The Salesians of Gatenga, Rwanda

Greetings everyone!

I hope this finds you well and in good preparation for Christmas!  It is hard to believe that it is already upon us — I found it even harder while in Africa where instead of a cold winter wind that burns your face, it was simply the sun that would burn!  To say “Merry Christmas” to someone while shielding my eyes from the intense sun and perspiring something fierce just doesn’t feel normal on the 20th of December!

In my last message, I had just left Ethiopia on my way to Rwanda to spend 5 days with the SLMs there, Chris and Mitchell.

In 2005 I traveled from Kenya to the capital of Rwanda, Kigali, to spend a day (yes, just a day) with an SLM that was working with the Salesian sisters at a school.  It was a good trip but very short.  I have always wanted to get back and get to know the place better.


Chris and Mitchell greeted me at the airport and we headed back to where they are stationed:  Gatenga.  Gatenga is a neighborhood of Kigali that is in one of the lower-lying areas of the capital so much of it is swamp.  The Salesians have 27 acres where they have several works:  primary school, vocational school (mechanics, carpentry, electricity), soccer, basketball, and volleyball fields, and various farming activities (cows, pigs, crops, etc.).  Gatenga is also the location of the pre-novitiate where young men who are looking to be Salesians study.  There is a lot going on.

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The SLMs are involved in the various activities.  Mitchell, being from Iowa, mostly deals with the farming – clearing the fields, running the tractor, cleaning out the channels, planting, etc.  It’s funny because one of the priests studied in the US and so knows that Iowa is famous for its farming.  When he heard that Mitchell was from there, he assumed that he was a farmer – but in reality he isn’t, but some of his family has been, so it wasn’t completely foreign.  Guilty by association:).

Chris is involved with teaching at the vocational school:  computers and English.  Rwanda’s schools received a mandate from the government that they be conducted in English in 2 years…this has created a high demand for English teachers/speakers and everyone…well, not everyone…is wanting to pick up English.  Chris teaches English to the pre-novices and is looking at developing an AutoCAD class for the vocational students who have to create huge schematics of electrical systems by hand.

Both Chris and Mitchell work on the farm and are helping make the site self-sustaining, but it is not easy.  The farming is different there and even though there is a tractor, many things must be done by hand and you are limited with what is available.  Fertilizer is extremely expensive so weeding is a continuous process and you must rely solely on the rain for irrigation.  Some crops work and some don’t — much is trial and error.

Both Chris and Mitchell are doing a tremendous job and have, in a short time, really thrown themselves into the work and can have long/tiring days in the fields or in the classroom.

As for the country of Rwanda…you probably automatically think of “Genocide” when you hear the word.  That is not uncommon.  It’s hard to believe that Rwanda experience one of the most-recent and brutal genocides just 15 years ago. In 1994 some estimate that as much as 20% of the total population of Rwanda was murdered because of their ethnic background.  When driving around the city, I could not help to think back to those days when it was happening – what did the streets look like then?  Was this one of the streets that you see in pictures with bodies on the side of the road?

And then there are the survivors.  What were they forced to witness?  When meeting people, especially over the age of 20, it was hard not to think about what they have experienced and seen.  However, when you meet  people, they are very nice, smile, wave, and you would not know that some of them have been to hell and back — how can they be smiling and happy?  I suppose it is a grace that only they and others affected by similar situations know of.

While there, you actually rarely talk about the genocide to any locals.  As a general rule, especially as a foreigner, you don’t talk about the genocide unless someone else brings it up.  It was never a topic of conversation with the kids or workers I met.  Some of the other volunteers and foreigners living at the Salesian compound mentioned it a couple times, but I suppose it is something that people are just trying to get past —- but not forgetting.  I remember one boy who was talking about how the rest of the world thinks of Rwanda – as a disorganized and violent country.  I could sense in his voice how he just wanted people to know that it is a peaceful country that is just trying to move on…and I am here to tell you that it is an absolutely beautiful country with very warm people.  My only regret is that I don’t speak any French beyond “My name is..” and “Good”, so I was left only with charades.  Dinner talk was always interesting with a mix of Flemish, English, French, Kinarwanda, and Charades.

Wishing you a blessed Christmas!