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.

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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Never again: A visit to Rwanda’s genocide memorial

An update from Ketetha, a first-year student majoring in computer science and mathematics:

12:25 p.m.

We just left the memorial. For lack of better words, it was touching. There was a full history of Rwanda – from its people’s colonization to the awful genocide to the aftermath and consequences of the “apocalypse.”

I decided to take the tour alone, and I am glad I did. I am one of those people who has trouble crying in front of others. When it comes to serious moments, I need my quiet time to allow myself to feel and let everything soak in.

It is hard for me to understand exactly why those events had to take place. The museum featured videos of people recollecting how their loved ones were murdered and how they came close to death as well. There were glass cases of various weapons that were used to kill the Tutsis – women and children no exception – during the genocide.

The exhibit that shook me the most was one dedicated to children. If only I could describe the faces of these children. Beautiful, bright eyes. Full heads of hair. Innocent grins. Young children who had yet to even begin their lives. A large picture and an information card was dedicated to each child. The card featured the child’s favorite things (drinks, food, games) and interesting facts about them. Some cards shared the children’s goals, like becoming a doctor, and some featured their last words. One child uttered, “The UNAMIR (UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda) will come to save us.”

I gave each child their moment, but it didn’t feel like enough. I felt angry when a group of photographers loudly passed through the room. It isn’t fair. These children’s futures were wiped away because of their identification. No words can explain it, but this must never happen again. Just as propaganda led the Hutus to truly believe the Tutsis needed to be eliminated, the media and propaganda can lead the world to know we should never and can never let a mass murder like the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 happen again.

23:06 p.m.

The memorial continues to provoke thoughts. During dinner, we discussed many important topics that arose throughout the day, including the genocide. Amanda mentioned how many thoughts came later in reflection.

One thing that stuck in my head was when a woman said the majority of people in Rwanda were evil during the genocide. I cannot fathom how people just turned on their neighbors and friends. And this essentially is what happened in all cases. Neighbors and people turning against innocent people who trusted them. It puts into perspective that anyone, with the right fuel, can be capable of murdering another.

I honestly used to believe the world to be this great place of daisies and roses. That naive thought makes it hard to see sites like the Rwanda Genocide Memorial. I am so bothered by the fact that genocide can take place and that there are not enough voices to stop it before it begins.

However, seeing the memorial, especially the growth and current renovation – with all of the guests coming in and out – makes me have hope because people do care. Rwanda is a strong country, I realized today. Even after such a horrifying event, I see strength that I can only admire. Strength I hope to understand someday and learn from. Strength these people are blessed to have.

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Day 1 in Rwanda

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

I just woke up from a nap and I feel wonderful. Still amazed that I’m here, actually here, in Africa. Everywhere I look I see something entirely new, learn something new. I am overwhelmed by new experiences – new tastes, smells sounds. Allison and I just discussed the fact that our plan to passively lose weight while here is definitely a failure – our meals have been so rich and so delicious thus far!

We started our day early and so refreshed from traveling. I slept better than I ever have in a hotel. When we landed last night, the country was clothed in darkness and the hills dotted with lights like stars. So to wake up this morning and step out onto our balcony was a powerful breath of fresh air and disbelief – wow, we’re really in Africa and this place is so incredibly beautiful. After a bit of searching, Allison and I found the complimentary breakfast served on the covered balcony overlooking the city: “Panorama Restaurant.” Coming from flat, flat Texas, hills alone blow me away. I had a roll with a mini packet of Nutella (I know! Brilliant!), absolutely delicious bacon, papaya and pineapple, a hard-boiled egg, yummy coffee et sucre, and two types of juice: strawberry and some other strange red fruit, maybe with beets in it. I just spent way too many lines elaborating on my breakfast, but it was seriously such a great start to my Africa experience…

Then we met our guide, Amon, and his partner, William – they are SO awesome! Full of knowledge, and Amon seems to have friends wherever we go. I feel very safe with him. After leaving our hotel in our two “Volcano Safaris” jeeps, we headed to the Kigali Memorial Center – a cheery morning. I can’t say it was different than I expected, because I truly didn’t set any expectations. I know a lot about the genocide, I do. I’ve read a lot and studied up. But being here? In Rwanda, where it happened? Driving through gorgeous streets that were once jam-packed with machete-mutilated corpses at this time 18 years ago. Talking to real Rwandan people who were really affected by this tragedy. Seeings rooms full of family photos, the real lives and histories of the genocide victims – wedding photos, baby photos, candid shots smiling off into the distance at who knows what. Real people who were really raped and mutilated and murdered by their neighbors, relatives, and friends. We walked through mass graves laden with flowers, housing 250,000 bodies. There’s dignity in their burial, and for that I am thankful. But there was no dignity in their deaths….

