There Is More Than One Story

It is all the senses on fire. There is laughter so buoyant it communicates through its timbre. There is a green robe of color draping Rwanda, the mille collines, the “Land of a Thousand Hills.” In Kigali there is great wealth on roads so deeply rutted a small child could be lost in them. Not far away I see hills upon hills of rural beauty. There are bird sounds I have never heard, and at Lake Kivu out of the corner of my eye, I catch a color of wings the likes of which I have never seen before. There is the whisk of a handmade broom brushing off the grit of the previous day from already nearly immaculate pavement, and the sounds of children erupting into song as they arrive at school. There is the strong smell of humanity not trying to perfume itself. There is a gentleness to the breeze, even in Kigali where clothes are washed by hand and hung on the line in mansions of sparkling tile in a modern city alive with its own energy. Sitting at a window, I see children being watched by many eyes on the side of the road as my bus careens around “S” curves. This juxtaposition of the cosmopolitan with the rural is part of the new Rwanda.

Roadside rural view

Roadside rural view

New construction homes in Kigali

New construction homes in Kigali

“This is Africa,” Antoinette tells me. She is the aunt of two former students, and she has taken it upon herself to show me her Africa. Night after night I am graciously welcomed into family members homes of former students Paul Runyambo (2013) and his sister Letitica (2016). Their father Dr. Norbert Runyambo has arranged this part of my trip, and the respect every single person I meet has for him opens doors for me. Dr. Runyambo’s name carries great meaning here and everyone tells me if I am a friend of Runyambo, I am welcome in their home. I am in Africa; I am family.And that’s not even everybody.

I am also able to make my own friends as well. I am drawn to young people, the age of my own children, the survivors of the genocide. No one shies away from the history. They want to tell their stories. On the first of my three days in Kibuye, a lovely town on the shores of Lake Kivu, I meet Emmanuel, and we strike up a conversation on the road. He is finishing up his degree in Agriculture, specializing in soil erosion and land management. He spends an entire day with me describing the difficulties of getting work despite his training. He talks of maybe earning a master’s degree or perhaps starting a small farming operation, but getting started without capital is difficult. He walks me to a church, now a memorial to the genocide.IMG_0752

From far away I hadn’t even seen the skulls, but Emmanuel specifically pointed them out to me. I had been to the Kigali Memorial Centre, a museum that poignantly explains the genocide with text, media and artifacts. It is gripping. And this church is equally, maybe even more painful in its starkness. Later, Emmanuel takes me to a friend of his who teaches at College Sainte Marie, an all girls Catholic Secondary School and afterwards the three of us relax at a restaurant. Also in Kibuye, I meet Habiman, my tour guide on the lake. He tells me he lives on an island of only 10 people but that during the genocide the soldiers found them there. It is through Waynflete that I meet other wonderful young people. Shingiro is introduced to me by Holly Kiehl, a woman I met just this fall in my room at school. Holly is a college admissions representative from Bennington College and college classmate of former EAL student Terekah Najuwan (2003). She stumbled upon my blog, contacted me and gave me names of contacts she had in Rwanda. I am able to meet up with one of them, Shingiro, last Saturday. Shingiro invites me to his school, Rwamagana Lutheran School, an expeditionary learning school totally focused on sustainability. (I may end up writing another entry about more of the schools I am visiting because this one needs to known! Get ready Green Team: I have IDEAS!) Shingiro shares the story of his family and how it took over 10 years before he found his sister, the only other member of his family who survived. Shingiro is now a talented English teacher who is adamant about establishing a reading culture in his classroom. He is a learned man of English and also recommends many new African novels for me to read. Earlier in the week I meet up with Yves and Elise in Kigali because my colleague Michele Lettiere introduced me to Bates College French Professor, Alexandre Dauge-Roth who helped establish Friends of Tubeho in 2006. This organization “is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization that is committed to providing access to education for more than 300 orphans of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 who live together in small houses provided by the association Tubeho in Kigali” ( Check it out because this organization makes a difference to many young adults and is providing a service that is still needed in Rwanda today. Alex introduces me via email to Elise and Yves. Elise rents space to sell African art work and has just written a book, Le Livre d’Elise soon to be published. It begins with a proclamation that there has been enough silence in her life. It is time to tell her story. Yves is a brilliant young philosopher/Information Technology student with just one more term left before he graduates. We spend hours in lengthy conversation of penetrating depth and thoughtfulness, and he takes me to a museum in Kigali situated in the home of the first German colonist in Rwanda. Both Elise and Yves speak openly about their lives now and where they were then. They tell me how Alex has brought Bates students to Rwanda to learn first hand about the genocide. Alex is clearly an important person in their lives who has helped them move forward.

