I Watched a Man Die Once July 5, 2008
To Call Themselves Rwandans June 4, 2008
Its been nearly three weeks since my visit to Rwanda. I’m constantly being asked what the country was like by my Ugandan friends—I reply with a simple statement—beautiful country—very clean and well organized (very much unlike Uganda!), friendly people—but with a heartbreaking, unthinkable history. I’ve tried to sit and write about the experience—the sights and the sounds of Kigali, Butare, Gisenyi, and the various other places we ventured to during our brief holiday. But as I sat and starred at my empty journal page, no words would come. My mind was as blank as the page…and so I just sat—silent and still—waiting patiently for something to inspire the synapses to begin firing so beautifully crafted thoughts miraculously make their way to my journal page. (Note to the reader—especially those that know me well!—yes, it’s true! I’ve grown remarkably patient throughout my time here and quite accustomed to silence to this wasn’t as challenging of an exercise as it might have been, oh say, one year ago).
Needless to say, nothing really came. My mind was an empty room.
My heart, however, was quite the contrary—overflowingly full. Emotions overwhelmed me: a profound sadness and a disturbing sense of anger. My heart was afflicted by the sights and smells and imagined sounds of the Murambi-Gikongoro technical school as the room after room of decaying bodies seemed unending. My blood boiled with deep disappointment and shame at how the international community sat by and did nothing. Kofi Anaan, of the UN, said it pretty well so I’ll just quote him– “what happened in Rwanda leaves us with a sense of bitter regret. After genocide- more I could and should have done…the international community is guilty of sins of omission”. And what may be even more horrifying is the active role the Church played in organizing such atrocities. I think that Anne Lamott is right—“you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do”.
With this peculiar deficiency of words, I shall resort to borrowing another’s—someone much more articulate and well versed in the complex history of genocide in the land of a thousand hills. Below is a series of quotes from the book “We’d Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We will be Killed with our Families” by Phillip Gourevitch (whole book is highly recommended!) which will hopefully do more justice than my mere musing to capture a glimpse (or two) of the people who are now striving to call themselves Rwandans.
Decimation means the killing of every tenth person in a population, and in the spring and early summer of 1994 a program of massacres decimated the Republic of Rwanda. Although the killing was low-tech—performed largely by machete—it was carried out at dazzling speed: of an original population of about seven and a half million, at least 800,000 people were killed in just a hundred days. Rwandans often speak of a million deaths, and they may be right. The dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust. It was the most efficient mass killing since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On December 11, 1946, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared genocide a crime under international Law. On December 9, 1948, the General Assembly went further, adopting Resolution 260A (III), the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which obliged “Contracting Parties” to “undertake to prevent and to punish…acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
Just as a state’s police swear to prevent and to punish murder, so the signers of the Genocide Convention swore to police a brave new world order. The rhetoric of moral utopia is a peculiar response to genocide. But those were heady days, just after the trials at Nuremberg, when the full scale of the Nazi extermination of Jews all over Europe had been recognized as a fact of which nobody could any longer claim ignorance. T he authors and signers of the genocide Convention knew perfectly well that they had not fought World War II to stop the Holocaust but rather—and often, as in the case of the United States, reluctantly—to contain fascist aggression. What made those victorious powers, which dominated the UN then even more than they do now; imagine they would act differently in the future?
Rwanda is landlocked and dirt-poor, a bit larger than Vermont and a bit less populous than Chicago, a place so dwarfed by neighboring Congo, Uganda, and Tanzania that for the sake of legibility its name has to be printed on most maps outside the lines of its frontiers. As far as the political, military, and economic interests of the world’s powers go, it might as well be Mars. In fact, Mars is probably of greater strategic concern. But Rwanda, unlike Mars, is populated by human beings, and when Rwanda had a genocide, the world’s powers left Rwanda to it.
Rwanda had presented the world with the most unambiguous case of genocide since Hitler’s war against the Jews, and the world sent blankets, beans, and bandages to camps controlled by the killers, apparently hoping that everybody would behave nicely in the future.
