It's interesting to have a particular perception of a country and then allow that perception to be indelibly associated with its people.
My family and I love to travel and connect with people from different cultures. In 2021, we took a trip to Rwanda. We had a desire to see what others had been telling us about this country. They said, “It's so clean.” The people are really nice and it's really safe. Of course, my first thought was, SAFE!? Didn't they just have a genocide that decimated the whole country - neighbors killing neighbors, with machetes and bodies covering the streets? I can't imagine how safety or peace could be present in a place like this. They assured us that peace was there and that we had to experience it to believe it.
Our experience was just that. We connected with an NGO that provides learning opportunities for people working in various fields to facilitate community support. Our guide, a program manager and directs a community mental health hub, gave us an expanded look at what the country was doing now to support its citizens. We learned that their government supports rehabilitation by providing mental health services and culturally relevant opportunities for community members to hold each other accountable. Much like the truth and reconciliation commissions of South Africa, which allowed victims of apartheid and the perpetrators to speak of the harms and be accountable, so the act of forgiveness could take place, Rwanda's Gacaca courts allowed a place for community justice to take root. 29 years post-genocide, Rwanda has an annual Kwibuka — a 100-day remembrance period for the hundreds of thousands of Rwandans killed …
Our guide, Francoise is a survivor, even though many of her family members and friends were not. She showed us a Rwanda that is relatable, industrious, joyful, inspirational, and resilient.
We visited art galleries and took a walk through a working-class neighborhood, which had a vibrancy that reminded us of Havana, Cuba’s insatiable charm. We spent time with the women of the Azizi village. They are in fact a collective of women who had been on opposite sides of the war. They are now working together to feed and clothe their community in joy and gratitude. We experienced holding a hoe in our hand and digging up cassava root that would be used for the meal later to be shared that afternoon. We talked about our families and the things that brought us joy in life. They taught us how to weave baskets that we later found in their retail store. The baskets were so breathtaking, with intimate details and artistic expertise, highlighting Rwanda's unique signature aesthetic. I said to my husband, I wonder if this is where the Art Deco movement originated.
We are foodies. So we were excited to experience a talented and world-traveled chef. He provided us with a uniquely delectable 8-course meal. He told us his origin story and how he meticulously sourced his ingredients from all over Africa. The vibrancy and layers of flavor we experienced were delicately and artistically plated, much like tapas. These plates thrilled our pallets. We also found that he had a test kitchen where he trained up-and-coming African chefs. This experience of elevated Afro-Fusion cuisine remained on our pallets throughout the rest of our trip.
Another one of our fun experiences in this beautiful country was a ride through the Savannah grasslands. I had never been someone who spoke about or desired a Safari adventure. I felt it was an adventure of a privileged class who liked to gawk and see the exoticism of Africa. I felt like my life had enough adventure surviving everyday adversity as a Person of Color. But here I was riding in a jeep, with a very knowledgeable and exuberant guide having decades of experience helping people experience the wildlife of Rwanda. As zebras crossed our path, I wondered, through my Westernized lens, who had put them there and if they were making sure that they would be properly fed. Then I laughed at myself and realized that I was in the zebra’s neighborhood and somebody had put us there!
Our son counted at least 26 different mammals and birds. We delighted in seeing hippos and their family pods, a herd of elephants, towers of giraffes, and baboons within their clans going about their way and comfortably sitting in the way of our Jeep. This was their road and we had to wait our turn. Witnessing the majesty and experiencing the up-close feel of being in such an expansive animal kingdom humbled and excited us at the same time. While my husband and son were eagerly searching for a nearby pride of lions, I was very relieved not to have run into any. I was the minority in that relief.
One of the elements so remarkable about Rwanda is its ability to reconcile, restore and heal. We visited the Kigali Memorial Museum. It was both informative and heart-wrenching. We learned so much about the complex and multi-faceted origins of the genocide - the role of outside international contributors and perpetrators, the susceptibility to corruption of disenfranchised peoples and leaders, coupled with mortal propaganda and all those who lost their lives regardless of age, gender, or class. We also learned of the sacrifices and political interventions that both fueled and quelled the flames.
We learned about worldwide genocides and the strategies used to deconstruct governments and oppress people. I asked the young man who welcomed us into the museum how he was able to come there daily and not break down. He responded by telling us to make sure we visited the children's section to see his little brother and the story of his death. He shared that being at the museum was his way to honor those who had died. It brought him Joy to share the history and resilience with others who did not know their story. What strength. What courage. What love, he embodies. I am humbled.
We also met with the director of a prison reentry program that provided a way for perpetrators to be reconnected with their communities in a healthy and giving-back way. He said, “We were all victims.” Their organization allows the perpetrators to provide restitution, and receive vocational, educational, and other supports that would help them to be positive contributors to the community to which they were returning. Care was also given to the families of the perpetrators. Their children were housed, clothed, and fed by the community. This is what rehabilitation looks like and the ability to heal a nation through forgiveness, love, and intentional action.
Being a former CEO of a mental health nonprofit, I wanted to know where and how they process the trauma of their experience. They said that they had no time for hate and that they would no longer let anyone divide them. “We are One Rwanda,” she said. I was again humbled and had no more questions.
This is the attitude that I want for our broken communities of color, suffering from the effects of racism, disenfranchisement of the underserved, and those who fall through the cracks of our economic system which says, “every man for himself.” Visiting Rwanda, I learned the power of Ubuntu, “I am because we are.” We can be that as a global community. It starts with one conversation at a time, one step towards healing .
This is the spirit of R-Evolution, our trips, and our fellowship programs. We will have many stories to tell. This is just one
R-Evolution | Dialogues in the Diaspora
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