Many of you may remember the movie entitled “Gorillas in the Mist” which chronicled the eighteen years that Dian Fossey spent in the highlands of Rwanda befriending and researching the silverback gorillas and their families. She left an amazing legacy that has not only blessed the lives of the gorillas but of thousands of others who have been welcomed into their habitat.
We certainly never thought that we would be able to visit those highlands and sit less than six feet away from Muhoza, a huge 450-pound silverback gorilla whose life expectancy is 53 years. However, the demands of managing five wives may shorten his life since the family is just beginning with one new 4-month-old baby gorilla. Sadly, another baby died two months ago so it is good news that at least three of his wives are pregnant and all are hoping for more brothers and sisters to be added this year. The pregnancy is the same as humans so it should be a good summer and fall from the looks of things.
Rwanda borders Uganda and there are ten gorilla families on the Rwandan side. We drove about two and a half hours from Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, up to the northwestern border in the Virunga highlands. Three volcanoes video There we were divided into groups of eight and were assigned which families to visit. Our guide, Fernando, was terrific and imitated the sound of the gorillas to get them to interact as we sat quietly close by clicking cameras and watching the family. Fernando, our guide video It is a very unique experience and well worth the almost two hours of slogging through the mud and jungle to be welcomed by them. Gorilla climbing video Thankfully, there were helpful porters who helped me to keep my balance and carried our backpacks. “Mountain Man Lloyd” needed no help and is used to carrying more weight through much more difficult terrain but he surrendered his backpack so that these good young men can make a living for their families. Both of us were grateful for our walking sticks and I was indebted to Jack who would hold my arm and hand as we trudged through the mud and uneven terrain.
The attached videos and pictures will speak the thousand words we don’t even have in articulating and describing this once in a lifetime opportunity. This was only the beginning of our intrigue with this small African country of 12 million people which not only has a rich and vibrant culture but a tragic recent history due to the genocide in 1994. Many of you may remember hearing reports of the internal strife between the Hutu and Tutsi Tribes that eventually led to 100 days of unspeakable horror and almost the total annihilation of the Tutsis and any moderate Hutu’s who tried to protect them. Our visit to the Genocide Memorial in Kigali was an emotionally overwhelming experience. The United Kingdom Aegis Foundation helped to fund the memorial which has provided at least some comfort to the relatives who many times lost their entire families and spent many years just trying to recover remains for a dignified burial. It was very difficult for us to wrap our minds and hearts around how far hatred and prejudice can push a people towards such inhumanity. It is estimated that at least a million-people died, most of the time from the brutal blade of a machete, and many, many involved total families. At the time there were 84% Hutu, 15% Tutsi and 1% Twa, a pygmy tribe living mostly in the forests. Almost 80% of the Tutsi Tribe was destroyed.
At the museum, we learned that this tribal rivalry was actually generated first by the German occupation in the late 1800’s and then carried over in the Belgian colonization after World War I. In 1932 the Belgians introduced identity cards and the labeling of Tutsi according to their ownership of ten or more cattle. The Hutu were farmers and even though they were in the majority the Tutsi were favored by the Belgians for government jobs and leadership positions. These heretofore never ascribed labels emphasizing differences began a smoldering resentment of sixty years that finally erupted in the genocide of 1994. On the heels of the “Black Hawk Down” disaster in Somalia the USA and the rest of the world community largely stood by and did nothing.
What is so remarkable is the “recovery” and re-building of a nation destroyed by this hatred. We bought a book at the bookstore entitled “Beauty for Ashes” and thought how Isaiah so aptly described the Savior’s offering in moving people from horror to hope when he said that He would: “… appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.” (Isaiah 61:3)
Today, thanks in many ways to the current president Paul Kagame, Rwanda has a vibrant economy with a plan to have it be one of the most modern and vital economies in Africa by 2020. It is their “20/20 Vision” and they are very “focused” on achieving it. Their native language is Kinyarwanda. Previously they were French speaking due to the Belgian influence but now are pushing for the people to learn English. Kinyarwanda is still widely spoken. Rwanda has been called the “Switzerland of Africa” and one would be hard put to find even one gum wrapper on their immaculate streets in Kigali. It is also the “land of a thousand hills” and that topography along with the plentiful trees, flowers, bushes and plants that line the streets and businesses makes it a beautiful city. There are well paved roads, almost no pot holes, lined streets, stop lights and many other amenities of modern life.
