When fathers are killers and killers are those whom you love

Based on the interest and warm reception of a post written this spring, I launched a series of reflections featuring stories which prompt an understanding of the world that better considers the experience of others. The series asks: how do I come alongside people within marginalized communities?; what have I learned from this pursuit of mutual-freedom?; and what do I do with the lessons imparted?. In all of this, you’ll encounter people, places, conversations, and moments that inform an understanding of what it means to be Standing in Solidarity.           

“Your host dad spent a year in prison, you know.” As he says it, he looks at me with expectation. We sit beside the tree where we hold all of our community meetings. It is a hot day. The naked limbs fail to protect from the scorching Rwandan sun and the truth of his words ringing in my ears.

Children surround us in a circle of fascination, watching our every move with an intensity that does not let on to the fact that they’ve observed us in this spot for eight long weeks. Glancing at them now, I wonder at the allure of White skin that has yet to fade despite the regularity of our routine.

I pick at a twig idly, contemplating a reply. My lack of response prompts my companion to reiterate his point. “1995,” he adds.

The message– though unspoken– is clear: for two months now, I’ve lived under the roof of one of the many who killed, by hand, neighbors and friends in the name of “Hutu Power”. The man I’ve come to know and love as a father was a genocidaire.

This is not actually news to me. It hit me suddenly and unexpectedly on my very first night in their home. One minute, I was enjoying the hospitality of my new host family, eating the generous mound of rice on my plate with an eager smile to affirm that I liked the food. The next, I stared across the table at my homestay father, struck with the image of him with machete in hand.

His round face, flat nose, and square short body gave away his identity as Hutu. While it is illegal to discuss your ethnic identity in Rwanda, the same physical markers that prompted the Europeans to privilege the Tutsi minority still exist in straw-person form that East Africans often sheepishly confess “seeing” clearly.

As soon as I conjured the image, I knew that it was one not simply imagined. Between the lines of concern on his face, I read the burden of responsibility. His presence held the power of a past unspoken.

A gut-wrenching fear gripped me. I did not feel in danger in any way, nor have I in my time in their home. Rather, I feared the proximity of atrocity. Underneath this, I feared the potential of the love I feel today. In that moment, I knew– from an inner and inexplicable place– my father’s role in the conflict. I also knew that this would be the summer I learned to allow a murderer to also remain a human.

This, perhaps, is what I feared the most: the capacity to see him with machete in hand and still see myself in him.

When the genocide was something I’d merely read about in books and discussed in college classes, when Hotel Rwanda’s scenes were the closest I’d come to considering the experience of living through such horror, it was easy to distance myself from what we as humans are capable of doing to one another.

Now, such distance is not possible. Unwrapping a package of glucose biscuits the man in question gave me as a gift, I stare into the eyes of my student who delivered the news.

“I thought so,” is all I muster.

Feeling simultaneously non-pulsed and shocked, I sit with a lesson that has been building beneath the surface of my daily experience in our village.

They say that it was either hunt or be hunted. And while I refuse to excuse the crimes of massacre, I struggle to identify the criminal. Is it the executioners, often common farmers brainwashed by the government’s propaganda? The orchestrators, convinced of their superiority and determined to find retribution for years of oppression under Tutsi feudal rule? The international community who ensured the safety of their own people and left Rwanda to her own destruction? The colonial powers that formed nations with no regard for boundaries of terrain or tribe? Or perhaps Rwanda’s colonizers who constructed the ethnic distinctions as they exist today?

To draw blanketed conclusions about the evil of a group of people, delineating “good gal” from “bad” is a privilege (read: ignorance) of my life pre-travel. All my globetrotting has taught me the fallacy of most neat categories: developing/developed, poverty/wealth, oppressed/oppressors.

The temptation to maintain said categories is further combatted with the inconsistency of such a choice. In every case, genocide is made possible by the other-ing of a group of people to such an extent that they are no longer seen as human. Cockroach was the pejorative term in the events of Rwanda. What word could I settle on for my father and others like him without participating in the same cycle of simplification and violence?

