Rwanda: Day 2

Morning Bible Study

Paula opened our day in morning Bible study with Genesis 37:12-24. This is the first part of the narrative in which Joseph is sold by his brothers. In this passage, his brothers act on their jealousy. We spent some extra time talking about Reuben and his motivations for talking the brothers into throwing Joseph into the well. Was he trying to cover his own butt? A guilty conscience? Easier to watch nature kill him that do it directly? Compassion? Regardless, it is Reuben’s voice speaking up (whatever the motivations) that spared Joseph and changed the narrative. Rev. Rosemarie (a Rwandan member of our group) reminded us that “genocide cannot happen if your top leadership is against it.”


After Bible study, we heard from Rev. Marceline, a pastor in the Kigali Presbytery. She is also a PhD student studying reconciliation. Her gentle smile is catching and bright and her testimony is powerful.

Marceline was 8 years old in 1994 when the genocide began. Her family’s first glimpse of the genocide was the home of another Tutsi family burning to the ground in their neighborhood. After hiding the children first in different places, her father finally gathered the family and the hid together in a local church compound. Then one day, the soldiers came. Just minutes before the arrival of these soldiers, a woman came to warn them, but not many people believed her. Just as Marceline left with the woman, the soldiers came. Her sister survived by hiding in the mattresses and her brother jumped into a truck and escaped to the forest. These three were the only survivors in their family. Most of the people in the compound, including Marceline’s parents, were slaughtered. 

Until the end of the genocide, the woman who got Marceline out of the compound protected her. Afterward, she went to live with her auntie. Her auntie took in not only Marceline and her surviving siblings, but many other orphans as well. At that time, orphans wound up with whomever was willing to take them in. Eventually, when her sister grew up and got married, she moved to South Africa with her sister and her brother-in-law. She lived in South Africa for 13 years. She returned to Rwanda in 2015 and is now married with a little son. 

For a long time, she thought, “it’s because of church that my family is dead.” The genocide would have been different without churches, because this is where masses of people died – hiding in churches. Marceline is confident that she is not the only survivor who feels this way. The church is meant to be a place of safety, not massacre. 

When living in South Africa, she realized there are two groups of refugees or diaspora. There are the ones who left because they’d been victims and there are the ones who left because they were the perpetrators. She decided to “live in both groups.” It was then she was led to her focus on reconciliation.

Punishment for crimes committed before, during, and after the genocide of 1994  is an interesting subject. There are people who fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that were killed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Some say this was “double genocide” but Marceline argues that this is not the case. These killings were crimes, but they were individual revenge killings, not genocide. There are many survivors who are angry and believe that the government didn’t do enough to punish those who killed violently during the genocide. That said, the primary difference is that there was never a plan to kill Hutu people. There was a plan to kill Tutsi people.

Some people are concerned that the memorials primarily talk about Tutsi deaths and not the Hutus who hid Tutsis, spoke out, protected children, had moderate views, and more. However, while there were Hutu deaths, there were none because of their ethnicity (real or perceived). The Hutus who died protecting Tutsis are celebrated as heroes, but this is a distinction from being a genocide victim. The commemorations are not a macabre focus on the past, but a warning for the future. 

“If we forget, we can do it again.”

After the genocide, ethnic distinctions were removed from ids, etc. This included not just the Hutus and the Tutsis, but also the often forgetten tiny minority Twa people. The Twa have historically been approximately 1% of the population of Rwanda. These ethnic labels have been erased (at least formally) because they were never actual ethnic labels to begin with. They aren’t real ethnicities. These are labels that were given to them by colonizers. The first Europeans to colonize Rwanda believed that the Twa were the original indigenous people of Rwanda, followed by the Hutu people, then the Tutsis. The colonizers believed the Tutsi had migrated from Ethiopia and were therefore of higher quality race than the Hutus and Twa. This was the history taught in schools even until the time of the genocide. Children would be asked to stand and identify themselves at school as Tutsi or Hutu. 

