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We started our last day of the CONTACT program in Rwanda with a very interactive visit at Radio LaBene-Valencija where we met with writers, support staff and administrators of the station.  The station uses soap opera programming as a tool for learning and to promote positive change in Rwanda today. Radio Valencia was founded by CEO George Weiss and also has stations in Burundi, DRC and the Nertherlands with furture plans for South Sudan.

Eighty five percent of Rwanda’s population follows the soap opera that sensitizes people towards the origins of violence and how to resolve conflict peacefully. In addition to the radio program, the project sends grassroots coordinators from districts to the smallest villages for dialogue to identify the messages that the soap opera should convey. The scripts are reviewed by an academic team (including our SIT coordinator, Adin Thayer). There are a few cycles of changes and then the program is recorded, edited and aired.

The soap opera is so popular that when the fictional couple from the two conflicted villages in the story are to be married, the nation wanted to attend the wedding. The station could not find a stadium big enough to hold the wedding for the public, so in lieu of actually creating a wedding day, the programmers  asked Rwandans to dress up for the day and confront a person with whom they have conflict and resolve!

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Next we visited The Rebecca Davis Dance Company, an organization under UNESCO, that offers therapy through dance to orphaned, street children in Kigali. Rebeccca was a Carl Wilkens Fellow and I had met her doing my work with that program.

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IMG_3036She was not in Rwanda at the time but arranged for us to meet with the program director, Eugene Dushime,  and we watched the kids rehearse their leaping, spinning and sliding to the fun beat of African music.

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This was one of the most emotional moments of the entire week for me and I could see my classmates cheering with teary eyes as well.

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There is nothing like seeing healing through art in action! We then joined the kids in dance, shared chocolate and high fives. What a fantastic way to end the week!

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After a wonderful party and closing at Eduard’s home in Kigali, I met up with Cory again and we left to catch the flight to Uganda. Here we met Gabriel Bol Deng and had the chance, after a year, to see his nieces and nephews again in Kampala.

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IMG_3902Aluel, Adual, Deng and Akook had been students for the past 4 years in primary school in Uganda.

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It was incredible to see their progress since last year. They shared their grades with us and we could see their pride and appreciation for their education.

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Akook, the oldest, had just graduated from Primary school and went back to the village in South Sudan for 3 months. We were there for his return to Uganda and we talked about his time in the village.

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We stopped by my friend Garang’s home to meet his wife and new child, Wol. This child of 10 months has the longest legs and hugest smile I have ever seen!

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Then we took everyone out for a visit to the zoo, Lake Victoria and shopping for school clothes to get them ready for the next semester.

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Heading home to the US, I am exhausted but so fulfilled.

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I have learned so much from the people of Rwanda and my classmates from around the world. I thank my family at home for understanding and supporting my coursework, my trip, these kids and my desire to see them and learn about the history of African countries. I know they also would be inspired by seeing how the children have advanced here in Uganda. The kids sent letters back to the rest of my family, hoping and praying to meet all of them next time!

The last few days of our program in Rwanda have been inspirational, enlightening  and emotional. Starting with inspirational, we met with the Women’s forum for parliamentarians where we had our own seats in parliament for a question and answer session.  This informative meeting provided an historical overview of the conditions and processes that have resulted in the prominent role that women now play in Rwanda’s political process.  The host and main spokesperson was Forum Chairwoman, Ms. Connie Bwiza Sekamana.  Rwanda leads the world in seats for women in government and although society is culturally male dominant, we witnessed a presentation from the women that showed us men will have to adjust as women continue to play a more critical role in Rwanda’s politics.

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Above  Director of SIT program, Adin Thayer with member of women’s Parliamentary forum and My dear friend, Mukhtari in his seat of parliament
Our next  meeting was enlightening, as we visited a catholic school and Parish in Kigali and met with a Pastor Antoine Ritayisire who discussed his approach to community reconciliation. We discussed issues based around the emotional scars of the genocide that have left their mark on Rwanda’s young children and teenagers. Many questions were posed about the psychological problems associated with a country so soon out of conflict and the difficulties of teaching what may not always be reinforced in the home and through existing programs. The Pastor began by recognizing that Rwanda’s past internal strife had –and continues to have – a destabilizing effect in the region.  
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The next day we visited the association of Youth Development (AJMD) a Muslim Youth group whose programs include a sustainable gardening to increase the nutrition value for the families and programs for literacy education and capacity building for the organization members.