Sitting on the grass contemplating this complexity, the words that do come to mind are forgiving and intimate. Predominately, healer jumps out. My father was the one who leaned over me with a cool wet towel when, wrought with fever, my body convulsed under malaria’s grip. I close my eyes and see his own, brimming with concern as he searched my face for signs of progress. For weeks after, he insisted on performing even the simplest tasks, encouraging rest and pressing my eleven siblings to give me space.

These memories crowd my mind as I observe my student working with his team of community members. They are designing new technologies for cow-feed during the dry season to help improve the nutrition and dairy production of cattle. I listen as they talk through the merits of creating a concentrate versus managing a silage system to keep grass in reserves. I distractedly study the lines of each design team member’s face, mentally doing the math to approximate ages during the genocide. They sit, Tutsi and Hutu alike, gathered to better their livelihoods and their community.

I think to myself, “If they can do it– love people beyond this history– certainly, I must pursue the same.”

The face of one woman captivates me in particular. She is my family’s next-door neighbor and my mama’s closest friend. Tall and proud, she walks with a confident gait. It is her stare that captures, though. Beneath her right eyebrow is a messy marring that invokes images of a scalding spoon, her eyelid now permanently closed from scar tissue. She certainly knows of my father’s imprisonment, she likely heard–if not witnessed– far more than I know. Yet, friendship perseveres. I meet her single-eyed gaze now and attempt to silently communicate what an inspiration she is to me.

When the meeting concludes, I walk with my student down the now familiar dirt path.  A breeze rustles through the cornfields providing a melodious backdrop to our stroll. Children’s squeals add to the music as “good morning, teacher,” rings out behind our every step, packed with the pride of sharing the favorite English phrase.

We pass the village shop that is always crowded with patrons of the neighboring bar. As I do every day, I wonder at the correlation between past-trauma and the prevalence of alcoholism in the community.

Smiling at the shop owner, my student and I exchange the usual greetings with friends on the road as we meander towards our respective homes. Progress is slow as I stop to talk with members of every household. Rounding the corner of my street, I head down the long path that reveals a view of Lake Muhazi tucked between the quilted hills.

Neighborhood children run to greet me with hugs, high fives, and a chorus of salutations and questions about my day. Annie, my five year-old friend with special needs, takes her privileged place at my right hand. Mazie, my baby sister, joins the crowd and I place her on my hip with learned ease. We arrive at the house as we do every evening, echoes of laughter announcing our presence.

Papa walks out to greet me. Taking my face in his once bloodstained hands, his eyes sparkle with light. Feeling their warmth penetrating any lingering reservation within, I wrap my arms around him in an embrace of knowing, acceptance, love.


Author’s Note: Wondering why I am writing about Rwanda’s genocide as a post for the fourth? Check it out here.


The second hand’s turn

 Based on the interest and warm reception of my recent post, I decided to launch a series of reflections featuring stories which prompt an understanding of the world that better considers the experience of others. The series asks: how do I come alongside people within marginalized communities?; what have I learned from this pursuit of mutual-freedom?; and what do I do with the lessons imparted?. In all of this, you’ll encounter people, places, conversations, and moments that inform an understanding of what it means to be Standing in Solidarity.

We sit, waiting for the meeting to begin. The students set the time for 2:00pm thinking that this would facilitate a true start an hour later.

It is 3:30. One person is here, huddled in the Rwandan home of the community member who offered to host the design team meetings. The one attendee is not the host; he left the room at 3:00 to get ready for the meeting. I hear water splashing in the room behind us, where I assume he is bathing now.

By 3:45, people begin to trickle into the room. At 4:00, nearly everyone is here and the group mingles, catching one another up on their families and farms. At 4:30– two and a half hours past the allotted meeting time, we commence.

I’ve experienced this scenario and ones like it in abundance during my time abroad. Hours draw out as I wait to board a bus in Tanzania; it will come, but when, no one knows. When we ask when the workshop will begin in India, we are told “fifteen minutes,” invariably as we watch two hours pass. Tree planting starts an hour after the scheduled time every morning here in Ecuador.

