Presbyterian moderator returns from emotional trip to Rwanda

Rob Craig pictured with Eammanuel from the Tear Fund.
Rob Craig pictured with Eammanuel from the Tear Fund.

Before we begin I think it’s crucial that the reader realises that a two week visit is not long enough to understand any country.

You only see a little bit. I am not professing to be an expert by any stretch of my imagination on Rwanda, I can only reflect on my own experience there.

I would like a Rwandan reading this to say that I have been fair to his country.

The group that went out to Rwanda included my wife Karen and my daughter Rachel as well as the press officer with the Presbyterian Church.

We journeyed there to gain a fuller understanding of what our partners are doing in development in Rwanda and to bring that story back to our congregations here so we can be more generous in our Christmas giving to the two development agencies Christian Aid and Tear Fund we support.

Obviously we couldn’t go there and not think of the situation of the conflict back in the 1990’s The first visit we had on the Tuesday after we arrived was to the Genocide Memorial- straight into it. The Genocide Memorial is one building but it is in three sections. Section one explains what Rwanda was like before the genocide, second two explains the story of the genocide and section three tells of Rwanda after the genocide. Before travelling, I had read Fergal Keane’s book “Season of Blood” which told of his own experience arriving even while the genocide was still on-going. His is an honest reflection.

It is a dark discouraging story because it’s a story coming out of a situation of genocidal conflict, a situation with little hope.

I think there is another side to Rwanda now.

What I learned about Rwanda that I didn’t know before was how colonialism, while it may have brought good things also had a negative impact on the country.

The division between Hutu and Tutsi was very much a man-made division based, not so much on tribal difference, as on social and economic differences. Anyone who had ten or more cattle was considered a Tutsi and anybody who had nine or less was considered a Hutu. Also someone had done an anthropological study and reckoned that Tutsi were taller and had finer noses and Hutus were shorter and had flatter noses.

I also discovered that the international community knew a lot more about Rwanda than I as a member of the public locked into my own small world. International figures weren’t unaware of the instability of the region and, in the genocide memorial, one of the quotes is from the then UN general secretary Kofi Annan where he states that one of his regrets is that they did nothing when they should have done something. It was very hard coming through the memorial but when we got to the third section my daughter Karen said: “There is hope here”.

On the following Saturday, which was meant to be our free day, we visited two Catholic churches a short distance out of Kigali, both of which had been places of terrible massacre.

What we didn’t realise was that in1992 it would appear that there was a kind of “a dry run” for the later genocide and people fled to this churches for sanctuary. In 1992 they found it. In 1994 again they fled back to their places of worship and on this occasion they were slaughtered. We are talking here of thousands of people. These churches are no longer active places of worship now. They are living memorials to the dead. They are left with bullet holes, shrapnel holes. The small wooden benches- what we would call pews- are left littered with the clothes of the people who were massacred inside or outside. In one of the churches they have displayed skull upon skull. They still have not identified all the remains. You can tell from the skull whether it was a machete or a club that ended the life. We were told stories there that I will never repeat. It is bad enough that I have to live with them. In one hundred days, one million people were slaughtered and they are still finding bodies so they will never really know the final figure. We remarked that the Memorial Museum tried to give you a more objective story but when you visited these churches, it is much more personal and you could “feel” the trauma right in your gut, right in your heart.

When we got to the churches, there were tears. You can’t listen to those stories and be unmoved. There are guides or guardians who take you round. There is no charge for going in but you can leave a donation and sign the visitor’s book. They welcome you and take maybe five or ten minutes to guide you round and explain. What I noticed in both the museum and both these churches was the silence. You don’t really talk to the people. You just go around and you absorb. The silence invades you. You would feel it would be disrespectful and you would be intruding even to talk to another person. You do go around with your own thoughts and with quietness, deep silence, but I am glad we visited did both the museum and the churches.