The West’s post-Holocaust pledge that genocide would never again be tolerated proved to be hollow, and for all the fine sentiments inspired by the memory of Auschwitz, the problem remains that denouncing evil is a far cry from doing good.
First the genocide, and now this, I thought: Hutus kill Tutsis, then Tutsis kill Hutus—if that’s really all there is to it, then no wonder we can’t be bother with it all. Was it really so mindless and simple?
The piled up dead of political violence are a generic staple of our information diet these days, and according to the generic report all massacres are created equal: the dead are innocent, the killers monstrous, the surrounding politics insane or nonexistent. Except for the names and the landscape, it reads like the same story from anywhere in the world: a tribe in power slaughters a disempowered tribe, another cycle in those ancient hatreds, the more things change the more they stay the same. As in accounts of earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, we are told that experts knew the fault line was there, the pressure was building , and we are urged to be excited—by fear, distress, compassion, outrage, even simple morbid fascination—and perhaps to send a handout for the survivors. The generic massacre story speaks of “endemic” or “epidemic” violence and of places where people kill “each other,” and the ubiquity of the blight seems to cancel out any appeal to think about the single instance. These stories flash up from the void and, just as abruptly, return there. The anonymous dead and their anonymous killers become their own context. The horror becomes absurd.
Stalin: “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic”.
Inside a church at Nyarubuye, tiny skulls of children were scattered here and there. Inside the nave, empty and grand, where a dark powder of dry blood marked one’s footprints, a single, representative corpse was left of the floor before the altar. He appeared to be crawling toward the confession booth. His feet had been chopped off, and his hands had been chopped off. This was a favorite torture for Tutsis during the genocide; the idea was to cut the tall people “down to size,” and crowds would gather to taunt, laugh and cheer as the victim writhed to death. The bones emerged from the dead man’s cuffs like twigs, and he still had a square tuft of hair peeling from his skull, and a perfectly formed, weather shrunken and weather-greened ear.
I cannot count the times, since I first began visiting Rwanda three years ago, that I’ve been asked, “is there any hope for that place?” In response, I like to quote the hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina. When he told me that the genocide had left him “disappointed,” Paul added, “with my countrymen—Rwandas—you never know what they will become tomorrow.” Although he didn’t mean it that way, this struck me as one of the most optimistic things a Rwandan could say after the genocide, not unlike General Kagame’s claim that people “can be made bad, and they can be taught to be good.”
But hope is a force more easily to name and declare one’s allegiance to than to enact. So I’ll leave you to decide if there is hope for Rwanda with one more story. On April 20, 1997—almost a year ago as I write—Rwanda television showed footage of a man who confessed to having been among a party of genocidaires who had killed seventeen schoolgirls and a sixty-two-year-old Belgian nun at a boarding school in Gisenyi two nights earlier. It was the second such attack on a school in a month; the first time, sixteen students were killed and twenty injured in Kibuye.
The prisoner on the television explained that the massacre was part of a Hutu Power “liberation” campaign. His band of a hundred fifty militants was composed largely of ex-FAR and interahamwe. During their attach on the school in Gisenyi, as in the earlier attack on the school in Kibuye, the students, teenage girls who had been roused from their sleep, were ordered to separate themselves—Hutus from Tutsis. But the students had refused. At both schools, the girls said they were simply Rwandans, so they were beaten and shot indiscriminately.
Rwandans have no need—no room in their corpse-crowded imaginations- for more martyrs. None of us does. But mightn’t we all take some courage from the example of those brave Hutu girls who could have chosen to live, but chose instead to call themselves Rwandans?
