blog posts from GYC's participants, alumni, & staff
By Maria Mukuka
On July 3rd, after a four hour drive out of Kigali, in the middle of a perfectly sunny Rwandan afternoon, Global Youth Connect’s Turikumwe human rights delegation finally arrived at the promised land¹: one of Rwanda’s six Reconciliation Villages built by Prison Fellowship Rwanda. Shuffling through a narrow wet-soil path, the 19 of us, a mix of both local and international students and young professionals, made our way into a dimly lit, tin-roofed structure resembling a large living room or small community hall. On straw mats, already seated was a group of villagers with a few of their children playing loudly, interrupting the solemn scene. We were welcomed with an introduction that explained how the settlement was set up and co-sponsored by Prison Fellowship Rwanda, whose vision it is to practically implement the concept of reconciliation by funding communal housing initiatives in which both victims and perpetrators of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi as well as provide communities with agriculture initiatives, and counseling services.
‘This village is unique in the fact that there were no favors—no one tried to hide, to save anyone else during the genocide. The most known perpetrators came from this village.”
A village elder rose from his seat to perform a prayer we were invited to partake in. After short introductions, we were presented with testimonies from both victims and perpetrators.
“It is a privilege to be living in this village –to be able to live next to those who committed crimes against the victims. People have come from all over the world to see how Rwanda is taking steps toward unity and reconciliation,” contributed a man who was introduced as a survivor of the genocide.
Then, from someone who identified himself as a “killer” (according to the translation): an outspoken middle-aged man eager to share his story:
“I felt uncomfortable around the survivors. I would sometimes hide from them. We did not expect to be punished because we were killing animals—snakes and cockroaches—and not human beings. They, [the Tutsis] wore the faces of snakes—they did not have their humanity anymore, they were no longer human beings. We did what we did because of bad governance. Please pass this message onto President Kagame: We are behind you, supporting the government of peace and unity.”
“I know Rwandans don’t often share what they really think” interrupted a local participant “—but do you all really like and get along with each other?”
“Before, we might have thought the salt they lent us was poisoned- but now we know it’s not. Now, even a Tutsi man and a Hutu woman can marry. It is only the beginning of our reconciliation process and I urge you as youth to learn how to forgive.”
To me these reconciliation villages represent physical sites of manifested reconciliation. I wonder whether the practicality of reconciliation, its applied bi-products of unity and peace, that are implemented here, have compromised the actual achievement of reconciliation. I wonder whether the villagers denounced their own grievances to admit “reconciliation” in order to benefit economically from the community of a reconciliation village. I wonder whether reconciliation was, just as the ethnic divisions during colonial rule, imposed by the outsiders coming in to supposedly help. I wonder whether those who claim to have reconciled their differences—those who participated in realizing the genocide—but admit to doing no wrong, are capable of truly forgiving and hence reconciling in such a period of time?
Both forgiveness and reconciliation are processes that occur on the emotional and psychological level. Nevertheless, after a period of incubation, they must be practically manifested. Their bi-products of unity and peace should begin to infiltrate society—in the interactions among community members. This process, however cannot be imposed on a community, instead the change must come from within the community itself.
However, despite the rehearsed nature of the villagers’ interactions with us, the main message—one of a unified, reconciled Rwanda- or at least the beginnings of one—is one of the more positive messages I’ve heard during my short stay here.
¹ By using the phrase “promised land” I am expressing the group’s great expectation of finding hope, forgiveness and reconciliation at a site named quite literally, a reconciliation village. I understand the term has heavy religious connotations–something that I think can be applied to this situation, as this village represents a space where a deeply (ethnically) divided group of people has now reestablished their home as a peaceful space where love, gratitude and reconciliation are in abundance (that is after all how the village’s concept was presented to us). The village, the land is a promise of peace the government made to them and the promise they made to themselves.
Maria Mukuka (Zambia) is currently an international undergraduate studying theater at The New School’s Eugene Lang College in New York City. She grew up in Zambia’s cosmopolitan capital city of Lusaka. After graduating, she aspires to earn her MFA in acting and ultimately combine her passion for community service, foreign languages, history, human rights and theater/film in her artistic career. She currently interns at the New York based theater company, Tectonic Theater Project. In the past, she has co-organized and instructed a series of modern dance classes with 13-year-old girls from underprivileged families in Lusaka, Zambia, as well as interned with the I Have a Dream Foundation program at PS 7, Harlem during which she tutored and supervised afterschool programs for second graders. Maria is also the co-founder and president of the New School Cabaret student organization that seeks to provide a performing opportunity for students across the New School University. Maria is very passionate about human rights and hopes that her trip to Rwanda this summer will provide her with insight into what challenges locals and NGOs face during the implementation of human rights in post-genocide Rwanda. Outside of school, Maria loves to play sports, hike, go camping and practice martial arts.