Who Told You That We Are Cursed?

Cyimbili KidWe are blessed,
We are blessed,
Who told you that we are cursed?

These are lyrics in worship song performed by the Cyimbili Coffee Choir during their pre-work (6:30a!) devotions last week as a gift to the visitors (us!).

In this song I have discovered the secret of this little community in Rwanda: they are blessed! Here is a group of people who saw the absolute depths of humanity on this very land two decades ago, and have found a way to love one another. Joy is here. Hope is here. Laughter, and singing and praise are here. God is here.

God was here, God is here, God will be here.

These ten thousand square miles—about the size of Maryland—are full of a thousand green hills, volcanoes and gorillas, bright colors, big smiles, warm hugs, joy-filled music, dancing, and good coffee.

All this on top of mass graves holding almost a million people.

Rwanda is the intersection of depravity and grace.

Take six minutes and listen to this choir.  Especially from the 3:55 point on, and especially if you want to see some dancing!  Although I am heartbroken as I begin to absorb the history of the ground I walk on, I am also overwhelmed by resilience.


The Cyimbili Coffee Plantation is one of the programs initiated and maintained by ALARM (African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries) in partnership with Hope for a Thousand Hills and the Association of Baptist Churches Rwanda (ABR) for the purpose of reconciliation and community transformation. It is an intentional community- school, clinic, church, work- completely unaware of the planned community trend happening in the suburbs :)

On the same ground that held a genocide 19 years ago, people are living and working together peacefully, in a way that demonstrates the capacity of God to move within broken communities, and in a way that proves resiliency and hope are stronger than despair.

Cyimbili Pan

The guesthouse we stayed at during our time at the plantation belonged to an ABR missionary who worked within the community to develop primary and secondary schools, a bible school, medical center, church, and the coffee plantation. This is the same missionary who wrote to his church in the 70’s asking for money to support a secondary school student who had been kicked out of his house for converting to Christianity, as the family believed his presence in the home would anger the ancestral spirits. The missionary received $7 per month for the boy from a 69 y/o widow from Ohio who collected trash along the interstate to recycle, earning $7 each month to send to the boy in Cyimbili. The boy grew up to be the founder of ALARM.

Because of the events of the 1994 genocide, the coffee plantation and missionary house were abandoned and left in ruin in the 90’s. There was no clean water, electricity, sanitation or other basic needs, lots of orphans and widows, and a broken church with traumatized leadership and congregants. This concept of church brokenness and the need for pastoral leadership inspired the beginnings of ALARM, which will be another post for another time.

In 2008, Celestin, the founder of ALARM, felt a tug to come back to Cyimbili. ALARM formed a partnership with Association of Baptist Churches Rwanda and Hope for a Thousand Hills to rehabilitate the once productive coffee plantation, restore the local village economy, reconcile relationships, and renovate the missionary house into a guest house, once again hosting missionaries and different ministry groups.

The first rehabilitation phase was a four-year plan that focused on pruning and planting trees, land terracing, staff training and hiring, construction of washing, drying and packing stations, and other community infrastructures like hydroelectric turbines, sewage, and waste stations for the community. During this time, ALARM also facilitated the gathering of local pastors of all denominations from Cyimbili and neighboring communities for the purpose of encouraging each other, conducting pastoral leadership and reconciliation trainings, and exchanging ideas. Phase one was complete in 2012.

The Cyimbili Plantation has just moved into the second phase, which is production.  Today, the coffee plantation employs about 170 workers, seasonally and full-time, many of them widows and primary breadwinners in their families. The work allows the men & women to pay school fees for their children, purchase health insurance at the community medical center, and provide basic needs like food and clothing.  The plantation has about 40,000 coffee trees, each tree producing about 4.5 pounds of dry premium coffee beans annually. ALARM is currently working with a group in the US to ship, roast and market the beans internationally.

PlantationBerriesEach morning, all hundred-and-something staff meet at 6:30a for devotions before work, and the coffee choir sings and celebrates life, relationship, provision, and joy through worship and dance.  This is how I imagine heaven.

