The horror of a genocide and the hope of a people transformed.
By Brooke Hartman
There is just no place for me in Africa.
Through friends and textbooks and CNN, I understand Africa has complicated needs and a million qualified people already working toward solutions. There is no real reason for me to get involved, especially without a PhD or loads of cash or an innate need to adopt a family of five nations. What part could I possibly play in all the hurting and helping that would hold any value? Plus, I speak Spanish. And did you hear about all the wars?! Clearly, there is no place for me in Africa.
This is how I dismissed an entire continent for three decades.
I had never been to an African country, and I had no plans to visit one. But then, World Next Door—we specialize in this exact question, you know, of how a person can get involved—decided to embed with an organization called African Leadership And Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM), and I found myself packing a giant duffel headed for Rwanda. What?!
I imagined red dirt roads and cinderblock houses. I understood the government had mandated tin roof replacements to thatch-roofed huts, and I believed this was the type of development I would find in a low-income country. I knew Rwanda to be a tiny, landlocked, East African nation the size of Maryland with 11 million people all crunched inside. I had heard it referred to as The Heart of Africa, which I took to mean Very Hot With Wild Animals, and The Land of A Thousand Hills, but the hills part got lost in all the desert imagining. At best, I pictured a few dusty mounds with tufts of grass.
Oh yes, and there was that other thing. That thing where one people group massacred an entire other group of the population, IN MY LIFETIME! While I was wearing braces and lamenting the trauma of black hair turned bright orange after a mishap with Sun-In, a 13-year-old Rwandan kid was hiding or fleeing or dying or rescuing or killing. Nineteen years ago was the 1994 genocide of the Rwandan Tutsi.
That last paragraph is how I knew Rwanda. This is how most of us know Rwanda. This is how my grandma knew Rwanda as she forbade us to go: poor, hot and violent.
Imagine my surprise to find, instead, lots of development, moderate climates and relative peace. (In my grandma’s world, the turntables have just screeched to a halt.)
How Do You Find Our Country?
In my first few weeks—wait. No, every time I walked out the door and encountered another person who could speak English, the first question each person asked was this: How do you find our country? I was asked this as I waited for my luggage at the airport and as I looked over the menu at the restaurant that first night, as I climbed into the taxi or bumped along in the last seat on the bus with my eyes closed. I was asked at breakfast, noon and night, and maybe even in my dreams I was asked: How do you find our country? I sensed fragile hope behind the question, as if my discovery of the goodness in Rwanda would make it real to the entire international community, would confirm what they already knew and wanted to be proud of: goodness exists here.
Understandably, Rwandans long to be known for more than the country’s tragic history and do not wish to be defined by genocide as the nation continues to develop and grow.
Can I share how I found Rwanda?
At first glance I found Rwanda with paved roads and tall buildings covered in glass. I found clean streets and alleys. I did not find plastic bags, because they are illegal. I found friendly, helpful people, and I found green, expansive, terraced hills with lush valleys and waterfalls. I found volcanoes and hiking trails with long canopy walks and gorilla tracking. I found smiles and laughter, bright colors, kids in school uniforms, cell phones and data plans, taxis, avocados, passion fruit, joy-filled music, dancing, good coffee and temperate climates. I found myself safe and comfortable. I found that almost nobody carried around machetes or appeared to be angry. In fact, I found Rwanda to be the exact opposite of what I had envisioned.
I found progress and unity. I found resilience. I found reconciliation and forgiveness. Had I ended the trip here, I would have dusted my hands and said, Yep. Everything’s fine! Everyone’s fine!
But I didn’t end the trip there, and that’s not all I found in Rwanda.
At second glance, I found a post-disaster community and the remnants of a genocide.
Almost nobody used the word “genocide”, though. Most people spoke in terms of “the event” or “the tragedy” or “our country’s history.” And nobody ever referred to any tribal identity. In fact, doing so could be considered genocidal ideation and potential cause for arrest.
But during the memorial period, which occurs every year for 100 days to commemorate the event beginning April 7th, the phrase Genocide against the Tutsi was everywhere. Banners, signs, and ribbons decorated every billboard and structure. It seemed like the entire country had reserved all of its collective grief for the months of April, May and June. Even the weather follows this pattern, as the genocide occurred during the long rainy season, and each year the rains and gray skies come in April as they always have.