**Italics represent texts directly quoted from “We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We will be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda” written by Philip Gourevitch
Shalom to the Ashamed February 11, 2008
The first part of January, I found myself in western Uganda, in the town of busy little town of Hoima for Living with Shalom (LwS)—a training sponsored by MCC and its varoius partners throughout the country. The training focused on “shalom”—living with holistic peace with yourself, your God, others, the nation and the environment. The classroom sessions were interesting and informative as we discussed topics such as: HIV/AIDS prevention, peer relationships, counseling, non-violent conflict resolution, problem solving, and environmental protection issues. The best part of LwS, however, was the relationship formation that took place between the youth. LwS brought together youth from the various corners (and tribes and languages) of Uganda who had just finished their secondary education (S-6) and were enjoying the start of their extended holiday vacation. The participants were able to interact with each other as peers— their equal, people who were the same. Each youth was awaiting their final exam marks, dreaming of the future ahead; all hoping to attend college in the fall. I enjoyed the tea breaks and the late afternoons of playing football the most. It was in these moments that friendships were formed and stereotypes broken down. No longer was it Buganda and Ateso each sitting isolated and alone or Acholi and Busoga competing in cards, or the Runyoro or Karamojong dancing their own cultural dances; instead as the days and weeks went on, the groups boundaries blurred between the groups—from six they became one. It was in these informal times where the extension of friendship served as a bridge for peace and acceptance amongst youth of a nation that were taught to judge and divide based upon their differences… I’m hopeful for the future of Uganda.
The part of training that most impacte me, however, occurred after a day of discussing conflict, violence and nonviolence, we watched the film, “Hotel Rwanda”. Now, I’ve seen this film before but never in this context. As I looked around me, on my left was an Acholi (northern Uganda, LRA conflict) and on my right a Karamong (northeastern Uganda, where cattle raids are common). Many of the youth sitting around me call home to places of past and present violence, conflict and instability. Life and death are only separated (at times) by very thin lines. As I watched a film about the Rwandan genocide with people only a few years younger than myself, it struck me that this was, for many of them, either a personal relatity or threatening possiblity of events. It was entertainment, it was real life. Seeing their eyes close and hearing them gasp at the scenes of violence sent a shivering sensation through my spine. For me, this movie was about history; for others, it was their story.
There was one scene in particular that I’ll never forget—if you’ve seen the film, it was the one where the reporter from the UK told Paul (the hotel manager) that even if the footage of the genocide made the evening news in his country that people might look up from their dinners, say ‘oh what a terrible shame’ and then shift their attention right back to their evening meal. It was here and now that I felt my heart sink in my chest and my stomach knot in disguist. I’m not sure if I imagined it or not, but it felt like every eye in the entire room was burning a hole in my back. I felt my face redden and flush with shame. Never was I so embarrassed to be an American, never was I so ashamed for my nationality. The West’s ambivalence to the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s and to many other African conflicts for that matter, was humiliating. I felt personally guilty for my country’s silence and disregard for human life.
Yet, the most disguisting thing of all was thre realization that I have often done exactly what that reporter told Paul the West would do. On the evening news, I’ve watched and been bombarded with images of war and violence, injustice and poverty, disease and death. I’ve seen so much over the years that I’ve become immune to the images—my hardened heart rarely softens anymore to these scenes. I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of world problems that I found it much more comfort to ignore them. In fact, I’d become quite skillful at quickly grabbing the clicker off the coffee table and switching the channel to avoid these moments that disturbed my soul.
After living here six months now, I can’t do that any longer—I can’t change the channel, I can’t turn off the television, I can’t just go back to eating my dinner. I am here, this has become my life, I can’t look away any longer, I must see with my own eyes and look into the eyes of others and see the violence, oppression, injustice and poverty that is all around us— every day. There are nights when I’m too restless to fall asleep when I ask myself what I’m doing here—who am I to be involved in issues that are so far beyond and bigger than myself. I’m just 23. I’m unbearably inconsistent—I’m young and selfish —naïve as well as cynical —idealistic yet skeptical. I am easily overwhelmed by the enormity of all that I see, I feel small and insignificant. And yet, I’m here. Somehow, someway, God has led me to this place of immense pleasure and intense pain. I’m here in Uganda, in Kamuli, giving it my best shot to look closer at the world around me and be engaged in what I see. I’ll be the first to admit this isn’t easy—it hurts sometimes—it’s uncomfortable much of the time—but it’s worth it, it’s what life is about here all the time. It’s becoming my life– I can no longer hide behind a comfortable veil of ignorance. Embracing and engaging seem to be the only options that remain.
