November 4, 2007

Hope Amid Horrors

Six LPGA pros make a humanitarian visit to Rwanda, an African nation ravaged by atrocities and disease

King (center), Hull (left) and Inkster (far right) in Butare with children sponsored by Golf Fore Africa. Photo essay of the trip to Rwanda

King (center), Hull (left) and Inkster (far right) in Butare with children sponsored by Golf Fore Africa.

Photo essay of the trip to Rwanda

The road north from Kigali follows a path likely cut by tribesmen 1,000 years ago, clinging to a ridge that climbs toward the volcanic peaks that separate Rwanda from Congo and Uganda. The land drops dramatically into lush valleys framed against far ridges, a vista that led the Hutus and Tutsis to call their ancient home igihugu cy'imisozi igihumbi -- land of 1,000 hills. Just before dawn a still-hidden sun paints the sky with an eerie light that brings muted beauty to the silhouetted hills framing a lowland still lost in a blanket of fog. Out of the faint glow, almost as an apparition, emerge thousands of Rwandans dressed in traditional bright colors or recycled rags walking down the mountain to market with baskets of bananas, bamboo and other goods balanced on their heads. It is not a place you expect to find six women professional golfers.

This hearty half-dozen traveled halfway around the world to learn more about a troubled land where heaven and hell share the same soul, and the chasm between good and evil is remarkably bridged by hope. Rwanda is a contradiction wrapped in a paradox. Equatorial yet temperate in climate because of its elevation, this tiny nation of 8.4 million people tucked away in the Great Lakes region of central Africa is a serene place with a gentle people that spun hellishly out of control for 100 days in 1994 during which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu extremists, often by the blade of a machete and always with the intent that death should be preceded by humiliation and suffering. A nation the size of Maryland with a population of North Carolina lost the equivalent of Detroit in barely more than three months.

World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to helping children, families and their communities worldwide reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty. It provides services regardless of religion, race, ethnicity or gender. To find out more about the organization go to worldvision.org Golf Fore Africa is a members' charity initiative of the LPGA, whose goal is to help the orphans of Mudasomwa, Rwanda. Go to worldvision.org/golfforeafrica to learn more about the project or make a donation. You can also e-mail: golforeafrica@gmail.com or write:

Golf Fore Africa

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And when the killing stopped, the suffering did not. There are more than 1.3 million orphans in Rwanda, children left without parents because of the genocide, the AIDS pandemic, imprisonment following the killings and abandonment. The children of Rwanda are dying, 30,000 each year from preventable diseases. Malaria is rampant. Of every 1,000 Rwandan children born, 203 don't make it to their fifth birthday, compared to seven in the United States. It is rare to find a mother who has not lost a child. The average Rwandan, who earns about $220 a year, does not live to age 50. There are 27,000 children younger than 14 who are HIV positive, many the result of the more than 500,000 rapes during the genocide or afterward in refugee camps, most committed by Hutu deliberately infecting Tutsi.

In one of the more moving examples of charity to emerge from the generous world of golf, the AIDS orphans of Mudasomwa in southern Rwanda have become the project for a group of LPGA players. Betsy King, the 52-year-old Hall of Famer with six major championships among her 34 victories, was looking for something meaningful to do in 2006, the first year since 1975 that she failed to play an LPGA event, and her Christian faith took her to Africa to learn more about the AIDS crisis. One of the three countries she visited was Rwanda, and once exposed to the uplifting spirit and heartbreaking story of its people, she knew what she needed to do.

"You go to a country and you think you are never going to go back, but when I was here a year ago I was so moved by the heart of the Rwandan people I went home determined to do all I could to help," King explained in Kigali, the capital, in late October as she led her fellow professionals through the urban slums, rural mud-hut villages and economic development programs initiated by the Christian aid-organization World Vision.

What King did was brainstorm with Debbie Quesada, who accompanied her to Rwanda, to form Golf Fore Africa, a member-supported charity of the LPGA that currently has 18 LPGA pros, staff members and teaching pros sponsoring more than three dozen Rwandan children. So far the group has raised $170,000 for projects in Rwanda, with LPGA players voting a $10,000 donation from the tour. "This is our chance to help, and these are people who need our help," King says. "Our dream is to help AIDS orphans, and World Vision does that very well in terms of education and training. We will also look at other charities that are involved in getting medicine to people."

