Where is the most dangerous place on earth? Is it poisonous snake and spider-ridden Australia? Is it the Middle East? The Bermuda Triangle? Perhaps the Gulf Coast during hurricane season? Shark-infested waters? Chicago? Under the same roof as a quarrelsome wife? Answers may vary. Everyone has their own ideas about what ‘safe’ or ‘dangerous’ entails. Just over a year ago, when I began telling family and friends that I had signed up for my very first mission trip to Rwanda, the reactions ranged from joyful exuberance to the nearly whispered question – Is it safe? Hmm. Going by the dubious representations given through the film industry or the media in general, Africa is an exotic wilderness churning with jungles, ferocious beasts, malaria-riddled mosquitos and grim-faced AK-47-wielding militia. Oh yeah, and basically everyone has AIDS. If the media is your measuring scale for safety, Africa won’t score very high. Good thing missions don’t take cues from the media. They take their cues from the Messiah.
The question of safety regarding Rwanda in particular is somewhat valid, as this country suffered the horrors of genocide a mere 23 years ago. The passing of time doesn’t always denote healing and reconciliation. But if the genocide is all you know about Rwanda (a year ago, that was all I knew), then you don’t know enough. You know the devastation; you don’t know the deliverance. Rwanda has been delivered from the hatred and evil that raged there between April and July of 1994. It has been delivered, not because of the passing of time or the ‘goodwill’ of men, but because of Christ. Only because of Christ. I was blessed to not only hear the good news of healing and reconciliation in that land from people who had seen it during past mission trips, but also to experience it for myself. And WHAT an experience it was!
Last December, our team from Manchester Christian Church began meeting every month, learning about the culture and language, the dos and don’ts of the mission field, and the not-so-subtle art of leaving our Western mindsets (and clothing) at home to allow the Holy Spirit to move in our midst, so far from everything we had ever known. Of the 11 of us that met in the mid-August humidity to weigh our bags and take an inventory of who packed the best snacks, 4 were Rwandan veterans and 7 of us were newbies to Africa. A few people had never been out of the country before, and/or it was their first mission trip. Go big or stay home, right?! As I cheesed for our ‘before’ group photo and said an outwardly placid goodbye to my mother, I thought: Even with all our group preparations and meetings, I still barely know most of these people, and very few of them know me…it’s all in Your hands now, Lord.
Roughly 24 hours later, we greeted the Kigali airport with sluggish enthusiasm, crammed our luggage and bodies into vans that would be our most-used mode of travel throughout our stay, and watched the dark hills peppered with city lights zoom by our open windows as we began to take in a foreign land. Our hotel, scattered room assignments and mosquito netting-clad beds came soon enough, and sweet oblivion closed over us. The next morning, we began our day on Rwandan time (which is to say, we took it slowly). When I left our section of the hotel building to amble along a jungle-esque walkway to the breakfast patio, the glory of the morning refreshed my heart. Joy comes in the morning, no matter the coordinates. (And apparently so do mini bananas, hard-boiled eggs, and muffins.) Our first day was largely comprised of visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial while veteran teammates went to the Rwandan Home Depot for building materials, so after meeting our translators and drivers we set out across the city for a sobering cultural intake. Several of my teammates had read memoirs of genocide survivors and had learned from these first-hand accounts the depths of human depravity during this dark time, but the history and photos along the walls of the memorial still knocked the wind out of us. (A memoir I cannot recommend enough is “Left to Tell” by Immaculee Ilibagiza – her story is heartbreaking and miraculous.) The hardest part of the tour to stomach was called The Children’s Room. Salvaged from the destruction of the genocide were photos of babies and young children, all ripped from the safety of their families and slaughtered. Below the pictures were brief descriptions of each child – names, ages, favorite toys or food, best friends. I can’t imagine anyone exiting those rooms with dry eyes. Another section of the memorial had rooms briefly chronicling other genocides. The Holocaust was the most universally known, but there were several others that, to my shame, I was unaware of. The histories of devastation and evil were so palpable that the only way to step back outside into Kigali, a city once filled with atrocities, and still feel some measure of hope was through the knowledge of Jesus, and the grace He extends to all people. With a weightier sense of why we had come to Rwanda, we left the capital that evening for more hills and fewer lights…and a time warp.
