Saying “See You Later” to Rwanda

When I left Des Moines and said “see you later,” I knew that in three and a half months I would be back and able to see my friends and family again. When I said “see you later” to my friends and family in Rwanda, I had no idea when that later would be. My last two days in Kigali, I was able to visit the people that welcomed me so graciously into their lives and homes. I felt so greatly appreciated and loved by individuals that made Rwanda my home.

I have been back in Des Moines for almost an entire week now. As I lay in my bed writing this blog post, I am thinking back to my first post on this blog describing my “see you later” to Drake. I wrote, “I can continue to say all I want that I am spending my semester in Rwanda, but as of now, those are merely words.” Now, I say that I spent my semester in Rwanda and I know that those words are filled with love, admiration, hope, and faith in the country, the beauty, and the people of Rwanda. “See you laters” are hard and sometimes are hard to believe in (when will I be back in Rwanda???) but most of all I am so grateful to have been able to say “see you later” because it means that I was able to say “hello.” I was able to have the experience of a lifetime and meet individuals that inspired me and welcomed me like no had ever done before.

Thank you to everyone that has supported me since birth. I know for many it was hard to know that I was thousands of miles away in such a foreign place but I was safe, healthy, and most of all happy for the entirety of my time in Rwanda. It was (as I think I have said in this blog a couple times) BEAUTIFUL.

SIT, ISP, and GOD

As I finish up my time here in Rwanda, I feel like it is the best time to describe what the heck I actually did here…a much better idea than explaining it at the beginning, right?

As a student at SIT (School for International Training), I spent the first two and a half months engaging with the theme of Post-genocide Restoration and Peacebuilding through experiential learning both inside and outside the classroom. On top of lectures from University professors from across Rwanda, we visited genocide memorials, unity co-operatives, peace-building organizations, and more. We learned by experiencing the reconciliation first hand. There is something extremely powerful about being able to learn by doing.

Over the last four weeks, we have been released on our own for both housing and our studies. Just today we presented our final ISP (Independent Study Project) conducted on a topic of our choice that we researched this month. The paper is intended to introduce us to techniques in conducting research both in foreign countries and post- conflict societies as well as preparing us for other general research. In the end, each paper is expected to be about 30 pages and include methodology techniques, lit review, presentation, and analysis of our findings. The work has not been easy and has tested my time management skills (if those even exist) and made me think deeply about the post-genocide society in Rwanda.

For my ISP, I decided to study the shift in the perception of God from before to after the genocide. There is a popular proverb in Rwanda that says, “God spends the day elsewhere but sleeps in Rwanda.” This saying is intended to display God’s love for the Rwandan people and God’s love of Rwanda’s beautiful landscape. However, when viewed in the context of genocide, it is difficult to understand how Rwandan’s continue to have faith in the Almighty so wholeheartedly. This was the basis of my study. If you are interested in reading the entire research, feel free to reach out to me on my email: ben.weinberg.218@gmail.com.

Here is my abstract to give you a little look into what I researched and the implications of it:

After the slaughter of over a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu in Rwanda in 1994, God remains an important part in the life of many Rwandans. In this study, 11 Rwandans including survivors, perpetrators, and refugees, were interviewed to provide their perceptions of God before and after the genocide. Through the use of these interviews and various studies on evil, coping, and trauma, this research intends to understand both the shift in belief before to after the genocide and the factors that caused the shift to occur. Informant testimony provides evidence of the way that God and Christian theology has been used as way to cope with the trauma and conflicts of the genocide. The vast majority of informants focused their attention on explaining how God can exist after genocide, rather than actually questioning God’s existence. In that way, the informants have placed a great deal of faith in God’s plan and have used their faith as a powerful tool to continue living and reconciling after the genocide. The study provides a look into the power of religion and God’s ability to heal the wounds of unthinkable trauma and conflict by just being something to believe in.

Tikkun Olam – Words with Meaning

This week I visited Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV), about an hour outside of Kigali, at the recommendation of a visiting Rabbi in Des Moines, Danya Ruttenberg, last fall. I was told that the village was modeled after youth villages in Israel that were created for orphaned and vulnerable youth after the Holocaust. The Jewish connection sparked an interest and I am beyond glad that I decided to go to experience the magic of the village.

Opened in 2008, ASYV is made up of 500 orphaned and extremely vulnerable youth from around Rwanda between the ages of 14-20. These students are chosen based on their level of vulnerability and brought to the village to immediately join a family. Families are made up of 16 youth, of the same gender, with one Rwandan Momma (a woman that lives with the family through their time in the village). There are 3 male families and 5 female families in each grade. Students take their regular curriculum such as math, science, language, and economics at the high school up the hill and take their enrichment programs such as music, art, carpentry, football, karate, and computer within the village after class.

