Chapter 4 – Rwanda


After an incredibly intense week in Uganda, travelling to Rwanda was a relief, and felt almost like a rest. In Rwanda I had a bedroom to myself; electricity most of the time – even Internet access for about half an hour a day! It felt like living in such luxury. I was staying with friends, an English couple in their late twenties who had lived in Rwanda for several years, and I was volunteering full-time with their community development charity whose base was in Kigali, the capital city. They (and myself) were the only foreigners in the organisation, among around twenty other staff members. My role there was very varied as I was introduced to many different areas of the work, both in and around the capital city and further afield.

When I arrived in Kigali, after dropping my bags off in their flat my hosts treated me to Mr Chips, the fast-food place around the corner from where they lived. I cannot begin to express how much of a shock it was to eat a burger and chips after a week of just ‘posho and beans’. I had got used to this staple dish by this point and it hadn’t occurred to me that I might be eating different food in Rwanda. Those who have experienced any kind of culture shock might understand my bafflement, confusion and strange happiness at that simple meal. One would imagine that I would slip easily back into eating food that I was used to, but it did come as a shock to me – I really cannot describe the strange sensation and mental state that lingered throughout that evening and the following day. Throughout the trip, though, the food was fantastic. (No more burger and chips after that first day!) Many meals contained rice and black beans – but also chunks of boiled meat, baked and roasted plantain, even potatoes. It was wonderful. But I really can’t understand what happened to me, to my mind, when I saw and ate the burger and chips on that first day. It was so very strange.


In the city: Centre Day; Admin; School work

My first task in and around Kigali was to visit the various children’s projects to get a bit of a feel for the work in general and to gain an understanding of what the organisation is trying to achieve. There were a number of schools and a few children’s homes to visit, and I learnt about the child sponsorship programme: people in the UK and the USA can send money each month to enable a child to go to school and to have adequate food, clothes, toys and books. Once a month the sponsored children meet together in a large centre and spend a day doing activities together. They call it ‘Centre Day’. They sing songs, play games, receive any letters or gifts from their sponsors and write letters in response with the help of translators. I went along to one of these and spent the day serving food, chatting with any children who spoke English, helping them write letters, distributing gifts to the right people, and listening to their singing.

A significant part of my time in the country was spent doing administration work, which primarily involved opening packages from sponsors in the UK and USA, checking that there were no ‘inappropriate’ gifts within, and sorting the gifts into boxes to be sent to the various different regions where the recipient children lived. I did enjoy this task, mainly because I found some of the gift ideas very funny, wondering what the sponsors could have been thinking. I had to remove things like GameBoy games (none of the children in the projects had games consoles – most of their houses have no electricity…), packets of condoms (sent for young children!), English tea bags (many of the local people found the concept very strange: tea is usually brewed in pans with leaves, herbs and spices), penknives (how did these get through international post?!), paracetamol, toy guns, packets of cigarettes…. I’m sure the sponsors had good intentions, but perhaps lack a little cultural awareness or common sense!

There were some beautiful gifts and inspiring letters though – family photos, life stories, anecdotes about colleagues at work and other pleasant everyday things, and lovely gifts like handmade clothes, knitted toys, little musical instruments, sweets, children’s books, hair clips and little mirrors… It made me really wish that I could afford to sponsor a child myself, especially after having met many of them and seen for myself what a difference it makes to their lives. The organisation were very open about their finances and what happens to the money sent for sponsorship, and it impressed me that all of the sponsorship money went towards education, food and supplies for the child in question, not towards admin fees or buildings or advertising like many other charities that I have known.

I also had chance to visit a few of the schools, and spent some time teaching classes. Since they were International Schools the classes are taught in English, so the sponsored children all had to learn English as a second language – though many could already speak it. International schools are considered to be a higher standard of education than regular schools; they are usually private and fairly expensive, but of course the sponsored children did not have to pay. I was to teach English, Geography and Religious Studies. By this point I was beginning to get used to the assumptions that since I am white I am able to do all kinds of things without any qualifications. Having never trained in teaching, by the time I left Africa I had taught Maths in Uganda; English, Geography and R.S. in Rwanda! I did make it clear to the staff that I was not a teacher, but nobody seemed to mind. Teaching there was great fun – the children were so energetic and eager to contribute; it was quite different to English schools!

