Rev. Robert MacDonald's Personal Reflection on Imbabazi Rwanda
Rwanda is a country with a horrific past, but the courage and resilience of the people who have integrated the past into their present and are allowing it to inform their future is inspiring.
The 1994 genocide is estimated to have claimed the lives of over 1,000,000 people in 100 days. What set these events apart was the fact that the architects of the genocide had managed to convince the core of the Hutu population that the Tutsi’s needed to be purged from their midst. So not only were Tutsi people at the mercy of the Rwandan army and a youth militia called the Interahamwe, but also ordinary citizens – neighbours, friends, and even family members – who were Hutu were either convinced or forced to participate in the extermination of the Tutsi people. Moderate Hutus who resisted the purging were also targeted.
The international community at the time was afraid of the repercussions of getting involved. Consequently, all of the whites were evacuated, the U.N. peacekeeping force was reduced to almost nothing, and the people were left to fend for themselves.
Since the genocide, the country has taken radical steps to erase the racial tensions of old, trying to create a culture based on one people, the “Rwandese”, not Hutu or Tutsi. The rebuilding process has been very challenging with the delicate balance between bringing perpetrators to justice and promoting reconciliation. Although it has not been a perfect process, the country seems to be making significant strides to come back together as one.
It has been a long and hard journey of picking up the pieces from this devastation, and even in the midst of profound comeback and development, the long term effects of the traumas experienced continue to manifest in society. Vast numbers of people witnessed multiple atrocities, deaths of close family members, rape, and any number of other traumas. Due to the numbers of survivors and prioritization of resources, sustaining psychological, physical and emotional support for the victims has been nearly impossible.
It is in this environment that Eddie and Bonita Mwumvanesa envisioned healing. As missionaries with the Evangelical Free Church of Canada Mission, they hoped for a center where people could find help with counselling, training, and support for not only basic needs but also psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs. So they initiated CenterPeace Rwanda, which is currently in infancy, but with increased support and finances will soon become a thriving resource for Rwandese.
Myself, my wife Amanda, and Dr. Rodolfo Nolasco, Professor of Counselling Psychology from Providence Theological Seminary, teamed up with Glenda Dubienski of Calgary to mobilize a team to go to Rwanda and support the efforts of CenterPeace. Besides the four of us, the team consisted of mostly counselling students (who are getting a course credit for CP 5116 Counselling Across Cultures for participating in the trip), a psychologist from Calgary, and one photo journalist for a total of 15 members. From the very beginning we sensed this vision was a gift from God that we were able to share. His presence was with us in powerful and tangible ways all through the process as he equipped us and blessed our efforts in profound and life transforming ways.
After merely a year since first conceiving of this trip, we found ourselves in Kigali, being greeted by the immigration officers who warmly pronounced, “welcome – you are welcome here”. This tone of acceptance was not isolated to those at the airport, as we were quick to discover that our presence in Rwanda was very much appreciated. We heard quite a few times from different people comments such as, “we know you have better places to be, but you’ve chosen to take time and spend money to come and be with us”. This was important to us, as we knew the potential for resentment and bitterness was high given the abandonment they experienced 15 years ago.
We were all instantly captivated by the stunning green hills, the beauty of the people, and the vibrancy of the city. Rwanda’s history was heavy on our minds as we interacted with people, wondering what their stories were from those days. We also wondered as to the continued impact of those stories, as for us just learning about the genocide had a profound impact.
Our team was fairly sombre and contemplative in those first few days, trying to understand the paradox of such horrific events not so long ago, and yet finding ourselves immersed in normal city life that was bustling along like it does everywhere.
We were standing in the very spots where the genocide happened, looking out over the hills, hearing and seeing in our minds the burning buildings, the shots, the cries of those witnessing a murder or being killed themselves. What could we possibly offer these people? None of us had ever experienced horror to the extent they did, and yet here we were under the pretence of helping them. We knew that we did have something to offer – it was the gift of ourselves, as well our knowledge of the counselling process. We were also aware that we ourselves were in for a learning experience, that in sharing their pain and witnessing their strength we would be in awe and forever change how we saw the world. That they would have much to teach us was very evident, we just did not know what this teaching would entail and the extent that it would reach into our hearts.
As we began to meet the local leaders who had been preparing for our arrival, we sensed right away how high their expectations were regarding our time in Rwanda. They were hoping for great things to happen, and we were determined not to disappoint them. This of course drove us to prayer as we were also quite aware of our own inadequacies.
Our plan as we arrived was to host a 5-day conference for church leaders and other lay people involved in caring for the emotional needs of others. Over 100 people had been invited, and we were all anxious to see if anyone would come. As it turned out, we had anywhere from 85-95 people each day, and most of those were consistent across the five days. This was significant, as the local leadership assured us that most people do not go to conferences for 5 days in a row, especially during the week! We were told that those attending saw value in what we were offering, and that our format and content was different than anything they had received before.
We came with a plan to focus on personal and group counselling, but in talks with local leadership it became evident that what the people needed, wanted and expected was a more educational format. We then went through an intense day and half of re-authoring the content and format of the conference to better suit this cultural reality.
Our content focused on five areas: 1) Preaching the Word; 2) Teaching counselling theory/technique; 3) Modeling the counselling process through the live role play of three of our team members; 4) Prayer & worship; and 5) Group counselling in the afternoons in small groups. We were astounded at the deep level of understanding, insights, and theological reflections of both their experiences and the material we were presenting.
In the end, the conference attendees expressed their respect and gratitude for our honesty, vulnerability, shared suffering, and knowledge of the counselling process. People experienced personal healing of their own pain, grew in knowledge of how to help others, and were given tools and encouragement to keep serving those around them. Many of these helpers had never even had the chance to tell their own stories of what happened to them in the genocide, and yet have people around them expecting them to help them with their pain. It was a pleasure for us to be involved in helping them process their experience in order to be able to meet the needs of others.
Both the attendees and our team learned that effects of trauma are universal, regardless of the event itself. This was significant and is part of what ultimately brought us together – that yes, the degree to which another suffers may be greater than our own, but our suffering is still impactful and the consequences are shared.
Our female team members also were privileged to take part in a women’s conference for those who had experienced violence, either domestic abuse or rape. This experience was very powerful as both groups of women bonded over the sharing of stories and the support they were able to offer.
It was significant for some of the people to get to the place where they could ask us about and express their pain of being abandoned. Why had we ignored the events of 1994? Did we think they were just playing games on the TV? Why had we taken so long to come? These were difficult questions, but our team members were able to express their grief of having not known, not paid attention, or letting our governments ignore the crisis. We were able to express regret and offer apologies for their abandonment. One participant responded, “When you learned about us, you came. For that we are grateful”.
We are convinced that as the church, we have a responsibility and opportunity to continue to speak into and mentor the Rwandan church, doing so of course with an attitude of humility and shared learning. We still have much to offer our brothers and sisters in Rwanda, but they have much to teach us as well. It is our desire to pray as we dream and plan our next steps of involvement. We were unable to commit ourselves to coming back, even though we were asked to many times and in direct and public ways, but we will be back, as God wills, as we have much to do yet. The future plans of many of our team members are now open to change as a result of this trip.
The partnership between Providence Theological Seminary, the EFCCM, and CenterPeace was a dynamic one in which lives were changed, futures re-oriented, and the local church was blessed as we endeavoured to equip the people with resources for dealing with trauma and its effects. It was a privilege to meet with the people of Rwanda, to be loved by them and show them love, and in the process encounter the risen Christ in each other.