Out of Africa, always something new.
I suppose every out-of-the-ordinary event could be classified as “once in a lifetime.” Since early spring 2014, I have been preparing for a conflict resolution training mission in Rwanda and Kenya, and as family and friends learned of my plans, rarely a conversation passed when those words — “once in a lifetime” — weren’t uttered.
Now, I’m back. As I’m writing, I can hardly believe that I’ve been home for a week. My body clock is slowly resetting. My stomach is adjusting to the absence of anti-malarial medications and non-African cuisine. Transitions are often challenging, but perhaps my most striking mental challenge is finding a new descriptor for the trip.
That’s because a voice in my head keeps asking how and when I can return to Africa. Perhaps September 19 through October 1, 2014 was a once in a lifetime experience. Yet, I’m having trouble accepting it as my one and only shot.
An email about eight months ago began this journey, when I was invited to accompany a group of students from Southern Methodist University’s graduate program in Dispute Resolution and Conflict Management. My dear friend, Dr. Betty Gilmore, directs that program and sent me this email, dated February 3, 2014:
Would you be interested in going to Rwanda with me in the fall for 8-10 days to do training on peace building etc with indigenous leaders???
A torrent of emails and phone conversations followed. It just so happened the organization that Dr. Gilmore was working through to arrange her trip was African Leadership And Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM), and I was already in conversation with them about possibilities of partnerships between our program at the ACU Duncum Center for Conflict Resolution. In fact, on the day I received that email, I had just scheduled a meeting between ALARM leaders and our academic director, Garry Bailey, and myself.
“Coincidence” is a skeptic’s term for “providence.” The fact that I was being divinely provided an opportunity to do something unique was apparent to me. How could I turn this down?
Indeed, in the early weeks of talks and planning, every door was opened, and every obstacle was removed. Abilene Christian University administrators quickly embraced the idea and made it possible for me to go, providing both time and financial resources. My wonderful wife, Nancy, was on board, too, and she provided support and understanding.
Over the next few months, I made numerous trips to Dallas to meet with the SMU team. In addition to Dr. Gilmore as faculty and director for the travel course, I was introduced to Robyn Short, Allison Russell, Dan Russell, Aaron Horn, and Malcolm McGuire. We became immersed in intensive sessions to design and prepare for training sessions with multiple and diverse audiences.
Finally on the day before departure, with vaccinations, documentation, and seven duffel bags filled with donations for Congolese refugees, we congratulated ourselves on how smoothly things had gone. And then the email from the airline:
Your flight from Dallas to Amsterdam has been canceled. We are working to reroute you.
Eventually we were reticketed and sent on different flights, but the team was reunited in Amsterdam, and we flew into Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, after more than 24 hours of plane and airport time.
After an opportunity to attend worship on Sunday morning, we ventured downtown to the Kigali Memorial Center — one of several museums dedicated to remembering the genocide of 1994 where almost 1 million children, women, and men were killed in the name of ethnic cleansing. Our team was caught up in the enormity of our thoughts and our grief, even as we walked along the hillside where over 250,000 of the victims were buried.
However, Rwanda is a nation dedicated to reconciliation and rebuilding. The conflict was built on the tension between two tribes, the Tutsis and the Hutus. In a place where revenge and harsh justice could be readily justified, those who have risen to leadership have chosen to set aside those instinctive response mechanisms. Justice is still being done. But forgiveness and reconciliation are an official part of the recipe for rehabilitation and healing. Thus, the national theme, “Rwanda: We are one people!” stands as a call to move forward, even in this difficult time.
Our team was asked to help train several groups in Rwanda. For two days, we trained the security forces of the Kinyinya district. These men and women are the first responders on the streets of the city. Unarmed, they speak of their work as their “walk” through the community. And they walk all night, coordinating services for people in need and resolving conflict wherever they can, without the intervention of the national police or the military.
Dr. Gilmore and I were also asked to offer training on trauma, compassion fatigue, and leadership to the workers and leaders of a refugee camp in the eastern province of Rwanda. The rest of our team was to work with the children of the camp and our gifts of soccer balls, art supplies, and medical supplies were packed with care in the back of our bus. We had been told that the camp of Congolese refugees included about 500 individuals, 150 of them children.
When our bus rolled into the camp, it became evident that the population had grown a bit. We would later learn that almost 6,000 children and 3,000 women were at the camp. The number of men wasn’t discussed, but that’s a theme in working with Congolese refugees. Most of the adults are women, either widowed or separated from their husbands. Forced to flee in the face of horrific violence and threat, they move to surrounding countries to seek shelter and assistance.
Dr. Gilmore (or, as our African friends referred to her “Doktor BET – EE”) was wonderful in the training, and the response from the adults was beautiful. Meanwhile, the rest of our team came face to face with bureaucracy as camp officials suddenly cut the time with the children short and refused to allow us to distribute our gifts. More than likely, the decision was in the interest of safety. Our donations wouldn’t go very far given the size of the crowds. Although we were disappointed and saddened, in hindsight, the decision to reapply and to allow the camp officials to engineer that distribution seems the most prudent.
Our last two days in Kigali were spent training the professional staff of ALARM Rwanda. These are delightful people with missions in peace and reconciliation, business development, administration of a girls’ school, and even the ongoing operation of a coffee plantation that provides jobs and work experience for Rwandans. Our team was blessed in these special moments.
From Kigali, we flew to Nairobi, Kenya to spend four days with the staff and the children at Made in the Streets Ministry (MITS). A marvelous outreach, MITS forms relationships with children living on the streets of Nairobi and then provides opportunities for schooling and trade experience. Almost 100 children were living at their location outside of Nairobi. We provided training for all of the children, plus recent graduates, in conflict resolution and leadership. Dr. Gilmore and Malcolm McGuire spent an afternoon with the MITS staff. While the plight of the kids was somewhat difficult to embrace, the hope and the possibilities from this God-inspired place helped us to see the unbelievable truths of God’s promise. God helps us. We help others. It’s a divine plan we saw unfolding — even recognizing the way that the children who were being helped were finding their place in the cycle of helping others.
Our hosts, Charles and Darlene Coulson, made certain that we felt welcome. We were treated to a safari at the Kenya National Wildlife preserve. Our driver and guide from MITS, Jackson, did a wonderful job and brought us face to face with a wide assortment of animals. Although we heard the lions early in the morning, we were never able to catch them in a place we could see them. But Jackson balanced our disappointment by giving us the added thrill of a visit to the nearby elephant orphanage.
Throughout our trip, I continued to feel the hope and the desire of these good African people for peace and reconciliation in a world that delivers chaos and strife. I also felt their quest for something beyond what mere humans could bring. For some, perhaps it was a the potential of combined efforts and collaboration — a communal discernment. But for most, and for me, it was a greater understanding that God is the one who delivers us and brings us peace.
“Once in a lifetime” is more than I could have ever asked for. Yet, I find myself wanting to invest more of myself in this journey. Because you see, ex Africa semper aliquid novi. Out of Africa, there is always something new. I was blessed to be on a team with incredible people — all of whom are discovering something new within themselves.