Below are the stories of the amazing Rwandan's we met along the way...
The word in bold that begins each story (happiness, forgiveness, etc...) is the word that our new Rwandan friends responded to upon receiving their letters.
Written by Steph Fellows
Alphonse + Trephene
Alphonse has owned four acres of lakefront property in Kamembe for three years and is a contractor
by trade. He waited on developing the land and, lucky for us, people kept visiting, so he was forced
to finish a few cottages for guests. Alphonse joined us over breakfast and eagerly opened a letter
presenting the word “happiness.” The writer had just lost her father-in-law a week before and
expressed the difficulty in encouraging her three daughters to celebrate their Pop Pop’s life. Like
many who have been faced with this situation, it’s easier to recognize the need for happiness than
actually find it.
Happiness is the prevailing emotion in Rwanda. Alphonse was quick to share that the happiest day
of his life was the day he married his wife … until his eldest son got married. Then he truly knew
what happiness meant. He knows that there is only one day that will beat all the rest. It will be the
day his youngest daughter, 21-year-old Trephene, gets married.
Trephene is adopted. During the genocide, her parents used to hide her at Alphonse’s house while
they fled to safety in the mosquito-laden woods. With every sunset, Trephene’s parents would drop
her off, picking her up when the sun returned the following day. Alphonse knew the day would come
when they would not return to pick her up. He promised Trephene’s parents that if this were to
happen, he would love their child as his own. The tears in his eyes spoke much louder than anything
he could say.
Doing the right thing at a time when so many people were doing the wrong thing speaks highly of
Alphonse. It is obvious that he is very successful. He owns houses all over Rwanda, his Lexus has rap
video-worthy rims, and he’s trucking sand onto the shores of Lake Kivu to make a real “beach.” If you
were to talk to him, he’s just like everyone else we’ve met here: humble, soft-hearted and, most of
all, admirable. If you ask him how he is rich, his answer would be about his family and not about his
I excused myself from the conversation after breakfast to catch up on some writing and take in the
beautiful views. As I sat in the sun overlooking the lake, a young girl walked over and pulled up a
chair right next to me. She extended a hand and said, “Hello, my name is Trephene.”
At that moment, time stopped. I went over and over in my head the conversation we had just
finished, making sure I had gotten the name right. I was completely overwhelmed and felt
superanxious, because I knew something Trephene didn’t. I knew a secret that will always remain
a secret. I knew that she was an orphan and she didn’t.
As we talked, my mind vacillated between imagining her as a baby and who she is now: a bored
and privileged 21 year-old. Unlike most Rwandans her age, Trephene has little worries. She went to
the best schools, has never gone a day without adequate food or water, and working is not a matter
of survival. Truthfully, it was like talking to an American college student who wants to be with their
friends and go out all the time. She is a happy, healthy young adult who has a bright future and all
the means to accomplish her goals.
Trephene became our official guide for the day, even accompanying us to a primary school. It wasn’t
until the end of the evening, when we had spoken in front of four classrooms, been drenched by
rain, coated in mud and driven in the mayor’s Mercedes, that we said goodbye. She pulled me aside
and said, “Goodbye, Stephania. Thank you for the day. I have learned so much new today. Much
vocabulary and lots of character. Please make sure to tell Morris how much I thank you.”
As we walked away, our guide, Ronald, shared with us that he had invited Trephene to come for a
drink with us. She had declined, saying she missed her dad. She wanted to go home and make her
dad a meal because she knew it would make him happy. If she only knew.
All good things start with peanut butter, and the day was still young as we broke out our last jar
for breakfast. Mid-smack, two men walked up looking straight out of a decade long past. One was
ridiculously tall and the other unreasonably short. Both had well-worn walking sticks, blazers and
The men walked directly up to our party, started introducing themselves, and we invited ourselves to
their house. As we walked through fields of maize, I learned both men had moved to this region only
two months ago. Their homes were destroyed in a flood and the government had built a little village
called Divisio for all those affected. Walking behind these men made you feel wiser, and as the rain
started to fall, our saunter turned into more of a hop, dodging puddles and one silly photographer
keeping us from being dry.
Marcel, the taller and elder brother, sat across the table, his legs so long that his knees almost
reached the same height as his shoulders. We talked of floods, long walks (he’s walked Rwanda three
times) and the government. His demeanor was grandfatherly, patient and captivating.
After breaking the seal on his letter, I took it in my hands, noting that the topic was “joyful,” and
scanned the sentences until my eyes fell on the word “flood.” My heart sank. My eyes welled up. I
asked Ronald if we should proceed and, also in shock, he said, “Yes.”
