Day Five; Rwanda…The Pen Man Cometh.

While others stepped off the bus to visit a home care project attached to Partners in Health I waited behind. I wanted to spend some time talking with Sr. T who has worked closely with Tutsi and Hutu survivors of the era of genocide in Rwanda. She says she needed to because she is a survivor herself. She is a true example of mission which is not primarily aid according to the Rwandan theologian Emmanuel Katongole; ‘mission is to engage in friendships that lead to the formation of a new people in the world’.

The bus attracted the interest of some of the local people, especially the children. Before I left Ireland I bought a lot of pens or ‘biros’ as they are called. We started a little game with the children. With the help of sister and the driver we asked the children to show us if they could write. Immediately they started writing in the soil. We gave one of the children as sheet of paper and a pen and asked him to write. The others watched as he carefully wrote his name. When he handed it to the driver, the driver said ‘keep the pen’. His eyes lit up and then one by one they tried to show off their talents on the same piece of paper. Sister explained that literacy really reveals their level of poverty; those who cannot write are most likely from very poor families. One girl, unable to write her name, wrote the numbers one to five and showed their fine work with great delight. The photos show the way they encouraged one another. They spoke only Kinyarwanda which is the native language of Rwanda but they all said a big ‘thank you’ in English. A simple gift of a biro brought so much pleasure and all were happy to share the one piece of paper. Before we left we gave a pen to each child.


The visit to the hospital was extraordinary. Without putting a tooth in it; how many oncologists are there for the eleven million people in Rwanda? You could try to guess but you’d never get it. There is one, yes one! In a country that has seen a lot of people affected by the trauma of genocide and yet there are six psychiatrists in the county and they are based in Kigali. The country has three CT scanners and one MRI machine. There is one school of medicine producing eighty doctors a year but most leave Rwanda, seeking work abroad. In summary there is one doctor for every seventeen thousand people.

A lot of good work had been carried out over the years and results are being achieved. Ten years ago no one was being treated or HIV now the hospitals have ten thousand people on their registers. Many women contacted HIV when they were raped during the genocide. Partners in Health has trained volunteers from local villages. The people have to be first elected by their follow villagers; they must be able to read and write and be numerate. The volunteers are trained by the hospital aiming towards an average of three health workers per population of two thousand people. Their interventions treat young and old for simple things like malaria, diarrhoea, nutrition, clean water, bed nets to cut down on malaria and TB. They also provide assistance to expectant mothers. These matters may be ‘simple’ to us in the west but they are a matter of life and death for villagers.

The new hospital building under construction in Kayonza..a big improvement on the old buildings.

The new hospital building under construction in Kayonza..a big improvement on the old buildings.

The American Government has sponsored doctors in Rwanda thought its Human Resources for Health project. Many are happy to spend time in Rwanda as they gain great experience in front line medicine. The specialised world of western medicine is limited in what it can offer. Here, the doctors engage with a vast array of medical problems and are all the time growing in confidence and experience. Through these schemes and funding from people like Paul Farmer life the expectancy of the Rwandan population has gone from twenty seven years of age in 1997 to fifty five currently. Maternal mortality has been reduced form one hundred and seventy two per one thousand of the population to five per one thousand of the population at present

Now back to the bus. Sister T. is a survivor of the genocide. The charism of her order is to live among the poor. We spoke for a long time about how healing happens among the people. It was an extraordinary conversation as she described working with Hutu and Tutsi widows. The range of emotions and stages that were traversed are extraordinary. Tomorrow we meet with this group and hopefully we will hear how their experiences can help others on the path towards healing; at least for those who feel they want to heal. Many were killed in the village where Sr. worked. She and her community fled to safety just in time. Work came out that priests and nuns were to be targeted as part of the genocide in early July 1994; acting on this information many made it to areas protected by the RPF.

There is no text book for people who survived the genocide. The only resource lies among the people who not only survived but chose the path of reconciliation. This path was chosen not because one party was reaching out to the other but because some people felt they could not live without making peace in their own hearts. I look forward to meeting with them tomorrow.

All is well....

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