Student Leadership Initiative, Africa

Seven members of SMU’s recently formed Student Leadership Initiative (SLI) are in Rwanda, Uganda and Johannesburg during May 2012. The students are researching human rights issues and empowerment solutions for three African countries recovering from decades of genocide, war, famine, disease and apartheid. Pat Davis, associate director of the Embrey Human Rights Program, is accompanying them on the program.

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Day 2 in Rwanda

An update from Katie, a sophomore majoring in dance, international studies and human rights:

Exhausted – emotionally and physically. I can’t believe we’ve only been here 2 days, I’ve already seen so much, learned so much.… Today was a bit similar to yesterday in terms of a heavy, contemplative morning followed by a hopeful afternoon full of big, new ideas and a movement towards positive change. So much driving, so many people, so much Africa.

This morning we visited 2 churches where Tutsis piled in seeking safety and protection, only to make systematic slaughter easier for the Hutus. Grenades, clubs, and machetes. I have no words. I have seen more skulls and smelled more bones than I ever have or ever will again. And they weren’t preserved bones placed neatly behind glass. They were just right there, stacked on shelves, inches away from the skin on either side of my face. I saw piles and piles and piles of clothes – torn, bloody, and dirty – heaped onto church pews, brushing my thighs as I walked through. I saw a wall, bloodied from infants’ bodies being slammed into the bricks. Babies, held by their legs and slammed into the bricks. I stood in that Sunday school classroom, sick. I teach Sunday school. I was there, cowered in a corner, wrapping children, babies, in my arms, calling upon the Lord and praying not to be murdered. It was me, I was there. Because my sisters were. What’s the difference?

Words are useless here. Until you stand underground in a narrow and musty corridor choked by the smell of bones, knowing that if you tripped and reached out to catch yourself, you’d grab a skull – a real human head that belonged to a real human being – you will never understand.

The disconnect between the Rwanda of mourning and the Rwanda you see today confused my mind and hurt my heart. Within 5 minutes, maybe less, of leaving each memorial site, I was laughing and waving to the children on the side of the road as they walked home from school for lunch, holding hands and wearing their sweet uniforms, pointing and shouting “Muzungu! Muzungu!” (white person). The children – they bring my heart joy. And then I remember that less than my lifetime ago, this was a place of hatred and propaganda – a place of genocide. I don’t think I’ll ever understand. It doesn’t make any sense. I cannot process any more today. This will take time.…

We ate lunch at “Afrika Bite” – this cute house with orange walls and bright green curtains, converted into a little diner. Of course, I had passion fruit juice (so yummy!) and another plate full of unidentifiable African delicacies. With lunch came rain again, but my straightener broke (even with a plug adapter, it totally blew out) so my hair was already wavy despite the moisture. Oh well – God is good and He thinks I’m beautiful. Rain is a good thing.

The afternoon brought us to KIST (Kigali Institute of Science and Technology), the only university in Kigali – the much larger national university is in Butare. We met with the dean of electronics and electrical engineering – a highly intelligent man just as interested in our university programs as we were in his. I was very impressed – beautiful campus and great facilities. KIST is dedicated to providing a high quality education to improve Rwanda’s overall skill level, thus increasing economic development. We  toued the electrical engineering labs, and to be honest, I was bored to tears.… I have neither knowledge nor interest in anything electrical or engineering related. Corbin (having just graduated from SMU as an electrical engineer) had a great time though, so yay for him. My mind and emotions probably needed that break.

After our time there, we went onto “Les Enfants de Dieu” (Children of God). It’s a rehabilitation center for boys living on the streets, but completely different than any other system I’ve ever seen or heard of. It’s truly revolutionary. Rafiki, the amazing and selfless project manager of Les Enfants, spent a good deal of time explaining the program to us and the philosophies behind it. The children themselves are actually in complete control of the entire project – it is split up into 8 ministries (the ministry of administration, health, home affairs, sports and culture, etc.), each headed by a minister, a boy between the ages of 15 and 18. Rafiki explained that is is not enough to take a boy off the streets, clean him up and feed him a hot meal. That will do nothing for him in the long run.… With this system, the boys gain confidence and the ability to politely and authoritatively express ideas, learn to make responsible and consequential decisions, and transform into men capable of becoming leaders in their communities. How much more value do these skills have than the traditional form of assistance – a bed, food, and medicine? These lessons and experiences will carry them throughout the rest of their lives and flow on to their families, their children, the future generations. I’m inspired and encouraged, to say the least.

Day 2 has worn me out, yet again, but successfully shaken me up and stretched my perceptions. I can feel God reshaping my worldview with each moment that passes here in Africa.

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