A Reflection on the CRS/ACCU Presidential Delegation to Rwanda and Burundi

Feb 27, 2012

Sister Anne Munley discusses business with Richard Havyarimana, a bicycle taxi driver with the assistance of Hermes Nijimbere of Action Batwa de Missionnaires d'Afrique. Photography by Sala Lewis for Catholic Relief Services

From January 9-16, 2012, I had the wonderful opportunity of visiting Rwanda and Burundi as a participant in a new initiative of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) designed to strengthen links between Catholic Colleges/Universities and CRS work in the field.

Our delegation included four ACCU member presidents—Dr. Mary Lyons, University of San Diego; Fr. Stephen Privett, SJ, University of San Francisco; Dr. Brennan O‘Donnell, Manhattan College; Sr. Anne Munley, IHM, Marywood University—and Ken Hackett, former president of CRS; Joan Rosenhauer, executive vice- president of US operations; and Dorothy Madison-Seck, regional director for Central Africa.

This was not my first visit to Africa. I have been to many other countries because of my involvement with the African Sisters Education Collaborative (ASEC), but this was my first direct encounter with the devastating realities of genocide and the ongoing human struggle toward reconciliation.

What I witnessed in Rwanda at the Genocide Memorial and during a parish community healing and reconciliation session in Kigali, and at numerous CRS projects to empower people in Rwanda and Burundi, was deep and profound.  Survivors and perpetrators of horrific acts of genocide were able to come together to a place of healing and peace, moving beyond what most would consider unforgivable deeds. Collaborative and capacity-building efforts to address poverty, disease, malnutrition, and the consequences of war and genocide can and do make a difference. Technical and interpersonal know how, fueled by the foundational value of respect for the dignity of every person can re-weave the fabric of society. A passion for the possible can make the impossible possible.

Since I have returned home, I have drawn comfort from an insight of author James Riordan, who contributed to the writing of The Bishop of Rwanda: “What I learned in Rwanda was that God is not absent when great evil is unleashed. Whether that evil is man-made or helped along by darker forces, God is right there, saving those who respond to His urgings and trying to heal the rest.” In my short time in Rwanda and Burundi, I was able to see that God is indeed “right there.”

A blessing of this trip for me personally was increased awareness of CRS programs and collaborative activities as concrete expressions of a caring and universal Church. Through such efforts, Catholics of the United States touch and are touched by brothers and sisters in God’s global family. Catholic colleges and universities in the United States are steeped in Catholic social teaching. Our students are interested in service learning and open to experiences that have the potential to help them learn to live responsibly in a diverse and interdependent world. In this time of competing global demands for scarce resources and growing gaps between rich and poor, CRS and ACCU colleges/universities are natural partners for mutually beneficial collaboration. 

Respectful empowerment of the people served is a hallmark of the CRS projects that we visited in Rwanda and Burundi. CRS staff is adept at creating and partnering in programs in which people learn by doing. Among the programs that we experienced was the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative, in which CRS and other partners are training and strengthening the capacity of Burundi farmers to address cassava mosaic disease and the emerging brown streak pandemics that threaten the food security and incomes of cassava dependent farm families. We also had the opportunity to observe a meeting of a Savings and Internal Lending Community (SILC) youth group as they pooled resources and approved members’ requests to borrow funds for small income-generating projects, such as the sale of soap or fruits and vegetables.

On the outskirts of Bujumbura, Burundi, we were privileged to visit a Twa (Batwa) group who has not yet received development assistance.  Traditionally a semi-nomadic people, the Twa have lost access to their hunting and gathering grounds and are landless, poor, and discriminated upon as an ethnic minority. We were warmly welcomed by dancing women and children as Father Elias Mwebembezi, M.Afr., whose ministry focuses on the Twa, introduced us as “friends from America.” 

The next day, Father Elias accompanied us to a Twa village to experience the impact of programs and projects sponsored by CRS, the Missionnaires d’Afrique, Caritas, and other partners.  Again we were greeted with gracious hospitality and joyful singing and dancing. Instead of living in grass huts, families had small brick dwellings, and the people showed us planted fields and micro-enterprises such as the breeding and sale of pigs and CRS “bicycle taxis.”  The villagers followed us everywhere. There is a small school where the children are being taught to read and write, and efforts are underway to secure access to health care and improved nutrition.

In the near future, it is likely that the Twa will be assimilated into the broader society through intermarriage and agricultural development. This was an amazing experience of a way of life that will soon cease to exist. I was deeply moved by the work of Father Elias and CRS among the Twa.  There is dignity in the way in which the people work together and CRS staff interactions with the people are so respectful. Father Elias just wants the people to be “treated like everybody else.” I experienced the presence of God through the presence of Father Elias and CRS staff in the midst of the Twa people. God, indeed, is “right there.”

While in Rwanda and Burundi, our delegation also met with high level civic and Church officials as well as with the United States ambassadors in both countries. The Archbishop of Burundi would like to establish a Catholic university, and the Vice- President shared plans for a polytechnic university. In a society struggling to recover from the effects of genocide and warfare, education at every level is a critical need.

As I look back on the entire experience, I am grateful for the opportunity to have seen the work of CRS in the field “up close and personal.” I saw the principles of Catholic social teaching in action and made holy by respect, dignity, and right relationship. All that I observed permeates my thoughts and fills my heart with hope and a spirit of possibility. In the coming weeks I will be sharing more about my experience in Rwanda and Burundi with the Marywood University campus community.  Serving on this delegation has helped me to realize the importance of the work of Catholic Relief Services and its capacity to be the empowering presence of a caring Church in a hurting and troubled world.

~ Sister Anne Munley IHM, Marywood University


Photography by Sala Lewis for Catholic Relief Services

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