safe and focus on the after component of war. But those nights in Kibuye were important reminders of what it is we’re trying to prevent. They reminded me that many places are not out of the woods, and there are lessons in coming face to face with that. For more on DRC, and to help at this critical time of violence, visit the Enough Project’s campaign for Eastern Congo.

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