Thanksgiving, revised and expanded

It’s Thanksgiving time, and if I’m thankful for any one thing this year, it’s for the gift of relationship. This includes the new friends we’ve made across the world through World Next Door and for the old pals that somehow keep popping up all over the place.

Newer and further away: I’m thankful for the Nkuzi family in Rwanda who fed us and welcomed us and invited us into their grief; who trusted us to tread lightly and accepted our empathy as though it was enough. I’m thankful for all the dinner conversations with Peter and Fredrick and Nepo and Eriane and V for, like, the entire month of April in Rwanda. And I’m thankful for our friends Rachel and Ricardo who offered their home (and their liquor JUST KIDDING SORT OF) several times as a getaway. I am thankful for Katy and Alan, our Americans-in-the-field-with-kids people, who enriched our marriage and gave us a new picture of how we could do this if kids ever would enter the picture for us. I’m thankful for Mamsung who literally cared for our every whimsical need in Cambodia. (If you don’t know about her, click the link. You’ll thank me.) I’m thankful for our host family and 14 brothers and sisters in Nepal, who sang us to dinner and hugged us out every day. I’m thankful for Sarah and Kylie and Carlie and Kara in Nepal, who made us feel like we’d always been a part of their group and that there would be a piece missing when we left.  And for our beloved Cupcake Girls, with offers of Thanksgiving love and hospitality through show invites and dinner invites and all the laughing.

I am thankful for the trust of organizations like Tiny Hands and Cupcake Girls doing tricky work who allow us to tell their stories.

And of course, I’m thankful for the organization we write for: World Next Door (and the 62 people who funded us through World Next Door). WND is seeking out justice all over the world—looking for it, writing about it, exposing it—in the middle of tough injustices and laying everything out for all of us to be a part of through a free magazine. Free, you guys.

If you like what you’ve been reading in this space, please show us by downloading the World Next Door app and pass it on. These are the exact things World Next Door writes and publishes for free each month.


Same Same, But Different

Well. It’s really hard to come up with an organized thought about a second horrific genocide history (Cambodia) so soon after leaving the first (Rwanda).

I can’t help but view Cambodia’s genocide through the lens of Rwanda’s, because I can’t unexperience my time there, and the world opened a little wider for me after. It’s hard not to compare.  It’s hard not to measure loss in numbers and time frames.  In perpetrators and methods. And it’s hard not to find value in the loss by what’s been restored or redeemed—which seems to be the entire country of Rwanda, while poor Cambodia feels a little bit like Southeast Asia’s forgotten child.

These are the ways we try and make sense of nonsensical things like genocide. Kigali’s genocide memorial had an entire floor dedicated to genocides in other countries I’d never even heard of.  It’s kind of like a shirt everyone wears here— Front: Same Same  Back: But different.

As I walked through the S-21 school-turned-torture site and the Killing Fields in Cambodia, the sights and sounds bounced off my eyes and ears and fell to the ground. Not a whole lot made its way inside—not even the shreds of clothing or encased display of teeth.  Not even the tree used to kill little babies. I didn’t really allow myself to picture how things were carried out or what a person must have been feeling standing on that same ground forty years ago.  Same Same, I thought, But different.

On the inside, my heart and brain were tripping over each other to close all the blinds, pull the shades, lock-up, and post a blinking neon sign: No Vacancy. We’re full.

(They’re currently up there writing a want-ad for tiny monkeys dressed as humans, rainbows, and baskets full of puppies. Those the only openings we have at the moment.)


It shouldn’t be this way, right?  We should have endless reserves of compassion and empathy. There should never be any compassion fatigue.

Or wait. Is it that there shouldn’t be so much evil? Maybe we weren’t designed with the capacity to absorb the intentional deaths of several million people in two countries at the hands of other people.

The thing is, God makes good people.  Right this minute 250 babies are being born worldwide. Each one is hand-crafted and carrying so much potential. And each one is deeply loved and cherished by the artist who created it.  But over the course of their lives—if they were a microcosm of Rwanda and Cambodia combined— some portion of 200 of those babies will turn around and kill 50 of their counterparts.

What a painful experience for the guy who designed and created them.

I can only relate it to how it would feel if my best friend and my husband hated each other. My best friend is my favorite. My husband is my favorite. Together, we’re the three best friends anyone could ever have.


They find value in each other because I find value in each of them. When Jeff is funny and Sprinky laughs, I’m in heaven. When Sprink refers to Jeff as her best-friend-in-law, my heart soars.

I think this is how God must feel when relationships are forged between each of us. We are his favorites— all of us. When we find value in each other, when cultural differences are celebrated and cherished, when we share and encourage and love one another, he must be delighted.

And by the same token, how awful it must feel when one bullies or intimidates another one. When one crashes a plane into three-thousand other ones. When one shoots another one with skittles in his pocket. When one sets off a bomb at a marathon and kills another one. When a group of ones are owned by another group of ones. When three million ones are tortured by a few other ones. When one entire race wipes out another entire race.

It’s a double loss. His favorite destroyed his other favorite.

In Cambodia, about two million people were killed—that’s one in four—during the four years of the Pol Pot regime. Two million of God’s favorite creations. When the Khmer Rouge took over, schools and factories were closed within 48 hours. Phnom Penh was empty. Everyone was forced out of the cities and into collective farms and labor camps in the countryside.

