Ubuzima: New life

I recently met some men and women who gave the word “life” a new meaning: Ubuzima.

Ubuzima is a small community of Rwandans infected with HIV. More literally, it’s the Kinyrwandan word for life.

The group of mostly women meets each week at a church in Kigali. Last week, my team and I had the privilege to join them. We sang worship songs together (well, they sang and the Canadians tried to hum along). And when the worship turned into a dance circle revolving around the meeting room, the Canadians happily participated.

Singing and dancing with the Ubuzima HIV support group

Even if dancing for God isn’t a normal activity for this Mennonite guy, the group’s energy and passion was irresistible. Our circle of new friends each greeted us enthusiastically with hugs, and the aura of warm love and community support was strong.

“Do we look sick to you?” asked Mama Deborah, the group’s organizer. She was right, our hosts had an abundance of energy and it was a lot of fun to spend time with these vibrant women as they sang, talked, and prayed together.

Ubuzima has grown to around 60 people, much to the surprise of Mama Deborah. She began the ministry by simply sitting and crying with a few infected women at the church. Although she didn’t give them any material support to ease their lives, the group kept multiplying.

Living with the disease has left many members weak and unable to work most jobs or lift heavy loads. In a country where people carry heavy objects for long distances, that makes daily life extra difficult. As a new way to support themselves, several of the Ubuzima women have begun spending their days creating colourful jewelry, purses, and other bags with newly-bought sewing machines.

One of several sewing machines used by the group's growing business.

My Canadian team and I bought several of their creations. Much as I dislike the dollar signs that inevitable hover over my head as a visiting North American, I was happy to invest in a new business that offers a livelihood to people who would otherwise have little. I hope more customers come and the business thrives.

Having HIV still carries a real stigma in Rwanda, although attitudes are shifting in recent years.  Some of the women who come to the group haven’t told their families and attend Ubuzima secretly.  Earlier this year, a woman died from AIDS. Her family didn’t even know she was infected. But in this small weekly community, they could relax with no shame and no condemnation.

Some of these women were infected through rape during the 1994 genocide. We asked their leader if there was any bitterness or depression resulting from the injustice that changed the rest of their lives.  That depends on the person, she said, but many have decided that they can’t change what has happened to them. They can only look ahead to the future.

Around 170,000 Rwandans are living with HIV, according to the most recent estimates I could find. That’s 2.9 per cent of the adult population; certainly not the worst rate in Africa, but a far greater problem than Canada’s paltry 0.3 per cent.

Note: this is a reflection on my Rwandan experiences, but my team has actually been in Nairobi, Kenya for several days.  More updates coming soon on all we’re seeing and learning here.

Processing a post-genocide Rwanda

Skyline in Kigali, Rwanda's capital city.

We arrived on schedule, minus one bag (not mine) and a delayed team member who flew seperately (not me). After wasting much plastic during five airline meals, a 3 a.m. ride to our Kigali guesthouse, and a decent sleep, we were ready. to begin.

Our hosts, International Teams missionaries Serge and Jenn Lichti, welcomed us to Rwanda’s capital. It’s a fairly quiet city of one million settled on beautiful rolling hills and valleys. The rest of the day, we learned about this country’s 1994 genocide that killed one million in just 100 days. This isn’t the main purpose of my team’s time here, but it’s crucial for understanding modern Rwandan culture; not one person here is unaffected by these attrocities.

I have heard the genocide horrors before, but standing on the land where the massacres happened is different. So is talking to people who lived through 1994.  I’ve learned how the Hutu-Tutsi “tribal” conflict was only created during European colonization, how earlier, smaller massacres preceded the most famous one, and how the hatred continues to this day outside Rwanda: anti-Tutsi violence continued in refugee camps after 1994 and the tensions still fuel chaos and violence in eastern Congo, just across the Rwandan border.

Just a few names of people killed in the 1994 genocide. This is at the Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali, an overwhelmingly sad place.

The UN and other governments’ deliberate withdrawl and failure to act during the genocide is sad and suggests a devaluing of African lives. Equally disturbing is the church’s active participation in the murders. Most Rwandans have become Christians, and those Christians murdered their neighbours when leaders commanded it. People fled to churches, but the clergy often gave them over to be killed.

It’s easy to disassociate with that brutality, but I find myself wondering what each of us would do when refusing to kill means your own death. I have tried to put on the shoes of both victims, the attackers and the attacked.

Today, Rwanda is peaceful. The country is moving beyond its violent history, but certainly not forgetting the past. Instead of long and expensive trials and prison sentences, some Rwandans are being restored to their communities through traditional mediation called “gacaca.” Victims confront the accused with a goal of reconciliation. Offenders are reintegrated into society to begin living again with their neighbours. Difficult, but what better choice is there?  Canada and the world could learn from this example of forgiveness and restorative justice.

Thinking about the genocide, another question I struggle with is how an individual can stand up against such deep and complex causes of injustice. I’m not sure the answer yet. It’s the same question I have about refugees, and I’ll be learning more about them tomorrow when my team travels to a refugee camp.

Flowers left as tribute on a mass grave. Over 250,000 people are buried at this memorial site.