Before traveling to Rwanda, I read Jennie Burnet’s brilliantly researched book, Genocide Lives in Us: Women, Memory, and Silence in Rwanda which provides detailed accounts of personal narratives of the women who survived the Rwanda genocide along with insights into the challenges and difficulties many of them have faced in post-genocide Rwanda.
Their stories are shockingly horrific. When asked by a genocide survivor how the personal stories made me feel, I responded that there is nothing in my life history that provides me with an adequate emotion. Compassion, sadness, grief and rage all fall short. My body is incapable of processing the trauma and the human suffering. Numb is what I felt — the brain’s coping mechanism for processing information so incomprehensible that a person simply cannot absorb it in real time.
Many women suffered extreme sexual violence. They lost their families — many of them lost every member of their family. They watched their children be slaughtered and even raped. They watched their neighbors be brutally murdered, and they witnessed their neighbors’ children die violent, barbaric deaths. Yet, some survived. And the genocide survived in them. It is impossible to forget.
The Rwandan government has worked diligently in the 22 years since the genocide to restore order, to build peace and to develop programs designed for reconciliation. Peace education is taught in schools. Adults are provided programs to help them develop the language and skills to live together in a post-genocide society. They have accepted the past, and they are working toward moving forward together as one nation of people who are no longer divided by tribal conflict.
As we traveled the countryside visiting one memorial site after another, hearing personal narratives from our drivers and from our memorial site guides, I felt myself becoming more and more withdrawn from my travel companions, and my focus shifted to the countryside.
I watched the women of Rwanda live their lives. They raise their children. They farm the land — often with a baby on their backs and two or three in tow. They walk miles and miles and miles to the market — uphill both ways — with unbelievably large loads of fruit, grain, grass or other necessities balancing on their heads. They cook over outdoor fire pits. They wash laundry by hand without running water. They are the life of the country. Without the women of Rwanda, agriculture would halt and every aspect of home life would cease to function.
I am in awe of their strength, their resiliency and their sheer will to survive against all odds and in the face of extraordinary adversity. Though I am incapable of comprehending what the women of Rwanda have survived as well as what they persevere through each and every day, I carry their spirit with me and I bear responsibility to share their stories.
An international speaker, peace-building trainer and mediator, Robyn works with individuals, corporations and nonprofit organizations in discovering the root causes of their conflicts, so they may transform their relationships and create new and productive paths forward individually and as teams. She also works with community leaders and political and governmental leaders to develop grassroots efforts for building sustainable peace in areas of historic conflict. In this capacity, she has been featured in news outlets internationally.