Day 5.2 – Overwhelmed

Our bus was directed to a narrow parking space close by a gathering hall where we were to meet with a group of refugee camp leaders and officials. As more and more children and curious adults began to press in on our vehicle, we became aware of the enormity of what lay ahead. I, for one, began to feel a little overwhelmed. The camp was much larger than we had been told. Far more people. Far more children. Far more need. Perhaps more than a little overwhelmed.

Photo Credit: Betty Gilmore

Relief workers directed us to step out of the bus. The crowds parted at their direction and our team made its way through the masses single file. We stuck close to our guide in this experience, Benjamin Nkusi, the national coordinator for ALARM Rwanda.

Inside the meeting place, a group of 40 to 50 adults were seated along with just as many children. Quietly watching us, over 100 pair of eyes were bright and expectant . . . hopeful.

As seems to be customary in our Rwandan experience, our team was seated as a panel at tables at the front of the room — places of prestige for the opening ceremonies that were to come. Leaders among the people in the refugee camp, along with officials from the camp administration, were seated there, as well.

Two more groups of children were ushered in — maybe three. Before all was said and done, 213 little ones had been hand-selected to interact with us.

Our friend, Ben, made our introductions and explained our purpose in coming. Four of our team members (Aaron, Robyn, Malcolm and Dan with the assistance of Ben) would spend time with the children, while Betty and I would be left with the adults for a time of special training on trauma and compassion fatigue. Eli, the business development coordinator for ALARM Rwanda, would serve as our interpreter. The ever-smiling Eli was surprised to learn of his role in our presentation, but stepped up and did a marvelous job.

As Betty and I watched the camp workers herd the children out the back door and watched our team members follow, I again felt overwhelmed. We had thought that our training time would be with camp social workers and officials. However, the group we faced had some of those people, but about half appeared to be camp dwellers.

In the moments before we started, there was a certain amount of clamor as tables were set up to the side of the room and as goods and crafts were set out on display. We had been told that we would have the opportunity to purchase goods from some of the people and the marketplace was being readied.

The original plan, the one that pinpointed social workers and officials as our audience, called for four hours of training. I was to bring a lesson on servant leadership while Betty was scheduled to speak on trauma, self-care and compassion fatigue. Frankly, I wasn’t sure that I could teach these dedicated and selfless people anything about servant leadership. Thus, I was a little relieved to learn that our time was to be shortened — a little more than hour for the entire training.

Betty and I reconfigured our outline. I stepped forward to open the session with some spiritual connections. Then, things began going very well.

I would tell Betty later that it brought tears to my eyes to see the way that she worked with these people. That was made more difficult as we worked through Eli as interpreter. Yet, Betty won these people over. Soon, they were telling their stories and sharing ways that they believed they could help each other through their present difficulties.

Several women told of being chased from their homes with their children. Forced to flee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, they had made their way across the border into Rwanda and had eventually been directed to the camp. With nothing but the few possessions they could carry on their backs, these little families were building a new life under conditions that most of us in the Western world cannot imagine. Most of them had lost loved ones to violence.

And Betty listened carefully to them. She reassured them. She affirmed them. And she encouraged them. Betty was awes0me.

One of the women spoke of how important it was to come together with other women — undoubtedly widows or, at the very least, women separated from their husbands — to talk, to work on their crafts, and to sing.

Photo Credit: Betty Gilmore

Photo Credit: Betty Gilmore

In my closing thoughts, I congratulated them on their determination and spirit — and I asked them to sing. And they did! (The pictures on this post were taken by a camp official and were carefully framed in order to prevent identification of the refugees.) It was marvelous to hear the joyous noise! But, again I was overwhelmed.

Just as we completed our time, team members began to return along with the children. We could tell from our comrades’ faces that something was wrong. (That will be the topic of the next post.)

But we later learned that, for a little over an hour, they had begun to establish a kinship with those 213 children.

