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Rwanda’s Hidden History

March 21, 2019 by

Margret Burleson and several others from the Bruderhof have been volunteering in Rwanda with World Relief since January. She shares some of her impressions from their first weeks:

group of World Relief volunteers in the back of a Land Rover in Rwanda

It was in the cramped quarters of our Land Rover that I first caught a hint of this hidden story. I was on a bench with seven other people in the back, enveloped in a cloud of red Rwandan dust, trying to enjoy the “African Massage” that the pitted and washed out dirt roads offer to any who venture upon them in a motorized vehicle.

Rwanda. This gorgeous landscape doesn’t deserve the gory connotation the name carries with it, but at the same time, the bloody history is hard to ignore. Every village seems to have a genocide memorial, often in churches where people seeking refuge were massacred. The numbers blow my mind – more than 250,000 in the Kigali memorial, 38,000 in the first memorial we passed on our way into the country, 45,000 in the next village. But there is a hidden story here as well, a history that will not unfold if you probe for it. It takes patience, a slow building of trust and respect. It’s Rwanda’s history of forgiveness.

Our Rwandan colleagues were discussing a savings group that they had visited two weeks before. We were on our way to visit another such group now.

But there is a hidden story here as well. It’s Rwanda’s history of forgiveness.

“I don’t know how they do it,” she said. “This lady – her husband and all her kids were killed by this young man, and he chopped off one of her hands. We were in the savings group, and there they both were, sitting right next to each other. She said she forgave him, and now he is her best friend. He told us he moved right next door to her so that he can be there to help her with household chores she can’t manage because of her missing hand. I don’t think I would ever be able to live like that!”

We imagined ourselves in this woman’s shoes. Imagined the guilt this man must carry. Then someone said, “I don’t think she could have done it alone. It would have been crazy if she did! But if Jesus is living in you, then Jesus can forgive.” A murmur of assent went through the vehicle. Yes, with Jesus all things are possible.

And then the moment was broken with a jolt that catapulted everyone on top of each other in one end of the vehicle. As we untangled ourselves, one of the Rwandans explained: “That we call a full-on American massage!”

Our destination was a dusty street with about six houses on each side. The savings group was meeting in a house built of mud bricks, with a square window cut out of one side. There was no glass in the window, and there didn’t appear to be any shutters, either. The door was a curtain that waved in the breeze. We took our seats on the rough benches that circled the room. In the middle of the room stood a small table built of scraps of wood. A rusty metal box stood on the table, its lid open, with some thin money sacks resting inside. When everyone was seated, the president of the savings group leaned forward and opened the meeting, asking the members to start by paying back what they could of their loans. I watched as hands fumbled in pockets or money belts to bring out coins or carefully folded but slowly disintegrating paper money. The plastic bucket went around as each person repaid what he or she could. One old man, face worn with work and worry, deferred. He had not been able to save anything that week.

gathering of people who are members of a savings group in Rwanda

Next, each member was given a chance to purchase shares. Again, the bucket went around. Old women’s hands giving two cents. Young farmers’ hands giving five. One was able to give fifteen. Then silence. One man reached into the pocket of his dusty threadbare trousers and pulled out a letter from a member of their group - a woman asking for a loan to finish building her house. The money in the bucket was counted, and counted again. There was not quite enough for the loan being requested, but after a quiet questioning and the nodded assent of the group, they agreed to give all the money they’d carefully collected, fifty dollars, to the house builder.

Then the president opened the meeting to us for questions.

The first of our group leaned forward. “You are taking part in the savings group. I am wondering what other projects you are using your funds for?” We waited while our translator passed the message on.

Isn’t it impossible to be satisfied with your daughter’s primary education, when you know that with fifty cents more per year, you can actually send her further?

A woman who looked to be in her late fifties reported how she’s been able to save enough money to send her daughter to secondary school. Her dream is to continue in the group, and eventually be able to send her daughter on to college. An older man told how his house was always drenched through with every rain. Through two cycles of saving, he collected enough to repair his roof. A young man said that when he started in the savings group, he didn’t trust the others. But when he saw how they were able to save money, and how honest they were, he started to participate more. Through the savings, he has been able to get a driver’s license, and is now working towards purchasing a motor bike. His dream is to be a taxi driver. Finally the woman who received that day’s loan leaned forward. Even without translation, the pride in her voice was evident. Before she joined the savings group, she’d lived in a tiny mud shack. But now she is working on building a house. It is a beautiful house – even with window openings cut in the wall, and it will need sixteen sheets of metal for the roof! There was a murmur of approval and congratulation. It was clear that success for one meant success for all.

The ride home along the bumpy back roads was thoughtful as we processed what we’d seen and heard. One member of our team confessed that she’d always thought of poverty as a relative thing. If you grow up poor, and your parents did too, and your parents’ parents, then it isn’t so bad. You don’t know any better, so you are probably quite happy. But the stories we’d heard that afternoon countered her first-world ideas. How can you be happy if your belongings are drenched with every rain? Isn’t it impossible to be satisfied with your daughter’s primary education, when you know that with fifty cents more per year, you can actually send her further?

As we emerged onto the blacktopped road, one of our friends asked the three of us from the Bruderhof, “Can you sing? Just one song?”

It has become a joke here in our group of World Relief volunteers – Rwanda is the land of a thousand hills, but the Bruderhof is the land of a thousand songs. So we sang, “Lift up your hearts, lift them high up to the Lord. A light to the nations, dispel our night. Your love will find our hearts are blind, come bring a new light.” Our Rwandan friends joined us on the chorus.

We sang all the way back to Kigali. It was a good singing, filled with prayer and hope and gratefulness for the people of Rwanda and the lessons they taught us this day, along with expectation for what we may learn in the weeks to come.

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