Hope, joy, forgiveness. Those are the words I would use describe what I learned about Rwanda on our first day here. Day One was full of new experiences that one could never replicate. Our team visited Gihembe refugee camp where we experienced firsthand the true meaning of HOPE.
Gihembe refugee camp is a camp of refugees who were forced to leave the Congo, left without a home. These refugees have lived at the camp for over 20 years, trying to make a life until they can return home. From my perspective, their situation is one you imagine would bring sadness and hopelessness, but on the contrary, in their eyes today I saw joy.
When we entered the camp we immediately saw excited children running to greet us. They all shouted “muzungu” and ran and waved their hands bursting with excitement to meet us. Muzungu means foreigner or white person in their native language and they were all fascinated to touch our skin. At one point, I had eight kiddos holding my hands. They pulled on my skin and stared in awe as most of them had never seen white people before. One of the local people told me they wanted to make sure my skin was real.
After greeting everyone, we were invited into two different homes at the camp. The homes were very small and made of clay. An invitation full of warmth and love filled each home, wall to wall. We had the opportunity to listen to some incredible stories of sacrifice, injustice, and unwavering hope. The parents we spoke to have such hope for their children to graduate from the university and bring prosperity to the family. From an outside perspective, it is easy to think these families must be unhappy and fearful that they may never have the lives they deserve, but their attitude was positive and hopeful. I left the camp with sadness in my heart that people are forced to live in a such a way, but I also left there feeling uplifted, knowing that no matter what their circumstance, these refugees were thankful for what they have and would never give up on the pursuit of a better life.
After Gihembe, we visited the Rwandan genocide memorial, which commemorates the lives of those lost in the brutal massacre of 1994 – an estimated 800,000 people. This is a part of Rwandan history that is very hard to face. We walked through the memorial with audio headsets that taught us the history of the events that led to the genocide including the divide between the Tutsi and the Hutu tribes. The Tutsi were considered less than, and that thinking ultimately lead to the slaughter of thousands of people.
Hearing the personal stories of survivors was very emotional; some survivors suffered such devastating loss that they are now the only remaining members of their family. There were many pictures I will not be able to remove from my mind. These killings were brutal, but the memorial shows us how important the genocide is to Rwanda’s history. Now Rwandans remain united, thinking of each other as only Rwandans. You are not to ask someone if they are Tutsi or Hutu, everyone is equal. To see how this nation has survived something so brutal and come out the other side still with love and forgiveness is incredible.
Day One was emotional for the entire team, we all had different feelings about what we experienced but I know everyone on our team learned how powerful the act of forgiveness and the positivity for better can influence an entire country. Rwanda, you are an amazing country.
Stay tuned to learn more about what Day 2 brings for our team here in Rwanda, Africa!