Thursday, June 2, 2011


Le 16 avril My uncle Jim asked me when speaking with my dad’s side of the family at Christmas time – “What’s one thing that you’ve been learning that you hadn’t expected to?”

“Cooking the way I am – Sr. Ema has a lot to teach.”

And here I am, in the middle of Africa learning how to make Argentinian empanadas… in French.

I’m very proud to say that I have officially learned how to make a traditional Latin American dish from scratch. And who better to teach me? Aline, Joselyne and I got the tutorial on how to make and work the dough, how to know if it’s reached the right consistency, how to season the meat, how to use the zig-zag cutter to make perfect little half-moon pockets, and then how to put them into the frying oil until they’re good and golden brown. MMM!

I’ve always liked empanadas, burritos, quesadillas, you name it – but biting into a hot empanada that you’ve made with your own to hands from just a pile of ingredients? Nothin’ like it.

Deuil Nationale

Le 13 avril From the first full day of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and for one full week, the country has a national mourning period. In French, it’s the Deuil Nationale (which translates roughly to a Week of Mourning), and the whole vibe of Rwanda changes. I’m sure that in previous years the outward displays of grief were much more present, and there have been instances of riots and various violent acts, but from what I’ve seen, the Rwandan people commemorated this 17th anniversary Deuil Nationale with composure.

Just as one observes any significant death in nations around the world, the flags were at half-staff – for seven full days. On the first and last day of the week, there is no school and no one goes to work. The church that is usually hopping and might be confused at times for a dance party does not play songs that involve clapping during this period (which really limits the repertoire). Around the country, groups of people gathered together to listen to people give witness of their experiences of the ’94 Genocide. On the television, these gatherings are broadcast – as well as singing, prayer, and other memorial tributes. Many wear purple wrist kerchiefs or scarves in order to show their participation of this commemoration.

It’s a strange situation, being in a country where so many around you have lost their loved ones in such a cold-hearted way. I had questions, but mostly asked those in my house for fear of asking too much. Friends were somewhat somber but mostly kept to themselves about how they were feeling. I did my best to be there, silently supporting if it was needed. Mostly, I didn’t know quite what to say for fear of saying the wrong thing or didn’t know just how to act. After all, my loved ones who have lost their loved ones have been dealing with this grief for seventeen years – how much can I really do now? The best I can do is to love them on a daily basis and pray that they can find healing.

One resounding theme that I heard from many that I’d asked in my community (and some outside) was that the country needs to find true forgiveness. From the surface, it seems as though the country has moved on and all is fine and dandy, but there is still much more healing that has to take place. Seemingly simple things like recounting the country’s history to the next generation needs to be strictly factual and unbiased, for rekindling and passing on the distrust will not aid in Rwanda’s continued growth.

We must all pray for those who have lived through the Genocide – that they may heal and that they may forgive.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Ifaranga Rimwe

Le 8 avril   One US dollar is equal to about 590 Rwandan Francs. I have bills in my wallet for 500, 2000 and 5,000 FRW.

Most commonly, the only coins that are used are 100 FRW, but from time to time I’ve gotten 50, 20, 10 and even 5 franc pieces. What is the value of FIVE Rwandan Francs? I’ve asked myself.

When I’d gone to the Western Union Bank to take out money that my parents had transferred from my accounts at home, I was in for a real treat.

The teller does the conversion for USD to FRW and then takes out a small amount which is the service charge. He slid a small wad o’ bills over to me under the glass window. [I swear, if I were handed the amount he’d handed over in USD and not FRW, I would live a good life.] And then he had to count the coins.

Brand-new 50’s, 20’s, 10’s, 5’s and ….. a ONE franc piece??

Besides being the laughing stock of all coins at 1/590 of a dollar, this poor coin looks like Monopoly money. (I suppose it has less value, too.) The coin is about the size of the tip of my pinky finger – only slightly larger than a pencil eraser.

Being so entertained by the coin, I’ve decided not to use them and to only keep them as Show-and-Tell for once I get back. Ask me when I get home, I’ll be happy to show you!

