Alumnae share Rwandan experiences
Kathryn Marshall | Tuesday, December 9, 2014
On Monday evening, Saint Mary’s alumnae Liz Palmer ‘13, Malea Schulte ’14 and co-travelers Jonathan and Tameka Bell shared the lessons they learned from spending two weeks in Rwanda this past summer in a presentation titled “Project Rwanda: A Journey in Solidarity.”In the Rwandans they met, Palmer and Schulte saw strength and faith resonating in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, Palmer said.
In 1994, over one million Tutsi Rwandans were killed in a 100-day period. During this genocide, one out of every 10 Tutsi Rwandans were killed, Palmer said.
“In recognition of 20 years post-genocide, Malea and I were driven by Saint Mary’s core values of faith and spirituality, community learning and justice to embark on this mission of solidarity … simply to hear the stories of the people,” Palmer said. “We were looking to highlight our shared humanity and weave into the fabric of our culture that every single life matters.”
The project began as part two of Malea’s senior composition titled “Storybank,” which included 26 portraits depicting a cross section of the Saint Mary’s community, Schulte said.
“One of the participants was a woman from Rwanda whose story inspired me to journey to her home country with the goal of learning through listening and sharing through art,” Schulte said.
Before journeying to Rwanda, Schulte and Palmer partnered with People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO), an international, faith-based, non-governmental organization committed to stimulating communal growth through organization, Schulte said.
“Together we formed a delegation of 20 people, and it included Catholic priests, Lutheran priests, writers, storytellers, professors and artists,” Schulte said.
Two members of the delegation were Jonathan Bell, a senior communications advisor to PICO-Rwanda, and Tameka Bell, a story and communications trainer for PICO’s international network, Schulte said.
With pictures taken by Jonathan Bell hanging in the gallery, Tameka Bell shared her experience during the presentation. In Rwanda, she witnessed community building in numerous lives, including when a woman died while giving birth during a long walk to the nearest hospital, she said. A few days after the woman’s death, a much-needed clinic and road was finally completed as a result of community organizing.
“When one person tells a story to another person, they can change the world,” Tameka Bell said. “That’s really at the center of community organizing.”
A meeting with the vice president of Rwanda’s senate inspired the group to share the story of their time in Rwanda with others, Tameka Bell said.
“He said to us, ‘When you go back to the United States, would you tell them who we really are? Ask them not to judge us by the worst day of our life. Ask them to see the whole person, the whole community — the joy and the sorrow and the laughter and the innocence — who we really are,'” Tameka Bell said.
Rwandans have worked for reconciliation and forgiveness in the aftermath of the genocide, Schulte said. The Gacaca courts facilitated healing by allowing perpetrators a chance to confess and ask for forgiveness, she said.
“We witnessed victims and perpetrators working together in harmony,” Schulte said. “We visited a women’s vegetable cooperative where perpetrators and victims were working together to support themselves. … It was very clear they worked with a sense of pride and towards the common good.”
In interacting with Rwandans, Palmer and Schulte initiated conversation with the question, “How do you want to be remembered?” The variety of answers to that question, such as ‘I pray,’ was life changing, Palmer said.
During their time in Rwanda, Schulte and Palmer lived by the saying ‘We don’t wait for road to be built; we build them ourselves,’ a quote adopted from Pastor John, a friend made in Rwanda, Palmer said. Both learned about the world and themselves and how to grasp every moment of life.
“Time is money, and we don’t know how much time we do have, and that’s one thing the Rwandans definitely made clear,” Palmer said. “And yet they live every day to the fullest. I think life is a series of single moments, and we need to grasp that.”
Sophomore Lauren Zyber said she thought the presentation was incredible, and she was moved when an audio of Schulte and several other Rwandans spontaneously singing Amazing Grace was played.
“I thought it was amazing to see how much this experience had impacted them and the stories that they told,” Zyber said. “… The power of stories is incredible to me.”