I want to introduce you to my friend Maria. She is the most beautiful person I have ever known, and she is a survivor. Our team went to her home to capture her story of resilience and forgiveness, but we received far more than that. I started by asking her how old she was when the genocide started, and she answered “thirteen.” We all paused as we saw her start to cry and she started talking again. She doesn’t speak English, so we kept waiting for her to pause, as she is always does so Manu, our Rwandan friend and employee could tell us what she was saying, but she never paused. Maria spoke for an uninterrupted 15 minutes as she wept and shared her story. No one knew what to do. I looked to my left and Bobby and Nate had their heads down and on my right, Manu and Emily, both with tears in their eyes, were doing the same. I honestly didn’t know what to do, so I just stared at Maria and cried with her. Although we couldn’t understand her words, we knew exactly what she was saying. As a team, we have decided to leave the intimate details of Maria’s story private, so I will tell you the overview.
When the genocide started, Maria’s six brothers and sisters were slashed with machetes, as was her father. Maria and her mother managed to escape the Hutu militias for a time, but when they were found, her mother paid and bribed the men not to kill Maria, her last living child. It worked, but in exchange for Maria’s life, her mother was repeatedly raped, which lead to the contraction of HIV/AIDS, and her mother died a few years later.
When the genocide came to an end on July 4, 1994, Maria was too traumatized to return to school, so to this day, she has a 6th grade education.
I asked Maria if she forgave the men that did those things to her family and her country, and she said, “There is nothing anyone could do to those people to make them understand what we went through, so my only option was to forgive them. It was the only thing that could set me free.” She then named every person that killed the members of her family and the men that raped her mother. We quickly realized she forgave not because she wanted to, but because she had to.
It is 20 years later, and Maria, like Rwanda, has moved forward. She is now married to a Hutu (please note that Rwandans no longer refer to themselves as Hutu or Tutsi), and she has two young boys, Umuheza Samuel and Emmanuel. “Umuheza” is the kinyarwandan word for “the link”. Maria saw her child as the link that brought Hutus and Tutsis together, a sign of unity and love. If she were to describe Rwanda in one word, Maria said it would be that “Rwanda is unity.”
When we left Maria’s house that day, I told her that I loved her, and she told me that she loved me, and I knew from that moment on, we would always have love each other and that we would always be friends.
She is the definition of beauty, the definition of love, and the definition of forgiveness. She embodies everything that I strive to be as a person, and she is the reason I do what I what I do. She is the reason we have decided to stay in Rwanda for a while. Maria is the reason I will return, and she is the reason I will always hate to leave.
Maria’s days are long, and they are hard. Her work on the farm is back-breaking, but she loves it. She takes pride in it. She is good at it, and we get to be a part of her story. We get to be her friend.
Our program will help Maria double her family's income, and with that extra income, she will send her children to secondary school, something she was not able to do herself. If there is any extra, she wants to hire help for her farm, so she can have time to study and earn a high school diploma.
Maria is my friend. She made an impact on all of us that had the pleasure of spending time with her last week, sharing meals, laughs, and tears. People like Maria are the reason Kula exists.
Written by Sarah Buchanan, Founder and Executive Director of Kula Project
All photos by Bobby Neptune