People were targeted on the basis of their intellect. Provincial living was valued, and education was despised, so anyone who was a teacher, artist, lawyer, doctor, or intellect in any capacity, who could speak a foreign language, who had glasses (because it was assumed this person could read), who had soft hands (because it was assumed this person held a white-collar job and therefore was educated) was captured, tortured and killed at one of the 300 killing fields throughout the country.

One of God’s favorite creations used his skills and passions to build a field in order to kill another one of God’s favorite creations because of his skills and passions.  Wait, what?!

I remember the first time I heard about this. It was a few years ago when a friend of mine was traveling the world for six months and kept an entertaining blog.  I had totally forgotten all about Cambodia and that blog until I was with my writing group a few months ago, and we got out the manuscript of Jackie’s posts. Erin flipped to the Cambodia section and found a comment I’d left, which I’ll share in a second.

Before the comment was found, I had been telling the group how weeks before we were preparing the interns for this Cambodia trip, and how we were all assigned different sections of Cambodia’s history to present to the group. My section was post-Khmer Rouge, and a good chunk of it was the fall of the Khmer Rouge leaders through the UN-backed tribunals. Because I only had 2 minutes to present forty years of history, and I wanted to keep the group entertained, I assigned nicknames to all key players, like Prince Nordy and Prince Randy and Hunny for Prince Norodom, Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen.

For Duch, I simply added an “e” at the end and pronounced his name Doosh, seemingly appropriate for the man responsible for the torturous deaths of 12,000 people at S-21, and who was given a 35-year sentence, appealed it, and was re-sentenced by the UN for life. Yeah! The group said, feeling both silly and justified. I thought it was pretty funny. This usually happens before I bite it, socially.

When the presentation was over, one of the interns said, “It’s actually pronounced Duke.”

What are the chances that her parents went to the church of the Cambodian pastor whose parents, brother and sister died in the regime, who met Duch at a Christian Leadership course, led him to Christ, baptized him, stood with him at the killing fields as he confessed to his crimes and asked for forgiveness, and is now advocating for his release?!


It was too late to take back that little “e”.  The irony is yet to come. As I had forgotten all about Jackie’s blog, and as I was telling the group this story about how it turns out God can redeem killers and I shouldn’t call people douches, and as Erin was flipping through the book, she said, “Hey! This comment is from you a couple of years ago:”

April 11, 2011: Wow! Prayers for you two and Cambodia. I had no idea that happened. It’s hard to comprehend God knew and loved each person in that cave and mass grave, and he knew and loved every killer. So strange and hard to understand.

Mercy for my current situation from my past self before my past self knew I would need it.

This one’s a hard one to get out: God loves killers. They are his favorite. And He has the ability to redeem anyone, sometimes even using the pastor whose family the regime killed… Sound familiar?!

Duch is the only regime leader to date who confessed to his crimes. Before his arrest, he went back to his village to start a house church with 14 families. He is still serving his life sentence.  Here is an unbelievable article from TIME called The Killer and the Pastor about Pastor LaPel and Duch.

When I left Rwanda, I wished I could take the banner from the memorial site and wrap the entire globe in it: If you knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.  Yes, Cambodia. You too.

And as I leave Cambodia in the next couple of weeks, I’m left with this from Frederick Buechner: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”  Pastor LaPel and Duch exemplify the entire spectrum.

A few pictures of the Killing Fields memorial are here.

Bracelets at the memorial
Bracelets at the memorial

Final Thoughts on Rwanda…


Before the Cambodia Issue comes out in a few days, I wanted to link to some of the articles I wrote for the Rwanda Issue, because many aren’t posted on my personal blog.  They live on the World Next Door magazine app, but are also available online.

Life_mainLife After Death

“There is just no place for me in Africa.  Through friends and textbooks and CNN, I understand Africa has complicated needs and a million qualified people already… read more


normal_mainRedefining Normal

This is forgiveness, I thought. Not emotionally safe at all. Against all the “normal” forgiveness rules, right in the middle of his broken heart. Why? Because God told…  read more


memorial History Lesson

“Well, hello there! So you’re interested in learning about Rwanda’s history? Great! Have a seat, pour a cup of something hot (or cold?), and let’s chat! I’d love… read more


Ask_WND_mainThe Advice Column

“What are your favorite travel apps? Why help 3rd world countries instead of those in need here? What do you see missions organizations doing wrong?” read more


umuganda_2-385x255 Umuganda

“When I think of the phrase Community Service, I picture chain gangs in orange jumpsuits, kids on probation, and/or Lindsay Lohan. I also think of church and… read more


GorillaCulture Guide

Fact #1: Gorillas > Humans It costs $750 USD to see the gorillas here. The joke in Rwanda is that gorillas make more than the humans. In fact, they say, if the… read more



The Coffee Process
A photo album

see more


PLUS! There a bunch of other fun elements: Language Lessons, Jeff’s articles about a professional Rwandan Basketball player and a unique coffee plantation community, maps, interactive photos, lost in translation moments, must-have items for travel, the many uses of cassava, an info page about our Partner ministry ALARM, the personal story of the founder of ALARM and reviews of the book and movie As We Forgive. It’s jam-packed, and all right here. And it’s Rwanderful.

It’s Online, Too, Grams.

