One’s Origins: A Journey from Adoption to Identity – Part Fifteen

“The path to light and redemption often appears barren and desolate.
It is when we struggle most to see the light, we need the help of complete darkness.”
― Matthew E. Gorman

In Part Fourteen, I was beginning to draw conclusions about the world in which I now lived. What I had not realized then is that as I ascended in roles and responsibilities, I was becoming more entrenched in the operating principles of every man and woman for themselves. Long gone were the days when one could safely assume colleagues had your back. Gone were the days of trust as I had come to know it. In this new world, my value as a human being it seemed to me, became more tied to the successes I had hitherto enjoyed. In hindsight, this is certainly not surprising. I developed the belief that worth equals achievement. Without the latter, the former could not exist.

One year after completing my MBA, I resigned (not without being requested to do so) from my employer of eleven years without another job waiting for me. Despite the respectful relationship that existed between my boss and me, neither of us could deny my withering zest. I had been bombarded with stories about people who left consulting employment to start their own independent consulting businesses and find themselves on stronger financial footing. The year I resigned was the same year that the recession of 2008 and 2009 was beginning to bloom. I don’t believe I could have chosen a worse time to take such a risk.

I was feeling pains of withdrawal from the intellectual stimulation I immensely enjoyed from the academic environment. I could feel my intellectual muscles begin to atrophy and I was growing melancholic. I was now pretty certain that fulfillment in life for me was not down this path. I began having conversations with other academics about returning to school for a Ph.D. I had not yet understood was that my career did not have to be where I found fulfillment. My career did not have to be my identity. Since pursuing a Ph.D. would unavoidably and significantly impact my career and earnings, the threat to my identity was too much to bear.

In the fall of October 2011, an opportunity presented itself to me that would invite to me re-examine so many ill-developed conceptions of who the person I had begun to believe I was meant to be. My friend Patrick, a film producer and owner of ProCine Sound and Picture, was retained to create a faith-based documentary on the 10th anniversary of the Vatican approving Kibeho, Rwanda as an approved Marian Apparition site[1]. (Rwanda is predominantly Roman Catholic.) Such a production requires several pieces of equipment, most of which were rather expensive.

Yours truly capturing sound at service in Kibeho Rwanda.

He needed someone to aid with sound capture and management while he focused on image and motion capture. The fundamentals were easy enough to grasp. A brief crash course on the equipment and I was ready to go. I won’t provide a play by play of all that unfolded during our trip. However, I will share a few experiences that were rather jarring to the paradigms onto which I had recently been clinging. At the end of this blog, I provide a link to a six-minute video which is the short version of the final product.

The first evening of actual filming was for a vigil service. Our driver dropped us off at the entrance to the church grounds. Patrick and I retrieved our equipment from the vehicle, and we were immediately surrounded by a couple dozen children and teenagers. Patrick and I are both over six feet tall and white. While the group with which we traveled included two caucasian women who were also from the U.S., they each stood at about five and a half feet tall or so. Patrick and I literally stood out like sore thumbs. Factoring in our equipment, we were like a carnival attraction to the people with whom we had come to congregate.

The young people who were fascinated by our presence and armloads of equipment flanked us on all sides. They wanted to learn what on earth we were all about. A few offered to help us carry our equipment wherever we needed to go. Since we wanted to capture footage from several places and angles, we had to move around a lot. This meant our new roadies and fan club would be taking on a bit of work. It should be noted that Patrick and I did not know a single syllable of their language and likewise for them with English.

Although the threat of rain was small, clouds covered the sky. It was near dusk, so the dark of night was quickly edging closer. Once the evening turned into night, the people’s celebration would move to the indoors of the church. As we began to gather our equipment for the trek inside, which took several minutes, the supply of electricity to the parking lot light poles (which were not much more than a few weather-ready light bulbs hanging from poles) would be disrupted repeatedly leaving us in the dark. I mean pitch black dark. If you held your hand in front of your face you would not see it. Whenever this happened, I felt the grasp of the hands of those helping us. In so doing, they communicated to us that they were still with us and we need not be concerned. This struck me at once as both reassuring and transformative. I instantly became keenly aware that their primary interest was in taking care of us and not in any physical possession of ours.

Once we were through with filming on our first night, we began packing things up and we were discussing how to handle tipping the kids who helped us. I figured in my head how many Rwandan francs would be the equivalent of a few US dollars for each kid. When we gave them the money they were as excited as they were dumfounded. “Why on earth are they giving us money?” They seemed to be wondering. The others nearby who were less involved in carrying the equipment but still followed us everywhere we went, looked at those who did receive money equally perplexed. “Why did they give that to you?” It dawned on me that their willingness and downright eagerness to assist us was not motivated by any want of material compensation but merely to explore their sense of wonder. I was witnessing in my life for the first time in a long time, true beauty in humanity.