Here’s one last thing I want to mention. Do you know how coffee plant pruning works? A coffee plant is fruitful for about 30 years, and then it stops producing fruit. In order to rehabilitate the coffee plant, the tree is chopped at the base, and over time, new growth shoots out of the stump. Can you think of a more beautiful symbol of growth and restoration of this community than this little coffee plant?

Even now in death you open doors for life to enter…
N. Nordeman

A little bit extra, also known as lagniappe in NOLA:

  • For pictures of the Plantation and our time at Cyimbili, click here.
  • We will be returning Cyimbili to spend time being in the community: living and working with the coffee staff, picking and shelling and cleaning and drying our way through the coffee process. Those interviews and stories will be in the World Next Door magazine, June issue, along with ways you can get involved with Cyimbili Coffee Plantation and ALARM.
  • Also, we’re starting an advice column for World Next Door Magazine. It’ll be part funny, part interesting, part serious. Right now we’re looking for questions from you about anything the WND team knows well:
    -Interacting cross culturally
    -Eating weird stuff
    -Talking with friends about social justice issues
    -Using photography in a non-exploitative way
    -Packing for international trips
    -Getting involved with local organizations
    -Living simply in the suburbs
    -Anything else travel/justice/writing/photography related…
  • What questions do you have for us? We might just answer them in the next issue!
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Wait, What?

Things that are weird:

1. Waking up on March 6th, traveling all day, going to sleep at our destination, and waking up on March 8th. Wait, what? What happened to poor March 7th?!

2. Traveling halfway across the world to be greeted at the Kigali airport by long-time friends from Wisconsin. Wait, what? Our friend works for UNICEF? And her family is in the middle of a two-year assignment in Kigali?  Such an unexpected and provisional coincidence!

3. Catching myself trying to absorb everything with that Oh-I-wish-we-didn’t-have-to-go-home-soon feeling, then realizing WE DON’T! Wait, what? We are here for two whole months? And this is our job for an entire year? Score.

4. Sleeping like a princess. Wait, what? The mosquito nets. They look like giant white flowing canopies.  Barry’s even has lace, which makes me wonder if he feels like a *special* princess.

Mosquito NetNet light

5. Waking up to Princess Barry doing Insanity in our little shared 10×12 foot space every morning and then sweating profusely through breakfast. Wait, what? Exercise? Early morning? Tiny space? No breeze? He may soon relocate to the gazebo as soon as he’s comfortable spotlighting his Insanity skills.

*I am a week late posting this. In fact, he HAS relocated to the gazebo, and the maintenance dudes sweep and stare, sweep and stare, sweep and stare.

6. Attending a National League Basketball game (Army Patriot Rwanda vs. the oldest team in Rwanda) with tens of Rwandans in the stands. Wait, what? Yes, tens of Rwandans.  Across the parking lot was the entire country at the football stadium.

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7. Taking a walk downtown and passing by the Tulane University office. Wait, what? That’s my graduate school! What are those guys doing here? Guess I’ll go find out.

8. In Rwanda, they interchange “r” and “l” at random. Also “k” and “ch”. For example, Cyimbili is pronounced Chimbili or Chimbiri, and Kigali can be pronounced Chigali. ALARM is sometimes pronounced ARARM. So, you know, there has been lots of talk lately about the Kenyan erections. Wait, what?!

And on that note, goodnight! We’ve had non-stop, jam-packed 5 days of people, programs and info to absorb, process, and synthesize. We tired.  Mole fol you rater.

(I was doing the “l” and “r” thing)

Musical Chairs. Sort of.

This morning we attended church at Kigali Institute of Education (KIE), where about 11 simultaneous church services of various denominations were occurring in each of the classrooms surrounding the courtyard. So cool. University students from different parts of the country studying at KIE worship together with their associations on this campus each Sunday, and once a month all the denominations worship together. We happened to be worshiping with the Free Methodists, which I think is funny, because the free Methodist Church World Ministries Center is in Indianapolis. Wait, what?