Sixteen years of training

Le 7 avril   As far back as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed singing. Singing in the car, singing in the shower, singing in the woods. I sang in Greenwood Elementary School’s choir. When Regina started the Children’s Choir at St. Greg’s when I was in 4th or 5th grade, I jumped on the opportunity. With orchestra consuming my allotted music slot at school, I continued in the choir at St. Greg’s – the big-kid, Adult Choir. Even when we tried out different parishes to add some spice to our lives, my father and I both joined the St. Francis choir. And as we all well know, I participated in Glee Club at university. (Thinking it would take up too much time, I did not participate the first year – without music in my life, however, I was suffering. Sophomore year I tried out and thankfully I was accepted.)

Having had such a variety of choirs and such fantastic conductors, I’ve seen my fair share of repertoire. I’ve done Gregorian chant with Brother Kevin at St. Francis, Carmina Burana and all which that entails with Carole Ann at Fairfield, and started out learning beautiful harmonies from Regina when in elementary school. With the conductors demanding both self-expression and precision, I’ve come to appreciate each piece for what it is.

More than that, music is an incredible medium where more than just the significance of the words, the melodies hold so much of the meaning. One can hear a song in Latin or French or Swahili and, not comprehending a single word, enjoy the piece. The music itself is the message.

And then I arrived in Rwanda.

We speak French in the house, go to mass in Kinyarwanda, and prayer in our chapel includes songs in French, Italian, Kinyarwanda, Swahili and on rare occasion, English. Is this some divine test that I was preparing for my entire life? It’s more intense and more exciting that rehearsals, too, because you’re given the page number and you just have to go for it. I’ve been enjoying the challenge and thrill that comes with trying to keep up. In music, it becomes so painless and gratifying to step out of your comfort zone.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Genocide Memorial Day

Le 6 avril    On April 6th, 1994, Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down when approaching the capital city of Kigali. He and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira were on their way back from Tanzania where they had signed the Arusha Accords. This agreement was aimed at defusing tensions between Rwandan groups – the Hutus and the Tutsis – by forging a power-sharing agreement. The Arusha Accords would have allowed the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi to rule side by side after centuries of inter-tribal pressure. The Accords never came to fruition, however – instead, it became a rallying point for Hutu extremists.

The Rwandan people were less worried about the President’s having been shot down than they were about what the event would trigger. From the beginning of 1994, the tension in Rwanda had been escalating – everyone knew that something evil was brewing, that something awful was going to happen. There had been increasingly more violence during the early months of 1994, and weapons were made readily available and at shockingly low prices. Government forces had begun recruiting young men into a group of militia called the Interahamwe – “those who attack together.”

As the violence and confidence increased, and the numbers in the ranks of the Interahamwe continued to swell, any sense of individual responsibility fell. The groups of rowdy, confident youth would parade through the streets with machetes tucked in their belts and grenades strung around their necks. They wore colorful shirts and would hassle whomever they wanted. No one said a thing.

There are so many factors that went into the Rwandan Genocide, and it’s impossible to read all of the media on the War and its causes. But just like any other genocide, propaganda and brainwashing were the wood that fueled the fire.

Since the Europeans arrived in Rwanda and started acknowledging the people as separate tribes, there had been problems. The Belgians had decided that it was the tall, lean and lighter Tutsi minority with imperial Masai ancestry who should run government and have high-standing positions. This created bitterness in the Hutus. Hutu teachers would take ethnic roll call, which required one to stand when either “Hutu” or “Tutsi” was called aloud. This all was further aggravated when the category of “tribe” was placed on identity cards. With that, someone could look at your identity card and tell whether you were Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa – the pigmy people who are few in number and did not factor into this power struggle.

Hutus were told that Tutsis were their enemy – that Tutsis were the cause of any and all the suffering that Hutus had endured in their lifetime. False claims were made in various forms, but most powerfully through the radio. In a country where there were few televisions and even few literate citizens, the radio was the only way to get news. And in a country starved of information, the radio stations were willing to provide – even if all they were providing was brainwashing remarks about Tutsis being the cause of all Rwanda’s problems.

