Last summer, I was advised by a friend not to miss the Genocide Memorial in  Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda when I was planning my Africa trip which included my lifelong dream-trek to see the gorillas. Honestly, because I know that my emotions are powerful frontrunners for what shows up in my life, that suggestion to deliberately put myself in the thick of it wasn’t part of my itinerary. I was grateful to be proven wrong (thank you Nancy and Jimmy). When I landed at the airport, the first sign I saw said ‘No Plastic Bags Allowed’. Wow, I thought, that’s awesome. Then in the car I noticed how clean the city streets were, zero litter, no cigarette butts in the gutters. The driver told us that it’s a crime carrying a hefty fine to leave trash and not only that, but if someone witnesses you throwing down trash, they can turn you in. Hmm…interesting. I also frequently noticed men in military garb with rifles and was told they were there to ‘ensure security’. If anyone is caught physically fighting, all parties are thrown in jail for 3 days with a $200 fine, absolutely no tolerance for violence. All this I learned on the way to the museum where we would stop on our way to the volcanic region and our gorilla adventure.

An abbreviated conclusion of what I learned at the museum: We (I) tend to generalize, accept and yes, even sometimes override what I see, hear or learn,  especially  when it has emotional content for me, both positive and negative. In my yearning and learning I’m getting it that there are always multiple opinions and I need to do more research. But no matter whom I’ve told about the details of the genocide, few have known more than from the movie Hotel Rwanda, and even that 122 minutes was deeply disturbing but incomplete. Hang in here with me, there’s good news at the end of this, I promise.

In the 1930’s while Rwanda was under Belgian rule, deliberate racism was premeditated and established that pitted the two main tribes, Hutu and Tutsi against one another. Prior to that, they were neighbors, friends and even relatives through intermarriage. The only true difference were their vocations: cattle herders and farmers. There were less Tutsis, but the colonial Belgian government succeeded in their endeavor to control and officiate by granting them privileged political, economic and social status. All people were required to carry ID cards for easier profiling and discrimination. Over time, hatred was systematically incited which caused the defensive Hutu to rally together and murder their former countrymen while the world watched and did nothing. The height of this was in 1994 when in only 100 days over a million men, women and children were killed. I know this very short recap is disrespectful at best, but it seems so important to me to relate my experience to you.

I was at the museum for only and hour and can’t begin to relate how stunned, sad and guilty I felt while walking through its corridors. The feeling matched the sickening feeling I had when touring the Holocaust Memorial in Washington D. C. years ago. Leaving there and driving the couple of hours to Sabyinyo I learned that all this happened only 19 years ago and Rwanda has created an infrastructure, a just political and economic system and tremendous progress in an environment of forgiveness. Community mediation groups were created to induce communication, understanding and tolerance and while there is still much to do, there is progress. Today there are 57 women in the Parliament.

I was reminded of a 3rd grade teacher, Jane Elliot (A Class Divided) who in 1968 changed her lesson plan one day in a small town in Iowa. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, she asked her class of all Caucasian children if they would like to participate in an exercise. The blue-eyed children would be singled out as being the superior group over those with brown eyes who would be given paper collars facilitating identification from a distance. The blue-eyed kids had special privileges, like longer recesses, more accolades from the teacher, extra helpings of food even. Miss Elliott would also say derogatory things about the ‘brown-eyes’ like they were lazy, not as smart and so on. In that one day, their scores on math and reading quizzes suffered.

The following day, the blue-eyed kids were instructed to trade places, to reverse roles. The same plan was followed, but the teacher reported that the now superior brown-eyed children were far less cruel than the day before and at the end of the day when she instructed the kids to go take the paper collars off their blue-eyed friends, they cried and hugged one another. In interviews I’ve read with some of those former students, their lives forever changed that day. I thought of this while in Rwanda and how easy it was for the government to divide and conquer the erstwhile peaceful neighbors on nothing more than vocation, minor facial features, ridiculous things. It affected my experience in Africa and it’s affecting my experience here in America now, especially during the complexion of the disheartening presidential campaign, the millions (billions?) being spent during such difficult economic times. Are we hearing and seeing what’s really true? Doubtful.

Rwandan boy

The people of Rwanda are hard-working and diligent people. The geography is mountainous and the land is terraced up the sides of these volcanic regions  with rows of vegetables planted everywhere there’s a square meter. I saw women carrying huge heavy jugs of water perched on their heads up the steepest hillsides to water their crops usually with a child strapped to their back. If perhaps not outright jubilance, I saw hope and tolerance in their eyes and in their smiles. Mostly I saw an example of what letting go and moving forward looks like up close. The biggest reason the country has experienced this unusual progress is because more than anything else, to live and work together and to restore life, peace and pride in their country, they know there is no other choice than to participate in their own rescue. I asked how to say ‘I love Rwanda’ in their language and when I announced “Hunda Rwanda!” I was met with great gratitude!

Rwandan woman

Afterward, the experience of trekking to see these amazing gorilla families and the immense economic benefit to their country was all the more rich because of my museum visit. Stay tuned! The gorilla trek was a once in a lifetime adventure! I’m already writing about it!