Question: How do you talk about and teach difficult topics, including the unthinkable, the unspeakable?
Answer: You look for the good.
This summer I traveled to Rwanda, Africa, with the incredible Carl Wilkens, director of the World Outside My Shoes Foundation – and the only American to remain in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Without a doubt, this trip was the most thought-provoking, heart-wrenching, uplifting ten days ever. Each day was beautifully planned with visits to historic sites, meeting with genocide witnesses, government officials (Rwandan and U.S.), community leaders, and activists – now living together, committed to learning from the past and moving forward.
To actually visit Rwanda was an opportunity to step into its past and to witness the power of reconciliation and forgiveness and, equally important, the impact a single person can have when he/she has the courage to step up and take action for others.
For a quick, but excellent, introduction to the causes and impact of the genocide, please read my fellow traveler Timothy Redmond’s recent post: Reflections from Rwanda. Tim’s article will also give you more background on Carl’s courage and commitment to take a stand against genocide. Or, if you want a resource aimed at students, download fellow traveler James Ingram’s Never Again, a “textbook” he co-authored last year during his senior year in high school.
A large part of what made the trip to Rwanda so memorable was a combination of Carl’s leadership talents, combined with our wonderful team (16 educators, 1 student, 1 pastor), the Iris Guest House (our cozy home-base), our bus driver Peter, our frequent tour guide and shopping companion Johnson – and the beauty of Rwanda, “land of a thousand hills.”
As jet-lagged as we were upon arriving at the hotel (I’d been traveling almost two days (from Sacramento to JFK to Qatar to Uganda to Rwanda), we quickly unpacked, met out front for a getting-to-know-you activity, and then headed out and up the hill for a walking tour of our neighborhood en route to a local cafe for our first dinner together. I think we were all drawn into the beauty of Kigali as we walked past the French Embassy, the President’s Compound, the Hotel des Mille Collines (AKA Hotel Rwanda), all accented by lush tropical gardens. A perfect start to an amazing journey.
Day 1 – The next morning, our first full day in Rwanda, we stepped into the recent past with a trip to Kigali’s Genocide Memorial. Before entering, Carl reminded us to intentionally take “positive snapshots” throughout the day to balance images from a site that memorializes a tragic event.
The Memorial serves as the final resting place for over 250,000 victims of the genocide and provides a window into the brutality of this horrifying event. But the Memorial also includes an education center and a beautiful garden that offers visitors, many of them survivors of the genocide, a peaceful place to honor those who died and to find strength in their daily lives to keep moving forward. Click here for a interactive Google street view from a section of the gardens.
So although this trip may already sound like “dark tourism” (“travel to places historically associated with death and tragedy” – Wikipedia), Carl guided discussions on why it is important “not to hate evil more that you love good.” No matter what site we were visiting, we had only to look around and see what a vibrant country and culture Rwanda is today.
Case in point: From the Kigali Genocide Memorial, our next stop was the Kigali Public Library, a beautiful space, from the entry space to the rooftop cafe.
From the Library, it was on to the Belgian Memorial, which honors the ten Belgian UN peacekeepers murdered early in the genocide by Hutu extremists hoping to spark the exodus of the UN forces. Their goal was achieved, clearing the way for a full-scale genocide to quickly explode.
As we traveled across Kigali on our way back to our hotel and a fabulous dinner, the group bonding was clearly happening. Between our debriefing of the day’s events, Carl’s pointing out key sites from the past and present (including his former home and neighborhood), and the regular injection of humor and hope, our bus became as much a home base to us as the Iris Guest House.
Following a pattern set on this first day of exploring Rwanda, every day was a near magical combination and balance of stepping into and studying Rwanda’s dark past but also marveling at and celebrating the resilient spirit and determination of a country to unite as one people.
On Day 2, our first stopping point was Nyamata Church, a short drive from Kigali in the Bugasera region, to where over 10,000 Tutsi had fled, believing the church and grounds would be a safe haven. That was not the case. There were less than 100 survivors. Within the church, there are over 6,000 bodies buried – men, woman, and children – all victims of a brutal, brutal attack by the Interahamwe (the militia supported by the Hutu-led government). The church also includes a stand-alone coffin that is a memorial to Mugando, a young woman whose violent murder was proceeded by a violent rape, too often included in the genocide toolkit.
As we gathered in Nyamata’s peaceful garden to reflect on what had transpired at this site during the genocide, children from the school next door came out for recess. Joyful voices, laughter, and soccer served as a reminder that Rwanda is indeed moving forward.