It’s as disturbing to read about the events leading up to the Genocide as it is to read about what happened in the 100 days of killing that started on April 6, 1994. 800,000 Rwandans were killed during that short time frame – twice the number of civilians that died in the entire Vietnam War. In such a small country, about the size of Maryland, that meant that one in ten citizens was now dead. How is that possible?

When one reads the statistics, hears the stories, it all goes in, but the brain hardly recognizes this as being possible. We’ve seen the power of propaganda and mob mentality and its excruciating results before – the Jewish Holocaust was more than 50 years before the Rwandan Genocide, to which we had said “Never Again.”

In a country that was ripped apart by bloodshed, though, it’s incredible to see the strides Rwanda has taken in the seventeen years since the Genocide. How does anyone hope to recover after such an event? Where do you begin? But the government, led by their fearless president Paul Kagame, has done a wonderful job of encouraging reconciliation and pardon. For forgiveness is the only way that one can overcome such pain. Love is the only way to heal – one by one – until the people as a whole can move forward.

Today, on April 6th, take a few moments to pray for all those who perished in the Genocide. Pray for those who were left behind to pick up the pieces, whether as victims or as the accountable. All need your prayers. And take a minute to tell someone about the significance of today – Genocide Memorial Day. The whole world stops for a moment of silence on September 11th, but very few are aware of this remembrance to the 800,000 lives that were lost in Rwanda in 1994. It’s truly commendable what progress Rwanda has made post-Genocide, and we must all work together to keep the growth and healing moving forward.

This prayer was offered on the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide by Reverend Mpho Tutu, the daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

A Prayer for Rwanda

God weeps over each death
As though it were the only death.
The God who knows each hair on our head
The God who has written our names on the palm of his hand
Does not catch us up in a numberless genocide, in an anonymous
Sea of blood and violence
And let us die unnamed
But God knows us, God gathers every tear of grief every tear of terror into her bottle
And God weeps
God weeps with our tears
God rages against our complicit silence
When, I wonder, will “never again” mean
When will we stop claiming that our hands are tied
When, in fact, our hands are folded?
Which death will be enough of death?
In silence let us remember and reflect….


Grammy’s birthday

Le 21 mars    I was in a way dreading March 21st this year. This day has always meant so much to me, and now I find myself anxiously awaiting its coming.

I usually keep pretty busy here in Gisenyi, meaning that my focus is solely on what’s going on here and what I need to be doing next. It wasn’t until yesterday, when I was preparing my “Mot du Matin” ("Word of the Morning, " posted to the blog on March 20th) to read at school in the morning, that the reality of today’s date really hit me. This would be Gram’s first birthday… without Gram.

Reading my “Mot du Matin” aloud to my friend Vincent so that he could translate the next morning for me in Kinyarwanda as I read in English, I started to choke up a bit.

“Now Laura, you have to keep it together tomorrow. If you cry, I’m going to have to cry. It’s only what the best translators do.” I laughed and promised that I would be able to keep collected.

It was at Adoration at our chapel just afterwards that I really lost it. I thought I could handle it, but I didn’t make it through the first line of the first song before I was leaking profusely. Worse, I didn’t see this coming so I didn’t have tissues – and as my dad knows, it’s not easy to leave Adoration. I did my best.

I was able to collect myself after a while and truly was thankful that I was able to share this moment of prayer with Jesus and my dear sisters – and with Gram. I know that this is where she wanted me to be.

In the morning, I was thankful to have been half-asleep throughout mass and for the Kinyarwanda dialogue, because I’m sure that hearing any familiar tune or reading would have put me over the edge. Laura, just keep it together.

When it was time for the “Mot du Matin” at school, I beamed – I was ready. I had practiced, I was proud of what I’d written (even if Vincent had jokingly criticized my writing for the targeted audience – “Laura, you’re such a literature student.”). I was ready to go.

As we presented the “Mot du Matin,” I was truly at peace. I no longer felt any trace of sadness. I had no reason to be sad. In singing “This Little Light of Mine” at the end, I felt Gram with me. My guardian angel.

We’ve never needed to be sad that Gram left us. We only grieve that we cannot revel in her company on earth any longer. A few years back when she’d had her first bout of cancer, she had told my cousin Jen and me in a calm and courageous voice, “If you truly love me, you will rejoice when I go to my Father.” And we do.

