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Stories from Rwanda

posted 29 Oct 2012, 03:44 by Chris Morris   [ updated 29 Oct 2012, 04:39 ]

Part One: From Fear to Family

I’ve done some pretty scary things in my life. I once decided it would be a good idea to run a marathon, even though the furthest I had run before was less than a mile. Instead of giving up on my teaching career, I determined it would be best to create my own business, even though I didn’t have the faintest idea about how to run a business. I even entered a dance competition just one day before with four other people in front of hundreds of strangers who might not have realised it was just a joke. Oh, and by the way, I can dance about as well as a pig could fly. But travelling alone to Rwanda to meet and work with people I have never met is the one thing that has terrified me the most.

After my plane landed and I found my baggage I searched for the host family that would be looking after me for my three week stay. I had seen a couple of pictures of Xaverine and her son Gustave but I am terrible at remembering faces; I even had an embarrassing moment of asking an unrelated stranger if he was Gustave. The man just shook his head (I don’t think the poor guy spoke much English and my Kinyrawanda vocabulary was about two words by this point). I moved on.

Xaverine and Caroline with our driver
When I finally found them, my nerves almost completely vanished. Gustave was extremely warm and welcoming and helped me with my bags. Xaverine was every bit as welcoming, and in the days to come I was to learn what an incredible woman she really is. There was also someone else there whom I didn’t expect, but ultimately became someone very important to me – Another volunteer with Dramatic Need who had already spent three weeks in Rwanda. She was a South African girl called Caroline, who I learned would also be there for my entire trip. She will never know the strength she gave me.

On the way to Rwamagana my Rwandan hosts wanted to know everything about me, and I told them as much as I could, but I also wanted to know about them. Caroline began to explain to me that Xaverine has seven children when she was interrupted by Xaverine exclaiming with a smile that “No, I have eight children!”, indicating that Caroline was now a part of her family. She quickly altered this statement by adding “And now, I have NINE children!”, smiling at me. I wondered if I had done enough yet to be called a part of the family, and felt just a little intimidated that Caroline had already bonded with them.

They also wanted to know what I knew about Rwanda. I had spent the past two and a half years reading and writing about the genocide, watching films and learning as much as I could. But when actual Rwandans asked me what I knew

Xaverine's oldest son, Claude
about their country I became quite modest, and didn’t want to bring up such a delicate subject on my first day. Little did I know, I still had much to learn about Rwanda’s painful history and the people’s rise from the past to building themselves a much brighter future...

During the coming days my Rwandan hosts and I did exchange some interesting bits of information about each other’s countries that each party was flattered about. Claude (Xaverine’s oldest son) knew about Scotland’s upcoming independence referendum, and I asked about getting involved with Umuganda as my first Saturday would be the last Saturday of the month – a sort of national community service day across Rwanda.

Settling in was easy, both because Caroline was there to help me and because the family were so welcoming. I had already eaten on the plane but I was served with copious amounts of rice, beans, spaghetti and bananas that looked and tasted more like potatoes – Along with some actual potatoes. They also provided some Rwandan beer – I am by no means a drinker, in fact, I rarely drink at all and when I do it’s very small amounts and never beer. By the end of my trip I had drank so much beer that I developed a bit of a taste for it. My Rwandan hosts never allowed me to drink an unhealthy amount and would never put me in any danger, but I did drink a lot more beer than I ever would back home!

I arrived in Rwanda on a Thursday night, which meant I had a few days before my first teaching day to get to know the family. The times I spent with them are some of the most valuable memories of my time in Rwanda. The first thing that

immediately struck me was how much this family truly love spending time with one another. Xaverine’s two youngest children, Bella and Kelly are the only ones who still live at home permanently. On my first weekend I observed their big brothers Gustave and Claude spending time with them, playing games with them and cuddling them. This show of affection warmed my heart and to see how much this family love each other was truly something inspiring and beautiful to witness. On one of my last days in Rwanda we travelled by several buses (Not as easy a feat as jumping on a bus in Scotland!) to the capital, Kigali so that Xaverine could visit another of her daughters who attends a boarding school. She only gets one day out a month and nearly the entire family were gathered in Kigali to spend the day with her.

Every member of Xaverine’s family works ridiculously hard, right down to Bella and Kelly. The school year in Rwanda is January to November, with four weeks off at Christmas. I know there are two weeks in April where the schools are off for the genocide commemoration period, and I believe there may be two weeks off in either summer or autumn too but apart from that the children are in school. The school day starts at 7am and usually ends at 4:30pm, unless it rains heavily during lunch time and the pupils are delayed getting back, in which case they will stay later, sometimes as late as 7:30pm. When they get home they have homework to do and they stay up very late because, well, that’s just what Rwandans do.

