An Unforgettable Trip to Rwanda by Brenda Custodio
Updated: Feb 6
In January of 2019, I spent two weeks in Rwanda. It was an experience I will never forget, and I wanted to put my thoughts into a reflection to share with others. The trip was arranged by an organization in my hometown called Columbus International Partnerships (CIP), a group that sponsors delegations from Columbus, Ohio to visit other countries and that also brings delegations to the United States. These groups may be lawyers, businessmen, educators, politicians, etc. who want to learn how people and organizations of similar interest operate. Recently CIP merged with US Together, an organization in Columbus whose main focus has been refugee resettlement. With the recent drastic cuts in refugees being permitted to come to the US, this organization is looking for ways to assist vulnerable populations in the host countries where they are staying while the United Nations decides how best to support these families. One program that has been instituted is called “voluntourism,” in which people go to places with the plan of both touring and then spending part of the time volunteering with international refugee groups. Because one of the board members of CIP is originally from Rwanda, the focus for the past year has been how to build partnerships between our city and non-profit organizations already operating in Rwanda. Last year, several delegations from Rwanda came to Columbus to learn from non-profit groups here how they structure their organizations, how they do fund-raising, and how they connect to government and non-governmental agencies to network and increase their capacity. The main purpose of the trip to Rwanda was to observe these organizations in situ and discover additional ways to support their work.
Last summer I hosted a member of one of these delegations, and I decided to join this trip to see for myself the country that she loved. I have been involved with US Together for many years through my experience as an ESL teacher of the refugee children they sponsor, and I wanted the opportunity to visit a refugee camp to see for myself the conditions in which they are forced to live. Since my retirement from public school teaching, I have focused my career on teacher preparation. I am extremely concerned that our teachers have the knowledge and skills to best meet the needs of the students in our classrooms, and in order to support and prepare teachers I need to have up-to-date and accurate information on the backgrounds and the academic, social, and emotional needs of our students. Our trip was planned by two of the organizations in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. They quite accurately arranged for us to first visit each part of the country and experience for ourselves life in Rwanda.
Like most Americans, the only two things I really knew about Rwanda was that a terrible genocide had occurred there as depicted in Hotel Rwanda, and that it was the home to the mountain gorillas of Dian Fossey fame. We visited two beautiful national parks, Akagera which is the home of the big five African animals, and Ngungwe with its stunning rain forests, canopy walk, and chimpanzee trek, and then stayed two nights on the shores of Lake Kivu. The country has obviously spent millions to set aside these huge parks for conservation and for tourism. Poaching has decreased dramatically and the infrastructure of roads, hotels, and park services was first rate. However, getting to these locations allowed us to see how the majority of the people in rural Rwanda still live: as subsistence farmers in two room homes with dirt floors, most without transportation except for walking and the occasional use of the ever-present motorcycle taxis. Everywhere we went, we met with the people of Rwanda. Early in every conversation, the subject of the 1994 genocide came up. Everyone we met had lost family in the horrific massacre that left about one million people dead. Yet, no one was focused on revenge or retaliation (at least, they did not voice this to us). Each province had a Genocide Memorial, and the National Memorial in Kigali was the final resting place of 250,000 victims. But the message we heard constantly was “We will not forget, but we will heal and rebuild.” Our group was so impressed with the resiliency and the strength of the people and contrasted their regrowth to how our own country was still divided and torn 150 years after our civil war.
Our final three days were spent visiting the three non-profit organizations that are interested in US partners. One is a group created by women that supplies micro-loans to women who want to start their own small businesses. A second group works with villages to establish agricultural cooperatives to increase their crop production and livestock health. And a third organization takes children off the streets of Kigali, provides them a temporary home and education while working with their families to reinstate the children back into their homes. Many of these children had run away from the problems so often associated with extreme poverty: overcrowded homes, inability to attend school, being forced to work from a young age, and broken families. This third organization did amazing work with an extremely limited budget. On our final day in Kigali, we had the privilege of meeting with a number of urban refugees from neighboring Burundi, who had fled a government that was targeting young males who were often the most vocal in their dissent of the current government. These refugees explained that they had been forced to leave the relative safely of the refugee camp on the southern border because government operatives often infiltrated the camp looking for the escaped dissenters. They begged us not to take their pictures because they were still afraid of reprisals against themselves or their families. The danger was so strong that we had not been able to visit the camp ourselves. The refugees described their lives in Kigali: often unable to find good jobs because of lack of English (the language of business in Rwanda), documents or licenses that were difficult to transfer, difficulty in finding affordable housing and transportation, and a strong desire to return home if the situation there changes. We discussed at the end of the meeting that these are the same concerns of the refugees who have been resettled into the US.
I left the meeting and the country wondering what if anything I could do. I will certainly use the knowledge and insights I gained through this trip as I do my trainings, but there must be more that can be done to help a country that experienced so much devastation and is asking for so little. I saw a great need for short term teacher-training and school support opportunities that I will definitely encourage as I network with local universities and organizations. I was able to visit two secondary schools as well as the program for street children and all three asked for people to come and work on the English skills of the children, because this would provide greater employment opportunities for them in the future. One of the schools I visited was supported by US donations and it was obvious what a strong impact this had on the quality of books, computers, and infrastructure of the school. Volunteers from France were working with the street children on technology skills and reading development. Just one person in each school would make such a difference. Exchanges of social workers and health care professionals would help to lift the families out of poverty and provide for basic needs. I left Rwanda feeling ashamed that I have so much and that I do so little to share with my fellow human beings around the world. I hope that this trip truly leaves me with a bigger heart and the wisdom to use my blessings