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Reflections on Time in Rwanda

    By Mark Brians. September 11, 2014 - 3:09 pm

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On the morning of the fourth day we journey northeast on the dirt road that runs from Kamembe out beyond the stockyard and village market, past the tea cooperative towards the deep cold green of Nyungwe forest.

In the Land Rover there is a sort of solemn hush as we drive and we stare bleary-eyed at that country during that part of the day in which the sun shines on the bald red-dust tops of hummocks while their verdant bodies remain clothed in a pinafore of mist and smoke from wood-stoves and outdoor sculleries.

Arriving at our destination we quit the vehicle and walk a few yards to the entrance of a rust-colored brick-and-tin church. There are children running, playing some game I did not know. School is not yet in session. But they still wear their uniforms because that is what they have to wear. Many are some degree of malnourished.

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They smile at us in the courtyard as we pass, bright Rwandan smiles, and they ask for my plastic water bottle so they use it to play soccer. From somewhere inside the strong-looking church I can hear some choir composed mainly of women and children singing choral music, blending all that’s best of Rome and Rwanda into a syzygy of rhythm and eloquence.

Something in the music reminds me of the way light breaks through trees leaves on the surface of slow-moving water, full of an irreconcilable longing, at once sad and jubilant.

Going round the far side of the building we come to a little footpath that brings us to a gated, locked building with no windows.

We have come to Shangi, a memorial site of the Rwandan genocide. It is not like the national memorial in Kigali, built with western apologies and the sad shaking head of a first world that has lost it’s stomach for dealing with horrors that do not end in scrolling credits, or have a running time of 90 minutes.Africa2014_5

This building has no electricity and no water. It is made of cheap cement, supported by a simple structure of rebar and wood and has been lovingly, colorfully gilded in costly acrylic paints. The building is a facade, with two small, squat rooms on either side of the main entrance which leads steeply down concrete steps into a crypt lit only by small candles and the lagging bits of dusty light from the open doorway.

The room is filled with coffins and the skeletal remains of over 10,700 people from the surrounding areas who had been rounded up and slaughtered en masse during the genocide rest on rows of wooden shelves.

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Our guide is a survivor. On her face a long scar stretches from back behind her ear down her cheek, winding it’s way down her jawbone until it fizzles out near her chin.  She weeps some –but not much– and smiles warmly. She tells us her story, about being gathered with the rest of the people and seeking refuge in the old cathedral where they prayed all night waiting while two brave priests who had not fled with the other umuzungu when the NGO’s pulled-out stayed awake, making sure everyone was baptized by morning.

When morning came the ‘killers’ arrived and had everyone dig a massive grave. The sky grew dark and the people grew tired. The grave was never finished. Around midday, under heavy downpour the killers cut down man woman and child using mostly machetes and nail-tipped cudgels. Some, like her, survived. Most did not and in a few months the population of Rwanda would be decimated; meaning more than one in every ten people was slain.

That was 20 years ago. Today things are different. But the Rwandan people maintain sites like Shangi to remember and to pass-on the memory of such things.

I turned to Obadias, my Rwandan friend and translator who looked at me grimly.

‘This is who we are Mark, this is what we have done to our own people… you are our friends, and you must know that we are killers.’

Obadias, Martin and Simeon (pictured left to right).

Obadias, Martin and Simeon (pictured left to right).

In the otherwise silent car ride Obadias explained the difficulty of reconciliation. How does a people come together and forgive one another? How can such a country, in a mere twenty years reconcile such slaughter?

Obadias explained that this was the onus of his pastoral task in Rwanda. He gave me one such example: In a hill-top village church you may have the son of a victim of the genocide, an orphan of the massacre, now full-grown, sitting next to the man who made him parentless. In another part of his diocese he will have two farmers working as partners in a coffee cooperative. One is a survivor of the genocide. The other is the man who slew her children.

And while he values technology and education and micro finance strategies, he is deeply suspicious of the ability of these ventures as legitimate forms of ‘cultural renewal’ and their ability to carry the freight of deep reconciliation. During the genocide he saw the wealthy powerful nations sit idly by and watched as many of the non-profits packed-up and left with their embassies. He expresses great doubt their ability alone to bring Rwanda hope and forgiveness. It is hard to blame him.

Instead he believes in the work of the Church of Rwanda as an authentic ministry of reconciliation. His whole weltanschauung persists in the death of God who was born as a servant in order to reconcile all things in Himself. Obadias’ understanding of the interrelatedness of the cross and forgiveness.

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Later that day we danced and sang with the children of Cymbogo parish, some of them the first-fruits of a generation born beyond the lived experience of fear and rampage. As our feet slap and bounce against the worn earthen floor, raising a cloud of dust that sailed in swaths of afternoon sun, passing through windows without panes of glass.

On Sunday the Bishop comes and they decorate the unfinished church building with palm fronds and banana leaves. He calls us family and invites us to share communion with them at the Lord’s Table. Together we share in the reality of this strange global family. There, in the gold and bister brilliance of noontime heat, the son of colonials stand shoulder to shoulder with these Rwandans, some survivors of the horrors of human brutality, others their former oppressors. One by one, we place our lips on the edge of the cup as we drink and the take the bread placed in our hands by another.

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An embroidered banner behind the lectern at the cathedral depicts an African Jesus hanging on a cross above and below it are the words: DORE UMWANA W’INTAMA W’IMANA. Behold the son, the lamb of God.

To many this carries a challenge to the established politics of global capitalism, the mad scramble of a system built around lack and competition. To many this is an alternate politics where the diffusive nature of the good finds it’s ultimate consummation in the kenotic principle of ‘my life for yours.’

To others this is just bad journalism.

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Photos by Madeline Williams.