Poor Bella and Kelly would always be falling asleep at night while trying to drink their tea. Xaverine insists that they must drink tea to be able to sleep – I didn’t point out that caffeine is more likely to keep them up!

The two oldest – Claude and Gustave – both have jobs that they work really hard at. I had talked to Gustave briefly before

I came to Rwanda via Email. He studied in the same part of India I visited last year and came back to Rwanda as a freelance filmmaker, and also does work for Rwandan TV station Family TV. Occasionally we would see an advert pop up on television and Xaverine would inform us that Gustave had made it. I couldn’t help but notice big similarities between Gustave and a friend of mine who is also a filmmaker, Nathan. Both make funny little films all the time and have a huge passion for films. Gustave, like Nathan, watches every film that comes out, and he enjoys every one of them from a filmmaker’s point of view. He has a dream of making a successful film in Rwanda some time, and I really believe that he might just do it.

The three girls in the middle all study very hard too and unfortunately I never got to see them very much. They all made time when their sister had come out of boarding school for her one day off which was very nice to see.

My “Rwandan Father” as Caroline had described him was always working hard too. I never quite understood what he does as a job; I think it’s something along the lines of sales. He leaves early in the morning and we wouldn’t see him until

quite late at night when he would relax with some food, a little bit of gin, and then go to bed. He doesn’t speak any English but like Xaverine, he is fluent in French, so Caroline and I tried our best to converse with him with our best attempts at French.

And finally, Xaverine herself is probably the hardest working of all; Apart from being mother to seven (Or, excuse me, nine) children and being the principal of Espoir, she is also the vice president of a genocide reconciliation organisation which she had several meetings for all across the country during my stay, she is the Dramatic Need representative for Rwanda, and – I didn’t find this out until very near the end of my stay – She also used to be the mayor of Rwamagana!

Before I even got to Rwanda, Amber from Dramatic Need had told me that Xaverine runs on what she likes to call “Africa Time”. This was actually one of her most charming aspects. She would tell Caroline and I to be somewhere for 8:oo the next day and not arrive until 9:20, simply raising her arms in the air and exclaiming “Africa Time!!”. I could definitely not run like this back home, but I did find some of these situations hilarious in my time out in Rwanda.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that Xaverine, while very heart warming and kind, was also possibly the most hilarious woman I have ever met. She thinks her English is terrible, but actually it’s pretty good. She struggled to understand my Scottish accent for the first few days but eventually got used to it. But when she would struggle with English she would sometimes just trail off and say “Ah, I don’t speak English. I speak French. Please try to understand French.”

It didn’t take long for my nerves to fade completely and for me to feel I had caught up with Caroline to “family member” status. “I felt like part of the family” is a very cliché thing to say, but I really did. On my last day Gustave thanked me and

said that I was like a son to his parents, and a brother to Bella and Kelly. I have volunteered in China and India the past two years and now and then someone has called me their brother – But never has it meant so much to me as when my Rwandan hosts – no – my Rwandan family said it to me.I was completely honoured that they would think of me that way.

Even down to Caroline – I spent so much time with her in Rwanda and she was there every step of my journey. I felt like she was already part of the Rwandan family when I got there, and by the end she had made me feel like I had been there as long as she had. I could happily call her a sister.

Even after my first weekend, I began to question why I felt scared at all in the first place. After all, it’s the things in life that have absolutely terrified me that I’m most proud of, and this fact alone should have filled me with confidence. But there was one more thing to think of. After two years of planning and fundraising, I had put all my efforts into just getting to Rwanda. I had temporarily forgotten what on earth I was actually going to do when I got there...

Part Two: School Days

After a weekend of getting to know Caroline and the family, it was time to teach my first lessons at Espoir primary

school. Espoir was created by Xaverine ten years ago, starting with just one class. In the past ten years she has managed to expand the school to three nursery years and six primary years, with a view to eventually having secondary and post-secondary levels. The only picture I had seen of Espoir prior to leaving Scotland was one that had been taken just after the roof of the school had blown off. When I arrived at the school I observed a brand new shiny roof which was of course a very nice thing to see.