The village focuses on its seven core values and specifically focuses on the Hebrew ideas of Tikkun Halev (healing the heart) and Tikkun Olam (healing the world). For these vulnerable youth that came out of extreme poverty, child-led households, abuse, or neglect, the first step in their time at ASYV is healing their heart. They do this through the enrichment programs where they can express themselves and through the love that surrounds them every day in their family. After their first year at the village, the focus shifts to how they can heal the world. With the amazing opportunities they get in the village, the youth are passionate about paying it forward to the local community surrounding them. Every week students build houses for the elderly and disadvantaged in the community and teach English to students that don’t have the same access to education that they do.

On Friday night (my second and final night at the village) a number of students, during the weekly talent show, presented the organization that they were building called “Hope for the Future.” In this organization the students, who just four years ago were some of the most vulnerable youth in the country, are finding young children in their area that to time and money into, helping them get nourishment, education, and hope. The ASYV students live by Tikkun Olam.

I could go on and on about the inspiration of the village and the youth that make it up. I could talk about the questions I was asked that blew me out of the water for their thoughtfulness and nuance. I could talk about the talent that these students shared with each other and the way they lifted each other up. I could talk about the way I was welcomed by every single individual I passed in the village. I could talk about how every student knew the importance of their education and the importance of taking advantage of the opportunities they were handed through ASYV. I could talk about a lot of things. But I will end with a quote that took my breath away and shows that these young people know the meaning of Tikkun Olam:

“We do not give because we have a lot to give. We give because we know what it is like to have almost nothing.”

To find out more about this magical and inspiring place PLEASE check out asyv.org.

Look! It’s been 3 Months!

It is so absolutely incredible that I have been in Rwanda for three months now and will be leaving this beautiful country in only two weeks. I cannot really put into words what that day will be like. I am sure I will be overcome with emotions come May 10.

A Bathroom and a Volcano

My roommate and good friend Drew and I have decided to re-watch the Star Wars Saga after our mutual excitement over the trailer for Episode VII. One of the most famous lines from the Saga comes from Episode V when everyone’s favorite puppet, Master Yoda, throws some knowledge to young Luke Skywalker: “Do or do not. There is no try.” The little green dude has a point. What follows are two stories that are evidence of the truth of Yoda’s words. They involve adventure, struggle, frustration, and triumph. One about a bathroom and the other about a volcano.

Last week a number of my friends and I went out to dinner in Kigali. When we arrived at the restaurant I felt the urgent need to relieve myself and use the restroom so I found the toilet and headed in. To ensure my privacy, I locked the door to the single bathroom that was connected to a second single bathroom. Almost all the doors in Rwanda are without deadbolts and rather just have a key on the inside that you turn to lock and unlock the door. After I finished my business I attempted to unlock the door with the key, yet was having some trouble. I announced to Gabi who had just left the bathroom next door that I was having some trouble and so she waited outside the door until I could unlock it. Yet, it didn’t seem to want to unlock. I continued to try to turn the key yet it didn’t budge. I passed the key under the door to Gabi on the other side yet her attempts caused the key hole to fall through my side of the bathroom. I was in a bit of a predicament. My only choice was to crawl over the wall separating the two bathrooms by climbing over the toilet on my side. So I delicately climbed over the toilet, boosted myself over the wall (with my nonexistent arm muscles) and tried my best to lightly land on top of the toilet on the other side. Luckily Placide, a Rwandan friend, had reached the other side to help me down. Once I had walked out of that door I was able to breath fresh air and have a chuckle. “Do or do not. There is no try.”

On Monday my friends and I traveled to Volcano National Park in Northwestern Rwanda to climb Mount Bisoke, a 12,000 foot volcano with a magnificent crater lake at its peak. The morning of the hike we were up by 6 a.m. to travel to the base of the volcano to begin our ascent. We had been warned that the mud would be tricky to navigate through, as this is the rainy season in Rwanda, but we were not expecting the amount of mud we were met with. The views were beautiful on our way but it took all of my physical and mental strength to continue to the top. To say we were trudging through the mud would be an understatement. Our feet were being sunk deeper with every step into the thick volcanic sludge. I pushed and pushed and pushed. With the help of a portar, a native of the area that assists on hikes, who eventually carried my bag and sometimes my hand, I continued up the volcano knowing that the peak would be worth it. My breathing was slow, my legs were numb, and my shoes were giant blocks of mud but I made it to the top. I was able to breath fresh air and have a chuckle. “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Thanks Master Yoda.

