A while back I wrote about the woman I met along the road in Rwanda who stopped to offer a blessing to me. Both of us strangers to each other. I was puzzled until I learned that elder women traditionally offer a blessing to travelers. That encounter seemed to open a floodgate of blessings, because from that day on, whenever I took a walk alone, whether to the market, to the fishing harbor, or just a casual stroll down the street, the same thing would happen. An older woman would notice me and come over to offer a blessing in Kinyarwanda. In these instances, I would understand the intent and by a smile or nod of the head could communicate my thanks. It was a one-way communication, since I had little to offer in return, or so I thought.
On my second to last night staying in a small, out of the way hotel wonderfully named “Paradis,” I decided to take what would be a final walk down to the harbor to watch the fishermen paddle their boats into the setting sun to catch Tilapia and a tiny minnow that is sold in every market and offered fried like smelt in some restaurants. If I remember right, it is called the Lake Rukwa minnow.
I know this seems like a tangential diversion, but as I think about it, the importance of Lake Kivu in my little story becomes apparent. Lake Kivu is one of the African Great Lakes. Its orientation on the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda suddenly has meaning as I recount the story of the traveler blessing. I was walking along the Congo/Nile Divide, on the Albertine Rift in the Great Rift Valley; the western branch of the East African Rift. Lake Kivu flows south into the Ruzizi River, and eventually into Lake Tanganyika. Nearby is the source of the Nile River, which flows north to Egypt.
It seems that most countries bordering great rivers, lakes and mountains here are in conflict with each other because of differences that stem mainly from tradition and language. This is not their doing. For thousands of years, these peoples lived mostly in harmony with their neighbors, conducted commerce and respected natural land and water boundaries. In the 1800s, Europeans discovered the riches to be found here, drew artificial lines on maps, renamed countries and divided the spoils amongst themselves. Suddenly tribes found themselves separated from family and tradition and language and bound by maps to alien cultures. This led to genocide and persecution that continues today.
As I took my evening walk down a street parallel to the Congo/Nile Divide, I had what would turn out to be my last encounter with a blessing. An elder passed me, and as she walked, I could see her evaluating me with her eyes. At first she passed, and then in an instant, before she was out of peripheral vision, she turned. I did the same.
Immediately the familiar flood of words in Kinyarwanda reached my ears. She held my hands in hers for a long time and kept speaking. I nodded and smiled, but this was not enough. Her hands moved to my shoulders and she became more insistent and a few people stopped to watch, this, what must have seemed an odd encounter between two cultures.
The woman was asking me for something. This much was clear. It was not money. I had nothing to offer her in her language and my mind raced to find some way to thank her. My African friends teased me about this later, but I reached for the only universal language I knew and blessed her by making the sign of the cross over her. Her face lit up like a million stars and she knew that I was offering God’s blessing to her for her kindness. The woman grabbed my hands once more, picked up her walking stick, and went on her way.
It happened that I did have something to offer, but it was much bigger than myself.
I am not a very religious person. I don’t go to church at all anymore, but my religious upbringing has morphed into a spiritual awareness. I make mistakes all of the time, some of them monumental, and am not by any means walking the perfect path on this planet.
But, as I spent time deeply involved in the people who populate my life in central Africa and understand more and more what has caused the fighting, betrayals and killings as brother turned against brother, only one solution comes to mind.
There needs to be leaders who can simply do the right thing and return people to their homelands and bless the people under their governance. I despair that this can happen because human greed is ruling this part of the world, and of course, others as well.
Lines on maps drawn by Europeans who still hold Africa in their greedy grips should be abolished. Countries that offer to build roads and then stop the road when they find gold and diamonds and use the road they just built to haul the treasure away from the people who own the rights should be banished behind the lines on maps.
I became very close to a group of these displaced people. Their name is the Banyamulenge and you can read about their recent history here.
They have asked me to help them, but the only thing I can think of is to raise awareness with my friends and people who might read this. They need our blessing.
Right now, it is all I have. But I will not turn and walk away. They are in my peripheral vision forever.