Room to Dream: A Reflection on Rwanda

Categorized as: on April 12, 2014.

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What connects us to a family whose members were murdered, or an HIV+ single mother living in abject poverty? A lot, says a genocide survivor who just returned from a visit to the homeland she still loves. Guest post by Marie Kagaju Laugharn.

Editor’s note: April marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, during which one million people were murdered  over a three month period in 1994. To gain a more personal understanding of this tragic event, we turned to a friend of Skees Family Foundation, Marie Kagaju Laugharn, for her reflections from a recent trip to her home country of Rwanda. 

By Marie Kagaju Laugharn

The Course

Earlier this year, I had a chance to lead a class to the country where I grew up. Development Project Management Institute program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (DPMI) is a professional training program that prepares MIIS students for a career in managing international-development projects. The program attracted 47 participants: 30 from the US, nine from Rwanda, three from Kenya, two from Germany, and one each from Sierra Leone, Russia, and Haiti. Boston-based Partners in Health (PIH), the health-focused nonprofit co-founded by Dr. Paul Farmer, was the main “client” organization for the whole training.

The training itself was to be intensively done in just two weeks. DPMI is the brainchild of MIIS’ dynamic professor of public administration, Beryl Levinger. Beryl had originally steered me away from designing a program that looked like a study tour about Rwanda. I kept insisting that the graduate students were discovering Rwanda and Africa for the first time, and that we had to give them a chance, genuinely and directly, to interact with as many Rwandans as possible, from all walks of life.  We would get to know the country while doing the classroom work in-between. It had to be the whole package, I insisted.

(Photo by Scott Chacon, via Flickr)

Welcome to Our Difficult Past

It is difficult to understand and appreciate today’s Rwanda without revisiting the 1994 genocide. Thus, on the first morning, the training program began with a visit to the National Genocide Memorial in Gisozi. I wanted participants to have an opportunity to understand where Rwanda came from, an era of darkness and bad leadership that culminated in genocide in 1994. All the participants, mostly graduate students from MIIS, were invited to learn about the terrible atrocities that took place in my beautiful country during three months in the mid-1990s. Each of us would have a chance to feel and grapple with whatever might cross our minds and hearts as we visited the memorial.

I knew very well that it was going to be another tough visit for me. Every time I go to Gisozi, it personally feels like going through hell, a pain so deep that I feel no one will ever be able to stop it.  But each time, I step out of that memorial site and somehow, in a miraculous way, life reasserts itself. Call it God’s grace or the insistence of the present moment, but I manage to bury those terrible feelings of loss and move on with whatever life has to bring my way. Some visits are easier than others. For that particular visit, I knew I needed to be brave and stay strong; because I was supposed to be leading the group during their entire visit in Rwanda, and no one’s first encounter with genocide is easy. In some ways it was a harsh welcome, but I thought it was important. The participants would learn not only how terribly Rwanda had suffered, but also how hard Rwanda had worked to heal and to rebuild.

During the visit to the memorial, I was silently praying not to break down in tears in front of the people I was guiding. There are three particular rooms at the memorial that are always hard for me, and for many other visitors. One of these rooms is stark and ominous, displaying the bones and skulls of the victims.  Another is a shrine to loss, showing photos of very young children who were killed in the genocide, with notes about the favorite games and foods. The third room is filled with photos of victims of the genocide, ordinary people who might have been—and were—my teachers, my friends, and my family.

I remember a previous visit to Gisozi when I chanced upon a photo of my sister Claudine who was killed with her husband and her month-old baby girl; the little baby girl we never got a chance to meet because she was born in the middle of the genocide. I always wonder if she already had a name and what that name might have been. I imagine that she must have been very cute with the same delicate fine features as Claudine. In our family, we agreed that Claudine was the most beautiful of all my seven sisters, and her husband was good looking, so my niece must have been beautiful.

This time, I decided to walk through those three rooms without looking closely at anything displayed in there. I held myself together, and tried to help the new visitors make some sense of this dark part of our history.

(Photo by Neil Palmer for CIAT, via Flickr)

Rural Rwanda

After Gisozi, we left the capital to drive to rural Rwinkwavu, where most of the DPMI course would be taught at the offices of the nonprofit PIH. Professor Levinger has developed the DPMI as an intensive, practical introduction to development project management tools and strategies. The students were also offered an opportunity to tour the PIH-run hospital of Rwinkwavu, with its different services and departments. They also visited some of the households of that hospital’s patients and witnessed firsthand experience cases of extreme poverty, HIV/AIDS, child malnutrition, and food security issues.  The visit in Rwinkwavu highlighted the fact that PIH chooses to work with the most vulnerable communities and families.

Jane

I will never forget the visit we paid to a patient whom I will call Jane. Jane is a mother of three children, ages five to eleven who has been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Because of her poor health and her lack of any education, Jane cannot afford to provide for her three children. As her immune system had deteriorated quite a bit, she had been ill and in bed for three months when we visited her.

