Our group in Rwanda

An update from Roza, a senior majoring in communication studies and political science:

On August 3, 2012, I embarked on one of the most unforgettable journeys of my lifetime when I got on a plane with a group of SMU students and faculty to travel to Rwanda. I walked away learning so much about Rwanda’s history after spending an incredible 10 days in one of Africa’s most developed countries.

I decided to go to Rwanda because traveling on one of the Embrey Human Rights trips has always been one of my goals. Luckily, my proposal to conduct an Unbridled Project in Rwanda was approved through the Engaged Learning office, so I was simultaneously conducting research. The following blog posts you are about to read represent only the highlights of what happened during our trip. Due to inconsistent Internet access, I could not blog daily, but I will be sure to summarize the highlights.

Beautiful Rwanda

The view from the Urukundo Home for Children

First impression of Rwanda: what a gorgeous country. Many of us on the trip could not stop talking about its beauty. This mountainous country contains vegetation of every kind – unique plants and trees that we in America see only seasonally. No matter how many pictures I snapped, none of them does justice to the beauty packed into one of the smallest countries in the world.

Many times I would stop and think, I wonder whether Rwandans know how beautiful their country is or whether they take it for granted. When your eyes have been exposed to flat land and minimal green for most of your life, you cannot help but stare in amazement at the landscape, and that is what I did the entire time.  If there is one thing the 20 of us on the trip unanimously agreed upon, it was the beauty of this country, hands down.  I am so grateful my eyes were exposed to a part of the world I probably would never have seen without the financial assistance of my Unbridled Project grant and my Embrey Human Rights scholarship.

The Children

It is one thing to go on about the beauty of the country, but I cannot blog about my experience without mentioning the people. After all, I doubt anyone can fully enjoy their experience if they encountered a beautiful country with unpleasant people. I am happy to report that was nowhere near our experience. Rwandans are some of the most hospitable and heartwarming people you will ever meet; for the most part, my experience has shown me that this is true of almost all Africans.

Of all the people in Rwanda, the youth are my favorite to talk about! At first my eyes were primarily fixated on the landscape and agriculture of the country. I kept admiring the endless banana trees and the acres and acres of rice and corn that women were harvesting at dawn. But after about a day or two, I looked most forward to the children’s company, and I will dearly miss them.

It is probably accurate to say that another consensus our group came to is how absolutely adorable the children are. We all fell in love with them, and some members of our group even stayed in Rwanda to volunteer at Urukundo Home for Children. Wherever we went, the kids had their hands ready to wave while cracking big smiles. When we stopped at a site and got out of our jeeps, all of the children around the area would come running to us. And despite our inability to communicate with them and vice versa, there still existed this sense of understanding that transcends cultural and language barriers.

Apart from how adorable, joyful and loving the children are, I think one of the main reasons I fell in love with the children and am unable to stop talking or thinking about them is because of what they represent. As cliché as this sounds, these children are the future of this country. In many countries that have not experienced genocide, this may not mean much, but for Rwanda in some ways this means everything.

When I look into the eyes of the children, I no longer see the past — overcome with so much bloodshed, hate and ethnic division. Instead, I see the new history Rwanda has the opportunity to write – a vibrant story of love, unity and peace. This gets me so excited even just thinking about it, because there is an urgent need and desire for Rwandans and the international community to rewrite the country’s shameful history.

Just in the few days I was there, I was able to witness the type of healing that children can offer. On this trip it was inevitable that we experienced serious emotions because we were exposed to burial sites and genocide memorials. However, whenever I was blessed with the opportunity to see the children’s beautiful faces or interact with them, I felt deep emotions. I could be in a state of sadness or deep contemplation after visiting a genocide memorial site, but immediately those emotions shifted when I saw the children.

I don’t say this to lessen the weight of the burial sites and genocide memorials because the history of genocide is one that ought not be forgotten and one that I know I will never forget. But I say this to say that when I look in the faces of these innocent children, I am given a new lens to see Rwanda and its future. The children are the joy and hope that is in store for the present and future of the country. I can only hope and pray that Rwandans will come together and demand a better future for the sake of their children.

Genocide Memorial Sites

Although visiting the memorial sites and burials was not easy, I am very thankful I did. We visited the Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre, where over 45,000 Tutsi – including children and infants – were murdered. What was advertised as a safe haven for Tutsis is now a mass grave preserving thousands of skeletons and mummified bodies of those murdered.

Each memorial was more disturbing than the next. At Nyamata Memorial Site, more than 45,000 victims are buried. In this particular region the Tutsi were told to hide in churches, and in a matter of two days, thousands of them were massacred.

As a believer, I found places like Nyamata very disturbing because the last thing I want to learn is how churches were used to carry out genocide. I can only imagine the thousands of families fleeing to the churches fully convinced they would be safe in the sanctuary only to have their bodies mutilated in a matter of seconds in their nice clothes and with their children, families and friends. Each site had its own story of horror and bloodshed, but they all portrayed the same theme – nearly a million innocent victims wiped out of their country, leaving behind only their skeletons and mourning family members. And that is only if they were lucky enough to not have had their bodies burned or dumped in the river, or to have any of their family members survive.

The Nelson Mandela Village

The site that put most of us in tears wasn’t where we saw the dead, but where we visited a room full of women survivors. At the Nelson Mandela Village we heard women who survived the genocide but had been raped. Rape was used in 1994 as a weapon of war to terrorize women and intentionally afflict suffering on them and their future children. Consequently, there are many women who survived the genocide but who carry the burden of AIDS or other diseases. So do most of their children, if they do give birth.

Despite the suffering and constant reminder of the most dehumanizing action performed on them, these women greeted us with so much courage and strength. It really is amazing how a room full of resilient women can change the atmosphere and give hope to hopelessness.

Looking at the faces of these women and thinking about what they have been subjected to both emotionally and physically left me in tears and angry at how unfair the world has been and continues to be toward women. But, by the end of our visit, these women’s strong personalities left all of us in smiles and drying our tears.  When I feel hopeless or angry, I will think of the women from the Nelson Mandela Village because if they can have so much strength and optimism after everything they went through, there is no reason I cannot maintain my hope.

Overall, I had an incredible time in Rwanda and I am so grateful that I was given the opportunity to visit a country with such a rich history. I wish a large part of the country’s history wasn’t engulfed with genocide, but as painful and shameful as it is, this history has to be retold. It is important to visit the sites where the bodies of thousands of victims lie, to speak with women from the Nelson Mandela Village and to interact with survivors and the new generation of children. These trips are not only important for our education, but they also pay respect to the victims and allow visitors to acknowledge and honor the survivors.

At the Nelson Mandela Village