A Trip to the Palace

Today, was the first day in Rwanda that we, the CUNY students, have been on our own together.

Today, we drove to the Southern Province of Rwanda, through farms and forests and rice fields—the scenery changing every few moments.

Today, we spent an hour on the bus trying to remember the words to an old Red Hot Chili Peppers song.

Today, we went to the King’s Palace, a significant place in Rwanda’s history.

Today, I met a cow with longer horns than the Texas longhorns I grew up with.

Today, we had a picnic beneath the trees in the Palace, sharing food, sun, and laughter with each other.

Today, we stopped to get special milk, available at only one place in Rwanda.

Today we sang the American national anthem and heard the Rwandan national anthem in return.

Today was a good day.

And yet…

It is impossible for me to think of this beautiful and amazing country without thinking of what happened in 1994.

While we were driving home from the museum today, I remember thinking that if I were knitting the story of Rwanda, the yarn would be vibrant and full of life: deep greens, startling blues, the vibrant and ever-present orange of the dust.  And then, woven into the backdrop of hills and suns, a deep, dark blood red that grows into everything; even as the colors become beautiful, the red remains as part of the background of what was.

One thing that has continually amazed me about Rwanda and the people here is the way they bravely face their past. Instead of hiding it, they talk about it openly.  Driving through the provinces today, I saw no less than three signs for different genocide memorials.   They were as much a part of the scenery as the trees, hills, rice fields, banana trees, and people that passed by the bus window.

From half a world away, it is easy to forget what happened here 21 years ago.  But here, it is present in everything we do.  Even today, the tour guide told us that the last queen of Rwanda was killed during the genocide.

And yet…

This country continues to move forward together, not by forgetting or ignoring, but by remembering, by creating places that memorialize those who were lost and teach those who come after.  It is as much a part of their history as the virginal milkmaids and beer boys who once served the long ago kings in their palace huts.

When I look at the gorgeous landscape that surrounds me, it is hard to believe that a mere 21 years ago, violence devastated this country.  Today, Rwanda is teeming with life, smiles, waves, and laughter.  Today, Rwanda seeks to heal their country by embracing their flawed past. And for me, one of the most important parts of this trip is the opportunity to learn about and begin to understand a small piece of what makes this country Rwanda.

I cannot express how important these cultural visits are to the work that we are doing here. I love the ways in which I have been introduced to Rwandan culture as we progress – eager to learn more about the community, culture, and context of the school and the country itself. One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about my week here is the willingness of the Rwandans to jump in with both feet and work hard.  In our workshops, I was continually amazed by the things the students came up with and the bravery they demonstrated in sharing it. Outside of the classroom, I have watched and listened to survivors of the genocide as well as some of the history behind it.  I loved the museum’s oral history lesson of how Rwanda was formed.  I’ve loved working with the Rwandan students through our workshop process.

I cannot wait to start play-building next week with such an incredibly creative and smart group of students .

I cannot wait to continue to get to know the students better.

I cannot wait to continue to learn more about this culture, which is alive with history and context, this brave culture that does not hide from its history but instead embraces it—just as the students have embraced us.

~reesa

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