Our memorable Rwanda experience

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Katie Zitzer and Claire Hines. (Courtesy)

We had just arrived in Kigali after 24 hours of travel. We were disoriented and exhausted and truly had no idea what to expect of this small African country.

With apprehension in our hearts we exited the airport and entered the warm embrace of the night air.

Initially lost in the crowd, it didn’t take long for us to identify the two smiling faces of our cultural liaisons David and Trésor, who quickly ushered us onto our trusty caravan commandeered by the best driver in Kigali, Sajou.

Little did we know, these three men would grow to be some of our closest friends over the next four weeks. As the bus carried us up the hillside to our new home in Rebero, the city sprawled gently across the valley, a quilt of roads and fields and houses, and heartbeats.

We watched with tired eyes as the sun slipped behind the hills and the lights of the city sprang to life, twinkling and dancing like a parade of stars marching up to take their rightful place next to the moon—a sharp contrast to the vast darkness where the mountains exist between the city and the sky.  This is the spirit of Rwanda.

It was with curiosity and a passion for expanding our comprehension of the world that we found ourselves traveling to Rwanda. Although both of us were aware of this country and the horrors of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi, our awareness was limited to the meager information supplied in World History classes and our ability to use Google search.

However, neither of us realized just how limited our education of the genocide was until we actually came to Rwanda and began to learn. Over the last four weeks--spent studying the Genocide and the pre and post-genocide societies in Rwanda--we have gained new knowledge and understanding that has allowed us to grow as human beings.

Our experience in Rwanda has been a clash of powerful emotions, and we have become well acquainted with the presence of sorrow during our stay here.

We have felt the fist of pain grip our hearts as we shed tears of anger and sadness at memorial sites like Nyamata (Bugesera Distruict) and Murambi (Nyamagabe District), where we bore witness to the reality of the barbarity perpetrated against Tutsi men, women and children.

However, our heartache does not define our experience here in Rwanda. We have also found our hearts filled with joy and wonder  as we drive through the rolling green hills.We have witnessed kindness and courage that we did not know existed in all the world.

While listening to testimony after testimony from survivors who struggled to live during 100 days of pure agony, and from perpetrators desperate for forgiveness and acceptance back into society, we have found ourselves blessed to witness the true strength of the Rwandan people.

After days spent hearing and seeing proof of the unthinkable acts that took place in Rwanda, it was a breath of fresh air to stand in the presence of people who embody all the goodness that has led Rwanda down the road to recovery and allowed it to become the nation it is today.

It is hard to comprehend the cataclysmic events that took place between April 7th and July 15th in 1994 as well as the decades before. Nevertheless, today Rwanda is one of the most peaceful, progressive, and proud countries we have ever had the privilege of visiting.

The developments Rwanda and the Rwandan people have made in the last 22 years are outstanding.

From government subsidized health insurance to economic growth to gender equality, Rwanda is well on its way to recovery.

It is overwhelmingly clear to us that Rwanda is well-off pursuing recovery on its own. However, when Rwanda did need assistance it was left to suffer through the 1994 Genocide alone.  It is with shame and anger that we recognize the unforgivable failure of the international community, and of the United States.

We regret that we cannot often feel pride for our nation as Rwandans do for theirs, and although we have been taught the United States’ subjectively patriotic version of history, our country cannot keep us blind forever.

With every day spent in Rwanda our vision grows more clear. For small-minded people, what Rwanda is trying to accomplish by rebuilding a nation that was, only 22 years ago, ripping itself apart at the seams, may appear impossible.

Those that share this mindset have clearly never met a Rwandan--they are resilient, resourceful and unrelenting in their push for progress and change. They stand together, hand-in-hand, and proclaim with pride, “I am a Rwandan.” They stand together and refuse to let fear and misunderstanding ever divide them again.

We have never witnessed a country with citizens more interconnected and supportive of each other than Rwanda, and with every day spent in this country we have found ourselves more and more inspired by what its people and its leaders have accomplished.

As we start to say goodbye to Rwanda our hearts ache with the hope that we are not saying goodbye forever. We know that our words cannot encompass the immensity of our love for Rwanda, so we asked our 25 travel companions to describe the first word that come to their minds when they think of Rwanda.

This is what they said: Cohesiveness, perseverance, growth, acceptance, resilience, red dust, hills, the universe, smiles, beauty, hope, love, peacefulness, renewal, beloved, impressive, fierce, an oasis, courage, safety, momentum, strength, laughter ,opportunities, and colourful.

From this day forward we give our solemn promise that we will take our experience here in Rwanda back to our communities in the United States and we will educate and share everything we have learned. We will speak out against the prejudice and misconception fostered by news corporations and we will do everything in our power to advocate for the government of unity and reconciliation.

We are not blinded to the fact that Rwanda still has a long way to go on its journey of recovery, but we recognise just how far it has come and would like to say murakoze, and à bientôt Rwanda. Thank you for showing us humanity’s capacity for compassion.

The authors are students in the College of Arts and Sciences at Marquette University Missouri, USA