I remember watching news footage of the Rwandan genocide on TV when I was in my early twenties. I was horrified by the images and by the inaction of the world as it stood by and watched the horrors being unleashed. Many years later, I read a book by one the survivors of that genocide – “Left To Tell” by Immaculee Ilibagiza. She was the same age I was when she endured the nightmare of that time in her homeland.
In 2012 I saw an article in my local paper seeking volunteers to journey to Rwanda to help the genocide survivors. I didn’t hesitate. I got my rounds of vaccinations, took a leave of absence from my teaching job, bought malaria pills and packed my suitcase. Even though I would leave my husband and two young children behind, I just knew it was a trip I had to make. And I am so glad that I did make that trip.
Along with my volunteer group (Developing World Connections) and the Rwandan based Building Bridges Rwanda, I learned how to level large stones so they would fit together to form a foundation, pillars and walls. I mixed and lugged dented metal trays of mortar and I learned how to use a piece of string as a leveller.
I also learned to enjoy sitting under an acacia tree during banana break while the young men danced around us. I learned how to make bracelets from hyacinth stalks, and I learned to get used to filling my gut with carbohydrates day after day (plantains anyone?). I hugged and played with the children of the village, every day. And every day they smiled and their warmth was genuine. I interacted with the women, some of whom were survivors of the genocide and I held their babies in my arms. I watched them weave their stunning baskets and afterwards they neatly piled them on shelves, work done with skill and pride. I experienced a breathtaking hike into the Virunga Volcanic mountains, to view the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. Unforgettable. Remarkable. Endangered.
I never quite got used to the accommodations, with the creepy crawlies and the bats in the night. I gradually adjusted to our ‘neighbours’ – several hundred East African soldiers, with their Toyotas and machine guns. I will never forget the afternoon while we were busy working and a sudden whomp whomp whomp and swirls of dirt lifting in the air alerted us to an army helicopter as it landed in a nearby field. The soldiers were always polite to us. Some greeted us in the morning or as we passed by on the road heading home after dinner. The rewards of a long day of work and the pleasant company of the people I met made it all worthwhile. Each day brought a new experience, whether it was the sudden downpour and the lightning that was so much scarier than it was back home, or finding a frog in my ‘bathtub’ (a concrete trough). There was the blue monkey in the cage outside our rooms and the thrill of riding on the back of a mutatu taxi bike.
There were also reminders of the genocide – the museums filled to the rafters with skulls and bones, their machete and bullet hole marks clearly visible. Churches which were supposed to be havens and which became graveyards, still housed the bodies of those killed inside – a reminder of how horrible genocide is. Lest We Forget. Never Again. There were the faces of scarred survivors, wearing haunted expressions. But the amazing thing I noted was that life was moving along, people were going to school, to university, growing food, and clinics were being built in even the remotest villages. It seemed clear to me that Paul Kagame was determined to bring his country into the modern world, and to try to bring national reconciliation to the forefront.
I left Rwanda wanting to return. I will never forget those amazing people that shared a brief moment of their lives with me. I think about their future and hope for peace for them. Peace does not come easily, however, as the regions surrounding this tiny country are brimming with rebel armies, some supported by neighbouring governments. Some of these groups are genocide perpetrators, waiting to strike again. I hope that the mandate that Paul Kagame has begun will continue to take root and that the ethnic hatred stirred up – first, by the Europeans, then by Rwandans themselves, will dissipate into another time. Rwanda is a beautiful country, both culturally and geographically. It has so much to offer to the world.