PS: No smart device? You can’t beg, borrow or steal an iPad to browse the Rwanda Issue? Don’t steal one, because the content is available online! (minus the interactive features and the bells and whistles) If you can find an iPad, do it. If you can’t, click here to see the content online!


Rwanda Issue is Here!

It’s here! It’s here! The June issue of World Next Door on Rwanda issue is ready for download!

This is our first content (writing and photography) for World Next Door, and our first visit to Rwanda!  The issue is jam-packed full of incredible stories, beautiful photography, and fun interactive features that we know you’ll love.


This month, find out where your morning cup of coffee comes from, get an illustrated Rwandan history lesson, and learn to speak Kinyarwanda like a pro! Plus, read how African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM) is facilitating reconciliation and recovery in this beautiful country with a painful past.

Grab a cup of coffee and a comfy chair — and enjoy your trip to Rwanda.

A Personal Narrative of Rwanda’s History

Nobody quote me! This is the history as I understand it from interviews, memorial sites and literature, and this post was written to supplement the previous post here. So! Grab a cup of something hot (or cold?) and settle in…

Centuries before colonization, the country was united for centuries under a kingship rule: one people, one language, one history, one king.

Although Rwanda was already Rwanda, the Germans showed in 1985 up and said, Yep. This looks good, then claimed the land. After WW1, the League of Nations said, Uhh… nope, took the land from the Germans and gave it to the Belgians. Belgium was granted governance of the land and maintained a colonial occupation in the country until Rwanda’s independence in 1962.

Benefits of colonization: Schooling, medicine, infrastructure, export markets and Christianity.

Drawback of colonization: The institution of a primary identity to all Rwandans by the Germans and reinforced by the Belgians. Rwandans were categorized by height, facial structure and socioeconomic status (i.e. how many cows a person has) and given an identity that applied to the current generation and his descendants. There is some controversy about how closely the Hutu and Tutsi are related. The memorial book from the museum in Kigali says,  “In 1932, anyone with ten cows was a Tutsi, and anyone with less than 10 cows was a Hutu, and this also applied to his descendants.”  What isn’t disputed is that the European colonizers blew these differences way out of proportion for their own gain. Belgian authorities then introduced physical ID cards, and each person’s imposed identity began to determine his opportunities. The 15% Tutsi were perceived as elite, and the 85% Hutu as disadvantaged. The key here is perceived, because although many Tutsi were in power thanks to a purposeful promotion of Tutsi leaders by the Belgian authorities, only a minority of Tutsi actually received direct benefit from elevated status. Still. Discrimination was already internalized, Hutu felt oppressed and resentment grew. When the second-to-last king died in the late 1950s, massacres of Tutsi were organized and thousands were killed or fled the country.

A year later, with pressure from the colonial powers to democratize, Rwanda held its first elections in 1961, and the Hutu majority elected Prime Minister K, founder of the first party for the emancipation of the Hutu. Rwanda gained independence a year later in 1962. Now. Don’t emancipation and independence sound good?

Unfortunately, as one friend in Rwanda put it, Just because the rest of the world is ready for democracy doesn’t mean our country was ready to handle majority power.

Because the power had shifted into the hands of the Hutu, Rwanda became a repressive single-party system intent on ethnic cleansing of Tutsis. Between the 1950s and 1970s, 700,000 Tutsi were exiled from the country—they were forced off their land and farms, lost their jobs and bank accounts and animals, and were denied peaceful attempts to return to their country.

A group of exiles joined together in bordering countries to form the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and invaded the country in 1990 for the purpose of reclaiming the land that was rightfully theirs and to re-establish equal rights. President H, who had taken control of the country in the 70s during a coup, used this “invasion” to instill fear in the Hutu majority. See?! They’re attacking us! He and his regime used the radio, newspapers and TV to issue a propaganda campaign aimed at persuading the Hutu majority to see their compatriots, their neighbors, even their own families as power-hungry enemies who were planning a secret war against the Hutu. Civil war erupted, and again, many Tutsi fled after intense discrimination— unjust jailing, unequal opportunities, and waves of massacres in different sections of the country. Here is an example of the propaganda used: The Hutu Ten Commandments.

In 1993, a peace agreement was signed between the Rwandan Government and the RPF trying to establish equality. A neutral force was to be deployed (the French) to assist Rwanda in their plan to integrate, demobilize and disarm. Refugees were allowed home, and an RPF battalion was established in the capitol city. President H and his extremists saw this, though, as a surrender to the RPF, and they weren’t real happy about it.

Meanwhile (nothing good comes from this phrase) President H entered into the largest-ever Rwandan arms deal with a French company for $12 million with a loan guaranteed by the French government. Whaaa?!

While the propaganda was working to convince the Hutu that the Tutsi were out to get them, in reality, a secret war was being planned by the Hutu against the Tutsi. A group called the Interahamwe had been training in Rwandan army camps, and the training was taking place at a rate of about 300 people per week. The group was also registering all Tutsi in every city—literally names and addresses on a piece of paper—for an extermination plan.  Weapons were being provided by places like South Africa, and training was facilitated by—guess who?  The French Army.

And all of this was pre-genocide!

