Rwanda: Sounds of joy in an unlikely place

Our last night at Nat Locke’s place, and I decided to get a few hours sleep before our early flight the next morning. Nat had been tempting me with the thought of sticking it out in front of a laptop watching season 3 of Lost (I’d watched the last few episodes of season 2 a few nights earlier and was thoroughly engrossed), but wisdom prevailed. We were up a few hours later at 1:30am, and our lovely driver Ivan from KPC picked us up at 2am. A drive through a very quiet Kampala took us to Entebbe, where we checked in and sat around in the departure lounge for a few hours. Elle slept on my shoulder while I played games on her mobile phone. I have completed Sega Tennis in the course of this trip (beating Lindsey Davenport in the final a few times) and now am very engrossed with a game called Quadrapop. It’s similar to Tetris and equally addictive. I’m glad to say I’ve also got Elle hooked, and it’s now her preferred choice for toilet time over Electronic Yahtzee… there’s something very satisfying about getting your wife into a computer game! Also, I have to mention One big familythat I beat Kit’s Yahtzee high score in Kampala. 540 – sorry Kit!

Well, I think we took the most indirect route to Kigali possible. Kigali is south of Kampala (we were only 50km away when we were visiting Confidence in Uganda!) but we went Kampala to Nairobi (west), Nairobi to Bujumbura in Burundi (below Kigali), then up to Kigali. Go figure! Kenya Air fed us well though, so we were happy.

There was a moment of nervousness at Kigali airport, when a friendly customs official asked us if we had applied for and printed off letters of recommendation from the Rwanda government website. We’d never heard of such a thing! I was here last year, and never saw anything like it, although it was on a United tour and we did have a trusty tour manager who probably took care of all those things… Anyway, we did our best to appear undangerous and not a threat to the national security of Rwanda. It must have worked, because in an act of grace she signed our entry forms and let us go through to buy a visa!

We were supposed to be picked up by one of Showing off the pet!the Hope Rwanda guys, but unfortunately he got the time mixed up (as we found out later – he was so apologetic!), and was nowhere to be seen. Not to worry – we took a taxi to our hotel in town (about 10km away) and the first thing that impressed me was how me weren’t jolting violently in the car and were travelling at speeds greater than 20km/h. Yes – the roads here are infinitely better than those in Kampala. The potholes there are so big if you drove a Smart Car around you might be missing for days if you weren’t watching the road.

Kigali is smaller and quieter than Kampala, but in general it seems a lot better organised. The roads are wide, there’s a lot of grass, even a big landscaped garden roundabout in the centre of town. We got off at our first hotel for the 5 days we would be here. Yes – the first hotel of three! You wouldn’t think it would be difficult to find accommodation in Kigali, but we just happened to plan our visit in time for an international AIDS conference, which apparently has brought some 1500 foreigners to this Somewhere between England and Hong Kongcity. Getting our accommodation sorted out here proved to be one of the major points of concern in the last few weeks. Nevertheless, there’s always a bed around somewhere – we booked our second and third nights at the Iris Guest House, then got our first night at the Milles Collines (made famous in Hotel Rwanda), and found our last 2 nights after we arrived at a very pleasant place called La Caverne.

The Milles Collines looks a bit dated, and our room was smelt overwhelmingly of air freshener (to mask the smell of tobacco from the previous guest!) but we were glad to be there, especially since Mum and Dad (Fergusson) wired some money to us to cover it when they heard we were having trouble locking in a place to stay! We had a pretty quiet first day, had a cheap African buffet for lunch, room service for dinner, and basically chilled out. The breakfast in the morning was awesome. Don’t you just love hotel buffet breakfasts? Thanks M&D!

Well, the main reason we came to Rwanda was to visit two of our Compassion kids. For those who don’t know, Compassion is a Christian organisation which Frank!provides assistance in education, preventative health, medical treatment, and financial support to children of very poor families; it is run through the local church. Eugene from the Rwanda office met us, and after dropping bags off at the Iris we were off in a Land Cruiser, heading east towards a place called Mahango.