Ben addressed the adults and the children again in Kinyarwandan and then instructed us to gather our things to leave. We were headed toward the door when we were reminded that the refugee marketplace was open to us.

We shopped for about ten minutes. Crocheted items, soda pop, soap, baskets were purchased and, I’m certain, far too many Rwandan francs were given. But it wasn’t about fair dealing. It was all about providing a little something from those who had much to those who were in need.

Then, things began to unravel just a bit. All of the children had gathered around us as we shopped. And now, by the dozens they were approaching each of us and using a substantial part of their English.

“Give me money! Give me money!”

The camp social workers moved in, separating us from the children and directed us to make our way toward the bus. Through the bedlam outside, we were pushed that way. Onboard the bus, the door shut behind us. I couldn’t help but notice as I made my way to my seat, that the duffel bags with the donations were still in the back.

The bus edged its way through the crowds and slowly made its way down the hill and out of the camp.

And the kids ran alongside.

And we were overwhelmed.

Day 5.1 – Anticipation

The Seeds of Peace Conference Center was in a beautiful spot, as we realized in the daylight. Lake Muhazi was literally at our doors and it lie still and quiet. Our anticipation for the events of the day grew.

The proximity of the lake also explained the exponentially higher number of insects we had encountered through the night and the carpet of dead bug carcasses stretched out at our front door the next morning. photoAlthough I had evaded the mosquitos, I had a couple of unexplained bites on my arm, likely spider — including one that had created a large bruise from the anti-coagulant injected.

2014-09-23 23.55.20Several members of our group had been excited about the opportunity to visit Seeds of Peace because it held out the possibility of a hot shower with plenty of water pressure. I’m not sure about anyone else, but Malcolm and I had hot water galore. I vaguely remember some noises about plenty of pressure but no heat. Since I was happily clean and accompanied by Malcolm, who had experienced the same success in his respective room and bath, the sad stories of Robyn and Betty about their showers didn’t hold my attention very long.

When we reached the little dining room that had been reserved for our breakfast, we learned that Dan and Allison had become ill during the night. Dan had managed to make it down to the breakfast in search of sustenance for himself and fluids for Allison. Our spirits were dampened as we worried about them. And then we considered the news that Robyn’s congestion had worsened during the night and that she was battling a significant upper respiratory infection. Anticipation, coupled with anxiety, began to fuel our thoughts.

Our breakfast proceeded in this suppressed mode and, as we finished, we one by one gathered outside to await news about Allison. When the decision was made that we would leave her at Seeds of Peace to rest while we went on to the refugee camp, we were torn. We were pleased that she would have a place to recover. We anticipated unknown stresses ahead from the journey and from the events to unfold at the refugee camp. But we were disappointed as we contemplated the fact that Allison, perhaps more than any of the rest of us, had looked forward to this visit with such passion. Indeed, the majority of the military duffel bags filled with items for distribution in the back of the bus had been thoughtfully packed by her. And, there was just a little something disturbing about leaving one of our team behind and alone without any reliable means of communication.

With spirits dampened, we boarded our bus and again began winding our way through the hills of Rwanda, stopping several times along the way to ask for directions. At a wide spot in the road, we turned left, circled a number of locals waiting for transportation, and headed up a washed-out, but dusty road. Passing through several villages, we slowly made our way up to the refugee camp. Anticipation grew.

We had been told that the camp had about 500 souls — with about 150 children.

Photo Credit: Betty Gilmore

Photo Credit: Betty Gilmore

As we closed in on the headquarters for the camp, we saw more and more of the Congolese refugees. We would later learn that more than 6,000 children resided there and 3,000 women. We never heard an estimate of the number of men. But they were definitely in the minority.

The further we moved up into the camp, the larger the hordes of children and adults grew. Our anticipation gave way to excitement, coupled with just an edge of anxiety.

(Note: With the exception of a few pictures of our training sanctioned by the refugees camp administrators, we were not allowed to take photos inside the camp.)

