Walking in Rwanda.
by Morris Weintraub
Less than 24 hours into my trip I found myself limping through the streets of Kigali (Rwanda’s capital city) clutching a broken flip-flop in one hand and bleeding from a recently stubbed big-toe as I dutifully followed a random Rwandan through littered streets to find what I hoped would be a shoe repair man. It was a pretty funny scene, one made worse by the fact that I am blessed with some of the ugliest feet you (or, judging by their contorted faces, any African) have ever seen. During this short pilgrimage two things occurred to me. One: Rwandans have a sense of humor, made evident by their unveiled chortles at my expense. And two: My doctor was right to give me a back-up tetanus shot.
I’ve traveled a fair bit and I can say without hesitation that my time in Rwanda was some of the most rewarding time I’ve ever spent abroad. The people are unbelievably warm and welcoming and the country itself is very beautiful. 3,000 or so rolling hills all terraced for farming to feed an economically struggling and often hungry nation. Outside of the capital (and a couple other larger cities) the norm I encountered in the countryside was mud-huts with thatched roofs for housing, inhabited by proud, hard working people trying their best to farm enough food for their families. Learning what I did about their lives and their predicaments immediately put my own blessed existence into perspective. It is entirely impossible to walk amongst these people without feeling a sense of responsibility to help in some small way – not out of guilt or obligation, just simply because they’re worthy.
For most of us, the genocide of the 90′s is all we know of Rwanda. It has defined their nation and will continue to do so for generations to come. However, to their credit, the Rwandan’s themselves are not hiding from their past – with the national genocide memorial standing as testament to the atrocities committed during the 90′s and criminal trials still taking place in neighboring Tanzania. It’s a reality Rwandan’s live with every day – not as a simple stain on a tarnished national reputation, but one that can be seen everywhere in the thousands of orphaned children across the country who are struggling to raise their siblings and break the cycle of poverty.
I met three high school aged kids who all lost parents in the genocide (Olive, Josephine and Patience) – two of which are orphans. They are all struggling with the same question of how to rise above the bleak future set before them. They are all high achievers. They are all exceptionally intelligent. And they are all very poor with multiple younger siblings that they are struggling to feed and care for. Even if they could somehow raise the $800 per year for tuition to attend college, who’s going to care for their younger siblings and tend to the fields while they’re gone? It is thoroughly humbling to sit inside a mud-hut house amongst three perfectly groomed (yet completely impoverished) 17 year-olds who attend school by day and farm in the fields each afternoon to feed their siblings. That’s tough. What’s worse is to hear about their dreams and aspirations (in adequately articulated English) of becoming scientists, doctors and artists in a flat dull tone, devoid of excitement, punctuated by resigned shoulder shrugs and big smiles that suggest while they still cling to hope, they don’t dare let themselves believe their dreams will ever come to pass.
My favorite two days in Rwanda were those that I spent walking amongst the people in the countryside. At one point I sat down by a lake to watch women hang laundry and children play. After a while I was approached by an older man who introduced himself as the head of the village. He was not smiling and he seemed wary of my arrival. He wanted to know what I was doing there? Sitting, staring… I explained that I was simply traveling and trying to meet the people of Rwanda. Softening a little he asked, “But aren’t you scared? Don’t the people in America think Rwanda is very dangerous?” To which I replied, “Yes they do. But I believe that you must trust people, to get to know people.” He smiled, warmly shook my hand and welcomed me to the village. It was my something I will not soon forget.
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