Leaving New England for a third world country was obviously going to be a culture shock. If there’s an entire ocean between you and home, you’re not in Kansas anymore. But what was even more bizarre was that a mere few hours from where landed in not-Kansas land, the culture shifted yet again, this time seeming to hurtle us back at least several decades. The clothing, the modes of living and travel, the food – all had changed. And you know what? I LOVED it. We stayed several nights in the town of Kayonza, and five of those days (the most precious of our trip, in my humble opinion) were spent traveling to the remote villages of Nasho and Gasarabwayi. On our second morning in Rwanda we dressed in village-appropriate garb (in Kigali we did as well, but this felt more serious), had our communal breakfast and devotions, piled into vans and set out on the 2-hour journey to Nasho.
We were prepared for no AC. We were prepared for the red dust that coated the scarves wrapped around our faces. We were prepared for the jolting as we hurtled through the hills and valleys. We were somewhat prepared for the heartbreaking poverty. What we were thoroughly unprepared for was the irrepressible JOY. The city of Kigali had been diverse enough that white skin was not a rarity, but a group as large as ours still garnered attention. But out in rural villages along little-traveled dirt roads, seeing not one white person but two vans full of them was a show stopper. Barefoot children forgot their games as they pointed and waved at us, yelling out “Muzungu! Abazungu!” – translation: “White person! LOTS of white people!” Women with babies strapped on their backs beamed and lifted their hands in greeting. Boys pushing banana-laden bicycles turned their heads as we waved, and if we stopped for gas or directions, within moments a swarm of men and children would surround our vans and stare in at us. And not that any of this engendered vanity in us. We were not there to bear the white man’s burden, we were there to be Christ. Our skin had nothing to do with it! If anything, we were humbled that their reaction to foreigners was not mistrust and fear, but exuberant joy. And if the journey to Nasho was joyful, our reception at the church was a celebration! A long straight road parted slanting fields and led up to another road on which the church sat. From the distance we could see a large group of people waiting where the roads met, and as we drew closer we could see them dancing and hear them singing! Our translators told us that they were praising God and thanking Him for bringing us to them safely! The Rwandan worship team led us up the road and we disembarked from the vans into a crowd of bright, vivid patterns and shining faces. The church hugged us, kissed us, lavished their love on us, and led us in for a dance party unlike any I have yet seen! At first I was too nervous and shy to take part in the dancing, and remained on the sidelines merely clapping, but one by one our team cast off their inhibitions and we joined in the celebration, kicking up lots of dirt as we danced before Imana (God). There’s no better way to begin a church service!
Everything we did during the course of our 3 days in Nasho felt like worship. The dancing, the speaking, the listening, meeting with the women’s co-op and doing teeth-brushing presentations and building toilets. And we were humbled again and again by the church. I had left the States thinking that we would be doing all the serving, so I did not expect the church to serve us so cheerfully and graciously. They had so little, and yet they set aside the best of what they had for us. Without words in a common language, they taught us so much. In between our activities and the choirs and sermons (during as well, to be honest), I would gaze around at the people. The women were beautiful, their skin glistening against the bright colors of their dresses. Their hands were strong as they caught up their children to soothe or admonish. They worshiped with abandon, and they shared their love with us freely. I wish I had connected more with the women we met. But the children were my great love. Everything we did, their eyes followed us. In Nasho they were on the shy side (Gasarabwayi was a WHOLE other story), and when we motioned for them to come over to sit with us, they would feign slight indifference as they slowly approached us, even as the multitude of other children watched in rapt anticipation. All the children were precious, but the little girls were my favorite. Whether boy or girl, all the children had their hair cut short (I believe it was a sign of status and wealth for a woman or girl to have long hair), and the smaller children looked so alike that their clothing was largely the only indication of gender. One little girl had a cheeky, impish look to her, like she was a tiny Puck from a Rwandan Midsummer’s Night. Two other girls had slightly lighter skin than the other children and were clearly sisters. The younger one was more extroverted and came over to us, sucking her thumb or chewing on a corner of her shirt (Hanna and I referred to her affectionately as Cocoa Butter Baby). There was another little girl, no more than 4 or 5, that I especially bonded with. On our first day she was dressed in an off-white handmade skirt and blouse in traditional patterned cloth, and the contrast of her skin and the near white clothing made her stand out. Each day I motioned for her to come sit with me, but she was so shy that it took all 3 days to convince her! Once she did though, we were inseparable. She sat with us, tried to teach me a few words, and I carried her on my hip as I showed the children the wonders of the selfie stick and took group pictures (we learned the word for smile – seka! – so the children knew it was okay to smile when we had our phones out for photos!). On the third day we set up a large screen to project a movie on for the children to watch, and in the midst of that process there was suddenly a torrential downpour. We were all inside the church, safe and dry, but the roof seemed to be made of tin, and the sound of the rain on it made all communication, Kinyarwandan or English, essentially unintelligible. As we waited for the rain to abate, my little friend (I found out later that her name is Miriam) fell asleep in my arms. That was one of the sweetest moments for me. Before we left that afternoon, the pastor gathered us with several members of the church in a separate room and gave gifts to us, praying and speaking a unique word over each of us. Between the extravagant love and generosity of the church, and knowing I had held Miriam for the last time, I wept. (Out of our team, Karen was the one who warned everyone we met that she was a crier and easily moved, while I prided myself on my emotional containment. Go figure.) God surprised us, to say the least. And our trip was only halfway through.
