Will Ferguson, three-time winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour, hesitated when his friend Jean-Claude Munyezamu suggested that they travel from their homes in Calgary to visit Jean-Claude’s native Rwanda. Ferguson didn’t hesitate because of safety concerns – the horrific Rwandan genocide had happened 20 years earlier in 1994, and the country had made strides toward healing. Rather, he hesitated because of sadness. He explains, “I’d always maintained that a sense of humour can be found in any destination, no matter how bruised, how battered, and that through humour we can find a sense of shared humanity. But Rwanda?” Ferguson had come to know Calgary’s Rwandan community through Munyezamu and had begun to glimpse the horror of the genocide as he learned about their experiences.
Munyezamu, 19 years old at the time, had escaped from Rwanda 10 months before the genocide in which a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in 100 days by Hutu followers of the race-based ideology of Hutu Power and supremacy. Friends, neighbours and fellow believers maimed, tortured, hunted and killed each other in scenarios unbearably difficult to contemplate or to understand.
Ferguson explores the responsibility of the colonial powers, especially Belgium and France, in creating the social categories of Tutsi and Hutu which led to the genocide. “It bears repeating: Tutsi and Hutu are social categories, not ethnicities.” He maintains that “the coming holocaust was not an unforeseen event; it was well documented, well prepared and well known far in advance. Genocide is never spontaneous. It takes planning, it takes intent.”
As Ferguson and Munyezamu made a three-week road trip through Rwanda, they encountered a radically changed nation in many regards. On the surface of things, it seemed that freedom, progress and enterprises were flourishing and transforming society. However, the wounds of the genocide – people’s physical, mental and spiritual scars, as well as bullet-riddled buildings and desecrated churches (filled with the skulls, bones and the clothes of the slaughtered) – were evident everywhere and revealed that 20 years isn’t long enough, could never be long enough, to erase the memory of unspeakable evil. At the same time, public opinion sharply diverges as to the true nature of Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president. Is he like a beneficial, society-transforming CEO, on the one hand, or is he a dictator?
Though the entire genocide is beyond comprehension, one aspect of its implementation is particularly painful to read about – the role of prominent clergy in Catholic, Anglican and Seventh-Day Adventist churches who supported Hutu Power and aided in the murder of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. In fact, many lay people thought they were doing the will of the church by participating in the killings. Ferguson quotes Rwandan theologian, Laurien Ntezimana, who explained the reason why: “Rwandese know how to obey but they do not know how to dialogue. . . . The church has always exalted the virtue of obedience, and if you talk to ordinary people they will tell you that many of the massacres happened because they blindly obeyed the authorities.” On the other hand, many clergy risked everything to aid the persecuted, but they did so without the sanction of the church.
Ferguson openly acknowledges that he himself isn’t a religious person. He contrasts himself with Munyezamu who was raised in the Catholic Church, but left it after he experienced the church’s betrayal of his nation. Yet Munyezamu is still a Christian and honours Christ through his sacrificial lifestyle, by volunteering at the Calgary Food Bank, Mustard Seed, Inn from the Cold and setting up a free soccer program for the children of low-income families. Ferguson is intrigued by Munyezamu’s faith and can’t understand how he can keep believing in God after experiencing the deaths of family, friends and neighbours in the genocide, as well as freely serving people.
Munyezamu explains, “It kind of haunts you, being alive. You always ask yourself why? Why me, why did I make it out when so many others did not? . . . I guess I feel I owe something, that I need to give back somehow. Otherwise, what was the point of it?”
Before Ferguson left for Rwanda, he wondered if he could find humour there. As he shares Munyezamu’s and his encounters with the Rwandan people and relates their painful stories, he uses humour to poke fun at himself and offers comedic relief. Surprisingly, Road Trip Rwanda relates many laugh-out-loud moments, while never minimizing the pain of revisited memories.
You just read something for free.
But it didn’t appear out of thin air. Writers, editors and designers at Christian Courier worked behind the scenes to bring hope-filled, faith-based journalism to you.
As an independent publication, we simply cannot produce award-winning, Christ-centred material without support from readers like you. And we are truly grateful for any amount you can give!
CC is a registered charity, which is good news for you! Every contribution ($10+) is tax-deductible.