Those Americans a few years older than me can tell the exact place and feelings they experienced on November 22, 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed.
One of my earliest memories is March 30, 1981 when President Ronald Regan was shot.
April 7, 1994 is one of history’s greatest tragedies. On April 6, 1994 Rwandan President Habyarimana was returning from Arusha, Tanzania following negotiations to end the war in Rwanda. His plane was shot down over Kigali, and the Rwandan Genocide began the following day, April 7, 1994. It is a date that must live in the memory of humanity. Generations following us must remember that a million lives were lost. We must continue to say, “Never again.”
My family is an oddity. We have lived most of our adult lives in the Great Lakes Region of Africa as traveling story tellers. Sometimes we are asked, “Where is your home?”
|Us at Brooklyn Center Church of Christ preparing to enter Uganda|
We are unable to respond with a specific place. Instead, we tell stories. Home is a place with a warm bed and a gracious friend. We journey through many places, make friends, and tell stories.
In 1993, Ugandan playwright Alex Mukulu wrote his history of Post-Colonial Uganda, 30 Years of Bananas. In the opening scene there is a search for an unbiased narrator. The only one who can be found is a Rwandan refugee, Kaleekeezi.
Maybe, today it would be good for memories of the events of 1993 and 1994 to be told by foreigner such as myself? Maybe, I can speak with the voice of Kaleeekeezi to foreigners like myself?
In doing so, I bring bias. I also will share some secret places, wounds, and actions – a few things I’ve not told publicly. I recognize the events that created my personal wounds are miniscule compared to those who survived the Genocide. I ask forgiveness if my stories wound again. I tell them to share our common humanity. I will share a few names and places. At other points I’ll conceal. My concealments are to protect those who may prefer anonymity. I hope the best for all my friends and even for those who chose to be my enemies. My hope is that love will heal all our wounds that cause bitterness and hatred to reign.
The Rwandan Genocide was a tragedy of the world fueled by our oldest of sins – jealousy, hatred, and untrue mythologies. Today should be a day where we examine our hearts deepest darkest places. In this examining we must wrestle with our responsibility and resolve to change our thoughts, emotions, and actions. By offering our repentance we seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Hopefully, it will be found. Generations who follow us will hopefully live in a world of peace and unity. When ugly voices of prejudice and hate arise our prodigy will respond, “No, never again.”
|Photo from National Geographic, November, 1971|
In 1990 and 1991 I studied Theology at Abilene Christian University (ACU) in Abilene, Texas. While there I met my future in several individuals. The best known and most influential is my wife, Jana Tarbet Jenkins. However, one of great influence who few remember was a fellow student from Western Uganda, Charles Guma. In 1993, Guma returned to Uganda, and I simply followed my family and friends there.
Upon our arrival in March, 1993 we began the task of settling. We rented a home. We needed a staff to manage. We knew few people we could trust. While looking for a home we met a woman named
She was watching the home of an expatriate who had left Uganda in tragic circumstances. She was “only the maid,” but I was struck that her employers must have found her trustworthy if they left their home to her management. She inquired if we would need help. As it became apparent that we did need help I remembered both the counsel of my father, Lloyd Jenkins, and my master, Jesus of Nazareth, “Entrust more to those who have shown they can well manage the small.” We found Lydia and offered her a job. A few other expatriates thought we were nuts to entrust someone we did not know without references. However, something inside told me to trust my intuition as the leading of the Holy Spirit, and I’ve come to have my deepest life regrets when I did not trust that intuition.
|Lydia Bagira and her sons, Joel and Emmy|
Lydia worked with our family for several years. As we shared our stories we became friends. Lydia was the child of Rwandan refugees. She was very intelligent. She was loyal, kind, and compassionate. She also like almost all of my most trusted friends had a very strong spirit and will. Discussions were always honest and on occasion a bit heated, but duplicity was non-existent. Lydia shared stories of suffering and misfortune. On her time off, her friends would come by our home. Most were like her, Rwandan women making the most of poor fortune. They had more ability than the medial jobs they had acquired as refugees. They shared common relationships and hope. Most had brothers, cousins, husbands, and boyfriends who had joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) army. They told stories and waited for a day in which they could return to the land the land of their parents and grandparents. A little gossip was exchanged with news from the war front, prayers were said for safety, and they waited in hope. Lydia had recently given birth to a son, Joel that was the same age as my daughter Sophia.
Shortly after our arrival to Uganda I visited my friend, Charles Guma’s home in Western Uganda. We traveled to Mbarara, and then went southeast to Guma’s family home. The scenery became drier and full of hills and scrub brush much like the scenery of Abilene, Texas. As we neared Guma’s home we slowed our vehicle and he began visiting with his village neighbors. One in particular struck me. She was old, but tall and graceful – full of dignity and beauty. After Guma spoke to her, he turned to me and told me that the old woman was a Rwandan refugee that had lived many years in his home village. As I watched her walk away I noticed very unique phenomena. All the men’s eyes followed this graceful old beauty. No matter what misfortune and suffering had befallen her she had never surrendered her dignity. It was thoroughly captivating.
Then we entered Guma’s home. His parents were thrilled to see him. The hospitality was gracious. Dance was celebrated and food shared. However as the celebration ended and life was discussed this home was one of tragedy. Many of Guma’s siblings, friends, and peers had died or were dying of AIDS. In the midst of this tragedy another death had befallen Guma’s family. His nephew had joined the RPF and lost his life in Rwanda. I never heard bitterness about the loss. It was accepted. My understanding was and still is limited. However, he seemed to be a young man seeking adventure that was loyal to his Rwandan friends and simply followed them in their journey to return home.
