By Christine Weatherby
These are a few short pages from my travel journal to Rwanda, Africa in 2011 where I spent time during a two week internship, partnering with World Help.
A church where 5,000 were killed
Emotionally attempting to move passed a background with rows of skulls:
“Go back to your Universities and tell their stories” – Bishop John Rucyahana (paraphrased from a lecture given at the Bloom Hotel, Kigali, Rwanda, 2011).
Our group tugged up to the curb in the white bus, the one with the faded Bob Marley sticker clinging to a back window that could not open well, and a clutch that convulsed as it tried to stop. Deep purple and dirty white crepe tissue streamers adorned the carcass structure we were about to enter. Taken aback, I remembered the places we had been, though it was hard to make sense of these surreal carcasses of structures, these mosaics of stained broken glass, these artistries of artifacts, and these watercolors of emo- tions that lingered too close for words- but not too close for Lily Yeh1 inspired art! Out- side the smell of coffee and bananas adorned the lush green plants and unearthing rich soil that seemed bursting with life. I garden at home and envied this lush soil. I wanted to stick my hands deep and plant something. We had been driving and everyone was excited to finally get out of the vehicle.
There was an eruption of noise as we chaotically departed making our way to our new destination from our travel itinerary.
Across the street were people wearing bright blue and yellow patterns. They strolled along the curvy red dirt road. Some were riding rusty bikes while balancing so many objects to sell. Some seemed to be smiling at us and even shouted, “Muraho” to which we replied, “Muraho” trying hard to copy the language and to mirror back the same kindness packaged with bright smiles. Outside a gardener was hacking at the landscape with a machete. “He is keeping it beautiful.” We are told to honor those that died at this church. Our group walked passed a sign, Ntarama Urwibutso Rwa Jenoside. There is also a stone wall with the names of those that died here. We know the facts about what has happened– 5,000 died in the massacre- however, I am not prepared as I enter through the narrow entryway of broken bricks and collected collages of chaos. Incidentally, it is the shelves and shelves of skulls staring back that catch me off guard as if looking through a glass darkly, in reverse.
Memory Mosaics in Honor of the Women of Rwanda:
“When Western countries can make themselves feel good about their virtue by offering “relief ” to others, they will do it. But when help calls for sacrifice, as it did in 1994, the West seems to prefer sacrificing Africa to putting any of its own resources or people at risk” – Emmanuel Katongole “Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda, p. 44).
Talking softly now is a beautiful older African woman. I huddle to the front to hear her speak in spite of the scary skulls, tightly packed in little rows. I get as close as I can without defying my western social conventions by being impolite to those in my group. As I listen and embrace her words, I just feel like I have been punched in the stomach. I can’t move. I can’t speak. I am trying to hold back tears. My legs are shaking. She pulls back her long hair, she pulls back her dress, and she pulls back her shirt to reveal multiple machete scars like maps of wounds to her body. Behind her, these skulls of those she once loved in her community – rows and rows of skulls. On the other walls are hanging clothes of the dead that have been splattered in blood. Shoes, church pews, pans that should be filled with umutsima, isombe, and mizuzu. There is also this heavy lingering sadness like the ghosts of many people who can no longer speak with words, just the etchings of these displaced artifacts. In contrast to the collages inspired by Yeh, these are not yet arranged artfully to resurrect hope and community. In contrast, these artifacts reveal a more hor- rific story of those that died here. The woman talks about coming to this church for pro- tection; protection from those she used to know-from those she called neighbors. Many of the men fought outside with stones and rocks. Overtaken, crash, and running to hide. Her worst scars are no longer visible on the body-they are etched in her soul. Someone grabbed her baby that she was carrying on her back. She watched the whole thing. Some- how, she has survived the whole thing.
With respect, why do you stay here? Is it healthy to stay in such a place? “To honor my loved ones, to care for the grounds here, and to tell their story so the world may know.” It seems that there is a belief that their stories could help bring forgiveness to the global community in the hopes of creating a world where this would not happen again.
She narrates amid these chaotically arranged artifacts. She reads a poem written by a boy who stopped to write while the church’s outer body was being broken and attacked.
I don’t remember the exact words, but they are similar to: “you don’t know me be- cause if you knew me, then you could not do this to me.” It sounds better- more elegant- in Kinyarwanda. There is a broken stained glass window that reveals a snapshot of what this structure was like when it held different contents and memories. In other plac- es in Rwanda, many people had come to worship together before the killing started. Now, something different in the architecture of churches and many unanswered philosophical and geopolitical questions remain along with these tightly packed rows of skulls.
She took us to another structure in the back. We are told this used to be the Sun- day school room. I can’t breathe. There is fractured wood and more artifacts splintered on the floor. It is hard to emotionally look down so I absorb as much as possible using my peripheral vision. On the wall are stains of blood and chunky splattered brains. There is an object we are shown, like a pool stick or a pole, but I don’t understand at first all the logistics. I ask questions later during the debriefing when I am alone with other women. We are told this object was used to hurt the women. They died bleeding slowly. It may have taken hours to die. The last images they must have seen were of their children smashed against the wall and splatters of blood. This used to be an architecture and body of faith and community. I would hear similar stories when we visited the Genocide Memorial in Kigali. There is a young man who works there whose mom was systematically murdered in a similar way. I would see more rows and rows of skulls. I would see pictures of children and more women whose lives were cut short by machetes, by rape, and/or by mutilation with a long spear.
I am a mother and I have trouble emotionally leaving this place and the widow’s village where I sang songs with a survivor for hours on the dirt floor of her home. We just held each other as we appealed to a higher power. It is hard to imagine surviving some- thing like this and deep down I know that I would want to die too. I doubt I would have the same courage as these beautiful women of Rwanda. I am unable to understand how my country and how the global community could let this happen. I do not want to leave. How can I go back to my country and how can I relate to people that I know? Our group is told by many Rwandan Nationals we meet that it is important to tell these stories when we get back to our Universities. I want to honor the bodies and spirits of those that passed here- by telling their stories- so, that the people of my country may fall in love with the people the way that I have fallen in love with them. Could there still be a resurrection, a forgive- ness, or a hope to change things? Could we really prevent something like this from ever happening again, anywhere? How can we protect those that are being oppressed without imprinting and imposing imperialisms and ideologies that cause harm? There are so many stories of courage, of compassion, of survival, of forgiveness, and of rebuilding to live life well. Much better than I have seen of those in my country. There is still much I am continuing to learn from the people of Rwanda.
Such profound beauty colliding in nature and in people unlike anything I had ever experienced. Memories equally mixed with pain and a resilience to repair what broken bodies and spirits could still be mended. You don’t know them. If you knew them then you could not have let it happen.
1-Lily Yeh is part of Barefoot Artists, an organization that uses art to rebuild distressed communities.
2-Ntarama Urwibutso Rwa Jenoside. A small Catholic Church about 25 km South of Kigali. About 5,000 people were killed here. Women were systematically raped. Violence against women was a strategy of war.
Umutsima: Corn with Pasta:
Isombe: Cassava Leaves:
Mizuzu: Fried Plantains