Africa is a continent comprised of 54 independent countries. Let me humbly confess that while understanding this intellectually, in practice I thought all African countries were pretty much the same. So embarrassing. I have nothing but total ignorance and prejudice upon which to blame this theory. That, and perhaps, the global assumption that Kenya is the diamond of Eastern Africa. After only a few days in Rwanda, may I say, it’s not.
I traveled to Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda to attend eLearning Africa 2018. It is the largest educational conference in Africa. Different capital cities take turns hosting the meeting of the pedagogical, innovative, technological minds.
I had no connection to Rwanda and met some concerned resistance from my organization regarding a single woman traveling to an unfamiliar African country. Rwanda has fewer travel warnings than Kenya, where I live. By fewer, I mean Rwanda has no travel warnings. So, I felt pretty comfortable. As registration and planning progressed, a friend from the US reached out and connected me with her contacts from a time spent in Rwanda. I went from “winging-it” to having a contact, guide, and a plan.
I allowed for one afternoon of tourist activities. My guide, Theo, met me at the airport, drove me to my hotel, led a tiny scavenger hunt to locate a working ATM, and we were off. Right away I noticed how different Kigali is from Nairobi: no plastic refuse littering cornfields, no piles of garbage in various stages of burning. The streets were paved, lined with bricked sidewalks, decorated with meticulous landscaping. Motorcyclists and passengers wore helmets, and I didn’t note any trucks stacked three-stories tall with any number of animal, vegetable and mineral.
I was a social science teacher in the US and I was deeply interested in learning more about the Rwandan genocide which reached its climax in 1994. To satisfy this desire, Theo took me to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center and Nyamata Church outside the city. The memorial center is both a museum and final resting place for over 250,000 victims of the genocide. I walked through professionally curated rooms filled with information on the background, buildup, realities, and consequences of the conflict. I stood by the ongoing project to inscribe the name of every victim on a wall of honor. Nyamata Church is the site where 10,000 Rwandans were brutally murdered while seeking sanctuary. The building is now a memorial–where light filters in through a bullet-riddled metal roof and clothing of the slain overflows the pews. Behind the violated holy space are two sunken cavities housing bones from the church and the surrounding area. The place is immaculately kept. I was invited to step down into one cavity. From the floor, coffins rose two stories on either side of me. Some were opened to show a collection of skulls or femurs. The bodies had so decomposed, and the volume of victims was so great that these brothers and sisters in life and death will be forever intermixed.
If you know me, you know I process my entire world through my emotions. It can be difficult for me to know what I’m feeling because I absorb the feelings of others. This has often led to feelings of guilt: am I so overwhelmed by emotions because I feel this way? Or am I just borrowing the horror of the person next to me? Am I stealing their experience and crying as if it were my own? Isn’t that selfish? Self indulgent?
But I also hold in tension a powerful philosophy that what connects us as humans is more important than what divides us. That my horror and outrage and deep grief at any human atrocity is honoring our connection to each other beyond race, wealth, gender, or time. I am horrified, outraged, and deeply grieved by the Rwandan genocide.
There is a room in the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center dedicated to child-victims. I can’t even write about it yet. I can only feel the pressure in my chest and the tears rolling down my cheeks and the inability to breathe and the desire to run up the hill to my worksite and pull all of my 72 kids on my lap and never let them go, even my big teenagers.
I am not the sum total of my trauma and neither is Rwanda. I face and feel and honor but I also celebrate what Rwanda has worked hard to become.
Theo drove us back into the city to the Kimironko Market. It’s everything you want an African market to be: loud, and close, and filled with fresh produce, grains, fish, fabric, housewares, and handicrafts. Goods are displayed above and beside you as you walk the narrow paths between vendor stalls. If your gaze lingers too long on an item be prepared to respond to Rwanda’s most resilient salesmen.
Next, we visited Inema Art Center. It is a true art collective with vision. A six foot tall gorilla currently dominates the entryway formed from burlap overlaid with computer hardware guts and spray painted with vibrant pinks, oranges, blues, and greens. Throughout the gallery hangs life-themed works created with a blend of traditional and modern techniques. I wanted everything I saw. It was all hysterically out of my budget. So, I let my eyes capture and store the energy. There is a space to buy a drink and enjoy the view and a whole room dedicated to the promotion of their youth art mission.
After Inema Art, we just drove through town. There was a rain shower, children walking home from school, the muslim center, a glimpse of Hotel Rwanda, and winding streets through the hilly capital city.
Theo shared a little about his life and his calling. Like me, God gave him a passion for orphaned and vulnerable children. Since 2011 he has been slowly building an organic, fair-trade coffee business aimed at generating sustainable funds to educate vulnerable children while supporting local coffee farmers and processors. It hasn’t been an easy journey; he’s always looking for markets and distributors. But the twelve children he is currently caring for and the confidence that God has called him to this road sustains him.
The conference was great. I met many people who have already inspired and furthered my work in Kenya. It was the first time in a year I’d met professionally with other educators. Rwanda showcased itself wonderfully. Each night there was traditional entertainment of dancing and music. Then I walked home, in the dark, to my hotel, on well-lit safe streets.
I almost didn’t leave. Mostly, because the Saturday morning of my flight was the monthly community service day. The entire country was shut down to participate in beautification and management projects. My taxis kept being waylaid by police officers. I arrived with only 40 minutes until my international flight. I made it home to Kenya but I left with a strong determination to return. I want to hike volcanoes and see the real-life gorillas. I want to learn more about this amazing country that is using drones to deliver life-saving blood to remote regions and has an educational board that actually donated computers to primary schools to support education.
Theo is creating an itinerary and estimate for me now. Who’s coming with me?