How did we find the good after a morning spent at Nyamata? We climbed back into our bus and headed down the road to Mayanga to visit the Millennium Village, a project started in 2005 by a group of visionary professors from Columbia University who sought to improve rural, impoverished areas of Africa by creating sustainable villages through agriculture, education, healthcare, and local business start-ups. The project includes a reconciliation village, where currently about 300 Tutsi and Hutu live side by side, both survivors and perpetrators of the genocide.
We gathered together in a shaded area and listened to villagers share their stories. Silas, a perpetrator, shared that he lives next door to a pastor – whose family he murdered. He shared how the pastor taught him about the power of forgiveness. Silas’s testimony was followed by Lorensia’s, a strong woman whose husband was killed during the genocide. Following the testimonies, we mingled with the villagers, including beautiful children and a dynamic group of women weavers (whose baskets are now proudly displayed in my home).
Another highlight from the afternoon included a visit to the Millennium Village Center, where we were treated to music and dance from local teenagers. What I didn’t realize until after their performance was that we were witnessing another step forward for Rwanda: women are now allowed to play the drums, which happens about mid-way through the dance (shown in second clip):
Day 3 – Had I traveled to Rwanda on my own, I probably would have passed on visiting Prison 1930 (Nyarugenge Prison), based on my U.S. prison mindset. But from the moment we entered the grounds, I knew I was witnessing a lesson our country could learn from Rwanda. Prison 1930 was constructed by Rwanda’s Belgian colonizers. Prior to colonization, “Gacaca” was Rwanda’s system of restorative justice, a system the country has since revived, in which villagers sit together to decide on a fair consequence for a crime. Today, Prison 1930 has moved from punitive justice to restorative justice.
As our bus approached the prison gates, we could see visiting family members entering the grounds – with an absence of security checks. We were warmly greeted by Pelloy Gakwaya*, Director of the Rwandan Justice System. *Note: Rwanda has a 30% rule that requires businesses, including government, to hire a minimum of 30% female employees.
As we walked across the courtyard, what we did not see were shackles, guns, or clubs. Family members came bearing gifts. Joyful greetings and conversations were happening. I had to remind myself that I was in a prison.
The purpose of our visit was to meet with three inmates who were “genocideiers.” We entered a large conference room where Pelloy introduced us to Olive, director of Prison 1930. Olive explained that today’s prison system is structured on community life outside the prison walls. The system provides job training, support groups, counseling, opportunities for service learning, and even leadership roles.
We were joined shortly by three prisoners (2 males, 1 female), all three imprisoned for their roles in the genocide. Sezibera (male) shared his crime of distributing guns and being a genocide leader, although he lost his position for harboring a Tutsi in his home. He asked that we tell the stories of the genocide and bring it to the world. Mulamini (female), who spoke beautiful English, shared about growing up as a Hutu in the 1970’s. She recalled school days when teachers promoted hateful anti-Tutsi propaganda. Although she was married to a Tutsi, who was able to escape with their children, Mulamini joined the government forces to avoid being accused of being a sympathizer. She currently serves as the president of the prisoners’ council and is also the director of the unity and reconciliation club for the women’s section of the prison. Mulamini requested that, as educators, we think about what we share with our students, who often look to their teachers for truth. Like Sezibera, she also asked that we become a voice for the stories of the genocide.
The third prisoner, Gregoire, needs his own paragraph. Having read I’m not Leaving, I knew about the commanding officer whose troops surrounded the Gisimba Orphanage (Day 5 visit) with the plan to slaughter all who were hiding. Carl had also shared with us that two years ago he visited the prison, met with and – 20 years later – recognized Gregoire as that commanding officer. At that time, Carl found it difficult to even have a conversation with Gregoire. Two years later, they entered the conference room together. In his testimony, Gregoire admitted that a plan had been in place to kill Carl. Today he gives thanks for Carl’s heroism and for all he did for Rwanda. Carl responded by telling him he looks forward to joining him on the journey of forgiveness. This is Carl. This is restorative justice. This is Rwanda.
Day 4 – We boarded our bus at 5:30 this morning to head to Akagera National Park, picking up Johnson on the way. Johnson, now 31, lost his entire family during the genocide. Part of the loss included watching his mother and baby sister murdered at a roadblock. Having survived the genocide as a 9-year-old orphan, he still managed to complete his secondary schooling and move on to college, with a year spent in an intensive English program at Texas Christian University. His English is excellent. His story is inspiring. His tour guiding skills are exceptional.
The hippos had a huge presence and made it known.
A day at Akagera National Park was almost a total break from our genocide studies. Although the park is still recovering from a devastating loss of wildlife during the genocide, the government is actively working to restore Akagera to its pre-1994 rich ecosystem.
