building blocks of reconciliation

“I learned that Hutus and Tutsis are the same—they both have offended each other. They both need to forgive and be forgiven.”  -Anonymous male participant in AWFRI healing and reconciliation workshop, 32-years old

AWFRI hosts several workshops and seminars throughout each month aimed at teaching Rwandans basic lessons on forgiveness.  In a society still traumatized by horrors one should never experience, lessons on forgiveness are important, but must be combined with efforts to heal the individual.  AWFRI country director Benjamin Ndizeye structures his workshops on the premise that reconciliation is two-fold: “with your own heart and with others”.

Ndizeye opens every workshop by asking why forgiveness is important.  After obtaining an answer along the lines of “because we are broken”, he presses the audience for what kind of things break a heart.  Answers range from war to poverty to rejection by a girlfriend/boyfriend.  All are relevant though, and Ndizeye gives them all credibility, encouraging the reserved audience to voice their pains.

Ndizeye says the first step towards forgiveness will be to rebuild the broken heart, and this rebuilding begins by re-defining a human being.  A human, he explains, is like an avocado. “The pit is the human spirit, the flesh is the human soul, and the skin is the physical body. Like the seed of the avocado is the most important part of the fruit, your spirit is what defines you.”  The old adage that nearly every American child knows by heart: “its what on the inside that counts”, is news to the audience.

The foundational lesson concludes by coaxing the audience to list adjectives previously used to describe “Hutu”, “Tutsi”, and “Twa”.  With a full chart of words, Ndizeye tells the crowd that a human is not what he looks like or what others call him, it is the personality of a man or woman that will determine his/her actions and define his character.   He says “the problem is not the existence of ethnic divisions, but the image we construct of [these divisions].”

Reading through responses of audience members reveals the importance of basic identity discussions.  The 21-year-old man whose most important lesson learned was “healing and acceptance—acceptance of yourself and of others” connected the relationship between a healthy self-esteem and making others comfortable in your presence.  Lesson one of achieving peace: know and be comfortable with yourself.  This way you can accept others as they are.

Ndizeye’s second step in teaching forgiveness is addressing personal responsibility.  He starts by saying God forgives us after we admit to engaging in a sin, after taking responsibility.

Using me, the five-foot tall, skinny American with no money to her name in the audience, he pointed out that to take responsibility we must remember that people are not the definitions others’ give to them.  “She does not look or act American at all.  This girl is skinny and she thought of the poverty in this village so she brought her own water to drink, but she doesn’t have money to give us all.  So we must change our mind about Americans and know that they can’t fix all our problems.”  I felt honored to add to the day’s lesson, but mostly excited to hear a call to action in this aid dependent culture.

Lesson two of achieving peace: take responsibility.  The 32-year-old man who recognized that all ethnicities played a role in the pain and destruction of 17 years ago nailed this lesson on the head.

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