Rwanda: 20 Years Later
An interview with Dr. Elisee Musemakweli, President of the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda
March 6, 2014
It started without warning.
That’s how Dr. Elisee Musemakweli, President of the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda, remembers the genocide that gripped his home country in 1994.
“Before that time, Rwandans lived peacefully and in harmony,” Dr. Musemakweli said. “Society in general was peaceful. We didn’t think things like genocide could happen. It was a big [shock] for all Rwandans to experience this tragedy because before that time there were no signs for the people that this kind of tragedy could happen.”
It was a tragedy that had neighbor strike out against neighbor — the Hutus slaughtering some 500,000 to a million Tutsis and Hutus who refused take up arms. The exact number of deaths remains unclear. But, the horror of those days left almost no one unscathed — infants, women, young children, men, whole families were murdered. Among them were Dr. Musemakweli’s mother, brothers, nieces and nephews.
“I think it was because of politicians,” Dr. Musemakweli said. “People in the countryside, in the villages were together – Hutus and Tutus, living peacefully.
“But when politicians started to put one group against another, it became very, very tragic. For me, because of the damage done by bad politics, that’s why the new regime must continue to do everything possible to restore peace, to restore security and trust between people.”
“As long time partners of the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda, World Mission seeks to support and facilitate peace building efforts in Rwanda. The crying need in Rwanda’s legacy of traumatic violence is to create spaces for healing and reconciliation. That is what our mission workers, prayers and support are doing.”
~Hunter Farrell, Director of World Mission
He was in Belgium studying theology at the time the genocide took place, and, fortunately, his wife and children were with him. Saying he is “grateful” to the church, he was able to continue pursuing his call to service because of support from PC(USA). But he would not remain in Belgium for long. Dr. Musemakweli returned to Rwanda in 1995 to begin the rebuilding of a church left splintered.
“The churches were empty,” Dr. Musemakweli recalled. “Many of the pastors had been killed or fled abroad. The church needed people to help. I was called to serve as a teacher of theology. The school had been in operation before the genocide but some students had been killed and lecturers fled, everything was destroyed, so we had to start from scratch.”
“Starting from scratch” had a new meaning in a post-genocide Rwanda. Those who wanted to learn and grow their faith had new kinds of questions and a new kind of world view.
“It was not easy to teach to the same way and theological ideas we did before the genocide,” Dr. Musemakweli said. “I remember the first student who asked me a very tough question. He said, ‘You’re going to teach theology but we know that before the genocide that theology was taught in this school. We know that many ministers have been involved in the genocide – (and they are supposed to be) serving God in this country. Now, what kind of theology are you going to teach us?’”
He says he had to reflect upon what had changed and what kind of lessons must be taught. He said his answer was found in his faith.
“I knew we needed a message directly from the Bible, from God, to these people who are suffering. We had to ask what is the meaning of God? What is the meaning of Christ? What is the meaning of faith in this kind of situation?”
Within scripture he found texts relating to reconciliation. He says the story of Joseph, Jacob’s 11th son, became very meaningful and most relevant to what many had gone through during the genocide. Dr. Musemakweli also uses books related to examining the reconciliation process. Students read these and discuss them, learning how to facilitate healing between people.
“I must say that it is a very, very difficult and challenging process,” Dr. Musemakweli said. “Not only were people physically wounded but they were traumatized and we were not well prepared to face this situation.
“But we have to do it. We have to help people to learn to live together again because they are together in the church; they are together in the villages; they are together, so we need to take some steps in the direction of harmony and reconciliation. That’s why we tried to focus on the Biblical passages of reconciliation — not only during worship but during our studies and by sitting with the people in their homes.”
Not only is it a tough path to walk; it is a long one. It’s been 20 years since genocide and the country is still healing. Every year, remembrance services are held at two churches where mass murders were committed. Dr. Musemakweli says the memorial programs are important so that all families begin to take part in reconciliation.
“When we started it, it was difficult and only the survivors attended,” he said. “Other people said, ‘It’s not our business.’ But, then, little by little we had others join us and stand beside those who had suffered and little by little more people took part. We focus on the message of God at the ceremonies and emphasize that if you are Christian you must really be Christian. If you have been saved, you have to show it because what happened to us was a shame and we need to correct this. If you failed, now is your time to correct it.”
Dr. Musemakweli’s hope is that future generations will move past the pain. He says he’s confident the country is on the right path and with the help of many Christian organizations, churches, and the government itself, someday, the people will be reconciled.
Mission co-worker Nancy Collins, Regional Liaison for East Central Africa, was joined by mission co-worker Christi Boyd, who serves as a facilitator for women’s and children’s interests in Rwanda to meet with Dr. Musemakmeli. The pair conducted the interview used for this article.
“We have some examples of people living together and living in harmony,” he said. “This is really encouraging. That’s why we keep struggling — to make our people happy and live in security.
“But what I’d like everyone to remember is that the process is still going on and the challenges are still many. We still have a lot to do and we still need help from our friends and partners, like PC(USA). Please continue to be with us especially as we commemorate those lost so all sides can remember what happened in Rwanda. When we suffer in these days, please remember us in your prayers and your thoughts.”
Learn more about Rwanda's Butare Faculty of Theology
The Butare Faculty of Theology was founded in 1970 by 5 Rwandan Protestant churches. Despite the destruction of structures and programs in the 1994 genocide, the seminary, assisted by Dr. Elisee, came back to life, and today has become the Protestant Institute of Arts and Social Sciences (PIASS), a dynamic and thriving institution. The Institute, which opened in 2010, expanded to include the Faculty of Education and Faculty of Development Studies in addition to the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies. The later benefits from 10 permanent faculty members (5 PhDs)- including PC(USA) mission coworker Rev. Kay Day- and 11 part time or visiting faculty members (6 PhDs).
During the annual July “Science Week,” the public is invited to join students from all 3 faculties as they share research on a range of topics. Students from abroad are invited to participate in the College of Development’s program of Peace Building and Conflict Resolution. A Masters in Christian Ethics and leadership will begin in the 2015-16 academic year. Partnerships have been established with universities in Germany and Switzerland. Short courses to provide basic theological training for school chaplains and basic community development skills to pastor’s spouses are in development.
The member pastor ratio in the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda is over 3000:1. 95 pastors serve more than 300,000 members. Additional pastors are urgently needed. Donations to ECO E864102- PCR Theology Scholarship to support PCR students at PIASS are welcome. Cost for the 4 year program is $5600 or $1400 per year.