Wandering Education: Rwanda

Lindsay Henwood continues to share details about the things she has learned through travels around the world in our ongoing Wandering Education series. Here, she tells us about what she learned in Rwanda, a difficult place filled with unexpected beauty that Westerns could learn a thing or two from. 

Wandering Education: Rwanda

By Lindsay Henwood

In 1994, I was in the second grade bringing my mum’s African travel treasures to show and tell, learning about plants, planets, and playing pogs.

At the same time, Rwanda was immersed in annihilation. The Hutu tribe was attempting to decimate the entire Tutsi tribe. Full families and children my age were killed and any Hutus who opposed the genocide were also killed. Eight hundred thousand people died. Why? To use fear and hatred as controlling factors of power.

Fourteen years later, I find myself walking through the Rwandan memorial sites of the Genocide in schools, churches, and fields. Unbelieving that anything like this could happen in any culture, but understanding that hatred, fear, and a perverse use of force can lead to the unthinkable. It was impossible to walk through the sites of the massacres and not feel in some quantum way the connection to these people and this event. My body trembled with the desire to participate my own semblance of global stewardship to help extinguish this intense form of negativity and powerlessness. 

How did I get there? I was invited to go to Rwanda with OA Projects, a grass-roots organization with the goal to work and play soccer with youth who have been affected by war. OA had four guys going and they figured having a girl going would be a great twist and inspiration for the kids who have grown up in a male-dominated culture. I was stoked, but the camp started in two weeks, which meant I had only two weeks to raise four thousand dollars to get myself there. Ignoring what my mind was saying (“No, it’s too dangerous”) and listening more to my heart (“Yes, this will change your life.”), I began knocking on doors with a little flyer and plentiful passion explaining the purpose and intention. From these generous strangers, twenty-five hundred dollars was raised. The rest came from my own savings and incredible support from friends and family. Two weeks later, I was on the plane and flying into the “risky” unknown.

The decision to get on the plane with four layovers inevitably changed my perspective of this incredibly dynamic planet we, as a human collective, live on.

A four-year-old, HIV-positive boy named Jedeo opened my naive western mind to a whole new way of thinking: Genuine gratitude can change any situation and how you perceive your life can shift your entire way of thinking.

You don’t usually see gratitude come from a “naturally” sugarcoated North American child. So often they are not taught the value of life and what it can give, so they want, need, and expect. If they don’t get the object of desire, then they learn ways to get it or complain. When I was at a soccer camp I coached at in a wealthy mountain town, one of the children didn’t feel like playing. He sat down and started wailing and complaining until his parents picked him up and took him home. His strategy worked. Being grateful for the privilege of playing didn’t occur to him.

Generally, people have found sanctuary in a consumer-valued society and focus more on profit and the product than on appreciating what they already have. Of course, this is what North American children would pick up on and adopt for themselves. Sugarcoating is for the weak that decide to turn their eyes away from what is real and what means something.

After all of the trauma and devastation the Rwandan children had experienced, witnessing the raw delight on their faces left me awestruck. Walking twenty minutes on the red dirt roads to the rock riddled soccer field, we were able to connect with the kids in a more heart-based way and saw where their values lay. Instead of complaining about the walk or fighting with one another, they wouldn’t allow us, the coaches, to carry the five-liter water bottles or bags of soccer balls. This left our hands free so we could give the other children piggyback rides, hold hands, and goof around. Smiles were constantly on their faces and unlimited stoke filled the air. It was a fresh bit of change from the wealthy child in the mountain town.

These children believed I was doing them a favor in playing soccer with them, but all along they were teaching me. They taught me to hold gratitude on every aspect of my life, that life in itself offers intangible gifts that can never be rivaled, and how compassionate forgiveness is a toxin-releasing tool. Most simply, they taught me to not focus on loss, but to focus on the moments of joy found in life.

After seeing the smiles on HIV-positive children, and having conversations with the caretakers at our hostel, my angle on the globe grew wider and deeper. I realized that Hutus and Tutsis still live together and a tremendous amount of forgiveness had to be given. I’m not saying hatred doesn’t exist here anymore, but the city of Kigali and the country of Rwanda have moved on and developed in a beautiful way. It is a well-run country that is moving in a very promising direction.

Here Rwanda, having been stripped of its pride, power, and life, has learned how to unimaginably forgive, while in North America forgiveness sometimes seems so hard to come by for the simplest of mistakes.

Human spirit is irrepressible. Gratitude is grace.

For more Wandering Education:

Part 1

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