It’s been hard for me to find a way to put a neat “wrapper” of sorts on my experience in Rwanda– I have been home for a week now, and that whole time I struggled with what to write as a final reflection on my time there. The reason for this is that the experience as a whole was so incredibly complex and so open ended that it’s impossible to summarize or present it neatly, in a way that I can show to everyone as a tidy little package that I can just as soon put away and resume my normal life. It’s also not an experience that somehow makes me more “enlightened” or at a better state– in fact, many of the things I have seen and experienced have only made me realize all the more how much I don’t know and how many assumptions I have made that are incorrect! But this experience is nevertheless one that is a deep part of me, and one I will not forget for many many years.
From a biomedical engineering standpoint, this trip has started to reveal to me the enormous problems with our healthcare technology system, particularly with regards to developing world technology. Well-intentioned groups who are genuinely trying to help these hospitals will donate sophisticated medical equipment from Europe or the United States, and within five months of usage the machines break and are found gathering dust in a storage closet. The problem is not with those organizations, nor with the hospital staff, but rather with the technology itself. I can’t even count the amount of times I saw medical devices that were completely unsuited for their working environment– this is crippling to the hospital, as they need to be able to rely on the few devices they have to work consistently. There is a pressing need for engineering solutions to the problems of the developing world’s sparse infrastructure– devices need to be designed for low or inconsistent power environments, have little to no expendable parts, and need to endure heavy and consistent usage for several years, all at a low manufacturing cost. The responsibility for designing these solutions falls on our engineering community, and while some solutions are already being presented, there is much work to be done.
On a personal level, however, this trip has made even more of an impact. Traveling abroad is an eye-opening experience for any person; traveling abroad to a developing country, however, is a privilege that I am humbled to have experienced. Rwanda is a nation that exemplifies forgiveness and reconciliation; the genocide is remembered and mourned by every person there, and yet at the same time they lay aside their horrific experiences to band together and build their nation back up again. Every person was touched by that horrible event, and everyone has a story to tell, if you are willing to stay and listen. I have met incredible people who have told me stories of how they escaped executions, fled with their families into exile, fought in the Revolutionary war, survived during wartime, lost their loved ones, and adopted orphaned children after the conflict. They don’t consider themselves heroes, martyrs, or victims– it’s just simply how things are, and they deal with the past and move on the best they can. The Rwandan people are proud to be Rwandan, and they invest in their country’s future because it is their future as well.
Being an observer to all of this, I learned more about my own culture as well, and I have a renewed appreciation and pride in being called an American. Despite all the negative news and press, the world still admires America. Our music is played across the globe, our social trends cross over to other countries, and our foreign aid does actually do great things. I did not meet a single person in Rwanda who did not want to come to America; they held it as an ideal of success and prosperity, a land of opportunity and freedom. They aren’t wrong in thinking so, either! I am seeing anew the importance of being involved in our country’s future, because my generation is the next up to take the reigns and continue making our country something great. Much like the Rwandan people, our future is tied to our country’s success– we should be getting involved! My impact may seem small, but when everyone has a small impact, it becomes world-shaking.
The final and most important thing I’ve taken away from this trip, however, is something I read mid-way through my second month. It turned my attitude and my trip around, and the more I got to know my friends at the hospital and around Muhanga the more I saw how much it was true. It’s a passage from Acts 18:27-28: “God did this so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. For in Him we live and move and have our being.” God is not far from anyone on this Earth; even across the world in an entirely different culture, people were seeking after God and trying to understand Him. It gives me hope for the future and faith in people– God can and will work through anyone, and amazing things start happening when we trust in His plan and listen for His voice.
These things I’ve written down are some of the concrete lessons that I have taken away from Rwanda; but as is so often with trips like these, I have left with many more questions as well. This isn’t a bad thing, though. In fact, I think it’s what made this trip such a valuable experience and why I would recommend it to anyone and everyone. I have gotten the chance to live with incredible people and experience an incredible country full of culture and tradition and history, and it has forced me to reconsider my entire outlook on “developing” countries. The title of this post, “Kwibuka,” is a Kinyarwanda word that means “to remember”– and I know that when I think about Rwanda, I will remember the people I have met and the lessons I have learned, and I will continue to pursue these questions throughout my life.
To everyone who helped make my trip possible, I cannot thank you enough. I am privileged beyond belief to have the ability to go halfway across the world to pursue a calling, and it was due to your generosity that I was able to do so. Murakoze!