No one is allowed to refer to someone as a Hutu or a Tutsi. They are all Rwandans now and they are united in re-building their country. There are two days a month when the whole country stops what they are doing for the last Saturday or first Sunday. Until 12 Noon on those two days they are not allowed to drive any cars or motorcycles unless there is an emergency. The public transit is stopped for those mornings. On the last Saturday of each month everyone is expected to participate in Umuganda which is a community and neighborhood clean-up day. There are people picking up trash and weeding community and public areas. On the first Sunday, no one is allowed to drive again and people are expected to walk and get exercise to stay healthy. Granted, there are still many rural areas where poverty dominates life but there is a “vision” in trying to improve their country and their people’s living standards. Apparently, when the world offered to pour in aid (perhaps to assuage some of their collective guilt for standing by and not listening to the warnings of the growing genocide), the Rwandan government asked them to not just give aid handouts but to invest in Rwanda. They wanted them to help in building roads and other infrastructure and in establishing banking and commercial investments that would grow the economy. It has proved to be a wise request and has produced many beneficial returns over the past 23 years. They have also devised their own approach to rehabilitate the previous generation who survived. Many of those who participated in the genocide have been tried and convicted and are serving prison terms. They can have their sentences reduced through community service and a formal apology to those families who suffered at their hands. This is an old tribal system of justice known as Gacaca and many have availed themselves of this opportunity for forgiveness and repentance. Some, however, have not and they remain to serve their entire (and many times very lengthy) sentences.
We visited Hotel des Mille Collintes, where the hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina and his wife Tatiana, saved the lives of his family and hid more than a thousand Tutsis saving them from the onslaught. A 2004 Hollywood movie titled Hotel Rwanda depicted the events of their story and the genocide. Hotel Rwanda has been called an African Schindler’s List, the story of Oskar Schindler who saved over a thousand mostly Polish-Jewish refugees from the Nazi Holocaust.
We then had a wonderful visit with a woman named Grace who truly IS amazing. She just joined the Church last year and she operates a small business where she and other women sew lovely handicrafts for sale. Many of these women were on the street and she has helped them to provide for themselves and their children through learning these skills. Grace is one of eleven children whose parents and eight siblings were killed in their home during the genocide. She is the oldest child and was married and living away from home. Two other siblings were not at home at that time either. Then, in 1998 she lost her husband who was in combat in the military as border skirmishes with the Hutu refugees in the Congo persisted. She was pregnant with her fifth child at the time. She said that for many years it was impossible for her to smile but she told me, “Since I now know that my family can be sealed together and since I have learned about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I find myself smiling all the time.” She plans to go to the Ghana Temple in a year. Truly, Grace is one of those “trees of righteousness” Isaiah spoke of and is “planting” seeds of hope and change for so many women. There is a strength and peace and presence about Grace that made it difficult to leave her presence. I told her that my youngest grandchild is named Grace and that I know she will grow up to be another “amazing Grace” like her. We purchased many lovely things, met Merabu, the woman who taught Grace how to sew and who continues sewing and teaching other women in a small home converted for their business.
By chance, we also met Claudia who is a returned missionary from London and who happened to be walking along the same street as we were with the Rwandan missionary couple, the Gillettes, from Utah. She was on her way to mail her last documents in applying for school at BYU-Idaho. We were able to talk with her about that AND about a VERY exciting new prospect for these international students and members of the Church. Many of you may be aware of the Pathway program through BYU-Idaho. This is a wonderful program that helps people along a “pathway” to higher education. It was piloted with 50 students in three USA sites in 2009 and now has almost 500 locations throughout the world servicing over 57,000 students.
