2011 PFIG Recipient Elspeth Missel
College of Arts & Sciences
Foreign Affairs Major
2012 Graduation Year
Notes on the first week
It is hard to believe that those months of planning and anticipation are now behind me, and I have at last begun my internship with REACH Organization in Rwanda! After twenty-eight hours of travel, I arrived early last Thursday afternoon in Kigali. Two of my REACH colleagues, who are also serving as my “host parents” for the first month, met me at the airport, and they immediately welcomed me into their wonderful family – I have officially acquired four terrific new siblings for the next few weeks.
I spent my first couple of days settling into Kigali and exploring the city a bit. It was nice to have time to orient myself and to recover from jet lag and post-semester exhaustion, but I was really excited to start working with REACH. On Monday morning, we headed out to Nyarabuye for the first of a series of three Reconciliation Seminars that REACH is leading in that region. We are working specifically with some of the local leadership – pastors, local level government officials, etc. – who are being trained to lead their fellow community members in healing and reconciliation. This not only allows more people to obtain healing, but it also ensures community investment in and the subsequent sustainability of the programs and organization.
After having only been here for a week and a half, I already have a great deal of respect for REACH. Seminars are lead by Rwandese men and women who work with REACH full time, and there are several individuals who participate on a part time basis as well – for example, as facilitators for some of the seminars and workshops.
This week and next I will be participating in a Trauma Healing Workshop in Nyamata, which is about a thirty minute drive from Kigali. The workshop is seven days long, and is structured as small group discussion designed to build trust, to provide individual and peer counseling, and to pursue a healthy approach to trauma healing.
Another facet of my internship to which I am looking forward is the soap making business that REACH has helped to establish in Nyamata. Some of the women who are participating in the Trauma Healing Workshop have recently begun making soap to sell locally; in the long term, they would like to pursue larger market opportunities as well. After the Workshop is finished, I will be working with them in their new business. We will be trying some new soap recipes and discussing topics relating directly to their business co-op, such as profit distribution and product marketing. I am specifically excited to visit the local market with them to do some “market research” for selling their soap and to brainstorm some creative ideas regarding packaging and presentation.
I am looking forward to delving further into my tasks with REACH and also to continuing to build relationships with my wonderful new friends and colleagues. I already feel welcomed into a community here, and I am excited for all at that I will inevitably learn in the next two months!
I was unsure of where to even begin this update; I realized, looking back at my previous entry, how much has happened in the past few weeks!
As I mentioned before, we spent a week and a half in Nyamata, which is about 30-45 minutes outside of Kigali, for a Trauma Healing Workshop with thirty community members. The participants had already been through the Reconciliation Seminar, like the one I mentioned we are now doing in Nyarabuye. After the Reconciliation Seminar, they joined together to form a soap making cooperative. These women (and a few men) are an amazing testament to the reconciliation and healing that can occur here. Some are widows and survivors of the genocide, while others are the wives of perpetrators, meaning that many of their husbands are still in prison.
The Trauma Healing curriculum used by REACH is called Empower. It was written by a doctor in the UK and was first used with ex-child soldiers in refugee camps in Uganda; it has now been adopted by organizations across East Africa and elsewhere in the world. The program is characterized by a small, intimate group setting, which allows participants to build an environment of trust and support.
Also, the curriculum includes many fun and interactive activities, from trust-building exercises to stretches to help one fall asleep to other techniques for controlling the stress and emotions that can linger long after a trauma (or in this case traumas) has occurred. We (the REACH leaders) were all surprised at how enthusiastic everyone was about the activities. When I read through the handbook before we began the workshop, I will admit I thought some of them seemed a bit juvenile – I could remember playing some of the games on my elementary school soccer team. However, they proved to be almost more fun with adults, and the participants loved not only playing themselves but also watching each other take on the challenges. There was a lot of laughter, both at and with each other!
After having gotten to know the Nyamata REACH members through the Trauma Healing Seminars, I am especially looking forward to making soap together for their cooperative, Turiumwe (meaning “we are one” in Kinyarwanda), in the coming weeks. There will certainly be more to come on that subject in my next update!