Spring cleaning.

Le 19 mars    So, we’re preparing for some visitors. As is always with an approaching visit, one must clean the house and prepare in any way possible to best accommodate your guests. You may as well start calling me Cinderella. In fact, all six of us in the house have taken on the role. At least at the end, Cinderella is gets her prince – I’ll be getting 18 nuns.

April 18th is Provincial Gratitude Day, which will wrap up a week-long retreat which all the superiors in the province will be attending. This means that 18 nuns from Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania will be sleeping here for the night of the 17th. Where do you put 18 nuns, do you ask? You must move out of your room and sleep at the school. (It’ll be a nun sleepover, I’m pretty excited about it!)

That being said, I know that if my parents were to have 18 people come to their house, they would do a lot of cooking and cleaning. However, I’m living in a convent – a Salesian convent. Salesians like CLEAN. I’ve had to learn how to scrub walls with my left hand for fear of losing my right one! And I’ve learned that you can actually take down curtains from the windows and wash them – who knew?

The house is looking amazing and as we scurry around to prepare, we’re very much looking forward to our guests in a few weeks. And besides, that means ENGLISH-ONLY for the whole time they’re here! And mass in English! It’s been almost 7 months without mass in my native language. There is much to be excited for.

Rain season’s back.

Le 18 mars   I was hardly aware that we’d even been in a dry season for the last few months until the rain season came howling in. In fact, my parents were lucky enough to catch the tail end of the dry season during their visit and rain did not affect our plans.

It’s no wonder that our property looks like the Garden of Eden. Truly, it’s magnificent and always is bringing an abundance of the season’s finest crops. The gardeners work very hard to keep up with our every-blooming plants, vegetables and flowers and it sure pays off. But when you factor in the fertile soil caused by our close proximity to our volcano Nyiragongo and the profusion of rain that we get? We are always putting fresh-from-the-garden produce on our table.

Unlike the rain season in the fall, this rain season has no rules – it can rain in the afternoon, the morning, when you’re trying to do laundry – you name it, it will rain. In fact, it rains so much that the process of drying clothes on the line has become quite a hassle. One must be constantly checking the sky once he puts his clothes out to dry. Whenever the clouds start looking ominous, take in your clothes! You can put them back out when the sun is back and the drying process can continue. If you’re not attentive enough, your clothes could be out there for months.

I’ve always been a big fan of rain. And I still am, except for the nuisance of line-drying my clothes. Having rain in the morning or evening or when I’m going to bed? I’ll take it.

St. Patrick’s Day.

Le 17  mars   In the United States, everyone is some percent Irish. At least it feels that way.
In Rwanda, everyone is Rwandan. Or, if they are not originally from Rwanda, they may be from the Congo or Belgium or France or – who knows, maybe even Argentina.

Needless to say, I was not expecting to be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this year.

And then I got a call yesterday from Kyle, my American friend doing service in Kigali. His cousin and her friend are in Rwanda and the three would be passing through Gisenyi on Thursday.

“Kyle, don’t you know that’s St. Patrick’s Day?”

“Absolutely, I do.”

So I asked Sr. Gisele if I could meet up with my American friends in town for a bit after I finished my work – no problem. In the midst of hurrying through my tasks, I got a text: “Oh, and I found green food coloring.”

When I met up with my three fellow Americans, they’d already created quite a tizzy for their waitress. She had no idea what they were putting into their beer or why. St. Patrick’s Day isn’t known around here and the whole green beer thing is hard to explain.

A bit later after a change of locale, some brochette and bananas, a few friends came to join us.

“WAIT wait wait! Hold on…” And in went the food coloring into the unsuspecting Rwandan’s drink.

So we had to explain to our Rwandan friends and our waitress who didn’t know a word of French, English or even Kinyarwanda (which Kyle has been picking up like a champ), so she was completely befuddled by our peculiar actions. She was probably thinking, what strange people, those Americans.

I was going to let St. Patrick’s Day pass unsaid this year, besides my green sandals and necklace to celebrate, but that’s not what was meant to be. God’s Irish, you know.