Informed by a mere paragraph in Lonely Planet and a quick glimpse at their website, I set out to find the Solace Ministries Guesthouse in Kigali, Rwanda. The vague map in my travel guide pointed in the right direction without actually pinpointing the location. Passing through multiple neighborhoods, making several phone calls, and asking anyone he could find, my moto-taxi gradually narrowed down the spot until we had found the place. Introducing myself to Denise, the manager of the guesthouse, I mentioned that I sometimes photograph and write about vital causes that I find in East Africa. She then took me to the office of the founder and director of the ministry, John Gakwandi. Listening to what must have sounded like a bizarre story of how I found my way to his organization, John welcomed me and introduced me to their work. When I interviewed John two days later, I learned that it all began when he accepted a job working with people who suffered tremendous loss during the Rwandan genocide. The stories that he heard every day broke his heart and many of these meetings ended in tears. Wondering how to help so many hurting people, he sensed God directing him through Isaiah 40:1 to "comfort my people." But how could he provide comfort to people who had lost not just everything they had but everyone that they loved?
The material possessions would have been easier to restore but what do you do for a widow who has lost both her husband and children? Or what would you say to a child who is the only remaining member of his or her extended family? Pondering such things, John remembered that God "…comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God" (2 Cor. 1:4). Hopeful that the comfort he had received might help bring healing to others, John launched Solace Ministries in 1995 to comfort the widows and orphans of the genocide that took over 1 million lives.
The people that came to Solace understandably did so in the midst of great pain. They discovered that gathering together those who were hurting enabled them to share their stories with each other and to find comfort in this new community. As survivors wept with each other they found that they were not alone. This prompted Solace to form local communities across Rwanda to serve as family for those who had lost their loved ones. These communities care for one another, help to raise the orphaned children, and make sure that each member has enough food and means. Led by women widowed during the genocide who have found inner healing, the communities truly become a source of comfort and healing.
In addition to forming these communities, Solace also provides counseling and trauma healing, helps to educate orphans either through sponsorship or educational programs at their base in Kigali, encourages forgiveness through Jesus Christ, teaches vocational skills to help survivors make progress, and provides anti-retroviral medication and community home-based care for the many women who contracted AIDS while being raped during the genocide. According to information at the Kigali Memorial Center, more than 500,000 women were raped during the genocide or in the refugee camps that followed, and often times it was by men who were known to be HIV positive. Solace is providing a vital service to these women in a part of the world where proper medication and health care has been sparse. One of the ways they fund this project is by running a guesthouse at their center in Kigali. I was grateful for a chance to spend the night there knowing that the money went toward such an important cause.
I could go on and on about all the Solace Ministries does, but like John told me, the real story is what is happening in peoples' lives. I will focus on several of the stories that I encountered in my next post. It is inspiring to see how this organization has provided solace for so many hurting survivors. Click here to read more about Solace Ministries.