Posted by: hannanussbaum | September 25, 2010

“If you had known me and known yourself…”

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Shoot, I am terrible at blogging! This is my attempt to revamp this blog and I hope from this point forward to keep you more frequently updated. For the last month it has been an incredible blessing to enter the Rwandan community and begin to appreciate the complexity of their culture, history and values that drive them forward. For now I will just give you snippets of how the last month in Rwanda has expanded my concepts of community, pain, forgiveness and poverty and blessings…

Last week over evening tea and a breakfast of bagels and coffee on the porch I felt like I learned a month’s worth of course work from talking with Dwight Jackson, my prof for Context for Community Development. I absolutely love the way that my learning here is by no means limited to a classroom or designated time for learning. Dwight lives with us here at the house and I rack his brain as much as possible, in my sweatpants and all, no problem. Our class time with Dwight has challenged me to reflect on issues that are unique to the Rwandas community as well as those that span all communities trying to progress. Some of the questions and sayings I have been mulling over include: How do we encourage both practical knowledge and education, especially when packed and ill supplied classrooms in Rwanda do not ensure that the children are gaining knowledge? How do we build upon a community’s base of knowledge instead of just replacing it with “advanced technology?” How do prioritize measuring community development by long term impact instead of just quantitative outcomes? “It is easier to manage money than ideas or people.” What is the responsibility of the government to protect its people?  Rwandan proverb: A man with only one identity is a weak man. How do our multiple identities, for me as a daughter, sister, friend, student, Christian, young woman enrich our perspectives and networks? And on and on. It makes me laugh to sit at breakfast in my pjs with Dwight and have my journal nearby to jot down notes but I don’t want to miss the opportunity to gain this knowledge, not just formal education.

The other class we completed last week, Issues in Peace Building was taught by Pastor Anastas, a Rwandan who directs a number of peace and reconciliation groups throughout the country. I appreciated the number of guest speakers he arranged in order for us to hear about Rwanda’s history, challenges and progress from several perspectives. We spent a morning with a lawyer who is one of the eight overseers of the Gacaca Courts (the unique justice system that Rwanda adopted in 2001 to try the 120,000 imprisoned criminals from the genocide), a member of the NURC (National Unity and Reconciliation Commission in the government), and a pastor who is vice chair of the National Reconciliation efforts within the church. We discussed justice, trauma, uncovering truth, the Church, international intervention, the government’s role, and forgiveness. More thoughts to wrestle with from these conversations: “It is in our human differences that we have found a way to dehumanize each other” (Rwandan poet). Rwandan proverb: Better is an enemy who is near you than a friend far away (There is an unbelievable system of mutual dependency and support with your neighbors – regardless of if they are friend or enemy – it is a matter or survival). “Justice delayed will lead to justice denied” (How does a country try 120,000 criminals fairly?) “The greatest sin of the genocide was the sin of omission.” “Saying, ‘I wish I knew’ is saying too little, too late” (Reflecting on the lack of international intervention during the genocide). “The Rwandan church as an institution failed during the genocide, but it was the faith of the people that kept them alive.”

The other element of this class that has forever impacted me was visiting three genocide memorials. The Kigali genocide memorial has three very informative and moving exhibits, one on the history leading to, events of and consequences resulting from the Rwandan genocide, another an exhibit in memory of the children killed in the genocide, and a third outlining genocides that have occurred around the world in the last one hundred years. There are 30,000 people buried at this memorial in mass graves and the number grows as people recover more bodies in the Kigali area.

We also visited two church genocide memorials which were completely overwhelming. Driving a while outside of Kigali, we reached the Ntarama church memorial where we were ushered inside a small church to be immediately stopped in our tracks at the sight of shelves holding the skulls and bones of the innocent, their filthy clothes hanging from the rafters and covering the walls, and rusty machetes on the floor. Several grenade holes in the church walls marked the entrance points of the killers to access those locked inside. In a small room to the side our guide pointed out a dark section of the wall, the blood stains of children who had been smashed against the wall and died of cracked skulls. 5,000 were killed at Ntarama. My mind reeled trying to imagine the chaos and fear of the victims last moments.