My first classes were P5A and P5B. Students at Espoir are placed into either the “A” class or “B” class depending on ability. It’s a huge deal for the students as I witnessed on one of my later days in Rwanda. Caroline seemed to have spotted something in the window of a classroom and she called me over. I saw a little boy crying his eyes out and at first I thought he was playing some sort of game, but then I noticed the real tears streaming down his face. As I looked around the classroom I noticed he wasn’t the only one; several other boys and girls were wailing uncontrollably. Caroline and I thought that perhaps someone had died, and I even worried for a minute that it might have been one of the teachers we had gotten to know during our stay. A teacher informed us later that those students had failed a test and would be placed into the B class.

This was a shining example of how important education is to these children. I had witnessed something similar in 2011 when I done some work with children in India; those kids would walk for miles and miles to school, and would stay behind late to do homework because they value their education that much. Rwandan children are exactly the same –

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure kids here in Scotland would be upset about being placed into a B class, but the uncontrollable weeping that I witnessed from these Rwandan children was both heartbreaking and somehow chilling.

I hadn’t given a huge amount of thought about what exactly I was going to be teaching to the Espoir kids. It was a two and a half year journey for me to finally come to Rwanda, and in that time I had been concentrating on raising the funds and finding the time to actually do it. The actual work in Rwanda had been temporarily shifted to the back of my mind. I teach music in Scotland – mostly focusing on drum kit. In 2011 I set up my own drum school called Dundee Drum Academy which has been relatively successful, and I also teach African drumming and run a rock group with the NHS for patients with mental illnesses. In the weeks leading up to finally coming to Rwanda I started to panic about what exactly I was going to do, and it wasn’t until I was actually in Rwanda that I had an epiphany:

Just be yourself and do what you do for a living.

Music isn’t a subject which is widely taught in Rwandan schools, and even in schools in Scotland there is a distinct lack of music theory. Music theory would be a completely new concept to Rwandan children, something that perhaps no-one before me would have done with them, and it’s something I teach on an almost daily basis back home. But, in solving this problem I was presented with another:

Music theory is boring!

Ah, but is it? I drew inspiration from two brilliant people I knew from my past who would do an amazing job if they had been put in my shoes. I had a terrible experience while studying music post-school which I won’t go into here, but I remember the most fun I had was in my music theory classes. The reason was because of the tutor – he was this incredible man with a brilliant sense of humour who made those classes unbelievably good fun. He very sadly passed away two years ago, and even people who only had him for a couple of classes were deeply mournful to hear the news. 

The second person I thought of was my old drum kit and percussion teacher from school. I could write a whole novel about the amazing things this man done for me but I will keep it simple here. He taught me everything I know about drum kit theory and done it in such a silly, funny way that I will never forget it, or him.

So my usual class consisted of playing some games with the children outside, and then teaching them music theory inside. By the time I left Rwanda, most of the Espoir students could compose music by themselves using crotchets, quavers, semiquavers, minims, rests, and half rests in several different simple time signatures. And the way they learned it was actually very practical, clapping out rhythms using the words “tea” “coffee” “Coca-cola” and others, and writing their own rhythms on the blackboard. Sometimes I felt the children could be quite confused by this, but I was so pleased to walk by a classroom and occasionally hear the kids clapping out rhythms and shouting “tea”s and “coffee”s and writing them on the board. I felt I had taught them something quite valuable that would last, and let them have a bit of fun at the same time.

I have seen some truly amazing things in my life, but nothing has blown me away quite like watching the toddlers in Espoir’s Nursery 1. I visited this class simply to observe the teacher and her three year old students, ands what a joy it was. Remarkably, the children could speak a little bit of English. I knew that French used to be taught in Rwandan schools until three years ago when they changed it to English, but I never would have dreamed that children as young as three had already started to learn it. The alphabet was posted on the wall with English words representing each letter, and there were even two posters showing colours and shapes in English too. If that wasn’t enough, the teacher got them to sing me some songs and count to ten in English. The ability of these children was just amazing to witness, and I don’t quite know why but it brought a little tear to my eye.

During her stay in Rwanda, Caroline also had the opportunity to work in a school for visually impaired children, and on my last day in Rwamagna I went with her to watch her work with some young children. She had explained to me that some families in Rwanda are ashamed of their children if they are blind, and as a result they are often orphaned. In one extreme case, there was a boy at the school who had been tied up and left in his house for days. He had developed a permanent limp as a result. It was nice watching Caroline help them to make things from some homemade playdough she had made that morning. I also had the opportunity to hear some of the older students play guitar and sing for us, and I let them hear one of my own band’s songs which they all said they enjoyed. It was a great day just to visit the students, and the blind kids were some of the nicest people I met in Rwanda.

