A Discussion with Rev. Philbert Kalisa, Founder and Director of REACH Organisation in Rwanda

May 25, 2009

Background: As part of the Peacebuilding Practitioners Interview Series, Jason Klocek interviewed Rev. Philbert Kalisa, an ordained minister of the Anglican Church, who is the founder and director of REACH Organisation in Rwanda. In this interview, Kalisa comments on his role within REACH and shares his opinion on how the work of the organization has been carried out thus far. He also discusses the role of churches in promoting reconciliation in Rwanda today.
Rev. Kalisa, can you please first speak about your background and how these experiences led you to your current work?

I was born a refugee in Burundi. I was also raised there. However, even when I left the refugee camp at the age of 18 years old, I was still a refugee. There is a difference between a refugee and a person living in a refugee camp. Even once I left I was still a refugee; I was a person without a home. I could not choose freely where I wanted to live.

I found this to be an experience of injustice. If you are a refugee in the United States and have children, those children will become U.S. citizens. This is not the same in Burundi. There is an agreement between the governments of Rwanda and Burundi that people born in their countries do not necessarily become citizens.

It was through my experiences as a refugee that I become a Christian, but not easily or quickly. There came a point when my parents could no longer afford to pay for me to go to school and so I had to stop going. I was out of school for two years. And during that time I was angry: angry with God, angry with our pastors, angry with my situation. But, it was out of this experience that I become a Christian.

Two years after I had to stop my schooling, I received money from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). They paid for my school fees. And after I finished secondary school, I entered the theological college in Burundi. After four years of study, I became an Anglican priest. From that, I went on to the United Kingdom and did further theological studies at the University of Bristol from 1993 to 1996. It was at this time that another important event happened in my life that showed me the injustices in our world.

One month after I left Burundi for the United Kingdom, that was in 1993, there was the bloody coup in Burundi. There was much bloodshed. My wife and child, whom I had left behind in Burundi, had to flee to the compound of a Roman Catholic compound for safety. Now my wife and our daughter were suddenly refugees. Very soon after these events in Burundi, the genocide took place in Rwanda. Many of my relatives were killed—wiped out. All of these events, and in such a short time span, shocked me very much.

In 1995 I desperately wanted to come to Rwanda. I wanted to see my country, and I wanted to claim citizenship. So, I came to do research on reconciliation. My dissertation was on the role of the Rwandan churches in promoting healing and reconciliation after the genocide. It was at that time that I learned of the killings that took place in churches. This greatly shocked me. I also saw the great division amongst priests and other religious persons. There was no community. You could see and even smell the division, the hatred amongst them. So I left shocked at what I had seen. At that time I vowed to myself to never come back. Why should I come back? What could be done?

Yet, here you are today. How did you come to settle in Rwanda?

Yes. I returned to the United Kingdom and finished my graduate degree in theology in 1996. It was while I was writing my dissertation, upon my return from Rwanda, that I was moved by God. You see, I was terrified by what had happened in Rwanda. I felt like I should do something, but what could I do without returning? Yet, I still didn’t want to come back. Then, somehow, I suddenly realized there was no way out. I was called to go back to Rwanda.

This was just a vision at first. I came by faith and in 1996 settled in Rwanda with my wife and children. However, I didn’t want to work through the Anglican Church at that time. The church was still unsure of how to speak of its role in the genocide, and they had not fully accepted their accountability. But, how can you talk about reconciliation without justice? Without accountability? So I wanted to do reconciliation but I had no resources, no money.

I also had another challenge. People claimed that I hadn’t suffered. I had been outside of the country during the genocide, so what did I know? People questioned my ability to speak about suffering and reconciliation. Some accused me of trying to make it easy so that the murderers could come back and finish what they started. Of course, I had suffered. The life of a refugee is not easy, and I suffered injustices. Plus, I had lost many relatives during the genocide and carried that pain.

How did you proceed to found REACH?

I needed money, resources to start a reconciliation program. As a result of my studies in the United Kingdom, I had friends and people there who were willing to help. I ran a fund raising campaign called REACH-UK and was able to obtain the money I needed to move forward.

What type of programs does REACH run today?

We currently run a variety of programs. First, we have trainings on healing and reconciliation that are run in the form of workshops or seminars. We bring people together that have suffered. We talk about the historical background of the conflict. There is no way one can promote reconciliation if people do not know the root causes of the hatred and conflict. In Rwanda, this hatred took its roots at least in the late 1950s so it has persisted over generations. We have to ask why this has happened. We also talk about the role of the churches during the conflict. We ask tough questions, such as: Were the churches complicit? Did they oppose the genocide? How could such a Christian country not stand up against the genocide? We then talk about reconciliation as both a political and biblical concept.