Thirty minutes after visiting the Ntarama memorial we arrived at another church memorial in Nyamata. Here we saw the clothes of victims whose bodies had been thrown into latrines, blood stains on the alter cloth and shrapnel holes in the floor and walls. We were led outside to visit the mass graves which we entered by walking down several steps to a cool, dark aisle in between racks of shelves holding the skulls and bones of the 10,000 killed at Nyamata. At each of the memorials we were told by our guides that now it is our responsibility to tell the story of Rwanda. Of its pain, suffering and forgiveness. I am humbled and thankful for the chance I have to see and hear of the reality of Rwanda’s experience and it is my prayer to bring some of this reality back to you. At one of the church memorials a single banner hung that said, “If you had known me and known yourself you would not have killed me.”

As a change of pace let me tell you about the beauty and joy of Rwanda. The first weekend in Rwanda we headed east to Akagera National Park for a two day safari and camping trip. My parents can testify to the fact that seeing a hippo and giraffe on an African safari have been on my bucket since about age 7…and it was every bit as wonderful as I had always hoped! It was also a great time of group bonding at the start of the semester – being caked with dust from hanging out the truck windows all day, watching the sun set over the rolling hills and singing camp songs around the fire. Then, last weekend, after completing our final project for our Peace Building class we relaxed at Lake Kivu in western Rwanda for two days. The water was clear and the perfect temperature, the Rwandan food delicious, hiking on Bat Island entertaining, girl time so great and rest much appreciated. A beautiful place to recharge.

Another wonderful experience to share was attending one of my neighbor’s traditional Rwandan wedding with Sarah and Melissa, two GoEd friends. The street was packed with cars so the three of us curiously walked by to just try to get a glimpse into the gate, only to be ushered into the yard by one of the men welcoming guests. They insisted that we join them in the celebration and before we knew it we were sitting in the front row with the bride’s family. Not quite dressed for the occasion and not being able to understand anything going on we politely smiled as the father of the bride and father of the groom joked over their microphones about their new white daughters and how “today we marry one daughter but tomorrow we will marry off our three new daughters.” Yep, blissfully unaware as to why everyone was smiling and laughing at us until someone next to us translated. Lesson learned: it’s always worth it to jump in and experience authentic culture, just don’t nod too much when you don’t understand that men are bargaining about the number of cows to bring tomorrow 🙂

To change to tone once again, yesterday we returned from five days of community research in the Nagatare district, Gacundezi cell in eastern Rwanda. It was by far the most eye-opening experience of my life. After writing all of this already today I will share more about the research in coming days as our group processes and debriefs the knowledge we gained and stories we heard. I am compelled and now hold the responsibility to share the stories of the families whose homes I have sat in and struggles I have worked to articulate. Dwight’s words of encouragement to me last night are my driving factor today to continue writing these family profile stories; “Sadness, anger and guilt are natural responses that we must embrace after encountering absolute poverty, but don’t let it immobilize you. Let these emotions motivate you to take action.” For now, my prayer is that we recognize the incredible material wealth that we are blessed with and prioritize the stewardship of our gifts and serving others generously today. Much more on this later.

I will leave you with a Psalm that has been close to my heart during my time in Rwanda. Since being here I have tried to read scripture through the eyes of a genocide survivor and it is transforming the way I view God’s faithfulness and redemption.

Psalm 73:21-28 encourages,

“When my heart was grived and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with you counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom I have in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be hear God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.”

May God be the strength of our hearts and portion today,




  1. Hanna, it’s great to learn about your adventures and learning. We will keep you in our prayers.

    Tomorrow we return to McAllen, TX and then on Wed. on to Mexico.

    We love you,
    Aunt Marilyn & Uncle Mike

  2. Hanna,

    Thank you for your very open and honest sharing of what you are experiencing. I’m sure it is difficult to reconcile a few weeks of experiences with 20 years of experiences and you are struggling to wrap your mind around it all.

    I’ve seen the movie “Hotel Rwanda” several times and have always been very moved by it, but your descriptions of the memorials brings the genocide in Rwanda to a whole new understanding for me. Thank you.

    My prayers are with you as you struggle with the many questions that you are being confronted with each day. I’m sure God has given you a heart for Africa for many years for a reason.

    Aunt Anita

  3. Hanna,

    Finally getting a chance to read your journal. I understand that you are away from technology to update at this time. I look forward when you have the chance to share your thoughts again. Revel in the experiences, they will be wonderful memories and continue to provide sources of revelation in your future. You are in our prayers for a continuing excellent experience.


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