Monthly Archives: December 2010

Rwanda: The Land of a Million Murders

Warning: this post contains disturbing subject matter. But it’s important subject matter, so you should read it.

“We live in a world of which we so easily could despair. When we look back, we see a past littered with the debris of ruined communities, of careful plans to kill entire people groups.” — Kigali Memorial Centre.

I’ve studied a lot about genocide and war. I’ve been to Dachau concentration camp in Germany, the Killing Fields in Cambodia, the site of Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, and three Holocaust memorials in Washington DC, Detroit, and Jerusalem. All of these places were difficult, with graphic reminders of the evil that seems to know no bounds. It can occur in any culture, any society, any country, any part of history. I knew a lot about the Rwandan genocide and the complex history leading up to it, but nothing could have prepared me for the horrors that I saw and stories I read about at the memorial sites.

Even the bare facts of the genocide are horrific: in 1994, Hutu extremist militia incited most members of the Hutu population to systematically murder over 800,000 Tutsis in a period of 100 days, marking the most efficient mass murdering spree since the Nazi’s Final Solution in the Holocaust. Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the tiny battalion of UN forces in Rwanda during the genocide, reckons that no more than 5,000 trained troops would have been enough to prevent the genocide. Incidentally, 5,000 were the number of troops that were used to evacuate the expat population from Rwanda in the early days of the genocide. Once the white people were safe, the UN considered its responsibility in Rwanda done.

As difficult as it was, I knew that trips to the genocide memorials had to be part of our visit in Rwanda. In the morning we went to two churches just south of Kigali where Tutsis had sought sanctuary. One church alone was the refuge of over 10,000 Tutsis, all of whom were killed. The place was deathly quiet. We saw rows of bones and skulls stacked high, many marked with evidence of machete cuts to the head.

Names of victims at one of the churches.

Yet what I found most disturbing were the piles of clothes strewn across the church floor, rafters, pews, and altar. I can’t quite figure out why this was the hardest thing for me to stomach… I think that the sight of a skull or bones doesn’t fit into my realm of human existence. They’re just pieces of the human body invisible to the eye. But clothes are a very tangible part of human life, and the sight of them reminded me vividly that each person who died there was a real person…a young girl wearing her school uniform, an old grandmother wearing a traditional African print dress, a young man wearing his favorite sports team’s jersey, or a distinguished gentleman with his precious fedora hat.

What also made these churches particularly difficult was just the fact that they were churches. I scribbled a quick prayer into my journal “God, if they weren’t safe here, then where?” The graphic murders at the churches were testimony to the very essence of evil that exists within a humanity that has set itself so fiercely against God.

I know this is depressing, particularly at Christmastime. It’s probably not something you want to be thinking about on Christmas Eve. I feel the same way. But I believe it’s important for us to know, to reflect, to mourn on these facts.  And I think reflecting on this sadness can bring an even greater depth of rejoicing during Christmas. On the way back from the churches, I found myself listening over and over to this song by Selah. Here are a portion of the lyrics:

“One day voices that lie will all be silent. One day, all who deny, will finally believe. One day death will retreat, and raise its white flag, and one day, Love will defeat the strongest enemy.”

In a bittersweet way, visiting these memorials reminded me that Christmas is more than just the happy story of a warm cuddly baby born in a miraculous way. The glorious birth of Jesus marked the beginning of something new, of God’s kingdom here on earth – where one day, death will be no more, where Love rules and conquers all. It’s not here fully here yet, and so the world continues to rebel and groan with sin and evil. But it is coming!!! And so for now, we hope, we pray, we love, and we rejoice that that one day, Jesus will wipe every tear from every eye. And we can take heart, because he has already overcome this world!

“And we know that the suffering of these present times are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)

Amen. Come quickly, Lord!