The eclectic group that made the trip spoke volumes about the collective heart of women's golf. Joining King were seven-time LPGA major winner Juli Inkster, 47, and her daughters Hayley, 17, and Cori, 13; Renee Powell, 61, one of only three African-Americans to play the LPGA Tour; Reilley Rankin, 28, an All-American at Georgia before breaking her back in a swimming accident in 1999 and returning two years later to lead the Bulldogs to the 2001 NCAA title; Katherine Hull, a 25-year-old Australian who was the 2003 NCAA Player of the Year at Pepperdine; and Wendy Posillico, 36, one of the best lacrosse players in history at the University of Vermont and now a teaching pro. Also along were Posillico's mother, Whitney, Rankin's aunt Diane Reilley, Quesada, the organizational glue of the group, and Steve Roberts, a retired businessman and fundraiser who was the lone male outside of World Vision staffers and a writer and photographer from Golf World.

AUGUST 4, 1993. The civil war that began in 1990 when the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded from Uganda, reaches a ceasefire when President Juvénal Habyarimana signs a power-sharing agreement with the Tutsis in Arusha, Tanzania. Four days later, Hutu extremists, feeling Habyarimana sold them out, launch the hate radio station RTLM, which refers to Tutsis as inyenzi (cockroaches) who need to be eliminated. The seeds for the genocide are sown.

Maybe the ultimate lesson of Rwanda is that the gap between human kindness and beastly brutality is not all that great, a slippery slope greased by lies, down which good people can slip with frightening ease. As the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire warned: "Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices." Such was the case here.

Forgiveness, it seems, has been possible in large part because it is simply too painful to not move on. Still, while the dead are buried, the memories are not. The world turned its back on the slaughter in Rwanda by refusing to stop the genocide, but Rwanda perservered. While the country struggles with poverty, disease and a staggering orphan crisis, it doesn't forget the past.

Two phrases spice nearly every conversation in Rwanda: mbere y'itsembabwoko (before the genocide) and nyuma y'itsembabwoko (after the genocide). Everything either happened before or after. The Memorial Centre in Kigali serves as a frank reminder of the event that defines this nation. Sitting on a hillside overlooking the tin roofs and mud huts of one of Kigali's many slums, the terraced gardens outside the modern building appear as mere ornaments until the tour guide explains that they rest on the mass graves of 258,000 people. While the enormity of that number is sinking in, she points to an uncultivated plot of land and says it is for the bodies still being found.

Safari Abubarahmani is a 33-year-old Tutsi who works as a driver. He was 20 during the genocide and survived on his wits. "If I went to my house I would be in and out, in and out, this way and that," he said, his hands darting through the air like a bait fish fleeing its pursuer, explaining how he avoided the roadblocks of the Interahamwe death squads by taking alleyways and back streets. "At night I would sleep in the forest," he said. "Sometimes I would stay there for days." That was especially true after both his parents and two siblings were killed. They are buried in the mass grave at the Memorial Centre.

"I asked myself why I was born in Australia to two fantastic parents and not in some Third World nation," Hull says as she sits slumped on a bench outside the museum, drained by what she has just seen. "But we can't answer that. All we can do is try to be the best person we can be and have faith in the future." The tears she shed were not her last of the trip. While there are constant reminders of death in every corner of Rwanda, there is still something alive that no amount of brutality could ever kill. There is a spirit, a passion and a joy that seems to leap from the brilliant green hills into the hearts of the people. Time and again, women -- and it was mostly Rwandan women with whom the group interacted -- who seemed to have no reason for hope were full of it. Time and again, the golf pros were clearly taken out of their comfort zone not just by the crushing poverty they witnessed but by the soaring passion, the complete embrace of life, they felt from the Rwandan people, many of whom were dying of AIDS, all of whom lost loved ones in the genocide.

At a World Vision training center where former prostitutes, single mothers, many of whom are HIV positive, and orphans raising other orphans learn job skills, the players are enveloped by laughing, singing, dancing women who shout the hope that resides in their souls and seem to scream that all that is needed is a chance. They sing tuzagubaka -- we will build. They sing the phrase over and over, the joy building to fever pitch. "Tuzagubaka ... tuzagubaka ..." Tears flow easily from the players. So does laughter. Eventually they all join in the dance.

