Community Story: Reflections from Rwanda
Community Stories is a series of personal thoughts and memories from the Learnlife team as well as the greater community, including learners and parents. These stories offer an opportunity for us to reflect on important moments in our own journeys and provide insight into the community we are building.
Reflections from Rwanda and what we can learn in times of Covid
It is hard to believe that just over a month ago today, a group of Learnlife team members and learners returned from Rwanda, following a 10-day trip that can only be described as a ‘learning experience’. Describing this as a trip or visit, could seem superficial and wouldn’t do justice to the depth of the encounters and friendships we were able to experience and establish thanks to the personal connections and Rwandan family bonds that our Learnlife co-founder, Stephen Harris, has forged over 10 years of visiting the country.
Flying back from Kigali (where the Covid-19 medical checks were far superior to what we experienced in either Brussels or Barcelona on our journey home I might add), it was a surreal experience to arrive home to the mediatic frenzy and communal panic surrounding Covid-19. Within a day we were in confinement in Barcelona, unable to see our colleagues and friends at Learnlife or share our experiences with them. And having bonded together so closely as a group over the 10 days, while I was overjoyed to see my own family again and relieved to have made it back home before lockdown, I couldn’t help missing my “Rwandan family” for the first few days. I missed the breakfast banter, the 6am pre-breakfast morning walks (yes, 6am!), the abundance of smiles showered upon us from every corner of the country without agenda or intent, the impromptu dances in homes or on the street, the zest for life, the bustle of the market places and street corners, but more than anything the overwhelming sense of gratitude and hope that was present in every person we met, without exception. From the youngest children playing in the street with a football they had made out of old materials and rags, to the older generations who had returned to Rwanda as refugees and openly shared stories about their struggles, or even the children at the Fairchildren School for the Deaf, who were unable to hear or speak, dancing to the rhythm of the drum vibrations on their classroom floor; there was always warmth, gratitude and hope.
With each day that passes, I find it harder to articulate what we experienced there, and yet, at the same time, I find myself longing to be back, perhaps to return one day with my own children. I try to find time in my day, each morning when the sun comes up and showers my terrace (an outdoor space I am thankful for and acutely aware of how lucky I am to have!) with warm rays of sunlight, to find a moment to reflect, be grateful and remember our Rwandan friends.
In the current confinement context, we think we are experiencing a challenging moment in time. And yet, we haven’t experienced genocide. We haven’t seen our friends and family members torn away from us (or worse) before our eyes, unable to know whether we might ever see them again. We complain about being confined in our flats and houses, and yet, we have warm beds, a roof over our heads, access to running water, a public health system despite the pressures on this in the current context, and few of us probably understand what it can mean to go hungry or have the simplest of dreams: to not eat the same meal each day, year in, year out.
But don’t misunderstand, this is not a self-righteous sermon nor is it a call for pity. Our Rwandan friends deserve more respect than that. It is simply an observation that times which we may view as adverse or challenging, may not be viewed in the same way by others. A reminder to be grateful and offer hope -- for that is a much more powerful sentiment that propels us forwards, rather than looking back. With hope, the desire to grab any window of opportunity that presents itself and act on it, is stronger. I was often amazed by the personal stories, the strength and the resilience of the people we encountered in Rwanda. Many of them had lost family members during the genocide or even in the outbreaks of violence post-genocide in the refugee camps in neighbouring Uganda and Congo, now DRC. A repercussion of the genocide in 1994, in which many children survived their parents as orphans, Rwanda has one of the youngest global populations. With 60% of the population under twenty five years old, the impact the genocide had on the societal demographics is evident everywhere you look. Having overcome personal difficulties and traumatic experiences, we met many people, such as Barack, Banna and Christian, who -- through access to education -- subsequently had become the main providers for their families, and the primary source of financial support. And what was the common thread? Access to learning. Of course, learning and education alone is not enough, but it is the first step in being able to break free from the cycles of wealth and poverty into which we are born or in which society constrains us. Where there is learning, there is critical thinking, creativity and hope; and where there is hope, people can seize, and even create, opportunities for themselves.
I came away with a greater sense of gratitude for the opportunities I have had in my life, and an overwhelming sense that we have so much that we can learn from the Rwandan people and their experiences. Among these is a strong sense of community, resilience and care for one another. Here are a few examples of some inspiring principles we encountered:
Following the 1994 genocide, and under the leadership of Rwanda President Paul Kagame, the country blended local conflict-resolution traditions with a modern punitive legal system to deliver justice. This involved community-based gacaca courts—deriving their name from the Kinyarwanda word meaning “grass” (the place where communities gather to resolve disputes)— and since 2005 some 12,000 gacaca courts have tried approximately 1.2 million cases. This community approach to grieving and forgiveness established local community tribunals for perpetrators and victims of the genocide to come together and face each other. In the case of the perpetrator, it offered them the opportunity to admit what they had done and ask for forgiveness. And in the case of the victim’s family, it offers a chance for closure, release and ultimately, perhaps even absolution. The genocide was devastating for both Hutus and Tutsis, and it’s worth remembering that many Hutu perpetrators of genocide were sometimes victims themselves, some having been forced to kill neighbours, friends and even family members in order to save themselves or save other members in their family.
Youthful policies and vision
Rwanda has a young population and this shows through in the country’s modern principles in terms of care for self, community and the planet, demonstrated through advanced policies and practices. While the country still has challenges in terms of access to housing and clean water, many European states would baulk to see that the use of plastic bags -- a practice that is still used in many wealthy regions and countries widely across the EU -- has been banned in Rwanda for more than 10 years!
Humanity above all
In Rwanda, there is an abundance of Ubuntu meaning to “have consideration and be humane towards others”, often accompanied by a sense of generosity and giving freely to others without any expectation of reciprocity. At times, this humanity, resilience and positivity in the face of such challenging, or even tragic, circumstances, was quite overwhelming and more than one tear was shed during our trip.
Of course, everything is relative to what we know and experience in our day to day lives. While I’m not suggesting the current Covid lockdown doesn’t present its own set of challenges -- not being able to exercise, go outside for a walk or take our kids to play in the park is certainly testing our communal well-being and sense of personal equilibrium -- but let us remember our Rwandan friends. Let us be grateful. If there is one thing I learned from the people of Rwanda, it is that hope and love will get us through the hardest of times.
On behalf of the Learnlife community, I would like to thank the following people who are part of our Rwandan family: Barack, Milly, Banner, Barack’s mother and family, Christian & his parents, Dolph Banza, Bizimana, and lastly, our friend, Thomas, the hippo (who let us get closer than we probably should have).
Watch a visual summary of the Rwanda trip here:
Community story authored by Emma Buckle