Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Open Doors

One of the first places we went in Rwanda was the genocide memorial in Kigali. It is quiet and peaceful, the final resting place of some 250,000 victims of the 1994 genocide. Before entering the museum, we followed the curve of the building around to the lush garden behind and the stone path that connects the garden to the three mass graves. One of the three burial sites has a glass door. This is because the work of burying the dead in Rwanda is an ongoing reminder of a seventeen-year-old nightmare. Bodies turn up with new construction, field planting, etc. The sight of the door caught me off guard and cinched a knot in my stomach. I thought I was coming to the memorial and its museum to learn about the past. I was unprepared for this glaring symbolism of the literal openness of the genocidal wound in Rwanda.

We passed the communal graves in silent single file. I stared at my shoes most of the time. Because I was looking down, I did not see that while we had circled the building the main courtyard had filled with some hundred Rwandese in Sunday best, many wearing purple (the color of genocide remembrance). Where I had come to learn and take a few pictures, they had come to remember and grieve. The knot in my stomach pulled tighter, drawing my insides away from my ribs and sucking the air from my lungs.

I slipped into the museum ashamed of the camera around my neck and somehow embarrassed to be visiting on the same day as the crowd that was gathering outside. As I tip-toed around the museum I did my best to avoid the crowd and the intimate gaze of the mourners. But at one point I came around a corner to find an older woman, dressed in ceremonial white, passed out on the floor with two other women cradling her head and fanning her face. Upstairs in the room dedicated to the children lost in the genocide, I found myself behind a man who was holding up the woman beside him. She cried softly as he turned her face away from the exhibit. That afternoon the Kigali Memorial Centre was raw with a deafening grief, louder than the words, photos, empty clothes and bleached bones under glass in the museum.

The experience of the Kigali Memorial Centre made the events of the rest of the week that much more vivid and rich. In the last days of our trip, Theo counseled our group not to pack and carry home with us the sorrows of Rwanda. “You can take and share our joy,” he said. “But do not take our sorrows with you.” As always, Theo’s words were wise and timely. So, as I struggle to figure out what to say about my experiences in Rwanda, I feel the need to honor Theo’s request by sharing the moments of joy and the places where I saw the love of God doing its quiet and steady work.

Such moments were in abundance – like the half hour we spend under the shade of the carport at Mbwirandumva Initiative (translated: Speak, I’m Listening). We were gifted by a series of beautiful dances. In the context of a place like Speak, I’m Listening, which has been recognized by Amnesty International for its efforts supporting widows and survivors of the genocide, dancing and singing is especially beautiful. Speak, I’m Listening specializes in trauma counseling and physical assistance for women. The sexual violence surrounding the genocide left an untold number of women emotionally hollow, many even carrying children conceived through violence. The support of Speak, I’m Listening honors the pain of these survivors by listening, crying with them – offering the love of God through emotional and physical support. And the healing that has taken place manifests itself in the confident grace of jubilant song and dance.

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