Saturday, June 22, 2013

Lessons from Rwanda

This is not my story. I am simply a vessel, a way for a story to be told. I am merely a fragment of the story which I pray I can find the right words to tell.   It's a story of violence, anger, sadness, loss, strength, pride, love and faith all at once.

Ethiopian airport
As I was traveling toward Rwanda, I felt my material comforts were slowly being stripped from me.  Upon arriving in Ethiopia for a layover, I felt small and lost. Gone were comforts of an American airport, no familiar food vendors, dirty bathrooms, my language only spoken by my team members. No TV, no music that was familiar to my ears and my cell phone was useless. I was a minority and a stranger.  I was free.  Free of all things that we think make us American, and it was amazing. 

Our hotel

Rwanda welcomed us with open arms, literally.  Smiles and hugs were given easily, our guide Pastor Peter welcoming.  Our hotel seemed extravagant given the surroundings and I found myself feeling guilty.  Ezekial was the manager of this hotel and went far above expectations to make us feel comfortable. I have never stayed anywhere in the U.S. where I have experienced this much hospitality.  Given the friendliness of its people, I found it even harder to imagine the gruesome history of Rwanda.

Graves at genocide memorial

In April of 1994, Rwanda experienced a mass genocide where over 800,000 men, women and children were murdered.  I remember being 20 years old and this was simply a blip on my radar as Rwanda was a world away and did not affect me.  Our first day in Kigali, we had the privilege of visiting the Genocide Memorial museum.  I thought I knew the history, the story, the suffering.  What I found in that museum proved me horribly wrong.  The images of the violence will forever be etched in my memory.  Horrific details that we were spared by our American journalists were glaring.  I found myself crying out loud at the disbelief that so much hatred had occurred and we stood by.  Simple observers half a world away, I was ashamed.  We were given this opportunity to learn from their history and to see the miraculous change that has occurred in Rwanda, giving us even more appreciation of the people.  Along the streets of Kigali, we would see beautiful gardens with statues being tended to constantly.  These gardens mark the spot of mass graves and the ground considered sacred.  Driving by them was a somber reminder of what once occurred along these bustling, vibrant streets.  Rwandans express pride in how far they have come in 19 years.  They are not dwelling in the past but growing from their experiences.

Outside walkway and bedrooms
The orphanage at Kimisagara
Our first visit to the orphanage was the afternoon after visiting the Genocide Memorial.  I was already raw with emotion as I'm sure my team members were.  The climb to the orphanage was hard and consisted of three separate steep hills, the last one being the steepest.  My thoughts along those hills were of what I would see and how I would react once we reached our destination.  I knew I would see hardship and living conditions far below most standards. I felt I was ready for what was ahead and as we finally reached the top of those long hills, I quickly learned that I was not at all.  The building was very small and literally perched on a cliff.  There was no outdoor space except a dirt courtyard about the size of my living room for the children to play.  Smoke was billowing out of the small kitchen where the children's meal of rice and beans was being prepared.  As I entered the courtyard with my team members, I felt tears come to my eyes and I began to doubt I had what it would take to participate in our mission. 
Then I saw the children, so many of them at first wary of our presence.  It did not take long before we were all surrounded by children who were so excited to see us.  My fears and doubts quickly dissipated when little arms were reaching up and wanting to be held.  Without hesitation or
reservation, my team members and I held children, hugged older children and played games on the dirt floor.  We saw past the dirt, runny noses and stained clothing.  Instead we saw beautiful children who needed love and attention.  We were so ready to give it. We spent our days playing games, doing arts and crafts and singing songs.  The children were without so much but able to smile at the littlest things.  Bubbles and balloons entertained even the older children and little fuzz balls became prized possessions.  I left with my team every evening tired and covered in dirt.  It wasn't until I was away from the children that the enormity of the situation would overcome me and I would succumb to tears.

The days spent at the orphanage went by at lightening speed. Every day we became more attached to the children and their caregivers. There is so much love at Kimisagara as the older children love and tend to the younger children.  Our mission was to hug, hold and love on as many children as we could.  Whenever the opportunity arose we prayed with the children.  I tended to stay near the younger children and would often sit on the floor so that I could hold as many on my lap as possible.  Sometimes I would whisper a prayer in a little ear not knowing if it went unheard or understood.  Then one day I had my answer.  Jesus was already at Kimisagara.  The children had as much faith and love of Jesus as anyone I have known.  It all became obvious because of a little sidewalk chalk.  All over the walls they wrote affirmations of Jesus.  Some even wrote wishes for God to bless us.  I was overwhelmed with emotion as a person new to faith.  The children had so little, material things virtually nonexistent, but they were so rich in faith and love.  I felt as if we were suddenly somewhere so holy and that we were given the gift of sight.  They had nothing.  Nothing to stand in the way of their faith.  I couldn't help but think of our society and how when we don't get what we want we tend to lose faith or doubt God.  I was humbled by what the children showed me.  Something I will carry with me forever.

All too soon, it was time for us to go home.  I was definitely ready to see my family but so sad to leave the children of Kimisagara.  Each of us had a child or a group of children that "claimed" us each day that we were there.  The bonds were strong among all of us.  The last day, Pastor Peter spoke to the children on our behalf, telling them that we were going to be gone but that we will continue to work at home for them. Together we bowed our heads in prayer, tears flowing, hands held. We were a family.  Leaving the orphanage was probably the hardest thing I have ever experienced.  Sabina, who had become my little girl during our time there, would not let me go.
I noticed that my team members were having the same troubles.  When we walked out of the orphanage for the last time, we were sobbing out loud.   Once again we were sweaty, smelly and covered in dirt and hand prints, yet none of us were ready to wash it away.

My heart still hurts today.  I have been home for a couple of days now. I have not been able to talk about my experience with anyone besides Adam and those who were there with me.  My team and I have forged a bond that will last a lifetime.  What we experienced together was hard and amazing at the same time. They get it.  I feel as if verbalizing my experience will belittle it somehow, make it less important.  I hope writing conveys what I am feeling better than spoken words.  I went to Rwanda to help the broken.  Turns out it was me that was broken and the children of Kimisagara have left me whole.

I would like to send my love to Kara, Ryan, Molly, Lynett, Julie, Craig, Dieudonne, Lonnell, Martha, Manya, Peter, Kayla, Brad and Abigail. You will forever be in my heart.

1 comment:

  1. Julie and I just read your blog. Oh my goodness. Here we go crying again. I can't tell you how touched we were by your synopsis of our journey. Thank you a million times Is it OK if we share this with some of our friends? We too are missing the group. Time will heal but we shall never forget those very special days and our family in Rwanda.

    PS.- Guess who feels lousy with a nasty cold? Wonder where I got it!!!!!!