Entirely opposite of all our other bright, cheery experiences in Rwanda up to that point, I found grief and sadness. I found that sometimes in April, teenagers are irritable and adults become depressed. I watched as the somberness of it all moved in quickly over the country like the shadow of a storm front. The skies turned to rain and clouds, the streets emptied, everything closed—businesses, grocery stores, restaurants. Music was not played during memorial week and TVs remained off in public places.
Merging the two impressions
I couldn’t wrap my mind around a mass murder—the propaganda, the machete-hacking methods, the fact that institutionalized killing occurred so recently and so personally, that family members killed family members, neighbors hunted neighbors, that a friend of ours bore witness to his neighbor’s little girls running around in his own murdered daughters’ clothing, that church leaders beckoned entire congregations inside the walls of a church with the promise of safety only to cut off all water and food supply, or bulldoze the building, or set it on fire, or toss a grenade inside.
And, once I stopped trying to put that piece together, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that life continued on the other side. That people are working and eating, walking along these same streets and attending these same churches, that kids play and women do hair and taxis commute and bikers bike and kids laugh and choirs sing and people watch 24 on TV. All this with an entire ethnic group almost entirely wiped out of the population, resting in mass graves under that exact ground. When something so awful happens, I imagine the place curling up and withdrawing into the earth with no trace remaining when it’s over.
But it was all still right there.
Everywhere I looked, I could see the stories I’d heard playing out in my mind’s eye—on this street or up on that hill; in this neighborhood, at that hotel, in that church, in this field, on that campus. “This was a very bad roadblock here,” our friend would say as we drove toward the forest, or, “There is the house that sheltered us!” Other friends would say things from time to time like, “That river there was red from all the blood.
I stood at one of the most horrific memorial sites in Murambi with my friend as he shared that the pastor who married him was killed right there, where I stood, along with his family.
A genocide looks totally different when armed with a specific face or name. I began to understand that a million people were not killed during the genocide. One person was killed. And then another person. And then another person. And then another person. Was he here? The pastor who married my friend? I wondered as we walked from room to room if any of the bodies we saw belonged to him or his family.
In my life prior to becoming a World Next Door journalist, I was a disaster mental health counselor. Dipping into that realm for a second, we call this experience vicarious trauma, and I could feel it happening to me. A growing corner of my heart felt bruised every time I walked out of the house and looked around, and it wasn’t even my own history!
I remember thinking that after the Boston Marathon bombing occurred on the same day we visited one of the memorials: I don’t have any words for this. I don’t have words for the 900 bodies I just saw at the memorial site or for an 8-year-old who was bombed. But I remember wishing I could take the banner from the memorial site and wrap the entire globe in it:
If you knew me, and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.
But, by the same depth and intensity I felt sorrow and sadness, another growing corner of my heart leapt with wonder and awe of the same proportion at the mind-blowing resiliency. Here was an entire country demonstrating the miracle of post-traumatic growth—existing at a higher level of functioning than before the event occurred—through grace and forgiveness received from God and passed freely among each other.
Despite one hundred years of colonial-led division and programmed hatred, I saw people living with intentional peace at the cost of their own emotionally safe boundaries, their own impulses toward justice and revenge, and with the constant ache of grief caused by those with whom they sought out peaceful living. With the help of organizations like African Leadership And Reconciliation Movement (ALARM), forgiveness is being offered with or without the remorse of an offender who may have killed a person’s entire family. Released perpetrators are building and maintaining homes for survivors and their families as a step toward making amends and reconciliation, and survivors are accepting this gesture in the name of the forgiveness they themselves received through Christ.
Can you imagine this?!
So there I stood in Rwanda, at the intersection of human depravity and divine grace. The place where both our lowest possible and highest possible potentials meet. Both tragic and capable, both angry and merciful, both pained and healing, both holding the machete and reaching out the hand of forgiveness.
As I spent time with our host ministry, ALARM, I began to see the entire process—the seed-planting, the harvesting of the fruit—take place through several initiatives, three of which I spent some extra time learning about: The Kabuga Vocational Training Center, the Social Blessings Women’s Group, and the Institute of Women for Excellence.
Kabuga Vocational Training Center
I sat in the back seat of the host ministry’s van for about an hour as we drove toward a village outside of Kigali city. We turned onto a little dirt road, and I scanned for the technical school we were headed for. About halfway up a little hill sat a tiny concrete building—two classrooms and a supply closet—with hammers and tape measures, screwdrivers and a circular saw. I would have continued to look past this building for the school had the driver not pulled up in front and turned off the van. Kids played nearby on a dirt road, and community members gathered with smiles and handshakes.