On April 6th 1994, at 8:23p, President H’s plan was shot down on its approach to Kigali City airport, and it’s widely understood that the Interahamwe staged the shooting and blamed it on the Tutsi, telling the country: If they can kill our president, they can do anything! So. Plane went down at about 8:30p, and by 9:15p roadblocks were in place and houses were being searched. The shooting started by 9:30p with death lists prepared in advance… The genocide was instant. Roadblocks were the primary method of control.  No one could pass without a Hutu ID card.

The government used the school and churches to lure people out of hiding under the pretense of safety, then locked people inside and killed them. Hundreds of thousands died inside the walls of a these “safe places.”

The structured genocide lasted for 100 days and almost 1 million Tutsi and Hutu moderates were killed. Although the RPF was able to establish control in Kigali in July 1994, attacks from Hutu insurgents continued for years after.  Friends told us they didn’t feel entirely secure in Rwanda until 2000 or 2001.

Many of the perpetrators fled the country, but the ones who were captured were tried and jailed. Between 2004-2005, because the jails were overcrowded, about 40,000 perpetrators who had confessed to their crimes were released from jail back to the community through Gacaca courts (tribal courts) a village-based system designed to promote justice and healing at the same time. Through reconciliation work and the Gacaca courts, many offenders have sought forgiveness from the survivors and their families and are making efforts to amend by building houses, harvesting and processing their crops, etc. Even more unbelievable are the survivors who offer forgiveness freely and who accept this gesture in the name of the forgiveness they themselves received through Christ.

The current president K was elected in 2003, re-elected in 2010 and will end his term in 2017. He has maintained steady development, growth and reconciliation with goals of Rwanda becoming a middle-income country by 2020 and highly emphasizes Rwanda becoming self-reliant. There is no longer a distinction between ethnic groups, and, in fact, categorizing as such is illegal.  The government and churches continue to work hard toward forgiveness and reconciliation…

On and On and On It Goes

Hey guys.

I keep waiting for inspired, insightful B to pop out and organize all my thoughts and experiences about our last two weeks in Rwanda. Instead, famished B jumped out and ate 5 million pastries for a week in Europe, and then exhausted B slept it off, and rain-logged B wasted all our time outside planting flower boxes when we came home and it was 85 and sunny, then bug-hating B felt compelled to clean all the floors so we could spray for spring bugs, freezing B just wants to drink hot chocolate and wear sweatpants and shiver since it’s all 55 and rainy, and professional B is preparing to leave for Cambodia in less than a month.

Indulge me in this very public form of therapy while I go in there and find her, okay?

Part of the tucking-away is that we spent the last two weeks in Rwanda in a fog of institutionalized mourning. You might think you can imagine this, but it’s really hard to describe. It was entirely opposite of all our other bright, cheery experiences in Rwanda up to that point, and the somberness of it all moved in quickly over the country like the shadow of a storm front. Literally the skies turned to rain and clouds, the streets emptied, everything closed—businesses, grocery stores, restaurants. Music was not played during memorial week and TVs remained off in public places. Armed guards appeared at roundabouts and other random places.

We noticed when we first arrived in the country that almost nobody used the word genocide. Most people spoke in terms of “the event” or “the tragedy” or “our country’s history”. Nobody refers to a differentiation of any ethnic group ever and, in fact, doing so can be considered genocidal ideation and is cause for arrest depending on context.

But during the memorial period, which lasts 100 days beginning April 7th, the phrase Genocide against the Tutsi was everywhere. Banners, signs, ribbons, etc.  It’s almost like the entire country functions as normal 265 days of the year and reserves all of its collective grief for the months of April, May and June. Even the weather follows this pattern, as the genocide occurred during the long rainy season, and each year the rains and gray skies come in April as they always have.

During the first week, the government hosted country-wide memorial conferences facilitated by local government and church leaders. People were off work, kids were out of school, curfews were enforced, and everywhere we looked groups of people were huddled in buildings, parking lots, tents, schools, soccer fields and parks. Most were listening government leaders speak on different topics like justice, forgiveness, unity, and self-reliance, which (we learned from survivors) was difficult for some. The people who facilitated the genocide were the government. And although this is an entirely different government, the fact that the government is facilitating reconciliation can be a trigger in itself. It’s institutionalized programming. It must sometimes just feel eerie.

Foreign involvement in the different local services is tricky and requires special permissions and security, considering varying feelings of foreign abandonment and the fact that the country continues to process in the presence of such an international community.

Amazingly (as we were initially told this would not be possible) the country director of ALARM obtained special permission from the government leaders in our neighborhood to bring us to one of the memorial services in our district.  We understood in advance there would be no pictures, no translating, and the service would be entirely in Kinyarwanda. We would be flies on walls there, and we agreed.

We pulled up to an empty field and parked under the solitary tree. There were four sections of benches forming a square around two giant speakers in the middle of the field and a microphone. There were 500-600 people sitting in all the benches and crowded in rows behind the benches. People hardly made any noise, even the kids. It was 3pm in the blazing sun. Quiet, calming genocide music played with an airy woodwind instrument and lyrics that said things like: Never forget the genocide of the Tutsi, as people sat and listened reflectively.

We approached the set-up from across the field, and as people turned to look at us, I can say with certainty: I have never felt so uncomfortable or out of place in my entire life. What are we doing here, I whispered to Jeff. We should never have come. This is not our memorial! But as they ushered us to a seat and we waited for the program to begin, it occurred to me that attending an event that commemorates the violent killings of a million people should probably not ever feel comfortable—no matter who I am or whether or not I belong there.