A big difference I noticed between Rwanda and back home was the amount of respect the teachers rightfully receive. I’m not saying for one second that teachers here are completely disrespected, but in Rwanda we celebrated a day called International Teachers Day. I thought at first that language had been a bit of an issue and that they simply meant that Rwanda had its own day of celebrating teachers, but when I returned home my partner (A primary school teacher) informed me that it was indeed an international day, it just wasn’t celebrated here.

In Rwanda the Espoir teachers had the day off, and attended a short meeting/celebration. Certificates were handed out to the best teachers in Rwamagana, and we all went back to Espoir to have some food, beer and awkward dancing (I really can’t dance). It was just incredible to see teachers get the respect they deserve, and the Espoir teachers really do earn every bit of it.

On one day Espoir was involved in a competition for champions, with four other schools from Rwamagana. The

competitions involved drawings of Rwanda’s history, a play, poetry, and traditional Rwandan dance which I enjoyed a lot more than I ever thought I would. I’m not a huge fan of dance, but the raw energy of the boys playing the drums and the girls dancing was fantastic to observe. Unfortunately, the day ran on Africa Time, and I arrived at 8:00 as Xaverine instructed me to, and she appeared with Espoir at approximately 9:30 with a huge grin on her face.

Espoir won the competition; they were awarded points for not having to read their poem from a page, having the best drawings (Many of which included graphic drawings of Rwanda in 1994 which broke my heart), and – get this – Arriving early.

On the way back to Espoir I had a long conversation with one of the teachers. He told me that the school we were in was set up shortly after the genocide to take in students who had been orphaned either because their parents were dead, or in jail. The children at the school are taken in from the streets and given free education, food, water, and a place to sleep. They are also trained in skills which will help them find work when they leave. This conversation turned out to be possibly the most important part of my trip to Rwanda, as the teacher turned from the subject of school to the subject of genocide...

Part Three: Forgiveness/Conclusion

Earlier this year, I drove through Dunblane for the first time. I had never set foot in the town before but I have always

known a lot about the horrible massacre that occurred in the primary school, and the story has brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion. As I drove through I couldn’t help but have this terrible feeling in my stomach, like the memories of what happened in 1996 still haunt the little town and the poor people who must want nothing more than to move on with their lives, and somehow forget what happened at the school.

This feeling – I thought at the time – would be just a taste of what being in Rwanda would feel like.

One day I will never forget was when we visited the Genocide Memorial in Kigali. In fact it was so unforgettable that for my diary entry that day (I kept a diary to help me write this blog) I simply wrote “Kigali Genocide Memorial”. I actually felt a little bit like I didn’t want to visit this place. I had heard stories from people who had visited the site and I genuinely thought that it wasn’t for me. I knew enough about the genocide and I didn’t want to go through the emotional toll that touring the place would obviously have. At the same time I was interested, and Gustave took us one Saturday.

It was raining heavily when we got there, so we had to take the tour in sort of reverse order – starting inside the museum and then finishing with the mass graves outside, where some 250, 000 people are buried. The atmosphere was a little eerie – Apart from the three of us we didn’t see many other people. We explored the history of Rwanda leading up to the genocide and I learned a few things I didn’t know, particularly about the French involvement.

Actual weapons that were used in the genocide were on display – everything from machetes, to clubs, to a chain and lock that was used to chain two people together and bury them alive. There were also clothes that were dug up from mass graves, along with personal belongings of the victims, and a room with hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs of victims. And then there were the human remains...

A box full of the bones of the victims, placed beside something altogether more sinister – a box full of genocide victims’ skulls. Taking a close look I could actually tell how each person was killed – One skull had two small bullet-sized holes, another had a machete shaped line right down the middle, another was completely caved in. Gustave and Caroline had moved on from this room quite quickly leaving me alone for a few seconds, before I couldn’t bare being in there by myself.

But the thing that really got to me was the Children’s Room. Several memorials of very young children were found here;

most of which consisted of a picture of the child, a little bit of information about them, and how they were killed. Here are a few that stuck out for me that I will never forget:

A girl who was just three years old. I noticed that she had the biggest, most beautiful eyes. Her cause of death? Stabbed in the eyes and head.

Sisters who were three and five. A grenade was thrown into their shower.

A young boy who sought refuge inside a church. Burned alive.

Another young boy’s last words – “UNICEF will come”. Cause of death – tortured to death.

And one of the worst ones for me, a girl who was 15 months old. Favourite food: Mother’s milk. Personality: Crying and screaming. Death: Hacked by machete in mother’s arms.