Inside the building, about 16 students sat four to a bench split between the two classrooms, each room with painted walls and different kinds of electrical circuits drawn in chalk. These students were training in the areas of mechanics, electricity, masonry, carpentry, and welding. Many were former street kids and/or orphans due to their parents’ deaths or imprisonments following the genocide, and were between the ages of 15 and 22 (although there is no age limit for the program, simply a stated need for skills).
As described by Celestin (founder of ALARM) during our short tour, Kabuga Vocational Training Centre was “ALARM’s response to street and orphaned children who were living without education and other basic needs… after the 1994 genocide.”
When I asked the class what the students were studying and what they hoped to do with their education, 16 year-old Mikali stood up and said, “My dream is to be a good electrician and get a job with a company to help install electricity in my village”.
A second boy, 22 year-old Kinongisse, stood and said, “I want to be a good mechanic so I can take care of my family and help my community.”
Multiple boys stood and offered dreams of becoming taxi drivers, carpenters, welders, each with an end goal of helping their families and communities.
David, a 27 year-old graduate of Kabuga, had a dream of simply putting a roof over his head and providing food for himself and his four siblings. I visited David at his job site and watched as he welded piles of metal rods into doorframes and window bars. David was the second-born of five orphaned kids, who, prior to his ability to find work as a welder, lived under bridges and on the streets eating from dustbins. I first approached David, accompanied by his two teachers. When David saw his teachers, he flashed a big smile and dropped the tools and sunglasses for hugs and handshakes.
David explained, as he showed us his tools and projects, that when he first joined the school, his education gave him the opportunity to earn an income, and he now works as a welder. He is able to rent a small home, buy food, clothing and shoes for his siblings, and send the two youngest brothers to secondary school. His older sister takes care of the house and siblings with hopes of one day being able to study, too. David has been a welder for five years and aspires to one day purchase his own welding equipment to operate his own business. He stood arm-in-arm with his teacher and said, proudly, “The school has trained me, educated me and changed my street-boy behavior. I am so thankful for this school and my teacher. I can’t describe how to thank my teacher, Emmanuel.”
The school’s two teachers, Emmanuel and Thomas, receive their pay via in-kind donations, like soap, totaling less than $20 monthly. The school runs on a budget of $0, and relies solely on support that comes through ALARM, donations sent by places like Home Depot, or spontaneous gifts left by traveling visitors. Teachers receive no formal salary, and, in fact, sometimes pay transportation costs to and from school each day.
Why would teachers do this?
“I have a gift of helping kids without hope,” Emmanuel told us at the next job site, where he visited with two other Kabuga taxi-driver grads. He was again greeted with warm hugs and smiles as we stood in a dusty parking lot surrounded by moto-taxis.
Emmanuel is a father of three who quit his paying job five years ago to teach at the school when he felt called to help ‘those who are weak’ as he’d read in the Bible and had been taught in church. He was recruited by Celestin and said he answered the call to serve.
When I asked Emmanuel how he makes his living and supports his family, he said, “My salary is not physical. It is spiritual.”
My brain went straight to the logistics of this kind of faith. But what about food? How did he feed his kids? What about health insurance? Where did he get the money to commute, and what if he needs new clothes or breaks his phone or something? Does his wife work?
“I can’t explain it,” Emmanuel said, “It’s a mystery how we are cared for. Visitors give gifts and we survive from them. You can’t imagine how God provides for my family. ALARM helps us get basic tools to the kids at school, too.” He also explained that his wife does some small things on the side to make money but primarily takes care of the kids and house full-time.
I had the urge to leave every single physical belonging at the stoop of the school in that moment and wished I hadn’t complained so much about not being able to afford to replace my cracked iPhone screen.
Emmanuel explained that since the school was founded in 2004, about 180 students have graduated, and more than 90% have been able to get jobs and create co-ops and associations. Twenty-one students are enrolled in the Center this year. Many students found the school through word-of-mouth, or from graduates who had been through the program. Some were simply living on the streets and saw the school. Every student we encountered shared how they were warmly welcomed by the teachers when they approached the school to ask how they could become students.
