Tag Archives: broken and healed

What I Saw

I forgot my camera batteries. How could I forget the batteries!?! Probably because this whole workshop was put on by my space-cadet self. We drive 30 minutes along uncomfortable roads only to realize we forgot the DVD. Aimable had to catch a moto all the way back and pick it up. And I reach in my bag to snap a photo of the sun falling across the face of the guy sitting in front of me to find out that I left the batteries as well.  (So go figure that I would blindly stumble up the road two hours later than anticipated, late for a meeting and not feeling so great. Awesome.)

Back to business though. I could not take photos for the website, which is my job description. So I had to write what I saw.

My shadow lays long on the ground to my left. Gliding over packed sand and hedges of cacti as I walk into the mud-constructed building where Aimable addresses 120 prisoners.

The sun was setting through the triangle holes in-between the mud bricks and straw roof.  The rays cast orange beams across the side of black faces. Faces furrowed with years of stress, holding empty eyes that sadly stare downward. Faces belonging to men who have only known prison and camp life for 17 years now. Men whose wives are embarrassed to be married to murderers, and thus have children of other patronage. Men who are guilt-ridden by their involvement in the genocide.

Heads in their hands and knees in their chests, individuals and pairs are scattered all over the volleyball court and surrounding grass patches. Children scream on the hillside, birds chirp and twitter as the sun sets on 120 broken men confronting their pain.

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Faith like a child.  Religious followers are told to trust their God with childlike faith. In general, I believe we should all approach the world with a sense of childlike hope and trust.  But we don’t.  We are jaded, cynical, and often proud of this and our ability to live independently and survive harsh conditions.

Children view the world as a brand new, exciting place.  Everything is amazing, fascinating, exciting.  Ideally, they are feed, clothed, protected by, and loved by a community of adults in their lives. Innocent, and considered stupidly naïve by some, but because of this, children are the ultimate risk-takers.  They haven’t been let down, haven’t been hurt, haven’t lived with years of empty promises and aching hearts.  Therefore children rush head first into new activities, willingly answer questions that they truly don’t know the answer to, and invite relationships with all people.

As time goes on, we all learn to protect our bodies and hearts above any other interest.  And some cultures instill a complete individualistic attitude where serving yourself is not only top priority, but the only priority.

Unfortunately, self-protection and self-service often leave us in deeper hurt. The girl who has heard too many empty promises of love eventually refuses any type of intimacy, emotional or physical, and lives in totally isolation.  The boy who lost too many toys and products of his own labor to seemingly curious friends “just taking a look” eventually protects everything he earns with such vicious efforts that he too lives in isolation.  The measures we take to protect ourselves from the harms others inflict upon us do such a great job that no one gets close.  Likewise, we eventually find that no one is around to help in our desperation.

Working in the world of aid reveals all kinds of self-protection measures, and often brings out a clash between self-protection and altruism.  There are stories of groups of people unable to understand why someone is helping them; because their culture dictates that self-interest always, always, always comes first.  So why then, would some stranger willingly help them out, and for free?  Others blatantly refuse help because the walls built to keep people out do not leave room for trusting outside help.  “…[T]hese are our problems, not yours.  We don’t want anybody fighting for us—and we certainly don’t want anybody feeling sorry for us,” was the response of a female, Saudi doctor when asked about her status in Islam.  This denial for help stems from a mistrust of intentions, because too many previous “do-gooders” didn’t do any good at all.  So we are taught, over time, to do everything for ourselves and by ourselves.

How then, can we ever look at the world with the faith and hope of a child?  Every breach of faith, every promise broken, and every wound caused through action and inaction adds another brick to our walls of self-protection.  Every wound caused by another human reaffirms the belief that protecting ourselves from every other person is vital to our survival.

Yet there is hope.  Every so often someone does something to you that restores your belief in humanity.  That would be repentance.  Admitting to our mistakes, first of all, says, to one whose main concern is self-protection, ‘your self was harmed and I’m at fault’.  This statement can bring the walls down, or at least parts of them.  This statement offers the possibility to trust in people again.  It opens a door for communication that can eventually lead to restoration.  It did for Chantal.


Kristof, Nicholas D and Sheryl WuDunn. Half the Sky. Vintage Books: New York, 2009.

Eggers, Dave. What is the What. Vintage Books: New York, 2006.

Hinson, Laura Waters. As We Forgive, Epilogue. 2010.

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“Grief can’t be dissolved like rain washing dust off a roof. Sorrow knows no washing away, no easing…no end of time.” Francine Rivers, The Last Sin Eater

According to the always helpful homework cheater helper scribd.com, rain symbolizes both despair and new life.

