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FROM READERS: Encountering genocide memories and new progress in Rwanda

Friday, March 7, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST

Kaycee Nail is a junior communication and women's and gender studies major at MU. She is currently studying abroad again in Lancaster, England. The following is excerpted from a speech Kaycee gave.

Since I have returned from Rwanda, I have people constantly asking me, “So how was Rwanda?” I love that people are interested in hearing about my experiences, but to ask someone who just spent over a month studying a genocide in the country where that occurred only 20 years prior, is quite a loaded question. Typically I respond with “Amazing! The experience of a lifetime,” but I have yet to find a way to do it justice and to describe the impact. Before writing I did much reflection on my time in Rwanda and read my 25,000 word journal from my time there. And still after all of that reflection I don’t know where to begin.

My past experiences have made me personally aware and concerned about physical and mental violence impacting women and children worldwide. I am passionate about helping put an end to the violence and work each day to reach my goal of becoming an international advocate for women’s rights.

With this goal in mind, I came across a study abroad program called “Studying the Genocide in Rwanda.” I knew for sure this was something I wanted to do, but being a financially independent student, I wasn’t sure how. But with the help of some organizations, some generous individuals and a scholarship, I made it to Rwanda.

After arriving I believed why they call it “The Land of a Thousand Hills.” Rwanda was full of beautiful views and everywhere you go it feels like you can see for miles. Before classes began I had a chance to explore the city with Gregory, who I met on the plane ride over, and his two children, and we ate dinner in their home – the first of many experiences I had with the warm and welcoming people of Rwanda.

Classwork began that week typically consisting of several lectures throughout the day. We heard from many different counseling centers, professors and religious groups, additionally taking trips to see many of these organization’s sites. One organization that stood out to me was called the Avenir, an organization of women who were widowed and often sexually assaulted during the genocide. This center provided women with legal assistance, counseling, a place to stay if needed and allowed women to participate in income generating activities to support their families. We heard several of their personal testimonies while we were there. Throughout our trip we heard many more testimonies from survivors, and even perpetrators when we visited a reconciliation village, where survivors and perpetrators now live side by side.

During the evenings we were free to do as we pleased, and though a lot of the group stayed at home, I chose to take advantage of all the time I had there. I became good friends with one of our chaperones, a 23-year-old Rwandan student who called himself Steve. Often in the evenings Steve would take me to his friends' houses so I could meet more of the local people, and many evenings I would convince our group to go out to the local karaoke bar or other restaurants.

The second half of my trip, I spent my time at the Prison Fellowship of Rwanda. Each day I would get to go work with about 64 children who lost at least one parent that they called “street kids.” Another classmate and I quickly grew to love these kids, as each day we were greeted with 64 hugs.

Studying the genocide was becoming more real. I remember visiting a memorial site one day; it was the second one we had visited. Looking back to that day, it was hard to recall just how emotional I felt, so the following is excerpts from my journal entry from that day:

June 5: This day was probably my most stressful and difficult time I have had in Rwanda. In the afternoon we visited a memorial site. Though we had visited sites before, this one had a different impact on me. Before this point I had been studying and reading, and yes things would make me sad. It was tough to read and hear about, but I had never felt very strong emotions. In a way, I had been waiting for everything to hit me, and today it did. We walked up to the memorial site, a church with concrete walls and floors. Thousands of people had been hiding in this church, and during the genocide everyone in the church was killed. We walked into the church and it was full of pews. The pews were stacked with carefully folded clothes, all the clothing of people who had been killed there. We had seen pictures and watched videos. But for me, seeing these clothes made everything more real to me. I couldn’t help but think about the stories behind each of those articles of clothing. Who wore them, how they ended up there. I could not stop thinking about Steve while I was here. I thought about how he loved to dance, how smart he was, and how he has been one of the most amazing individuals I have ever met. I couldn’t help but cry through the site, the first time I had cried since well before the trip. 

I have heard people say that it wasn’t our “job” to be involved in the events that took place in 1994 in Rwanda, but in my opinion, this is simply not true. The events that took place were not just crimes against individuals, but crimes against humanity. I believe that if you are a human being, this is your problem. Nations and government bodies around the world turned their backs on the events that happened in Rwanda, avoiding the word genocide so that avoidance could be justified. Many of these groups now show remorse, saying they could have put a stop to the genocide. It is hard for me to hear that people just messed up. Oops, we’ll do better next time. Though I understand there is a lot that goes into these decisions, that does not alleviate the frustrations.

However you look at it, it happened and there is nothing can be done about that now but to move forward and learn from the past. The people of Rwanda are absolutely inspiring. It is now one of the safest and cleanest countries in Africa. Hutus and Tutsis live side by side, something that amazes me. I have heard many who thought this would not be possible. They believed that after the genocide, the country would have to be divided by ethnic groups. This country proved everyone wrong. Though Rwanda, as does every country, has its problems, their progress cannot be overlooked. I have come to know people who survived the genocide, including my professor, Steve and our other chaperone Emmanual – all people we became very close with in our time there. It is hard to learn what these people went through, and what everyone in this nation went through. But it is inspiring to see the people they are today.

I would like to end with some words from my friend Steve. Steve is a genocide survivor and lost most of his family when he was only three years old, except for one sister. I remember us talking about his life in Rwanda. And I remember this is what he said: “I didn't choose to be Rwandese. But God put me here and I trust him, so I don’t mind. I do not know what my purpose is here. But I trust this is where I am supposed to be. Some days I feel hopeless, but I don't mind. Some days I get meals, and that's great. Some days I don't, but that's OK. Life goes on.”

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.


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