How could this have happened? Out of all the letters, how could it randomly be this one? As tears
streamed down my face, my eyes didn’t leave the paper once. I didn’t need to see Marcel’s eyes. I
could feel them.
The letter conveyed a time when the anonymous author encountered a hurricane while living in
Florida. After the clouds parted and the rains subsided, she and her daughter put on rain boots and
went splashing through the puddles. This memory, though preceded by much devastation, illustrates
the importance of finding and holding onto joyful moments in our lives.
The author states she used to think that joy came from big events but now realizes, “It comes from
something else, and we need to look at the simple things that bring joyful feelings to our hearts.”
When there were no words left in the letter, silence fell upon us. The room began to spin, but we
were totally still, grounded to the heart of a man in the middle of it all. Joyful. We were all about to
learn what it meant.
Here was a man starting from nothing again at the age of 60. Joyfulness isn’t just for times of
celebration. It’s a daily practice. Every day, Marcel is filled with joy just to be alive. He says surviving
times of war and the many hardships of past days has made him grateful.
Marcel has three grandchildren and encourages them to be joyful by adhering to three rules: 1) Be
God-fearing; 2) Respect people for who they are; and 3) If they are ever unhappy, he wants them to
come and talk to him. In his words, “I want to teach them to be joy finders.”
This insight wasn’t enough. He wasn’t always going to be there to call upon when it was hard to
be a joy finder. I asked how could I live a joy-filled life. Marcel leaned in close, looked straight in
my eyes and spoke to me directly. (This is a powerful and intimidating thing when you are actually
communicating through a translator.) It didn’t really matter what his words were. This time, instead of
speaking his heart, he was speaking right to mine.
“Live a life guided by the spirit of respect, loving one another because it’s the source of joy. If you
love someone, you will respect them and through these two things the world will find peace.”
Marcel lives in poverty. He had no material gift that would accompany us to our next destination, yet
he made sure to give us one thing as we left: peace, which he assured us is the richest gift of all.
When was the last time you started your day with peanut butter?
Walking down to the water in Kibuye, we found a young man swimming with serious intention. His
name was Jackson, and it just so happened that we needed a boat taxi and he had a boat. As we
talked about the fare for the trip, our future captain mentioned that he was hoping to compete at the
London Olympics. We laughed, thinking it was a joke.
As we boarded the boat, Ronald found out that Jackson was serious about swimming at the 2012
Summer Olympics. This raised some obvious questions; most importantly, if he wanted to go to
London, why wasn’t he there already?
“Trials are tomorrow,” Jackson said.
Here is a kid whose biggest race in four years is tomorrow and he’s sitting in the sun, driving us
around. Interesting training strategy. Jackson would be vying for one of two 50 freestyle spots on
the Rwandan National Swim Team the following morning in Kigali, a four-hour bus ride away. Still
speechless, we kept prying for more answers. The more we found out, the more we felt guilty for
being the reason he wasn’t resting.
Jackson had never had a formal lesson and just started taking swimming seriously when he turned
18 (he’s now 24). As the boat drifted toward shore, Jackson abandoned the motor and joined
us in conversation at the bow of the boat. Asking questions about his training schedule and the
availability of coaches in Rwanda was easy, but being prepared for his answers was not. Jackson
looked at us without blinking and said, “I don’t have time for training if I have to find food too.”
Definitely not a common problem among Olympians. It became apparent that the lack of programs
in Rwanda makes it difficult, if not impossible, to be an international competitor. There is one
coach in Kigali but he’d have to pay all of the associated transport and fees.
Even with all this against him, Jackson has never thought about being anything but a swimmer.
He loves swimming so much that it drives everything he does. He has the hardware to show for his
Jackson has won 11 medals in his career. Each time the Rwandan flag flies high and the national
anthem plays, he describes the pride he feels as “addicting” and that feeling motivates him to win
every time his toes edge up to a starting block. When we finally got around to reading the letter, it
contained two poems by Joshua Rempel, one titled “Hope” and the other titled “Satisfied.”
Morris chose to read the poem “Hope” with these appropriate lines:
Summer comes for us all
maybe not every day
sometimes not even every year
but when the orchard in your head
reaches full bloom
Jackson’s summer is now. And he described his trials race as the equivalent of a ticket for a bus
ride into the future. In order to proceed to the upcoming Olympics, Jackson needs to win his trials
heat. There are two competitors he sees as threats to victory, and they have training and nutrition
on their side. Even with absurd statements like this, Jackson leads every thought off with a chuckle
and finishes with a smile—which makes it believable when he said that if he doesn’t win tomorrow,
there will always be more races, more chances.