The following day was the main church service. The link to the video at the end of this blog goes a little bit more into this but I want to share the experience of observing a section of the service where gifts are carried to the altar to be sacrificed for the good of others. Commonly, this is merely ritualistic and the gifts include nothing more than what the celebrant will be using for the eucharistic portion of the service and it takes up no more than a couple minutes. That was not the case here. For what possibly lasted nearly a half-hour, if not longer, there would be a sea of people carrying to the alter items they bought from home to offer to those less fortunate than themselves. Think about this for a minute, by first-world standards, these were people who are unimaginably impoverished, and they still acted on their sense of duty to assist those whom they realized less fortunate than they themselves were. They had nearly nothing, and still felt they were fortunate enough to give away something – so they did! Contrast that with first world countries where there is an overabundance of things we need for sustenance and we still feel we never have enough.

Once the service was over, we had several days planned to travel around to learn more about the 1994 genocide that factored into the stories behind the apparitions. In the spring of 1994, between 800,000 and one million Tutsis were slaughtered, commonly by machete, by the Hutu’s. The bloodshed was so widespread and intense many rivers and waterways were tinted red during this time period. For a historical account of these events and the events that led up to the genocide, I welcome you to visit this link to a BBC article published on April 4, 2019.

The village youth enjoyed following us around.

We visited other churches as part of the documentary. One church we visited was connected to a bakery that made communion wafers. They also made bread and rolls. Outside the perimeter of the fenced-in church grounds were more neighborhood kids intrigued by what they saw from a distance as we went about our business. While touring the bakery operations, we purchased several dozen rolls for about one US dollar per dozen. We walked out beyond the fenced area of the church grounds to offer rolls to the children lingering about. Our group comprised about four or five people and dozens of children swarmed us once they realized we were offering them bread. With each one of our hands holding out the bread, other hands from all directions would grab and pull to get a piece despite our attempts to assure them we had more than enough to go around.

Things we take for granted, would often be sources of fascination and wonder for the children.

Occasionally, a roll or a piece of a roll would fall to the ground landing in the mud. The contest for that piece would follow it down and the victor would rise smiling as they ate their mud-soaked piece of bread. If that is not what real hunger looks like, I have no idea what does, and I have no desire to observe it. As I stood more than a foot above these children, I realized how much I looked up to them as well as those who helped us earlier.

The rest of the week included visits to mass graves (some rather horrific) and other memorials honoring the souls slaughtered in the Spring of 1994. Our journeys also took us to locations where we would meet people who had lost loved ones in the genocide as well as those who had served time in prison for their part in the genocide. One such encounter our host, Immaculee Ilibagiza[1] who lost nearly her entire family herself, negotiated, in front of our eyes and ears, a reconciliation attempt between a grieving young woman and a man believed to have been responsible for the death of at least one of her loved ones. In place of scathing hatred, the voice of the grieving was full of deep sorrow and pain. The pathway to forgiveness and peace was being laid before the feet of these two individuals and I had a front and center seat less than ten feet away. I could not understand a word being said, but I could feel every ounce of emotion being exchanged. I was in a country and among people, that, seventeen and a half years later, were still in the process of healing.

Our group left to right: Yvan (our driver); Immaculee (author, speaker and our host); Renee; Patrick; Chantal (genocide survivor); Margaret; yours truly

As the week came to a close, I found myself pondering many responses, some emotional and others intellectual. One thought that oddly stood out was the notion of chance. As a business-minded person who, at home, was trying to embark on an entrepreneurial pathway, I held the belief that financial success primarily comes from blood, sweat, and tears. Indeed, grit and perseverance are essential components of success, and those things rely solely on us. The most significant factor is one that no one individual can ever control or even influence. The environment into which we are born, in my case in the United States with a favorable cluster of demographic characteristics, is a random draw, pure and simple. What we do in our environment later on is up to us. The other revelation I had was that I, as a citizen of a nation whose overarching values breed abundance in material worth and depravity of gratitude, was now congregating among a people who possess little if anything of any material worth, but whose hearts overflow with gratitude. I am reminded of the saying I once read but to whom it is attributed, I cannot recall. “I feel quite sorry for many wealthy people. The only thing they have in life is money.”

Yours truly at the entrance to Hôtel des Mille Collines (cinematically known as Hotel Rwanda).

I conclude Part Fifteen with a brief tale of our lodging. We did not stay in one region throughout the week. Rather, we traveled to and lodged in several areas. The accommodations were quite basic. A bed, a sink, and a toilet. On our final night, we were back in the capital city of Kigali where this amazing experience all began a week earlier. We stayed at a hotel that is heavily frequented by foreigners; Hôtel des Mille Collines. The story of the hotel and its manager at that time, Paul Rusesabagina, was later used as the basis of the 2004 film ‘Hotel Rwanda’.

I look forward to seeing you in Part Sixteen. In the meantime, I invite you to watch this six-minute video to learn more about the experience of my week in Rwanda. https://vimeo.com/34709750

[1] Immaculee Ilibagiza is a survivor of the genocide and her astonishing story of faith, survival, and forgiveness is told in her seminal book, “Left to Tell” ©2006 Immaculee Ilibagiza

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marian_apparition

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