Africa is the world’s second-largest continent, and it used to exist on the fringe of my consciousness. I knew about the Sahara, the 1985 Live Aid concert and the third season of Survivor, which demonstrates that I judged Africa to be inconsequential – although I did recognize apartheid as “something” significant. Ashamedly, the latter didn’t affect my behavior in any way.
On April 6, 1994, in a country the size of Maryland, but with New York City’s population stuffed into it, friends and business associates began killing one another indiscriminately. Neighbor butchered neighbor. More than 1 million people were exterminated in 100 days and another 2 million fled the country.
In a country identified as 90 percent Christian, Christ-like behavior essentially vanished as children and babies were hacked apart with machetes. What happened to God? Where was He?
In pre-colonial times, Rwanda’s three ethnic groups established a system of exchanged labor, which was exploited by the Belgian colonial administration. When Rwanda gained independence in 1962, the colonial legacy of division led the Hutu and Tutsi, the two main ethnic groups, to periodically kill each other for the next four decades, fueled a diaspora, and culminated in the genocide.
In 2006, 12 years after the Rwandan president’s plane was shot down on approach and setting off the killings, a quiet tarmac greets me at the Kigali airport. The sun is bright and the sky is clear, but the air seems mournfully still.
A rush of passengers arrives at Customs, disrupting my perception of Rwandan life like dust swept into the air. I’m not ready for the bustle. I want a moment to grieve what happened, to honor the pain and ask forgiveness for my indifference. So I withdraw toward the wall to watch the crowd swarm about.
Conversations buzz the room, and a group of Rwandans begin to queue. I stare at them with a glazed mind, lost in my thoughts.
A few days later, a copy of The Purpose Driven Life sits on Mayor Vianney Murego’s desk, tempting me to ask a question about it, to turn the conversation to why I’m in Rwanda, which is precisely why I ignore it.
I came to Rwanda to savor God’s love. Like coffee, which the country’s volcanic soil produces, God’s love can be found in other places, and given its past, Rwanda may seem an unlikely place to experience God. However, soil infuses its fruit with a distinctive flavor, and Rwanda’s sorrow-laced soil, watered with innocent blood, produces a grateful love in its people – a love rich with overtones of mercy and grace.
I learn that life after Hotel Rwanda – after the genocide – is about chronic water and power shortages. A lack of industry and a decimated infrastructure combine with an overpopulated, overworked land, leading most observers to conclude that there is no hope for the future.
But Mayor Murego disagrees.
With carefully chosen English and a survivor’s conviction, Mayor Murego explains that only forgiveness promotes healing; hanging onto pain doesn’t. And his weary country wants to move forward.
He mentions the gacaca courts, traditional community courts set up to speed the genocide trials along and reduce the burden on the conventional court system.
Suspects with nonleadership roles in the planning and commission of atrocities are tried in their communities, which helps foster healing by addressing the remaining fears on both sides of the process and helping dress the lingering emotional wounds.
The open, community-rendered justice helps cleanse the soul, allowing forgiveness to take root, which means Rwanda’s future is brighter than even the most optimistic foreigner may imagine.
The government expects the country to be a leader in Africa someday, and not in the distant future, but soon. They’re planting their hope and building their future on the rock of faith. Faith in God, and faith that only Rwandans live today, that the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi died 15 years ago, and Rwanda is a nation forgiven and redeemed.
Where was God during the Rwandan genocide?
He was there. But not only there, He is wherever the question is asked, whenever it is asked.
I recognize the genocide as an atrocity – as wrong, unjust and devastating – because the light of Christ illuminates the darkness.
Without Christ, Rwanda, Sept. 11 and Darfur are unrecognizable. Christ shares His sorrow on the cross,
“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”
“My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”
Then He shares His joy, and asks us, “Where were you? Where ARE you now? Here I AM. Come to me.”
Where was I?
During the 100 days of slaughter, I was immersed in myself. I had not a glimmer of Christ. Eleven years passed before I became aware of the Rwandan genocide, and the question now is “Where is my hope?”
It’s where it’s always been, even when I didn’t know it.
“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” – Colossians 1:21-22 (NIV)
This post was inspired by my time in Rwanda in October 2006. I traveled to Nyabikiri, a community in the Gatsibo District of Rwanda, while on a mission trip.