Remember Rwanda – Kwibuka21

Today marks 21 years since the beginning of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. April 7, 1994 killings started all across Rwanda. It was a year before I even entered into this world and yet I still feel the wounds of the 100 days of mass murder in Rwanda. The genocide against the Tutsi cannot be explained. It was rationalized by its perpetrators and its history can be traced, but the acts of ordinary citizens murdering over a million cannot be explained.

“If you must remember, remember this…The Nazis did not kill six million Jews…Nor the Interhamwe kill a million Tutsi, they killed one and then another, then another…Genocide is not a single act of murder, it is millions of acts of murder.” – Stephen D. Smith

Today marks the beginning of Kwibuka, Kinyarwanda for “remember,” the National Commemoration Week for the genocide against the Tutsi. The week begins with a commemorative lighting of the flame of hope at the Kigali genocide memorial and ends with “A Walk to Remember” that my classmates and I plan to participate in. Throughout the week, local communities plan and carry out commemoration services where survivors are able to give their testimony and share their wounds that are just beginning to heal. The week is solemn, quiet, and filled with grief. Little is open throughout the city as Rwandans come together to remember the gruesome past of their country and work to move forward towards unity and peace.

 “When they said ‘Never Again’ after the Holocaust, was it meant for some people and not others?” – Apollon Kabahizi

I remember in 10th grade when our Jewish Confirmation class went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and I was introduced to more in depth history and memory of the Holocaust. I also learned that not only were Jews murdered but so were gypsies, disabled people, and gay people. At the Museum I purchased a pin that said “Never Again” because I believed as a Jew the history of the Holocaust was my history and I was responsible to ensure it would never happen again. My responsibility, I believed, was not only to ensure that a genocide against the Jews never occurred again but also, and more importantly, that genocide itself never occurred again. I can connect to the Holocaust because the ideology of the Final Solution would have put me in death’s grip. That connection also extends to other ideologies in our collective history that have intended to eliminate other people groups. “Never Again” is about more than myself, or my people. “Never Again” is about all people.

“Genocide is likely to occur again. Learning about it is the first step to understanding it. Understanding it is important to respond to it. Responding to it is essential to save lives. Otherwise ‘Never Again’ will remain ‘Again and Again and Again…’” – Unknown

In our program we constantly ask ourselves what we do with the information we are learning. Although clear answers are hard to come by when talking about genocide, I have concluded that what I know I can do is pass some of what I know on. We cannot allow the ideologies of genocide, including discrimination and prejudice, to remain acceptable in our society. We cannot allow ourselves to be desensitized to senseless killings in countries far from our own. Towards the beginning of our program in Rwanda, we attended a few genocide memorials and I was asked to write a comment for our group in one of the guest books. Words don’t come easy when standing in the middle of a church where thousands were slaughtered, but I did my best:

“We take responsibility to understand. We take responsibility to educate. We take responsibility to act.”

I want to ensure that through the rest of my life I take these responsibilities seriously. Today I want to share these responsibilities with you. Please take a moment to remember the lives of over one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu in Rwanda that were murdered. Please take a moment to remember the lives of those that lost loving family members and are struggling with those memories today. Please take a moment to remember the lives of those that perpetrated the genocide and are asking for forgiveness for their actions and transgressions. Please take a moment to tell someone about this tragedy. Please remember and please NEVER AGAIN.

Check out http://www.kwibuka.rw/ for more information on commemoration. 

10 Seconds of Awe

The root of AWESOME is AWE. The word is meant to describe something that causes or induces awe. Rwanda is awesome. I know I have stated over and over the beauty of Rwanda and the way in which the landscape takes my breath away, but I am doing it again. In the moments where I am struck by the beauty of this place, I practice what I call 10 seconds of awe. That means I stop whatever I am doing (usually walking), look around me, and take it all in for 10 seconds. Rwandans are quick to tell Americans how fast we move from one thing to the next hardly taking a breath. I know I find myself at times far too occupied with where I am going or planning to do next to just enjoy where I am. My 10 seconds of awe in Rwanda have been extremely important for my experience. I take the time to breath and most of all express my gratitude. In the moments where I stop and stare at the world around me, I grasp how amazing it is that I am in Rwanda at this time in my life with the opportunities that I have here. At the conclusion of the 10 seconds, I feel revitalized and full of something inexplicable. I can only describe those experiences as awesome.

What if we all experienced a little more awe in our lives? Try it. The world is full of beauty and the only way to see it is to experience it.