Day 8 – Contrast

The private bus was waiting for us as we trudged up the hillside at ALARM Rwanda. We loaded our luggage and said goodbye to the ALARM staff already on duty that Saturday morning. Our dear friend and the Alarm Rwanda National Coordinator, Ben Nkusi, was there with a big smile and, if I read them correctly, eyes that were a little sad. There is something that touches the deepest part of our hearts when we see that kind of contrast.

I tried to say goodbye to Ben, but he waved me off. “I’m coming with you to the airport,” he said. When I tried to tell him that wasn’t necessary, he simply asserted, “You are my responsibility. It is my duty to see you safely out of Rwanda.”

And so we all boarded that bus. The driver, his helper, Ben, and seven tired, but incredibly blessed travelers. We were closing out an incredible chapter of our journey and we were already beginning to fill the ache of leaving friends who had just recently been strangers. We were seeing the contrast between our lives before and after we had experienced this wonderful part of Africa and had come to know the people.

At the airport, we said our goodbyes to Ben at the security checkpoint. We had a little extra time — Betty had to look for her passport. But then, papers in order, we filed in, filled out more forms, and negotiated passport control.

The first bit of business was coffee and souvenirs. Our busy itinerary while in Rwanda had not allowed a time for shopping and we all had lists of people we wanted to include in our travel experience. We were soon on board RwandAir Flight 400 to Nairobi. More coffee, a surprisingly nice breakfast, and air-conditioned comfort.

Through passport control in the capital of Kenya, we claimed our bags and made our way to the front of the airport to await our ride with Jackson to our new destination, the Made In The Streets Ministry in Kamulu, just outside of Nairobi.

Photo: Betty Gilmore

Photo: Betty Gilmore

Jackson came in his family vehicle. With luggage and seven of us, we joked about being overloaded. Jackson remarked, “We have room for 6 more Kenyans.” And, despite the cramped quarters, we came to believe that there probably was. The traffic was even crazier than what we had seen in Rwanda. Including the necessity of dealing with “cows doing what cows do,” as Jackson would say.

Everything on the drive seemed crowded. The clean streets and green hills of Rwanda had given way to the dust, the litter, and the throngs of people and cars. Another contrast.

When we arrived at Kamulu, Jackson unlocked the gate to the housing compound. We were beginning to understand that we were in a far different place. Heavy iron gates. Ten-foot walls with wire netting extending 4 feet beyond. A guest house with bars on the window and steel doors with massive bolts. And Jackson’s admonition to keep the doors locked at all times.

In truth, we were very safe and secure. But we were safe because the routine here demanded vigilance.

Our hosts, Charles and Darlene Coulson, soon dropped by and oriented us to the operation of the guest house. That included a lesson in flushing the toilets. We were all quick studies when it came to the bucket flush.

2014-09-27 08.44.15After we had settled in, the Coulsons took us on a tour of Made In The Streets Ministry. We walked down dusty dirt streets and took in not one, but a number of compounds. We saw the learning center, the girls living area, one of the boys living areas, the

Photo: Aaron Horn

Photo: Aaron Horn

chapel. And dusty roads. As we watched the little clouds of dirt around our feet, we were told how fortunate we were that it wasn’t the rainy season. The dust turned to sticky mud and everyone wore heavy overshoes — gum boots. In fact, just in case, there were boots in the guest house.

We were eager to meet the children and we soon begin that process. But even with that excitement, we were dealing with the contrasts brought on by our short plane ride from Rwanda and Kenya. And those contrasts and these kids would touch the deepest parts of our hearts.

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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 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.

49 Days and Counting – Beats

In just 49 days, my fellow adventurers and I will be headed to Rwanda and then on to Kenya. We’ll be training local leaders in conflict resolution, servant leadership, communication, community relations, trauma, compassion fatigue, and self-care. It’s all about beats.

Photo Credit: bury-osiol on FreeImages.com

When you look at the people on our team, you could label us as experts. Really though, we are just 7 learners in a brand new classroom.

The  learning curve ahead for us is already apparent. As we’ve gathered to frame our sessions and prepare our lessons, I think we’ve all been impressed by what we don’t know about the people who will attend our trainings. Not only will they march to a different beat, but they will be teaching us entirely new rhythms.

If we want to be effective in our efforts to teach, we will need to move to those rhythms and come to understand how opportunities for and challenges to peace rise and fall in a different culture. To be good teachers, we will need to be the most attentive learners in the room. We are doing our homework. Getting ready as best we can. Yet our success will be measured by our ability to move.

That’s the beauty of this entire enterprise. To bring about positive transformation in newly-found friends, we must first be transformed and open to dance to a different beat.

Fooling the Camera

I just completed spending five full days with just over 50 people who, I’m certain, will be my lifelong friends. And, in the course of that 5 days, pictures were taken. Some formally and some — not so much. As I’ve seen these images emerge on various social media platforms, I’ve found myself wishing that there had been a little better angle on some of those that I’m in. If I had only known that the shutter was about to open, I would have invested a little more effort in fooling the camera.

Head and shoulders back. Stomach in. Genuine smile. Turn that best side toward the camera. Find a position where you look taller. All things that have been suggested to me through the years. And many more that come from my own personal review and reflection of pictures.

In my earlier years — we’re talking the decades up until last year — I really dreaded being in pictures at all. I dutifully relented when asked to pose because I recognized the need to memorialize a particular event or special occasion. But I never liked the way they turned out.

Even though I can still look at my personal photos with a critical eye, I’ve discovered a peace in viewing them. No, I don’t look any better. Yes, I could have straightened up or tucked in my shirt or found a way to escape the camera completely. But I’m okay with what I see. Embarrassed a little at times, but okay.

I think that comes from knowing that these tiny microsecond views of me are part of a larger image that others see all the time anyway. And, unless I become a hermit and live away from people, all of my angles will be on display at some time or another. So, while I wince when I see the thinning hair or the goofy expression, I’ve found a way to keep fooling the camera.

My concerns for my image fade when I spend more time trying to see others in their best light.

With friends and family like those in my pictures, that pose becomes both them and me.