Also, I mentioned Nyarabuye in my last entry, but I feel I did not do it justice; therefore, here is a bit more on that topic. Nyarabuye is in the Kirehe district, which is about three hours east of Kigali; the location at which we conducted the seminars was another hour or so drive into the bush. We arrived in Kirehe early on the eve of the first day of the seminar. The plan was to go to the building where we would have the seminar, to set up and orient ourselves, however, the road was impassable due to recent rains. Fortunately, everything had dried out quite nicely by the next morning – though we were still thankful for four-wheel drive!
We have now been out to Nyarubuye a second time and have subsequently competed two of our series of three three-day sessions. The participants are all local leaders, such as local level government officials and pastors. The first session focused on the history of Rwanda; this is in order that the participants can begin to understand the events that led up to the genocide, such as colonialism. The second seminar session was about forgiveness.
While in Nyarubuye, we also went to visit the genocide memorial at the now-infamous church building there, in which 25,000 people were slaughtered in 1994. This was my first visit to a memorial here in Rwanda. I have studied genocide in courses at university, as well as having read many books and watched many documentaries on the topic; however, actually being there, not only to see the location but also to hear the stories from both a tour guide and the Rwandans with whom I visited, was a truly unique and eye-opening experience. There is absolutely no way that I can understand or imagine the horrors of the past that these people live with to this day, but that the memorial was raw and confronting really helped me to start to put everything in perspective. I have since been to several other genocide memorials, and they have yet to become any easier to visit.
I cannot believe that I have already been here in Rwanda for over a month. As cliché as it may sound, I am already feeling at home here. I am determined to learn as much as possible in my final month here, and I cannot wait to share with you upon my return to Virginia!
As I write this final entry, I do so with a heavy heart and with beads of sweat running down my face, a sure sign that the green hills which stretch out before me are no longer those of lovely, cool Rwanda but rather are my beloved Blue Ridge. As I lounge comfortably on my porch in central Virginia, I have an odd feeling that I am on vacation in my own house. Summer is drawing to a close, for the academic world that is - anyone who has spent much time in Charlottesville knows that this sticky heat will linger even after the students once again crowd the grounds of UVA. And so I too return to classes and schedules, though I have doubtlessly left a bit of my heart nestled amongst the thousand hills of Rwanda for safe keeping, until I can visit again to reclaim it.
The last few weeks of my internship were incredibly busy, as we at REACH prepared for the visit of our board members from the UK and the US. During their visit, we celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of REACH – and the 50th wedding anniversary of two of our wonderful board members! The week was filled with activities and we were constantly on the move, traveling to the various communities and regions in which REACH has had a presence in the past fifteen years. This was an especially eye-opening experience for me; even though I had been working with REACH for over two months at this point, I had not truly realized just how great of an impact the organization has had, nor did I realize how many men and women have passionately dedicated themselves to this mission of healing and reconciliation.
To be completely honest, I had rather a bad attitude about being carted around with a crowd of what I initially interpreted as gawking foreigners. However, after telling myself that this attitude was inappropriate, I was able to engage in wonderful conversations and build relationships with what I came to discover is one of the most amazing and diverse groups of individuals I have ever encountered. One thing that really touched me and subsequently helped me to change my ‘tone’ was when one of the Rwandese REACH pastors, who I had come to very much admire, talked about how encouraged he was to have the board there, as it reminded him that the small group of staff in Rwanda was not alone, but that rather there is in fact a global support system. This really helped me to see beyond my characteristically skeptical and distrustful perception of international investors, and I was shocked to find my usual assumptions and stereotypes dashed as a result.