Really, these “ethnicities” that were given to the people of Rwanda by the colonizers were more like social classes between which people could migrate. If you didn’t have cows, you were Hutu. If you gained cows, you became Tutsi. If you had cows, you were Tutsi. If you lost your cows, you were now Hutu. When the colonizers came and gave ID cards with Hutu or Tutsi on them, they got rid of this interchangeability. 

There is absolutely no historical or scientific data to back up the colonizers’ narrative about the different “ethnicities” in Rwanda. They share a language, physical features, culture, religion, and homeland. There is, however, a challenge in trying to change the narrative that has been bestowed on the people here. 

It is interesting to talk with our South Sudanese group members about these issues because they are from a place that has been on the brink of similar trouble. One of our group members commented that he blames “ourselves” as much or more than the colonial masters because “we believed them when we should have rejected them.”

Because there are Hutu who helped Tutsi and even some who died for this, the government of Rwanda has never asked all Hutu across the board to apologize. Yet, many have offered individual apologies for their crimes and the church has apologized for it’s complicity in the genocide.

Nearly everyone in Rwanda suffers the effects of trauma from 1994. Even children born after the genocide are traumatized. They have parents who killed or family who were killed. Commemoration is a big part of their trauma healing for all generations. It is important to balance this healing with triggering trauma, but we cannot neglect healing. 

Trauma is a poison that passes down from generation to generation. This is a real challenge for parents raising post-genocide children. Children need to know the whole story so they know it’s bigger than just Hutu vs. Tutsi. And they need to know because it’s about more than just remembering. It’s about remembering then moving forward into a new and better future. Mental health care has seen cultural and logistical challenges in the last 25 years, but this has been shifting over the last 5 years or so as Rwandans are trained as counselors to help people wrestle with their trauma. Now that the country has become more economically and politically stable, mental health care is becoming more of a priority. 

When asked if reconciliation is a success, Marceline answers yes. She said that reconciliation has been a success because there are no longer official ethnic groups. The government still allows people to claim an identity on private level as a Hutu or Tutsi, but it can’t be used officially on ID, job applications, etc. They do still struggle with hate groups. There are still Hutus who would kill if given the chance and Tutsis who are very angry. But these hate groups are no longer in control. 

Marceline said that those who never left Rwanda have a harder time seeing the problems that those from the outside or those who have spent time outside Rwanda see. This is just normal. There was the genocide and now they are rebuilding. They almost seem to not realize how incredible this reconciliation work truly is. The church in America can learn so much from the church in Rwanda.

Centre Presbyterien d’Amour des Juenes

In the afternoon, we traveled about 20 minutes from the guesthouse to the Centre Presbyterien d’Amour des Juenes. This is a children’s home that began by gathering and caring for orphans of the genocide. Today, the children at CPAJ are primarily “street children” who are victims of poverty, family violence, or “parental irresponsibility”. The goal is to reunite children from the street with their family. They have social workers and a psychologist who work with the children and families to determine the actual circumstances that led to the child being on the street and then to reconcile and reunite. The provide material needs, education, mental health care, medical care, and more. When it is not possible for a child to be reunited, they can stay at CPAJ until they are integrated into the adult world. 

There are many dangers for children on the street. The primary dangers for them are drugs and sexual abuse/exploitation. Many of the children come to the program with sexually transmitted diseases or drug addiction. The program addresses medical, mental health, and rehabilitation for these children. 

This compound receives no aid from the government. It is a program of the EPR (Presbyterian Church of Rwanda) and receives funds from international partners. They have a small staff (a director, deputy director, a cook, psychologist, several social workers, a few teachers, and a gatekeeper) and rotating young adults who can serve for a year working at CPAJ. They are seriously understaffed (3 teachers for 100 students), but “We do it.” They can house up to 50 children at a time – all boys (the girls’ centre is down the road). 

Activities outside of school for the boys include: therapy, games, preparation for life outside of CPAJ (either with family or on their own), and other life skills like helping in the kitchen. We experienced some of their activities firsthand when we have the chance to dance with the boys and take selfies with them. Without a doubt, 10 year old boys are universally hams.