I asked if there were any plans to build in salaries for the teachers. ALARM has proposed a budget to pay the teachers a small salary of $200/month and hopes to raise those funds this year. Additionally, as was explained at the moto-taxi site with our new friends driving and renting bikes each day, students currently have to rent motos from private owners at a cost of 5000 RWF per day, and the rental fee comes from their earnings. To put this in perspective, a typical moto ride costs between 500-700 RWF. Slow days can sometimes mean no food, and the drivers live within this rent-work-pay cycle indefinitely, because most can never earn enough to purchase their own motorbikes. One motorbike costs about $2,200 USD! To overcome this problem, ALARM hopes to purchase four motorbikes per year to allow the students a sort of rent-to-own system for those embarking on moto-taxi careers.
I left Kabuga that day feeling refreshed and inspired by the teachers, graduates and students.
The Social Blessings Women’s Group
Jenette and I met on a warm day inside the rented World Relief building where our time together was interrupted by loud call-to-prayer singing every 15 minutes from the mosque next door. She was dressed in a fresh pink satin dress and erupted in laughter every time we had to stop the interview to allow the singing to run its course. There are two Muslim women in the group’s Christian-based social initiative, Jenette pointed out. Jenette is the founder and president of a small group of businesswomen in Musanze, each on her third round of micro-finance through ALARM.
Since the day’s purpose was to visit the different women and their micro-enterprise sites, Jenette hiked up her pink satin dress and we took off on foot for four different sites to escape the singing. I discovered about six hours later as we made our way through town in the grueling heat surrounded by all those spectacular volcanoes, that she would have taken a moto-taxi, but she was concerned I might be afraid. When I learned this, I halted the group and we jumped onto moto-taxis for the last site visit. Yes, I was afraid. But the heat! And Jenette’s floor-length satin dress!
As we walked, Jenette described how the group formed.
“I knew that ALARM had a Community Transformation ministry, and I knew they were running a business center. So I went there and introduced myself. I asked how we could start a women’s group here in Musanze. ALARM connected me with a women’s group in Kigali they were working with and told us they would come help us start a similar group in our own town. The staff from ALARM began coming to train us here. We strengthened in numbers, and together came up with a group name: Social Blessings Women’s Group. We then elected an administration committee, and we have been working with ALARM from that day on.”
ALARM now rents a portion of the World Relief building in Musanze for the women to gather each month—to encourage one another, to sing and pray, problem-solve and solution-share—offers intermittent trainings for the women, and is currently collecting funds to provide a fourth round of microfinance for those who want to continue to grow their businesses. The group has been together for two years, Jenette explained, and their mission is to empower women and young girls toward business ownership.
Our foot/moto treck through Musanze allowed us to visit with women running canteens, small farms (food & rabbits!), market stands, and tailoring shops. As we visited, we discovered that two of the women are widows caring for a collective 10 kids and two orphans between them; two of the women are HIV positive, also caring for their own kids and three orphans; two are the sole earners in their families, and four women are supplemental earners.
In addition to the monthly fellowship and encouragement the association offers, Jenette explained that each woman gives a small amount of weekly profit to a mutual fund, allowing the group to celebrate happy events in each other’s lives, like Christmas, birthdays and weddings, or to help with illness and financial distress when needed. In two years, the group has collected $800,000 RWF, which is about $1500 USD, has hosted celebrations, workshops and conferences, and provided assistance to those in need. Jenette added with a mischievous smile, that the group is such a success, their husbands have tried to get into the group, because they so admire the women’s entrepreneurship and progress. They are also eager for the social events, because there is sure to be good meat, music and fellowship.
As we returned to the office, Jenette described how she had personally benefited from the group. “We are lucky to partner with ALARM,” she said. “They have empowered us economically, physically and spiritually.” She described that on her own first round of micro-finance, she purchased Irish potato seeds, 3 rabbits and a pig. On her second round, she purchased a sewing machine, corn and sorghum, and she reports the pig gave manure, which has enhanced her farming. She is now up to 15 rabbits and two pigs, harvested five bags of corn, and continues to farm.
I left Jenette with hugs, and I walked back to the van with a pocket full of social blessings of my own—fellowship, sisterhood, encouragement and laughter—collected throughout my visits with six women and a day with Jenette.
Institute of Women for Excellence
In Rwamagana, on the exact opposite side of the country, I sat across from four teenage girls—two orphans (no parents), one from a polygamist family (too many parents), and one Muslim—each sneaking peaks at each other between giggles, amused to be out of class and in front of a camera. These are four of 264 students at the boarding school, which specializes in the sciences, founded and maintained by ALARM to provide hope, healing and education.