Another program is in the form of unity groups. Often following our training workshops, people want to continue the work of reconciliation. The next step then is to live together in community. So unity groups are community based projects that build on the different types of associations in Rwandan society and bring together victims and perpetrators. These associations may be formed as a common business or a sports team. We currently have 14 football teams that we support. We have also formed a choir that visits churches in the area and sings songs about unity and reconciliation. Through such activities, people don’t only play or earn money, but they are also receiving the message of reconciliation.

Finally, we are working to train perpetrators and victims directly. We start with each group separately and talk about their needs, about forgiveness, about reconciliation. When each group is ready, we bring them together to meet and discuss things. Then, they may also work on communal projects together. We currently have a pilot program where perpetrators are building homes for victims’ families. These families also help—maybe they bring lunch to the workers, maybe they help more directly.

Can you speak more on what reconciliation means to those of you at REACH?

Reconciliation is not easy. What is it really? Well, I know that it is everywhere. I know that it is important in all aspects of social life. It is important for all human beings. Without reconciliation there would be no life. By that I mean if there is no reconciliation in Rwanda, there will be no development and no country. And, reconciliation is something more than just respecting the rights of others. In Rwanda we live side-by-side with one another, so there is no way to avoid others. We cannot just say I respect you and go on our way; we have to interact with one another.

Hate is a big problem. If we live with hate, we are victimized twice: the first time when we lose someone we loved; the second as we carry the burden of hatred that destroys us from within. So to be reconciled is to live together in peace and harmony.

In Rwanda, we used to be one. Separation is the division of something that was once one. So the goal of reconciliation here is to become one again. We need one another, especially because many people here live in poverty. Cooperation is very important in our lives.

Also, as Christians, we have an obligation to reconcile. Indeed, God is the author of reconciliation. The story of Adam and Eve shows how human beings were separated from God, how our fellowship with God was destroyed. However, to reunite us with himself, God sent Jesus Christ. Jesus reconciles us with God. So if we are aware of the word of God, we will be open to reconciliation. And, the life of Jesus shows us that reconciliation is not easy. The example of what Jesus suffered reveals to us that the path is not easy. In the end, reconciliation is a process which often has a high cost—our humility. And if someone does not reconcile I cannot completely blame him. God has to be involved. We have to be open to God.

How are the churches involved in reconciliation efforts today in Rwanda?

Today the churches are trying hard to be involved. They have realized that there is now way out; they have to be involved. This is for two reasons. First, the one I talked about before, that the Gospel message is one of reconciliation, so this is a proper type of work for the churches. Second, the government is very involved in reconciliation efforts. The government has a vision of what reconciliation looks like in Rwanda, and it expects the churches to be involved. In one way, this is good. It is good that the government promotes peace and security. If the government is not strong, anything could happen.

However, this, of course, also leads to a problem. Often times the message of different churches are just words. Church leaders are just doing their job, just doing it to earn their pay. Many of them do not feel a strong calling to bring this Gospel message to people. On top of this, many clergy who want to be involved don’t really know what to do. They are not trained properly, and many churches still don’t even have specific programs for reconciliation and peacebuilding. I know it is difficult to really say what reconciliation is, but you still have to have a strategy. You have to have some idea towards which you are moving. And, you have to have plans to follow up on certain things, not just do a workshop or training and think you are finished.

What are the other challenges to reconciliation efforts in Rwanda?

First, people need to understand that reconciliation has to take place within one’s self before it can happen in communities. One has to be clean within, healed within, before he or she can help other people. To do this, I think we need to recognize the vision of God for His people and overlook ethnic divisions.

Second, everyone says they are doing reconciliation work today in Rwanda, but this doesn’t run very deep. People are actually far more preoccupied with development work, and they do not connect this to reconciliation. Many NGOs think they have experience with reconciliation work, but I don’t believe anyone is really experienced in reconciliation. Reconciliation happens on a very personal level; it is not only the large workshops and trainings.

What are your current challenges at REACH?

At REACH we are committed to promoting reconciliation. We want to support the efforts of churches and the government. We want to support reconciliation at all levels. Just last week, we ran a workshop for 110 released prisoners. They had been in jail for over 12 years. What are they to do now that they are free?

But this is a small number. There are so many people that need to be reached. So we would like to expand our programming, but this requires more resources—both people and money. Also, we would like to do more follow-up with the programs we have run, but there is the same problem here—limited resources. Finally, I believe that we need more research and analysis of the conflict and reconciliation efforts in Rwanda. Reconciliation is not only for Rwanda; it is for everyone. But if we understand what is happening here, maybe we can learn things that can be applied to other places.

Rev. Kalisa, thank you very much for your time today.

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