Mission to Rwanda

| May 5th, 2014


Morning Mist

IT was to a sombre and traumatised Rwanda that the first Holy Family Sisters came in 1997.
They had been invited by the bishop of Byumba to work in the parish of Rushaki.
He asked them to take over the work of the Sisters of the Assumption, a French congregation, whose members were withdrawn after the genocide. One of their French sisters, a medical doctor, had been murdered in the room used as a chapel. Two Rwandan aspirants to the congregation were also killed.


The Holy Family sisters formed an international group, two from the D.R. of Congo, one Spanish, one Belgian and one Italian. As such, they were able to witness to unity in diversity and demonstrate that communion is possible where there is a common aim, to spread the Gospel of love.


Village seen from Health Centre

Rushaki is a medium sized village in the northern part of the country. Like all villages,

it is reached by a dirt road once you get off the one main tarred road and is bone shattering most of the way. In the parish, there had been a flourishing Health Centre and a Centre to teach domestic skills to women and young girls who were unable to go to school. These buildings and the sisters’ quarters had been commandeered by the military and turned into a hospital. They had been vacated and returned to the Church when the sisters arrived. They set about restoring them to their former state and use and, of course, learning the language. For the best part of a year the army kept a close watch on their activities, even doing the rounds at night.

Today, the Health Centre has a dispensary, a maternity unit which is almost always full to capacity, some beds for less serious illnesses and a limited dental service.  Although still belonging to the diocese, it is now under the Ministry of Health which means additional paperwork but brings other advantages. A doctor visits irregularly once a week.

The Health Service is probably the service best catered for by the government in Rwanda. Medical insurance is available to everyone at a cost of 3,000 Rwandan francs a year, about €3. For that they are entitled to consultations and medication and some hospital treatment.That is the kind of service you might find anywhere but it is only part of the Rushaki story.

Main Stree, Rushaki

The majority of the people in Rwanda are very poor and there are many who can’t afford even that minimal insurance. For these people the sisters provide supplementary services relying on Divine Providence for funding. Their house is a magnet drawing all forms of human distress. The community, still international in character, is composed of five sisters, two of whom are Rwandans.  Three work in the Health Centre, one teaches in the Primary School and the other is at the service of all and sundry.

The many physically and mentally challenged people – children, women and men – from the area come for treatment and material help. It is a distressing sight to see so many children with deformed limbs who will never be able to walk without artificial limbs, some who could have walked if they had had treatment in time, and others who can still be helped. There are also women and men hobbling on crutches and with artificial limbs. Many mental health problems are the result of the war.

Friday Therapy

The main treatment is massage and exercises, as well as bathing. This is done by a group of people, often parents, who have been given some training by a professional who oversees the care. Parents are expected to continue the treatment during the week. This does not always happen. When it does, there is often a distinct improvement to be noticed in the child’s ability to walk. Some have been able to acquire normal mobility.

All the sisters collaborate in the project which is coordinated by Sr. Maria Jesus, one of the pioneers, whose warm-hearted dedication to those in need is widely known around the area. She knows all the people by name and their problems are ever in her thoughts as she tries to find ways to alleviate them. This involves phoning doctors and hospitals to obtain specialised treatment for patients or contacting schools to get some child, who has missed out on an early education because of physical disability, into a class. The other community members use their own contacts to help. For example, Sr. Scholastica, who teaches in the local Primary School, is always looking to see such children are admitted to school. It is a great joy when any one of them can proceed to secondary school, not always easy when money has to be found for books and sometimes for accommodation.

A voluntary German Foundation, set up by a German academic who visited the area and saw the great need, sends a generous annual amount to the community to help run the project but it is never enough to meet all the needs. The shortfall is made up from donations from other sources, solicited or providential.

Rwanda is said to be Africa’s fastest growing economy and there are signs of growth and prosperity and the presence of International Aid Organisations in Kigali, the capital. However, the majority of the people are very poor. Tea and coffee are the main commercial crops and most of what the country produces is exported. Ordinary Rwandans cannot afford to buy their country’s tea or coffee. Wasn’t it the case that when tea was first imported into Ireland in 1835 it was available only to the wealthy?

Parish tea field

Land is very important as most people rely for their livelihood on what the soil provides and it provides generously. There are two harvests a year. Beans and peas are the main source of protein and there is a great variety of fruit and vegetables grown. It is now the season for the large, hard, green bananas that are cooked as a vegetable and the huge bunches can be seen in all markets. Beef or goats’ meat is

Buy my bananas

eaten rarely by the ordinary people. To get some cash, people bring their produce to the markets, either in the towns or village or set up stalls along the main roads. They also sell charcoal they make from wood.

The Rwanda people are rather reserved but very friendly when a relationship is established and it is not difficult when they are approached with respect.

From 7 – 13 April, Rwanda commemorated the 20th anniversary of the terrible events that began in April 1994 and are known as the genocide. The national event took place in Kigali and much of it was seen on international TV. Throughout the week people assembled at gathering points in all towns and villages to listen to speeches and hear accounts of what was perpetrated by one part of the population on the other. In Rwanda now, there are only ‘Rwandans’. The classifications ‘Tutsi’ and ‘Hutu’ are no longer used.

Eternal Flame, Kigali Genocide Memorial

What needs to be highlighted also is that people of both groups risked their lives and even died to save one another. For example, in a seminary when the Tutsi seminarians were told to separate from their Hutu brothers they refused saying, “we’re all brothers”, and died with them. Then there is the Hutu woman, Félicité, who saved many Tutsis by arranging for some to escape to the D.R. Congo and sheltering others in a Centre of the Lay Apostolate which she directed. She could have saved her life when the militia came to take the Tutsis but chose to die with them.

In fact, it is too early to write the history of the Rwandan genocide. It will take decades, perhaps, for peace and reconciliation and the truth to come. In the meantime, it is the many small groups like the community at Rushaki who are quietly working to bring healing to minds and bodies, without discrimination on any grounds, who epitomise Christ’s wish, “May they all be one…”.

Síle McGowan hfb
published in News and Views, Newbridge Parish monthly Review, May 2014