The service was 4.5 hours long and in the blazing sun. The site was surrounded by four armed guards, and the first speaker was a Commander in full uniform speaking about security, followed by the Vice President of the Senate and the former coordinator of the Civil Society in Kigali City. The theme of the 19th Commemoration was Self-reliance, and the speakers encouraged each individual person, family and village to be responsible for their own security—food, shelter, safety—in their own villages and homes. Poverty leads to dependence and reliance on others, both at a personal level and as a country on an international level, which leaves everyone vulnerable. Rwanda is on a fast track toward development post-genocide.

The VP of the Senate directed her talks toward the youth. She reviewed the history of the country and she narrated events leading up to the genocide from 1959 on, compelling the youth toward resilience and unity. She reminded the crowd that not all Hutu were involved in the killings. For the Tutsi to even have survivors, it was because there were moderate Hutu who fought tirelessly and courageously to rescue others and refuse involvement. She also reminded the youth that 100 years had passed (1894-1994) that Rwandans were not themselves. Prior to colonization we had a solid leadership, she explained. But colonization divided us. That was not who we are. The VP then challenged everyone to see everyone as human. Both sides. All we need to be human, she said, is to value each other.

We knew all this not because we understood it as it was happening, but because we got into the car when it was all over to a hearty round laughs and back-pats from our friends who said, Brooke and Jeff can now write a paper on how to persevere! Almost five hours in a field under the sun listening to speakers in another language on a tricky topic in the middle of a questionably welcoming crowd. And how to communicate in a language you don’t understand, another friend chimed in. They laughed and said something about praying for the gift of tongues, or at least the gift of interpretations.

In the end, when the VP and other government leaders, along with many of the people attending, came up to shake our hands and genuinely thank us (in English!) for our interest, attendance and respect despite all the barriers, we didn’t even know what to say. We had been a mix of fear, embarrassment, grief, sweat, and confusion. But it meant a lot to attend, for both sides, and we were so thankful to have been granted the opportunity. J and I breathed sighs of relief and looked at each other like, Did this really just happen? Such an intimate event in the lives of the friends we had met, and so hot!

In the car on the way back, along with the jokes about tongues and interpretations, the speeches were translated and our friends also explained that the attendees were a mix of ethnic groups, with more Tutsi than Hutu. Among the officials there were no Hutu.  I thought this might be good, but our friend explained that when all the talks are led by one side (Tutsi) they sometimes have difficulty, even though it would make sense that the oppressed side would facilitate the memorials. Doing that is how the whole system was maintained in the first place, though.  It’s better for all when the officials are a mix of both groups.

So. After memorial week, the rest of the 100 days is typically spent caring for the survivors around the country, visiting some of the other memorial sites, and for us, visiting the country’s pre-genocide historical sites, like the Kingship Palace, the National Art Museum and National Forest—these are the things that make Rwanda Rwanda.

And this is where I started to get a little bit lost inside.

I consider myself to be mostly aware of my limits, and I function with a relatively high emotional IQ, but seriously. I’ve been all confused and jacked-up ever since our last [death-defying] trip to the National Forest* wherein we didn’t actually see the National Forest, but the Murambi Memorial. Murambi: 900 bodies preserved in limestone exactly as they fell at one of the most horrific massacre sites in the country. About 45,000 Tutsis were killed at the brand new technical school, which sat on a beautiful and isolated hilltop, first lured out of hiding by the Bishop and the Mayor with promises of protection by the French Army, and then days later, two hours after the French Army left, locked inside and killed. Here’s where it gets crazy. The French Army returned after the attack with equipment to dig mass graves, buried the bodies at this site, then BUILT A VOLLEYBALL COURT ON TOP OF THE GRAVES AND PLAYED VOLLEYBALL to hide their negligence.   I’m sorry, what?! And in the nineties? How does this happen?  And how have we not all decided that a) we shouldn’t probably kill each other or allow others to be killed in our presence, but in the case that we do b) it’s totally inappropriate to play volleyball on top of the graves of the people we just implicitly killed.


We saw the graves, the actual bodies—two entire classrooms of children—the clothes, the glasses, the pens, the tufts of hair.  And we saw the equipment. We saw these things on the exact date the Bishop and Mayor beckoned the community to the school nineteen years ago under the pretense of safety.  You can imagine how eerie it was to walk from room to room to see the bodies and to read the storyboard of events with dates like April 16thon April 16th!  We also came home after the first church memorial in Ntarama to hear news of the Boston marathon bombing, which got all mixed up in the shadow of the horror we had just seen and would continue to see during the weeks at the memorial sites and services.

Even harder was traveling to and from the sites and the forest with our friend who described how he had fled on these exact roads, hiding with his wife, infant daughter and two-year-old for eleven months, because although the institutionalized genocide lasted 100 days, attacks continued for a decade before and after the actual genocide! In 1997 a girls’ school was attacked, and 17 girls who wouldn’t separate into ethnic groups were shot and killed. We’re all Rwandan here, they said. A month before that? A primary school. It wasn’t until about 2000 or 2001 that many Rwandans felt safe and secure from Hutu insurgents sneaking across the border.