Each of the girls described how they came to be students at the Institute of Women for Excellence (IWE), what the education means to them, and all the things they hope to be when they grow up: engineers, doctors and even world-travelers.
As we visited with the headmistress and toured the campus, we learned that the school first opened in 2006 with 38 students and 12 teachers to address the orphan, HIV/AIDS and education crisis following the 1994 genocide—and four of the original students came back to teach after University graduation!
Initially, the school focused on homeless girls or on those who were too poor to afford school fees, however because the school has been recognized over the years for its test scores and rates of University attendance, parents with money for tuition began to approach the school to ask if they could pay for their daughters to attend. The headmistress explained how the school now relies on the village to identify families in need, and a student requesting tuition assistance brings a letter from the village authority asking for sponsorship. Funds from paying students, along with sponsorships from outside donors and a handful of government scholarships pay the tuition fees of those who cannot afford it.
While the academics are important, the most amazing thing I found while spending time with the girls was their friendship. In a country that was fragmented by racial and economic differences just a short time ago, high school girls are eating together, bunking together, supporting each other emotionally and financially, learning and playing sports together.
One of the young women described her experience with other students to me. “IWE is a school that helps students to learn about different cultures, because here at IWE we have different cultures. We try to make it all together. If one doesn’t know another, we try to introduce ourselves in the dormitory. If one has more school fees, and another has few school fees, that one who has more helps that one who has little. In the dormitory we try to eat and help each other from being sad.”
Ending our day at IWE, the girls from all classes gathered in the center of the compound to sing songs for us as they departed for a field trip into town, and we headed back to Kigali.
Life After Death
What I discovered in Rwanda was both the aftermath of death and the surfacing of newly purposed life.
On the same ground that held a genocide 19 years ago, people are living and working together peacefully in a way that demonstrates the capacity of God to move within broken communities and broken hearts, and in a way that proves resiliency and hope are stronger than destruction and despair.
I’m left with an image capturing the enormous miracle we have witnessed in Rwanda: a tiny new tree sprouting from a dead stump. We learned during our time with ALARM’s Cyimbili Coffee Plantation (described in the next article), that a coffee plant is fruitful for about 30 years and then stops producing fruit. In order to rehabilitate the coffee plant, the tree is chopped at the base and appears to be dead. But over time, new growth shoots out of the stump producing ripe, healthy fruit.
When I consider the trauma the country has experienced, the level of death and destruction, and the new life emerging through ministries within ALARM, I can’t think of a more beautiful symbol of growth and restoration.
Even in death God opens doors for life to enter—in this case, through organizations like ALARM working to rehabilitate and restore a once beautiful and peaceful community.
It turns out, after six weeks of walking alongside a ministry and discovering several new friends, there is a place for me in Africa after all.
The Kabuga Vocational Training Center
- Donate or purchase tools
- Sponsor a teacher’s salary for one month at $200 USD
- Donate money to purchase motorcycles for the moto-taxi program
- Sponsor the first round of microfinance for a new member of the group at $50, or commit to supporting several rounds of microfinance at $50 per round (for example, Jenette is on her 4th round. This would be $200.) Institute of Women For Excellence:
- Sponsor a student. Sponsors receive letters from the students several times per year. Because many of the students lack a parent, letters they receive from sponsors are deeply cherished. ALARM also facilitates annual trips to the school to develop the leadership capabilities of both IWE staff and students.
- SPONSORSHIP OPPORUNITIES:
- $35 – Partial scholarship
- $60 – Full tuition only
- $85 – Full tuition plus room & board
- IWE is working toward renovating their existing computer lab and installing Internet at the school. The school needs two routers, and the monthly cost will be $150 USD. Consider donating money toward the cost of new computers, two routers for campus-wide Internet installation, or one month of Internet sponsorship at $150 USD. Click here to visit the IWE Sponsorship Page.
- READ: Do you want to hear more about forgiveness and reconciliation? Read Forgiving As We’ve Been Forgiven, written by Celestin Musekura, founder of ALARM and As We Forgive to learn first-hand what it was like during and after the genocide, and the journey many are making toward healing through forgiveness.
- PRAY: When teachers, students, leaders of ALARM and women of the Social Blessings Group were asked what they need most, they all responded, “Please pray for us!”
- FOLLOW: Follow ALARM on Twitter and Facebook or sign up for ALARM’s newsletter to stay up-to-date on the happenings and needs of ALARM in Rwanda.