Another element of ‘school work’ that I was involved with in Rwanda was marking essays, to lighten the workload of the full-time teaching staff. This was almost as much fun as teaching the classes – the essays were very entertaining, and I learnt a lot about the culture from them. Some of them were very sobering, too, highlighting some incredibly difficult issues. One of the essays that the kids were set to write was entitled ‘How to find a spouse’. At least three of the girls wrote that there are two different ways of finding a husband: ‘the way of the world’ and ‘the way of God’. The ‘way of the world’ involved dating many different boys and men until you find the right one. The ‘way of God’ involved simply praying for years until God provides a husband. They were written in a very matter-of-fact way, and I wondered what had been taught in the syllabus and what was simply cultural tradition or what their community had taught them growing up…

I also learnt about cultural traditions regarding relationships: in the villages where these children came from dating is usually frowned upon. Usually, according to these essays, a young man will find an attractive girl who is caring and good at housework, and after watching her for a little while and deciding that he wishes to marry her he will arrange for their fathers to discuss the matter. If they agree and the traditional exchange of gifts is agreed upon, the young man will propose to her – and she will say no. If she were to say yes straight away she would be considered ‘easy’ or even sometimes considered to be a prostitute! The second and third proposals, over the course of a few weeks or months, she will also reject – although if she is desperate to marry the man she might accept the third proposal. The fourth she will accept, otherwise she is considered rude and ungrateful, and bring disgrace on her family. This made me wonder how much choice the girls have in the matter – but perhaps there is a possibility of befriending boys and dropping hints about proposals if they wish to… It certainly got me thinking a great deal!

Some of the boys’ essays, in answer to the question of ‘how to find a wife’, shocked me much more than those of the girls. Several of them had written that after finding an attractive, thoughtful and hard-working girl, and after having the fathers agree on the gifts, and after proposing to her until she finally agrees, the young man will get to know her quite well and get stuck into the wedding preparations – and then at this point will ask her whether she is HIV-positive, in the knowledge that at this point she will give an honest answer. If she says no, he will happily marry her and have many children by her. If she says that she is HIV-positive, however, he will leave her immediately and start the whole process again with another woman. Simple as that, very matter-of-fact, as with the girls’ essays. I was stunned. The traditional betrothal gifts had already been exchanged! The wedding preparations were in place! You cannot just leave…!

I found myself crying, for a long time, for all those young HIV-positive women whose fiancés had left them in the middle of the wedding preparations, not only breaking her own heart but also bringing shame on her family and leaving everybody from both families in debt from cancelled wedding preparations. I tried to put myself in the shoes of the young men, to understand how they could possibly do such a cruel thing. Slowly it began to dawn on me what the implications would be, if they were to go ahead with the preparations… Firstly, the young man would have to live with the awareness that his wife could suddenly get seriously ill and die, at any moment – she could live for decades, or only weeks. And he would have to simply wait for it to happen, and nurse her until she dies, knowing that there is little hope of survival if she were to get ill. What’s more, if he marries her, and they sleep together, there is a strong chance that he will contract the horrendous disease too – and the same would happen to him: he would know that at any time he could get ill and die, and that there is nothing that anyone could do to prevent it. And, of course, it is an important and deeply rooted part of cultures all over Africa that a man’s honour is tied up in how many healthy children he has: having many children makes one very respectable. But if the couple have children (as is the expectation), there is a strong chance that they, too, will be HIV-positive, and could suffer and die at any point. What kind of a choice is this, then – choosing this terrifying sword-of-Damocles lifestyle full of pain and disease and bereavement and death, or choosing to abandon the fiancé and look for a safer option. He would heap crippling debt on both families, be considered a disgrace, break her heart and bring shame on her family, yes – but he would not be drawn into a life full of unstoppable sickness and death, leaving the same for his offspring. What a choice.


Interviews; Gifts of Hope

Out in the more remote villages, as in many parts of Africa, wherever we walked a crowd of children would gather behind us and follow, chatting and laughing as they skipped along after us for miles. Sometimes they would approach us and talk or hold our hands as we walked; sometimes just follow a few metres behind. They seemed curious enough to follow but not quite curious enough to ask where we were going or who we were. At first I wondered whether their parents knew that such young children were walking several miles away from their homes, and whether we should send them home – but before long I realised that it was very normal and that they would just run home when they began to get tired or hungry. My main purpose of being out in those more remote villages was to speak with families who wanted their children to be put forward for sponsorship. Some children in the projects had been homeless and we had been told about them by people from their villages; others had been recommended to us by people from their villages who were concerned for their welfare for one reason or other; others had had parents or family members apply to the organisation. I was investigating the latter.

