“Do you know what your problem is?” One of my students asked as we made our way down the path to the toilet. She laced her fingers through mine and began to swing our arms as her laughter bubbled up. “You have a donkey head! A donkey/dog head!” Tickled with her discovery, the girl doubled over laughing, yanked her hand from mine, and raced off to the toilet, naming different animal heads I might also have as she went. Now, while this still baffles me a bit—Why a donkey? Why a dog?—I think this may shed some light on my blogging deficiency. The simple explanation is that my head has changed from a normal one to a donkey/dog head. Now can you blame me for not blogging in four months?
I’m sure my 6-year-old student had no intention of insulting me (it must be her idea of a funny joke), but I can’t help being reminded of it as I attend a regional gathering of PC(USA) mission co-workers and YAVs in Rwanda. Though this gathering provides a space for mission co-workers to share their personal experiences from their places of partnership, it also allowed us the opportunity to hear from many Rwandans about the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi and the incredible reconciliation work that’s been done since the atrocity occurred.
Let me give a little background to help explain what I’m getting at. I knew before I came here that the genocide occurred between two ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi. (I think that’s about the extent of the general knowledge of the Rwandan genocide in the US.) One of the things I never learned (not surprisingly) was that this division and dislike between the groups was ultimately created and fostered by the Western world. Hutu and Tutsi existed before Belgians colonized the country in the early 1900s, but the grouping was not so much an ethnic one as it was a socio-economic one. If you had more than 10 cows, you were a Tutsi, if you had less than 10 cows or worked in agriculture, you were a Hutu. Your position as a Hutu or Tutsi was not set in stone, rather it was fluid and could change if your situation in life changed. However, when the Belgians came, they decided that it would be better to make the division concrete. To do this, they required stamped identity cards—wealthy Rwandans and those with more “European” features (lighter skin, narrower noses, taller stature, etc.) were stamped as Tutsi, while those with more “African” features were stamped as Hutu. To make matters worse, the Tutsi were given authority by the Belgians and allowed to rule the land and people of Rwanda.
So, while the donkey/dog head comment was made in good fun, I can’t help but think about it and consider how harmful, how demeaning , how intrusive it is to have someone define you and your problems and your worth by their personal perception of you, especially if that person has no insight whatsoever into your personal hopes, fears, and struggles. In the case of Rwanda, years of being perceived as second-class citizens caused the Hutu to feed off of one another’s hatred toward the Tutsi until it was too much to keep bottled up. The Hutu greatly outnumbered the Tutsi, and as they were fed more and more propaganda from Hutu leadership about the Tutsi’s self-centered and self-righteous nature, they finally reached the breaking point on April 7, 1994. The Tutsi were framed for causing the crash of the Rwandan president’s plane, and chaos erupted.
In less than 100 days, over one million people were killed.
The majority of people were killed inside of churches.
One single American stayed to provide aid for the duration of the genocide. One.
The number of UN troops sent in to evacuate Westerners could have easily stopped the genocide, had they stayed. They left immediately.
Over one million people were slaughtered.
One million people.
I’m not claiming to be an expert on this horrific event—I was born during the middle of it and have only just begun to learn about it—and I urge you to research more about it from better sources. However, I can testify to some of the incredible reconciliation work being done in Rwanda today, specifically in the Presbyterian Church in Rwanda (EPR). One of the greatest things the Church has had to grapple with is the fact that the body of Christ is made up of those who were victims and survivors, those who were complicit in the violence, and those who were perpetrators. Not only that, but Church leaders outed Tutsi hiding places and churches themselves became slaughter houses.
Soon after the genocide ended, the Presbyterian Church in Rwanda realized that before they could move on towards reconciliation and healing, they had to confess their own complicity in the genocide and acknowledge that their worshipping body contained people from all parts of the spectrum within the genocide. Publicly, they confessed and asked for forgiveness. According to church leaders, it is that confession that has allowed them to move forward into the work of reconciliation.
During our week here in Rwanda, we have been given the wonderful opportunity to hear multiple Rwandan Presbyterian pastors and congregants speak about the history, event, and aftermath of the genocide, and the church’s role throughout. Rev. Dr. Elisee Musemakweli explained to us that the genocide resulted in two major reactions of spiritual crisis. The first was a reaction of accusation—you abandoned us at a critical moment, therefore your message is discredited by your actions. The second was a reaction of worldly hopelessness—there is nothing good in this world to work towards, therefore our spirituality is only oriented towards heaven. And yet, despite these reactions, the church continued forward in hope, knowing that the only way to heal the unbearable pain that had slashed through the heart of the country was through forgiveness and reconciliation, possible only with the help and guidance of God.
So, how does one even begin to work towards reconciliation after something so horrific? In the case of the Presbyterian Church in Rwanda, they began creating groups, such as the Light Group, that welcomed both survivors and perpetrators into their folds. These groups encourage all members to spend time with one another, listening to each others’ stories, helping each other farm, and visiting one another’s homes. We were fortunate enough to hear from three members of the Light Group—two survivors and a perpetrator. They sat together at the front of the room. The woman in the center spoke first. The genocide had completely destroyed life as she had known it. It left her without a husband, without half of her children, and without a home. And yet God, she said, God never left her side, God always guided her. She joined this Light Group to help her heal, and she closed her talk with these simple, incredible words: “I forgive because God first forgave me.”
Next, the man to her right stood up. He was a perpetrator of the genocide who had killed many people, including children. He had also killed family members of the woman sitting to his left. He had gone to prison and never expected to be released. He believed that if he ever was released, he would go to the forest to live like an animal because he had completely lost his humanity through his actions. And yet, he had admitted his crimes and was released back into Rwandan society. He married a survivor, a relative of the woman to his left, and has become a part of a family he helped to destroy.
Finally, the third member spoke. Also a survivor, this woman told of the family she had lost. As she spoke of the deaths of her four children, including a two-month-old infant, the pain resurfaced and tears began to flow. She spoke of the headaches that plague her every April (the month the genocide began) and of the continued lack of peace she finds, especially in this month. Through her tears, she admitted that, even though she is walking on a journey towards healing, it is still a process that she has not yet completed. Perhaps she never will, but she continues to walk the walk in hopes of a less painful tomorrow.
When they finished speaking, the room was filled with a solemn peace, a quiet incredulity, an unspoken sense of togetherness. Soon, members of the Light Group broke into a Kinyarwanda song telling of the power the blood of Christ has to bring us all together, even when we are strangers. Their spirit was contagious, and soon enough, many in our delegation of the “frozen chosen” were dancing alongside them. We had witnessed only a glimpse of the immense suffering this nation had seen, and yet, as our translator told us during the tearful testimony of the third group member, pain is a universal language that needs no translating. We felt the guilt of our own complicity and inaction when our nation turned its head, ignoring their cries for help. Pain, and unanswered questions, and anger, and guilt swirled around us in that room, but together we sang, together we danced, together we tried to forgive ourselves and one another, together we were one in the body of Christ.
I am unsure of how much of the population is reconciling themselves to one another in such a way as the Light Group is, forgiving one another to such an extent, but what I saw was amazing. It is my prayer that we all may look at the enemies, the destroyers, the hurtful ones of our own lives with eyes like theirs, that we all may we listen to their stories without resentment, and that we all may do our best to forgive, knowing that forgiveness is possible because God first forgave us.