Thursday, April 26, 2012

Public Memory and the Preservation of Genocide Sites in Rwanda

The following is a paper I wrote for the service learning class "Rhetoric of Social Movements." I use the blogs I wrote in Rwanda and a few articles about public memory to investigate the strong rhetorical functions of preserved trauma sites. This is a draft, and I'm trying to integrate more research and rhetorical concepts to the emotional and descriptive aspects. I would appeciate any and all constructive feedback and I hope it can be some form of new information for you.

Remembering Genocide: Trauma Sites in Rwanda

With a size of about 10,000 square miles, you could cover Rwanda with your pinky finger on a world map.  Although it’s small in size, this country experienced one of the most horrific attempts at extermination of the century. After decades of tension and random outbreaks of violence, April 6, 1994 marked the start of 100 days of genocide, killing one million people while the rest of the world stood by.  Foreigners fled and the international community did nothing to stop it, stating they didn’t want to intervene in civil war. And for those three months, Rwanda was forgotten.  Since then, Rwanda has had several efforts to punish perpetrators and rebuild their society post-genocide. The aftermath brought up many questions: What were they supposed to do with the thousands of unidentified remains and the sites of mass genocide? How much do we want to remember of this dark history? Using my notes from visits to the Nyamata and Murambi Genocide Memorials, this essay will explore how Rwanda has preserved sites of mass killings as genocide memorials and the different functions that they serve. Genocide memorial sites in Rwanda are direct evidence of the traumatic events that occurred in 1994 and function rhetorically to rebuild the country’s sense of community, create personal connections to visitors, and establish the international community’s relationship to the Rwandan genocide.

Nyamata Catholic Church Genocide Memorial Site


            After driving from the city center of Kigali through the small towns, we arrived at what was once a Catholic Church. 10,000 people fled to the church in hopes that the militia wouldn’t kill on holy ground even if they made it through the barricaded iron door. However, our guide Valenti begins by telling us the story of April 10, 1994 when the militia arrived. They started by killing any who were outside of the church’s doors with their work tools such as machetes or hammers. This was a strategy used to preserve ammunition. Those inside could hear the massacre outside and barricaded themselves in the church. The men pushed against the doors and used their bodies as human shields against the windows to protect the women and children inside. At this point in the story, Valenti pauses to point out the giant dent in the concrete and hole in the iron door. He continues to explain how the militia received grenades from the government. I look up and see holes in the ceiling, shrapnel from the grenade used to blow up the door to the church and those pushing against it. These small pieces of evidence along with the story put my imagination on overdrive. 

Inside, the benches are covered with the clothes of the victims: dirty, tattered, and full of bullet holes. Each in the group takes their time to inspect the details of the clothing. Valenti picks up various objects to point out the details and implies that we can pick up the clothing if we like, but my American instincts keep me from touching anything in the memorial. Halfway inside the church, I saw a tiny pink T-shirt with a faded cartoon on top of a pile, and my initial thought was how similar it looked to one my 4-year-old ni ece has worn, until I saw the bullet holes and bloodstains.  The thought alone brought me to tears. Valenti lead us to the back of the church and explained the victims’ hopes that by grouping the children together in the more protected area, the murderers would have mercy on them. Then, he showed us the dried up blood stained on the brick walls from their heads being smashed into the wall.

A tomb has been added to the interior and as we walked down into it there are skulls and bones with various wounds from gunshots or machete, each with a very obvious cause of death. There is one coffin far below and the victim of one of the most horrific rapes of the genocide is buried there. The story of how she was raped until she died was so graphic and brutal that I couldn’t bear to write it here. Her special burial is there to commemorate all of the women who were deliberately raped and infected with HIV as a weapon of genocide. There were more crypts outdoors filled with caskets that held 5 sets of remains and were draped with purple fabric. On the other side were more skulls and bones laid out and facing the center as if they were staring at the visitors. Survivors of the genocide visit this site often to look for the remains of their relatives, while still aware that they might never be identified.


