Rwanda experience ‘defies easy emotions’

This guest post about a School of Public and Environmental Affairs class that traveled to Rwanda was written by Karla Lopez-Owens, a 2014 IU graduate who will enroll this fall at the IU McKinney School of Law.

Africa pulls at you immediately. The colors, the smells and the bustling of the city of Kigali were all contributing factors to my first impression. Although I knew we would be covering topics on development, the culture and the history, it was as though Rwanda was saying, “There is no time to waste, come with me and I’ll show you what beauty, strength and resilience look like.”

Construction was happening around every corner, women were diligently cleaning the sidewalks, and everyone was too busy running their businesses to beg. Plastered on every other wall was the statement: “Kwibuka20 – remember, unite, renew,” commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide. I remembered reading that Rwanda is the third most peaceful country in Africa.

Wahidah Aziz, Connie Bwiza Sekamana and Karla Lopez-Owens

IU students Wahidah Aziz, left, and Karla Lopez-Owens, right, with Connie Bwiza Sekamana, a member of Rwanda’s parliament.

I felt the most connected to the first stage of the trip, when we focused on grassroots organizations, cooperatives and testimonies from individuals ranging from adults to children. On occasions, I felt as though there wasn’t enough time to cover the subject matter we were introduced to on that given day.

For example, our first visit to a genocide memorial: I thought I was pretty well informed on the events leading up to the genocide. I had watched every documentary pertinent to the civil war there and in neighboring countries. But nothing could prepare us for what we were about to see.

Here is my Facebook post for that day.

Visiting the firstst genocide memorial today. No required readings, no documentaries can prepare you for this. Nothing. The air makes the rooms cold… but heavy with emotion. You have to keep reminding yourself to breathe … & then – the children’s memorial. On the wall, two life-sized pictures of smiling children greet you as you come in: Francine, 12, & Bernardin, 17.

The main corridor is empty, despite the large number of people visiting the memorial. After 10 seconds of being there, it becomes clear why; after having Francine & Bernardin’s favorite food, best friend & pastime listed, it states how the were killed: “hacked by machete @ Nyamata church.”

Despair.

You don’t even try to stop the tears that spring into your eyes as you scan the childrens’ pictures along the walls, ranging in ages. Some very young, some older, but all children… & before you know it, you’re sobbing. Sobbing in this big orange room with nothing but you, the pictures & despair.

There is no comfort… None. & you think to yourself – “they should still be here.”

I remember after that trip, we were all quiet, consumed in our thoughts, letting whatever emotions find a place to settle. Places like that, as I told my friends back in Indiana, “defied easy emotions.”

I started to make connections with the despair, the struggle, and years of oppression of these people with events back in Indiana. I read an article in NUVO Newsweekly about Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis and the culturally thriving place it used to be for African Americans — until businesses started growing and interests started shifting.

One of the most egregious examples of this greed for space occurred in 1988 when city officials attempted to have the Avenue removed from the National Register of Historic Places to facilitate the demolition of several Avenue buildings protected by the Register’s preservation guidelines.

“They’re killing the spirit of black Americans. Everything has been taken away from us,” Indianapolis City-County Councilman Glenn Howard said in response to the action during a Recorder interview from the period.

Thinking of events such as these also defied easy emotions.

During this trip to Rwanda, I was able to experience emotions on a different platform, clarifying and coming to understand many misconceptions I had about Africa and the co-called “dark continent.”

After visiting Parliament, for example, where women hold 64 percent of the seats, we were given a more comprehensive explanation of Rwanda’s government through a discussion with public officials. As we walked out, no one could escape the shock of seeing one of the main walls riddled with bullet holes, and other prominent marks made by grenades and other objects of war.

Connie Bwiza Sekamana, a member of Parliament, told us: “When the genocide occurred, this was one of the first places that was attacked because they knew government is supposed to be a place where people are served and that keeps people safe. We chose not to repair these buildings so that we don’t forget bad governance, so that we don’t forget the suffering and to keep us accountable for the promises we have made to the people of Rwanda.”

One of the most important things I learned from this trip is that if we are to move forward in a meaningful way, we mustn’t forget about our history. We mustn’t let our stories collect dust in the shelves of our libraries. We must make a conscious effort to re-open them, learn from “bad governance,” as hard as it may seem to reconcile with our past. It is truly the only way we can begin to move forward.

As I start law school this fall, I feel even more prepared to become an active member in this society — in writing our history and encouraging our generation to join me in the process.

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