There are many reasons for this: Kevin does not have a phone and there is no clock in the truck, so where would any sense of urgency come from? In many places, roads and vehicles are inconsistent and unreliable based upon shoddy infrastructure. Beyond any of this, though, is an inherent difference in our relationships to time.

In many cultures, they operate on what anthropologists call polychronic time. That is, relationships rather than tasks are of utmost importance. In these cultures, the rude thing to do is to leave a conversation before its natural end based on some arbitrary figure declaring when you should be somewhere else. Walks through town necessitate organic visits with neighbors and friends. There is no such thing as being in a hurry; what would you be rushing to when the most important thing is right in front of you?

Conversely, monochronic culture is driven by tasks and routine; it is rude to be late and unproductive, as objectives are the guiding rule. The Western reader is familiar with monochronic living…it fills your day planner, Outlook calendar, and inner orientation to your mounting to dos. Based on a schedule, timeliness and productivity are the operative values.

Waking early to begin planting, I feel the students’ frustration build as they experience what, from their cultural lens, is disrespect. And I remember my friend and co-worker’s wise words in Rwanda, “As the visitors, it is your job to adapt to our culture, not the other way around”. There is so much wisdom here as he gently nudges us toward the volunteer’s role as guest.

The wisdom, too, is nestled in the cultural norms of the communities we visit. What can be gained from learning this other way? From slowing down and allowing the people in our lives to take precedent? Or from digging beneath initial disturbance to discover the values driving our ways of relating to others?

Solidarity does not come from imposition. It requires that we understand the perspective of another, pursuing concepts and frames beyond our own. It honors difference and respects local knowledge. Moving away from dualistic structuring of ‘right’ or ‘better’, it allows for a new orientation to emerge, one rooted in the realities of the world’s majority.

One such reality is that relationships are everything. When your community is the greatest– perhaps the only– capital that you have, you value it. You do not let a constructed number force its hand.

Time, then, becomes a fluid concept. Culturally specific, unbound from Western bias of efficiency and Reign of the Clock.

An understanding of development that equates it with better integrating people into world markets demands movement away from such an ethos. Time enforces its rule as quotas, production, cost, and demand prevails. The clock crushes rhythms and pace of relationships as it settles in its favored position: central to human interaction. But, what are the costs of such a shift?

Furthermore I wonder, how might our lives be better if we were to put relationship before scheduling? How might our policies change were we to slow down enough to know the people whom they impacted? What can we do to let people trump numbers– be it the digits behind a dollar sign or the click of Grandfather’s second hand?

My bebes in Tanzania, aunties in India, and amigos in Ecuador offer another way to approach life. No longer taking for granted the dominant narrative that our [Western] ways are the best ways, I learn. And I discover the beauty that these lessons on time are both an activity of and movement towards solidarity itself.

From savior to solidarity: An alternative for White girls and anyone else considering international service

While Pippa Biddle was building a library in Tanzania, I too was there studying East African History and Culture during a semester abroad. Biddle’s post that went viral last week shares a thoughtful reflection on the nature (read: problems) of relationships between volunteers and host communities within international service trips. She asks many of the questions I confronted during my time in Tanzania and following six years of travel and service. With our parallel journeys, I appreciate Biddle’s attention to the positionality of international volunteers in efforts toward sustainable development. Yet, I was left unsatisfied with a conclusion that suggests the solution lies in applying our skills-sets more strategically and potentially just staying home.

Contrary to her framing, Biddle’s critiques are not particular to race but span the many privileged identities that afford someone international service work. As Westerners who choose to travel outside of the “developed world”, we all need to sit with the implications of our presence and any volunteerism undertaken. It is true, though, that White folks especially have a learned tendency– not to mention histories– of dominance that must be combatted to respectfully engage across culture. Additionally, White women and girls are in the significant majority in terms of who participates in the sorts of trips in question. International volunteer and education organizations have a lot of work to do to improve access and inclusion– particularly for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, people of Color, and the LGBTQ community– for this inequity to be addressed.

