Friday, June 10, 2011

The following are the thoughts of one of the Farmers' Dialogue management team, after his visit to Rwanda for a Capacity building course in March. The experience there made it clear that for Rwandans and her neighbours to feed themselves on a permanent basis, divisions, most of which have their roots in the past, have to be attended to or they can quickly flare up again and undo all the good work done.

Rwanda, country of a thousand hills (Photo: Claude Bourdin)Thanks to two recent trips to Rwanda, known as The Country of a Thousand Hills, I have learnt much from these warm and welcoming people about their land and their struggles. Kigali, the capital, reflects the dynamic economic activity of this small country with a high population density that has undertaken the challenges to develop infrastructure and to be self-sufficient in food.

Agriculture was the reason for my visit, I was helping to organise a meeting for 35 farmers and others involved in agriculture from 15 countries around the world. All are active members of Farmers’ Dialogue, a programme of Initiatives of Change that is run by people involved in agriculture. The purpose was to meet, reflect on our work and receive leadership training. We aim to work together to fulfil our calling to “feed a famished world”. This approach raised the interest of the Rwandan authorities who understood that in addition to technical, organisational and managerial training, development also depends on the motivation and commitment of the people involved.

(Photo: Claude Bourdin)Rwanda is a wonderful country, with great agricultural potential. The personal meetings and experiences shared during the training added to understanding the country. During sharing in confidence and friendship, a different reality emerged to that when viewed from Europe. A reality more intimate, more complicated, more difficult to bear, that should not be understated.

'Is there any hope for our children after all that we have lived through?' This question was expressed with the sound of desperation by a friend who had just told me about his family’s history, and goes back to the 1994 genocide, which has left scars with all Rwandans. They don’t really talk about it and sometimes it’s difficult to completely understand, given how complicated this part of their history is. Is this past too heavy to bear? Are there still deep and hidden fears? Is the reconciliation process really complete? 'It’s politically correct to consider reconciliation as a set reality!' This phrase from a young Rwandan poses a question and helps explain the strange climate in human relationships, and in a very structured political context. Has the reconciliation process led by the authorities healed all the wounds? Has it completely erased the roots of fear, hate, revenge and suspicion? Is it possible for Rwandans to build their future and 'put a lid on that part of the past'? There are so many questions needing an answer.

I had the opportunity to meet men and women who are aware of the issues that still had to be overcome and who are convinced of the need for a venue, where in the spirit of trust suffering could be 'shared and listened to'. I also discovered to what extent suffering, whether talked about or not, is the fate of all Rwandans regardless of their origins, their journey, or their history. Nevertheless certain friends told me, 'We can’t tell you about our suffering'. I may have understood that human relationships weren’t always easy, depending on each person’s past. 'We speak about these innermost things only at home or with the family. Even with our friends we watch what we say as we never know how things might be used against us!' 'What about in the parish youth groups, for example?', I dared to ask a young lady engineer. Her categorical answer was to put her finger to her lips: Silence! I also heard a mother worrying about the marriage of her children, such is the situation that suspicion seems to have contaminated all relationships making long-lasting relationships built on trust impossible.

Official opening of the Training session in Rwanda, held in Kigali in March 2011 (Photo: Claude Bourdin)During the training week on a hilltop in Kigali a day on the theme 'Reconciliation – Dynamics out of Forgiveness', gave certain Rwandan participants the opportunity to share their personal experiences. One of them, whom I shall call Jean-Paul, like my brother – he’s the same age and has become like a brother to me –, related in a personal and intimate manner the history of Rwanda and his family. His grand-parents, his parents, his own brothers and sisters, all the violent deaths, sometimes right in front of his family’s eyes, killings, murders, suicide born out of sheer desperation, evictions, loss of houses and lands, emigration, studies abroad; return to the country to find barely a single member of the family, barely a body. A long story involving the colonial occupiers, the ethnic and social groups, the perpetrators of the genocide and those who fought it; thousands of family or neighbourly ties totally destroyed by the horrors and senselessness of widespread violence.

A long silence followed Jean-Paul’s account: contemplation, reflection, but how to find the words to express solidarity? Jean-Paul returned to his place in the circle. Suddenly, in the depths of the silence, an English participant, a white man, got up and kneeled down before Jean-Paul. A young German joined him! I closed my eyes, moist with tears, joining in thought my two friends’ gestures. My thoughts then took me in different directions:

  • In this gesture we could of course see the solidarity expressed and transmitted to Jean-Paul and through him to so many others. But there was also, at least in my own reflection, a feeling of recognition of the responsibility we, I, had in this incredibly difficult story. Recognition, apologies, humility, desires to carry the sufferings and the challenges with Jean-Paul and the Rwandans.

  • I know that France wasn’t the colonial power in Rwanda, but it was elsewhere! I also understood in my friends’ polite and diplomatic words during conversations held in trust and in private that we, the French, without doubt were partly responsible and that the Rwandans perhaps had some unfulfilled expectations of us. What’s more another English friend in a subsequent meeting specifically asked for forgiveness from our African friends 'for the immense damage imposed by my country on the African populations, for the suffering which is still felt….' I think we French could make this our approach too. I also realize that today colonialism has taken on different forms but the victims are often the same.

  • Seeing my two friends kneel down before Jean-Paul, I couldn’t help but think about my Christian faith. The huge 'monument of suffering' that Jean-Paul, along with so many other deeply scarred Rwandans, represented and that brought about this humble gesture. Wasn’t it a bit like the Suffering Servant who endured injustice and wounds but who also inspired humility, forgiveness and reconciliation and who more than anything opened a way to the future, to hope, to renewal of us all?

Entrance of the Memorial of the Genocide (Photo: Claude Bourdin)A visit to the Genocide Memorial with our Rwandan friends at the end of our training meeting showed us the apocalyptic dimension of this very complex event. However, hearing Jean-Paul’s and other Rwandans’ personal accounts was invaluable as suffering is not a mass phenomenon, as horrible as it may be, it is an individual experience, unique to each person but repeated thousands of times.

The future of Rwanda lies in economic development and in the huge challenge of food and crop production. It is already under way but managing the sufferings, the past and the human relationships can’t be ignored if we want to strengthen the foundations of a future that is being built on confidence, hope and peaceful and fruitful human relationships.

The Initiatives of Change team in Rwanda has understood this challenge in which the Rwandans are the main players in their future. A young teacher, when confronted by his students, some of whom were descendants of those who murdered his family, decides to build a relationship based on truth and trust with his students and not fall into the trap of revenge or ignorance.

Rwandan people, the future (Photo: Claude Bourdin)But we too can play our part in building this future, at the level of the shared responsibility for all the sorrows that have shattered this country. Rwanda has a future, its children too! I want my brother Jean-Paul and all his compatriots to know that their past, their suffering and their hopes don’t leave us indifferent, that we want to accompany them, humbly and as they wish, in their commitment to serving their country and the future of their children. My commitment to farmers is part of this.

Thank you, Jean-Paul!

Claude Bourdin, Farmers’ Dialogue coordinator