Rwanda is a beautiful country. You might know it was called Les Pays des Milles Collines – land of a thousand hills – and driving through the countryside, it’s not hard to see why. Hill after hill is covered with lush green vegetation – banana trees, sorghum, and other crops I can’t remember. In the middle of all these are simple mud-brick homes, kids covered in dust playing outside, and men and women walking down the side of the road carrying all sorts of things on their heads (an amazing skill… especially when they do it with 10 mattresses!) The towns come every half an hour or so, and consist of some very basic buildings lining the road for about 100 metres or so.

That day we were visiting Dushime, whom Elle sponsored for a few years before we were married. It was a bit Frank and Flaviaof a drama tracking him down! We went to the project first, and were told he would be at school. Off to the school, and as soon as the kids caught sight of Elle and I began surrounding the car with shouts of “Muzungu! Muzungu!” (not sure if I spelt that right!) We found out a few days later that it actually means someone who takes the place of someone else. It was first used by the Rwandans to describe the Belgians, who after WW2 took over control over Rwanda from the Germans. Since then it has become a general word referring to all white people. Well, I’m yellow, but they still call me muzungu!

Anyway, Dushime had left school early that day, skipping mass (!), so we went back across to the project, where the project director warmly greeted us and sat down and explained the work and impact of Compassion in the local area. It was great being able to talk with the people on the ground about this. I’d sponsored a child before Elle and I got married, and have picked up a few since, but had never really taken the time to look in detail at what they actually did. Silly, eh? Anyway, no better way or time to do it than this. Our sponsorship money provides the kids with a program once a week during the school year, and three times a week during the holidays. Here they learn social skills, preventative health, study the Bible, sing and play together, and are fed. They are given school supplies and things like mosquito nets. They have health checks every three months, and our kids certainly looked healthy! They are given financial assistance to be able to go to secondary school. Gifts throughout the year mean that the family can buy things like goats and chickens, which provide food and a source of income. In short – a small amount of money on our part goes a long way!

We prayed, and then went off in search of Dushime. A few of the project workers came with us as we turned off the main road onto a bumpy dirt track for about 200m, before stopping next to a very simple house by the side of the road. For about a minute I was a bit concerned because Dushime wasn’t there either! But soon enough he Inside the school hallpopped out from behind some bushes, and there we were, meeting him for the first time. We hugged, then met his mother, his grandmother, and a family friend, who took in an orphan who is also in Compassion.

A few highlights, or this will go on forever!
– It was the greatest honour being welcomed into their home. All you hear about how simple these peoples lives are really is true! The hut consisted of four rooms, with mud-brick walls and earth for the floors. There is no electricity or running water. Outside they have a goat, they keep a few rabbits, and they have a small plot of banana trees and coffee trees (which I was pumped to see!) In the midst of this they are so hospitable and generous – Dushime’s mum gave us a set of napkins which she had embroidered herself.
– It was amazing and so touching to hear from the horses mouth how highly the family regarded us, and considered us to be part of their family! Dushime’s mum showed us her small collection of photos. She showed us one of her late husband, who was killed during the genocide, a few others Kicking around banana leavesof her family, and right next to those were the photos of us we had sent over from Australia! She said that occasionally, when Dushime would feel lonely, he would look at the photos of us and think of us. What can you say to that…
– As time passed over those few hours, the room filled with kids from the neighbourhood, many of whom were also sponsored through Compassion. The whole room sung a few hymns, everyone stood up and danced (except us!), including the beautiful kids. In a house where there had been so much hurt and loss, think of the power and significance of a song and dance of joy rising from it! Truly, only by God’s incredible grace.

We exchanged gifts (Dushime loved his soccer ball – he’s a mad Man Utd fan – I’ll forgive him for that), took photos, prayed, and then we were off. We were excited when Dushime told Eugene before we left he wanted to be a minister when he grew up (guess there was a good reason for skipping mass!) Well, it was an absolutely unforgettable experience.