Day 4.2 – Alone

Following the training on Tuesday afternoon, we loaded our duffel bags of donations for the refugee camp on a large bus, grabbed a few things for overnight, and began our first trek into the Rwandan countryside. Our destination for the night was the Seeds of Peace Conference Center on Lake Muhari in the eastern province. We were together, but about to discover the world of alone.

Our spirits were high as we wound our way up and down the hills with countless banana trees and valleys where farmers were working their fields with hand tools. Unlike my drives through West Texas where you might travel miles and miles without seeing anyone along the road and where country homes are built far away from the road and the prying eyes of passersby, there were mud houses and people distributed pretty evenly along the roadway.

Photo Credit: Betty Gilmore

Photo Credit: Betty Gilmore

My mind captured snapshots of the rapidly passing scenes as we alternated through countryside and villages. I frequently saw people who were alone . . . working alone in a mountainside field . . . peddling alone on a bicycle . . . playing alone in the dirt in front of a mud hut with a tin roof . . . sitting alone on a rock with seemingly nowhere to go and nothing to do.

As I considered this posture of aloneness, I wondered if that’s all it was. Aloneness, but not loneliness. And somehow, I felt like these Rwandans were, at the moment I saw them, alone but not lonely. They seemed content.

Photo Credit: Betty Gilmore

Photo Credit: Betty Gilmore

Capturing these solitary portraits of humankind brought a new perspective as I remembered times through my life when I had been alone, but not felt lonely. Perhaps these lovely people, like me, thought of these times as mere intervals before they were reunited with others — a more telling view of their role in the world and the timing that places them with people and without people.

Or, perhaps it was more something about their connection with God as creator and his creation. A tie to a larger purpose for all things that seemed to transcend the momentary silence of individual existence. A joyfulness simply to be a part of a larger story.

Barreling along the countryside with six companions who had become like family, I looked forward to meeting the Congolese refugees the next day and I wondered if, even in the midst of a crowded camp, we would see individuals who were experiencing some things alone.

And, I began to connect with these people as individual souls. No longer a nameless, faceless gathering of people. Each and every one of them, alone, an essential and important person in our world.

Africa Posts Forecast

On Saturday morning, September 27, we will board a plane in Kigali, Rwanda to fly to Nairobi, Kenya. We will be hosted by the Made In The Streets Ministry there.

We know that we will have some internet connectivity, but access may be limited. Just saying that to say, that I may again be in a place that I can’t upload pictures or post on the blog. But take heart! I will continue to write and will upload posts as I can. That means that I will probably be working on this long after I return home.

Thanks for your patience and for reading!

Until next time . . .

Day 4.1 – Serious

As indicated in the previous post, the training of the district security forces, along with a number of other leaders in law enforcement and government agencies, was a tremendous success on Monday and only got better on Tuesday. One thing for certain, the men and women gathered for the training were geared up and ready to receive all they possibly could from the time together with our team. While kind and gracious, our crowd was downright serious about getting as much as they possibly could from this event.

The national coordinator for ALARM Rwanda, Ben, and ALARM’s Director of Peacebuilding and Reconciliation, Cecile, served as our interpreters. I can’t imagine how incredibly difficult that was — and tiring. But they were serious about helping us communicate our message.

During the late morning and early afternoon on Tuesday, a special committee of participants convened during our training to evaluate the sessions and to make recommendations to leaders of the community at the closing session. Their evaluation was amazingly thorough and their primary recommendation was to expand the program to security forces outside the district and across the entire nation. Serious recommendations.

The African people are also serious about ceremony. Our training session ended with an official closing with the major of the district, the executive secretary of the district, and the director of security forces for the district all in attendance to hear the committee’s recommendations, to congratulate the members of the security forces for their excellent participation, and to thank us for coming to share.

And the entire occasion was capped off with a serious photo session and times for goodbyes.

What is apparent is that we have a serious, top-flight training team with Betty, Malcolm, Allison, Robyn, Aaron, and Dan. Seriously.