CHARLESTON — Before 1994, most people were unaware of Rwanda. It is a dot on the map of Africa, nestled among the larger countries of Tanzania, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It is smaller than the state of Maryland, yet one of the most densely populated. It has a troubled history that includes colonization by Germany and Belgium, civil wars, political coups and conflicts with neighboring countries. Yet nothing could have prepared its people for the genocide which took place in 1994.
On April 6 of that year, an airplane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and the president of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down as it prepared to land in Kigali airport. Both men were killed and responsibility for the attack is disputed, with the blame pointed at extremists of both ethnic groups, Tutsi and Hutu.
Thus began 100 days of killings, with as many as 1 million people slaughtered at the hands of fellow Rwandans. This terror of 1994 was followed by another human disaster, as some 2 million refugees fled to Congo, Burundi and Tanzania.
It has been 15 years since the genocide, but it has changed the country and its memories forever. Prisons are still filled to overflowing and many of the accused have yet to be tried. Life and hope need to be restored to Rwanda’s people and its land.
A new leader has emerged with the election of President Paul Kagame, who is attempting to restore peace, equality and stabilization to the economy. Just recently, Rwanda’s decision to cut off its relation with France and its desire to join the African Congress, which is made up of English speaking nations, is transforming the country from a French-speaking into an English-speaking nation.
Changing languages has not been easy, especially with so little preparation and planning by the government itself. This has proved challenging for us, the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, who established our first mission in the country 50 years ago.
We now have over 40 Rwandan sisters working and ministering to the people in a variety of ways.
Sister Mary Veronica White and I journeyed to Rwanda recently. We left on March 10 and spent two months traveling to five different locations, meeting with and instructing our local sisters in English. We discovered that the sisters were not only eager to learn English, but were devouring each new word with enthusiasm and intensity.
I spent most of my time in the small village of Ruyenzi, where our community is responsible for a health care center, a school and an orphanage.
Five hours each day were devoted to giving English lessons to the sisters. With little more than a blackboard, chalk and a great deal of eager students, I watched the sisters learn to love the English language.
When I entered the order in 1965 I often heard stories about our missions in Rwanda. To have the opportunity to spend time in that country after the genocide was quite a remarkable experience. One can feel and sense deeply the suffering that still hovers like a cloud in the air. I cannot help but be changed by this experience.
Sister Mary Veronica recounted a similar experience as she taught English in Kibuye, where our community directs a secondary school for young girls. She also taught many hours of English each day to the sisters who will soon be expected to teach all of their courses in English.
“It is astounding what is happening here,” she said. “I was here in 1978, and the country has changed a great deal since then. Suffering has changed the nation. We only hope that the change that will take place now will be constructive and redemptive for the people.”
She was present at the Holy Thursday liturgy when people presented sacks of bones and skulls that are still discovered by people while cultivating the soil. The sacks were laid at the foot of the altar for the beginning of the Triduum liturgy.
Our experience was remarkable, full of joy and heartache. We hope to receive donations to fund English teachers to Rwanda, or help local sisters spend a period of time in a neighboring English-speaking country. With a better knowledge and understanding of English, they will have the tools to improve the education and health care of those they serve.
Sister Sandra is working in the Diocese of Charleston, and Sister Mary Veronica worked in Sumter for 18 years. They are members of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur from the Buffalo, N.Y., province.
For more information visit www.ssmn.us.