The trip back to Kigali included a beautiful setting sun. Being located so close to the equator, every day the sun starts to rise at 6:00 a.m. and set at 6:00 p.m. (“6 up; 6 down”).
Day 5 – Sunday in Kigali – Following breakfast at the Iris (love starting the day with Rwandan coffee, fresh mango juice, and pastries!), a group of us walked down our hill and over to the Pariossee Sainte Famille Church to attend a morning mass. There are many stories from the genocide regarding the role of Catholic clergy – as upstanders, bystanders, and even perpetrators.
Although Sainte Famille was not always a safe haven during the genocide, attending a mass there today is definitely a joyful event, with singing and dancing in the aisles an integral part of the experience. The walk back to the Iris was a time to share what we had seen and learned in our first days in Rwanda.
Next stop: A shopping expedition to the Kigali Market, where we spent two hours, but could have easily spent more time browsing the endless aisles of merchandise. Having Johnson join us and mentor us in the art of bartering was an added bonus. I decided the best way to bring home the colors of Rwanda would be through their bright, bold, stunning fabrics.
From the Kigali Market, we headed to the Gisimba Orphanage. I will remember this stop in our journey for a long time to come. Johnson would now transition from being our market place guide to helping us step back in time to 1994, when as a 9-year old, he witnessed and lived through the genocide. We gathered outside a window where Johnson vividly remembers looking out and seeing Carl coming down the hill with water and supplies.
For the orphans at Gisimba, escaping the sounds and acts of violence surrounding the orphanage was not possible, as Johnson shares in this short clip (my apologies for not turning the phone from vertical to horizontal).
Johnson also shared about Damas Gisimba, director of the orphanage, who was a courageous upstander, putting his life on the line daily to protect the children – and a small group of adults also hidden away in a tiny room. Because of Damas, the Gisimba orphanage had truly become a supportive, nurturing, and safe home.
Catching Carl by surprise, Johnson completed our tour of the grounds by leading us into a room filled with people – some of them orphans at Gisimba during the genocide – who wanted to thank Carl for what he had done for the orphanage. Many of us reached for Kleenex as we watched the former orphans step up to embrace Carl and share their memories and stories. How do you thank someone who risked his life over and over to pass through roadblocks to bring food, water, and blankets to the orphans? The group acknowledged Carl as “the sun in the middle of horror who gave us hope” and presented him with a beautiful painting that symbolizes his legacy.
Halfway through our Rwanda journey and already so much to celebrate!
Day 6 – Murambi – As we boarded the bus for our 3-hour drive to the Murambi Genocide Memorial, site of one of the most brutal mass murders of the genocide, we knew this would not be an easy visit. We began a discussion on how sites can have harsh memories, but if we look back at our evening celebration at Gisimba Orphanage, it is possible to create new memories, happy memories alongside the bad. We cannot erase the bad memories, but we can balance them with the good.
As we arrived at Murambi, I tried to hang on to the many beautiful people, sites, and events I had been inspired by thus far. Looking for the good is a challenge at Murambi, which before the genocide was a school. As with churches, many Tutsi mistakenly believed they would be safe on school grounds. On April 16, of the 65,000 who fled to the school, 45,000 were murdered. Almost all who escaped were killed within the next few days.
What is unique about this genocide memorial is that as you tour the classrooms, whole bodies are on display, half-decomposed, mummified by lime, which preserved and turned the bodies white. Out of respect for the dead, we were asked not to take pictures. To see the skeletal remains of so many men, women, and children, who in a single day, lost their lives is difficult to take in.
As I wandered through the exhibit hall, I came upon the unforgettable words of Feliciene Ntabengwa:
We ended our tour of Murambi with time to walk the grounds, take in the beauty of the surrounding hills, and quietly reflect on a tragedy that should never be forgotten.
Our trip back to Kigali included a stop at Sweet Dreams, Rwanda’s one-and-only ice cream shop. We needed that after leaving Murambi. Thank goodness for inspirational stories that include ice cream. The shop is another success story and step forward for the women of Rwanda. The Sweet Dreams documentary tells of Rwanda’s first women’s drumming group. And the ice cream? Delightful!
Day 7 – By now I should have figured that we would be heading off to another day of unforgettable sights and interactions. Our first stop was a visit to the home of Damas Gisimba. Damas was too ill to join us for the Orphanage reunion, so we came to him. For Damas, having his life-long friend Carl and a group of teachers gathered on his porch was a “moment from the heart.”