Preserving the Nyamata Genocide Memorial Site as it was found in 1994 links current visitors and survivors to the past trauma.  The simplicity of the site’s presentation, as if it was frozen in that point in time, serves as somewhat of an enthymeme, which allows it to speak rhetorically to any audience. Unlike most memorials that focus on transmitting past events to future audiences (Violi 43), the preservation of this site serves a wide audience from survivors who still live in the area to foreigners with no personal connection to Rwanda.

Before the decision to preserve the church in Nyamata as a memorial, there was much debate over whether the site should be preserved or reverted back to its use as a church.  Since most who still lived in Nyamata were either survivors, perpetrators, or bystanders of the genocide, there were few who could continue to see the church as a symbol of God and the Catholic Church.  They would have to pass the site everyday with the memory of what had happened there. 

Nyamata’s strongest rhetorical message to visitors who are not personally connected to the genocide is that the innocent people who were murdered here were people much like you or someone you know. These were people who may have dressed like you and had beliefs like you. They believed that hiding in a church would save them, and that their neighbors wouldn’t be able to kill a child, let alone a group of children.  They prayed to God until eventually being murdered by their own people.  The powerful rhetoric of Nyamata is found within the stories told about it combined with the overwhelmingly detailed evidence preserved there that sparks visitors’ imaginations.  Every person who visits Nyamata Genocide Memorial will have a different experience because each will connect to different details and remember different pieces of the story.  The extent to which the site is preserved, down to bloodstains and shrapnel, create what Violi describes as a “felt reality” (44) that could not be imagined without standing in the site where it happened, like a kind of forced empathy.

For survivors, Nyamata was a place to visit their dead loved ones. Since most of the bodies found were unidentifiable, the survivors were denied a crucial part of their grief process: cleaning and preparing the body for burial.  Since no one could claim the bodies, there was also no one to provide funeral services for the thousands of remains there.  They asked survivors, relatives, and other community members to clean and prepare anonymous bones as if they were their lost relatives. This was a strong rhetorical tool that allowed the community to begin rebuilding with the message that before they could move forward, they had to recognize and grieve for all of those who died.  Nyamata is also a place for family members to find closure in knowing that if a loved one died there that he/she has been buried with dignity.

Murambi Technical School Genocide Memorial Site


Murambi was supposed to be a technical college, but was still under construction when the genocide began.  It sits at the top of a hill in a very rural town called Gikongoro.  The entrance to the site has been turned into a museum-like display. It documents from Rwanda’s pre-colonial history to current day and is filled with Rwanda’s history of colonialism. It emphasizes the fact that the Belgians created the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi and that all later propaganda was in retaliation to that initial separation. There is also a large portion dedicated to explaining France’s hand in the genocide through “Operation Turquoise” when they falsely promised safety to anyone who fled to Murambi and other “safe zones”.

The museum portion led us to an unfinished rock walkway and an outdoor hallway with a line of what were going to be classrooms.  Our guide explained the exhumation process and that of the 40,000 people dumped in the mass graves, 800 were still intact. These were preserved with powdered lime and placed back into the classrooms where many hid and were killed.  I walk to the hallway and catch a glimpse of a mummy-like figure through the doorway. This being my third genocide memorial, I didn’t expect my body to hesitate the way it did.  I stood frozen in the doorway, and an indescribable heaviness came over me as I stepped into the first room and was immediately encased in the smell of a 17-year old corpse. It wasn’t really a stench, just a distinct and unforgettable smell.  I step back outside and breathe in the fresh Rwandan country air and take in the beautiful lush landscape before stepping into the next room.

