If you’ve been to Africa, you know that it smells unlike anywhere else in the world. This smell sinks into you—your clothes, your hair, your skin, everything. It gets into your blood and nowhere else will ever smell as rich. It smells like dirt, ripe fruit and green plants, smoke from wood fires, sweat, sun, and in all moments, sweet, heavy and pungent. My clothes no longer smell like American laundry detergent…I think I’m settling in.
I started work at the Friends Peace House on Monday, here’s a little background info on them:
The FPH (called Urugo Rw’Amahoro in Kinyarwanda) was started by the Friends Peace Teams, and has three general goals: 1) to build a sustainable and durable peace in Rwanda; 2) to restore the relationship that were destroyed by the war and genocide to ensure peaceful co-existence; and 3) to reintegrate the people who were harmed by the tragic events of this country. The FPH works primarily with women, widows, children and youth, genocide survivors, prisoners, community and religious leaders, and other grassroots organizations.
The AVP and HROC workshops are coordinated out of this office, as is the department for women and children, and finally the program for youth. The building is quite nice, and is high up on a hill (in the land of the milles collines) overlooking Kigali.
I met all the people I will be working with, or at least working in the same compound as. When I met the director of the youth programs, he said to me in French, “I am in charge of the youth here, so I think you and I will get along great.” I clearly look as young as I feel, but no one is giving me a hard time about it. The coordinator of AVP here decided that I should start my work on the evaluation of AVP right away, which meant going to the first IDP camp on Tuesday—talk about hitting the ground running.
Throughout 2007, dozens of AVP workshops were held in four Internationally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in the eastern part of Rwanda. These camps are made up of hundreds and hundreds of Rwandans who fled to Tanzania either in the first surge of refugees in 1959, or during the genocide in 1994. These Rwandan citizens (the majority of whom at that point were born in Tanzania and did not identify as Rwandans) were chased out of Tanzania in 2006 by their Tanzanian neighbors. Anyone who did not leave was beaten or killed by the Tanzanian citizens who then proceeded to take all the property of the fleeing Rwandan refugees. After being chased back to Rwanda, they were put into camps by the government, regardless of which district in Tanzania they were coming from, which ethnicity they identified as, and when they had left Rwanda. To complicate the situation even more, the camps were constructed in places where Rwandans already lived. So there was an added dynamic of those who had left and those who had never left—those who had killed during the genocide and those who had been in Tanzania during the war.
The conflict that emerged from such a melting pot of people was quite serious, and the AVP workshops were held to try and rebuild some semblance of community and trust in the IDP camps. My job is to interview a selection of participants and camp leaders, to see if the workshops had any effect on their feelings towards the other side, or the violence that existed/exists in their lives. After all the interviews, I will write a report for AGLI, explaining the effects of AVP on these camps.
Tuesday I went to the first of four camps, Nemba, which is located in the Bugesera district. The two-hour drive to get there was beautiful, and I traveled by car with Emmanuel, my translator who is also an AVP-facilitator. To get to Nemba, you drive until you get to the border with Burundi, and then just when you are about to hit the rope that is customs/immigration, you veer left and drive along the border on a dirt road into the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t help but feel like the government had moved these people into the very last corner of the Rwandan world, and left them there to survive if they could.
The homes we passed ranged from stone and cement, to mud huts with thatched roofs, to tents, to nonexistent. We interviewed 15 people in a tiny mud hut, and they were all endlessly warm and gracious. My Kinyarwanda vocabulary is slowly growing, but a few of them teased me gently when it was clear that I could only really say hello, thank you, how are you and I’m fine.
Because I’m proud, here is the entirety of my language skills at present: muraho (hello), mwaramutse (hello in the morning), mwiliwe (hello at night), amakuru (how are you?), nimeza (I’m fine), murakoze (thank you), nitwa/witwande (my name is/what is your name?), ndi umu ny’america (I’m from America. This could be spelled really wrong, because I’ve yet to see it written…), and yego and oya (yes and no).
I need to learn more phrases soon, but for only five days here, I feel mildly accomplished! Anyway, the interviews at Bugesera were fine, and the whole experience was very positive. Many of the stories I heard were overwhelmingly sad, but the overall experience of AVP in the camp was so meaningful that it was impossible to come away without feeling hopeful.
One woman laughed and said, “Before the AVP workshops, any conflict would go to the police or government leaders. Now we can solve the conflicts ourselves. Even the government is wondering why they don’t hear from us as much anymore.”
Another man told me, “After what happened here in 1994, I didn’t know we could have friendship and stay in peace with people here. Still, I wanted peace because we had nowhere else to go. After AVP, we came to realize that everything is possible.”
Just one day of hearing from people, but it still seemed like a unanimous call for more AVP and a testament to the change one single three day workshop can inspire in communities destroyed by a lack of trust.
I had initially thought I’d have to stay overnight in all of these places, but it looks as though I may have to do that only in one camp. I go to another camp, Ndego, on Thursday, and come back to Kigali Thursday afternoon/evening. Then Nasho on Saturday, and back to Kigali. Kageyo is the furthest, and I go there on Monday—it may take most of the day to get there, as there are no paved roads for most of the journey. I’m crossing my fingers for no motorcycles, but options are limited when there are craters the size of a car in the middle of the road.
Other than that, things are fine! Lizzie the lizard eats all the mosquitoes, I’m have a great time discovering how good fresh fruit is (oh the avocados…..), I live close enough to the church to hear people singing almost 24 hours a day, it has stopped raining and is sunny and warm, and with my new found Kinyarwanda greetings, people in the neighborhood are getting used to me as I become a part of their lives too.