KATONAH, N.Y. - In 2006, Edward Ballen traveled to Rwanda with his daughter to volunteer at the Hameau des Jeunes orphanage and his life was forever changed. Working at the orphanage, Ballen was moved by the spirit of the children, most of whom were survivors of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 that saw nearly a million people murdered in a 100-day period. The children lived in harsh conditions, with very few amenities that most people take for granted. Yet, Ballen said, they were kind, compassionate and always willing to help one another.
“That was the time that the children became my teachers and my mentors,” he said. “And, despite what one might call poverty, these children were not poor. They were rich in spirit.”
The experience led Ballen to found the Rwanda Education Assistance Project (REAP) in 2008. The program worked to improve conditions at the Duha Complex School, which had also been impacted by the genocide. Over the last decade, REAP has transformed the school, bringing in electricity and running water and adding a computer center, a basketball court and a library. Unfortunately, a 2016 storm devastated the library and, out of that disaster, Ballen saw an opportunity. He realized that, as positive an impact as the school was having, there was a chance for REAP to have an even wider reach.
“We weren’t reaching the parents, and we weren’t reaching the community,” he said. “So we purchased property about a 10-minute walk from the school and right next to a small village.”
As part of a fundraising effort to help complete the new library, and for the project overall, REAP held a special event at the Katonah Library. Titled “Radical Hope in Changing Times,” the afternoon consisted of a series of informative talks, interspersed with songs from the Treble Makers, an a cappella group from John Jay High School.
“I often say that Rwanda is both a place and it`s also a state of consciousness,” Ballen said. “And what I’m hoping today is that we can confront some really essential questions...I hope in the next couple of hours that everybody can live these questions, open your curiosity of your mind, your compassion of your heart and the courage to act in the world today.”
Among the speakers was Muhoza Rwabukamba, a survivor of the genocide and a founding board member of REAP. Speaking to a captivated audience, Rwabukamba spoke of his journey through the horrors of the genocide of 1994. As a child, Rwabukamba witnessed unspeakable horrors as the Hutus, the ethnic majority in Rwanda, set about the systematic slaughter of the Tutsis, the tribe to which his father belonged.
“Not only did they kill the Tutsis with machetes,” he said, “but they attacked our souls, they attacked our spirits. And it’s really hard to run away from that. After a while, you believe it. After a while, you’d be lucky to die. And during the genocide, some people paid money to be killed by a gun instead of a machete.”
Rwabukamba went on to talk about the pain of losing friends and family, of seeing people murdered in front of his eyes and the sheer randomness of the slaughter.
“I can’t take credit for surviving the genocide,” he said. “People keep saying, ‘How did you survive?’ I don’t know. I think I was just lucky. I wasn’t the strongest, I wasn’t the smartest. I was just a lucky person.”
He also noted that making it through the nightmare of 1994 was almost a pyrrhic victory, as the scars of that terrible time still remain.
“Surviving the survival, in my opinion, has been the hardest,” he said. “Because surviving during the genocide, it’s almost like an autopilot. When I describe it, I say it’s living but not knowing if you’re going to be alive in the next five seconds.”
Also speaking at the library were Dr. Judith Schmidt, the co-founder of the Center for Intentional Living, and Dr. Danny Martin, a consultant and coach in the art of dialogue. Both spoke about the importance of connecting with people and taking the time to look at others as fellow humans and not strangers or, in the worst cases, enemies.
Rwabukamba said that the dehumanizing experience of the genocide can leave one with what he called an “empty cup,” a spiritual void that makes it difficult to love or care for those around you, and that the work that REAP is doing can help to fill those spiritual cups for all the genocide survivors.
“My children are going to become what I give them,” he said. “If I don’t have anything to give them, what have I become? The only thing that can stop something like this from happening in the future is what REAP is doing, which is trying to go back and help those parents that were in the genocide that have empty cups and give them the tools they need to be there for their children.”
For more information about REAP, visit reaprwanda.org.