Needless to say, the children’s room was my breaking point. I had to brush away a few tears just looking at the pictures

of the children and reading their stories. If I go back to Rwanda, I’m not sure I’d like to go back in there again. In fact, Gustave himself had only been to the site twice before, and I’m not surprised. He would have been just five years old when the genocide started. It’s not something you want to ask any Rwandan person about, but we did get a little bit of his story from him that day, about how he, Xaverine, Claude and their father had fled to his grandfather’s house, who was rich, and paid off the people who came to kill them. It was hard listening to his story, and after that day was done, I was glad to be back in my room alone for a bit.

I was always a little nervous about coming to Rwanda as a westerner. I think if I were Rwandan, I’d be pretty sick of white people by now; we colonised Rwanda, divided the people into two racial groups, favoured one over the other to the extremes of allowing one group vastly better education and health causing deep resentment from the other group, and when we finally granted them independence we turned the tables and put the other group in charge, causing several violent massacres and a four year long civil war. And then there’s the genocide itself – a by-product of western colonisation where nearly one million Rwandans were horrifically slaughtered while the United Nations first idly stood by, and then fled the country (Not before rescuing only the white people of course) leaving the extremists to what they liked to call their “work”.

Flash-forward eighteen years and here’s this white British guy walking the streets of Rwanda safe and sound, long after

the dust has settled. Not only are the Rwandan people not insulted by this, but I don’t think I‘ve ever felt as welcome even in my own country. Everyone I would pass on the street would say hello, would smile, and would shake my hand. Street kids, instead of begging me for money would simply run up and hug me. Dunblane? This place felt nothing like Dunblane. I’m not sure people back home would be so forgiving – I know I certainly still cheer for whatever football team is playing against England in the world cup! Okay, that’s a bit of fun and games, but Rwandan people may actually be the most forgiving people in the world, and I’ll tell you why:

There was a police station not far from where I was staying in Rwanda. It was Caroline who first pointed out to me that there were sometimes prisoners wearing orange uniforms being made to work in the fields running through Rwamagana. Armed officers would keep an eye on them as they used sharp objects to carry out their work. It wasn’t until my last week in Rwanda that one of the Espoir teachers informed me that some of these prisoners were people who took park in the genocide. He said that it would be impossible to trial and convict every single person who was suspected to have committed genocide, so sometimes the community would trial them instead. If they beg the community and families of the people they killed for forgiveness, and they are granted it, they do this sort of community service instead of going to the prisons which would be bursting full of genocide committers.

Now, I know for a fact that if someone had violently killed any member of my family, or even a friend of mine, I could never forgive them. And so I was completely astounded that Rwandans could. If I was one of the parents of those

children in Dunblane, I could never forgive the monster that did that to them. I couldn’t understand why they would forgive them. I asked the teacher if he thought that this was a good thing, and he replied that he did, that Rwanda needs to move on. And then it suddenly made sense. Rwandan people want nothing more than to move on from their violent history. And what better a world to bring Rwanda’s children up in? A world where people can rise above their hate and look towards their future? I always knew that Rwanda had made a remarkable recovery since 1994, I just didn’t realise how remarkable that recovery was.

My last day in Rwanda was my worst day. I always knew it would be sad to say goodbye, but nothing could have prepared me for what I felt that day. As the clock ticked down my final hours in Rwanda this feeling of what I can only describe as dread was sinking slowly in. I’ve never been one to show much emotion, and at the same time I really wanted everyone to know how much I appreciated them.

“I felt like part of the family” is a very cliché thing to say. But I really did. On my last day Gustave thanked me and said that I was like a son to his parents, and a brother to Bella and Kelly. I have volunteered in China and India the past two years and now and then someone has called me their brother – But never has it meant so much to me as when my Rwandan hosts – no – my Rwandan family said it to me. Bella made a card and wrote a message in it to me and it took me three days after getting home to finally be able to read it and not mentally break down.

Even down to Caroline – I spent so much time with her in Rwanda and she was there every step of my journey. I felt like she was already part of the Rwandan family when I got there, and by the end I could happily call her a sister. That’s why at the airport, when Xaverine and Caroline were there to say goodbye, I have never felt so emotional in my life. They’ll probably never know, but as soon as they were out of sight I was a complete wreck. I can’t even remember what Kigali Airport looks like, I felt absolutely terrible. The worst part of my experience was saying goodbye to perhaps the most incredible people I will ever meet.

I have friends scattered all across the world. I have friends in China, and in India. I have a friend in South Africa, and some who are just across the border. But I only have family in two places: in Scotland, and in Rwanda.