This was never going to be an easy trip. Having spent five years living in Rwanda from 1989-1994, the country is still stacked full of memories for me – both happy and desperately sad. Although I had visited on many occasions since 1994, this was nonetheless my first trip for over 9 years, and I was deeply aware that much would have changed – including me! On that previous visit I had no inkling that I was soon to follow in the footsteps of my late Rwandan husband, Charles, and train for ordination. So now here I was, about to begin my first incumbency, using part of my sabbatical to reconnect with the country that had been my home and the people who had been my family.
In April 1994, I was running a community health programme and Charles was Archdeacon. Days before the genocide began I had left the country for a short holiday in Kenya but Charles had stayed behind. I never saw him again. He was abducted and presumed killed, like nearly one million of his fellow Rwandans – Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
In the aftermath of the genocide I set up a charitable trust to support Rwandans through further education in order to help rebuild their own country. One of the couples the trust supported – Elsie and Nicholas – hosted me during my visit. They are a mixed Tutsi / Hutu couple whose personal witness of love and forgiveness has had a profound impact on the many genocide widows and orphans with whom they work. www.ikirezi.com
Nicholas and Elsie live in the capital city, Kigali – a city that has changed profoundly over recent years, with huge investment from around the world. And confidence in the future is surely reflected in the bank interest rates – my savings account offers 7.5% interest! While in the city I visited Louis, a dear friend of nearly 30 years, and now Bishop of Kigali, and when back in my home village I was welcomed by Bishop Alexis, Bishop of Gahini, with whom I was able to discuss the possibility of a parish twinning. Following the genocide there has been a huge increase in the numbers of independent charismatic and prophetic churches around the country, perhaps partly because the reputations of both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches were tarnished during the genocide. As well as Anglican friends, I met with a friend who is a Catholic Priest, and another who is a pastor of a charismatic church so I was able to engage in interesting discussions on the state of the Church in Rwanda, and attitudes towards same-sex relationships.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial www.kgm.rw is a profoundly moving account of the history of Rwanda, and deeply personal for me, and I was encouraged to note that its emphasis was not at all on revenge or bitterness but rather on forgiveness and moving on. Here, as in so many other situations, I was able to connect at a deeper level with staff as I still have a good command of the local language (ikinyarwanda) and as a genocide widow myself (the only British genocide widow), I am very much accepted as belonging, rather than as a tourist.
Back in my home village of Gahini for a few days I spent many hours each day visiting old friends and catching up on their family news. It was deeply humbling to see how much it meant to them to receive me in their home, and their willingness to share the little resources they had with me. For example, one young man who is my godson – the son of a very poor single mother, whose twin brother died when they were eight years old – brought a huge tray of goat kebabs and fried cooking bananas. Many years ago I had given him a bicycle, which he has faithfully used to cycle far out into the hills each week to buy a goat, then sell it on to the local restaurant. With the money he has earned over the years he has built a small house for his mother, as well as one for himself and his wife, handicapped son and baby. Their courage in the face of huge adversity is deeply challenging.
From time to time in the coming years I hope very much to take a small group from my parish to visit Rwanda – to experience life in a country moving on after profound tragedy, to hear stories of forgiveness and to learn from the faith and generosity of the Rwandan Christians, and perhaps also to be able to share something of our Christian expression of inclusion and welcome. I am deeply grateful to Sion College for a generous grant that made this trip possible.