I, like anyone else who has ever experienced a summer internship, doubtlessly have learned a lot over the past three months. I am happy to say that, unlike some previous internships I have had, I was drawn in by REACH and not only impressed overall by the organization, but also surprised by how much I enjoyed the work in which I was able to participate. Going into the internship, I was unsure of to what exactly I had committed. Reconciliation and healing were different from anything I had experienced in the past; I was not entirely sure I would be comfortable in the realm of counseling and mentoring. Additionally, my skepticism regarding non-governmental and non-profit organizations was challenged, as, for the first time, I found I was part of an organization that has a fantastic mission that it not only clearly understands but also is carrying it out with much visible success.
In addition, this experience served to validate my convictions regarding the importance of experiential learning. There are many things which I realize I will never understand, such as the pain of living with the memory of watching a machete remove your mother’s head from her body, or of feeling your infant suffocating beneath you as you are raped by the men who have just killed your husband. These images are graphic and horrifying, though they represent the memories of countless individuals, many of whom I had the privilege of befriending. I do not wish to be disrespectful or insensitive by claiming that there is any way in which I might be able to put myself in their shoes, to comprehend their realities that are to me only stories and testimonies. But there is much I can perhaps begin to understand, or at the very least begin to contemplate, as a result of my time spent bearing witness to the lives and stories of these amazing and inspiring individuals. Any university student may learn the stories told in books, in articles, in news reports, and in films. But rarely, I would venture to say never, can we expect to get the whole story while sitting in our classrooms or studying in our favorite coffee shop near grounds. This is certainly the case with Rwanda. I have studied war, genocide, and development throughout my time at the University of Virginia; I have written many an essay demonstrating my understanding of the history, the theory, and the politics. While I found knowledge in the pages of books, I found wisdom in the eyes of those about whom and by whom books have now been written. It is difficult for me to articulate what exactly is in their eyes, in their smiles, in their laughter, and in their tears. It is a story that seems hardly told – indeed it is theirs, not mine, to tell – and in trying to tell it I realize perhaps why it is not often shared. We live in a society in which sensationalism sells, reality is relative; we don’t, however, want to have to confront what is real. The world refused to see what was taking place in Rwanda in 1994, in fact what was unfolding well before then. Much debate and scholarship was prompted as a result, as stories of unimaginable horror reached the offices and living rooms of people living half a world away. Now, seventeen years later, people in these offices and living rooms are quick to recall hearing about that horror, but rarely do they inquire as to the current situation. (Unless of course you happen to mention to them that you are in fact traveling there for an extended period of time. In that case, expect to see strange facial expressions and to receive many outrageous suggestions, perhaps my favorite of which was, “No really, don’t you think you should bring a gun?” Disregard these looks and the subsequent advice, which is likely baloney – though perhaps you might inform the advisee as such in a slightly more diplomatic manner.)
Therefore, it seems that the hope and healing that has been taking place in Rwanda is little known, as these testimonies of individual and community reconciliation seem to have reached the ears of few internationally. This is not to say that there is not pain, poverty, and much work to be done. But I do feel convinced after my time spent in Rwanda that its legacy should not be one of tragedy but rather one of hope and of strength. That leads me to the questions with which I have been wrestling ever since the board members left Rwanda, at which time I realized it would soon be my turn to return home as well. Where do I go from here? How do I use the knowledge and experiences I gained in these short months as I move forward? How do I continue to be an ambassador for REACH and stay involved and connected in the family I have left behind in Rwanda? I realize that these are the same questions that every university student who returns from an experience such as this asks him or herself. However, it is unique for me because, while REACH is at least the seventh or eighth non-profit with which I have interacted in an intimate way in the past few years, it is the first time I have had a genuine desire to stay in contact and invested. I believe that says something for REACH as an organization, and for their staff as individuals, but it also means that I must be intentional in keeping my relationships and the wisdom they imparted to me alive. Right now, the best way in which I can do that is to share what it is I learned, to the best of my ability. In the future, it will hopefully mean more time spent in the hills of Rwanda. But regardless of where my path may lead, I will always carry with me that wisdom and it will surely contribute to each step I choose. I am so thankful for the time I had in Rwanda, and I strongly encourage anyone who is considering an internship such as this to not hesitate to embrace the opportunity.