Rwanda's bravery puts our bitterness to shame
Published 18/02/2013 | 10:00
This week I had breakfast in the splendid Mac complex in Belfast with more than 100 others, including senior politicians and representatives from the main churches and charities working in world development and humanitarian relief.
We were not there primarily to see the excellent Andy Warhol exhibition, which I commend to you, but to hear the high-powered EC Commissioner for Humanitarian and Human Aid, Kristalina Georgieva, who was the guest of Northern Ireland's longest-serving MEP Jim Nicholson.
The Brussels-based commissioner is an impressive woman who spoke with passion and compassion about helping some of the world's poorest people.
Her words were a stark contrast to the current furore over horse meat and the fraudulent labelling of certain processed foods. These are unjustifiable, but as our hearty Ulster breakfast progressed, I also thought about the hundreds of people I had met a few days previously in Rwanda who cannot afford to eat breakfast of any kind.
My visit as the guest of the Rwandan Tearfund office in Kigali was to see projects in the rugged and beautiful rural area where people are improving their meagre food income, shelter and water with the assistance of the local organisation Moucecore.
Working with the churches, this organisation under its CEO Claudette Umimana is making significant changes to village and urban life, where people are working towards normality following the appalling massacre of 1994, when the majority Hutu tribe murdered 800,000 of their neighbouring Tutus in only 100 days.
Although the bridge-building work is impressive, much remains to be done. I talked to men and women whose relatives and friends had been hacked to pieces, and their bodies piled high in the streets where the corpses were eaten by ravaging dogs.
It is hard to believe that this happened only 20 years ago, but also inspiring to find so many people who have put aside their old hatreds and are working hard to rebuild their society. Some of them would put us to shame, because of the way in which we hang on to our old flag-waving and other hatreds.
In one village I met a Tutsi woman whose husband had been hacked to death, but she managed to escape with her three children. They hid in a field, lived on rain water for a week, and somehow survived.
The woman now works in an inter-church group, trained by Moucecore, and she has helped to build houses for pygmies who are even worse off. She has also adopted three orphans including a Hutu child. It was hard to imagine how she found the moral strength to do that, and also to realise the degree of hardship that still exists there. A large number of Rwandans have only one meal a day, and most of them eat meat only once a year, at Christmas.
They have to send their children out without breakfast, and I visited one village where two young people died while crossing a swollen river on their way to school. I joined the villagers in helping to flatten the harsh land to build a new school in a safer place. They told me that they were raising money by selling off some of their produce, saving the money, but having less to eat every day.
I will not forget the courage and inspiration of those people for as long as I live, and I will try to help them all I can. Sadly, my recent experience in Rwanda puts most of our own problems about our food and our identity in a very different perspective.