It is Shingiro who gives me the line, “There is more than one story.” He explains how everyone has a different tale in the country’s complicated narrative which is told by those who were here and those who returned afterwards. It is now a country where victims and perpetrators live and work side by side. A country where Gacaca Courts, a traditional means of delivering justice, have left a mixed legacy. Many Rwandans are practical. They explain the Gacaca Courts were a cost effective way to try the many who were taxing an already ravaged country. In 1994 many of the countries’ judges and lawyers had been killed or fled. It was estimated that to try so many at time when the country’s infrastructure both in the judicial system and in the nation as a whole was destroyed would take over 200 years. The idea behind the Gacaca Courts was that punishment would be swift and provide a way for perpetrators to learn how their actions effected so many and provide an opportunity for change. This concept was corroborated by my new friend Celestine, a law student at the University of Rwanda who says the purpose of law is to teach not punish. The implementation of this traditional justice system makes many proud of the way community based cultural practices began the process of healing the wounds of the nation. Others feel these “petty courts” minimized the horrendous actions of so many. They explain Gacaca Courts were intended to be a way to resolve local issues like land squabbles, marital problems, thievery and vandalism, not genocide (“Rwanda’s Gacaca courts: A Mixed Legacy” New Internationalist, Many survivors feel the courts were an expedient way to speed up the process of reconciliation and reestablish society but that justice was not served. I have met people on both sides of this issue, and as the 20th anniversary of the genocide looms, it is clear much has been done to move forward and many are still in pain.

It seems insensitive to end with the story of the bats, but to me it is a metaphor that encapsulates the side-by-sideness of this country–the great beauty, the great movements forward, the feelings of optimism and hope right next to great horror. For me that is the story of the bats. Habiman took me to beautiful Napoleon island which is shaped like Napoleon’s trademark bicorne hat. We dock the boat and begin climbing up and up, and soon we are surrounded by the thousands and thousands and thousands of bats who fly to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to eat at night and come back to Rwanda during the day to sleep. I think of my children, now so far away both in geography and in the way I call out to their childhood selves. I am being swarmed, but I find calm and a way to move forward. I remember reading Stella Luna to Maggie, Amelia and Peter, and I can see anew the beauty in an animal that still scares me.

NOTE: I tried and tried and tried to insert the photos of the bats into this post, but despite the leaps and bounds I am making in my understanding of technology, I cannot get them to load. If we are friends on Facebook, the album from my trip to Lake Kivu have the visual of what I am trying to describe in words. Friend me if you want to see them!!


21 thoughts on “There Is More Than One Story

  1. roy w says:

    As I read, I flip the pages rapidly – wanting and needing to feel more of the story. If only your blog had pages. Loving all you write about. It’s gripping. Can’t wait to talk to you about it in person. Love you, take care, enjoy, absorb, evaluate and dream.

    • I do not know if I am going to be able to communicate this, but having you write to me like this, so often and in such a supportive way really means so much to me. Thank you, Roy. I really appreciate that you are keeping up with me and I love you very much.

  2. Leslie says:

    I get chills each time I read one of your posts Sue. At the same time I have chills I have a constant smile on my face. The smile on my face almost matches the smile that is on your face in each and every photo of yourself that you have posted. You sound and look like a millions bucks Sue!! Keep the posts coming and continue on your marvelous journey.

