They don’t tell you what it’s like before you go. Not really.
I mean, I guess in some way you know in an academic sense. You read and maybe even look at pictures. But pictures can’t capture this place. They can’t predict how much you’ll fall in love and feel at home. And they certainly can’t explain what this place does to your heart – shattering it and healing it and teaching you about grace and redemption that you didn’t know were possible.
It was nearly six years ago that I arrived in Rwanda for the first time – my first visit to Africa. I was with 20 friends – JHUCBS classmates – and when we stepped off the plane in this tiny jewel of East Africa, we were as ready as we could be for three weeks of pro-bono consulting for local social enterprises.
I could write a lot about that January – the project that collapsed around us, dramatic team interactions, long afternoons working from our makeshift office in Bourbon Coffee (the same spot where I’m currently posting this blog), noodling on the roof of the hotel each evening, driving for hours on bumpy dirt roads to visit medical centers that would make you cry, discovering some of the best Chinese and Indian food I’ve ever eaten, getting recruited by the Minister of Health at the last minute to complete a mobile solution for facilitating the movement of patients between health centers and hospitals.
It was wild and busy and hard and amazing. I came out of it exhausted and proud. And hopelessly head over heels in love with Africa.
So you can imagine my joy. My excitement. My completely reasonable, not at all hyper-inflated expectation now, six years later, returning to this little green country that holds a big piece of my heart.
One of the worst/best/most significant moments of my life happened in Rwanda.
It’s hard to choose an adjective, and I think that’s an appropriate assessment of many of my experiences in Africa. Hurting. Broken. Beautiful. Friendly. Violent. Dangerous. Peaceful. Heartbreaking. Joyful. It’s everything all at once – sensory overload. I think the only constant is the pulsing truth that it matters. It matters. It matters. Being here, experiencing this – it matters.
Such was the case one Saturday as I walked into a church turned massacre turned memorial.
The floor was covered with clothes, which, upon closer inspection, were dotted with bones. Little shoes. Dirty shirts. Torn dresses. The vestiges of hundreds of people who crammed into this holy place desperate for safety during those awful, bloody days 22 years ago.
I had learned about the 1994 Rwandan genocide years before. I did my senior project in high school on global genocides, focusing on Rwanda and the then-current, still-ongoing violence perpetrated by Kony and the LRA in Northern Uganda and Sudan. I knew a lot about those dark days from research – how two people groups became enemies, one rising against the other with the intention of wiping them out completely.
In 100 days, Rwandans killed nearly a million of their neighbors while the rest of the world floundered on how to help or simply turned their backs.
But no amount of books and no number of viewings of Hotel Rwanda could have prepared me for standing in that church.
They took us to the basement to show us weapons and skulls. To give us history. To describe how babies were ripped out of mamas and women were raped with spears, torn all the way up through the abdomen. Truth after truth, horror after horror.
Oh and then.
They took us out back, where they had constructed a mass grave. The final resting place for all the beautiful people who spent their last days desperate for rescue – for life – huddled together in a church.
I was too stunned for tears but felt overwhelmingly like I was going to throw up.
And so I stood for a moment at the top of the steps that led down into the mausoleum – into the makeshift grave – and considered my options.
A few friends had already chosen not to descend because it was just too much to handle. I thought about standing with them, but ultimately I decided to witness the pain. Because this thing happened, and it felt like the least I could do was give that truth the attention it deserved by allowing it to completely shatter me.
I walked down the dark aisle, surrounded on either side by roughly-hewn wooden boxes stacked on top of one another, six or seven deep. They went on for so long – caskets, bodies – stacked and dusty. At the time, it was the closest to death I had ever been.
I came out of the ground, the grave, into the sunlight and was almost immediately immobile.
I stood there staring, the need to vomit stronger than ever. I stood, unable to move, think, or process, a chorus of why? why? why? playing on repeat in my head.
Eventually, my friend came over to check on me and to let me know it was time to go. And somehow, we all loaded up our bus and left, like what we had just experienced was a regular museum.
You’d think that with all of its heartbreaking history, Rwanda would be the most depressing place in the world. I’m sure that for awhile, it was.
But to stop Rwanda’s story in the mid-90s is to miss the most incredible grace and reconciliation and neighbor-love I’ve ever seen.
Because out of the ashes of those 100 days, Rwanda is rising again. It is putting back the pieces of its fractured society and attempting to move forward in peace.
I visited communities made up of Hutus and Tutsis, all living together. Is it perfect? Or course not. Is there still pain? Yes. But the hate and active hostility? It’s gone. I met men and women living alongside neighbors that butchered their families. In one instance, I met a woman who married the man who killed her family.
It’s remarkable. It’s unbelievable unless you see it for yourself.
I asked, over and over again, How? How have you moved on? And the repeated answer was, “We didn’t have a choice.” They realized that they could either actively choose peace or literally destroy their entire nation. Those were the only two options.
And so they chose – to forgive, to love, to rebuild.
Today, Rwanda is a leader in East Africa. I feel safe walking around and welcomed by kind-hearted, wonderful people. When I landed here last night, it was like letting out a breath I didn’t even know I was holding. Exhale. This place is good.
It’s bizarre to be in a place with such recent devastation that has recovered so quickly because things look shiny from the outside. At this very moment, I’m sitting on a beautiful patio sipping iced coffee (PRAISE) while a cool breeze blows. People around me are chatting and working and going about their very normal days.
But at the same time, you know that everyone over the age of 25 has memories of those horrible days. They lived through them – either as a victim or a perpetrator – and they have a story that sits just beneath the surface.
Rwanda exemplifies the best and worst of humanity at once. It shows us what can happen when we are power hungry and hate-filled and violent. And it simultaneously demonstrates that love, forgiveness, and grace can win. Should win. Do win. If we actively choose them, even when so choosing feels impossible.
Rwanda has a story that everyone should know. It matters.
And so I am SO EXCITED to be back in this place. Back where that heartbeat – that certainty of life and pain and beauty and hope all mixed together. That refrain of it matters it matters that defines so much of Africa for me – first started pounding.
I am back in a place I LOVE, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to share it with you.