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A Darker Red

Arriving back in Kigali after class today, I promptly plunked myself down on the back porch and sat like a stone there, eyeing the birds and the flowers until the sun set and darkness grew around me.

At the beginning of my first week in Rwanda, I was enchanted by everything. Everywhere I looked were bright colors and even brighter smiles. Africa was as glorious as I had imagined. I was welcomed to it with rhythmic song, abundant laughter and joy.

This place has a pulse, it feels alive and real and vital in a way few areas can compete with. Biologist E.O. Wilson theorized that because the human species had spent over two million years “growing up” in East Africa, we are each hard-wired on a cellular level to feel a particular resonance with it – to feel like we’re returning home.

Yet, day by day, the more difficult realities of Rwanda began to fall like big, heavy raindrops, turning the terra cotta colored earth a darker red.

On one hand, I feel so at home here, so at ease, so inspired, and yet the complexities that rise up around me are sometimes so dense and relentless, that I am having trouble coming up with the words and the writing that normally keep my head above water.

This week has grown more and more “real” in small yet potent doses. Slowly, and in hushed tones, the events and consequences of what transpired here 16 years ago have been discussed with or near me. Not unlike the dialogue of a Jane Austin novel, there is a great sense of both propriety and consequence to what is said.

It’s not that I didn’t anticipate this aspect, but when it’s actually there in front of you it penetrates in ways you can’t really prepare for. When there is a 20 year old guy downtown joking with you while holding the wares he’s selling in the mangled remains of what were possibly once his healthy four-year-old arms… well, that’s when pain and cruelty creep up on you and wipe their dirty boots all over the otherwise bucolic pictures in your head.

It’s a tricky thing. I know from experience if you let images like that run on repeat in your brain you end up like the otherwise trusty steed Artex, sinking slowly into the Swamp of Sadness  (three points for getting that reference).

I’ve been doing cohesive breathing work all week with the group. It’s remarkable to feel the silence that enters the red-floored room when we practice together. Even the groups of school kids looking in with curiosity from the windows and doorways seem to get more still.

It seems to me that, in any occupation, finding a sense of peace inside you is important, but in work for social change, it’s positively vital. Some of the problems these group are addressing, from water shortages to child prostitution, are so overwhelming that to keep the joy and gratitude pumping through our hearts, you need that place of peacefulness to return to when it gets a little much.

And so tonight, as I sit out outside watching the southern stars appear and the red soil darken, I’m trying to remember the feeling in that room. I’m trying to remember to breathe.

Just. Breathe.

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