Remembering Rwanda: Summer 2009

Dear Family and Friends,

I know this letter is long overdue.  After a whirlwind of a summer, I have finally taken the time to share with you some of my Rwanda trip.  Before I do, I want to thank you for the support I have received and felt from each of you.  I am both blessed and humbled by the outpouring of financial donations, encouragement and prayer with which you have so graciously provided me. Many, many thanks.

I toyed with giving you a play-by-play account of what we did, whom we met and what we learned.  But, containing the experience I had into a journalistic account, travel log or the like doesn’t seem to do my time in Rwanda justice. It feels too narrow especially in a place where time was never the essence! So, to share Rwanda with you, I will try my best to tell you what I learned and what I felt, and now, what it is that I (think) I might know.

A page in my Rwanda journal is devoted to a list of words that best characterized this “land of a thousand hills.”  While it seems rather reductionist of me to summarize a nation of such strength and beauty in three words, I’ll do it anyways. For me, Rwanda was gracious, alive and open.  First impressions really are priceless, especially when traveling, and these three words began my word list on Day Two of our trip.  They stick with me and will remain my words for Rwanda.

On that same Day Two when Rwanda became gracious alive and open, our team drove around for some time in our ma-ta-tu (Rwandan word for bus), and I was overwhelmed by the amount of people outside! It sounds naïve, but I wanted to ask the people on the side of the road, “Where are you going?” People were walking (or skipping, or running) barefoot, people were in deep conversation, they were hanging up signs, digging ditches or carrying jugs of water.  People rode up and down the street on bikes, oftentimes with two or three babies in tow.  Even though this day-to-day (that is: the digging, and the carrying and the towing) looked at worst unpleasant and at best humdrum and routine, when we interacted with Rwandans, I thought their life was exciting! Full! And, perhaps most significantly altogether peaceful.   I walked away feeling refreshed and encouraged.  They seemed to embrace life, down to the very moment.  Or maybe, I was just seeing people who were simply convinced that life embraced them—I’m still not really sure which way it might go.

Early on in our visit, we learned about the Rwandan genocide, which took place from mid-April to early July in 1994.  I went to Rwanda with a vague idea of the atrocities that took place, yet visiting the many memorials honoring the 800,000 victims reshaped my perceptions.  One survivor’s story resonated with me in particular when she equated the terror of mid-1994 with a morbid silence.  “For 100 days,” she said, “no one said a word.”  I don’t know that I have ever imagined fear as acutely as I did as our new friend shared further details.  They were gruesome.  I have always found great value in sharing stories.  There is something that (can be) so genuine when people share a bit of his or herself and the listener willingly receives it. Relationship. Connection. The like. Yet as I listened to this young woman’s story, which was like so many other Rwandan survivor stories, I felt overwhelmingly moved yet entirely disconnected.

What do I know? I thought to myself.  What do I know of courage or of hope or of family or of forgiveness? She spoke about these things with such grace and such candor that my eyes welled up. “How easy it is! “ I thought to myself. “How easy it is to feel convicted about these very things our friend spoke of from the comfort of my Waco, Texas apartment in a place where I am supported and encouraged and rest-assured that I will go to bed well-fed.  Writer Anne Lamott says that our most ardent and genuine prayers go something like this: “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” and “Help me, help me, help me.” And in that moment, I thanked God over and over again, for this lady, for her story and for the way it brought me down to my knees.

Learning about the genocide at the beginning of our trip opened me up. It opened me up to experience and to heartache and to the moment because perhaps more than before, I believed that the moment at hand is the only moment we have. And indeed, most of Rwanda I can classify as a series of moments.  The moment that beauty was an old Rwandan woman dressed in bright yellow grabbing my hand and saying “mara-ho.”  The moment that our bus driver, Cyusa (pronounced Choo-sa) told us that he  “would never forget us” and was “full of happy.”  The moment two Rwandan orphans, one named Rose and the other a name that I cannot pronounce, taught me a traditional Rwandan dance.  They were so kind and so patient with me and then all of the sudden, the dance wasn’t awkward anymore, it was fun! The moment that I looked around and saw that everyone was dancing and laughing and dancing some more.  The moment our team found we would, in fact, be performing the song “Father Abraham” in front of a Rwandan congregation.   There were many more full moments like these, most of them brimming with such unique experience that I could barely stand it and sometimes, it felt like I should be able to touch it.

But most of all, Rwanda opened me up to the greatness of our God.  Indeed, part of this characterization is in the most self centered sense, a response to how big the world felt and how small I felt when I was in Rwanda. But the other half has to do with the mysteriousness of our God’s love.

Before I explain, bear with me for a moment. In my social work classes we spent a great deal of time talking about empathy. That is, how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes: honor their experience of course, but with a bit of intuition, or an attempt to conjure up the feelings that the client might be experiencing.   If your client is grieving, take yourself to a time when you suffered great loss.  In other words, invade the mystery of the other a little bit.  Recognize that your experience will never be his or hers, but in the name of service, link a bit of your life and maybe even heart to the one before you.  In Rwanda, I could not do this. It was all mysterious. And it didn’t even feel like I had a right to touch it. I could not touch it.  I was too far away.  In these moments I felt I didn’t know how to relate. I didn’t know how to understand.  There were times when I thought that I didn’t even have a right to listen.  I probably didn’t, but true to their graciousness, the Rwandans shared.

But the really funny thing? In spite of this initial disconnectedness this total foreignness, this “oh-my-goodness my world is being shaken more than I bargained for” kind of feeling, we were all still together.  We played together (a soccer game: Rwandans vs. Americans), laughed together, broke bread together, worked together, danced together and worshipped together.  It was altogether mysterious and beautiful and felt filled with the Spirit of God.  We felt close in the purest kind of way, the kind that transcends self and embraces redemption.  In the gospel of Luke, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “ ‘ The kingdom of God is not to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you’” (Luke 17: 21-22).   Jesus tells us here that the Kingdom of God is within our grasp. Closer than we think.  Maybe right under our very noses. And in Rwanda, there was a holiness that brought such light to those words.

God and all His goodness, all His hopefulness, all His light and His love; all these things that I seek in all the wrong places seemed to just come.  What a blessing! While the vividness of Rwanda has faded a bit, sometimes it seems that the memories rush in as alive and as gracious as the Rwandans themselves.  In the midst of these waves, my cup runs over.

I hope that yours are too.

With Love and Grace,

Sarah

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One thought on “Remembering Rwanda: Summer 2009

  1. >Hi, beautiful writer, beautiful girl, beautiful friend!! You are blogging–hooray!!! Thanks for the letter…LOVED hearing your perspective after a few months of processing! Talk soon. xo

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