“Why Rwanda…?” is probably what most people think when they find out Shelly Anne Rosen is making a second home in that African country, even if they’re too polite to say it.
The Seattle native — whose family has lived here since about 1912 — calls Rwanda “my happy place,” and recalls feeling an immediate and visceral connection to the landlocked nation the minute she stepped off the plane there for the first time.
It all started with her son’s 5th-grade project.
“William came home from school and said he had to do a report on a country in Africa and he picked Rwanda,” Shelly remembers. “I said, ‘Where’s that?’
“I knew a little bit about the ‘Gorillas in the Mist,’” and a little bit about genocide, but it was 2005 and the film Hotel Rwanda had just come out. Suddenly, “all the information was about genocide, genocide, genocide…and because we had parental controls on the computer,” Shelly found herself helping with the research, even finding a Rwandan coffee importer living locally who agreed to meet with William. He proved an invaluable contact who has become “like family.”
At the time, William and his twin brother Patrick were in Hebrew school at Temple Beth Am, preparing for their B’nai Mitzvah. Noticing parallels between Rwanda and the Holocaust, William asked his mom, “How could that happen?” And when he needed a mitzvah project, he and Shelly came up with the idea of going there.
In 2006 Shelly made an initial foray on her own.
“I stepped off the plane and knew this was exactly where I was supposed to be,” she says.
That trip included a visit to the
Kigali Memorial Centre
(www.kigalimemorialcentre.org) where victims of Rwandan genocide are memorialized. Wearing her mezuzah pendant, she toured the museum with their driver, “who hadn’t said a word to us in four days.” In a room dedicated to 20th-century genocide, Shelly pointed to a Holocaust photo of a man wearing a Star of David badge and then to herself. In perfect English the driver said, “So, in Rwanda, you’re a Tutsi.” She says she hears that a lot, “once they find out I’m Jewish.”
Before colonization, Rwanda’s three main tribes were the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. Although the country came late to colonization, German and then Belgian rulers, and the Catholic Church, made these divisions race-based, favoring the Tutsi, and requiring citizens to carry race identification cards.
A first Rwandan genocide in 1959 was the result of civil war, itself the result of forcible ejection of Hutus from the country. A Hutu army returned, killing thousands of Tutsi and causing 150,000 more to flee. The 1994 genocide followed a presidential assassination, which became an excuse for violent retaliation. Between April and July of that year, more than a million Tutsi were killed.
In 2007 and 2008, Shelly returned there as a volunteer for Project Rwanda, a charity that provides bicycles for work and transportation in the rugged hills of the countryside.
“I came home terribly culture shocked,” she says, but also “interested in global health issues, how to make non-profits more functional.”
So she asked the boys, “do you want to leave Seattle for five months?”
A friend secured them spots in a private school and the three went off to live in Kigali for a semester.
“I think they learned a lot from it,” Shelly says of her kids. It helped them appreciate the privileges they have here, “access to clean water, to food, to choice.”
On their return, Shelly went back to school to complete a B.A. in social justice at Antioch and plans to return for her Master’s in the fall, and she’s working with a Rwandan partner in a touring company, Intore (in-tore-ay) Expeditions (www.intoreexpeditions.com).
“There’s a whole country out there, and it’s clean” and “spectacularly beautiful” as her photos of green rolling hills and towering peaks attest. “It’s more than gorillas and it’s more than genocide.”
With the sense of tikkun olam — repairing the world — with which she grew up, Shelly is also creating a fund that will sponsor trips for Rwandan kids to visit their national parks. Rwandans work hard, she says, often too hard to take vacations. She’d like to get kids “to understand they have a really amazing resource,” in their parks and give them a sense of stewardship of the land. She’s looking for a publisher for a series of photo books that will raise money for the project.
“It’s my big dream to get this fund going,” she says, “and get [tourists] to really visit the country.”