I was fortunate to spend the morning with Carl Wilkens and his wife Teresa to see (for my first time) a cow distribution take place. During the 1994 genocide, Carl was the only American who chose to stay in Rwanda while the rest of the world did nothing to stop the massacres. Thanks to the support of an organization called Life Lifting Hands, founded by Amiel Gahima (Carl’s friend and former colleague from Rwanda), five families in the Southern Province now have a cow to bring home. A cow’s milk provides nourishment to an entire Rwandan family and helps them sustain a livelihood. Once the family’s cow gives birth to a calf, the family will keep the calf and give the mother cow to another family. Cow distributions are part of the Rwandan government’s GIRINKA initiative to alleviate poverty by ensuring that every Rwandan family has a cow. One cow costs about $450 so your small donation can make a huge difference.
The ceremony took place at Amiel’s former home in Ruhonda. As soon as Carl, Teresa, Valence (Carl’s former colleague), and I arrived, we were met by Amiel’s brother, Daniel, and several other people who had been taking care of the cows. Shortly after, the five family representatives arrived and the local government representative prepared the lottery by assigning numbers to the cows, writing the numbers on pieces of paper, crumpling them to hide the number, and putting them on the ground. Each person picked up a number and looked at the cow that would be theirs. Huge smiles broke out on each their faces. Everyone cheered and clapped their hands. The family representatives were led to their cows to inspect and calm them. Carl talked to each representative and asked about their families. Two of the men were widowers and each man had between four and six children, and some had grandchildren. The one female representative was there on behalf of her husband who is deaf. Her hands were caked in soil; clearly, she had been working in her garden up until her neighbors came to bring her to the ceremony. Carl explained to everyone present how he was there on behalf of Amiel, who now lives in the U.S., and that Amiel wishes he could be here for the ceremony, but that he prefers to save the money that he would spend on a plane ticket to instead buy more cows for the community. Carl asked if it would be okay for us to take pictures and videos to share with Amiel and everyone agreed. Therefore, there were many great photo opportunities.
I am lucky to have had this opportunity to spend time with Carl and Teresa in Rwanda. My friend Tigranna, who is a Carl Wilkens Fellow and who studied abroad with me in Kigali in 2012, told me that she thought they might be here and connected us. Carl reached out to me immediately and we made the plan the next morning to meet even though it was he and Teresa’s last day in Rwanda before they would travel back to the U.S. I kind of knew, before hopping in the car with Carl and Teresa, that the morning would be special.
I had once met Carl at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. when he spoke at a student leadership conference that I attended. I remember sitting in the darkened lecture hall, nearby a friend who had also studied abroad with me in Rwanda, and being entirely amazed by Carl’s storytelling. As he showed pictures of the people he knew and the places he inhabited and told us stories from Rwanda, I was transported right back to the place where I had just been for 3 months. Specifically, I was back in the neighborhood where my school was located and where, only a few doors down in April 1994, Carl was in his house, recording what he was seeing and hearing as the genocide was happening. Carl wrote his story down in his book and has retold it again and again to audiences across the world. And even though he has told his story many times, he cried on that stage in that lecture hall. And when he cried, I cried because he saw what he saw in a country that I love, and I could only begin to picture it.
Some of the only times when I try to imagine what Rwanda was like during the genocide are when I look out from the window of the car or bus in which I am traveling. Were there bodies in these swamps? On this road? Was this even a road? If it was, was there a roadblock here? Were people hiding in that forest there? These are the kind of questions that have raced in my head and that consistently produce a silence within me that overwhelms all my other thoughts and quiets the Kinyarwanda radio that is usually blasting in the speakers. I never find out the answers to my questions or get confirmation of my imagination during those moments. Instead, I am left to wonder and to return to my conversations, to my thoughts, and to my present life.
When Carl, Teresa, Valence, and I were in the car, heading back to Kigali from the cow distribution, Carl told the story of how he and another colleague set out to find Amiel after the genocide. They had heard that Amiel may be walking on foot back to his home from the border where he ran to escape with his children. As we drove, I imagined the story happening on the road that we were driving on. I imagined Carl, with his head out the window of the truck, asking the crowds of people who were walking on the side of the road if they had seen his friend. And I imagined the rush he must have felt, when some people finally said yes, that they knew Amiel, and that he was on his way. I pictured Carl pulled over on the side of road, carefully glancing at each face that passed him, as he waited for the colleague with whom he was traveling to cut across the valley so that they could be sure they didn’t miss Amiel on the walking paths. And then, I could almost picture Carl spot his friend in the distance, emaciated and carrying his youngest child on his shoulders.
Carl told me more of the story: how they embraced, how they loaded up the truck with as many people as they could fit plus some more, and how his friend chose to return to his looted home, the same one that we had visited that day and where the cow distribution took place. Carl explained how in the trees surrounding the house, there were makeshift shelters under which dead bodies lay rotting. And when Carl cried, I cried because I could start to imagine.
And when our car pulled into downtown Kigali, Carl’s storytelling ended and we parted ways. I don’t think I will ever forget my first cow distribution ceremony or the stories from the car ride day. I know that next time when I’m by a window on a bus heading to the Southern Province, perhaps on my way to the National Art Gallery, I will look out for the small bridge on the side of the road, the one that leads to Amiel’s driveway. I probably won’t spot it, but if I do, I’m sure I will still imagine the bodies in the trees. I will also imagine the five families with the cows and remember the morning I spent with Carl and Teresa in the car.