    • I can see your smile, Leslie. I love knowing you are supporting me. Yesterday I thought of you often because I visited this artist’s studio where local women make jewelry. Of course I thought of you!! Love you and can’t wait to get together!!

  3. Scarlet says:

    You are soaking the country in like a sponge, Sue! Actually being in the place where the unimaginable horrors occurred has got to be surreal. Thanks for the updates. This journey, just imagined when we first met, is priceless. I’m so glad you got the chance to go and we look forward to getting together when you return to hear more, more, more!

    • This is really an amazing continent. I can’t get over how much I like it. It’s true that this journey was just something I was dreaming about when we first met, but then you and I had very important things on our minds like getting our babies married to each other! I can’t believe that is almost a year ago already. I keep learning you just gotta do what you gotta do. I do hope we can get together when I return. Maybe we can meet half way again! Thanks for keeping up with me!

  4. Barbara says:

    Love reading your entries, Susan, and seeing your pictures. Sounds like you are learning so much that you will be bringing back…..and being in the moment while you are there. So fantastic! Mike and I are sitting at JFK now waiting for our flight to Johannesburg while I read your blog entry. Looking forward to being on the same continent!

  5. Beverly Freeman says:

    Oh Sue…thank you, thank you, thank you. I understand now the difficulty of talking about so much…beauty, justice, education, poverty, abundance, learning, and so much more. You are doing so much and so well and I am learning so much. Maybe it’s all about recovery….in all its aspects, Keep it coming!

  6. How true….you are becoming, with each of these posts, more of who you are, Sue…I am stunned by all of this, the visuals, the words and will go over, more than once, all that you have written. Of course, there is always more than one story but we so seldom let the other ones in in our rush to be what– to be right, to be clever, to be less confused, maybe even to be less afraid of the unknown. But, you’ve put it all on the plate here for us to see and we look at it and it’s humanity in all of its complexity, joy and horror and the people you are with, who are your friends have welcomed us also to listen and to learn. Thank you and thank them for me.

  7. Taffy Field says:

    Dearest Sue – I am just blown away by this – there you are at the Mille Collines? It feels almost internal to me b/c of teaching it and yet I am so removed compared to you – and, of course, the people who loved it. My heart feels like a big lump. And really, you must collect these posts when you are back and write the story of deciding to go and why and the drive inside you and then offer these writings – these evocations of place and experience and people – to a much wider audience. I really think this is how hearts and minds grow and change. Bless you a thousand times over. Btw, Molly’s baby is due next week…… xoxoxooxxoxo

    • NEXT WEEK???? Oh my gosh!! I am keeping you in my thoughts and thank you, thank you, thank you for all your words. I think of you and Lorry so often and have so much I can’t wait to tell you. Please tell me when the baby comes!!! Miss you so much!

  8. Sue, what a wonderful way with words to describe your amazing trip. you are living a special dream. Keep going . I can hardly wait for the next chapter. Learn more each day of your pioneering.

  9. You are shaping my notions of what Africa is. Brad and I watched this Ted Talks you may be interested in which also brought my vision of Africa into the modern age. It also seems as though you are taking in all that you can possibly hold. I envy your energy and feel exhausted for you. I’m so glad you are sharing your journey in the blog. How are you holding up? Has anything really surprised you or your expectations of …..? How is your understanding of your Waynflete students changing?

    • So much is changing, Stephanie! I am keeping my eyes wide open and I am gaining a much greater understanding of the depth of the loss my students must be feeling. It is easy to keep up because there is so much to look at and absorb every day. I am Deeply Grateful for this opportunity to explore another side to life.

      Thanks you for the link to the ted talk. I haven’t looked at it, but I will. I love all your questions, Steph. I think your heart is still in teaching because you ask great questions. Tomorrow I leave for Nairobi! It’s onward to a new part of the adventure!! Miss you!

  10. Wendy Cramsey says:

    Love reading all your posts and experiencing Africa through your eyes and words! Especially since it is probably the only way I will experience it!! Thanks so much!! You are a fabulous writer, can’t wait to talk!

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