Our next stop was at MindLeaps, a life-changing organization developed and supported by New York City choreographer Rebecca Davis. The mission statement says it all:
MindLeaps creates dance and educational programs for street children and out-of-school youth in post-conflict and developing countries. MindLeaps uses a kinesthetic-based curriculum to improve the cognitive skills of youth to ensure they can go to school, enter the workplace and leap forward in life.”
Kigali’s program currently supports close to 100 street children, ranging from 9-18 years old. MindLeaps bridges the many divides that homeless children too commonly face. When a child enrolls in the program, the MindLeaps staff provides meals, requires attendance in English and computer classes, and brings the joy, art, and discipline of dance into that child’s life. Children who remain in the program and thrive have the opportunity to be sponsored at a secondary boarding school.
We happened to be visiting MindLeaps on home visits day, which meant we were able to split up and join a teacher and a MindLeaps’ student for a walk to the student’s “home.” Travel colleague Kelly Rosati and I joined English teacher Innocent and 12-year old Joseph. Our first stop was at a small stall to purchase rice and beans for the family. We then stepped off the main street and began to wind our way up a steep hillside of mud huts. Joseph lived at the top of the hill, with his mother Josephine and two sisters.
Josephine welcomed us into their one-room home. Despite a lack of common amenities such as water or electricity, she was grateful for this family space. She praised MindLeaps and how this special program could provide a promising future for Joseph. She also praised the work of President Kagame, whose commitment to help improve living conditions made it possible for her to receive free HIV meds.
We boarded the bus for our final visit of the day: the Magelegele TIG Camp. We picked up Pelloy (prison director) on the way. The Magelegele TIG is one of 9 TIG camps remaining in Rwanda and houses 124 prisoners. TIG is a French word for “work camp,” but with the concept of performing work for the general public. Entering the camp was another eye-opening experience. Again, it’s hard for me to imagine “joyful” and “prisoners” in the same sentence. As our bus pulled up and we began to unload, we were greeted by an energizing welcome, as the video below captures:
There is no fence surrounding the TIG. The camp guards are not armed. The camp prisoners maintain a garden, prepare meals – as well as work on projects out in the community. On Sundays they can put on civilian clothing and attend local churches. They are also allowed 10 days per year to return home to their families. Restorative justice in action.
As we headed back to Kigali, just when it seemed an amazing day could not be any more amazing, Carl shared that we had a dinner reservation at Heaven. To find out more about this 5-star restaurant, founded by two expats determined to contribute to Rwanda’s rebuilding, I recommend A Thousand Hills to Heaven. The Millennium Village is also a result of their vision and hard work. The restaurant’s stunning views and fabulous food were truly the icing on an extraordinary day.
Day 8 – Our nickname for Carl was “master key” because he opened so many doors for us. Day 8 was no exception. Our first outing was to the Presidential Compound, where, after passing through security, we were graciously welcomed to sit and meet with Clare Akamanzi, Director of Strategic Planning. Over tea and breakfast snacks, she led a discussion on President Kagame’s vision for Rwanda:
- Unite – one people; everyone has a part of everything
- Accountability – to each other; the government to the people
- Thinking big – with overcoming poverty a connecting thread
Kagame has set a goal of “one cow per family,” improving education, improving health care. The stats are already impressive: 95% of Rwandan children are attending primary school; 90% of the population has health insurance; malaria has been reduced by 70%.
Clare also addressed the controversial question of President Kagame serving a third term: “Why take away your biggest asset?”
Her message for our students:
“Be concerned. Know what happened in Rwanda.”
“Look at how people rise against all odds, like a plant rising from ashes.”
The U.S. Embassy is a short drive from the from the Presidential Compound and was our second stop of the morning. We had the privilege of meeting with Ambassador Erica J. Barks-Ruggles. The Ambassador compared Rwanda to an onion: “Pull off a layer and you find more. Every time you think you understand what’s happening, something new arises.” She also stated that Rwandans who are over 22 have PTSD. “You can’t get over the genocide because it’s absorbed in your own story.”
The question of teaching Rwandan students about the genocide was raised. It is supposed to be taught in grade 6. I can’t imagine a more challenging curriculum. How do you teach a topic when both the victims and perpetrators are alive and present?!
Our last stop was to visit Pastor Seraya, one of Carl’s larger-than-life heroes, “the best example of servant leadership.” During the genocide, Pastor Seraya, also with the Adventist Church, was targeted by the Interahamwe because he had lived in the Congo and spoke English, two traits common to the rebel RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) forces. The pastor and his wife hid in Carl’s home. On a daily basis, the pastor provided guidance and advice to Carl. His wife left the safety of their home almost daily to forage and bargain for food and supplies.
Pastor Seraya’s message for educators:
“Moving on is to forget; moving forward is to learn from.”
