THE WELCOMING CEREMONY, Written by Maryanne Conheim, Barefoot Artists volunteer (2011)


The day of the welcoming ceremony, like most days in Western Rwanda, even during the rainy season, dawned bright and clear. Lily Yeh and I donned our best clothes before climbing into the range rover that would take us from Mama Chakula’s guest house in Gisenyi to the nearby Rugerero Genocide Survivor’s Village.

As we turned into the rutted dirt road of the village, children and adults began running alongside our vehicle: “Mama Lily” had arrived! The news quickly travelled throughout the village: We were mobbed and warmly embraced as we disembarked and made our way to the one-room hall reserved for meetings of village officials.

This, however, was no ordinary meeting. Several district officials awaited us, including the commander of Western Rwanda’s armed forces. Virtually the entire village had turned out to greet “Mama Lily” on the occasion of her 8th visit in as many years. Amid a joyous outpouring of love and outstretched arms, we made our way to the table reserved for dignitaries, which was set with a white cloth and bowls of pink flowers. The villagers seated themselves below us on benches arranged in a semicircle, or on the ground. From the dais, we overlooked not only the adoring crowd but a panorama of Rwanda’s ubiquitous terraced mountains,

Rwandan Red Cross official Jean Bosco Rukirande, whose eloquent speech at a conference in Barcelona eight years ago first inspired Lily to make the arduous 40-hour journey from Philadelphia to Rugerero, took the microphone and spoke the first words of welcome. He thanked Lily for once again bringing visiitors to witness what had been accomplished since her first visit to the village — visitors who would make their own unique contribution and then help to bring Rugerero’s message of hope and rebirth to the outside world.

“When people come from so very far away to help the Rwandan people,” Jean Bosco said, “Rwandans learn from them how to help each other. The people here in this village have learned to solve their own problems. As they will tell you, they are now doing so well that they are able to help others. Right now, they are constructing new housing for the disabled.”

A red-shirted village elder named Moses spoke next. “Mama Lily,” he said, “We thank you for bringing nurses and doctors from Thomas Jefferson University, who taught us hygience and nutrition, but the most important healing took place before that, when you helped us to build our genocide memorial.

He explained, “After the genocide, the bodies of our loved ones were scattered everywhere.. The people (survivors) were traumatized. Even now, when people view the bones of their relatives, they still get traumatized, but when they see that the remains have been buried with honor, they can finally be at peace. If you don’t bury your relatives, you continue to feel the pain. The best way to end the suffering is to bury and properly mourn the dead.”

The genocide memorial was constructed in consultation with the villagers. When Lily first came to the village, residents were so fearful or depressed that many could not even leave their homes or speak to one another. Lily began by conducting workshops in which villagers were invited to draw pictures of events too painful to tell, and to envison a memorial to their loved ones who had perished in the 1994 genocide. The workshops enabled them gradually to trust and communicate with one another again, and the memorial, a simple but beautiful white building with steps leading down to a “bone chamber” and up to a wall covered with floral mosaics, is set inside a walled park that is beautifully landscaped and tended by survivors. Top section of the main wall contains one word, “Twibuke (Remember).”

It is very much a living memorial, because the remains of Rugerero’s Tutsi victims are still being found — at the bottom of old wells, in riverbeds, and buried in farmers’ fields. When they are found, they are transferred to the bone chamber with great solemnity. Only a week before we arrived in Rugerero last April, the village had held a ceremony for newly found victims. The bone chamber now holds the remains of nearly 500 murdered Tutsi villagers.

Moses continued, “This genocide memorial is healing for survivors. In honor of the Tutsis who died, and the orphans who remained, Mama Lily came. to our village. She came to help us all. She provided opportunities for the people to learn so many things — skills, language, health, nutrition . . . so much that one person cannot tell it all. Thank you, Mama Lily!”

Now men and women were lining up to give testimonials and to perform skits enacting the benefits that Lily had brought to the village:

Joseph: “We were in darkness. Old people couldn’t afford to buy gas or electricity. Now we are getting solar energy! Children can read, and people can work in the night. Children can do their homework, so they perform well in school. Thank you, Mama Lily!”

Eugenie: “The old women in the village were lonely. Mama Lily sent us a teacher to teach us how to make baskets. Now we make baskets and make money. We can buy food, and soap, and many other things. Thank you, Mama Lily!”

Angie: “We were lonely as children who dropped out of school for lacking school fees. Then Mama Lily found a teacher to teach us tailoring. Now we are smart, and we can sew clothes. We can afford to buy meat just like millionaires! Thank you, Mama Lily!”

Chantal: “I am busy making baskets. These baskets get me money. Now I even have a telephone! My children have become healthy with good hygiene. I am now smart. I got a microloan and I make business. My children are no longer hungry. They are moving ahead. Thank you, Mama Lily!”