Lately, this is where I’ve find myself… embracing, engaging and feeling ashamed. This shame, though, is only temporary. Living with shalom is living at peace in the midst and in spite whatever external life circumstance life brings your way. Shalom is more a state of mind and heart and soul at rest than a state of conflict free existence. It’s living with a quiet confidence that violence is not the answer that love is always a better choice (albeit a much harder one!) Even though I feel the weight of my materialist-consumerist American culture, I have a God who has the habit of turning ashes into beauty. He takes the shame, the guilt, and transforms them into something that’s of worth—fervor for hope. Jesus has taken my guilt from the past and use it for a redemptive future. Jesus brought shalom in the midst of my shame.
Invitations and Extensions February 5, 2008
Hands January 4, 2008
So I don’t listen to music here but for whatever reason, the song “Hands” by Jewel from a few years back has come to me and become my self-proclaimed theme song for my time here. Jewel captures in tenderly in words what I’ve seen and felt throughout the months I’ve spent in Kamuli. May the words below speak to you and move you to loving action.
If I could tell the world just one thing
It would be we’re all okay
And not to worry because worry is wasteful
And useless in times like these
I won’t be made useless,
I won’t be made idle with despair
I’ll gather around my faith
For light the darkness most fears
My hands are small I know
But they’re not yours
They are my own
And I am never broken
Poverty stole your golden shoes
But not your laughter
Then heartache came to visit me
But I knew it wasn’t ever after
We’ll fight but not out of spite
Someone must stand up for what’s right
Cause where there is a man who has no voice
There I shall go singing
In the end, only kindness matters
I will get down on my knees and I will pray
We are never broken
We are God’s eyes.
We are God’s hands.
Disclaimer: I must be honest, I cannot take much credit for many of the words written below- I am a but a mere master of paraphrasing the excellent eloquence of others. I must give credit when credit is due. Thank you John Hopkins School of Public Health for your magazine Zambia in 2005 (thanks Nurain for the magazine- I smiled to myself when I read the article about DPT!)
As a perused through its pages, there was one story that caught my attention and thus, I shall share with all you who love and care about me so much that you read these ramblings of mine—either that or you just have too much time on your hands and read to elude the boredom… but since I’ll never know for sure, I’ll assume the first— makes falling asleep easier at night to think that what I’m doing here actually does matter and that there are people there who actually do care. Distance and time can do funny things to your thoughts sometime… So anyway… back to that magazine article about politics and PEPFAR and you and me…
Michael J. Klag, MD, MPH (of John Hopkins School of Public Health) wrote a compelling piece about his brief visit to Uganda and his experience here. He visited a few HIV outreach clinics during his travels which I found myself relating to within his first few words. At the clinic, he was greeted by a passionate applause— purely based upon the country he represented to them. He was an American. Besides money and materialism and Hollywood, , most Ugandans are convinced that Americans are the most generous people on the face of this earth. Now I know what some of you may be thinking—Americans? Generous? Do those two words go together in the same sentence without any sort of derogatory word between them? Well, I’m here to tell you that according to many, they most certainly do. America is the land of milk and honey—it’s the land of USAID and PEPFAR.
Mr. Klag was greeted with a warm welcome because he stood before all those PLWHA (people living with HIV/AIDS) as a living manifestation of the generosity of the American people. The free ARVs (antiretroviral medications) that are distributed here (and throughout much of Africa) come by ways of PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). PLWHA are living—they’re not dead and thus they clap—or they give you a chicken or a giant yam or offer their eldest son’s hand in marriage in addition to five cows (if you’re me that is). Many Ugandans who are on ARVs are grateful for the medicines that keep them alive—most have had the awful experience of sitting and watching their family and friends die one by one of the disease without they believed there to be no help for—no hope. Before the availability of ARVs, whole villages were devastated in Uganda by the loss of life. Presently, there are more than 25 million people in Africa alone infected with HIV—the epidemic’s toll defies comprehension— mine at least.
Nevertheless, I see hope and this hope I learned during my time here. As I travel to villages and towns I see programs and clinics offering free ARV treatment to the communities which are extending the lives of many- not just prolonging their years but actually improving their quality of those years. And it’s due in part to PEPFAR—it’s the reason why many are still alive today—“each day’s supply of pills is a day of life preserved.”