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Rwanda: The Land of a Thousand Hills

Last weekend, a dream came true – I went to Rwanda! Ever since I wrote about the Rwandan genocide for my senior paper in high school, Rwanda has rooted itself in my heart. It’s the country that really started me in this whole messy business of human rights, peace studies, and international development.  Rwanda is beautiful, intriguing, and confusing, to say the least. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Scott (another IJM fellow serving in Uganda for a year) and I took the overnight bus from Kampala to Kigali. In true African fashion, we left Kampala five hours later than anticipated, the border crossing took more than two hours, and we had to stop twice on the side of the road due to our brakes smoking up a storm (I was less scared of the bus catching fire than I was of getting stampeded by the shrieking host of large African women as we all evacuated the bus). Before we knew it, a trip that was supposed to take eight hours turned into an 18-hour trip. For fuller details on the most disastrous exciting road trip of my life, check out Scott’s part 1 post of our Rwanda trip on his blog.

The Rwanda countryside is absolutely gorgeous, and is the first country I’ve seen that could compare with the rich rugged green beauty of Papua New Guinea. Almost every five minutes I had to resist bursting out in happy awe, “This looks SO much like PNG!” as we made our way to Kigali on winding mountain roads and through expansive tea-covered valleys. We were surrounded by steep green hills with cultivated terracing; patches of maize, potatoes, and sugarcane covered every inch of the landscape.

Kigali itself is a quiet, orderly city, striking in its contrast to Kampala’s loud, bustling, polluted chaos. It was frustrating/humbling to encounter more difficulty in communicating, since Rwanda is a Francophone country and fewer people on the street speak English.

The next day we headed out to the northwest corner of Rwanda to (Volcano National Park). The scenery just got more and more beautiful, as we descended into a large valley capped by rugged volcanoes on every side.

We had every intention of hiking one of the volcanoes that our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook said was an easy day’s climb, but unknown to us, every hike starts at 7 am sharp, and we were strictly not allowed to just explore without a guide. It was a sad moment.

So we hopped back on one of Rwanda’s amazingly convenient and organized public transit buses to Lake Kivu, one of only threeexploding lakes in the world (meaning they’re located over a volcanic lava bed and so can explode with poisonous gas and a veritable tsunami at any moment. Quite exciting, no?) Lake Kivu itself was beautiful, and we had fun exploring the quiet little lakeside town of Gisenyi.

By far the highlight was when we accidentally reached this place:

Yep. That’s the border to Congo! (Don’t worry, Mom, I didn’t try to illegally cross the border without my passport… although the thought did cross my mind!)

The next day was focused on visiting genocide memorials in and around Kigali, which deserves its own separate post.

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It’s Moving Day!!

I’m moving to a new house today! Don’t worry, I’m not leaving my beloved little neighborhood of Ntinda forever… just for a month. My boss (the IJM Uganda field office director) and his family are heading back to the States for a month-long furlough, so they needed someone to watch their house while they’re gone. They have a nice house that’s located closer to the center of town, with free rent for me and round-the-clock guards at the gate. So, it was a big sacrifice on my part, but I agreed to move in for a month. 😉

I, of course, am most excited for their big kitchen with all sorts of working kitchen appliances. A blender, bread pans, electric beater, 9×13 Pyrex pans, all at my disposal! What bliss! 🙂 (Yes, it is indeed the little things in life that make me sigh with happiness). I’m also excited to spend time playing their electric keyboard for hours on end, free to make as many mistakes as I want without anyone listening in. And… their well-stocked video/book library isn’t so bad, either.

Before you imagine me holed up in a big house for a month, eating baked goods and watching TV show re-runs to no end, I still have a full load of work at the office – a lot of projects have piled up that I need to finish by the start of the new year. And I actually will be traveling quite a bit during these next few weeks. Tomorrow a few friends from the office and I will jump on the overnight bus to Rwanda to spend a few days there, visiting the genocide memorials and hopefully doing a bit of hiking. When I get back, Christmas season will be in full swing here in Kampala, and there are all sorts of  events, church services, and reasons for celebration. Early in January, I head to Mombasa (on the Kenyan coast), to spend a glorious week at the Indian Ocean with my dear friend/college roommate Rachel and her family.

