Embodying Theology after Genocide in Rwanda

It seemed appropriate that I finished my year in East Africa by returning to Rwanda, the place that first captured my heart and mind 17 years ago. In June 2019, Rwanda’s Jesuits sponsored a major international conference entitled “Reinventing Theology in Post-Genocide Rwanda: Challenges and Hopes.” The conference was timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the 1994 genocide that killed upwards of 800,000 Tutsi during a government-directed, 100-day orgy of popular violence. The conference brought together scholars from Rwanda, Congo, Cameroon, Germany, and the USA, including three Rwandan bishops and multiple survivors of the genocide. Hundreds of Kigali residents came to listen and share in the conference’s proceedings.

It is difficult to summarize such a rich gathering, but I find myself returning to the opening address of Mgr. Antoine Kambanda, the newly appointed Archbishop of Kigali. Mgr. Kambanda reminded us that the Kinyarwanda terms for “suffering” and “forgiveness” grow out of the same root, Kubabarura. Forgiveness is always linked to compassion, namely suffering with the other rather than dwelling solely on one’s own suffering. Here Mgr. Kambanda highlighted the thief on the cross in Luke’s gospel, drawn out of a self-centered focus on his own suffering to a genuine compassion for Jesus’ suffering. “To move out of oneself, to think of the other – this is what heals.”

For me, the eloquent wisdom of Mgr. Kambanda and other conference speakers was embodied in my own reunion with Mrs. Anne-Marie Mukankuranga. I first met Anne-Marie in 2014 during research for an article I wrote on post-genocide Catholic reconciliation efforts in Rwanda. A survivor of the genocide, she started a prison ministry to génocidaire suspects only months after the killing stopped. “I am with the Holy Spirit,” Anne-Marie said, brushing off warnings not to enter the prison without armed guards. “I am not scared.” Her fearlessness and preaching bore fruit, and her “Merciful Samaritan” ministry became one of the most successful Catholic prison apostolates in post-genocide Rwanda. For all of the boldness of her ministry, Anne-Marie’s basic theology was disarmingly simple. In the words of her friend Immaculée Mukandekezi, “God was calling her to announce the love of God to all people, namely that God is love.” Twenty-five years later, Anne-Marie Mukankuranga remains an apostle of shalom in Rwanda, addressing the physical and spiritual needs of prisoners, widows, and disabled war veterans. In her commitment to “a love that has no borders,” she is one of the embodied signs of the “reinvented theology” that post-genocide Rwanda – and the rest of our world – so desperately needs.