In the first room, my body was in too much shock to look at details, but in the second I took the time to really look at the bodies surrounding me, frozen in their final moment of terror. They still have hair, and some are missing fingers and teeth.  Some of the faces are so detailed that I could see the fear on their faces. I turn to leave and my eyes fall upon a small body no longer than my arms with its skull completely flattened. I began to weep. This was the kind of weeping that makes you feel like you can’t breathe and your entire face is drenched in tears. I’d had enough, but the guilt and intense sorrow made me feel obligated to pay respect to every person in every room. The next room had a table with flowers and a poem dedicated to the children who had died there. It read:

“Sleep my child and dream of days to come when

pain is conquered in love’s sweet embrace.

Why do these lands cry out, stained with our blood and tears?

All the hopeful years blossom into grief

Hurt more than words can say, dignity stripped away

Taking my everything, leaving me to mourn.

Someday I’ll wake to see, change drifting over me

When truth has told her tale, and her voice is heard

These rains wash over me, scars though they still may be

Forgiveness takes a step leaving me with hope.”

I finished reading, and noticed that the room is filled with children like the baby I had seen in an earlier room.  My vision became blurry with my own tears after seeing the pure terror on each child’s face. Most are flattened from being beaten against a wall or pounded with a rock. Others are missing limbs or whole parts of their faces, and I’m stuck there unable to move. The guide came and lifted my bag off my shoulders and led me out of the room. She told me I’d had enough and sent me to look at the beautiful landscape and feel the warm sun on my skin.

            By now the children who live next door to the genocide site were so excited to see Mazoonga (Kinyarwanda for foreigners) they ran out screaming with joy, but their screams mixed with the images of child corpses gave me nightmares later. We passed two more hallways like the first, but I didn’t go into any more rooms.  We walk to the backyard and the guide points out where the mass graves once were. There is a sign indicating that this is where French soldiers built a volleyball court over the graves to hide how many were actually killed. Next to it is the empty pit where hundreds of children were buried alive. The tour ends back in the museum lobby and we were all asked to sign the guestbook and leave a note on the wall. There are messages from countries around the world expressing their remorse and “Never Again!”


            The rhetoric of the Murambi Genocide Memorial Site lays heavy responsibility on the international community. The graphic visual evidence of preserved corpses and unfilled mass graves are meant to shock the visitor, while the stories implying that the international community is responsible for the genocide is meant to educate. The site’s rhetoric as a whole intentionally lays itself out as direct evidence of the world’s failure to intervene and France’s guilt in such a horrific genocide.

Murambi is an example of Rwandan’s need for the truth to be portrayed.  With all of the betrayals in their history, from the Belgian’s segregation of Hutu and Tutsi, to the false promises of sanctuary at each genocide site, it is an obvious nationwide fear that history will be rewritten and the truth will be forgotten or called an exaggeration. It is a priority in their country’s rhetoric to have clear evidence of the truth.  Murambi is Rwanda’s proof that the international community had a hand in the genocide, and France in particular played an active role in the training of militia and killing of innocent people.

The preserved corpses are unique to Murambi and have an additional expression of pure terror to the victims that bones and pictures could not. The smell is one that will haunt me and others who’ve written about the site (Sharp) forever, and brings about an even stronger “felt reality”. The smell and preservation of the bodies adds an additional moment of forced empathy to the site because visitors are put into the situation of someone who has discovered the bodies, smelled the remains, and viewed them in their tortured last moment.  This is also the only site we visited that left the mass graves unfilled. Filled or unfilled seems trivial, but seeing the hole where adults threw children and covered them with dirt to be forgotten like animals is much more impactful than hearing about it.  The intense physical reactions that visitors experience after visiting Murambi are an intentional result of the site’s presentation. Seeing and smelling the bodies in the place itself puts the visitor on a personal and unique grief process similar to when an individual loses a loved one, but in this case all those lost are strangers.

Unlike most other genocide sites, Murambi is not typically a place for survivors and it is often a site that people will only visit once. The graphic nature of the site makes it one that survivors rarely visit because it focuses less on memorializing the dead and more on shocking visitors with the direct evidence of what had happened there. The rhetoric in Murambi is more focused on telling the graphic history and laying blame on the individuals and outside countries guilty of genocide. The school has been set up with the intention to educate the local community, in a way reverting it to its original purpose while preserving it in it’s 1994 horror.