As of February 9, 2017, President Uchtdorf announced that this will now be offered as Pathway-Worldwide and this will accelerate the growth throughout the world. There are currently only three countries in Africa (Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa) who offer Pathway. We are VERY, VERY excited about the possibilities not only for Ethiopia but for all of the continent in that this is an on- line education offered at prices that are affordable for these students. For example, one credit hour at BYU-Idaho is currently $163.00 and that same credit hour is offered for $10.00 in Ghana. This opens up huge possibilities for so many who are otherwise excluded due to cost. This is one of those wonderful blessings of technology. Of course, securing a lap top and having enough band width for Internet on a regular basis are a couple of hurdles, but they are not insurmountable. We are hoping that maybe Ethiopia will be ready to launch Pathway before we finish our mission.
We ended our trip to Rwanda with a drive up to the top of the highest hill in Kigali which is affectionately called “Holland Hill” by members of the Church there. It was here in 2009 that Elder Jeffrey Holland dedicated this land for missionary work. He spoke of many things in that dedication, not the least of which was the healing and hope that would come to those who would be led to Christ through those efforts. He promised that one day there would be a district and even a stake there. So, it was especially touching that at dinner that evening with the Mission President he told us that approval had been granted to organize a District in Rwanda! The last day of our trip we attended their Zone Conference and listened to a quartet of missionaries sing with gusto “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer” which commemorates the First Vision and has as the first line, “Oh, How Lovely Was the Morning.” It truly was a lovely way to end our visit to Rwanda. Zone singing video
Our own District Conference in Ethiopia was the first week in February and the chapel was full! It was a wonderful sight and we captured the day in a group picture in front of the church. We also had a special Young Single Adult Meeting where President Collings had a great discussion with them.
One of the other highlights of District Conference was provided by Sister Collings who brought 92 reading glasses (of all different strengths) from Uganda. These were provided by a Sister Ashton and her Relief Society of senior sister missionaries who are serving in the Salt Lake City area. They had a goal to collect 500 reading glasses by last Christmas and mail them to Sister Ashton’s daughter whose husband works in the US Embassy in Uganda as the postage is significantly cheaper through the Embassy. They ended up collecting 600 and we got a box full for Ethiopia. It’s so interesting because we had just asked Sister Collings a couple of months ago, what we could do to get reading glasses as we noticed that some of the older people and even younger ones would strain to teach lessons or read scriptures when we would go on visits. We would offer them our glasses and they would smile and say how “clear” everything looked. Glasses are expensive here so many people just squint their way through their mid-life and don’t necessarily consider it a “crisis.” Sister Collings told us that they were hoping to get these glasses soon and we were elated that they arrived in time for our District Conference. One man, Tesfaye, was one of the first ones we met who was struggling with diabetes and the accompanying loss of vision. It was great to hear him say that he “could see clearly now!”
There were a couple of other momentous moments the Monday after District Conference when the elders have their weekly Preparation Day and like to come play basketball at the court on our Megenagna church compound. They also got in a couple of games with the super tall Sudanese players who come to our compound to play each week. The videos tell the story and President Collings and the “other gray haired one” (Lloyd) kept up really well with these young elders! But, after the game they all went home to shower and were coming back to the compound so we could all go out to lunch. Lloyd was driving home to shower and it was decided that I would just stay at the office and finish some work. On his way home, he dropped off President Collings and his wife at their hotel so he could shower and then continued on to our home but never actually made it home. He was rear ended by a huge semi-truck hauling hundreds of cement bags. A car in front of Lloyd decided to abruptly turn left so Lloyd slammed on his brakes and avoided hitting him but the huge truck could not stop fast enough to avoid hitting Lloyd. The impact sent him through an opening onto the commuter train tracks. Fortunately, no train was coming and Lloyd jumped out of the car which was too damaged to drive after nicking a concrete barrier. About thirty men rushed over to move the car off of the train tracks. Incredibly, Lloyd walked away completely unscathed and has not even suffered whiplash. We are SO grateful that he is okay and that no one else was hurt. Our Chinese Lifan is totaled, though, and with the 200% tax on new cars we won’t be getting a new one any time soon. The Lifan was three years old and now we are driving a ten-year-old Toyota Sportero suffering from “car skin cancer” but we are grateful to have anything at all to drive.