The museum was beautiful and very well done. Powerful and informative and real. I felt very small and awkward, so sheltered and naive. A little girl with big dreams but no clue what this world is actually like. Reality check: we live in a broken and sinful world. People are inherently evil and we are nothing without the grace and righteousness of Christ. And no person is exempt from this…. It’s scary. We are separate from God apart from Christ. We are hateful and prejudiced and angry. We are all murderers, whether with our words, thoughts, or actions. It’s all the same. Don’t blame the Hutus. Don’t blame the international community’s ignorance. Blame humanity.


I bought a few treats from the museum gift shop – a beautiful apron, earrings, necklace, and the memorial souvenir book. Purchases I was proud of. Then we went to a fun and yummy lunch at this open-air buffet-style restaurant, Chez John. I drank Orange Fanta and ate a collection of interesting foods – rice, fried bananas, some sort of potato dish, cucumbers, interesting stringy beef – all very filling and satisfying. During lunch, the skies completely opened up and yes, I left my rain jacket in the room. Pouring down rain in Kigali is a fascinating experience. My hair was already a wavy, frazzled mess, so that didn’t matter much, but with the hills and the way the roads are situated, winding around the curved landscapes, it seems like tsunamis of brown water are crashing down the slopes and through the streets. I remembered how my mom used to tell me that God sends the rain because the trees are thirsty. These people are thirsty, too. Then I thought – I’m thirsty just like these people. We’re all thirsty and we just need God to quench our thirst. The trees and the people and me. All of us.

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An update from Hayley, a junior majoring in anthropology and French. She is also blogging here.

Today Ketetha and I got up super early and enjoyed the beautiful Rwanda view before breakfast, which was delicious btw.

Our first stop of the day was the genocide memorial in Kigali, which was powerful to say the least. Outside the memorial are gardens and mass graves, totaling about 250,000 bodies. It was so moving and eerie to see the sheer number of people killed in one place, but the whole memorial was based on hope for the future and honoring the dead, so that made it a bit easier to deal with.

Inside was a history of the genocide complete with witness testimony as well as a series of rooms that contained victims’ pictures, bones, skulls and clothing. I really appreciated how the museum recognized the identity of those killed, which is hard to focus on when there are so many casualties. Looking at the pictures and belongings made me think about these peoples’ lives and the impact they made on the country. The museum was also very interesting in how it portrayed the international community as useless in stopping the violence and how Rwanda has returned to unity today. A truly difficult day, but something I will never forget.

We then went to lunch at Chez John, a buffet where I had delicious rice, plantains, avacados and potatoes. Yum! During lunch the monsoon rains came in and it was crazy to see the rivers of water, red from dirt, flow down the streets in huge quantities.

We went outside the center of the city to a school/community center where kids can take classes and job preparation/skill set courses to improve the chances of getting a supportive job. This place did everything. Our guide Claude showed us the whole facility and talked about the difference that job seminars, education and health programs are making in the community. We wanted to stay for the graduation of 19 students (14-18 years old) from a one-month technology course, but ran out of time.

On a side note, a bunch of kids playing soccer came and hugged us which was the CUTEST thing ever. They were so sweet.

Our final stop was a super-crowded marketplace where Amon, our awesome guide, helped us haggle for prices. I bought some beautiful paper beads. This place was soooo crowded and tiny. I couldn’t believe how much stuff/people were in such a small space. Definitely a culture shock.

After a quick nap we went to dinner at a delicious restaurant called Heaven (which had mostly American customers LOL). I had chicken with peanut sauce and caramel ice cream.  Jimmy was nice enough to pay for our dinner, which was awesome considering a lot of us didn’t have enough Rwandan francs to pay. I can’t believe this is only the first day and we have so much left to look forward to.

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