After our talk, Jackson went to the stern of the boat. Apparently, he turned to Ronald and admitted
to being anxious about the race, but after talking with us he said he felt like he’d already won.
The second poem was titled “Satisfied.” This was an equally eloquent poem but very hard to
translate, so it did not fall on Jackson’s ears. I have to believe that the last line was meant for him
when it said, “the splendor in an ending that was never left to fate.”
If you by chance watched the Opening Ceremonies, you would’ve seen Jackson leading the way into
London’s Olympic Stadium.
Much like the chalet system in the French and Swiss Alps, the Congo Nile Trail has guest houses
found along its route every few days. These houses have showers, beds, laundry and the most
wonderful staff. The Kinunu house is 10 feet away from a coffee bean-washing station with mango,
papaya, guava and banana trees leading you down to the shores of Lake Kivu. The manager of the
coffee station, and house, is a smart, ambitious Rwandan who totally captured our attention, not for
one but two days.
Gervais is 34, married and has two kids. It’s important to note that Gervais is different than many of
the Rwandans we met. He’s very at ease with us, smiling and making jokes. He also asks questions.
You’d think that this is a result of quality education but instead of going to secondary school, he was
a refugee in the Congo waiting out the war. This is how we found out that Gervais is the only one in
his family still alive.
As the sun warmed up the fruit-laden hills, our perceptions of what coffee should taste like was
changed forever. Gervais’ coffee is ranked eighth-best out of 250 in Rwanda and it was over the fruit
of all his labor that he agreed to receive a letter titled “forgiveness.”
Forgiveness is not something that comes easily every day to Gervais, but he makes the choice
to forgive in order to move forward. The Kinyarwandan word he used for forgiveness means
“foundation”; it is what he has built his life around. Two of the men who killed Gervais’ family
work for him. Not only do they work for him but Gervais hired them himself. At the very moment
he was sharing this, one of them walked by with a load of dried banana trunks on his head.
Gervais sat smiling.
This level of reconciliation is unfathomable. His rationale is if the men remain distant, they will
remain enemies. This lack of communication and contact will lead to shame and guilt for what they
have done. If Gervais refused to forgive, he would not experience freedom on a daily basis and would
live a life devoid of community. And a life without community is not a Rwandan life.
When asked if it is harder to hold a grudge or forgive, he replies, “It depends on what they did. It is
something I struggle with even when I am sleeping. Forgiving is like a wound that’s healed but you
still have the scar. But by forgiving, I am able to live free and have a free heart.”
How do you forgive someone who doesn’t ask?
“It is harder for them to ask for forgiveness than it is for you to forgive them. They will ask, ‘How do
I go in front of this person with all I did?’ Remember when you wronged your parents and you didn’t
even want them to look at you? So, it’s better for you to show these people that you can have coffee
and make them feel free to get closure.”
Gervais believes that his dreams are coming true as a result of his practice of forgiveness. In
essence, the freedom that he chooses every day, and that he extends to those who are undeserving,
has opened up opportunities that should not have been offered to him.
Call it karma. Call it a reward. There’s no denying that this man is changing the world. I hope that
every time you take a sip of coffee, you take in a little bit of Gervais’ spirit, because if there’s one
thing that he is more passionate about than coffee, it’s forgiveness.
“What makes a good life?”
At different times and in different parts of the world, the answer to this question varies. Africa
teaches that a good life is simple. And a simple life is good. Our letter from the one and only Mrs.
Martha Morris, Morris’ mother, corroborated this teaching.
After a healthy portion of goat heart, Theresa Nyirabangaizi and her son were spotted in their garden,
nostrils glowing with golden earth. Seeking privacy from the ever-growing crowd, we retreated to
Theresa’s house on the back of her property. It was here that the boisterous and taunting demeanor
Theresa displayed while in the garden became reserved. Upon receiving the letter, a light crept
across her weathered face. In that moment that she no longer looked like an adult, but returned to a
child. It never gets old seeing delight like that.
“I admire you very much,” Martha wrote. “I admire you because you exercise much patience in your
life and that is a quality that is important for a good life and strong relationships. You have been
patient all of your life, for basic things like water to drink and food to eat.”
With these words, Theresa succumbed to fatigue. You could see it on her face and in her body
language. It’s as if someone had just told her, “Yes, I know you’ve been working hard for a long time
and now it’s OK if you admit to being tired.” She has five kids, a house that does not stand a chance
against monsoon season and is in charge of most of the farm work throughout the year. Patience is
evident in all that she does.