From my experience in international service as both a participant and educator, the key to being mindful of my privilege is not to make sure that I am in a position to best serve according to my skills, but to move away from a paradigm of service entirely. The root of most problems with voluntourism, service-learning, and development itself is our orientation to the relationships involved. Without addressing how we understand and engage with global partners and friends– whether from home or abroad– we still cause the same detriment, dependency, and cultural degradation that Biddle outlines so clearly. At the crux of my international work is a challenge offered by an Aboriginal activist group, Queensland, 1970s:

“If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

This woman’s message is not ‘help me from your country where you can apply your best skills to my cause’. Instead, it screams: stop seeing me as your cause. Until we can connect to the humanity in one another rather than minimizing people into mere depositories of our benevolence, we should stay home. But not because we can best serve from there. Because we do harm when we continue to perpetuate the racist, ethnocentric, and hegemonic messages of colonial rule that still– albeit tacitly– prevail in the industrial complex of development-aid. It is when we stop trying to help and to save that we are in a position to connect, to learn, and to grow.

International immersion with this ethos is revolutionary in the counter-narrative that it provides. In 2008, I arrived in Tanzania with neocolonial notions of “poor Africa”. Yet, my time in the rural south of the country awakened me to the strengths and beauty of a people different than my own. I became aware of the Western bias implicit in my then-constructs of poverty and notions around development’s aims. I came to know and love a culture and a handful of individuals, and was forever changed by the experience.

Was this benefit one-directional, making my time abroad exploitive to local people and an appropriation of culture? I do not believe so. When the message was no longer “I am here to help” but instead, “I value you– I want to know you, learn from you, journey alongside you,” the exchange shifted from a model of welfare to one that honors local capacity. Defying narratives of dependency and need, there was  space for the community to see themselves as knowledge holders and creators. Both local hosts and volunteers benefit from this pursuit, one that celebrates diversity, culture, and relational living instead of perpetuating the proliferation of Western values.

From a humble disposition of co-learning, we transcend hierarchies of racial, ethnic, and national identity. It is through our experience of communities like this that our aspirations of what humanity is capable of are formed. We ignite our social imaginations while gaining a sense of agency and network of support to create change. Having glimpsed moments of social emancipation, all parties begin to see the way that our liberation is truly bound.

My description of such a process is grounded in my experience of programs that do this well. In January 2012, I traveled to El Salvador through a Jesuit immersion program. For twelve days, we met with Salvadorans to hear their stories and learn about their inspirational work in the face of environmental and human rights controversies. With solidarity as our aim and liberation our vision, we did not participate in any service except to listen and to acknowledge our deep connectivity. We affirmed local efforts and voice while interrogating the way our politics, lifestyles, and choices impact a peoples in the neighboring Americas.

In the world in which we live, global connectivity is inevitable whether voluntourism and international education continues or abates. El Salvador’s fate is intertwined with my own whether or not I am aware of these influences. Discovering and fostering our interconnectedness becomes imperative to creating the change that the world so desperately needs. I believe that international programs are one such way to do this. The crucial questions become ones of structure and approach; we need to ask how these programs are happening and what purposes they serve.

Today, I accompany students abroad on a global gap year. While traveling, students study international development and change-making through homestays, project work, and educational seminars. While our model includes international service, we encourage students to consider the problems and limitations of this approach, developing their critical thinking and social consciousness through reflection and inquiry. This type of experience, of course, does not require leaving the boundaries of one’s home country. Another valuable question that students consider is how we are being attentive to domestic issues and communities in equal measure.

My hope is that my students and the Biddles of the world don’t shy away from questions of positionality and purpose in the programs in which they participate. I hope too that they don’t shy away from deep, personal, and meaningful relationships with folks around the world– relationships that might even include intentional travel and work.

Author’s Note: There are many helpful questions to ask in choosing an international service program, outlined well by Learning Service’s recent video series. Additionally, there are questions that should be undertaken institutionally in terms of access, inclusion, and sensitivity when designing and running international programs. Though they are not covered in this post, those questions are a crucial part of the conversation.