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Here we learned about the role of Muslim leaders during and after the genocide.  The Muslim Youth Leader explained that according to Islam  “if you save one person, it is as if you saved the whole world ” . Many Muslim leaders helped save people during the genocide by providing shelter in homes and mosques. They also particpated in the Gacaca process by offering witness testimony in many cases.
One of the more emotional visits of the week was our visit to the work site of TIG (Travaux D’INteret General), work camps where those who confessed and were convicted of crimes of genocide perform community service. We met with 7 men TIG workers and one women. Watching their faces it was hard not to envision the horrific nature of the crimes they may have committed. Someone from home asked me, “did you feel angry or scared of these people”?  What I learned from understanding TIG and the Gacaca proceess is that those who confessed  and were sentenced to TIG, were painfully remorseful for having participated. The years of arduous work to rebuild their country helps them heal frome the shame of their crimes. Those who did not confess to their crimes in this way are still in jail today. The TIG prisoners were quiet and answered only a few questions but when I approached them to shake their hand and bless them, they lit up with thanks, their eyes teared and you could see their pain and suffering. These people were victims as well. Out of respect for the prisoners, I have no photos of the TIG work or camps. 
Hope you won’t miss my next post of our last day in Rwanda and trip to filled with creative ways to resolve conflict and heal. …On the way to Uganda!

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Driving 2 hours south of Kigali to the lush, green city of Butare you can see the country rebuilding at every turn.  Deep in the rolling hills and thick cover of pines trees was Save village in the Huye district where we went to witness a comprehensive reconciliation project.IMG_3840

After the genocide, Rwanda’s prisons were overcrowded and the cases were far too many for the court system to handle. Stemming from ancient customs of problem solving, the Gacaca trial process was established after the genocide to try thousands of accused in the country through the use of village run trials. Gacaca judges were chosen by the villagers based on their honesty and integrity.

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This complex process was not perfect but helped to resolve many cases, but true reconciliation did not come from the sentences, but from “real”, heartfelt confessions. Perpetrators confessed to survivors and survivor families decided if they felt the apologies were sincere and from the heart in front of Gacaca judges, who would then pass down sentences of prison or community service.

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In this village we met some Gacaca judges who were responsible for many cases as well as ex-combatants, former prisoners and survivors. They all held the common belief that if they could not reconcile what had happened with themselves, they could not reconcile with each other. Since Hutu and Tutsi shared community, neighborhoods and families, they had to learn to forgive and live together as Rwandans.

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After  an in depth discussion with many questions, we lightened the mood with some time with the kids (who doesn’t love painting ap on the ipad?), and a stop for ice cream ….(may I take a moment to thank god for ice cream? It can really lift the spirt!) at a little shop opened by a group of female Rwandan drummers. Then we stopped at Rwanda’s national Museum for a bit of ancient Rwandan history.

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Although this was a few days ago, I wanted to lighten up the post to share info about this fabulous Rwandan artist Cory and I had visited.  The wonderful art studio of Emmanuel Knuranga boasts many paintings where african fabrics and influences are woven throughout mixed medium, vibrant and textural work.

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Emmanuel’s complex and exuberant palette is eye candy as soon as you walk into his studio courtyard. It was a treat to meet Emmanuel and watch some of the artists at work. It has me longing to get back to the art studio….

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Maybe even throw some of my empty cans onto the wall and see where they land!

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A crazy note…Emmanuel had just exhibited in at the Southport Gallery in Southport, Ct  ten minutes from my house…..but I had to come all the way to Rwanda to see him!

It’s been only 19 years since the genocide in Rwanda and the country continues to work on healing and rebuilding in many ways. Men who grew up during the genocide, when rape and violence towards women was the norm, now need help in understanding the consequences of those events on their lives.

IMG_3794This morning we met with a representative from Rwanda’s Men’s Resource Center, an organization focused on mobilizing men as participants in the process of supporting women and the challenges men face in the changing gender roles in Rwanda today. RWAMREC offers progressive training for men to help understand the importance of partnering and supporting women. The  primary focus in Rwanda after the genocide  has been on women and the environment often leaving men who have been greatly affected to misunderstand the consequences of what they experienced. The goal of RWAMREC is work with men to help promote positive masculine behavior and socialization towards women. There is a long way to go in this effort but we were inspired by theses steps toward progress.

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We then met with MEMOS, an organization founded by Issa Higiro, that brings genocide survivors together with those who rescued them. We heard moving stories from both the survivors and the heroes that risked their lives to hide them until liberation, knowing that if caught, they would be killed. The fearless people who put their lives on the line to save many greatly humbled all of us. We asked many questions of our guests and then showed our respect and admiration through Rwandan Dance and Song.

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The day ended with a documentary film by our classmate, award winning filmmaker and actor Edouard Bamporiki at his home in Kigali (He’s pictured here with his beautiful wife, Claudine). The subjects from the film who were Tutsi survivors and Hutu who witnessed the genocide then spoke to us from the heart about their experiences of pain, shame and forgiveness.  They were incredible teachers of dignity and perseverance and restored my faith in humanity.

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“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart…” Anne Frank

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Last night friends from around the world reunited in Kigali, Rwanda to begin our week long program of learning and reflection. From our summer in Brattleboro, Vermont to the hills of Rwanda, students from Nigeria, Palestine, Sudan, Uganda, Congo, Afghanistan, India and US came together once again to study peace and reconcilliation. It  seemed like a miracle, envisioning the planes flying from many continents to this small country in East Africa to bring us back together.

