Rwanda: A Gem Waiting to Shine

As you may recall from earlier newsletters, the entire McNary family visited Rwanda in July of this year.  While the visit had a certain amount of apprehension to it, we all left with a newfound appreciation for a nation that is truly working towards a bright future.  Following the horrifying events of the genocide in 1994, Rwanda has felt a surge of unity under the leadership of Paul Kagame that is aimed at transforming the country from third-world to first-world in just one generation.  Although this goal is certainly a lofty one and may be out of reach for the time being, the nation has totally altered its’ identity and is now a place of hope, acceptance, and desire.

After our brief visit in July, I (Tom) was truly riveted by what I saw the last time I was there, and thus was inspired to figure out some way to return.  I achieved this by signing up with a global volunteering agency to go back to Rwanda for the first few weeks of this October.  I was at first very nervous, for despite the praise Rwanda has received I was still not completely sold on the idea of being on my own in a third-world country without my family.  What I was met with completely blew me away and I am certain now that I have left a part of my heart there.  From day one I was greeted with smiles and open arms, not only by the workers of the volunteering cooperative, but by anyone and everyone whom I greeted on the street.  The people are friendly, outgoing, and brimming with a thirst for knowledge about the world around them.
This welcoming attitude was manifested perfectly on the first sunday I was there, in the town of Gisenyi which is right on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  As I was walking to the market that morning with a few other volunteers, we passed a church in session.  Curious, we peeked our heads in to see the sermon being delivered and we were immediately greeted and beckoned to join the churchgoers.  Two men who had a fair handle on English were assigned to us and they provided us with seats near the front of the church.  The two men were thrilled to have us in their church and to have a chance to try out their English, and so we received a full translation of the sermon.  Eventually as the sermon drew to a close, we were invited to stand up in front of the church of 300 and introduce ourselves.  While standing in front of a large crowd might have been daunting under different circumstances, I felt a sense of calm and acceptance as we told them who we were and where we were from.  Following our introductions we received a rousing round of applause and after the service ended for the day we spent almost an hour meeting with various members of the church and discussing our business for being in Rwanda as well as our thoughts on the country and people. This interaction left me smiling and I exchanged contact information with a number of the people who came to speak with us.

I am still blown away at how openly we were accepted into what some might consider sacred or private ground, and it was exciting to see our hosts boasting prideful smiles as they discussed their church and country.  This experience also showed me the impact that people like me could have by simply being there.  Most of the work I did consisted of building house foundations or gardening, but even then I was usually shooed out of the way by a tough Rwandan woman who would laugh at my pitiful attempts to till the soil.  Even though after most days I wasn’t sure if I had really done anything, I was reassured one day when all of the volunteers were invited to a celebration at the home of one woman in a village near Gisenyi.

The celebration consisted of about 20 women singing and dancing for us, while also cooking us a meal.  I was not the only one who was taken aback at what they had done for us, but the women then explained through a translator that before the volunteering program I was part of had been established, their lives had been a struggle.  Although almost every woman there lived in a tiny house with a floor composed of rocks filled in with soil, they were glowing with pride as they told us how their exposure to our volunteering agency had them going from living off of potatoes and kidney beans to now owning their own cows, chickens, cell phones, and even in some cases increasing the size of their homes.  The fact that we were willing to help out pleased them, but our impact was larger to them because we represented a channel to the outer world (or even out of their village) that allowed them to dramatically increase the quality of their lives.

When my few weeks there were up, I was surprised at how disappointed I was to be going home.  I had felt like I had integrated seamlessly into the culture there, and despite the occasional good-natured haranguing about my skin color (the term for which is umuzungu in the local language) I felt incredibly comfortable in a place where a troubled past clouts the beauty and unequivocal acceptance of the people who live there.  The main point of my writing this is to expose a nation that is truly on the right path and has thrown itself wholeheartedly into building a better future, and one that is free of corruption and violence at that.  While many people have a certain stigma that comes to mind when they think of Africa and especially Rwanda (I won’t deny that I did), the generalization could not be farther from the truth.  I hope in the future to build a lasting relationship with the people and the country, as it is a place where you really can feel the impact of your actions and see the change as it happens.

If you are interested in doing something like this or have a family member that is itching to make a difference or see this beautiful country do not hesitate to contact me as I would love to share more about my time there.  I have also heard from a reliable financial planner that sponsoring a volunteer to go do something like this is tax-deductible, so if you are reading this and wanted to help me make a return visit, I’m sure I could help you out there as well.  For any questions or comments you can reach me at mcnaryw@colorado.edu and I thank you if you have read this far!

Tom McNary

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