“The power of the word is like a fire. If it is a kind word, it warms. If it is a negative word, it destroys.”
Day 9 – On this morning of our last full day in Rwanda, we set out for what we knew would be a tough visit: the Mahama Refugee Camp, “home for now” for over 20,000 refugees from Burundi. But how amazing that about midway on our drive, we noticed a team of cyclists coming up the hill, quickly gaining on our bus. Carl called to Peter to pull over. We were about to witness the Rwandan Men’s National Cycling team in action – a team that rose from the ashes to move Rwanda into the Olympic arena (You really want to watch this short trailer!), demonstrating that anything is possible.
Before entering the refugee camp, we stopped first at at a newly constructed school built by the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in collaboration with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The school is for the refugee children, but also for the local Rwandan children from the surrounding community. This week was actually a holiday for the students, but a group of students arrived to take advantage of special classes to prepare for upcoming national exams. Thanks to the combined efforts of ADRA and UNHCR, the students have access to many services, including tutoring, lunches, and uniforms.
As I walked through several classrooms, I saw the power of words (via chalk) to portray tough realities, but also to inspire more promising futures.
The school visit served as an introduction to the Mahama Refugee Camp. Like the school, Mahama was quickly constructed in 2015 in response to the wave of refugees entering from Burundi. Our guides gave us a brief overview of the camp and program and then invited us to tour the camp. We were asked not to take photos, but this short YouTube video will give you an idea of how quickly the camp has grown over the year.
The camp is organized in a progression of housing options. Refugees enter the camp in what are referred to as “hanger tents,” long rows of connected tents, with many families under the same extended canvas roof. After screening for health issues and completing the registration process, they move on to more house-like tent structures, which shelter two families, separated by a canvas dividing sheet. The goal is for refugees to eventually move to semi-permanent homes, which they help construct.
Again, the UNHCR and ADRA work together to provide food, medical services, and education. I think much credit also goes to Rwanda, accepting and welcoming refugees when the country is still recovering from their own national crisis. Life is tough in Mahama, but refugees were maximizing and making do with very little. I wish I had a picture of their tiered wedding-cake-style gardens, for instance, which were scattered throughout the camp. Vegetables and herbs were planted in each layer, but watering happened on the top layer, so it could trickle down to the other layers. Such a practical use of space and water.
One of my favorite Mahama stories was shared by fellow traveler Tim Redmond. As we walked around the camp, we drew quite a crowd of children. Tim was walking alongside our colleague Kelly, who was jotting down notes (in cursive). Behind Kelly, a young girl was following – and fluently reading aloud Kelly’s notes. Despite the challenges of being a refugee, this child was already reading in several languages. Together, Rwanda, UNHCR and ADRA are making the dream of better life a possibility for Mahama’s refugees.
Our last stop of the day was to ADRA headquarters, just outside the camp to drop off donations we brought with us from the States for the refugees. I know that my donation of clothing and art supplies will be put to good use and greatly appreciated. So proud to be a part of this incredible group of educators and humanitarians!
Day 10 – Everyday of our journey, Carl would remind us that we would witness both the worst and the best of humanity. Our last day was a huge dose of the best. Our drive to the airport included a stop at an outlying neighborhood that was hosting a cow-distribution ceremony. The ceremony was sponsored by Carl’s friend Amiel, a fellow ADRA worker and genocide survivor, who, in 2008, founded Life Lifting Hands. Across the region, Amiel’s team helps buy cows from neighboring communities to distribute to needy families, one cow per family. A cow represents a lifeline to a poor Rwandan family, as it provides multiple benefits (milk for children, income from selling milk, manure for vegetable gardens, and ultimately money for selling’s a cow’s offspring).
Such a joyous occasion, with music and dancing throughout the ceremony – and Kigali children learning a few new dance moves:
Taking part in the cow distribution ceremony was a perfect exit ticket to an unforgettable trip.
As we headed into the Kigali Airport to start the long flight(s) home, I think we all realized that, given the awe-inspiring sights and experiences of the last 10 days and the bond we had formed as a group, in many ways our journeys were just beginning. Thanks to email, Facebook, phone calls, and videoconferencing, the shared conversations continue, starting with the topic of how we will incorporate the lessons and reflections from Rwanda into our teaching assignments. I’ve already connected with several outstanding high school teachers in my district to discuss projects, resources, and curriculum to ensure that students know what happened in Rwanda, the importance of looking for the good, and understanding that a single person can cross the line from bystander to upstander to change the course of history.
I wake up every morning so very grateful for having made the trip to Rwanda and looking for ways to pass on the experience, inspiration, and lessons learned.