How can this be possible? says my ever so black and white personality.

Oh yeah, the world isn’t arranged in extremes and separations. (Which is exactly why art is the most vital avenue for understanding the world around us.)

Charan Ahuja describes the symbolic nature of rain as “an exhilarating marvel of nature, rain has magical powers to entwine the twin threads of emptiness and contentment together.”  She goes on, “from a gentle sprinkling to a torrid downpour, rains can be both life giving as well as death dealing.”

So it is fitting then, that the month of April begins Rwanda’s long wet season.

As a month started by official mourning activities, rain lends itself to a period of brooding and sitting indoors.  Nothing is quite as melancholy as rain slowly streaming down the windowpane.

In the Rwandan context, rain really only disrupts life.  It doesn’t last long, so it’s not something that needs to be addressed, but once it starts, no one leaves his/her current shelter.  We all just stay put and wait the 15 minutes needed for the torrential downpour to let up and allow us all to get back to business.

While I LOVE rain, I am totally fine with the whole wait it out concept.  I like being wet, but not arriving at my destination freshly showered.  So I have become really good in my predictions of when the rain will hit and can time my errands accordingly.

So Sunday was an anomaly for me.

This weekend was devoted entirely to buying a blender.  (Ours broke Friday night and we use it at least 5 times a week, so $100 or not, it was totally necessary to replace it.)  Saturday my roommate and I tried first the China store (an exact replica of the cheap rubber motor thing that broke on us Friday night, $100) and then the expat grocery store (an upgraded version that had a plastic motor—so it wouldn’t shred over time—$60).  While gloating over our plastic find, a British kid we keep running into but don’t actually know approached us and asked what we were doing.

“Umm you know, buying a blender.”

“Well I’m selling mine.”


“How much is this one.”
“How much are you selling yours for?”

“This one is probably like 39,000 RWF isn’t it?”

“Actually it’s only 32,000 RWF.”
“Well I’ll sell you mine for 20,000 RWF [$40].”

So Sunday we had to go find him and actually pick up the newest and most beloved addition to our household. We head out ten minutes before said meeting time.  I have just come back from the store, not a cloud in the sky and sweating from the heat of the middle of the day.  But heading back out sixty seconds later, I see the sky filled with grey clouds and hope that I don’t need my umbrella. Two minutes later, not even at the end of our street, it starts to sprinkle.  Another minute later, right as we are approaching the moto taxi station it starts to rain.  Not hard, but actual drops for sure.  So we decide to turn around and head back to wait out the building storm.  I walk in the gate five minutes later caked in mud and looking like I’ve just stepped from the shower, fully clothed.

Yea, I literally just walked back in the house.

This is the kind of rain I really truly love.  It falls from the sky with more force than my shower (really that doesn’t take a whole lot of pressure to beat the slow stream I attempt to wash myself in every morning) and spills so much water on the earth that everything gets washed away.

This is the kind of rain that could possibly wash away grief (if of course, that were possible).  Ironically, it came at the official close of the two-week commemoration period.  So in a sense, it did wash away the mourning time.

God bless the rains down in Africa.

So again, how can rain bring both death and new life?

Remember that time I found myself waiting out the rain with about 20 business men who just wanted to get on their way as well?

Remember how the mourning period was just two weeks of the year where we all hole up and wait for life to resume?

Remember how rain stops life, temporarily, but stops it nonetheless?

Remember how grief paralyzes any future plans?

Remember what the rainy season brought in April of 1994?

It may only be 15 minutes, two weeks, or a whole three-month/100 day stretch but the rains can bring death as well as new life.

I found life in the rain because I actually acknowledge it, stood in it, felt it.


Ahuja, Charan. “Rain Symbolism in Literature”. Willows Talk, Issue 11. 2010. Web Access 17th April 2011

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Remembrance, Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Development, and Gorillas

So why are you in Rwanda? Well chances are, you are somehow involved in forgiveness, reconciliation, empowerment, development, or studying/visiting the gorillas. And when you are constantly in the midst of these types of discussion, and these efforts, it is easy to forget how far the country actually has come.

This is the official week of remembrance.  April 6, 1994 President Habyarimana’s flight from a peace process in Arusha, Tanzania was shot down and he was killed.  Rwanda was instantly launched into chaos by the popular hate radio stations calling for the extermination of the people behind the attack on their president.  What followed was 100 days of killings and man hunts that are normally reserved for horror films.  Rwandans say 1 million were dead by the time current president Paul Kagame and his rebel forces took control in July of 1994.  Western estimates generally put that number at 800,000, but either way, the number of dead given the number of days it took is astounding.