To get to these villages we would usually drive as far as the cars could access and then walk several miles, to get to the houses of the applicants. When we got to the houses we would enter and chat with them about their lives, about their family and their children, about their situations, and about their reasons for applying to the organisation. It wasn’t supposed to feel like an interview, but we were informally assessing their situation to determine whether or not we considered them right for the projects. The variety that we encountered was quite funny: after meeting with a few families in very extreme poverty, starving and with few clothes (the clothes they did have were ill-fitting, very scraggy, badly stained and full of holes) and very few possessions, we visited another family who led us into their house which had a rug on the floor and tiles on the walls (as opposed to the usual mud floor and mud walls), and served us tea in china cups from a wooden cabinet with a glass door, as we sat on a comfortable sofa! It was pleasantly different to sitting on rocks. All in all these interviews were great fun, and it was wonderful chatting with the families about their lives, and knowing that we were able to provide some help for those in greatest need.

Another fun, moving and uplifting activity that I was able to get involved in was distributing ‘gifts of hope’. There are various websites from which people in more developed countries can send money to purchase particular things – cows, goats, chickens, farming equipment, school books, bags of maize flour, mattresses and the like – and then organisations working in poorer countries receive the money, purchase the chosen items and distribute them to the poorest of the poor in the areas where they work. The organisation that I was working for ran one such website, and it was a refreshing change to work at the receiving end: we were to purchase the items that Westerners had bought online and deliver them to the poorest Rwandans that we could find. It was such a privilege. We identified people to give the gifts to by going to villages that we knew to be the poorest villages in the region, and speaking with the people there to find out who are the people with greatest need. People were very honest with us, it seemed – I guess because it is such a communal culture and everyone in a village knows each other; and people want the best for each other – especially for those who are known to be in desperate need.

Almost every recipient cried when we gave the gifts. Nobody was expecting them – it was a complete surprise. And the other villagers showed no sign of envy – they were simply very happy for their neighbours. There were moments where I felt myself cringing because of appearing to reinforce the stereotype of ‘white people giving aid to poor Africans’ – but I saw how happy people were and I noticed what huge change these gifts would genuinely make to their lives, and I didn’t feel so bad.

One recipient particularly remained in my mind – a blind man, deemed unable to work because of his condition (not that there were any available jobs in his area anyway, nor did he have any skills that people recognised because there were no resources around) whose children had died and his wife was now too old to bear more children. Having no children is considered at best a serious misfortune and at worst an evil curse in the culture. When we arrived he asked who we were and what we wanted, and when we said we had brought some gifts for him he asked us why, several times. When he was sure that we were not trying to trick him in any way, he gestured that we could put them in his one-roomed, square mud house, so we did. There was nothing in the house but a thin, tatty and very dirty-looking blanket in one corner, and a battered pan in another. There was a communal stove nearby, outside. There was no door to the house either, just a rectangular hole in the mud wall. It was very dingy in there, and smelt unpleasant. We brought in a new foam mattress, two very large bags of maize flour (each of which needed to be carried by two men) and a few smaller items. It was a basic gift, not very expensive at all and considered mere essentials – but the man, standing outside his house, kept on shaking each of our hands and holding on tightly, thanking us again and again with tears streaming down his face. He said that he would neither enter his house nor touch the gifts until his wife returned home later in the evening – he needed to share the joy with her. I wondered if anyone had ever given him anything before.

Being able to make people’s lives that bit more bearable in this way was very humbling and such a privilege. What’s more, during my stay there I found myself unexpectedly in a position of being able to sponsor a child! I had been planning to work in Bolivia for nine or ten months with a large international charity, after these shorter trips – and while in Rwanda I received an apologetic email from that charity, explaining to me that the orphanage where I had planned to work had had some unexpected problems and conflicts which had suddenly escalated and had led the volunteer coordinator to permanently leave the country. This meant that they were unable to take on any western workers until they had found a new volunteer coordinator and had reached some stability in the home, which would take at least a few years. They told me that if I wanted I could wait a few years and return later, or I could go to Brazil to work for a project there instead.

When I received this email I became quite stressed – I had been preparing for this trip for the past six years, and couldn’t bear the thought of not actually making it to Bolivia after all the work I’d put into it. Incidentally, I had been sort of in touch with the organisation that my partner was planning on working for, in a different part of Bolivia – and on the same day that I received that stressful email, I also received an email from this other charity where Ben was going to work in the near future, inviting me to visit them and even to come and work for them ‘if it doesn’t work out with [the other charity]’. So I read through the information on their website, and began to get excited because their work was actually more suited to what I had wanted to do than the project that I was originally going to work for. I responded to their email to let them know the dates that I was available, and asked how much it would cost and what the accommodation etc would involve. I asked for many more details, not wishing to repeat the mistakes that I had made with the organisation in Uganda!