So, I guess I should say, you shouldn’t feel too sorry for me this Christmas season. Of course I miss my family, egg nog, twinkling lights on every house, my red wool coat, Christmas cookies, all the TU Christmas traditions, sledding, catching snowflakes on my tongue…okay, this could go on for a while.   But all things considered, I think have a pretty great month ahead of me.

Just a sidenote: you’ll notice this post didn’t have any attempts at deep insights into Ugandan culture, IJM, justice, Jesus, etc. It’s just about me and the little life I live. I hope that’s okay. Even though I’m living my dream by being in Uganda and working for IJM, at the end of the day I’m still just me, so sometimes what I write on my blog will just be silly little updates about the very mundane but real parts of my life. Sorry to disappoint anyone.

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Confessions from a Cross-Cultural Life

After living in Kampala for ten weeks, I’ve started to re-assess what it means to live cross-culturally. As I write this on a bright Saturday morning, I’m sitting in an air-conditioned coffee shop, drinking a caramel macchiato. Yep, that’s right. Kampala has air-conditioned coffee shops that serve caramel macchiatos.

I debated whether to tell you that. Sometimes I want people back home to keep their exotic image of my life here intact. I want them to imagine me buying all my groceries at the open-air market, (conversing the whole time in fluent Luganda), scrubbing my clothes by hand in cold water, traipsing through dusty roads and dirty trash piles to get to work, holding poor baby orphans as often as possible.

But as I’ve said before, that’s not a completely accurate picture of my life here. I meet friends for dinner at nice restaurants; my apartment complex provides a daily cleaning service and wireless internet as part of the rent; I can even go see the newest Harry Potter film at the movie theatre.

In many ways, I do the same things that I would do back in the States –I sing Christmas songs way too early in the year, I go running, I hang out with friends, I go to church on Sundays, I bake cookies and eat too many of them, I never know what I want when I go shopping and usually end up making a bad decision, I spend too much time blog-surfing on the internet and not enough time reading the books on my bookshelf.

The longer I live here, the more I’m convinced that it’s not necessarily the big parts of life that change when you move across cultures. Adapting to life in a different culture is often more about the small things- both the wonderful small things that give daily life a touch of the exotic, and the frustrating things that can derail your whole day.

I still go running, but I run on dirt roads in the cool of the morning, reaching the top of the hill right as the sun bursts through the early morning sky over Lake Victoria.  Yet even as I admire the sunrise, I’m dodging potholes and careless bus drivers, cursing the motorcycle drivers who make it their goal in life to run me off the road and prove that they have the right of way.

I still am horrible at every kind of shopping, but it’s not a big a deal when you can buy new jeans for $8 and can pick a four shirts for the price of one second-hand shirt in the States.  In order to find such bargains though, I have to make my way downtown through the masses of people and motorcycles and busses, step into the maze of tiny stalls of second-hand goods carrying everything from prom dresses to cooking pots, and be willing to barter to death with the seller.

I still sit in coffee shops and sip caramel macchiatos, but instead of working on a class paper from college, I’m editing our monthly field office report, an update of IJM Uganda’s casework  that will be sent early next week to IJM headquarters in DC. And then instead of hopping back in my car, I’ll make the dusty trek back home to my apartment along the busy thoroughfare of my corner of Kampala, and by the time I arrive home, I’ll be so sweaty and dusty that this time in air-conditioned coffee shop will be a distant memory.

So is my life still cross-cultural? Yes, definitely.  Is it still exciting? Of course! Is it difficult sometimes? For sure. But the great thing about living cross-culturally is the way that all these small things combine to make a life so rich, so vivid, that despite the frustrating parts, life is still incredibly fulfilling. It’s similar enough to life back home to be manageable, but different enough that almost every day, I get hit with the realization: “wow, I really live here.”



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