The following morning, Guma and I climbed the hill above his home. I looked to the east and saw a river. Beyond the river was an encampment with an artillery piece. I inquired and Guma told me that it was a training camp for the RPF. Hope was spoken and I realized how personal the Rwandan struggle was to Guma’s village.
As we returned to Kampala, my brother-in-law and co-worker, Greg Carr made a friendship. Uganda was awakening after years of state controlled media and terror. Peace in Kampala had come in 1986, but the explosion of the consequences of peace and freedom began in the early 90’s. The private media explosion was beginning. Greg established a friendship with one of the upcoming disc jockeys, DJ Barry. He was tall, loud, and flamboyant. You had to try very hard not to like DJ Barry. (Though agreeing with him might be a different matter.) As we discovered that DJ Barry was a Rwandan refugee I did what my training at ACU missions training taught me. I asked questions about language, culture, and ethnicity. DJ Barry did something very out of the ordinary for most Africans I had met at that time. He rebuked me. He refused to see his world as one of ethnic division. He was a Rwandan and not a member of an ethnic group. Eventually, he would share the details of his journey, but they were told through the cultural lenses of unity of the Rwandan people.
Greg found an office space in a Kampala office complex called Black Lines House. We rented a space and began discovering ministry possibilities. We opened a small library. We kept a guest book. Our first registered guest was a Rwandan refugee seeking to learn. (I’ve forgotten his name, but I have the records somewhere in my boxes of memories.) Around the corner from our office was a small restaurant. For some unique reason there were a few Rwandan gentlemen who frequently stopped and had lunch. I always enjoyed our short conversations.
During this first year of ministry discovery in Uganda, Greg and I became embroiled in an ugly church conflict. I was 26 and very naive. We were accused of the most ridiculous and inflammatory actions. It may have been the defining conflict of my life and career. I thought in coming to Uganda I would be welcomed as a messenger of peace. Instead, an old church and political leader from a previous regime had an ax to grind, and Greg and I would be the stone. He wrote letter after letter to my old professors, supporters, Ugandan government officials, church leaders, and anyone else who would listen. The strangest thing is that some considered his flagrant untruthfulness as “smoke behind a fire.” We were always on the defensive and in continual turmoil for a year.
My empathy with the Rwanda community in Uganda was solidified as I found we had the same accuser. (Seven years later Rwandan friends would confirm my suspicions as they told stories of being chased out of Uganda’s civil service by my accuser in the early 1980’s.)
As 1993 became 1994, hope filled my Rwandan friends. Negotiations were taking place. It was hoped that a final and lasting settlement would soon be reached. Many thought their return to Rwanda was imminent.
Then in the evening of April 6, 1994 our radios told a surprising story. As Rwandan President Habyarimana returned from negotiations with the RPF in Arusha, Tanzania his plane was shot down over Kigali. All was tense. The next day rumors began to be heard of mass killings. It seemed completely unbelievable. I thought “surely not.” The stories continued. They sounded like some cross between the Jewish Holocaust of World War Two and the most gruesome horror movies of Hollywood. Civilians were being slaughtered. Killers saw no differentiation between civilian and combatant, child and adult, nor male and female. The tools of murder were the most gruesome of humanity – clubs and machetes. The killing fields were the churches of Rwanda. Roadblocks cut off all hope of escape. Could those made in God’s image so mercilessly destroy other image bearers of God?
Panic seemed to strike our Rwandan friends. What was happening?
Shamefully, I never wrote my US senators or local papers. I was paralyzed. My missions training taught me to be unengaged with matters that had political consequences. My reading of the Old Testament spoke that the role of the faith community is to be a prophetic voice. I chose my reading of mission’s theory over the words of God in the Old Testament. My repentance for my silence in 1994 is to have an active prophetic voice where ever I land. I still have my failings, but as best I can I speak for those without a voice and seek out friendships with the media so I am never silent when I should speak.
Weeks later a Rwandan women came to a Bible study for expatriates that Jana attended. She was in Rwanda during the Genocide and somehow escaped to Uganda. She told unbelievable stories. When Jana shared them with me I had to close my both my ears and my heart as they were too painful to bear.
In hindsight as we ask the question why the world did not act I’ve pondered.
“If Red Lobster had been shut down in the US; if it was impossible to get a fish sandwich at McDonalds; if there were no more catfish restaurants in the Southern United States. Would we then have acted?” Does our concern and action always have to be driven by selfish consumerism? When do the interests of the developed world simply mean we respond believing that all men are made in the image of God?”
A few months later, my Ugandan accuser had seeming victory. My family lost our financial support. We returned to the US to discover partnerships and funding anew. I followed the news from my African home while living in my American home.
On July 4, 1994 the RPF captured Kigali. It seemed that a million lives had been lost in the chaos of 100 days. News seemed to tell that most of Rwanda was now secure and the genocide was history.
Our family went to a fireworks display to celebrate America’s Independence in Lakeville, Minnesota. I sat still and watched the fireworks over my head. I visited with old friends and thanked God for my American freedom.
Inside, something was changed forever. Rwanda was an inescapable call. Uganda would be our home for several following years, but we were entangled in this region. I could never get out of my heart and mind my Rwandan friends and their stories.
Today I remember, grief, and repent. Will you join me? Where were you on April 7, 1994? What will you do about it today?