Beauty for Ashes

“The genocide in Rwanda was not one murder of a million people, but was a million murders of one person a million times.” Genocide Survivor


If you’re anything like me, your initial acquaintance with the Rwandan genocide was the viewing of the Hollywood blockbuster, Hotel Rwanda. I remember watching the movie and being shocked beyond belief at such barbaric, sadistic, acts of murder – neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend, husband against wife, one human being against another. I remember wondering, “How could this be possible?” I also remember wondering how could the world just stand by and watch? How could we do nothing to help? I experienced sadness and grief and I immediately bought the hand-woven baskets from Macy’s in support of the women of Rwanda. I also sent a donation to help the orphans… And then, I went on, life as usual. Rwanda, a distant memory, as I moved on to the next tragedy or crisis.

I was recently privileged to visit Rwanda and it was one of the most life-changing events of my life. Not only was I struck by the natural beauty of the country, but I was more amazed by the country’s testimony – a tale of tragedy, loss, redemption, and triumph. My visit also taught me that I knew very little of the past and present Rwanda. I realized that my “knowing” Rwanda had been limited to a 2-hour movie that momentarily tugged at my heart strings and presented me with an opportunity “to help” in order to appease my guilt. I had the nerve to think that I “knew” Rwanda and my visit showed me that having bits of information about something or someone doesn’t mean you know them. Calling someone friend (or thousands of someone’s on Facebook) doesn’t mean you intimately know them. And visiting or vacationing somewhere doesn’t mean you know the place or people either. This visit taught me that I didn’t know diddly, which makes sense on some level as this is how we’ve been conditioned. Keep things on the surface because going deep requires too much effort, time, and emotions.

As previously stated, I learned a lot about what it truly means ‘to know’ and here’s a summary of the lessons learned which I believe can help us have more intimate relationships with others:

Remember the Past but Don’t Get Stuck There: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (George Santayana) We shouldn’t run from our past, no matter how painful or complex. If we don’t remember it, we can’t learn from it or heal from it. If we’re truthful about the past, we can move forward in truthful relationships in our present. I won’t belabor you with details of the genocide, but I would encourage you to learn more. Two excellent books to read are "A Thousand Hills" by Steven Kinzer and "Left to Tell" by Immaculee Ilibagiza. And also, I encourage you to learn the truth about your own history by visiting museums, talking with your elders, reading, etc. (Deuteronomy 6:20-23)

My Pity Is Not Needed: One of the lessons I learned through reading and by visiting the Genocide Memorial, is that many of the tensions and conflict experienced between the Tutsis and the Hutus were a result of colonization. In summary, we (those from more advanced or developed countries) go into a less developed country and impose our beliefs and practices onto them, usually while robbing them of their culture, beliefs, and practices in the name of making them better, but really, it’s usually for our own personal gain.  Often times when we pity another, we’re saying, “I feel sorry for you because your life isn’t like mine.” Instead of assuming a posture of pity or superiority, try looking for the strengths of that person.  Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this person or their experience?” And then seek ways to work side-by-side to enhance their lives in a manner that suits them, not you. (James 2:1-13)

They’re People Just Like Me: One of the most powerful exhibits in the Genocide Memorial was one of the pictures of many of the victims of the genocide. Actually seeing the faces of men, women, and children and reading about their lives before the genocide, made them real. It’s easier to remain detached when it’s “a million people” or “refugees” or “immigrants” or “Muslims.” But when you get to know a refugee or immigrant or victim or Muslim and hear their stories, than it’s a lot harder to cause harm. You’ll realize that we all have a story and typically we have more in common than not.

(I Corinthians 12:12)

Be Rooted and Grounded: One of the reasons given for the genocide was that the Rwandans weren’t clear and secure in who they were so it was easier to be defined by others as Tutsi or Hutu, good or bad, weak or strong, right or wrong. One of the ways that they’ve been able to rebuild is to now have a clear and purposeful sense of who they are. They are committed to a common mission and are united by their Rwandan identity. Often times we feel threatened by others because we aren’t secure in who we are. We fear that those who differ from us will influence or change us so that we’ll no longer be ourselves. But when you’re secure in who you are, then you’re more freely able to allow others to be themselves without being a threat to you, you’re open to learn from others, and you can know another without losing your sense of self. (Ephesians 3:17-18)

Forgive as God Forgives: If I’m honest, I don’t know if I could forgive as the Rwandans have and continue to do. How does one forgive the one who has killed your spouse, children, parents, and friends? How do you look into the face of a murder and say “I forgive you?” Yet, forgiveness serves as one of the major factors in the healing, reconciliation and renewal of Rwanda. They understand that Rwanda can’t grow or move forward if the victims didn’t learn to forgive the perpetrators or if the perpetrators didn’t seek forgiveness and forgive themselves. The countless stories of forgiveness astounded me and I hope that I can only learn from them and adhere to God’s commandment that we forgive one another. (Colossians 3:13)

Rwanda today boasts of smiles and laughter and beauty. Rwanda today boasts of innovation, growth, and a spirit of perseverance. Their motto is Remember, Unite, Renew and I promise, once you visit, you’ll fall in love and long to return. So until then, may the spirit and the lessons learned serve to improve our lives and world as we strive to get to know another on a more intimate level.

From My Heart to Yours,


Bible Verse:  The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion-- to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. Isaiah 61:1-3.