I rushed downstairs from my hotel room with just enough time to eat a hard boiled egg and pastry in the now familiar courtyard at the Civitas hotel. The weather was perfect as usual, warm and breezy. At 8:30, the bus arrived. We hopped on the University of Kigali bus where we found all of the Level 4 students from URCE who we were going to be spending the day with. Not even a milli-second had gone by before Ashkon excitedly took out his guitar, bought in the marketplace, and started strumming away. I wish I could describe the energy of that bus in that moment, and how it all felt. We all sang at the top of our lungs as we drove through the countryside toward Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. Villagers and children waved at us as we bumped up and down through the narrow, red dirt roads.
Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village is a residential high school for orphans of the genocide in Rwanda. We pulled up to be greeted by dozens of students who we all partnered up with for walking tours around the village. My tour guide was a second year there and very proud and happy to be showing me her home and her school family. The school and village is built on one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen. Little houses sit in front of gorgeous stretches of land. These are the homes of all of the young people who live at Agahozo-Shalom, all named after heroes such as Mother Theresa and Alexander the Great, chosen by the students themselves.
I was brought down a path between banana trees and casava plants to the end of the road where you can see the Rwandan mountains and a beautiful lake set between them. If you look down, there is an outdoor amphitheatre for the schools performances. What a spectacular backdrop for youth theatre! A little further down the road was the farm where the school keeps their animals. There were baby bunnies as well as hundreds of chickens from which the students get all of their eggs for meals. They even have a hut where they grow mushrooms. I was then led to the art center where students can practice their visual art skills, music skills and technical skills. I was so delighted to see that these young people have a place where they can thrive and be happy. They have a family and are part of a community where the learn, grow and create together.
The theatre program at the school, our own and the URCE program, then had an exchange of performances. URCE students had developed a piece on the theme of teamwork and coming together to create new ideas for progress. Agahozo-Shalom showed us a performance they did last year in the main stadium at the twentieth anniversary of the genocide. We performed our forum theatre piece, Welcome To Your New Home, and the Agahozo-Shalom students were the spect-actors who intervened throughout the play. Our piece was extremely effective. The Agahozo-Shalom students problem-solved enthusiastically and wisely throughout the intervention portion of the drama.
We then all headed to lunch which was in a huge dining hall. As I walked toward the dining hall, I started hearing the beating of a drum and as I got closer the drumming became louder until I finally reached the dining hall where students were dancing outside rehearsing for a dance competition.
I sat with students I hadn’t met before at a long table in the midst of forty other long tables. They were very generous and welcoming, especially when the food came to the table. As I left after our brief encounter, one of the students said “I will miss you.” I picked up some colorful banana leaves on the road back to the bus so I can always remember this day.
We then headed toward one of the many Rwandan genocide memorials. After a wrong turn the large bus got stuck. A complicated u-turn was needed and some villagers helped us remove rocks from the road that were making it difficult for the driver. This is the way of the people in this country, always helpful and always willing.
Moments later, as I walked down the hill towards the memorial site, one of the students told me how this beautiful piece of land we were on used to be a village with many homes and families. He pointed out the places in the soil where the fences for the homes used to be. These families were all killed and their houses destroyed.
At the memorial, we went down into the tomb where the coffins were. Each room had a different family name. It was dark, eerie and terrifying. The next section of the memorial was a room that held collected bones, sitting on shelves against all four walls. Over 26,000 people were buried at this site – and this is only one site. Bodies are still being found, even today.
The president of the memorial committee responsible for the upkeep of this site told us his story of what happened in that very village during the genocide. It was difficult not to visualize events from his vivid descriptions. I could hardly believe that I was standing on the land where so much destruction and hatred was enacted.
Today, there is such life, beauty and kindness in Rwanda. The people here are so loving and accepting. It is so painful to think about what they have gone through, what they must have felt, and what they still carry with them.
Thank you for reading.