Rwanda: day 1

Lamentations 3:19–22 (ESV): 

19  Remember my affliction and my wanderings, 

the wormwood and the gall! 

 20  My soul continually remembers it 

and is bowed down within me. 

 21  But this I call to mind, 

and therefore I have hope: 

 22  The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; 

his mercies never come to an end;


After a day of long, but uneventful travel, my companions (Elder Tom Smart and Elder Martha Markivich) and I (Pastor Charissa Howe) arrived in Kigali around dinner time yesterday (Monday) evening. We had brief introductions with other members of the group and some quick instructions before crashing into bed for the night.

Study Time

This morning, Rev. Paula Cooper – one of our PC(USA) mission coworkers – opened the day with a brief Bible study on Genesis 37:1-11. We will spending time during our journey reflecting on the story of Joseph. It was interesting to think about the family system, the dynamics, the politics involved in all of that story and to think of it in light of the “favored child” story that lead to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. 

Genesis 37:1–11 (ESV): Joseph’s Dreams

37 Jacob lived in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan. 

2 These are the generations of Jacob. 

Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him. 

5 Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Hear this dream that I have dreamed: 7 Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words. 

9 Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” 11 And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.

Rev. Dr. Pascal Bataringaya

We also met with Rev. Dr. Pascal Bataringaya, the president of the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda (EPR). Dr. Pascal is a humble, soft-spoken, and friendly man of slight build. He opened by sharing a video about the EPR.

We often think of Africa as being “THE mission field”, but in 1967, the EPR  determined that evangelism had succeeded and dropped “evangelistic” from the name of the denomination. In other words, there wasn’t really any traditional missionary work left to do there. 

I appreciated how very Presbyterian they are indeed. Dr. Pascal quoted the late, great Karl Barth, they have many committees and programs and they have SEVEN Presbyteries in a country the size of Maryland! There are 400,000 members in the EPR. . . Again. . . In a country the size of Maryland. They have schools, hospitals, guest houses, health centers, and nutrition education programs.

In spite of its prevalence, the church has has some credibility problems due to it’s actions, or perhaps more importantly it’s inactions, regarding the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In 1994, roughly a million people died in 100 days all because their ID listed an ethnic identity that had been fabricated by European colonists once upon a time. 

The church was accused of complicity in this genocide against the Tutsis. Before the genocide in 1994, most observers would have considered Rwanda the most Christian country in Africa, but more Rwandans were killed in Christian churches/parishes than anywhere else. Therefore, churches lost their credibility. In a time after the church declared it no longer needed to make evangelism its top priority and were faced with the horrors of 1994, the church had to learn how to stand for justice and reconciliation. 

The Gacaca courts which were used to try those accused of genocide were a mix of traditional and modern law. They were run at a local level by 9 judges elected by a population of “people of integrity” (INYANGAMUGAYO). In these courts, many suspects testified to their deeds. This helped bring closure and in some cases, even reunited families with the remains of loved ones who had been murdered in the genocide. Had each of these suspects been tried in traditional court, it would have taken more than 200 years to get through all the court cases, but the gacaca courts were finished and closed in 2012, less than 20 years after the genocide. 

In order to keep peace and law today, there is peace and justice education for children, seminars, trainings, grassroots leadership, counseling, and many more services to help the nation heal. There are national summits and the church is now wholly committed to justice and reconciliation. Pascal calls the church a “capacity builder and institutional moralizer”. 

25 years later, reconciliation is still a process taking place. Social justice and reconciliation belong together. This is why the churches were so involved in the gacaca court process – a process that is geared toward reconciliation, not punishment. God wants to show us there is life after conflict and repression. 

Today, they are still finding bodies from gacaca information and are able to bury them and provide closure. They are recognized by their clothing, ID cards, and personal items like jewelry and bibles. 

“Reconciliation is not easy, but it is possible.”

Mwendata Violette Nyirarukundo (Violet)

After meeting with Dr. Pascal, we met Mwendata Violette Nyirarukundo (who goes by Violet). Violet is an elder, a mother, a grandmother, a pastor’s kid, and a trained trauma healing therapist. She is an elegant, wise, and powerful presence. When Violet walks into the room, you know she is in the room and you know that Jesus is in the room. Her Kinyarwandan name means “the one who possesses love” and she lives out that name.