Karen picked up that in the Genocide Memorial, at the end of the second section, it said “Rwanda is dead”. It is in that context that people asked the question, ‘Where was the church?’ In Western society, when trouble strikes, people will ask, maybe with bitterness or with cynicism, ‘Where is God?’ That wasn’t the question they asked in Rwanda. They asked ‘Where is the church?’ Sadly at the time of the genocide, as I understand it now with my limited enough knowledge, representatives of the church somehow got caught up in espousing the conflict. Some church people were themselves party to the genocide. I am sure too there were people who protected and hid Tutsi’s. I will tell one story- The second church that we attended, we were shown the grave of an Italian nun, Antonia, who in 1992, when there was a kind of “dress rehearsal” tried to alert the outside world. She paid for that with her life. She was killed. As I understand it , some of the architects of the genocide are on the run and are living outside the country. The wheels of truth and justice turn very slowly in trying to catch up with them. Now Rwandans no longer speak of themselves as Hutu and Tutsi. They speak of themselves as being from one Rwanda. They say “We are all Rwandans.” And I think they can say this now as they seek to move away from the division imposed upon them in the past. They talk of unity and reconciliation. They have created a new flag for everybody, all of one allegiance. In the process of rebuilding, while Rwanda may have elections, they seem to return one party to government. and there is quite an order in the country. The last Saturday of every month every Rwandan-from the President down- has to devote to some kind of voluntary civic or social service. Everything closes down and they tidy up their neighbourhood and meet in communities to talk about how things are doing in their community. I think I would say that I felt very strongly that Rwanda was letting the future shape the present. That is how I would describe Rwanda. I went there wondering what would I learn? I would say the first thing I learned was that each situation is unique. However if there are certain things we could take from this journey, I think one would be that the language we use is very important. Before and during the genocide, the Hutus referred to the Tutsis as “cockroaches”. Once you begin to use that kind of language, who wants a “cockroach” in your house? Such demonization made the genocide more possible. It is so important that we seek always to use language that recognises and appreciates the humanity of the other person.

While in Rwanda, it was so important that we saw the work of development aid. The big thing that hit me in this regard is the importance of sustainable development.

If there is a crisis or emergency, we will have a tv appeal and we will give generously as we did after the tsunami and after other disasters. Sustainability means helping people so they no longer need our help. Helping people so they can help themselves, giving them a hand up and not a hand-out. A couple of stories illustrate that- in rural North Rwanda we travelled to a church. Beside the church was a large cylindrical type building -a tall water tank surrounded by stone and the locals were harvesting rain water from their tin roofs. We discovered that in this area, women were walking 8K downhill to the lake to get water and carrying 25 litres back up-hill.

I will challenge anybody here to lift 25 litres and carry it on their head any distance. This effort took up half of their day apart from their being at risk at times.

And it was not just the women, it was also the younger girls who were doing this. Because the women are the burden-bearers in these communities, they are the people who are quicker to bring about change than the men. And bringing about the change, they formed themselves into small groups developing micro-financed projects.

They all put in little bits so they could get loans and they could get the resources to buy the water tank.

They really lacked the initial financial resources to have these water tanks. When you ask the women now in Rwanda what difference does it make, they say, “ I have half a day extra in my life so I can look after my children, I can send them to school, I help them with their education, we now have a market garden about our house and everything has just changed as a result of this simple thing of being able to harvest rainwater.”

And this is sustainable development. They have built I think 114 of these servicing 1300 people. With support from the Tear Fund in particular.

Another illustration of sustainable development is a Christian Aid one where a family gets a goat. The process starts with a goat and Christian Aid has a rule I wasn’t aware off. If they give you an animal, a goat or a cow, you have to give the first female calf heifer back and everything else is yours.

So the milk is yours and any subsequent kids or cattle are yours but you give one back. And this man we met who started with a goat eventually expanded so he had more than one goat. He was able to get a cow. He now has more than one cow. He was able to get land, start banana plants, start a market garden.

He now has a motorbike and his wee shop sells his produce and it started off with a goat and he is looking after himself and his family. Here people work for their community and not just for themselves.

That same visit, we came upon a group of people who are all “living with HIV” . More than once we came among this expression. People don’t talk about suffering from HIV, which is a negative expression. They talk about “living with HIV”.

Here was a partnership between Christian Aid, the local Anglian dioceses and the local tea plantation, everybody making a contribution to the lives of those “living with HIV” .We saw a pig farm where pigs are bred.

Those involved are learning animal husbandry so they can sell and provide for themselves. It was just again another amazing story.

I would have to say a lot of these stories are bottom up and not top down. I could see that sustainable development does work. The people don’t need very much to suddenly make such a big difference. It is as simple as helping someone to buy a goat or to buy a calf to get them started.

Here in Northern Ireland, we talk about ethical Christmas gifts. A very simple thing can make a profound difference in lives of people.

To get back to the water how do they use the water? It impacts people not only in having clean drinking water but it impacts positively on hygiene, sanitation and personal well-being.

As a Christian minister, people were quite open to me about their faith and would say “My life has been transformed” .

It was all one package, if you like to put it very crudely, acts of faith, acts of worship and collective action to make life more bearable for everybody.