This was a very bad roadblock here, our friend would say as we drove toward the forest, or There is the house that sheltered us. Other friends told us from time to time, That river there was red from all the blood.  We learned at the Murambi site that the pastor who married our friends was killed there along with his family. I wondered as we walked from room to room if any of the bodies we saw belonged to the pastor or his family. A genocide looks totally different when dealing with a specific face or name. This is why an entire room is dedicated to photos of each victim a the Kigali memorial. A million people were not killed during the genocide. One person was killed. And then another person. And another person. And another person.


I remember thinking after that week: I don’t have any words for this. I don’t have words for the 900 bodies I just saw OR for an 8-year-old who was bombed. I don’t feel like I can share all the thoughts or pictures or the things I read. But I wished I could take the banner from the memorial site and wrap the entire globe in it:

If you knew me, and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.

Instead, I wrote a status requesting an antidote of baby monkeys dressed as humans. The baby monkeys never came (which is weird, because when I asked for one million cute puppies on a different bad day, people posted piles of adorable puppies on my wall for days…?).

What came, though, was so much better. It was a song, which confirms my theory that God moonlights as a DJ. At least in my life, God speaks to me in that way. I was at church the following weekend, a non-denominational service with a 50/50 mix of Rwandans and ex-pats, which means half the songs are in Kinyarwanda and half are in English. I’ve heard this song a million times, but for some reason it gave me a brand new hope that Sunday:

Higher than the mountains that I face
Stronger than the power of the grave
Constant through the trial and the change
One thing… Remains

Your love never fails, never gives up
Never runs out on me

And On and on and on and on it goes
It overwhelms and satisfies my soul
And I never, ever, have to be afraid
One thing remains

In death, In life, I’m confident and
covered by the power of Your great love
My debt is paid, there’s nothing that can
separate my heart from Your great love…


As Rwandans and ex-pats lit 19 candles in remembrance of the genocide while simultaneously worshiping with each other—many alongside nationalities that not only didn’t help, but literally and figuratively played volleyball on top of their graves—I felt like I was witnessing a miracle. Humanity is a crapshoot, and God loves us anyway. Through His love, we somehow manage to love each other.

His love never fails, never gives up, never runs out.

It doesn’t run out after a genocide. It doesn’t run out after or a bombing. It doesn’t run out after a drug binge. It doesn’t even run out when you leave your 2 y/o on a porch at 4am (left field, I know, but it’s what a friend was dealing with on that day).

ON and ON and ON and ON it goes
ON and ON and ON and ON it goes
ON and ON and ON and ON it goes
ON and ON and ON and ON it goes

Did you know that?!

God’s restorative love is moving. Sometimes in Rwanda and sometimes right here inside. Sometimes like a torrent, sometimes like a trickle, sometimes in the survivor and sometimes in the offender, sometimes bright and sunshiny, sometimes quiet within the rain and tears, sometimes so intense it shreds us to pieces and splays us out there, and sometimes so tender it carries us and tucks us away.

For the feature article Life After Death, written about our entire experience in Rwanda before, during, and after memorial week, click here.

For a personal narrative of the Rwanda’s history as I understand it click here. It’s the very next post, and it’s in my own words, so nobody quote me! It’s important to include for the many Rwandans who long to be known for more than the country’s tragic history and do not wish to be defined by the genocide as the nation continues to develop and grow. Rwanda existed before and after colonization.

* You know, the 12-hour Lampoon-type trip where we were stuck driving inside an actual cloud up and down mountains around Nyungwe Forest in 50-degree pouring rain, our driver manually wiping his side of the windshield with one hand while driving the stick shift down the slope with his other hand, stopping every 15 minutes to ask a roadside stand for a screwdriver to fix the wiper. Every time we stopped the battery died, because it was disconnected every single car-swallowing pothole we hit- Jeff on one side of the backseat holding my neck steady to mitigate the nausea that started on our way up the mountain, and me crunched on his side too, because it was raining inside the car on my side. For the last two hours: pitch black with thick fog, driving through densely populated areas (a refugee camp, for example) with no visibility. Yes, that trip.

Light Beer For the Christians

JenetteMeet Jenette.

Jenette is the founder of a small group of business women in Musanze, each on her third round of micro-finance through ALARM. Encouraged by the benefits of functioning as a group instead of as individuals, they have formed the Social Blessings Women’s Group, of which Jenette is president. There are 26 women in this group, and they meet monthly to encourage one another, to sing and pray, problem-solve and solution-share.  They have been together for two years, and their mission is to empower women and young girls toward business ownership.

In the group, you will find women running canteens, small farms (food & rabbits!), market stands, and tailoring shops. J and I were able to spend a couple of days visiting six women to learn about their businesses. As we visited, we learned that two of the women are widows caring for a collective 10 kids and two orphans between them; two of the women are HIV positive also caring for their own kids and three orphans; two are the sole earners in their families, and four women are supplemental earners. All have given permission for us to share their stories and photos.

Portrait shopIn addition to the monthly fellowship and encouragement the association offers, each woman gives a small amount of weekly profit to a mutual fund, allowing the group to celebrate happy events in each other’s lives, like Christmas parties, birthdays and weddings, or to help with illness and financial distress when needed. In two years, the group has collected $800,000 RWF, which is about $1500 USD, has hosted many celebrations, workshops and conferences, and provided assistance to those in need. The women report their group to be such a success, their husbands have tried to get into the group, because they so admire the women’s entrepreneurship and progress. They are also eager for the social events, because there is sure to be good meat, music and fellowship.

