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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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