It is far too easy to criticize Rwandan society and progress from the inside of an American run NGO or an organization focused on reconciliation.  But 17 years ago, there was nothing here at all except for some corpses and ruined buildings.

This is why we remember. To know where we came from, in-order to have hope for where we are headed.

As an outsider with stores of academic knowledge on the “art of reconciliation”, I can easily see what else must be addressed, who needs to do and say what. This is a vital trait for a conflict mediator. But for one living with and (trying to) build(ing) relationships with the local population, I too must remember how far the people have come.

This society is traumatized. Undoubtedly so. I don’t want to think about what life was like here 17 years ago. Neither do they. But this week alone I have heard the Youth Minister, the Executive Secretary of the National Commission Against Genocide, and three pastors talk about the necessity of remembering the past.  Because, they all say, covering over the pain and memories, or ignoring them entirely, does not heal anything.  World Vision’s representative said “pain that is not transformed is transferred.” To prevent the continuation of hatred and bitterness, it is important to recognize the pain, address the pain, and transform it.

So yeah, the society is hurting. There is still so much I can point out that must be said and done. But if I can remember where they were 17 years ago, I can recognize the insane progress they’ve made. And if they can remember where they were 17 years ago, they might recall the intensity of the pain, and recognize what produced such pain, and ultimately understand how to avoid a repetition of the horrors created by underlying and unaddressed hatred.

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Of Rain and Bones

I love good hard rains.  The kind where if you decide to walk out in them, you might as well bring shampoo and soap and shower while you are it.  This will explain the giant smile on my face as I walked up the hill to meet Aimable (A-ma-blay) (Program Trainer for As We Forgive). Well the rain, and the fact that I have the ability to laugh at myself. Because I was not walking up the hill, but running, in pirate-themed rain boots, with a giant plastic poncho flapping about my legs and holding a teeny tiny red umbrella. If I was afraid of standing out because I’m white, I should give that up now; because my demeanor clearly made me a sore thumb.  Running turned out to be entirely unnecessary too.  Aimable didn’t arrive for another 30 minutes, giving me sufficient time to stand guard with the 20 other Rwandans waiting out the rain under the local store front.

One moto ride and 30-minute bus ride I found myself walking along the side of the “highway” towards a church site where an estimated 50,000 people died in the genocide.  Because this is the last Saturday of the month, most services are shut down or on a slow schedule (the last Saturday of every month is reserved for community re-building work).  So the first two gates to the memorial we approached were closed. Short story is I went for one very loooong walk down a red dusty road.

The church has been left as it was 16 years ago.  Bullet holes cover the tin ceiling and mark the sides of the entrances.  Inside, benches are covered with all the clothing and personal effects of the victims.  The piles of clothes are faded in color now and covered in dust, but still reminders of lives once lived.  Beneath the church, and in cellars dug in the courtyard, are all the remains.  Those with family members to claim the bodies are collected as family units in coffins labeled with the family name.  Those left unclaimed were arranged according to age and the bones laid out on shelves.  We walk down steep concrete steps into the dark underworld to gaze upon the slashed and smashed skulls of murder victims.  As I walk back up, I catch a glance at my feet and cringe.  I’m still wearing my pirate-themed boots and notice that I have tiny skulls and cross bones all the way up my thighs.  Above ground in the center of the church is an altar covered in a dirty white sheet with a collection of jewelry and identity cards on top.  I found out that it is not a dirty white sheet, but a bloodstained sheet.  Upon this altar, a pregnant Hutu woman was cut open after she chose to hide with her Tutsi husband rather than live with her brothers.  This altar serves as a tribute to her life and that of her unborn child.

This country holds dearly to its memorials.  There are several, in villages and cities all across the country; said to serve as reminders of what evil does.  Sort of a “lest we forget” mentality, made clear to me as Aimable prayed for me at the end asking God to protect me from the spirits that might make me fall into evil, as the killers were lead astray.  Walking away left me more with a heavy heart for the rest of the country right now.  It is good to remember, but it is better to move forward wholly.  Not just in economic growth but also in mental healing.

We stopped for a late lunch and watched an impromptu concert turn into a Saturday night dance club.  Another 30-minute bus ride and moto trip brought me back to the local supermarket.  I bought flour so I could make bread tonight and had to turn back for an umbrella.  It was pouring again when I walked back into the safety of my home.

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