Like others we have met and will meet in the days to come, she shared her own experiences and stories from friends and family. One that stood out to me especially was one about a pastor who was found hiding Tutsi neighbor children. When confronted about it, he was given the choice to let the extremists kill the neighbor children or his own children. As I thought about my own children and the beautiful neighbor children they play with every day, I could hardly handle even the imagination of having to make that choice. Many pastors were killed in the genocide for being or standing up for Tutsi people while others shared locations of Tutsi congregation members to save themselves or their families or because they had bought into the fervor that the Tutsis were “cockroaches” or “snakes”. Violet told us that at one point she prayed God would wipe out Rwanda because even if they survived, it would be impossible to look other nations in the eyes after what had happened. That shame has, however, been transformed into powerful testimony. 

She shared with us about the importance of the genocide memorial in Kigali. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the infamous Rwandan genocide, but Violet shared that for her and the people of Rwanda, it still feels like it was just last week. It is very much a part of every day life.

Growing up, Violet’s family moved to the Congo for her father’s seminary studies. While they lived there, they were proud to be Rwandan. Cows and dairy remained a part of their culture and identity as Rwandans, in spite of the culture around them in Congo. They had a sense that Rwandan values were higher than those of others. Instead of asking others how things were where they were from, they would ask “How is your Rwanda?” This conveyed the idea that Rwanda was the only place real life was possible. Because of this sense of life, high values, and proud identity, when Rwanda became a killing ground, there was a terrible loss of identity that came with that. This was not Rwanda in their understanding. 

There were many problems to solve once the genocide was over. These included dead bodies all over the place and survivors (primarily widows and orphaned children) with no way to bury their loved ones and find real closures. In this sort of desolation and trauma, healing had to become a priority. Memorials like the one in Kigali provide a way to bury the dead with dignity and they can be found all over the country. We will be visiting memorials many times throughout our journey the next few weeks. 

They are still finding mass graves to this day. People are recognized by clothing, ID’s, jewelry, even a bible a woman had in her purse. These bodies are treated with dignity. They are washed, perfumed, adorned with flowers. It doesn’t matter how many years its been. “I finally found him/her.” “Since I buried my sister, I can sleep.” “It’s like we still owe a debt to our loved one.”

The Kigali Genocide Memorial opened in April of 2004- 10 years post-genocide. It includes the history of the genocide in Rwanda, as well as the history of genocides around the world. As a healing tool, this memorial delivers a message, serves as a place for processing grief, and is a tool for memory healing. 

It is important in the trauma healing process to move from a victim identity to become a survivor. It is then that you have a good story to tell of how you moved from death into life. This is how one who has suffered can help others. After 25 years, people are finally learning to cry. They have shelved their feelings for far too long.

The memorial center is a place for comfort. It is a place where our Christian values are challenged. It is also a place where we can meet God’s unfailing love. It challenged us to ask questions like what is the difference between cultural Christian identity and real Christian faith. It is a stark reminder that something terrible like the 1994 genocide can happen even in a country that identifies itself as being Christian. The Rwandan people are a different kind of Christian now than they were before the genocide. 

After meeting with Violet, we went on to the Kigali Genocide Memorial where we learned, cried, mourned, and laid flowers as a sign of respect for the 259,000+ people buried at the site. The most powerful parts of the museum for me included a room where families could hang photos of loved ones who died in the genocide and a room full of stories of children who were killed. One boy looked just like the neighbor boy across my street who plays with my son. I read his bio and saw he liked to play football with his friends – just like my own son and this neighbor boy. He was “tortured to death” at the age of 10 – the same age as my son. It was devastating. 

Perhaps the most powerful words that Violet left us with were these: “The same devil who worked in Rwanda is the same devil working in your own country. It could happen anywhere.” This, friends is why this sort of exploration is so very important. We cannot move forward into a better world if we fail to remember the past.