Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Rwanda, a Light for the World

 Last November I accompanied the Rev. Kenneth Schmidt, a certified counselor and pastor of St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Kalamazoo, and Sharon Froom, a psychologist, to Rwanda at the invitation of Bishop Jean Damascène Bimenyimana.  They were to provide trauma recovery training to 28 priests during a five-day workshop/retreat in Cyangugu, a small town in western Rwanda. They were part of a four-member team put together by Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga, a priest well-known for his healing work of forgiveness and reconciliation.  He is establishing the Center for the Secret of Peace there. The team also gave a 2½ day workshop to 85 educators and service professionals.   

Seventeen years ago today began a 100-day genocide in Rwanda where a million people perished—and the world just sat and watched it happen. 

Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya where there is access to oil, Rwanda had no notable resources to obtain so world governments, NATO and the United Nations offered no help.  Rwanda was on its own as the Hutu government reigned terror on 15 percent of the country’s people, the Tutsi, in an attempt to rid the land of its “cockroaches.”

Today, not surprisingly, 100 percent of the people are traumatized by the genocide—survivors and perpetrators alike, according to priests and human service professionals I talked with last November when I visited the country. 

Deep pain, guilt, embarrassment for surviving and the urge for retaliation remain in the hearts of many people, said Philippe Ngirente, a social service director. 

Children share the same classroom with those whose parents were killed and those whose parents are in prison on suspicion for genocide crimes, said Nzeyimana Alays, a high school headmaster.  Violence breaks out and schools are not always safe.  Children can’t concentrate or learn and teachers can’t teach.

Every village in Rwanda had instances of genocide, said Narcisse Ntawigenera, a psychologist.  People suffer from flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, headaches, stomachaches and other psychosomatic symptoms.  Families and neighbors of mixed ethnic backgrounds still have hard feelings.

Meanwhile, the country remains desperately poor with about 60 percent of the population living below the poverty line (  Poverty is generally defined as the lack of basic human needs, such as clean water, nutrition, health care, education, clothing and shelter, because of the inability to afford them.

Mass migrations have taken place since 1959 when Tutsi refugees spilled into the neighboring countries of Burundi, Congo, Uganda and Tanzania because Hutu regimes preached hate and discrimination.  President Paul Kagame, who led the rebel army against the Hutu government in 1994 and subsequently quelled the 100-day genocide, was among those Tutsi families who fled to Uganda. 

Since the Tutsi takeover of government, 3 million Hutu have left the country, some of them still lusting after Tutsi blood.  This massive dislocation of the population is unsettling for Rwandans as well as for their neighbors who are forced to host refugees they don’t want.  Meanwhile, Rwanda remains one of the poorest, most densely-populated countries in the world with scarce resources to boot. 

And yet, the priests, teachers, health care professionals and social workers I met there were inspired, energized and ready to take on the task of healing their country.  

“There is no other place for people to go,” Ngirente said.  “We must get along.” 

The Kagame government desperately wants this to happen as it continues to try to stabilize the country through policy and economic development.  Reconstruction abounds in downtown Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda.  The effort to appeal to multiculturalism is also apparent in the vast array of Western and Asian restaurants available there.  A massive hotel and conference complex is being built to attract tourists and businesspeople.  English was declared the official language of Rwanda last year.  (Kinyarwanda and French are also the official languages.)
Over 5,000 people attended the Mass of Healing

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has become a major player in taking on the task of emotional and spiritual reconstruction in this predominantly Catholic country.  They do it through the reconciliation of genocide survivors and perpetrators.  This is one of the reasons why Bishop Jean Damascène Bimenyimana recently assigned Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga, a parish priest who is well known for his healing work of reconciliation, to full-time leadership in establishing the Center for the Secret of Peace in Cyangugu.  (Fr. Ubald says the secret of peace is forgiveness and reconciliation.)  

Fr. Ubald is a lively, energetic, tireless, can-do and charismatic man who has been likened to Martin Luther King, Jr.  He can’t walk down the street without people stopping him to talk and he constantly receives cell phone calls from people asking for his prayers, including those he has met in Europe and America while he solicited funds to buy the land for the Center. 

Father Ubald
One reason why Fr. Ubald is so effective is that during the genocide he lost 80 members of his own family, 30,000 members of his parish and he barely escaped the terror himself.  This is why he has made healing his country’s wounds his passion and the focus of his ministry.

One of the priests, Fr. Charles Ntabyera, probably summed it up best about the way Rwanda’s leaders think of their nation in the world.

“We are like David of the Old Testament,” said Fr. Charles.  “He was the smallest and youngest among his brothers and often overlooked.  Then he was chosen by God to fight Goliath, liberate his people, and become king of his nation.  Why couldn’t Rwanda lead the way for healing itself and the world from violence?”

Americans should take note of what can happen when a country allows itself to be consumed by hatred, poverty and division.  Americans should also recognize what it takes to heal such evils that are all too easy and convenient to adopt in order to win elections or gain attention in the media. 


  1. I am Rwandan and I am proud of our country, our progress and our president.

  2. An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto a coworker who had been doing a little research on this. And he in fact bought me lunch simply because I discovered it for him... lol. So allow me to reword this.... Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending time to discuss this topic here on your site.