Friday, November 18, 2011

The Impact of Life in Rwanda

For all that it has been through in the past, Rwanda is a really great place. I first came here for the Tour of Rwanda in November last year and really had a great experience. Fortunately, I was able to return again this year and it is already starting to be another great trip.

When people think of Rwanda, they likely think about the time of genocide, roughly 15 years ago. That was definitely a dark time in this countries history and they are still on the mend from it, but I think if feel safer in most places of Rwanda than I do in parts of Atlanta or Chicago. Before coming here, I was not too familiar with what went on during the genocide, but today we walked through the memorial/museum that was constructed to remember the victims. It was one of the most humbling experiences I have ever had.

As we got to the museum, everyone seemed to be in great spirits. We were joking, laughing and generally having a great time taking everything in from the country. But by the end of the tour, everyone walked out of the building with a totally blank stare and jaws to the floor. The emotional impact was phenomenal.

Decades ago Rwanda was colonized and the people here were placed in different ethnic categories. You were defined as “Tutsi” if you owned more than 10 cows and “Hutu” if you had less. There was also a group defined as “Twa” but I can’t remember what got you into that group.

In the 1990’s the majority of the population was Hutu but Tutsi’s held many of the political positions. Ultimately, the Hutu people began to determine systematic ways to execute all of the Tutsi’s. They were completely dehumanized and were thought to be lower class than animals. No Tutsi was exempt. Men, women, or children alike. As far as Hutu’s were concerned, the world was better off if Tutsi blood ran though an living person. The men were killed with machetes, thrown into large pits to be burned or bludgeoned to death with blunt objects. Many were also tortured before being killed to inflict as much pain and suffering as possible. The women were raped tortured and then put to death in similar ways to the men and children were forced to watch their parents die before being put to death themselves in horribly painful ways.

It was sad to read about this, but the emotional response came from the photos and quotes that were also displayed. There was a large screen television that had a slideshow of photos that were so horrible they made you sick to look at and wonder how people could be so evil to one another. There were pictures showing piles of dead bodies that had been horribly disfigured and the Hutu killers walking through them, machetes in hand checking if anyone was still breathing. There were also photos of children that were fortunate enough to have survived, but you could see gashes in their heads from being beaten with a machete, or missing limbs and fingers that you can tell were slowly and painfully removed.

Photo: Joey Rosskopf
There was a sign of a quote from a girl that was 11 during the genocide that basically said “I did not choose to be an orphan. I was forced to watch as my entire family was murdered in front of me and now I see their killers or the children of their killers every single day. It is not something I can forget.”
Once the realization came that this wasn’t some Hollywood reenactment, my heart sank. Seriously, how can people do that to one another?

What a horrible time. Luckily, the country has recovered well, even though it is still an ongoing process.

There is still an incredible amount of poverty all over the country and even in the capitol city of Kigali. Most people live in “houses” that are roughly 10ft by 10ft and have no indoor plumbing. People spend their days working very hard, riding bikes loaded down with over 200lbs of goods, working in fields, or various other jobs. All of this being with the intent of putting food on the table, which doesn’t always happen. Despite all of this, everyone seems so happy. At the end of the day they can spend time with their loved ones and with everything that has happened in the past, which is one of the greatest things they can do!

This is one of my favorite trips of the year because you can go around the country and see happiness that doesn’t stem from material items and exits even through rough living conditions.

This year Team Type 1 brought 100,000 test strips and a couple hundred glucose meters, along with some great educational resources for the diabetes community here. Through all of this work, hopefully diabetics here will be able to check their sugars more than one time per week and ultimately live a much healthier life. Its just a start, but hopefully it will get the ball rolling and eventually the poverty here will begin to diminish and people can have this same happiness, but with full stomachs.


  1. Wow! My son was dx last year. He is 14. I hope he will be globetrotting someday. The neighborhood would be a first good step.

    On another note, as you inferred, colonization and exploitation is what brought many of the ills to that continent, but what else is new! Thanks for your blog and your service.

    Why are test strips so expensive? It is so sad to think of people without enough. Wouldnt that be a wonderful, cost effective preventative measure in any land?

  2. Wanted to make contact with you. We moved to Atlanta from Kigali two years ago, due to our son's diagnosis. He was only 19mths. at the time and due to supply concerns, we decided to return to the US.

    He is 3.5 now and we are scheduled to return as family to Kigali this June. We will be there for a month working with a school in Kicukiro (down the street from where we used to live). I have heard of you guys through Dr. Bruce Bode (our doc.) here in Atlanta and know that y'all have a passion for helping type 1s in Rwanda.

    So....wanted to let you know that we will have plenty of luggage space (two travel trunks) to carry over stuff for y'all if you would like. We have connections at King Faisal (that's actually where our son was born), and would like to connect you with an American endocrinologist from Texas that relocated to Rwanda about two years ago to serve in the medical field.

    Email me at if you are interested. We live in Suwanee (north of Atlanta).