In between the villages, we spent hours in the vans, sometimes napping, sometimes socializing, and Suzanne and I were nearly always waving. I spent a few trips in the “cool van” (titled by Damaris, Hanna, Angel, Michelle, Patricia and Brenda, aka the extroverts) before moving over to the calmer and MUCH comfier “contemplative van” (titled by me). While we didn’t start a party every time we hit the road, we had a blast talking and exchanging experiences and asking Patrick about Rwandan culture. After a day or two in Nasho and noticing how chill the parents were with letting their children sit with us and even bringing over their newborn babies for us to hold, I asked Patrick about it. He said it was a joy for Rwandan parents in the villages to share their children, to see them playing and dancing with us. How strange for an American! How different. But how beautiful. Along with talking about the culture, we had some riotous laughs in our van. A joke that became common not only for our van but for the whole team was Allie’s age. When the women on our team had presented our Bible studies to the women at the church, we introduced ourselves, gave our ages and a brief summarization of our families (the unmarried state of most of our team gave the church plenty to pray for!). When Allie came up to share her Bible study and announced that she was 17, the women were shocked! They wondered how she had been able to come on the trip since she was still only a child! (In their culture, you are considered a child until the ripe age of 18.) For the rest of the trip, we told Allie that she had to sit with the children while the rest of us sat with the adults. It seemed to get old pretty quickly with her but the rest of us went into hysterics every time! We also had some quick wit on our bus (myself included) that kept us laughing uproariously when least expected. I also treasured the evenings back in our hotel room with Hanna. Between our angst over our shower only giving out cold water (thank you Karen and Allie for sharing yours!), being goofy on Snapchat and talking about life back home, we grew even closer. And God was so gracious with all of us. There were many personalities, many different ways in which we processed the things we were seeing. Without His grace, it could have been easy for us to get into petty arguments or at the very least, be annoyed and moody. Maybe not for everyone, but certainly for me! But God smoothed over any rough edges. He allowed us to love not only the Rwandans but also each other. I wrote that at the beginning of our trip, for the most part I barely knew my teammates. By the trip’s end, we were family. Because this is who God is, this is what He does.
Another thing God does is He gets us out of our comfort zones, and teaches us something new when we least expect it or perhaps want it. Our first day in Gasarabwayi was a Sunday, so we were treated to a 3-hour long church service with multiple choirs, a prophetic word spoken in tongues (although to be honest, it was all Kinyarwandan to us), and an invitation for Damaris to preach! (Which she rocked!) After church we set up the screen for another movie afternoon, which the children enjoyed. But what they seemed to enjoy even more were US. Unlike the reserved children in Nasho, the children in Gasarabwayi had a no holds barred approach to us muzungu. I am not exaggerating when I say that we were SWARMED. Math didn’t seem to be a strong suit because at any given time, at least 6 children would be vying for hand-holding privileges with us. I like kids, but it was overwhelming for me. Hanna, on the other hand, isn’t a kid person, so she grabbed her camera and made it her job that day to snap photos of the rest of us with our miniature ensembles! Earlier that morning before we left the hotel, Damaris had shared a devotion in which she talked about rejoicing. I had come to breakfast bespectacled, eyes bloodshot from crying over leaving Nasho, and fairly drained. Rejoicing was the last thing I felt like doing, so I knew God was speaking. Later that day, surrounded by children, I decided to not be heartbroken over Miriam, far away in Nasho. I decided to rejoice. There were 2 girls among the throng of children that would not let go of me, come hell or high water. So I didn’t let go of them either. And I rejoiced. I taught the younger girl to say “Hey, lady!” and brought her around to all our team to showcase our combined linguistic skills. And I rejoiced. When it came time to leave and Brenda and Peace translated to the children that we would be back tomorrow, and the children smiled and waved and ran alongside the road as we drove away, I rejoiced. That was my lesson. The entire team was soon to have theirs!
