A Walk to Remember

By Sara Strawczynski, KF10, Urwego Opportunity Bank of Rwanda

This afternoon I walked the streets of Kigali with thousands and thousands of people, united to commemorate 16 years since the start of Rwanda’s genocide.

A Walk to Remember in Kigali on April 7th, 2010.

In 1994, the very road we walked on was systematically transformed into a terrifying assembly of roadblocks, violence and murder. The entire country was engulfed, and when the genocide ended 100 days later approximately 800,000 people were dead, with millions more terrorized and displaced. In light of such a massive tragedy, I expected the official commemoration to be an emotional and sombre event, and was surprised that the tone was fairly uplifted. The walk ended at Amohoro (Peace) Stadium, which was filled to capacity. The memorial program consisted mostly of singing – a mixture of traditional hymns and modern songs, followed by a screening of the film As We Forgive.  The event’s themes were hope and a better future for all people in Rwanda.

During my months living and working as a Kiva Fellow in Rwanda, I’ve had a hard time reconciling what I know to have taken place with what I experience day-to-day. Kigali is a safe, clean and beautiful city. The countryside is lush and stunning. As a country, Rwanda’s development has been faster than anybody expected, with impressive advances in healthcare, education, infrastructure, and women’s empowerment. Almost everybody I meet, and especially the staff of Urwego Opportunity Bank where I’ve been working, is ambitious, confident and optimistic.

Breathtaking scenery

That said, signs of Rwanda’s genocide are never far beneath the surface. For example, yesterday I headed to Eastern Province for the day, to meet and interview UOB’s first-ever Kiva clients. Driving out of the city, we passed the Rwanda National Parliament. Its walls are still covered in bullet and artillery holes from the battle for Kigali in 1994. In the countryside, we passed two groups of prisoners, easily identifiable in their pink, orange and blue jumpsuits. Rwanda’s prisons are filled with people accused and convicted of genocide and war crimes, and its incarceration rate is among the highest in the world. Prisoners in Rwanda are not hidden behind bars. Instead they complete manual labour projects in their communities, such as building homes for survivors, schools, police stations, and parks.

Not far from the prisoners, we passed by two genocide memorial sites. There are dozens of memorials in Rwanda, clearly visible from the roads and villages. Sites are covered in purple and white flags and ribbons, the traditional colours of mourning and peace. These former schools, churches and community centres were the sites of unimaginable horrors in 1994. They are preserved as frightening reminders of what happened, and also as peaceful mourning sites for survivors. I’ve visited several sites throughout the country, and was present at one church when a woman brought the remains of her relative, for final resting in a mass grave. Apparently this is not uncommon, even now.

After several hours of driving and visiting clients,we were looking forward to our last visit of the day.   This entrepreneur is taking a loan to expand his retail business, adding a new light product that is recharged on a pedal generator. The product should bring safe and clean light to rural Rwanda, where there is no electricity. Unfortunately, the client was nowhere to be found. Some kids playing nearby informed us that as a community leader, the client was probably at a Gacaca court meeting. This traditional court system was instituted throughout Rwanda in 2001, in an effort to speed up justice and promote reconciliation in Rwanda, where victims and perpetrators of the genocide still live side by side.

We’ll return to meet this client another day, and this was another reminder that the genocide continues to affect microfinance, along with every other industry and person in Rwanda. There’s no way that I could ever understand this history, nor Rwanda’s current culture, so I guess I’ll just try to absorb what I can in my time here, taking a cue from those around me who seem to remember their past with sadness and outrage, and yet work so hard to make sure the future is brighter.

Sara Strawczynski is serving as a Kiva Fellow at Urwego Opportunity Bank of Rwanda.  Keep checking Kiva’s lending site, because the first loans from this new this field partner will be available any day.

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