Portrait“We are lucky to partner with ALARM. They have empowered us economically, physically and spiritually”

ALARM rents a portion of the World Relief building in Musanze for the women to gather each month, offers intermittent trainings for the women, and is currently collecting funds to provide a fourth round of micro-finance for those who want to continue to grow their businesses.

Jenette describes how the group came to form under ALARM’s sponsorship: “I knew that ALARM had a Community Transformation ministry, and I knew they were running a business center. So I went there and introduced myself. I asked how we could start a women’s group here in Musanze. ALARM connected me with a women’s group in Kigali they were working with and told us they would come help us start a similar group in our own town. The staff from ALARM began coming to train us here, we strengthened in numbers, and together came up with a group name: Social Blessings Women’s Group.  We then elected an administration committee, and we have been working with ALARM from that day on.”


How about some individual stories?

VeggiesDomothila is married with three sons and serves as the Treasurer for the Social Blessings Women’s Group. She operates a small canteen at the High School selling goodies, personal items, and materials for school: soap, milk, Fanta, exercise books, bread, etc. She has been blessed by the loans given through ALARM to “boost and increase” her business. On her first loan, she bought some milk and small items to sell in the canteen. On the second round, she purchased a small fridge and began selling cold drinks. Her hope is to ultimately purchase a photocopy machine.


Godelive is the Group’s accountant. She is married with 3 kids and runs a tailoring business. She has used her loans to purchase a special sewing machine that does detailed embroidery.


Marie Claire is a shopkeeper with nine kids. Nine! She sells snacks, sugar, rice, tomato sauce, potato, sweet potato, banana, soap, cabbage, biscuits.

Theresie is a widow with five kids, and she serves as a counseling adviser for the Group. She is also a tailor, has purchased a sewing machine, and uses her income to pay school fees for kids and maintain her household.

Jenette, as mentioned above, is the president of the Group and is married with kids. On her first round of micro-finance, she purchased Irish potato seeds, 3 rabbits and a pig. On her second round, she purchased a sewing machine, corn and sorghum, and she reports the pig gave manure, which has enhanced her farming. She is now up to 15 rabbits and two pigs, harvested 5 bags of corn, and continues to farm.

Sewing PortraitLaureuce is a mom to three kids and is also a student sponsoring herself through school on her business profits. She is a tailor, sells clothing, and used her initial loan to purchase a sewing machine.

Sada is also a shopkeeper selling many of the same items listed above, and is married with no kids. The visit to her canteen was unique, in that she personally showed us how to prepare two different types of beer: light beer for the Christians, and strong beer for everyone else…!

Sofie is a farmer and runs a market stand. She has 8 kids and is a supplemental earner in her family.

Devotha and Febrenie are both tailors. Devotha is a widow with 7 kids, the single provider for her family, and also cares for one orphan. Febrenie has four kids and cares for two orphans.

For the entire photo album, including portraits, shops, the “light beer”, market stands and behind-the-scenes photos, click here.

Kabuga: a Tiny School Equipping Street Kids

On a little dirt road halfway up a little hill sits a tiny little school—two classrooms and a supply closet—with hammers and tape measures, screwdrivers and a circle saw, and 16 students training in the areas of mechanics, electricity, masonry, carpentry, and welding. Many are former street kids and/or orphans due to the loss or imprisonment of their parents following the 1994 genocide, and are between the ages of 15 and 22—although there is no age limit, simply a stated need for skills.

This is where we hung out for a couple of days.

Kabuga Vocational Training Centre is ALARM’s response to street and orphaned children who were living without education and other basic needs in a small village outside Kigali after the 1994 genocide.

My dream is to be a good electrician and get a job with a company to help install electricity in my village.
-Mikali, age 16


I want to be a good mechanic so I can take care of my family and help my community.
-Kinongisse, age 22

Jeff and I visited the students, teachers and graduates of the Training Center to learn more about life and work in Kabuga. The first day we spent at school with current students, and the second day in the field with four different working grads: a welder, a carpenter and two moto taxi drivers, and two auto mechanic interns. Of the students we met, two grads are former street kids, two are orphans, one is a father of five, and all are primary earners for their siblings/family members. We were also greeted and accompanied by the school’s two teachers who receive their pay via in-kind donations (like soap) totaling less than $20 monthly.

Moto drivers and teachers

The school runs on a budget of $0, and relies solely on support that comes through ALARM, donations sent by places like Home Depot, or spontaneous gifts left by traveling visitors. Teachers receive no salary, and, in fact, sometimes pay transportation costs to and from school each day.

Why would teachers do this?

Emmanuel“I have a gift of helping kids without hope,” says teacher Emmanuel, father of three who quit his paying job five years ago to teach at the school when he felt called to help ‘those who are weak’ as he has read in the Bible and has been taught in church. He was recruited by Celestin (founder of ALARM), and says he answered the call to serve.

My salary is not physical,” he says, when asked how he makes his living and supports his family. “It is spiritual. I can’t explain it. It’s a mystery how we are cared for. Visitors give gifts and we survive from them. You can’t imagine how God provides for my family. ALARM helps us get basic tools to the kids at school.”