On our second day in Gasarabwayi, our meticulous plans were scattered in the wind when we arrived at the church and learned that the women (with whom we were doing Bible studies that morning) were all away at a funeral. Patrick and Angel had a solar panel project to keep them busy, but the rest of us suddenly had to improvise for a few hours. Practice a little communal flexibility. And honestly, it was one of the best times of the trip. A few women were there doing the prep work for lunch, and the children were slowly but surely trickling into the church yard. Allie grabbed her soccer ball to play with the kids, Damaris grabbed an apron and a ladle to help in the kitchen, Hanna and Vili and I grabbed ground nuts (aka peanuts) to shuck, and soon enough asked Peace to translate so we could talk with our fellow shuckers. We regaled them with tales of trees with leaves that changed colors, of cold white powder that fell from the sky and covered everything in sight, of salt water that stretched too far to see across. And of course, we backed up our fantastic stories with photos and videos! The children especially loved the videos I had of my friends and I cliff jumping or dropping from rope swings into water – the sound of a colossal splash was hilarious to them! A funny conversation for me happened when one of the young men had Peace ask me what he needed to bring as a gift to American parents in order to marry their daughter. I haphazardly explained that dating didn’t really work like that! I told him that American girls also wore pants and shorts, that they had jobs and worked just like men did, and that they didn’t necessarily enjoy shouldering all the household cooking and cleaning. His response was “Oh I don’t care about that, as long as she will love me!” Apparently American women are quite the dream! In addition to fun cultural conversations, a few of us tried out the Rwandan baby slinging technique. A baby girl in cookie monster jammies was wrapped up on my back, and Hanna carried an umbrella to cover us and keep the baby from getting too hot while the 2 girls from the previous day followed us around. We made quite the little family! I was nervous not being able to see the baby, but her mother didn’t seem to have any qualms so I enjoyed the different experience. Between cooking and baby slinging, we were either honorary Rwandans…or muzungoons. At long last, the women from the church came back and we presented our Bible studies to them. Our second time around with the studies allowed us to be more succinct, and also to be more vulnerable. Some of my team shared about hard situations in their lives through which God carried them. In response, some women from the church shared their experiences as well. Possibly the most special moment of that time together was when the pastor’s wife shared that before we came, she had been asking God: “Why do they come so far to be with us? Why do they love us?” The resounding answer from the Lord was: “Because I love you. They love you because I first loved you.” His love makes the way. Across cultures, across languages, across time zones and oceans and a myriad of differences. We all had to choose a day to blog about, so that MCC’s outreach page could be updated every day with news of our trip. I was blessed that I was able to write about this day in particular, about this divine revelation.
We still had 2 and a half days. Our early morning safari day, with baseball caps and shorts (finally!), Karen yelling into the quiet African bush “HEY THERE’S BUFFALO” when it turned out to be a warthog, me seeing actual buffalo and frantically whisper-yelling “STOP THE JEEP IT’S REAL BUFFALO THIS TIME”, Vili’s desire to see snakes in the wild (why???), our tour guide Denise referring to lone male antelopes as ‘loser antelope’, gazing at giraffes and zebras and waterbuck and hippos, our deep desire to see elephants finally and somewhat anticlimactically fulfilled at the very end of 6 hours (they were so far in the distance that even with the binoculars they were gray blobs, although they were surrounded by herds of other animals so it was a straight up Circle of Life event), and intermittently napping and watching the beauty of the land unfold on the long drive back to Kigali. Our day of Compassion kids and the unholy thrills of market shopping, with Angel and Hanna and me touring Kigali with Patrice, going to the Hotel de Mille Collines on which the movie Hotel Rwanda was based (it was right up the street from our own hotel!), our American space bubbles undergoing extreme pressure while we bought elephant pants in the crowded market, and ending the evening with a taste of Rwandan ice cream at an Asian restaurant. Our last morning waking up under mosquito nets, having our last group pow-wow on Rwandan soil and our last Rwandan breakfast, our trip to the tent church in Kigali to meet with and give a few Bible studies to a group of women (some of whom were former prostitutes that God had called away from that life), listening to them and singing for them, the last time holding a Rwandan child, and our last meal before piling both ourselves and our luggage into vans, and playing uproarious games of Telephone on the drive to the airport. It broke my heart to leave Rwanda, to leave Brenda and Peace, to leave the churches and the children and the beautiful land. It broke my heart to witness the poverty in the rural communities, and wonder if our short-term trips were doing enough. But God taught me that HE is enough. He is enough for Rwanda, for every man and woman and child.
I’m not saying that God plays favorites, but I think He has a special place in His heart for Rwanda. Scripture says that He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. So do they.