Other mission news is that we were very excited to send out another missionary from Ethiopia. Her name is Sister Tigist Asfaw and she is serving in the Ghana Kumasi Mission. She is a sweetheart and Lloyd has been helping her get all of her papers and necessary things in order. We also have another sister missionary preparing to serve in London who was supposed to leave on March 15th. She is another wonderful young woman who received her call the end of October but now with visa issues will be extended until May 31st. That’s a seven month wait just to go on her mission! Her name is Israel and we sure hope that she won’t have another “40 day” wait added on to May like the children of Israel had their “40 year” wait for entering the Promised Land.
We have included a few pictures of some visits with some wonderful families this past month. So, here is our “Family File for February.”
Thomas and Rhoda – This is a sweet Sudanese family with six children. Thomas’ children dancing video Thomas is totally deaf (we think the result of his time in the refugee camps) and is the second counselor in the Megenagna Branch Presidency. Rhoda was crossing the street a few weeks ago, and a taxi veered into her pushing her up against a parked car. Thankfully, she suffered no broken bones but was badly bruised. We had some wonderful visits at their home and even discovered a new version of “tether ball” from the kids in their neighborhood. New game of tether ball video
Samuel and Regina – This is another Sudanese family who feel lucky to be together after Samuel survived last summer as a soldier in the jungles of the Congo having been driven from South Sudan after the uprising in the capitol of Juba.
President Desta and Fiker and their two daughters – We had a delightful FHE with this family as their two young daughters held Family Home Evening with us and the Collings. He is the Branch President in our Bekulobet Branch and is also a police commander. He is a good friend to have, for sure!
Habtamu (formerly Elder Lafo) – This is a wonderful young man we introduced to you last July when he returned from his mission to Ghana Cape Coast. He lives in a very rural area called Wondo Genet which is the very first place we visited with the Johnson’s who were the senior couple we replaced last May. He spoke only his village dialect and some of his surrounding area’s language of Oromo. But, he did not speak Amharic or English and worked incredibly hard to learn English on his mission. He is a farmer and really wanted us to come and see his mother, his village and farm. The sad thing is that it was so cold this winter that he lost his potato crop. All of the farmers lost their cabbage and other vegetable crops and Habtamu is just glad that he can still harvest the sugar cane from his mother’s plot and sell it at market. He introduced us to African sugar cane and it was delicious. He also introduced us to his donkey who pulls his donkey cart to market. You may enjoy the “donkey serenade” on the video. Donkey braying video Habtamu is devoted to his mother and as the youngest child she is so grateful to have him home from his mission. She is not a member of the Church but was very supportive of him going on his mission. She cooks over an open charcoal pit and made some deliciously spiced spaghetti noodles for all of us. Geleta, the new Branch President in Hawassa, accompanied us. Kids singing video
February was “full” and March is looking pretty “magnificent” in that we just received four new missionaries two days ago, who are all Ethiopians who were adopted by American families when they were young children. Next month we will introduce you to them AND to our other eight amazing American missionaries who have also joined our ranks. It is wonderful to have more missionaries here now that things have settled down from the State of Emergency that pulled many of them out last fall. We continue to love and learn so much from our dear friends here and will truly miss them when we return home to all of you dear friends this fall. Meanwhile, we hope that you are all doing well and that you know how very much we value your friendship.
Nancy and Lloyd