My employment contract with Samaritan’s Purse ended on 30 September. But in the following few weeks I continued to do some consultancy work with them in Kyrgyzstan, Rwanda and Zambia. Each trip involves completing some wonderful journeys off the beaten track. This is an account of a visit I made earlier this month in the hills of South West Rwanda.
We had lunch and left for Gitarama. We were met by Pastor Alphonse from the Gitarama Presbytery. He drove ahead of us on his motorbike, leading us off road and up to Rutongo Parish, where we were to make two home visits.
We met local Pastor Didas by the side of the dirt track. He is a young man who had only recently arrived here to be the pastor of the four ‘schools’ (small village churches, two of which have been closed down because of the strict new government rules regarding church buildings) that make up this parish. He pointed out a cluster of about twenty people who were resting from their labours on the land, under some shade and way across the valley. “That’s where we are going,” he said.
Lengthy debate followed as to how we were going to get there, before it was decided we should drive further along the hillside ridge, then drop down into the valley, cross a bridge, and make our way up the other side. A quick mobile phone call to the distant labourers confirmed the arrangement. These days, even out here in hills and valleys that have never seen a telegraph pole, you still see many people chatting away on their phones.
The steep track down into the valley gave way to a flattish grassy area, where two twisted wooden posts perched mysteriously at either end. Francis took one look at the logs that made up the bridge over the river, and then another look. A couple of them had a crumbly, perished look about them. Pastor Alphonse thought that to drive across the bridge would be no problem, but Francis wasn’t ready to risk it. He is driving the Province’s brand new Mitsubishi L200 and, as he said, when you are nearly 60 (which he is, in December) you don’t take as many risks as you used to.
So we walked across the bridge and up the track on the other side. “Here,” said Didas, pointing to a gap in the undergrowth. “I know a short cut.” The climb immediately became steeper, and I reflected on how nigh on impossible this would have been for me earlier in the year, after some heart irregularities. But praising God for my healing, I made the climb without much more than a little of breathlessness which, at 2,000m above sea level, is hardly surprising. The group of labourers that we had previously spotted in the distance across the valley had made their way to the home of Epiphania.
Entering her home, mud built and with zinc roof, my eyes took a few seconds to become accustomed to the dark. It gradually became evident that fourteen people were sitting quietly on the mud floor, leaning against two of the walls. These, I guessed, were the members of the local Church Action Group (Raising Families envisions and mobilises such groups around the world to serve and support vulnerable families in their neighbourhoods, and to equip them to lift themselves out of poverty).
The third wall was taken up by the door, and along the fourth were perched three small wooden benches, hastily brought from elsewhere and set out in honour of the guests. We were introduced to our host, or rather, the homeowner whose home had become the venue of our meeting.
Epiphania was maybe around 60 years old. Despite the heat of the afternoon, she sat propped up in the corner, knees under chin, and wrapped in a shawl. “I was unwell,” she told us, “and the group visited me, and cultivated my crops. I am not abandoned.” Filling in the gaps, the pastor told us that Epiphania’s husband had left her with four adult children, after which she had suffered some sort of stroke, making her paralysed on one side. The group had paid for her diagnosis, but sadly the doctors were still unable to understand what exactly had happened to her. The herbs that had been recommended to her didn’t help; in fact they made her worse. “I am relying on prayer now,” she said. Rather ominously, the pastor said that they were waiting for “the inevitable”. Epiphania silently and discretely wiped a tear from her eye.
The group shared with me how they had built the house for her, and then had successfully asked the government to donate the roof. They had also persuaded Food for the Hungry to provide a pig for her.
“Our goal is to lift up those who are weak,” said Pastor Didas. “We cultivate gardens together, and improve people’s shelter. At the heart of what we do is praying together. We also save together, including an amount that we set aside for the poor. We have become responsible for one another.” Without realising it, they were demonstrating this right now. Children were caring for one another, and the one baby in the room was being comfortably and naturally shared between its mother and those sitting near her, without fuss, concern, anxiety or possessiveness.
We left Epiphania and were taken to a second household, a little further down the hill. A crowd had gathered, and twenty eight of us, many who had accompanied us on the first visit, made their way into the courtyard of a home built for another older lady. Little by little, what was now a huge pile of sand had been painstakingly brought up from the valley that same day. It was due to become render for the house walls. We pressed around all the edges of the compound, with the mound of sand taking centre spot. Several people were keen to tell their story.
“I am Vestine. The group helped me to cultivate my land. I grew potatoes and sold them, and with the proceeds I bought food for my family, and some breeding rabbits. I sold some of their offspring and bought a hen, then a piglet, all from the potatoes! I’m also one of the ladies here who made the bricks for this house.”
“My name is Pricilla. I received a hen from the group, and now I have a pig. From the sale of eggs I have managed to get my health insurance and send my three children to school. I also have enough to take care of my husband, who is in prison.”
“I am Pauline. I am a widow. I used to live on land that was very exposed to mudslides. It was very dangerous, and I was very lonely. When I first met this group, it was their prayer life that impressed me most. Then they gave me a hen, which had chicks, which I sold and bought three rabbits. The group helped me build blocks, and build this house for me.”
The CAG leader said that when they cultivate gardens, they always deliberately leave a hoe behind. “The government closed our church building because they said it was unfit. Among other things, they want us to soundproof it. But the Iman’s wake us a four o’clock every morning with their loudspeakers, and they take no action against the mosques! But the closures haven’t stopped us from serving the Lord, and helping the community to work together to solve their own problems.”
As we were leaving, the pastor pointed out a glistening scar on a far-away hilltop. “That’s the tantalite mine,” he said. They opened it recently. Tantalite is used in electronics, and is the cause of much wealth, and aggression and environmental damage, in neighbouring DRC.
It only became evident upon our return to the valley what those twisted posts were at either end of the flat land. We had parked on the football pitch. A game was going on all around the truck, which was being stroked and protected by fifteen little boys, who were highly impressed with how shiny and new it looked. In fact, it was hard to tell if they were protecting it or worshipping it.
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...has visited 108 countries and territories around the world, and always jumps at the chance of adding to that list.