But these few days would be full of them. This isn’t A brighter future...necessarily one of those, but I have to mention we had an incredible dinner that night at an Indian restaurant recommended to us by Eugene called Indian Khazana. It was a short walk from our guest house, and it was a revelation. I had the best garlic naan I have ever had, hands down. The service was efficient and the food absolutely delicious. If you’re in Rwanda – make sure you find yourself there!!!

The next day Eugene picked us up again, this time we were heading out to Kabarore. We headed eastwards again, but this time went a little further. The scenery again was spectacular, and we passed Lake Muhazi, Rwanda’s third biggest lake, a gorgeous sight, and even home to a few so-called beaches!

A few hours on the road, and we pulled up to the project, which is connected to a primary school. Again, we were the subject of many excited shouts, waves, and heart-melting smiles from hundreds of kids. This time, our kid was there, and out came Frank from the melee! Again – lots of hugs, and then it was into the project office where they again explained to us what they were doing, and the difference it was making in the lives of these kids. We found out Frank had a twin sister Flavia, and we got to meet her too. They then took us to the school hall, where we were absolutely spoiled with a few hundred young voices piping up in a stirring song! It is truly and incredible sound, hearing the voices of children fill a room. Eugene explained to us that they were singing “We praise you Lord, because you won the victory at Golgotha!” Wow! Makes me think of a certain psalm – “From the lips of children, you have ordained praise, to silence the foe…” We said a quick hello, and they replied with another song – this time a welcome song.

Feeling thoroughly blessed, we packed into the car to go to Frank’s home and see his mother. Again, he lived in a simple mud-brick home just off the side of the main road. His father died of an illness around the time he was born. His mother earns a paltry income here and there, doing things like buying and reselling bananas. And yet, speaking with her, singing hymns together, and praying together, there is a joy there that can’t be ignored, and she herself confessed, that the only reason she was able to raise two kids in such circumstances was by God’s grace. Again, she was overwhelmingly grateful for our contribution to her family, and touchingly served us and gave us lots of bananas to take with us! They were bananas she could have sold, but she lovingly shared them with us…

We gave Frank his gifts (again, he was pretty chuffed with his soccer ball!), and he gave me a soccer ball he made himself – a solid ball of banana leaves tied together with string! We went outside and kicked the ball around for a while, while the family and Compassion staff cheered, and the locals watched on with curiosity. I’m more convinced than ever after Rwanda about football being an international language! We could hardly communicate directly with Frank through words, and yet in a game of soccer so much joy can be shared.

It was a bittersweet farewell, but we were off again, back to Kigali via a lunch stop for an African buffet. To mention food again, these buffets consist of things like rice, a banana stew (the bananas taste remarkably like potatoes when they cook them like this!), a bean stew, a gravy, hot chips (well, not always hot…), salads, and usually a meat dish. Sounds simple, but I actually really get into it – sloshing five different things onto your plate then mixing it all together before throwing it down with a cheap soda! And, you’ll be glad to know, my bowels have been very resilient. It was another quiet evening, our last night at the Iris guesthouse (which we thought was overpriced for what you got – better value elsewhere!).

The next morning we were picked up by Nicholas, one of guys behind the Hope Village, which is one of the ongoing works of Hope Rwanda. We phoned him the night before, and he kindly agreed to pick us up and take us on a tour of the Hope Village. The village began really in 2003 as a list of people in a village just outside Kigali who had had homes destroyed by storms, and were in desperate need of accommodation. In the meantime they had been making do by staying with friends and family. It came to a head in 2006 during Hope Rwanda, when the Hope team pledged to build 30 homes for such people. So far, 12 homes have been built, and they look great!

They are well-built homes, with 2 bedrooms, bathroom, sitting room, and kitchen. Water tanks had just been installed, and all provisions were in place for a proper water system, pending local infrastructure. Nicholas has great vision, and there are plans to build a community centre, which would include a skills centre where people could learn a skill that would provide income. Even now, Nicholas’ wife is teaching the local women craft-making skills, and one of the ladies in the homes had been given a small loan to start a business of cooking for the workers on the site. Isn’t that cool?

