Powerless in Rwanda

Posted on Jun 2, 2014

Zak Orner is a part of our design team currently at work in Rwanda. He shared these recent thoughts with us.

It’s 4:37 AM, and I am powerless in Rwanda.

The streetlights are out. There is no internet. The hotel is silent. In Chicago the Blackhawks are playing a game 7 to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, and I am unable to check the score. No emails will be read bearing messages from home. No one can check in on me. I won’t be calling out.

Less than 48 hours ago I received the first stamp on my passport, and now I’m disconnected from the Western world. I don’t miss it.

My hotel window is open and a cool breeze is finally bringing down the temperature in what has been a hot room. I spent my first day here at the Kigali Genocide Memorial and it’s taken a while to process the anger, guilt, and helplessness that I’ve been feeling.

On April 6, 1994 I had just turned 14. My biggest concern was what clothes to spend my birthday cash on. The summer was coming and I needed to look sporty riding my bike to the mall. At that time in Texas the swoosh was king. From your hat to your sneakers, brand Jordan was the epitome of cool. I could never bring myself to wear it. My apparel of choice came with three stripes.

Here in Rwanda a plane had crashed that same day. It was background on the news. Soon headlines would be filled with an expression that still rolls easily off my tongue, “Acts of genocide have occurred.” In my teenage brain these words softened the blow of the violent images that flickered across the TV screen. My President was telling me it wasn’t our place to intervene. There wasn’t systemic genocide occurring, only isolated incidents. I never thought to question what I was hearing. After all, my mom had voted for him. I trusted in that, and in the institution that he held.

Yesterday in the memorial that trust was shattered by a pair of sweatpants.

The KGM tells its story well. It greets you with a peaceful time in Rwandan history, when all men were equal under a king. There are photographs of a smiling people, unaware of an ethic division. Europeans arrive, first from Germany, then from Belgium. Catholicism takes root. The king is killed. Noses are measured and people are divided by their looks or the number of cattle they own. One person is assigned a different value than another. The wealthier by property are aligned at the top; everyone else finds themselves in a class below.

The extremes of human emotion eventually arrive, pushing people into exile. Tensions smolder. Newspapers and cartoons serve as kindling on embers of resentment. Then the machetes arrive and grow dull with dark purpose. The UN fails to listen. The world turns its back as entire families are wiped out. Churches do not bring sanctuary, but slaughter, while a village witch becomes an unlikely hero.

The photographs of the dead line the walls here. Their skulls and their bones are encased in glass. They serve as artifacts of human tragedy that a country will never forget. It’s powerful, and moving, and aggravating. The depths of humanity laid out in testament.

Through all of this it is three stripes running down a pair of pants that haunts me. Hanging in a room at the center of the memorial, they belonged to a Rwandan abandoned by the people who brought those clothes into their world. Those sweatpants tell everything about the atrocity that happened in this country. Standing before them I felt worthless.

I am here in Kigali because the Aegis Trust, the foundation behind the memorial, has asked for the help of my colleagues and myself. We’re here for four days to learn about the history of this beautiful and imperfect country. Then we’ll spend another four days attempting to help them make a deeper impact on those who visit here. A gap exists between the intense emotion you feel in the memorial and the ability to do something with those feelings when you leave. It’s our job to find a way to bridge that gap. We expected coming in this task was impossible, and arrogant, and audacious. It is.

Yet the lesson of Rwanda is that the impossible is somehow possible. That an understanding of arrogance leads to the humbleness of change. And that audacious plans can be the only way to build a better tomorrow.

Drums fill the night air in Kigali. Sounds rise up of dancing and laughter. You hear the distinctive clink of beer glasses raised between friends. Every day the people of this city get up and start their day. They focus on living their lives. The wounds are there, and for some will never heal, but they move on. They find a way forward, a new purpose. To survive. To thrive. To be something greater than they were before.

When it became inconvenient for us we stopped listening to the people of this country. They looked to us for help and we blinked away the responsibility. Now they are asking for our help again, however small in the grand scheme our work may be. We have to start listening.

The sun is rising over the hills, and sounds of a city waking up remind me that I am not worthless. The lights are back on. It is time to get to work.

In Chicago the Blackhawks are playing a game 7 to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, and I am unable to check the score. No emails will be read bearing messages from home. No one can check in on me. I won’t be calling out.

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