In the national plan for genocide memorials in Rwanda, the Ministry of Higher Education, Scientific Research, and Culture in 1996 stated that their primary goal for the sites is to “educate Rwandans in a culture of humanity and to advance the cause of ending genocide in Africa and the world” (from “Office National des Memoriaux du Genocide et des Massacres au Rwanda” cited in Cook 304). The genocide memorial sites in Rwanda are used to educate Rwandans in forgiveness and memorializing the dead.

In both sites discussed in this essay, regardless of whether the primary focus is to prevent genocide, lay blame, or make personal connections, there is always a call for forgiveness, reconciliation, and the need to move forward. In Nyamata, the guides mention the importance of remembering what happened so that Rwandans can walk out of the site and live their lives to the fullest for all those who’s lives were ended short. They use the language of “people” who died and avoid using the term “Hutu” without the word “extremist” afterward. When speaking of victims they didn’t only say “Tutsi” but also “Tutsi-sympathizers.” This distinction is important in distinguishing that not all Hutu were killers and more than simply Tutsi were killed. Even in a site heavily focused on the violence and guilt of the perpetrators, whether they are Rwandan or international, like Murambi, there is language implying the need to forgive. The entire poem on display in the classroom is about remembering the children and the importance of learning the truth so that the scars can heal and ends with “Forgiveness takes a step leaving me with hope.”

Nyamata, Murambi, and other sites throughout Rwanda use the preserved genocide sites to connect visitors to 1994. The combination of being in the physical space with the forensic evidence present and the stories of genocide told by the guides and in secondary sources can impress the images of what you see into your memory. This allows others’ memories to enter your own confirming that memory is social and created with others (Zelizer 215). Rwanda’s genocide sites utilize that idea to lead all visitors to empathize with the victims and create their own personal connections to the genocide that occurred there. This supports their message that the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 was a tragedy not only for Rwandans, but the entire world.

By framing their history using preserved trauma sites, Rwanda creates an enthymematic history that is difficult to disprove. By only displaying the evidence of genocide and interweaving them with personal stories, the sites create a history that can’t be disputed. It’s impossible to see the bullet holes, bloodstains, and human remains and think that the stories are exaggerated or made up because the evidence is right in front of you. The French can’t deny their involvement when the evidence of their betrayal at Murambi is so well preserved.  Rwanda’s use of their genocide sites to frame their history of genocide is a powerful example of how memory sites can be used as an almost indisputable rhetorical tool because of the emotional impact and felt reality brought on by the direct evidence and stories of the sites. They utilize the sites to present the damage of genocide and ensure that they will not be seen as insignificant to the international community again.

Works Cited

Cook, Susan E. "The Politics of Preservation in Rwanda." Preserving Genocide Sites in

Rwanda: A Preliminary Assesment. U.S. Agency for International Development, 2000.

Johnston, Stacey M. My Incredible Adventures - Rwanda Edition. Jan. 2012. Web. 18 Apr.  

2012. <>.Memory studies

Sharp, Jeb. "Rwanda Genocide Memorial." PRI: Public Radio International. 13 Feb. 2007.

Web. 19 Apr. 2012. <>.Violi

Violi, Patrizia. "Trauma Site Museums and Politics of Memory: Tuol Sleng, Villa Grimaldi

and the Bologna Ustica Museum." Theory, Culture & Society 29.1 (2012): 36-75.

Zelizer, Barbie. "Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies." Critical

Studies in Mass Communication 12.2 (1995): 214-40.