We had a tour of the village, and I played some more football with some of the kids in the area. Their clothes were old, they were covered in dirt, but again, they still managed to consistently bring out brilliant smiles.

That afternoon took us to one of the most eye-opening experiences on our trip so far. We had heard about Mother Teresa’s orphanage here in Kigali through Darlene’s (worship pastor at our church, who with her husband were behind the vision and pulling off of Hope Rwanda) blog during Hope, so we had some idea of what to expect. We let ourselves in through the big blue gates and wandered around until we found one of the sisters, a lovely lady from Kerala in India. She took us through the dark hallway in the main building of the orphanage, and led us through to a room, absolutely jam-packed with steel blue cots, filled with precious little ones who were a few years old. We had a quick look before she threw open another door, again filled with cots, this room for ones under five months, in which visitors weren’t allowed. She left us in a room filled with children (most of them probably around 2) seated at a table. Each child had several flies buzzing about them, and the look on their faces when they saw us and their moves towards us confirmed what we already knew – that though these sisters and the volunteers did an absolutely incredible job (at which we were in awe), there were simply way too many children for the workers to give them the affection they needed and craved.

We weren’t there for long, as we were led to play with the children outside, who were about 4 or 5. Well, Elle and I were completely overrun by these kids. There were 30-40 of them outside, but when they saw us, about half of them went straight for us, 10 kids each! It was an incredible force that drove them – they ran to us and grasped our legs with everything they had. They looked up at us, their expressions shouting one thing – “pick me up and hold me!” We picked them up, threw them into the air, tickled their tummies, spun them around and around by the arms, and held them upside down. The look of joy and happiness on their faces was unforgettable. And yet at the same time, when you picked one up, there would be another five at your feet, all battling (and sometimes fighting each other quite fiercely!) to be picked up as well. And the look of anguish on some of their faces to try and be the one who would be held was terrible.

We were the hug brigade, we were alone and losing the battle for a few minutes, until help arrived in the form of 6 guys from the States. They were much appreciated! With time the kids settled down, but none of us there were ever without a kid in our arms and at least two or three others around us wanting to be there as well. It must have been about half an hour before they all ran off to play on the outdoor gym, before being taken inside by the sisters and volunteers for prayer time.

It wasn’t that long, but we were exhausted. Elle and I looked at each other in amazement at what we had just experienced. We spent the next hour or so in a different section of the grounds, with some elderly people and kids who were mentally disabled. It is humbling to even imagine what stories had brought these kids to this place. They had all of them experienced way too much for so few years.

5pm came around eventually, when I was told by the sister it was time to leave. I have to say I was relieved when she said this! Elle reluctantly let go of a beautiful one who cried as soon as he was put down. We talked with the sister for a few brief minutes before she left. They were looking after 127 orphans there, which she admitted was too many, and yet as she said so movingly – how can you say no to an abandoned baby?

We had experienced 2 hours of what these sisters do every day. Words can’t express how wonderful they are, and in their own words what they do is “by the grace of God”.

Elle and I were stunned. To care for these orphans is not rocket science. They need to be cleaned, they need to be fed, but above all, they need to be loved. And we could see that there were not enough hands for the work here. These kids have nothing, and yet after visiting Watoto and our Compassion children, kids who also really don’t have many material posessions, the difference between those who had enough affection and those that didn’t was startling. To think in the West we can get so preoccupied with kids having the latest toys etc, when at the end of the day, all a child needs to be is loved. God desperately loves these children, every one of them, and yet he has called US to be his hands and his feet! What an incredible responsibility.

Our last day in Kigali was spent in manual labour (ha!) doing jobs for a church which was opening it’s new building the next day. It was Nicholas’ church, and he suggested if we had time on our hands, maybe we could help out. My piano hands had never seen so much hard work! Ah well – there was something satisfying about working with a shovel, although I was glad to see the end of it.

So… a very moving few days here in Kigali. We won’t forget the things we’ve seen here, and will continue to remind ourselves of it. In the midst of such a tragic history, hearts are finding joy in Christ. We’ve seen it with our eyes! And yet, there is still so much need…

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