Near the road, a man wearing a silky butter yellow shirt and pressed slacks greeted us and said, “Welcome.” Although the service had started a while ago, he said we could go in. He led us up a dirt slope to the entrance. Inside, Rwandans sat on wooden benches on all four sides of the building. There must have been at least 200 people in there, dressed in beautiful bright prints and nice slacks or skirts, the women in headwraps.
The choir was singing on their feet, smiling and sometimes raising their hands expressively. The language was foreign, perhaps Kinyarwanda, and the voices were high and melodic, accompanied by two men on men guitar.
When the music ended, a pastor came up holding a Bible. He said a few words and then one by one, people walked up to the front table, clutching wadded bills. A man came and sat in front of us. He introduced himself and explained in English that the church was collecting money to finish the roof. I looked up and saw that the roof was indeed covering about four-fifths of the church. I could see the sky.
Mike got 5,000 francs (about $8.00) from his wallet, and I walked the money up to the front. When I got there, I saw that the other bills from church members were 1,000s (about $1.60). The pastor said, “Merci! Merci! Merci! Thank you! Thank you!” All the church chuckled at his use of French and English instead of the local language.
Our translator said it was time to pray, and we all held hands. A little boy, about 1 ½ years old, toddled up to me and touched my lap. He looked in my eyes. Such soft cheeks! I picked him up for a moment and turned around to see his mother holding her face and laughing.
After the service, we learned that our translator’s name was John, a simplified version of a much longer Rwandan name. He held Mike’s hand as we walked and talked. (Being physically close and holding hands is normal here between men. It is simply friendly and warm.)
As Mike and I walked back to the hotel, we felt so lucky to have chanced on such an intimate community gathering. That morning I wrote in my journal, “Rwanda has cracked me open. It’s created a rift in my heart, and poking through is the mushy raw emotion that traveling, if you’re lucky, exposes—a jungle-filled valley filled with the monkeys, vines, butterflies, and tall trees of joy, sadness, hope, wisdom.”
A few days later we visited the Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali, which reveals the history of tribal favoritism during Belgium’s colonial rule that helped lead to the genocide. Then the memorial’s exhibits describe in stomach-churning detail how men, women, and children were mutilated, raped, and murdered in 1994.
When I left the memorial with tears in my eyes, I questioned how a nation could rebuild itself after such an event. I thought back to the soccer game and the church service and the genuine smiles that I saw on the faces in both of these places. I cannot begin to comprehend how Rwandans feel about the country’s deadly history, and this was not a topic that I wanted to bring up with the local people I met. What is clear to me is that, at least in some places, Rwandans continue to fully celebrate and appreciate life in a way that made me want to do so, too.