Be safe. When I told friends and family I would be studying abroad in Rwanda, they almost always came back with those two words of concern and encouragement. And I understand why.
Roughly the size of Maryland, Rwanda is a landlocked country in East Africa whose past is intimately tied up with violence. In 1994, the genocide against the Tutsi people occurred while most of the international community watched in silence. Today, when most people hear “Rwanda,” their minds go straight to that horrific chapter in the country’s history.
Yet despite this dark past, Rwanda has progressed steadily since 1994. And it was that long and difficult transformation that inspired me to enroll in a semester-long program studying the genocide and subsequent reconciliation in Rwanda.
Waking up my first day in Kigali, the capital city, I head to the balcony of my hostel room. I had intentionally refrained from looking at pictures of the city before my arrival and had arrived after dark the night before. Both Rwandan government officials and my host family in Kigali informed me how safe Kigali is, even adding “it’s safe to be out until 3 in the morning by yourself.” While encouraging, I didn’t plan to test their assertion. Now I am overtaken by the surrounding beauty. Green hills, budding trees, office buildings, buildings under construction and fresh cut grass all reach upwards, reminding me of James Hilton’s Paradise Lost. Both beauty and dark history fill my mind during the first week.
Today, life in Rwanda feels ordinary; I find the country has the pleasant ability to make the foreign feel familiar. We are moving into the rainy season, and the loud patter of rain on the tin roof has begun to wake me up. The distinct smell of diesel from motorcycle taxis zooming past traffic greets me as I walk through Kigali. The streets are spotless and seem to be swept almost every morning.
Both casual and very heavy conversations fill my time in Rwanda. A couple weeks ago, I spoke to Bon Fils, a refugee from Burundi who has lived in Rwanda since April 2015, about political violence in his home country. (I first read about the Burundian conflict, which threatens to boil over into genocide, last July in a report by Kevin Clarke on America’s website.) I also talked with Issa, a 10-year-old boy who lives on the streets of Kigali, about trying to find a school and permanent housing for him. I know I could have similar conversations on the streets of New York, but for some reason I am ally less reserved in this unfamiliar setting.
Driving around, I see houses of worship dot the landscape. Unfortunately, too many religious leaders followed their tribe and government, not their God, and were complicit in promoting violence as the genocide approached. With this on my mind, I wonder how Sunday Mass could be standing room only—and yet the church is packed.
Mass on Sunday officially lasts an hour and a half but actually stretches to two hours as people spend time greeting each other afterward. I attend an English Mass, the 11 a.m. at St. Michael. I truly feel the universal nature of the Catholic Church here. Seeing the same image for the Year of Mercy and hearing the same Gospel—even singing “Amazing Grace”—almost makes me feel at home.
Beautiful Rwandan cultural traditions weave themselves into Mass. During the collection, children stand with banana baskets, a traditional symbol of gifts, to collect the offerings. After putting my Rwandan francs in the basket, I find my seat to watch the procession of the gifts. About 30 people make up the line, each bearing their own gift for the needy, whether Nil water, Omni laundry detergent or Inyange juice. At the end of the procession come the bread and wine, which ultimately become the summation of all gifts we can offer.
During the consecration, the congregation joyfully claps after the priest recalls Jesus’ words, “Do this is remembrance of me.” The first time this happened, I had my eyes closed, but after opening them and looking around, I awkwardly joined in the clapping. When I asked my host mom Maria about this, she told me it was a sign of respect. Now, I look forward to clapping every Sunday and might even continue when I leave Rwanda.
After Mass one Sunday, I greet my host cousins and tell them we will meet up later this week. Looking at the sea of people standing outside the cathedral, a common prayer of the faithful from my home parish enters my mind: “For the troubled spots in the world and in our hearts, we pray to the Lord.”
When I am in New York, I energetically respond, “Lord, hear our prayer.” But being in Rwanda makes me wonder if we as Catholics truly hear this prayer. And if we do hear this prayer, how do we plan to start acting on it?