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Rwanda: a paradox and a paradise.

On my trip to Rwanda this past spring. I saw the memorials and saw blood on the walls. I saw the skulls cracked by machetes and the man with no legs. I saw the bones packed in rice sacks bearing the letters "USA," the very country that ignored the obvious in 1994.

I heard the stories from the survivors: of the identity cards (which determined whether you were killed or "spared"), of the starvation and the tears. Yet through all of this I also saw a light of hope. I saw a people with the power to love, the power to endure and the power to forgive. Rwanda is an unexpected paradise, with a bloody past and an uncertain future, but with the potential to be an example for the world.

Being in Rwanda in April is very important to me. It is a time to be with my Rwandan sisters and their families. Most importantly, it is a time to learn about and support their visions for the future.

April is the anniversary of the Genocide. Naturally, this is a critical time for Rwandans, and being there to hold their hands is an important thing for them and for me. Rwanda is much more than a "third world country in need." It is a place of emotion. Banners span the roads to commemorate the dead, and thousands gather to pray for peace. For me, it is a powerful event to witness.

Aaron, a 14-year-old amateur filmmaker* from the U.S., took the trip with me to the south where we met with small groups of Rwandan WILPFers. We went to Batare, Nyewenge (the rain forest), Cyangugu and Kibuye. Linda, a Rwandan college student, was our interpreter. During our travels, we passed mourning survivors gathering in huge masses to remember the Genocide; praying that it may never happen again. Sadly, we could not visit any active schools as the children were on leave for the Remembrance.

As we traveled, we handed out little coloring books, crayons and candy to the children, many of whom had never tasted refined sugar. (Aaron, who has a grand sweet tooth, couldn't bear the thought of this deprivation!) Their faces lit up as we handed them these precious treats and they put their hands together in thanks. In more remote areas, some of the children were afraid to touch Aaron's skin, as most had seen very few, if any, people of European descent.

Buses are a good way to travel in Rwanda. Some say you haven't seen Rwanda until you have been on one of its buses. About seven people are piled on each bench, many on laps. But you get to know the people for who they really are. I could never even begin to recount all the many folks we met on those buses - from mothers, traders and artists to soldiers, orphans and small business owners - all with stories to tell. Along the way. announcers used radios on the buses to talk about the Genocide and call for moments of silence.


I first went to Rwanda in 2004. when I was invited by the Ward Brook Center, a non-profit organization that promotes education for spiritual and material reconciliation of African and European-descent peoples. Burlington WILPF and Central Vermont WILPF asked that I talk with the Rwandan women to see if they'd be interested in founding a Section, one that Vermont WILPF would "sister" and assist. The Rwandan women were thrilled by the idea; they rolled up their sleeves and began laying the foundation for what is today a reality.

I am uncertain about how to describe Rwanda's history, culture and ecology. Rwanda is a paradox: it is riddled with starvation and poverty, however, the beauty of the people - their spirits and the natural surroundings - can blind one to that. What I will always remember are the women and their incredible, somehow regal dignity. I heard their tragedy, yet saw their beauty. I saw their pain, yet still heard their song. They will always stay with me.

On the way to the Genocide memorial sites we passed some small, round, thatched-roofed huts with dirt floors. On a distant path, women walked along with bundles of twigs balanced on their heads. In a front yard, the sorghum was laid out to dry. A child rolled a slender wheel along with a stick, like something from a Norman Rockwell painting - only this was on a very rutted dirt road bordered by a dusty banana grove. Several goats and young children emerged from the vegetation, crossed the road and then disappeared down a small path back into the brush. While so simple, in context it is profoundly beautiful. Life - for these women, for these people - life, no matter what, always goes on.

On the road to Butare, we turned off the main thoroughfare and onto a dirt road which we traveled on for quite a long time; the land was very hilly and intensively farmed in tiny patchwork plots. We frequently passed women at watering holes, washing clothes and laying them out to dry on the closest shrub or simply on the grass.

The women felt it was important for me to hear their stories. They spoke of their horrific experiences during the Genocide - how their families were killed and how they managed to survive. They would show me their wounds - a sharp indentation in the back of the neck where a machete had struck, and their battered, scarred bodies. Many had empty, hopeless eyes.


Water is a colossal issue here. One of the most common sights throughout Rwanda is that of a person carrying a large, dirty, yellow, plastic can, either on their way to fill it (often with polluted water), or on their way home. Sometimes a bicycle without tires is loaded with four or five such cans, slowly being hauled up long hills, and then painstakingly pushed down. Many children have been driven to using wooden crutches, as their backs have been slowly broken by the heavy load of carrying water.

For Rwanda and Africa to develop in a positive direction, clean water is essential. This is why Rwanda WILPF is exploring the development of a simple water filter, produced from red Rwandan clay. In the future we will be working with the indigenous Twa people, who have a long history of pottery-making and of utilizing the Rwandan clay to produce simple water-filtratration systems. There are other forms of filtration systems, but they all involve plastic. In Africa, plastic cannot be properly disposed of, and is extremely detrimental to the environment. Rwanda WILPF is determined not to bring more plastic into the country or into Africa.

Aaron and I separated for a few days; he to spend time working with young men, I to work with Rwanda WILPF and two Rwandan lawyers so we could achieve local NGO status. This is required in order to write grants. At present, Vermont WILPF helps enable the Rwandan women to come together nationally (a couple of times a year) as well as supporting meetings of the local branches in the provinces. Rwanda WILPF is now recognized as a legitimate non-profit.


Rwanda and I have made a connection that will stay with me for all of my life, and - thanks to support from so many WILPFers - I will do all I can to keep Rwanda moving forward. The women constantly say to me, "Paij, please do not abandon us." Rwanda could move from a paradox of paradise and poverty, to the inspiration of the world! Let us join together, and take the world to new levels of peace. We have the power, they have the hope.

For further information and progress reports on this work, please get in touch with me at

* Aaron Gould-Kavet, 14 years of age, lives in Williamstown, Vt. and is home-schooled. He is passionate about filming, and he plays piano and organ professionally. As a virtual travel agent. Aaron coordinated our trip. He is computer savvy and adept at mathematics. (He learned the Rwanda franc system immediately). Aaron returned to Vermont and coordinated a film and discussion event at the Savoy Theater in Montpelier, the proceeds of which went to F.R.E.E., a non-profit he established to provide education for Rwandan children and youth.

Paij Wadley-Bailey is a former member of WILPF's National Board and the Liaison between Rwanda WILPF and Vermont WILPF.
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Author:Wadley-Bailey, Paji
Publication:Peace and Freedom
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:6RWAN
Date:Jan 1, 2009
Previous Article:Towards a WILPF section in Mexico.
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