A harrowing holy day

Friday, April 06, 2018
Kigali City, Rwanda
Today was a joyful but also very trying day. I has asked Mr. Mundeli to arrange for a 4WD for our drive up to Giti, but he hadn’t been able to. Instead we had a small crossover SUV that could hold seven or eight people. Ndio, a driver I know from previous trips, picked us up at 07:30. Patrick Mundeli was already in the vehicle and explained the plan as we drove off to the edge of town. We stopped at the Engen service station and waited for the others. We would have three vehicles traveling up into the mountains, two like ours and a van from Kayenzi. Coming from Kigali it would be a two hour trip, but from the two other locations, more like four hours each way.
Once organized, we started out north on the paved road. Instead of our usual turn-off toward Muhazi we continued on the paved road another several miles. We were going to go up the back way, a sign that the roads were in particularly bad shape. Another sign was the work parties on the roads during a weekday. That means the government is paying them, which it rarely does. Our usual road up was impassible; not a reassuring sign for the day. It started to drizzle. The clay of the roads began softening and becoming slick. Ndio was careful, but the vehicle slipped and slid in spite of his efforts
I breathed a sigh of relief when two hours later, a little after 10:00, we pulled up in front of the Church hall. The other small vehicle arrived half an hour later. Jack and his family were warmly received, there were hugs from people who remembered him from 20 years ago.
We received a call from Mr. Mundeli that the van had broken down in the valley before starting the ascent.  He called back half an hour later to give an update: the accelerator cable had snapped, a repairman was on the way. We talked with whom we could, that is to say those who can speak French or English, which is limited to six or eight people.
Finally after 12:00, more than two hours later, the van arrived. We would have to speed up our schedule. It was raining hard enough that I was concerned that the pounding on the tin roof might make speaking difficult or impossible. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who prayed silently about that.
We began the service as quickly as possible, cutting out the sermonette and half the special music. The rain stopped during the whole service. There were hymns, a prayer, announcements, one short piece of special music and the offering. Then I spoke with Patrick translating. He can translate from English or French, but I spoke French because there are those six or eight who can understand the French directly.
I first said a few words of tribute to Jean-Baptiste Sibobugingo, the deacon who recently and unexpectedly died. He was 68. He’d lived a tough life, fathered 12 children, and was by his example and teaching responsible for much of the growth in the region of Giti. He set a fine example and is and will be much missed.
I also commented on the new people we had amongst us, that there are church associations of the Church of God with whom we are compatible, who, we believe teach the truth. I explained that we don’t believe our association is the exclusive home of true Christians today, that we believe there are Christians in other groups, though not necessarily all groups claiming to be the Church of God, some are compatible, others are dangerous, I explained. But today we were welcoming brethren among us and I hoped all would make them feel at home.
Then I spoke on the meaning of the New Testament Feast of Unleavened Bread. I didn’t speak a full hour, time was of the essence. I really didn’t want to try to drive down the mountain in the dark, in these wet conditions that would be foolish.
After the service, we had an official meeting of the Rwanda association. When Sibo died it left a vacancy in the legal representation of the Church. At the same time, the government has passed a law that the president of every church association must have a theology degree (again to keep out superstitious and ignorance-based religion). Up until now I have not been a legal representative of the Church in Rwanda, we used the local men. But with these laws I must now become legally involved. So there was a vote on who the two legal representatives should be, and Mr. Mundeli and I were unanimously elected.
Then we had a meal, a precooked meal that could be transported unrefrigerated: roasted chicken and beef, boiled eggs, avocado, unleavened bread (of course), yam, potatoes and Coca-Cola products. The meal was much appreciated by everyone.
About 4:00 I said we needed to start back. I wanted to be down the mountain at least during daylight, as did everyone. The rains now came down hard. The roads became truly treacherous. And it was our turn to break down. Just passed Rugombo, our vehicle overheated. In a pouring rain, Ndio thought about what to do. He didn’t want to get out, but finally there was no other solution. He asked to use my umbrella and I handed it over.
Things were looking rather grim, but we couldn’t help laughing when Ndio got out, opened the umbrella without paying attention to the gusting winds, and had the umbrella immediately destroyed in his hands. He got back in the car and handed me the umbrella, now twice as long as it was before because the ribs were all running the wrong direct. I deadpanned “thank you Ndio” as if nothing were wrong. We all laughed. He felt obliged to try to fix it, in a contrite Stan Laurel sort of way. But I told him not to worry about that, and just concentrate on the engine. One of the young ladies in the back of the car said she would be able to fix it, so I gifted it to her.
While Ndio was back out under the hood, the young lady, Amélie, joked that the breakdown was her fault. She had been in the van in the morning when it broke down and had switched to our vehicle to avoid such things on the way back. “I have become Jonah” she quipped. In the same vein, I asked if we threw her out would the rain would stop and the engine start. We laughed at this, but the situation was not really a laughing matter.
Ndio filled the radiator; there must have been a leak somewhere. Windshield wipers slapping madly, we fishtailed down the mountainside. There are no guardrails, only sometimes small dirt berms that would slow, perhaps stop, a vehicle from going over the edge and down the precipitous hillsides. The praying was private but intense. I thought as we descended, that this had not been a wise decision to take everyone up to Giti during the rainy season when the roads were known to be so bad. We had been forced to it by the government’s new law and the fact that the members are so scattered.
The car overheated again as we approached the black-topped road. Ndio refilled the radiator. We overheated again as we approached Kigali. Ndio called someone, and a few minutes later a young man arrived who helped him do something under the hood, minutes dragged.  At the entry to Kigali we hit a huge traffic jam caused by a combination of roadwork, selfish driving techniques, and too many vehicles on the road.
We finally entered Kigali and dropped the members with us near their homes. Then the car overheated one last time. Ndio flagged down a taxi and paid the driver to take us back to our hotel, with his apologies.
We were scheduled to do the whole thing again tomorrow after what would be a very short night for many members (and drivers). I talked it over with Marjolaine and made the decision that it wouldn’t be wise to try this twice in a row. I called Mr. Mundeli and explained my thoughts and concerns. I said we should just have a service in the three locations without having anyone travel. There would be disappointment on one level, but I’m sure relief as well. Everyone here knows someone who has died going up or down mountains during the rains. I regretted having to make the decision, but I’m convinced it’s wise.


Margaret Villaescusa

Lovely to see your pictures and receive news of the brethren. Dr. Swartz visits Raleigh and has shared his deep love for the brethren in Rwanda. Glad to see that you and your traveling companions were able to maintain a sense of humor. These shared experiences, though challenging, become part of the tie that binds. May the rest of your trip be safe and successful.


Thanks so much for the reports and photos. What a challenging drive to and from the hall in Giti. Even though things had to be cut short because of vehicle problems, the pictures indicate a happy gathering. How encouraging that Jack and party were able to meet with everyone. The new government regulations will impose some hardships for everyone meeting together, so we hope that things will work out in some beneficial way. How nice the church had a meal together and everyone managed to get "home" in spite of the rain, the slippery roads, the overheated engines.


Thanks to you and your wife for faithfully serving the scattered brethren. More importantly...did the umbrella get fixed?


I'm glad that you were cautious about going up the mountain a second time, although I am sure the change in plans was disappointing. It is easy for us to forget the extreme challenges our church family members face there regularly--and those that you face in pastoring. We are thankful that everyone was safe and sound at the day's end.

Emily Hyde

Even reading about your adventure was intense. I’m sure it will be a memory not soon forgotten. Glad you all decided on a different plan for the following day.