I ran the ½ marathon today (Sunday). We woke up quite early 5.15 so that we could make it to the 7am registration for an 8am start. We left the crowded, smoggy city of Kigali and weaved our way through the hills of Rwanda. Of the spectacular views we were able to see a few banana trees poking out of the blanket of fog that sat in the valley. Just before we drove up to the race we sped past hundreds of police officers in training. We obviously saw them from afar but the first indication of their presence was their chants. The second, their smell. Even through the van windows we smelled 100 sweaty men, which is quite distinct and takes time getting used to. We were reminded that this is Africa (where you don’t control time) when we arrived in an open field, and didn’t see any runners. The white event tents had not even been erected. So, we helped set chairs, raise tents, and decorate for an hour, while stretching and warming up in between.
We were in the town of Kayonza, about an hour and a half east of Kigali. I was expecting the Bolder Boulder or LA marathon, with thousands of people participating, but this race felt more like a high school cross country race with only 80 runners. I felt like a celebrity running the race. 6.5 miles out along a paved road and 6.5 miles back. 13 miles of fans cheering on the few Muzungus who dared to challenge the elite African runners. People came out from all of the surrounding villages to watch the event. Often times, a group of Rwandan fans that I ran past were silent until I looked up smiled and waved. They became full of animation and started cheering and yelling “courage, courage, courage”! It sounded like they wanted me to have more courage. I found out that they were really saying “coraj, coraj, coraj” meaning, “keep going”, “go ahead”, “push on”. Another little girl, not more than 2 years old, started swinging her arms around and yelling “go, go, go”. I guess she was actually saying “yego, yego, yego” = “yes, yes, yes”. No matter what I heard or what they were saying it was all very encouraging. The few muzungu fans not running the race decided to vote on who they thought would win. I was expecting a few votes, at least from my wife, but number 95 had too much steez for me. Everyone voted for him and very true, he won with a time of 1 hour 5 minutes. I realized that I did not have a chance when he passed me on his way back and I had not gone more than 7 km.
While we were waiting around for the race to start people began funneling in and congregating throughout the field. I noticed that all the muzungus were huddled together talking, and everyone else was outside that circle. So, feeling uncomfortable with joining the white crowd, I decided I would just stand amidst the Rwandans, even if I couldn’t communicate with most (Most only spoke Kinyarwandan.) Another Rwandan man stood next to me and so I introduced myself, and asked how he was in the best Kinyarwandan I know. He replied in English and told me his name. I started talking with him and we became good friends. His facial expressions and tones shifted quite frequently as he looked around, at the nearby church, houses, fields, people. He began to tell me that he lives in Kigali, but Kayonza used to be his home. This was the first time he had returned since the genocide. He proceeded to tell me his entire story.
He was about 9 at the time, I believe. “I lived here when the genocide happened.” He pointed across the wide grass lawn. “That parish over there was where we all hid. About 400 hundred of us” he said. “We stayed in the church. But then people came and started killing” he indicated with a swinging, hacking motion. “They started shooting and killing people. I ran as a little boy as fast as I could over to these bushes here.” He again pointed, to the group of corn/banana tree/large weeds only 15 meters from us. “Some of the houses are new but this was where it all happened.” He said, “I stayed there in the bushes for a long while. Then,” peering through his hands, “I watched through the bushes as they brought the..the..the” I hesitantly jumped in trying to help him remember the word, “The priest”. “Yes, yes, the priest.” He said. “They brought the priest out into the middle of the field” Off to my left. “They shot him. Then they took all the sisters out next to him and killed them too.” He watched this all take place from the bushes only a few feet away. “I waited til they were all gone and went back, but no one was living. I went back to my house and didn’t find anyone, so I stayed there for 5 days, trying to find something to eat.” He waited there until a rescue helicopter came to their town and took him away. This conversation was extremely unexpected. It is very rare, in fact illegal to talk about such things so I realize that this was a very special experience. I did not fully realize the intensity of the story I was listening too. I had to slightly remove myself from the situation he was describing, so as not to become paralyzed with emotion.
The race was starting and I decided the conversation and friendship was more important than finishing the race 15 minutes faster. The horn blasted and we ran through the ribbon. We started running through the town and he continued to point at certain houses and buildings saying particular things about them. It was all surreal. We ran past his house and I saw 10 people franticly waving at us. “That was my sister, one of the few in my family now.” Seeing and waving to hundreds of people along the way, I asked, “Do you know who these people are?” “Every single one…every thing I see, every person I see, brings back so many memories.” Maybe one of the only questions I asked him, “As we run through your town, how are you feeling, does it bring joy or hardship?…” He said, “Some of both. The hardest part is seeing the people who killed your family and everyone else” as he pointed in the distance down the street. “But you know what? I have pardoned all of them.” “You have forgiven them?” His face lit up, “YES! I have forgiven them.” “Wow, praise Jesus.” He hit me on the back with emphasis and yelled a little louder, “YES! You know Jesus! YES! Praise Jesus!”
I have heard about these stories and read about the genocide but now I was talking with a person. I was present in the place where it all happened. I am continually thinking about this experience, as it is challenging me in many ways. There is a closeness to Jesus that many genocide victims have feel, one that I may never experience.
Well, although I got beat by the Africans, and was laughed at by the children, I had an amazing time. I thought about how they must really think that we are a different kind of human, because even when I sweat it is white (thanks to the sunscreen). Thanks to my Rwandan friend, I was made completely aware as to why the little kids were laughing at me…it was because I have no hair on my head…and that is only for old people I guess. O well, you’ve got to work with what you’ve got… and the Rwandans know that more than anyone.