Friday, January 13, 2012

Day 8 - Shopping Therapy

Yesterday was a processing day. We went to the markets and I bought A TON of stuff. Gotta love barterin :) Afterwards, we watched Mashirika’s most famous show called Africa’s Hope. It was amazing. They are all such awesome actors, and knowing them personally made their pain and all their emotions so much more real. Sat in the front row. It was awesome

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Day 7 - Muhanga, a Cow, and an Inspirational Woman

I'm already out of order on days.  Yesterday was much lighter on my heart and everything about it made me feel good.  We toured around the Muhanga district, which is the sister city of Buffalo (the city most of the people in our group are from).  I was a little disappointed because we moved around so much so fast.  First, we went to a school for the handicapped, which I'm a little disappointed we moved through it so quickly.  It's nice to see how intentional Rwandans are in the work that they do.  It was difficult to communicate with the kids because I don't sign, but it's just another less in how universal a smile truly is.  Next, we went to a high school.  This school was so impressive, it is better than most public schools I've seen in America.  The students here were the best and the brightest, it's obvious that they recruited these students.  They value science and sports and are so knowledgeable about what exactly will bring them prosperity.  Next was a school for future teachers, which is where the group did their performance.  None of them would believe that I was 21, and those that did were surprised that I wasn't married and had no children.  I ended up talking to one of the guys about my major and he was so intrigued by the idea of studying communication on the psychological level and as a practice.  They're minds are so open, which is such a new concept to me.  People here want to share your knowledge and find the best way to do things.  It's all just so intentional.

The best part was when we drove way out into the boonies to one of the poorest neighborhoods in the district.  Steven had to stop the car because he couldn’t drive in all the way.  We slowly built up a crowd, and the kids would run down the hill just to catch a glimpse of the “Mazoonga”  We bought a cow and gave it to a poor family.  I was so overwhelmed with their gratefulness and curiousity.  After Drew paid for the cow, a very old man who was dressed in what probably was his nicest clothes started singing/chanting in KinriRwanda (sp?) to bless the cow and pray that it give the family much prosperity.  In Rwanda, cows are a symbol of wealth.  The word for wealth “Ishyo” actually means “herd of cow” when literally translated.  I am so grateful to be a part of this and it’s definitely true that giving is the best feeling in the world.  We changed this family’s life forever by giving what is so little to us.  I lucked out because I always lag so far behind the group and the old woman called to Drew and I because she wanted to show us her home.  I was just saying how curious I was about what the inside of their adobe houses look like.  It was a little dark, and definitely a simpler lifestyle, but there’s a beauty in that.  I was so honored to have shared that with her, and just like every other place that we’ve visited, I have a greater appreciation for EVERYTHING I have been given in my life.  I have a new way of thinking about how we solve problems and how I even identify something as a problem.  My computer not working at 100% really doesn’t seem like an issue anymore.  It’s an annoyance that I am so fortunate to have.

The mayor of Muhanga met us for lunch, and although she didn’t speak English, she is such an inspiration to me as a woman.  Rwanda has the most female representation in government per capita than any other country in the world and the mayor is such a strong woman.  Their initiatives to improve her district are so intentional.  They don’t just grow anything in anyway, they test out different crops to be sure that they are getting the most out of the little they have.  The reintegrate criminals by making them do tangible and visible work within the community. That way, civilians see the good that they have done and it builds that sense of comraderie and community for when the convicts have served their time. Rwanda’s justice system is the most effective at not just throwing away people’s lives after they’ve committed a crime. For a place that has experienced the worst hatred and violence I’ve ever seen, there is such little animosity towards each other because of it.   The feeling of reconciliation and forgiveness throughout is so eye opening to me, and I hope that I can reciprocate it in my own life and help to spread this beautiful idea with everyone I meet, and I hope that those of you who read this can understand it well enough to spread the love as well :)

At the risk of sounding preachy, I’m going to stop now.  I am so thankful to every person I have met here for their smiles and their compassion.  I am forever changed.