It turned out that working for them, a very small local organisation, worked out immensely cheaper than the other larger charity – saving me several thousand pounds! I was baffled, amazed and very happy. Within a day of agreeing to work for this other (cheaper) organisation I had signed up to sponsor a child in Rwanda, knowing that I could now afford it! I arranged to meet with my sponsored child, and to bring her some ‘gifts of hope’ from the market (flour, soap etc). Visiting her and spending a day getting to know her was absolutely wonderful, and I loved being able to choose some gifts to bring for her. I still write to her and often receive beautiful letters and drawings from her.


Genocide Repercussions; Parenting Courses

Throughout my time in Rwanda I kept hearing more and more about the 1994 genocide. I heard that the government is trying to make the country look visibly safe and peaceful, and so all kinds of extra precautions are taken around the capital city. These make it seem like a very odd city with strange priorities, and somehow still quite a tense place at times. It’s silly little things, too, such as new laws stating that on the bodas (the motorbike ‘taxis’) both the rider and the passenger have to wear hair nets and helmets when riding – though the drivers are still only in shorts, t-shirts and flip flops, and half the helmets are broken and just for show. I both heard and noticed that in our workplace, despite everyone being there for the sake of benefiting the children who are most in need of help, there are staff tensions and conflicts on a regular basis between members of the two main tribal groups.

I heard that the genocidal beliefs are so deeply ingrained in everybody’s upbringing that it is impossible to undo the mindsets and attitudes that have caused so much destruction. Hutus had been raised with the belief that their Tutsi friends and neighbours will turn against them at any time and will grasp opportunities to kill – this attitude that ‘if I don’t kill him, he will kill me’. Tutsis had been raised to believe exactly the same of their Hutu friends and neighbours. How can a whole nation live like this, always waiting for an attack from their closest companions, and not knowing when they may have to strike out against people they love in order to defend themselves and their families. Even now, long after the genocide has supposedly ended, these attitudes remain, and there were times during my stay when it seemed quite noticeable. I thought people would be relieved that it had ‘finished’ and would grasp the opportunity to live in peace and security, learning to trust each other. It feels like a sort-of-safe place – but there is a significant amount of tension still hidden just under the surface which shows its face sometimes. But things are infinitely better than they were, and for this we can all be thankful.

I had opportunity to visit a genocide memorial, too. It was in an old church building, a plain stone structure that had been converted into a memorial. It was full of hundreds of skulls in display cabinets, and large piles of bloodstained clothing. I was shocked to hear that during the war many Hutu officials had spoken with the vicars and pastors and priests, instructing them to invite Tutsis to find shelter in their churches, and that they (the officials) would then come to the churches and kill everyone there. And if the church leaders did not comply, they would be tortured and killed, along with their families. So, shockingly, many did comply – and churches became ‘safe places’ for Tutsis to find refuge, until the Hutu officials came there and killed them all. They did not come with guns; they came with clubs and machetes. I was told that babies were held by the ankles and swung around, and their heads smashed against walls; and that pregnant women were sliced open on the church altar. Children were raped in front of their families, and then cut into pieces with machetes. Family members were ordered to kill each other or be killed more brutally themselves – and everyone was killed in the end anyway. I felt speechless and very sick just being there and hearing all this, surrounded by the bloodstained remains of clothing and the rows of skulls that had been found in that very church. Since those days, although being a Christian is acceptable, wearing a cross has been seen as a very insensitive, even offensive reminder of these atrocities committed by so many church leaders during the genocide.

There were reminders everywhere. We would drive down any road and a Rwandan colleague would point at a building and comment that it was where his brother or uncle or cousin lived before he was killed with a machete, or that his own children had killed him on the doorstep under orders from officials. Friends turned against each other; next-door neighbours looked out for opportunities to attack and kill one another. Absolutely shocking, almost unbelievable – and utterly impossible to forget. It is good to remember, if it means that we as mankind are less likely to repeat these horrendous events – but for those grieving there is no relief, anywhere.

Those who were known to have committed the most extreme or the biggest genocide crimes have been arrested – but because the prisons are far too full, the government have a system by which those people can give full names and locations of all those they killed, and if any living relatives of those victims come forwards and publicly forgive the killers, they can be released from prison early. I met a woman whose whole family except for one brother had all been murdered by one man, a neighbour of hers. She had gone forwards and publicly, legally forgiven the killer, in recognition that during the genocide everyone was killing everyone else and that perhaps it wasn’t personal. This shocked me so much – how can slicing people up with machetes be ‘not personal’ – especially your own neighbours, whom you grew up with and whose children played with your children…? Anyway, she forgave him and he was soon released. As soon as he was released, only a few years ago, he hunted down the one brother whom he had left alive, and killed him. He was back in prison as a result. The woman was talking about it with a completely blank expression on her face, as if she had been trying not to think about it or remember the details; as if it was now simply information. She has since got married and had a child – she has ‘moved on’, has a new life, and the grief of bereavement is in the past, just like everyone else. Pretty much everyone now in the country over 25 was bereaved because of the genocide.

