I enjoyed lazy starts to the day on the veranda, shooting the breeze with Peter the security guard. We’d breakfast on toast and tea, staring at the banana plants and far-off hills that cupped Kigali, waking up with the sun to the background of a crackling radio.
This post continues the blog series Letters from the Heart of Africa
One morning Peter came out in his characteristic good mood wearing a kaftan-collar shirt of multi-coloured lines.
‘You look like Joseph,’ I told him.
‘Your shirt,’ I pointed. ‘It’s got many colours?’
‘You read the bible?’ His eyes widened.
‘Yes I ‘ve read the Bible,’ I added.
‘Then my friend, if you have read the Bible you are a Christian.’ He looked quite pleased about that.
I explained to Peter that I wasn’t a Christian, because reading the Bible wasn’t enough, that you need to have faith and pray and do more. Peter’s view was simpler.
‘If you are a bad person, you cannot be a Christian, if you have bad here,’ – he slapped his chest – ‘you cannot be a Christian even if you do go to church and read the Bible. My friend, you are a good man so you are a Christian.’
Peter went on to explain that he was a Christian and, what I misheard, that he was also a German.
‘A Jah-man.’ he corrected. ‘A rastaman. But I cannot grow dreadlocks because of the college.’
The other encumbrance to being a Jah-man was that he wouldn’t smoke weed, it would be unbecoming of a trainee lawyer, and he brought out his Bible from the annexe to show me some passages he had researched on smoking ganja.
In a country where 95% of the people were Christian, it was rare to find someone who wasn’t of Christian background or for that matter, like me, not religious. Christianity in its many denominations, Pentecostal, Anglican, Evangelical, Adventists and Catholic was omnipresent; bus windscreens with Bible sayings (Corinthians, Romans, Genesis referenced with chapter number and verse); churches everywhere; on Sundays, loudspeakers would sound hymns across Kigali’s valleys and as the music drifted in to each other, it would become disharmonious.
Police had to warn church leaders to worship more quietly and, when they continued regardless, they confiscated guitars, keyboards and speakers; they were clearly working their way down the decibel scales because previously they had targeted nightclubs.¹
A colleague of mine who was a VSO volunteer, was asked by her neighbour what was her religion to which she she replied, ‘I’m Jewish.’
Her neighbour gave a quizzed look and asked, ‘What is Jewish?’
She gave a short explanation and ended by saying: ‘Jesus was Jewish.’
Her neighbour still looked puzzled, shook her head and replied, ‘No Jesus was Christian.’ I did feel that other religions were not well understood generally.
I sometimes felt slightly awkward because I wasn’t religious, but the topic didn’t come up alot – when it did it was something long-winded to explain in such a religious environment and I felt I might disappoint those I was trying to build bridges with. One of my closest friends, Henriette asked me in a moment of reflection one day, ‘tell me, if you have a choice to go to an Indian restaurant or go to Church, which one would you choose. I am sure I know.’ When I told her the former, she just shook her head genuinely confounded.
I admired such faith and devotion, but in the back of my mind, was a question: in such a country, steeped in the words of Christ, following them with such conviction, the messages of love, tolerance and turning the other cheek, how did the basis for a genocide ever find a foundation. Or was this the response after 1994.
One July morning my boss Freddy called me to his office overlooking the main entrance of the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
‘I’d like you to draft a letter from me.’
‘Sure,’ I said, ‘to whom?’
‘To the Pope.’
I inhaled deeply. This was heavy.
Freddy explained that a few days earlier the Pope had apologised for sexual abuse of minors by some clergy in Australia² and he wanted to ask for an apology for the role of some Catholic priests and nuns in the Genocide.
‘A reply would help the reconciliation process and give some clarity on the role of the church to the confused youth here,’ he added.
Freddy was the head of one of Rwanda’s largest youth groups and this letter would be on their behalf.
I sat on a bench in the Garden of Remembrance in the grounds of the centre, by the waterfall, writing it draft after draft, trying to get the tone just right, asking the Pope to condemn the role of those priests. I googled his address (‘His Holiness Pope Benedict, Apostolic Palace, 00120 Vatican City’) and the letter was written.
I started to read about the complex relationship of the church and Rwanda and how some clergy were was complicit in the genocide. I visited Ntarama and the beautiful stone church in Kibuye that sat on a promontory and looked over the shimmering Lake Kivu with a beautiful rose window that shone like a golden sun. In both these churches, Tutsis in their thousands were killed with the help of local priests or nuns, in the very places they sought refuge. Nyamata, Ntarama, Nyarubuye, Cyahinda, Nyange, and Saint Famille – the list of churches that became shameful death traps goes on.
For many years the Catholic church did not apologise despite condemnation from the UN; previous Popes had apologised for the treatment of Galileo, the African slave trade, for inaction during the Holocaust and, while I was living in Rwanda, for the sexual abuse of minors by Australian priests³ – the lack of an apology fostered a complex co-existence of religion and the need for reconciliation.
Both the local church and the Vatican had for many years said the crimes were committed by individuals and it brought years of confusion, a paradox and an enigma – on the one hand over half the population of Rwanda followed and loved from the core of their souls, the Catholic church, and on the other hand people knew about its representatives being complicit, aiders and abettors, in the genocide.
So then how did these two opposing sentiments co-exist in the national psyche, the faith based on love, and the moral sanction to the killing given by some of its clergy?
Some found answers by incorporating 1994 in the religious narrative. ‘God cried in 94,’ they said, ‘but then why didn’t he intervene?’ Others rationalised the distinction between an institution, a faith, and its so-called leaders. In the ‘gacacas’, the local courts that take place on grass, perpetrators still mention Satan visiting them. Questions just led to more questions. It was a true quandary.
On balance, there are stories of heroism, of priests and nuns, and from the Muslim community (who comprise 4% of Rwandans) who opened their doors to those seeking refuge and religion has helped people deal with the aftermath and form part of the healing process; to be able to forgive is said to be divine but then to find it in the deepest part of your innermost core, to dredge up something really special, to be able to love your family’s killer must be beyond that, the hardest, scarcely believable feats of human accomplishments.
A close friend of mine, let’s call him Vincent, many years after the genocide, recognised his mother’s killer – he was digging a trench by a roadside in a chain-gang doing prison work; Vincent could have done anything at that point, but he chose a route that made him special, a super-human individual – he contacted the man, he managed to forgive him and eventually befriended him once more. Today they share birthdays and Christmas days together.
Rwanda abounds with such incidents, of resilience and of how the human spirit rises phoenix-like again and the story of Vincent features next in this series.
Post script: In 2017, Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for the “sins and failings of the Church and its members” during the genocide; the Rwandan government said it was ‘a positive step forward’. Long awaited, 23 years after the genocide, it was seen as a further stepping stone in the winding road to reconciliation.
This was a post in the series, ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’ first published on http://www.heyloons.com. Previous posts in the series are below and more are to follow during summer 2018.
20. Feeling down
25. As time goes by