When it Rains in Rwanda

It's 10am and today is already a gift.  After an amazing night's sleep, I woke up to sunshine at 6:30am. Had a great talk with Ben, drank some of the best coffee I've ever had and had some delicious bananas. Sitting on the porch while talking story with our group.  The clouds started to roll in and make shapes.  Julia commented that it looked like the dragon from Neverending Story.  All of a sudden it started to pour rain. I just love the smell when it rains. I kept saying "oh my god I wanna run in it" and Eve finally said, "hey if you wanna go I'll go with you." I immediately jumped up and booked it and of course I slipped and fell right on my ass. I wanted to play so bad though and I got right back up and sprinted towards the gazebo in the backyard.  I ran around the house and other people started to join us. Screaming and jumping around, loving everything about it.  Grass between my toes and rainwater dripping from my hair.  I've never felt so cleansed. What a great way to start my day :)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Day 6 – Rwandan Compassion and Foreign Guilt

I really don’t know where to begin with today. We drove 3 hours to the Murambi Genocide Memorial.  At this point I assumed I’d built up some resilience to the genocide talk, but today was by far the worst and then a few hours later became the best. Our day was planned so well that it took me to the most extreme low I’ve ever felt but somehow managed to bring me back up to feel the purest joy. My heart has never been so confused.

Murambi was in one word, horrifying.  This was definitely the worst and what I saw here will haunt me forever.  This school was way out in the countryside and very isolated. As we drove up, the kids were all getting out of school and they saw us coming.  Per usual, they started running as fast as they could to catch up to us. I’ve never been able to bring anyone that much joy, and all I have to do is wave. I almost forgot I was about to step into a school where over 40,000 people were lured, brutally massacred, and then covered up by French soldiers and where 800 corpses remain preserved in the classrooms.  Writing that down or hearing about it is disgusting in its own right, and I was surprised by how okay I felt when I heard what we were going to see, and I guess I didn’t emotionally prepare for it enough beforehand.  Hearing the crunch of my feet on the rocks paving the walkway, we get to a long outdoor hallway with a line of rooms.  The guide explains how the bodies were exhumed from the mass graves and those that were still in tact were preserved and placed back into the classrooms where they were killed.  I make it to the hallway and catch a glimpse of a mummy like figure through the doorway. After seeing thousands of bones and skulls, I didn’t expect my body to hesitate the way it did. I couldn’t go in. I lagged behind the group a little and saw as everyone somberly stepped into the room and watched each walk out.  I stood with my hand on the doorway, frozen.  Telling myself I owe it to these people to honor their memory.  If I don’t go in, then they’re ethically questionable lack of burial would be in vain.  I step in and am immediately encased in the smell.  I can’t even describe it, but it haunts me.  I leave the first room after a few seconds.  I step back outside and face out admiring the beautiful hills and valleys of the Rwandan countryside. I breathe in the fresh air and take in the beauty to prepare myself for the ugliness awaiting me in the next room.  This time I brace myself by putting my hand on the brick wall and take a hesitant step inside.  My eyes are on the back wall, trying not to look down, but the smell returns.  I remember what Clovis said to me in Kigali, “You have to be strong.” I look around and see piles of bodies, frozen in their misery. With missing fingers and teeth and contorted to the point they look deformed.  I scan my eyes across the room, but then I turn around to leave and right by the door is a small body about the length of my arm. Completely flattened. For some reason it reminded me of this little boy in the orphanage. He was the same size and had the cutest chubby little cheeks, and even though the corpse was flat, I knew this child had the same smile.  I began to weep, not cry…weep. The kind of weeping that makes you feel like you can’t breathe and my entire face was soaked in tears. Luckily I was close enough to the door that someone passing by was enough to bring me out of there.  At this point, I honestly don’t want to see anymore. I’ve had enough, but I keep repeating Clovis’s words in my head.  Seeing Tie go in to yet another room after explaining why she wouldn’t last night was enough to give me the courage. So again, I submit myself to this emotional torture.  In this room there is a table in the center with a flower and a piece of paper. For the first time, I walk all the way to the back of the room because I needed to read what it said.  The top said “Sleep my Child” followed by this poem dedicated to the children who died here.

