The children move me. Eyes wide open in wonder of the gray-bearded white man, and always full of joy and laughter, they seem unaware, or at least, unbothered by their poverty and limited opportunities.
The little ones speak to me in Kinyarwanda, and I do my best to say hello (muraho) in my terribly western way. They giggle. So do I.
Rwanda is a crowning jewel on the African continent. It is not as resource rich as some other African nations, but the country is clean and orderly and operates with strict moral and political standards regarding corruption. Everywhere you go you see construction and progress. As I walked the streets, besides being stared at by everyone, I felt completely safe.
There is, however, a somberness among the relatively young adult population. Rwandans are well aware of their darkest days. In 1994, over one million people were brutally killed within one hundred days. “The genocide” is spoken of often by the surviving elders with a solemn promise; Never again.
For most of my life, I’ve dreamed of going to the African continent. Every kid who’s ever watched Tarzan has dreamt about what it would be like in the jungle surrounded by exotic flora and wild animals. As a boy, if I closed my eyes I could almost hear the strange sounds from the land across the sea.
When I was invited to be a part of the All African Pastors Gathering in Rwanda, I accepted the invitation with great delight. I knew the opportunity might not provide all that I had imagined as a child, but that didn’t matter. I was going to Africa!
And Africa did not disappoint.
I was in awe, from my first breath as I debarked in the capital of Kigali to the three-hour drive north to Kivu Lake a day later, and right up to my heart-wrenching farewell at the end of eight days. The land, the people, and even their hopes and dreams are now a part of me forever.
Given more time (and more skill) I would help you see the Africa I saw. My brother and his wife, Kevin and Katherine, have lived in Mozambique for six years. After just a few days in country, I emailed him: “I get it . . . I now understand your love for this continent and its people.”
Sitting here now in a hot and humid coffee shop at the airport in Kigali waiting for my return flight, I have some time to reflect on what I’ve learned.
A few lessons from Africa:
Expect the unexpected, and don’t stress out over things you have no control over. Several of my flights were delayed. I literally had to run from one gate to the next to make my connection in Amsterdam. I made the flight, but my bag did not. Consequently, I ended up wearing the same clothes for almost four days (yuck).
I hadn’t planned on checking my bag, but KLM has a very strict weight limit for carry-ons. The size was not an issue; the fact that it was two kilograms too heavy forced me to either ditch some stuff or check my bag. I should’ve thrown away the 15 power bars I’d brought and kept the bag with me.
There were a dozen other things that didn’t go as planned. About the six or seventh time something went sideways, I decided to change my attitude and to stop stressing over a plethora of things completely out of my control.
How about you? Got a bunch of unexpected things happening in your life? What would change if you began to expect the unexpected? How would your attitude improve if you simply stopped freaking out over the things that are completely out of your control (like most of your life)?
Embrace simplicity as a friend because more stuff doesn’t automatically make you happier. As I mentioned and as Africa goes, Rwanda is relatively affluent. But compared to the West, most Rwandans live at or below the poverty level. I met an elderly woman who needed to borrow about $5 to buy a pair of glasses. Lots of us will spend $5 at Starbucks on our Venti White Chocolate Americano without blinking.
Owning a car is unheard of for many Rwandans. In fact, having just one small TV is fairly rare for a villager. The homes I visited in the remote areas of the country were not much more than shacks, without AC, screens, or carpet. The people don’t have pets, but if they’re lucky, they do have a cow or a goat or two.
I noticed, however, that though they lack just about everything we can’t imagine living without (like electronics or a refrigerator overflowing with food), they are happy and content.
Maybe happiness isn’t found in the amassing of stuff. Perhaps, as my spiritual mentor Noel Campbell used to say, “The more you have, the more you worry.”
Kindness is a universal language. We North Americans tend to speak just one language—English, and not all that well at times. Lots of Rwandans speak their native language (Kinyarwanda) as well as English and probably a little French.
Fear not, being tongue-challenged when it comes to languages isn’t as big of a deal when you smile, serve, make eye contact, listen, and embrace Rwandans with a genuine hug. Acts of kindness speak volumes. I got to thinking, how would all of our interactions and conversations be enhanced by selfless kindness? I hate clichés, but this one is so true: Actions speak louder than words. Go figure.
We Westerners take too much for granted (like soft toilet paper, drinkable water, and uninterrupted power). You don’t realize how much you have until you don’t have it.
I’m spoiled (and so are you), and my relatively pampered life doesn’t lend itself to thankfulness. I tend to treat the many conveniences of my life as entitlements rather than great blessings.
When’s the last time you got a cup of cool, refreshing water straight from the faucet and said, “Thank you, Father, this is awesome!”?
I have a sneaky suspicion God has much more to teach me as I return home. My time in Africa, though short, has changed me. I will be forever grateful to my new African friends for showing me that life is much more than we Americans tend to realize.
Imana ni nziza (God is good!)
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