On the way to one village we crossed a bridge over a murky river, and I was told that during the war many bodies of Tutsis – as well as some live but injured Tutsis – were thrown into the river because it was thought that the river would carry them to the Nile – ‘back where they came from’.

I found it fascinating that one’s tribal identity could completely change depending on various factors. I was told that if one had many cows, one could easily become known as Hutu, even if one was Tutsi by birth. I heard that if one was tall and lanky one was usually Tutsi and if one was shorter and had a wider nose, one was probably Hutu. I was told that when the genocide was at its worst, people would kill each other simply by guessing their tribe by looking at their appearance. Imagine being killed for having a wide nose, or for being tall.

There were a few villages that had been described as “survivors’ villages”, two of which I visited to help with parenting courses. These are places where, a few years before the genocide officially began, prominent Tutsis were sent to live. They were villages where the land was completely barren and nothing would grow, and survival was difficult. Disease of many kinds spread quickly in these places, and I was told that the stench of death filled them even before the genocide. Because the villages were completely populated with Tutsis, during the genocide Hutu officials who were known to be HIV-positive would go to those villages and rape all of the women and girls. While not everybody was killed, all were raped or injured. Those who continued to live there once the war had officially ended were almost all full of disease, as were the children that they bore after the war had ended. There was such a sense of hopelessness and despair in those places. In one of them, because there are no jobs and nothing for people to do, I was told that the men spent all their time producing and drinking banana beer. The stench of it filled the air throughout the whole village. All the men we encountered were drunk, at 11am. As ever, children followed us wherever we walked – though these children were dirtier, smellier and much closer to death than most of the children from the other towns and villages. It felt incredibly hopeless and depressing.

On the way to teach on the parenting courses I mentioned that I am not a parent and know nothing about raising children, but was told that the parents in these villages were literally leaving their newborn babies and young toddlers to fend for themselves, not washing or feeding them at all – and then wondered why they were dying. Surely it is common sense, that all people know of the need to feed and look after their children! I wondered whether perhaps the parents did not consider it worthwhile to help their child survive, since all they were trying to do each day was survive, rather than really live. The parents would say, ‘we have no food to give them’ – because no plants will grow in the area and they have no animals for meat, though they have a little maize that somebody brings in from other villages. We noticed, however, that many wild goats wander the outskirts of the villages, and we suggested that they eat goats’ meat and drink their milk. In their culture, however, goats are seen as unclean animals and many would rather die than touch or eat goat, or drink the milk. In these parenting courses we spoke of the benefits of eating goats’ meat and drinking the milk, and kept on emphasising that it might just keep them alive. Although some could see little motivation to try to live longer and were stubborn in their refusal to go near the goats, eventually some people in one village began to feed the children goats’ milk and to eat the meat, after we had left. The health benefits were obvious almost immediately, so others followed, until this particular village became known for their ‘disgusting habit’ of eating goats’ meat and drinking their milk. But, seeing that the villagers’ children were living longer and looking more healthy, I later heard that one or two other villages eventually followed. Success!

During one of the parenting courses, at one point people began to feel a slight breeze (we were sat on a dust floor outdoors), and began to get jumpy and excited. As the wind picked up a little and the dust started to blow around, the people began making excited noises, and some began to get up and dance. The teaching stopped, and everybody became very animated and started dancing around. I wondered what the commotion was, and somebody told me that they were thinking and hoping that it might begin to rain – they had had no rain in the village for more than three months. And it did rain! Some people stayed outdoors and danced in the rain; others sat under a nearby roof and sang and shared stories. By this point everyone was so happy and very chatty – what a change from the hopeless and depressed atmosphere that there had been when we first arrived. When we left these villages at the end of the day-long parenting courses, the villagers would shake our hands tightly and thank us over and over again for caring about them and for coming to teach them, and for the advice that we had given about health and hygiene and the like. I don’t know if it was just cultural politeness, or if they were genuinely thankful and were going to put into practice some of the things that we had suggested. Time will tell, I guess – though perhaps I will never know whether or not our words had any impact on their lives.