A trip of a lifetime!

…..A MESSAGE FROM JOHN POULTON, HEAD OF RE AT HOLY CROSS HIGH SCHOOL IN CHORLEY, WHO RECENTLY VISITED THE COMMUNITY OF MUSHA IN RWANDA

My wife’s dream of thirty years, inspired by David Attenborough, had been to visit the Rwanda’s mountain gorillas. With the trip booked I began to learn more about Rwanda and its history. During my research I stumbled across Connect2:Rwanda and CAFOD’s partnership with Avega Agahozo; a charity devoted to supporting the widows and orphans of the 1994 genocide. 

The story of national tragedy and rebirth, the courage and hope of the women featured on the Connect2:Rwanda website, drew me in. The blogs featuring the stories of Odette, Feza, Julienne, Dative, and Berina [amongst others] are a benchmark of courage that I find uplifting. Into the darkness of trauma these people shine the light of caring and solidarity. They certainly inspired me. Using my position as Head of Religious Education at Holy Cross Catholic High School in Chorley, Lancashire I began to our educate my classes about Connect2:Rwanda and the women of Musha. Employing my skills as a hobbyist songwriter and recording enthusiast I decided to make a CD featuring the talents of our pupils. Aided by generous fundraising at Gregson Lane Folk Club and The Black Horse Open Mic Night we got together the money to record, print and produce our CDs. Three months later we had raised around £350 from the sales. 

The project was a success in several ways. As well as raising the money many of our pupils learned about, and were inspired by, the women of Musha. The musicians and singers enjoyed their work as did the volunteers on production, duplication and assembly line. It only remained to present the cheque somehow. 

Fortuitously the opportunity to do this arose as Odette Kayirere [founder of Avega Agahozo] Feza Mediatrice and Simon Nsabiyeze had planned a visit to the UK. As events turned out I was able to meet Odette at a garden party in Liverpool. It was a memorable afternoon. One thing the Connect2:Rwanda site does so well is to personalise the cause, highlighting the actual people involved. Meeting Odette, listening to her tell her story, and explaining Avega’s work was an extension of this. 

However one thing that saddened and angered me was that Feza had been denied a visa to the UK. It was trip she would have enjoyed and clearly she had much to offer through her witness. Given I was going to Rwanda in July I decided that a visit to Feza in Musha would become part of our itinerary. If Feza could not come to Liverpool,Liverpool could come to her. 

There is a tendency to see ‘charity’ as moving in only one direction; from the giver to the receiver. I believe this is a mistake. By opening ourselves to others’ plight we become more sensitive and better human beings. From the women of Musha we can learn to have more courage and hope in our own lives. Charity enriches both parties as the giving works both ways. I was determined to thank Feza face to face. I wanted to say what I would have said had I met her inLiverpool.

I contacted Odette and she arranged a surprise visit to Musha on the morning of Thursday the 28th of July, the last day of our holiday. Odette picked us up at 8.45 on a bright, clear morning and we headed for the shops inKigali to buy a present for Feza. Odette suggested we buy her material to make a dress. 

Kigaliis a beautiful city, built on numerous hills. That it is a vibrant, exciting and expanding capital is testament to the spirit of the Rwandan people and the leadership of President Kagame. The main roads are good quality and we headed swiftly out into the countryside to the east of Kigali. Rwandans farm ingeniously right to the top of the thousands of hill that make up much the landscape. The countryside is very green and fertile, every inch put into the service of feeding the population. There are few cars on the road but many motorbike taxis and small buses ferrying people about. More folk walk alongside the road carrying goods on their heads. 

The poverty of many is visible but so too is the hard work.Rwanda has the feel of a place that is ‘on the up’. There is a vibrant community spirit determined to heal the wounds caused by the genocide. Many of the houses we passed had been built by Avega Agahozo for people left homeless by the 1994 genocide. Odette’s success was tangible though she was modest about it. After 45 minutes we left the main road and headed up the orange clay roads that serve the countryside.

The housing in the villages is varied; Musha is typical from what I saw elsewhere. Some houses are quite good, though in need of improvement, some are mud shacks on a wooden frame. There was nothing like the quality we take for granted in the UK. Running water and electricity is very rare indeed. Banana plants are everywhere. It is very useful to have a goat and cow and the lucky ones have them tethered in their yards. Everybody seems to be growing something to make feeding the family easier. It was market day in Musha and people were walking down the road with their purchases/wares balanced on their heads. 

It was very exciting to arrive at Feza’s house. Several of the women from the Connect2:Rwanda website were waiting to greet us. It was an honour and a privilege to meet them I only wish we’d had more time. Feza walked down her path to meet us, she knew about the CD the Holy Cross pupils had made but she did not know who I was. It was a lovely occasion and Odette’s plans for a surprise visit had paid off. We went into Feza’s house chatted and met her children. We took photos and Odette presented Feza with a medal from the CAFOD Cup (a football tournament involving 8 local Catholic schools in Liverpool which took place in July). I thanked Feza for the example she had set me and my pupils at school. I hope the photos and video tell the story better than I am able to here. 

I only wish I could have spent longer in Musha but we had a plane to catch and Odette had a meeting inKigali with some of our Conservative MPs; she was bidding for funds to help Avega projects. All too quickly it was time to make our farewells and head back toKigali. My visit to Musha was a brief, but for my wife and I, a profound experience. 

Reflecting on the visit I have returned fromRwanda having received more than I gave. Oddly enough I am a calmer person and hope to stay so. It will be less easy for my materialism to warp my priorities. Having witnessed genuine hardship my own worries and problems are put into context and thereby lessened. I will do more to raise money for Connect2:Rwanda, not out of sympathy but for the pleasure of working alongside such marvellous people. These are just some of the gifts I received from their charity.

My purpose in writing this article is that you too would visit the website at http://connect2rwanda.wordpress.com/. Firstly because of what these people have to give you. Secondly because I think you will give something to them to say thank you.

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