Signs of Hope

As I traveled around Rwanda, I saw many signs of hope in the midst of extremely difficult circumstances.

Cyangugu Prefecture

Throughout Rwanda, there is much construction underway. Houses, schools, churches, and offices are being built everywhere you go. One of the most common sites is the umudugudugu, what we might call a housing development or project. Many of these have not been successful. An agency comes in and builds houses in the middle of nowhere. Even offering them for free, they cannot get anyone to move into them. Why not? There is no market or school or medical care nearby.

In the prefecture of Cyangugu, near the town of Kamembe, on the shores of Lake Kivu, there are two umudugudus facing each other across a valley through which runs the main road. On one side of the road is Kamembe town with its daily market, elementary and secondary schools, the Anglican cathedral, business offices, etc. On the other side of the road is the Catholic cathedral, the stadium, prison, two courts and now, a newly-built health clinic. Even young school-age children on one side of the valley can easily walk to school on the other side. Some of the houses being built are fully subsidized by the government. They are small but functional. Others of the houses are being built by people who received the land from the government but have the means to build a home more to their liking. And so, on the hill where the Anglican Church has built the new medical clinic, there are 4,000 people of various economic levels living together.

The medical clinic will be staffed by two women, close friends Clementine and Christine, Tutsi and Hutu. In every project it is doing—a farm with a veterinary clinic that will demonstrate the raising of exotic cattle, a beautiful guest house on the shore of the lake, a vocational school to train youth in carpentry, computers and other skills—the church is including visible signs and demonstrations of reconciliation.

One of the biggest concerns of those I met in Cyangugu is how to empower women and youth to make a living. They are working to train women in marketable skills so they can make, raise or grow products that they can sell in the market. Within the Diocese is the island of Nkombo, which is inhabited by the Basho people (who are neither Hutu nor Tutsi). The island is very small and the soil is almost completely depleted from over-farming. A group of young men have gotten together and are trying to raise money for a project to buy a fishing boat. One boat (actually, three boats hooked together) would provide employment for 9-12 young men and the fish in Lake Kivu are in high demand both in Kigali and in Bukavu.

Other signs of hope I saw were small things: cattle-herding boys who were able to laugh and play, a rebuilt waterfront hotel, educated women concerned about and working with less-educated women, people of different classes, experiences and family backgrounds worshipping together.

Butare Prefecture

The women of the Mother’s Union in Butare meet each week for a morning to pray, sing and do crafts together. Sitting on the lawn in front of the cathedral, they are knitting and making baskets that they will sell in the market. The Mother’s Union of Shyembe parish have gotten a small piece of land from the government which they are farming together, again to raise produce that they will sell in the market. The youth group has an adjoining piece of land for the same purpose. Leonidas, the young priest there, is negotiating with the local council to be able to farm some adjoining land that is currently fallow. The Mother’s Union in Kibabara parish has a goat project. They bought ten goats with a small amount of money the Diocese gave them. Each goat went to one woman who raised it. When it became pregnant and produced another female goat, that one was passed on to another woman in the group. They now have around 20 goats.

One parish is participating in a “Food for Work” program sponsored by the World Food Programme (WFP). Several villages, comprised of a few hundred people, are learning to do terraced farming and in the meantime receive food aid. The site for food distribution is the Diocesan Bible College, which is a new program they started to train clergy. Part of their training program is to participate in this Food for Work program.

CORVT, the Ecumenical Center for the Popularization of Theology, is based at the University of Butare. They have developed a three-year, in-depth program for local parishes to study themes of reconciliation in the Bible. The course is ecumenical in nature and is being actively used by Presbyterian and Episcopal churches at the moment. Each small study group consists of 6-10 people who are consciously made up of both men and women, Hutu and Tutsi. In the next phase of the project, they want to have joint Presbyterian/Episcopal groups.

The daughter of the Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in Butare married a Muslim man while I was there. He did not convert to Christianity and she did not convert to Islam.

Last evening when I returned to the Guest House, the lights in the cathedral were on. I was standing outside here talking with a young man and suddenly a truckload of loud youth pulls up, they all pile out and go into the church and start singing, loudly. “What is happening,” I ask? “It is an all-night prayer meeting,” I am told. “They are praying for the country.”[1]

Kigali Prefecture

The Diocese of Kigali held a youth camp at Nyamata for two weeks. Nyamata in Bugesera had been home to one of the largest concentrations of Tutsis in the country. They had been sent there by the government when it was all woods and swamp with the expectation that their cattle would not be able to live and they would then suffer and eventually die. A major massacre had taken place in Bugesera in 1992 and both the church complex at Nyamata and the church at Ntarama a few miles away were sights of major massacres during the 1994 genocide.

These young people were so serious, so very serious. The camp had a time in the late afternoon each day for sports, but none of the young people who grew up in Rwanda were interested in sports. This group, between 15 and 25 years old, clearly felt a heavy burden, a deep responsibility to change their country. The day I visited the camp, they were having a song and drama competition. They were not interested in sports, but they would sing all day long if they could. The afternoon speaker was not able to come and so they sang for almost two hours to pass the time. And the songs they sang were amazing in their depth and directness:

Truth got lost and then peace disappeared…

Many people today are like Samson, they are told lies and betrayed…

The cross is not that wooden thing you see, but it is those things that burden you…

It is very sad to go home dirty when you have been to the well…

Byumba Prefecture

I visited a secondary school in the parish of Muhura in Byumba Prefecture to see a generator that was donated by an Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, CA. A year earlier, when the church donated the money for the generator, this school was an orphanage. After putting thousands of children in large orphanages in the months after the genocide, many people realized that this was detrimental to the children and it was decided to place children with families wherever possible and convert the orphanages to schools. This was the case in Muhura. In African society, where one gets one’s sense of identity from one’s family, this seems like a particularly wise solution.

The widows group in Byumba parish is so large (300 women and 1 man) that the group had to split in two and each group meets every other week. One of their first decisions was to create a common dress to wear. Now, everyone in the area knows that each of these women belongs to this group—belongs to something, an extremely important symbolic statement. When they were asked what problems they had that they wanted to work together to resolve, one of the very first issues was how to protect their daughters.

Young women with no father, no skills and few chances were very easily seduced by any man with a bit of money and these widows were clear that they did not want their daughters to run off with someone like that. The widows group created a training program to teach the girls how to needlepoint and sew so that they could make things that they could sell in the market. In this way, they would be able to support themselves and would not need to depend on a man. There are 200-300 girls in this program.

Out in the parishes, the church is busy most days. Women are learning to read and write; they are learning to make baskets and mats; they speak with each other about their problems and how to resolve them. They pray, they sing and they dance. One of the most hopeful things I saw in all of Rwanda was people dancing in church—singing loud and moving their bodies and praising God with their whole being.

The Twa (pygmies) have traditionally lived in the forest. They have always been the poorest group in Rwanda (as was also often true elsewhere) and had been servants to the Mwaami and royal family. To the extent they participated in the genocide, they were often bribed by the Hutu militia to kill Tutsis. Now, their traditional homeland, the forest, is virtually non-existent. There are several projects to provide them with “proper” houses, enough land to feed their family, and access to jobs so they can support themselves in modern Rwandan society. The adjustment is not an easy one, however. Their culture is very different from that of most Africans who have had contact with Europeans for the past 100 or more years and they are usually judged as “primitive,” “dirty,” and “stupid.” One of the most difficult tasks is convincing them that there is value in sending their children to school. But here and there, some of them are moving, albeit grudgingly, into a modern world which they did not choose, but which they can no longer avoid.

[1] Personal Journal, 5 September, 1998