Sleep my child and dream of days to come when
Pain is conquered in love's sweet embrace.

Why do these lands cry out, stained with our blood and tears
All the hopeful years blossom into grief
Hurt more than words can say, dignity stripped away
Taking my everything, leaving me to mourn.

Someday I'll wake to see, change drifting over me
When truth has told her tale, and her voice is heard
These rains wash over me, scars though they still may be
Forgiveness takes a step leaving me with hope.

 I look up and notice that this room is filled entirely with children’s remains.  This time I really can’t move. I stand there as my vision gets blurry with my own tears looking around at all the children and all I can think of is how few this is in comparison to those buried in the many mass graves throughout Rwanda.  This is the state they were in when they died. Most are flattened like the first I saw. Completely crushed skulls, missing limbs, fingers, whole parts of their faces are missing….and the smell left me standing there for who knows how long.  Suddenly I feel a weight lifted off my shoulders.  Literally the guide lifted up my backpack and took it from me. I thought she was saying I was taking too long, but she touched my shoulder and led me out of the room. I tried to take my bag back and she said she’d lighten my burden for a little while.  I do the same process to get strength to go into the next room, but she leads me away. She didn’t say anything, but I could feel her saying “that’s enough” I skipped the next 3 or 4 rooms until I reached the end of the hallway. Looking out at the beautiful green hills and feeling the soft breeze on my skin. I continued to weep.  By now, the children who live next door have seen that there are Mazoonga around and they run as close as they can without leaving their property.  I can’t look at them now. Not like this. They are so happy to see me, I don’t want them to see me cry, so I turn and face the doorway to the last room. I see yet another child’s crushed remains, the smell sneaks back into my nose and I hear a high-pitched scream.  That took me somewhere I want to forget, but will probably give me nightmares for the rest of my life. I thought I had imagined it, but it was another neighbor kid who’d just seen us and was so excited he screamed.  I don’t know if that’s comforting or not, but unfortunately I can’t undo what I’ve already imagined.   I go back to the edge, sit down, and for the first time in a long time, I REALLY prayed. I believe in God and I go to church every once in a while, but I haven’t actually knelt down crossed my hands and begged God to take this burden from me.  I was scared I’d never be the same again because of what I’d seen at Murambi. I open my eyes and see that now the kids are dancing. They are so happy to see us that they are DANCING, and it’s funny. I didn’t think it’d happen so quickly, but with tears still dripping down my face, I laughed. It didn’t take away the pain of it all, but I didn’t feel quite so hopeless.  We went to 2 more hallways like those and I skipped a majority of the rooms, but of course now I had the image of these children hiding in these rooms and cowering in fear. I can’t begin to tell you how much worse it is to have living smiling dancing faces to connect to a flattened corpse.  I felt like I was hollow and I needed to be grounded.  For some reason I wanted to take off my shoes, but since this was a construction site at the time of the genocide, it wasn’t really safe to do so.  We walked around and I knelt in the grass and just felt the ground.  No clue why I had the impulse to do this or why it worked, but it brought me back to Earth for a second, which was exactly what I needed.

Now the newest information I learned at Murambi was not only did the international community FAIL to intervene, but French soldiers were living in Murambi and told the people that they would be safe at that school under their protection. Instead of keeping them safe, they congratulated the Hutu who killed those hiding there and then built a VOLLEYBALL COURT over a mass grave to cover it up. That’s almost more disgusting than those who did the killing, because the colonial influence is what created the animosity in the first place, and when they were asked to stop the killing, they helped it instead.
Here’s the link to some pictures I found on the internet, but just to warn you they are very graphic and not for the faint at heart

So after leaving Murambi, I was obviously in a very very sad place.  Even though such natural beauty and happy people surround it, I was in a major depression mode from having to process such a harsh and horrifying reality.  Luckily, Drew was aware of this and planned for some uplifting fun afterwards.

