Twenty years ago, in 1997, I visited Rwanda as part of an overland trip of East Africa with the main mission to visit the gorillas. This was a lifetimes ambition and at a point of crossroads in my life that put me back on the path I was supposed to be following. It taught me that dreams can come true if you work hard enough for them, and this I did by earning and saving the money and climbing the slippery rain forest mountains to finally see these wonderous creatures.
But back then, whilst I was aware my visit was not long after the genocide in Rwanda, I had been completely blaze about my safety and the extent of the risk I had placed myself in. In my ambition I also ignored the people and the country and the reality of what this genocide had really meant to them. All I cared about was fulfilling my own ambition of seeing the gorillas and ignored everything else around me so I could dismiss any fear or sadness I probably should have had. The borders had been closed the previous week because of rebel fighting, we had to stay all week in a mission under curfew we had as many armed guards escorting us to the gorillas as trackers. This just added to my story to tell people back home.
When I got home I read Seasons of Blood by Feargul Keane and brought home to me what had really gone on in Rwanda preceding my visit and realised how much risk I had put myself in. I look back now and am embarrassed for being that naïve young tourist only out for fulfilling my goals and bragging about my survival stories.
I know at that point tourism was playing a huge part in rebuilding the country and I do acknowledge this. What I don’t forgive myself for though is my dismissal of what the country really went through. But it did leave something huge in my heart. I always had a sense I would be going back there one day to help in some way. But first I needed skills that warranted my help, the wish to help was not going to be enough.
I had heard stories of women who had been raped and internal organs mutilated as a way to eradicate their race because no man would then take them as a wife. I cried for these women wondering how they possibly found a way to psychologically survive this, knowing they could never bear a child.
But I have come to a point in my life where it has become apparent that nature has sent me on the same path, maybe not in such a brutal way, but painful all the same. I have been having to reconcile the idea that the rest of my life is to be childless and have had to search in my soul to find a role and purpose for my future years. I have come to realise that I most probably have too much heart to give to one child and would probably have suffocated them with it. I also have something within me that connect with people at a therapeutic level that is my way of showing my love of humanity.
As a person and a Psychologist I am naturally curious about humankind and their capacity to overcome adversity. I have been fortunate to have been brought up in a (fairly) safe and stable home and country and so I have sought out danger in other ways to test my on capacity for resilience. This is one thing I do not regret about my trip to Rwanda 20yrs ago as it has made the strong person I am today. Apart from a few accidents in my travels I have not been through anything like the people of Rwanda have been and I am under no illusion that what the mental health workers of Rwanda have to teach me is probably far more powerful and enlightening that anything I can teach them. But I would hope that I can offer something of my learnt and natural skills to help the country in some small way. Having had to deal with my own mental health issues I am at a point in my life that I am no longer immersed in myself but now have space to give to others beyond my professional remit and to something that is far bigger than me.
I feel a sadness but don’t feel it. We become immune by all the scenes, the word's no longer means anything because reality is we never experienced it ourselves. It’s just part of a fictional story written to shock, but we then get on with our lives as normal. I try to remember these books are not fiction, they happened, they are not being exaggerated for social media because at the time they were kept out of the media. This is the truth of what happened and so it feels real. Human beings are capable of this behaviour. I can’t use shocking words as I don’t feel them, I am detached from them but want to somehow be part of it to grieve with them.