Sunday, June 12, 2011
Last week I had the privilege of spending part of the morning with this woman. As is obvious, she is beautiful in every way. What is not obvious is that she lost her husband and seven children in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
It has been seventeen years since President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down kicking off the systematic killings of Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers in what would become the most “efficient” genocide in history. What sets Rwanda apart from other historical genocides is the unprecedented cooperation of the common man. Although the genocide was orchestrated by high-level military leaders, most of the killing happened face to face, neighbor against neighbor.
Leading up to last week’s trip, my husband and I were asked to read a few books and watch a few documentaries to familiarize ourselves with the genocide. We learned of the arrogant and insidiously misapplication of Darwinian science that helped the Belgian colonizers re-craft a socioeconomic classification into a so-called biological construction of race. We learned that the issuing of ethnic ID cards by the Belgians helped them divide and rule the Rwandese people. We learned many things. But nothing we learned made the killing of almost one million people in one hundred days fathomable.
The weight of history coupled with the haunting faces of those left to tell it was too much. With one week left to pack and prepare our children for our long absence, I told my husband that I just could not see how I was to survive bearing this witness. I told him I did not want to go. I told God, too. Neither seemed to hear me so I kept packing. The day before we boarded the plane, bell hooks gave me this thought, which I scribbled onto the first page of a fresh journal:
"I suggest that we do not necessarily need to hear and know what is stated in its entirety, that we do not need to ‘master’ or conquer the narrative as a whole, that we may know in fragments. I suggest that we may learn from spaces of silence as well as spaces of speech, that in the patient act of listening to another tongue we may subvert that culture of capitalist frenzy and consumption that demands all desires must be satisfied immediately. (Teaching to Transgress, 174)
In that moment, hooks was the gentle voice of Jesus. And I stored the truth of God found in her words behind my ribs, near to my trembling heart. I can never understand, nor do I need to, the whole of what happened in Rwanda. But I did go. And each day that I was there, one or another wise and gracious Rwandese soul gave me rich fragments pointing both to God and to a deep, albeit painful, understanding of my place in their suffering. But I was also invited to a deeper understanding of healing and joy.
A few years ago, Sis had mentioned that she did not want to ever go to Rwanda. “There are too many bones,” she said. “I’ll trip.” I shared her insight with a few Rwandese people, hoping to communicate that even a young child can understand that their personal and national loss was staggering. “You tell your daughter,” one woman said, “that she can come now. The bones, like those God showed the prophet Ezekiel, are knit back together. Now there is muscle and skin on theses bones. We dance and sing. Tell your daughter it is safe to come now.”
The beautiful woman pictured above sat with me in a small, mud-walled and dirt floored room of her home. She showed me pictures of her children, grandchildren and various friends from the West who had remembered to send her copies. When we would come across a picture of one of her children, she would pause, place an open palm over her heart, quietly touch their face and then make a motion with her hand away from her mouth and a whooshing sound which seemed to communicate that the breath was violently stolen from their body. When she would do this, I tried not to shudder.
When we were done looking at her photos, she asked me if I had any children. I pulled out the 4x6 of my kids that I had been carrying around in my bible. She smiled over the photo, holding it gingerly in her open palm. I told her through an interpreter that she could keep it. She pressed it to her chest and told me she would pray for my babies. And I know she meant it.
Her joy and interest in my children was sincere and it nearly broke my heart. And it made me think of Madame Jeanne Guyon: “If knowing answers to life’s questions is absolutely necessary to you, then forget the journey. You will never make it, for this is a journey of unknowables,– of unanswered questions, enigmas, incomprehensibles, and most of all, things unfair.”
And so I begin the process of arranging the beautiful fragments tenderly gifted to me by old souls and new friends. I ask the Lord to help me remember. And I ask Him to teach me how to speak with respect and clarity about all that we experienced. I do not want to gloss over immense pain or censor the healing work of Christ, which was unmistakable. I do not want to tokenize the olive branch of friendship so often offered me or presume anything about our gracious hosts. But I do want to wisely steward the stories that were shared with me. And take the time to process a few of my own. And so I ask for grace.