Our 5:00 a.m. flight from Indianapolis took us to Washington D.C. where we anxiously awaited our connection to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, knowing that at some point in the coming day we would reach our final destination: Kigali, Rwanda. In D.C. we made our last purchases at Starbucks and sat around sharing our expectations, fears, and hopes for the venture eastward.
I expected to find a place wrought with desolation and bitterness. The unsettling thought of the genocide Rwanda experienced only seventeen years prior was enhanced by the movies I had watched and books I had read before leaving. Others I talked to at home shared a similar misperception and openly feared for my life. I worried that the lingering effects of such a disaster as the genocide would be perpetually devastating to the country and its people, and, admittedly, that our efforts in Books and Beyond would be hardly advantageous in improving what appeared to be a much larger socioeconomic crisis.
There has to be a cynic in every group.
My hope was that my impression of Rwanda would be proved wrong, and it was indeed. Upon landing in Kigali we found ourselves in a metropolitan city reminiscent of some cities in the U.S. We went to a supermarket, an internet café, and relaxed at a Bourbon Coffee. Who would have thought such things to exist in Rwanda?
As for the people, I was unsure about how they would treat American tourists like ourselves. Our reputation around the globe isn’t necessarily one to flaunt. If I feared that they would throw me down in the dirt and spit on me, I was sadly mistaken. Even though the color of my skin immediately gave away the fact that I wasn’t Rwandan, I somehow felt like I fit in. People on the streets of Kigali had no problem staring at us mzungus, but their stares were ones of curiosity, not hate.
At Kabwende we were greeted by a hoard of screaming students who ran full-speed-ahead down the dirt path leading to the school to get a good look at us. We could hardly make our way through the crowd which seemed to multiply with children by the second. They wanted to know our names, where we had travelled from, how old we were, if we had brothers and sisters, and if we could take their pictures. They wanted to make us feel welcome, and as if their immediate cordiality wasn’t enough, they had prepared a ceremony for us at the school. They sang songs and danced and laughed and smiled.
I encountered a people that had faced hardships undoubtedly more atrocious than anything I’d ever experienced, yet still they laughed and danced. By American standards, the teachers and students lived sub-par lives in dried mud or concrete homes in villages as far as one hour away from Kabwende by foot. But they were happy to simply have the opportunity to work or to go to school.
And when they were given their books, they were ecstatic. The teachers’ eagerness to devise lesson plans which would utilize the new books was incredibly encouraging, as were their discussions on the improvement of the project at Kabwende. The enthusiasm displayed by the teachers mirrored that of the rest of the country. Everywhere we looked we saw buildings being constructed and foreign businesses showing interest in the accessibility of Rwanda’s markets – especially Chinese investors.
The national park system is exceptionally efficient. As we learned from Dr. Jan Ramer, an Indianapolis veterinarian working with Gorilla Doctors, poachers who used to roam the mountains in search of the elusive mountain gorillas were made into tour guides by the government. $500 will buy you access into the mountains to see the great apes in their natural environment. The money provides the guides with a comfortable living and is used to improve the parks and increase tourism and business.
Instead of being hindered by their the past, it seemed that the Rwandan people had brushed themselves off and have continued to make the best of a devastating situation. The people I had assumed they would be were not the people they are. They are content with simplicity, but not against improvement. They are as resilient as any people I’ve ever met. Their hope for future betterment is infectious, and after our two weeks there, I have more hope than ever.
I hope that our efforts in Books & Beyond have been as meaningful to them as they have been to me.