We were not the only visitors this morning. Our preacher, Jean Paul, was a visiting minister from a local church and also a pastoral staff for World Vision. Several former students, including the PR/Communications guy for the Ministry of Disaster Management who also happens to be a photojournalist (THAT was fun), along with the Finance Director of ALARM who just moved from Kenya in January, plus a gospel singer and her guitarist husband were all visiting the student congregation today from their own local churches. Our host, the Country Director of ALARM, travels all over to these university congregations, because he is in charge of the University Youth Associations for the Free Methodist denomination in Kigali City. He brought us along for the English speaking service, which happens once a month.

About 20 students attended, including an 8-person choir. We asked to take some pics after the reason for our being in-country was explained, and below is a clip of the choir. Some songs were in English & some in Kinyarwanda, but most of the preaching was in English. Here is an example of a Kinyarwanda word: Mwaramutse (good morning) or Murakoze (Thank you). Now imagine seeing words like this for the first time in a hymnal and trying to sing them :)

Before the actual service was an interactive Bible study, and after the service was a Q&A time between our team and the students (pic below). We learned about the ways in which ALARM has impacted their lives, faith, and education by asking two questions: What is it really like to live here? and What is God doing in Rwanda through ALARM? We will continue to ask these questions for the next 7 weeks throughout different projects of ALARM and other ministries.

After church, we hopped a public transport bus for lunch, which reminds me: Anytime I’m transported anywhere, I just stare out the window in amazement at the beauty of Kigali city and countryside. The thing about this bus ride, though, is that the middle aisle is actually just one fold-down seat in the middle of each row, so if you are lucky enough to get a middle seat, you are actually sitting in the aisle. Poor you.

Each time someone behind you has to get off the bus, you must get up, lift up your seat and move back to the person’s empty seat behind you. The person in front of you then takes your seat, and the person in front of them takes theirs, and so on. It’s like musical chairs without the music and with no prize. Being the last five people on the bus, Jeff, Barry and I got the last three aisle seats, so who do you think ended up in the very back row after several rounds of musical chairs? The three of us, plus Peter, the finance guy, one row ahead. Winners! (Right?)

We then enjoyed a fantastic buffet and loads of conversation with ALARM staff, a breezy walk downtown past the Tulane office (Wait, what?) and a quick taxi home. So, to recap: We left for church this morning at 8a, and arrived home at 4p. That’s eight hours of church, eating and transport!

The 36-hour Update

First things first. Contact info:

My number is +25 0789000545 and Jeff’s number is +25 789000543.

You can call us on your dime, and we’ll answer, but we can’t call you! So, basically the opposite of Don’t call us, we’ll call you.

The 36-hour Update

So far, we’ve met the ALARM staff in Kigali, interviewed two girls who graduated from ALARM’S Institute of Women for Excellence and who are now being sponsored as they attend University (photo below), ate delicious carrot ginger soup, drank out of a filter straw desperate for water on our first night, realizing we forgot to buy some in town or obtain some from ALARM before everyone went to bed- whoops; Met up with good friends from Wisconsin (what?!) for the first ever organized orchestra: Injyana Orchestra Rwanda put on by students from the International School and Christ’s Church Rwanda. Oh, and then we ate some pizza!

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We are heading out to explore downtown Kigali, and this evening between the three of us, we plan to a) photograph a Rwandan wedding reception and b) attend a professional basketball game at the stadium.

The food is great, everyone is healthy, days are hot and nights are cool. We are looking forward to church tomorrow, meeting up with the Grace team on Monday and visiting ALARM’s IWE school and coffee plantation later this week.

Below is our view of downtown Kigali from the courtyard outside our room at ALARM center.

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Hugs to all, and thanks for your support!

In Wonder, Love, and Praise

We are safe and warm and well-fed in Kigali. Before I surrender to jet lag, I want to share a prayer I read somewhere over the Atlantic from Walter Brueggemann’s Prayers For A Privileged People:

…We pray for good departures,
In the way our ancestors left Egypt,
That we may leave the grind of productivity, and the hunger of ambition, that we may leave for a place of wondrous promise,
Visited en route by
bread from heaven
and water from rocks.

We pray for big departures,
Like those of our ancient parents,
That we may leave where we have been and
How we have been and
Who we have been.
To follow your better lead for us,
You who gives new place,
New mode,
New self.

We pray, each of us to travel in mercy,
That we be on our way rejoicing, arriving in wonder, love, and praise.