“I believe patience is one of the nine most important qualities to have. To me, the most important
qualities are peace, patience, love, joy, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and selfcontrol.
I could’ve written about any of these, but I chose patience because I think your life requires
great patience,” Martha wrote.
Theresa agrees that these are important but offered up just three: joy, patience and love. I asked
Theresa if she could recall a time that waiting patiently was unbearable. With slight timidity, her
response was concise: in times of war. The only thing that kept her going was faith that peace was
coming and the many lives lost would not continue to grow.
“ … and patience produces peace, joy, strength of character and self-control.”
The above statement is a description of every African I’ve met. Peace in the present. Joy in the little
things. Strength of character from hard work. And self-control from community-mindedness.
“With these five qualities you have a good life,” Martha wrote.
Catherine is the vice mayor of the district of Nyamasheke. She is a large woman by Rwandan
standards and has some serious jerry-curled hair. She was wearing a beautiful, green two-piece
outfit embroidered with gold trim when we met her in the district office. As Catherine became more
animated, the bangles and rings adorning her hands clinked and clanked. Catherine is a widower
and lost her husband when the youngest of her four children was only 1 year old. She completed
college with a degree in community development just before her husband passed away.
While praising the Rwandan people for the hospitality and national pride we encountered along
the trail, Catherine challenged us to find another African nation as unified as Rwanda. Obviously,
Rwanda is different than many African nations and the catalyst for these prosperous times is
President Paul Kagame. According to Catherine, Mr. Kagame is a “gift from God.” Of his many
accomplishments, Mr. Kagame will always be remembered for unifying Rwanda after those terrible
100 days in 1994. “Rwandans love the government because the government loves them,” she
said. Mr. Kagame is the reason why Catherine wholeheartedly can speak these words. He did the
unthinkable and continues to inspire his people.
Most of Catherine’s week is spent in the field with many in her district. “Our people are poor. It is
our obligation to love them,” she said. “To help them grow out of poverty, we must work together. We
must discuss our culture with them because our culture doesn’t work hard. To change that, we must
work hard with them.”
Her office looks out to Lake Kivu and across to the shores of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It
was on those shores not too long ago that tents of all different colors, each displaying a different
acronym, permanently stared back. UN, UNICEF, WHO and many others were the bridge to safety
for refugees. In Catherine’s mind, the greatest sign of progress over the last 15 years is that the
occupants of those hills are now cows. And this makes Catherine proud. Proud of her people. Proud
of her government. And proud to be an agent of change for the future.
Ronald is 21 and an aspiring tourism expert. He was not just our translator, but a brother. Ronald
endured rain, days consisting solely of bread for calories, showerless mornings, the requests of two
crazy “muzungus,” uncomfortable stares from his own people, his first blister and pages upon pages
of experiences that will forever change all of our lives.
He is the second of four children ranging from 5 to 26. A little over five years ago, Ronald lost both
of his parents within months of one another to AIDS. At the age of 15, he was in charge of taking
care of his two younger sisters, a role that he lovingly and dutifully fulfills to this day.
As with all untreated carriers of HIV/AIDS, the condition of Ronald’s parents worsened quickly. They
could no longer hold jobs, and providing for the family became an issue. Ronald’s wage went to the
household’s needs from the very beginning. With money in his pocket and two parents bedridden,
Ronald decided to make a stop on his way home one day. As he entered his house he went straight
to his parents’ sides, placing two Bells (Ugandan beers) in front of his father’s ailing body and a bag
of groceries in front of his mother. His mother’s reaction was solemn, leading him to think that she
was angry. Moments passed, and her face remained unchanged. Just as Ronald became worried, his
mother’s eyes filled with tears. For all the times that she had taken care of him, it was now his turn
to care for her.
A self-proclaimed “momma’s boy,” within an hour of being in his company, you understand that
the connection they had shaped him in every way. Often, Ronald’s mother would tell him that he
needed to learn how to cook because one day she wouldn’t be there. She passed on parables like,
“Do everything with a profit in mind, because what is work if you don’t have anything to show
for it.” Ronald was not by his mother’s side as she took her last breaths, but even in these last
moments, her final words were a cry for him. Their connection is one that cannot be broken. Not
even by death.
Among a myriad of postcards, pictures and words, Benjamin Carlson had one simple question for
Ronald: “I am overwhelmed and excited to know just one thing about your day. When you woke up
today, what did you aim to do with your time? And how did the progression of your day lead you to
be connected with my friends delivering this letter?”
Every single fiber of the connection that binds me, Ronald and Morris was hard-earned. We are
united. We are a family. And the one word that describes our story is “connected.”