About 180 students have graduated since the school was founded in 2004, and more than 90% have been able to get jobs, and create co-ops and associations.  Twenty-one students are currently enrolled in the Center this year.

The entire vocational training program takes about 18 months, with one year in the classroom, and six months in the field. Many students found the school through word-of-mouth, or from graduates who had been through the program. Some were simply living on the streets and saw the school, or saw others walking to the school. Every student we encountered reports they were warmly welcomed by the teachers when the approached the school to ask how they could become students.

Students are able to select one of two vocational tracks: mechanic and electricity, or masonry, carpentry and welding.  At the end of their fieldwork, they are provided with certificates, and they can go find jobs.

ALARM has proposed a budget to pay the teachers a small salary of $200/month, and hopes to raise those funds this year. In addition, ALARM hopes to purchase four motorbikes per year to allow the students a sort of rent-to-own system for those embarking on moto-taxi careers. Currently, students have to rent motos from private owners at a cost of $5000 RWF per day, and the rental fee comes from their earnings. To put this in perspective, a typical moto ride costs between 500-700 RWF.  Slow days can sometimes mean no food, and the drivers live within this rent-work-pay cycle indefinitely, because most can never earn enough to purchase their own motorbikes. One motorbike costs about $2,200USD!

Testimonies of Students who have graduated:

Martin T (pictured above) is the 26 y/o single “husband” of the family to his mom and sister. He graduated in 2009 with skills in carpentry, electricity and driving. Before he joined the vocational school, he had dropped out of secondary school because he could not afford the school fees. He describes this difficult time in this way: No job, no money, no life, no future. However, when he discovered the school, he found the teachers to be kind and helpful and he was accepted into the program with no questions. He is now earning his living as a moto taxi driver with aspirations to become a truck driver some day. He continues to care for his sister and mom.

Mark M (pictured above) is a 25 y/o who graduated from the Training Center in 2009. He was living on the streets as a teenager after he lost his parents, and he had never been educated, even at a primary school level. After learning about the Vocational Center from other graduates who had been provided with an education at no cost, Mark walked to the school and was welcomed in to the program. He is now making his living as a taxi driver.

WelderDavid N is a 27 y/o welder, the second-born of five orphaned kids, who, prior to David’s ability to find work as a welder, lived under bridges and on the streets, feeding his brothers and sister from dustbins. When he joined the school, his education gave him the opportunity to earn an income, and he now works as a welder. He is able to rent a small home, buy food, clothing and shoes for his siblings, and send the two youngest brothers to secondary school. His older sister takes care of the house and siblings with hopes of one day being able to study, too. David has been a welder for five years and aspires to one day purchase his own welding equipment to operate his own business.  David says, “The school has trained me, educated me and changed my street-boy behavior. I am so thankful for this school and my teacher. I can’t describe how to thank my teacher, Emmanuel.”

CarpenterJuvenoli B is a 38 y/o husband and father of five kids who works as a carpenter. He was previously in agriculture, but due to erosion and poor soil, he could not generate enough income to provide for his family, pay rent and send his kids to school. He was accepted into the vocational center and trained in carpentry. He now makes and sells beautiful chairs, headboards, doors and other items.

We were so inspired by these guys, by the teachers, and by our time with Kabuga peeps- it was one of our best couple of days in Rwanda!

Entire photo album is here.

For more info on other grads and/or how to get involved, check out: this page, and the June issue of World Next Door magazine :)

Useless (but funny!) Cultural Knowledge

GorillaIt costs $750 USD to see the gorillas here. The joke in Rwanda is that gorillas make more than the humans. In fact, they say, if the government was asked, Who should we save: the gorillas or the humans? The government would say, The gorillas! They provide more income! When foreigners come to the country and are approached by ministries or NGOs to feed the poor or help the Rwandans, they shake their heads with a sad frown, pull out their empty pockets and say, Sorry! But when you take them to see the gorillas? $750! People will donate any amount of money to help the gorillas! The gorillas require visitors to book an appointment far in advance to see them, and a magnificent naming ceremony is held each year to celebrate new gorillas births and to name each baby. It’s a black-tie event, and celebrities are invited from far and wide. [Brace yourself, I’m jumping tone: This crazy gorilla frenzy in a country where the entire international community packed up and left when humans were being killed. Okay, back to previous lighthearted content] I’ll be honest. I DO wish we could see the gorillas. They’re just so mysterious and wild out there on those volcanoes.

Things women traditionally don’t eat in Rwanda because it is an abomination: chicken and goat. Goat especially, because it will cause facial hair. If a woman is seen with facial hair, people whisper to each other, That one has eaten goat! They tell me women in the Congo eat goat, and that’s why so many of them have beards J.  Chicken used to be a specialty only eaten by village Elders or rich people, and only in private. Chicken is still the most expensive meat today, and women can eat it, but usually only the thigh. Men get the gizzards and breast. Wha?

People here talk about the Congo the way BZ talks about Guatemala and the way we talk about the… wait, who do we talk about? Kentucky? All in good fun, I think. Anyway, things people in the Congo supposedly eat: goats, flies, and snakes. And Rwandans say the Congolese say, If there is meat to be found, we eat it. I do not personally know any Congolese to run this by. Neither do they have people from Kentucky to fact-check whether or not Kentuckians actually marry their first cousins. They do, however, win National Basketball Championships