But thanks to access to medication, on the day when we paid her a visit, she was starting to get back her energy.  We sat in her one-bedroom house, rented for her by her friends and neighbors. As we talked, it became clear that Jane lived entirely off the charity of her neighbors and friends in her community.

The most amazing thing about Jane is that no matter what, she knows how to approach life with her beautiful smile, her dignity, and her unique gift to make all of us feel welcome and connected. When we asked her about her dreams about tomorrow and for her kids, her face lit up, her smile came back on. She went on and on, describing to us how every day she prays that the medication could work well for her so that she can stick around longer and watch her kids grow and see what they choose to do with their lives.

I instantly realized that Jane could have been me, as we have more in common than I would have thought before that visit.

Isn’t that what every parent wants to do, no matter their status or background? I instantly realized that Jane could have been me, as we have more in common than I would have thought before that visit. Here was a woman with whom I shared being Rwandan, being born in a rural area, and being a mother of three.  The only difference between us was that I do not live in extreme poverty and I do not have the disease that she is battling.

When she described her situation, Jane was not complaining, nor did she seem envious of anyone else’s situation. She was just sharing her life experience. I felt so humbled by her remarks and instantly very connected to her. I did not know how to thank her for opening her very humble home to all of us and for having been so genuinely open about her private life, her pain, her challenges, her hopes, and her dreams. So without even thinking whether it was appropriate or not, I just reached into my purse and took out what I thought was going to secure the rent and meals for her and her children for at least one month. When I discreetly reached out to her and gave it to her, she gave me back the same big smile with a thank you and blessings and she asked me not to forget about her.

Every day since I have been back, I think about Jane. I also think of others I met: Mwiza, Nyampundu, and Mariana (the tailor who did a fantastic job for the Monterey students), and many other women survivors of the genocide or extreme poverty who touched me on my last visit. They all taught me that even in the moments of what seems desperation, there could still be hope and a determination to get better; there can still be joy, laughter, aspirations, and room for dreams.  For me, this is the very essence of resilience. I was honored to be in the company of all these ordinary but extraordinary women. I can’t wait for the next opportunity I can be with them again!

(Photo by Oledoe, via Flickr)

The Future We All Desire

I have to say that my country’s progress impresses me. While there are still many people in difficult situations like Jane’s, there is also a rapid and noticeable transformation. I have worked in many countries (including the U.S. and several in Europe), but I had never before witnessed government employees working 24/7, as if they were in a fast-paced corporate environment.

During the 1990s, the world equated Rwanda with genocide. This was the lens through which the media and the world saw my country. Today, I want people everywhere to know more about the positive changes happening in Rwanda, as these changes are more nuanced and not well documented or reported. Rwanda is clearly very resilient, working hard, and aspiring to make it. Like Jane and many others like her in Rwanda, the whole country has big dreams and hopes for its future, and it felt great to witness that first-hand.

So, here and now, I dare to sit down and write down my impressions of Rwanda—to celebrate and share its rise, and the resilient spirit of many lovely people like Jane. I continue to hope that Jane has access to medication, food, and shelter for her family. I hope she can, like all of us, keep her smile and her dream of hanging around long enough so that she can watch her kids grow. It is my wish for many Janes out there.

My hope is that I have drawn a vivid image of both Rwanda and of Jane, and that this image will stay with you as you go about your day, knowing that their dreams are your dreams.

Note from Marie: I almost didn’t write this story. When I told my good friend Suzanne Skees that I was going home to Rwanda to facilitate the Development Project Management Institute (DPMI) program of the Monterey Institute for International Studies (MIIS), she asked me if I could share my experience on this blog. She kept insisting that I should take photos, write, and share my experiences after I got back. “Sure, Suzanne,” I replied, “I will find time over one of our regular coffees or lunches and share with you about my trip.” I was just trying to be polite, not thinking that I was seriously going to write anything.

As with most of my friends, Suzanne knows that I travel back to Rwanda at least once a year. She has been there herself and she knows a lot more than the average traveler about the country; she even wrote a wonderful blog about her visit to my family in Kigali.  Yet this time, she was insisting that I do the writing.

The more she asked, the more puzzled I became. But recently, I got a nice note from one of my DPMI students, thanking me for a life-changing trip. This made me give more serious thought to Suzanne’s request. I paused a moment and mentally revisited the entire two weeks in Rwanda. I relived the incredible reconnection that I enjoyed on my visit, and I appreciated once again the effort and determination to heal, to move on, and to rebuild.

LEARN more about the Development Project Management Institute program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies by clicking here. To get some background on the Rwandan Genocide, click here.

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DONATE to help provide education to children born from rapes committed during the Rwandan genocide, to link their mothers to medical care, and to raise awareness about the genocide by clicking here.

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