Valerie: “Mama Lily is like a man, she does so many good things! She brought us sewing machines. Now many girls can sew and earn money. Mama Lily helped us to get rainwater collection tanks for the village. People from all around come to take our clean water. See, now we can help others. Thank you, Mama Lily!”

Immaculata: “We used to go to the bush for toilet. Now we have latrines. Thank you, Mama Lily!” (Lily whispers to me that Engineers without Borders built the ventilated latrines).

Valerie: “Lily gave us goats. If you have a problem, you sell a male goat, you get money, you solve the problem! Thank you, Mama Lily!”

Celeste: (She is an elegant woman, well dressed and coifed. If you met her in the US, you might think she was a bank executive, and you might be right). “People come from all over to visit us,” she said. “They say, I see you have good clothes — you are beautiful! Yes, I say, I have good clothes and I know how to dress myself.”

Celeste continues, “Mama Lily told us that in Asia they set up micro-credit and it goes very well, because WOMEN always return the money! (Laughter). I started with microcredit, and this microcredit has become a bank! We started with one million RWF (apprximately $2,000) the first year. Mama Lily added another one million RWF the following year. Our police chief Hubert contributed 10,000 RWF. Last year, Eric Reynolds, an American put in another million. Now we have over three million! With the interest we have, we got a cow, and now we can sell a calf for RWF 50,000. I am president of the microcredit committee. We have given loans to 61 people so far! Before, I lived in a small, leaky house. Now I am building a new house.”

In conclusion, Celeste declares, “I pray that Mama Lily “will go directly to heaven, without dying.”

As Celeste is speaking, a dance troupe has assembled off to one side. As she takes her seat, the Amarisa dance group enters singing and dancing, to the accompaniment of drums and police whistles. The dance is energetic and infectious — my feet are tapping. My translator whispers that the song “is about the cow.” Cow’s milk is greatly prized in Rwanda, and now, thanks to Mama Lily, the children of the Rugerero Genocide Survivors’ Village have cow’s milk to drink.

The heart of the welcoming ceremony is the symbolic pouring of the milk, a solemn rite newly minted for this occasion.

“For many years,” said the chief of the Rugerero District, “Mama Lily came to Rugerero and gave us many gifts. We regret that until now, we had nothing to give her in return. Now we have cows! With all good wishes, we want to invite Lily to pour milk for our children.”

I have never witnessed a holier sacrament: Two sari-clad goddesses glided into the circle bearing a tray with a carved wooden vessel of milk. Two children, a boy and a girl, seated themselves on a straw mat on the dais. Each was given a clay mug. Lily and I, who had stepped down from the dais to join the dancers’ final chorus, were directed to pour the milk into the children’s mugs. After the children drained the mugs, Lily drank from the pitcher and passed it to me. The milk was thick and rich, like fresh buttermilk. With milk mustaches, we bowed to hearty applause.

But there was more. The Rugerero chief declared, “For many years, Mama Lily, we had nothing to give you but our gratitude and good wishes, but this year we do!” The two sari-clad goddesses left and returned bearing a beaded staff worthy of a village chief. The beads glistened yellow, blue and green, the colors of the Rwandan flag.

Lily took the microphone and spoke from her heart. “I gave you a small gift, but you gave me a large gift!” she said. “I wish you more prosperity and more happiness. Help each other, help other people, and you will make Mama Lily very, very happy!”

At this opportune moment, and because it was the rainy season, the clouds opened up and rain came down in sheets, quickly flooding the ground. The rains rarely last an hour before the sun comes out again. The dignitaries were ushered into the village hall while children were sent home. We took refuge from the downpour in a gold-curtained room painted the blue of the Rwandan flag. Once again, we were seated at a table, and the sari-clad goddesses returned with trays of Coca-cola, Fanta, bottled water, and triangular meat-filled pastries. The delicious food was passed around until all had eaten their fill. The testimonials and speeches continued until the rain stopped. The entire village, once diseased and malnourished, at long last had food and clean water to share. Thank you, Mama Lily!

Mama Lily’s work in this village is done, but she is already thinking about the next village. Tomorrow we will go to work in a Twa village a few miles down the road, but that is a whole other story.

The Twa, formerly known as pygmies, were the aboriginal inhabitants of the central African rain forests. The forests have all been cut down for agriculture and mineral development, and the Twa are now internally displaced persons. Formerly hunter-gatherers, they must learn new skills in order to survive. Our mission is to complete work on a Twa art center where they can produce and display their handicrafts. They are fine potters. I will lead a workshop in clay bead-making and jewelry design, to give them new products to sell. Lily, with help from the villagers, will decorate the art center with eye-catching mosaics and murals. A team of nurses from Florida will treat the entire village for malaria and worms, and pass out mosquito nets. Last year Lily purchased the land for the art center, a few hectares of land for food cultivation, and a flock of goats for the village. Now every villager has a goat. They will not only survive; they will thrive.

Thank you, Mama Lily!

  • The Amarisa dance group enters singing and dancing, to the accompaniment of drums and police whistles.

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