After lunch, we went to Burundi which is a college town in Rwanda.  The most powerful women drumming group performed for us. It was around half an hour, but I was so into it and enjoyed it so much that it seriously felt like 5 minutes. They’re energy was electric and it was impossible not to smile in their presence.  I felt like my soul had been refilled yet again.  After their performance they did a workshop with us and drumming with them was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. They all had such major attitude and loved what they did.  Women traditionally weren’t allowed to drum because drums are a symbol of power, and that was reserved for men. But of course now, they are officially the best drummers in Rwanda (through competitions) and they’re an inspirational example of the gender equality that Rwanda has reached. They have at least met, and probably surpassed the United States in that realm.  Later when Drew told us that the women in this group had been a mixture of survivors, widows, and perpetrators, my jaw literally dropped.  None of us even had a clue.  Just another example of how inspiring Rwandans are.  At first they didn’t want to work with each other, and they had every right to feel that way, but through music and drumming they are a family.  It’s amazing to see the forgiveness and the rebirth of a community that once destroyed itself at the word of foreigners.  And the fact that they still invite foreigners with such compassion and excitement, I am in awe of them every single day I am here.  They are the most generally loving people I have ever met and it was a gift to be in their presence. After seeing Murambi and being surrounded by so much death, I truly needed their joy.  And the strange mixed backgrounds of the group gives me even more hope that Rwanda has moved past this genocide and that a better world is indeed possible. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Day 5 - Safari Day

Woke up at 5am to drive to the Akagera National Wildlife Park.  It's awesome how they just have a protected area for the animals to live how they're supposed to.  Got some amazing video and Lewis took over my picture taking duties for a while... Here's some of my favorites.

Warthogs!! Pumbaa

didn't see any elephants, so I made one in the car :)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Day 4 - Indescribable

I fell in love with Rwanda today. There’s no other word to describe the feeling I have right now. I’ve never felt so physically overjoyed and upset at the same time.  Whatever the word is for this, it’s the most intense emotion I have ever felt. It’s all thanks to a little girl named Rita.  I was expecting to be overwhelmed at the orphanage by sad faces, but from the second we arrived all I saw were smiles and little hands to hold.  Of course, Rita is just one of many children who call Gisimba their home, but she touched me deep down in my heart and soul. Saying goodbye to her smiling eyes was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do.  She is so curious and never left my side. When we left my hand felt empty without hers in it.  I fell in love with her smile and her sense of wonder.  She would admire my earrings and my hair, but she never once asked for anything. My presence was enough for her, but I wanted to give her everything I owned. She was a little more timid than the other kids, and I think that’s why I was so drawn to her because after a few minutes her personality really started to shine through.  I’d hear her quietly begin to sing, but if I drew attention to it she’d stop and flash the most shy yet flirtatious smile. Her dress reminded me of the fancy poofy ones that Keilana would wear and play princess.  Rita was amazed with my hair and kept touching it, and when the other kids were playing football, we sat on the side while she braided my hair.  Sitting next to me she played with my camera a little and caught on so fast! I didn’t even have to show her, but within a few minutes she was playing with the manual zoom and focus. She helped me get some great footage with commentary on who was in the shot and who they were to her.  She loves her sisters and wouldn’t stop talking about them.  I really hope she does email or call me, because I don’t think I could truly be okay in my life without knowing she’s alright.  Thank you Rita for sharing your love with me. The memory of your hugs and your soft “I love you” will fill my soul with this wordless emotion forever.

To learn more about the orphanage I visited visit a donation of $300 sends a child like Rita to school for a year. That’s less than $30/month. Please consider it because there were so many other children who touched my heart that day.  There are some who live at Gisimba who are 18 years old, and although it is a great place, they deserve to have the same opportunities we have just for being born in America.