The more time I spend in Rwanda, the more I see it as an amazing place of both contradictions and of consistencies. Permit me to ponder this for a few moments before I recap today’s amazing highlights.
First: contradictions. This came to my mind today when a friend commented on one of my earlier blog posts with his impression that my photos contradicted his perceptions of Rwanda as a “third world” country. I think this commenter’s perceptions likely mirrored my own prior to coming to Rwanda. I imagined drastic poverty. And while our presentation today by Catholic Relief Services’ Rwanda staff underscored many of the socio-economic and healthcare challenges faced by this country, even a casual observer will be impressed by not only the modernity, but also the impeccable cleanliness, of Rwanda’s capital city. Another contradiction — one that I’m still learning about — is Rwanda’s tragic and all too recent past contradicted against her current level of safety and relatively moderate crime rate.
While these contradictions will definitely merit more pondering at a later time, let me say a few words next about Rwanda’s consistencies. First and foremost, Rwandans are undoubtedly among the most hospitable and friendly people I’ve ever met. Additionally, their intelligence is clear in so many ways, not the least of which is many Rwandans’ fluency in three languages. Finally, the amazing cleanliness of nearly every corner of the city we’ve visited convinces me that this orderliness is not solely a government mandate, but additionally a personal priority for Rwanda’s citizens. If you spot a small piece of litter here, it stands out immediately and doesn’t seem to linger for long. The result is that even some of the least developed areas we’ve visited practically sparkle. Set against the country’s many rolling hills and her pervasive greenery, this physical care for the city is enviable for an American who’s all too used to graffiti and gum stained sidewalks.
Enough mental meandering for now… let me turn to the events of the day. I wish I had more time to dwell on each of these, but in favor of getting some sleep I will hit the major memories of the day.
First and foremost, we were treated to a tremendous presentation from the Catholic Relief Services Rwanda staff. I will definitely address some of the highlights in more detail, but a few of the statistics need to be shared now to put my posts into a larger context:
- With a population of 11.6 million and an area roughly the size of Maryland, Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa. 81% reside in rural areas and 57% are Catholic.
- The GDP per capita is $1,136. 90% of the labor force work in agricultural occupations. Rwanda’s main cash crops are coffee and tea.
- Rwanda’s life expectancy is 55.4 years. 11.6 % of the adult population and 44% of children under the age of five are under undernourished. The rate of HIV/AIDS prevalence is 3%. 77% of women and 80% of men are literate.
- Rwandan females hold over 60% of the seats in Parliament.
- With a staff of 29 in country, CRS has engaged in a broad cross section of program sectors of the year including (but not limited to):
- Institutional feeding
- Small Enterprise Development
- Emergency Relief
- Trauma Counseling and Community Reconciliation
- Orphans and Vulnerable Children/HIV and AIDS
- Institutional Strenthening
- Current CRS priorities include Nutrition, Agriculture and Food Security, Church Strategic Support and Economic Strengthening. Peacebuilding continues to have an ongoing impact upon current CRS priorities in Rwanda.
Our morning with the CRS Rwanda staff concluded with a sharing of fair-trade coffee and tea. After this treat, I may never again touch non-fair-trade brews. For a sampling, check out CRSFairTrade.org.
After our CRS Orientation, our next stop was to Conférence Episcopale du Rwanda (CEPR), the Bishops’ Episcopal Conference in Rwanda. For an overview of the Church’s role here and her partnership with CRS, we enjoyed a prolonged conversation with Abbe Celestin Hakizimana, the General Secretary for the Episcopal Conference. This meeting was followed by a fascinating presentation on the Church’s reconciliation efforts with two high level staff members of the Episcopal Justice and Peace Commission. One question I posed during this session dealt with Rwandan parents’ challenge of presenting the Genocide truthfully to their children without causing emotional damage. With most families in this country having been either survivors or perpetrators of the Genocide in some way, support for all parties remains a continual and challenging priority for this commission. I will revisit both of these topics in later posts, but suffice it to say that the work of the Catholic Church in Rwanda is both evident and greatly needed. Inspired by the leadership of Pope Francis and the country’s Bishops, Rwandan seminaries are currently at capacity, full of future priests, and the gospel message is vibrant and pervasive.
After a wonderful lunch at Chez Robert, we quickly stopped in at Rwanda’s Media High Council to obtain our press credentials. This press pass will undoubtedly be one of my favorite souvenirs of my Egan Fellowship trip!
Our final official stop for today was a wonderful visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. As was the case with my visit to Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Center) in Israel, this particular venue left me both emotionally reeling and filled with conviction to help play some small role in ensuring that such violence never again occurs in my lifetime. The Kigali Memorial Centre is both a place of memory and a call to action. Here is a brief description from the Centre’s website:
The Kigali Memorial Centre was opened on the 10th Anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide, in April 2004. The Centre is built on a site where over 250,000 people are buried. These graves are a clear reminder of the cost of ignorance. The Centre is a permanent memorial to those who fell victim to the genocide and serves as a place for people to grieve those they lost…One of the principle reasons for the Centre’s existence is to provided educational facilities. These are for a younger generation of Rwandan children some of whom may not remember the genocide, but whose lives are profoundly affected by it.
Among the most moving areas of this remarkable place are the mass burial areas which are the final resting place of over 250,000 victims of the genocide and a touching children’s memorial that underscores the tragic impact of this dark period of history on the lives of so many of Rwanda’s most vulnerable souls. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Rwanda, the Centre is a mandatory visit to more fully comprehend the events leading up to, during the siege of and immediately following the hundred days of genocide.
As I type this, I’m safely ensconced under my mosquito netting (quite a sight!) and my mind is racing a million miles an hour. It is hard to imagine that we have only been in Rwanda such a short time, and yet that this amazing place has already so touched my soul. While I have much more to say, my alarm will be ringing in less than six hours for another full day so I will say goodnight for now. We move to another hotel tomorrow, so I’m not sure what our wifi situation will be. Rest assured that I will log on to share more of this experience as soon as possible.
Copyright 2013 Lisa M. Hendey