This summer I traveled for the first time to three countries in East Africa: Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania/Zanzibar.  The trip was moving, complicated, and beautiful.  Moving in that in each country I was,

  • moved to accept the generosity of the people I met;
  • moved to learn more about the unique history and present of each country; and
  • moved to better understand the concept of humanity and the diversity of its manifestations.

Complicated because in each country,

  • I felt uncomfortable for reasons that I cannot easily describe;
  • the present is bound up in the history of the world in ways that are very challenging to untangle; and
  • I simultaneously learned about the greatest cruelty and the greatest expressions of humanity.

Beautiful – all three countries are physically beautiful – mountains, lakes, hillsides, the ocean shore.  I can see why people visit and decide to stay.

The trip was hosted by African Road, a nonprofit that partners “with local changemakers through collaborative project development and strategic funding.”  The trip is designed to be up close and personal with communities in each country so that participants can learn deeply as they experience each place and its people.  Every day we spent time with people in their communities – dancing, baking, singing, talking, learning, knitting, playing futbol.  We ate their food, played with their children, wore their clothes, made their pottery, shopped in their markets, listened to their stories went to their churches, and danced their dances.

In addition to simply being with people, we went to museums and learned deeply about the Rwanda genocide, the Burundi “civil war”, and the slavery of Zanzibar.  At the Kigali Genocide Museum, I burst into tears after reading how the rest of world ignored what was happening – they let the genocide happen. France and Belgium should be ashamed forever for their role in instigating and supporting the violence.  The US should be ashamed forever for not having the moral courage to respond.

We sat under a tent with men who were genocide perpetrators, and women who were wives of perpetrators and survivors of the perpetrators’ violence.  The men asked for our understanding, the women showed us their machete scars. They all told us about their journeys from humanity to inhumanity, and back to humanity and community; from hatred to forgiveness. We sang with them, we prayed with them, we ate with them, we hugged them.  We learned about humanity from them.

“There will be no humanity without forgiveness

There will be no forgiveness without justice

But justice will be impossible without humanity.”

~ Yolanda Mukasasana

Throughout my trip I was so confused when the people we would meet on this trip would say “Thank you, thank you for coming.  We are joyous that you are here.”  Why were they joyous?  What were they grateful for?  All I felt was shame at being associated with a country that was complicit in the poverty, the genocides, the civil wars, the slavery, the destruction of families, and on and on.  I could almost not bare their generosity.  I finally asked a woman who had welcomed us with open arms, how did she feel about us visiting?  Was it difficult, take a lot of her time?  Her response, “No, it is a joy”. I hugged her.

“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together. ” ~ Desmond Tutu

When I tell people I went to Zanzibar, the first thing people ask me is was it beautiful.  I am quick to respond, yes, and complicated.  I feel compelled to tell them about the history of Zanzibar and its role in the slave trade.  I want them to know the complexity of its diverse history that makes it both beautiful and the saddest place I have ever been.  I want them to go in the slave holding room I went in on the slavery museum tour – a room with two holes in the walls for windows and a trough in the middle where feces and dead bodies floated in and out with high tide.  I want to tell them how that was my first time visiting a Muslim country and I hope I wasn’t disrespectful to the women I met in how I greeted them or what I wore.  I hope they knew how much I respected them and their humanity.  I do also want to tell them about snorkeling at Chumbe Island, but I want to tell them about that last.  I want people to appreciate Zanzibar as a place with a history, where people live, work, struggle, experience joy and sadness, raise children, dream, and create – not just appreciate it as a vacation destination.

As I try to take lessons from my trip and apply them to our work at Imago Dei, I just keep coming back to the concept of humanity.  What is clearer to me after this trip, is that being humane, leaning into our humanity, requires intention and attention.  It is not necessarily something that we simply do by being human.  In fact, we quite frequently do the opposite – demonstrating a lack of humanity, respect, generosity, awareness and appreciation of others. I will continue to look to my experience this summer to help me remember what it feels like to experience the fullness of humanity as shown to me by the people I met – joy.