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We began the program with a presentation by  Suzanne Ruboneka, Director of the Peace Action Campaign for ProFemmes, an umbrella organization that coordinates a wide range of over 58 NGO’s run by and for women in Rwanda.

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It was clear from listening to Suzanne that every Rwandan could write a book about his or her story during the genocide.  After the tragic events of 1994 the country was 70% women. Many were displaced, had been raped and contracted aids, and most were widows. They had many different political affiliations and did not trust one another.  Women had the need to develop their own programs to show their strength and build unity amongst themselves. Profemme began work to help organizations for women develop and through their efforts advocated  to change all laws of discrimination to women in Rwanda as well as reach the rural communities and lift women into positions of empowerment through microfinancing.

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ProFemme mobilized women to vote and was instrumental in the development of Rwanda’s quota of 30% representation of women in decision-making positions in government.  Although the quote is 30% women actually hold 56% of the seats in parliament!  Today Rwanda’s President of Parliament, Vice President of Senate, Minister of Justice, Health and Foreign Affiars are all women.

Above, our SIT Director, Adin Thayer,  presents Suzanne with a canvas shopping bag as a gift. There are no plastic bags allowed into the country for Rwanda.

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The afternoon was more sombering as we entered Rwanda’s Genocide  Memorial Museum. Pictured above is one of the “Windows of Hope” in the museum by artist Adryn Halter, whose father was a holocaust survivor of Auschwitz. We each walked the museum at our own pace for 2 hours. The only sound I heard was the tears of my good friends. There are no words to describe the heaviness felt after this visit. Many thoughts and emotions were expressed during our peace circle practice that followed. An excercise where we all learned the importance of speaking and listening from the heart and the practice of bearing witness to things as they are “including all forms of joy and suffering in the world”.

Our Coordinator Issa did a wonderful job facilitating our group through this process and left us wuith a wonderful quote….

“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty”- Albert Einstein

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On a more uplifitng note… we ended the night with a fantastic dinner at the home of our SIT coordinator from last summer, Jessee Rouette and  his wife, Emily who are living in Rwanda for 2 years with their adorable 2 year old son. I had my fill of cuteness playing with him and kept him occupied sorting bottle caps. Did you know that a can of bottle caps can be used to teach colors, help with counting,  transform into instruments and get a child dancing? Thats what I love about Africa. We seem to find ways to entertain and interact that we may never have engaged in at home.

Waking up to the melliflous sounds of birds singing and the beauty of the sun shining over surrounding mountains, one would have a hard time remembering the genocide that brutalized this country 20 years ago. Rwanda, the size of Massachusetts, lost one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the span of 100 days in the most brutal government run killings known to history.

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But the scars are so deep now that they can barely be seen, sitting here looking out at the banana fields and hearing the laughter of children in the street.  It is hard to believe that a few hundred kilometers away ,war rages in the conflict mining zones of  The Democratic Republic of Congo and  many seemingly peaceful countries contribute to that violence.  My week here with SIT will be to remember  the loss and learn about work Rwanda has done to heal, reconcile and rebuild. I also hope to gain a better understanding of the conflicts in neighboring countries that could affect the future here.

“The dead of Rwanda accumulated in nearly three times the rate of the Jewish dead during the Holocaust. It was the most efficient mass killings since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki” US journalist Philip Gourevitch, author of   We wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda”

Now a stable country with a growing economy, Rwanda feels at the moment like a tropical vacation sitting here in my friends Cory and Matt Melaugh screened in home in the beautiful village of Rwinkavu. Cory, a nurse at Mass General Hospital in Boston, MA, has a one year position as a nurse in the local hospital here and Matt is the supervisor in a library built under by Ready for Reading, anorganizationunder Partners in Health started by Betsy Dicky of Greenwich, CT

I was not sure If I could believe Cory’s advice that I did not need to travel with the same full pharmacy in my suitcase and survival gear as our trip deep into South Sudan last year. This, she said, will be a much different experience. I arrived to the paved roads and lit up city of Kigali and the drive to Rwinkavu was smooth and comfortable. Hey, I might even be able to return the nausea bands and other remedies I rushed to get before taking off!

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Before leaving for Rwanda Betsy and I loaded a suitcase with over 80 pounds of donations for the library. Printer cartridges, dry erase markers and dress clothes. I prayed the whole way here that the small photo printer I packed would make the journey. Matt and I planned a project to help the children have a better undertstanding of their own importance in the world through learning about their image. We hoped to take photos of the children in the library so they could see themselves and make their own portraits.IMG_2300

The library staff occupied the children as we prepared for the exuberant participants.

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Six hours, ten groups and 220 photos later……

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everyone had gone home with a self portrait, photo and a smile!

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A huge thank you to Matt’s brother, Brad for orchestrating the photos of the children and printing all of them at the slow pace of 50 seconds a photo!

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