Okay, now granted if any of you are familiar with this plan of President Bush and you’re at all involved with the healthcare sector, I’m sure you’ll be a bit perplexed by my positive portrayal of PEPFAR. From a public health perspective there are many criticisms which I could highlight—many of the restrictions of the Plan seem ridiculous, the hoops one needs to hop through seem endless (like for instance its emphasis solely on abstinence based programs with neglect evidence-based methods of prevention (like condom distribution— can you say vulnerable populations? I guess the prostitutes and drug users don’t deserve a second chance). (ASIDE: sentence ladened in sarcasm—just want to clarify before you jump to conclusions about me!)
Of course PEPFAR has its flaws and imperfections but I have to say wholeheartedly, it’s one thing President Bush did right. All politics aside, no matter how much you loved or painstakingly endured Bush’s years in office, PEPFAR is making a difference, it’s saving lives. The program is only funded through the year 2008—at the end of this fiscal year all those here in Uganda and throughout the world will kiss their precious life-saving ARVs goodbye. PEPFAR needs to be expanded and improved for sure, but not ended. Americans need to wake up to the reality of the good that can come from a government program and recognize the tremendous effects being seen and felt throughout the world—if not, the Plan may not be renewed. The termination of this program would essentially assign a death sentence of millions.
Of course, we should not overlook the significance of proclaiming prevention methods to communities nor should we lose hope of the development of a vaccine (which still remains elusive). Behavioral interventions (much like what we’re doing at AEGY) must be emphasized with “redoubled vigor and creativity”. The epidemic will never end if each new generation does not learn from the mistakes of the past. Here in Uganda, most cases of HIV are spread through sexual intercourse which means inevitably abstinence and faithfulness are important messages in the prevention strategy (condom use would reduce risk- not prevent it). We need to reduce the spread of HIV in order to reduce the lifelong dependency on expensive ARV medications. Until a cure becomes available, it is our responsibility as fellow human beings to do everything in our power to keep people already infected with HIV alive. PEPFAR (among a few others like UN’s Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria) offer our highest hopes.
Yes, controversy surrounds many of U.S.’s world policies but all in all, PEPFAR is one we got mostly right. I agree with Mr. Klag when he concludes, “whatever our politics, we have to send a message that what President Bush has done with PEPFAR is a really good thing. And it cannot be stopped.” Call the White House, write a letter, go march on Washington. I don’t know. Be creative. Let Bush know he did good – at least this one time.
Sometimes New Year’s resolutions tend to be a bit more fantasy than reality based but this year, I thought I’d give it a go and write a list of my own. Hopefully my feet were planted firmly on the ground when writing them, if not, no worries—it just might be an adventurous year than! (some are serious—some are silly!)
- Learn to play the guitar.
- Practice honesty—often. Even and especially when telling little white lies would be easier.
- Give others the benefit of doubt—be less cynical about human nature. Rediscover hope.
- See Jesus more as a communal Savior than merely a personal one. Yes, His death and resurrection covers my sins but it also invites not only me into relationship with Him but with all others who have equally been washed in His blood. My faith is not only between me and Jesus but must be lived out between me and my fellow man/woman.
- Get another tattoo. (look Mom—I’m giving more warning this time—no more surprises—aren’t you proud!
- Learn to give with a joyous, generous heart and not out of obligation or guilt. So often—daily—I am asked for money or for help with something that eventually real requests fall on deaf ears as my energy for listening to others burdens is sapped dry. I find myself often just saying “no sorry, I can’t help” in the nicest way possible without really considering the person or the situation.
- Learn to receive with a gracious, humble heart. I’m discovering that I’m much better at giving then receiving—when giving I’m in a position of power, of superiority over the receiver—receiving calls for being vulnerable and often admitting need—sometimes my pride gets in the way of allowing others to give to me.
- Steer clear of the mall, avoid shopping there. Buy second-hand.
- Leave my days of slaughtering chickens behind. Two was enough for me. Considering becoming a vegetarian.
- Say to people “I’ll pray for you”…and actually do it.