*OCTOBER 3-4, 1993. Eighteen U.S. soldiers are killed in Mogadishu, Somalia, as part of a U.N. peacekeeping force. A horrified nation watches TV images of the dead dragged through the streets. After Mogadishu and the peacekeeping effort in the former Yugoslavia the world has little interest in military intervention, especially in a small, landlocked nation with no oil or other valuable resources. The stage is set for indifference. *

Perhaps the oddest thing about Paul Kagame's arrival at Kigali GC is that he is driving. It's not often you see the president of a nation behind the wheel. That's not to say his arrival is not preceded by soldiers toting automatic weapons. It is. Kagame, 50, is a reed-thin 6-foot-5, clad in a tan "Jungle Jack Hanna" shirt. An avid tennis player, Kagame's interest in golf is fueled by his wife Jeannette, who plays. His interest in the clinic at Kigali GC -- a modest 15-year-old layout that is the only 18-hole course in Rwanda -- is the exposure the visit can bring for the problems his country faces. This is no ceremonial walkthrough. He and the First Lady spent more than two hours with the players and the children being taught.

Kagame, who was 2 when his parents fled Rwanda in 1960 for Uganda to escape the first wave of killing of Tutsis by Hutus shortly before Belgium granted independence, makes bridging the divide in his country left by the genocide a top priority. Once the military genius behind the RPF army, Kagame has formed a government in which the president and prime minister must be from different parties, no party is allowed to have more than half the seats in the Council of Ministers and, by law, at least 24 of the 80 seats in the Chamber of Deputies have to be held by women. In fact, at 48 percent, Rwanda has more women holding political office than any other nation in the world.

If Kagame's reaction to the golf clinic is any indication, the game picked up an important advocate. With King giving instructions, Kagame missed eight consecutive 10-footers, hitting the hole several times with too much pace. When the First Lady drained her second putt, the president reached for the club and said, "Let me try another." Later, with a broad smile, he says, "I must say I am one of those who is getting addicted to the game of golf. The impression is that golf is for the few, but golf can be accessed by people from different levels of society, and that's what we want to make it in Rwanda. We want to give boys and girls an opportunity to play." Then, with an even broader smile, he added, "Now I have an excuse to play," and he putted another.

While tackling the massive problems facing his country, Kagame also has to cast a wary eye to his northwest border. The genocidaires who fled into Congo accompanied by 2 million Hutus who feared reprisals when the RPF seized Kigali, were mostly left unpursued by the United Nations and now ravage the countryside carrying out brutally violent rapes. According to a New York Times article published just days before the golfers left for Africa: "[There is] a mysterious gang of dreadlocked fugitives who live deep in the forest, wear shiny tracksuits and Los Angeles Lakers jerseys and are notorious for burning babies, kidnapping women and literally chopping up anybody who gets in their way ... [They] were once part of the Hutu militias who fled Rwanda after committing genocide there in 1994." When King's party goes on a trek to see gorillas near the border each group of eight is accompanied by two soldiers with machine guns.

*JANUARY 11, 1994. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian commander of the U.N. force in Rwanda to enact the ceasefire, sends a memo to U.N. headquarters saying an informant has revealed the location of hidden weapons to be used in the extermination of Tutsis. The U.N. denies Dallaire permission to raid the arsenals. RTLM amps up its hate campaign. Small slaughters of Tutsis fill the first three months of 1994. The rehearsal for the genocide is underway. *

Kofi Hagan is a thoughtful, articulate man born in Ghana whose calm demeanor and warm smile conveys the feeling everything is going to be all right, a sentiment he occasionally needs to remind himself. Now the head of the 400 World Vision staffers in Rwanda, Hagan was in Uganda when the genocide happened. "I was visiting a border village, and I saw fishermen with long poles pulling things out of the water," Hagan says. "They were dead bodies floating down the river from Rwanda. I saw fishermen collect 7,000 bodies. I decided I had to see what was going on."

What Hagan witnessed put his faith to its severest test. "We went in and oh my, oh my," he says shaking his head, failing to find the words to describe the scene. "And I didn't see the worst. The dead were piled in churches -- women, children brutalized. I said, 'Are these human beings? No, they must be animals.' [The genocide] is an ongoing personal struggle and an ongoing national struggle. It has seeped inside."

Hagan finds his redemption in the work of World Vision, which has tapped into the traditional tribal structure of Rwandan culture to bring job training, economic seed money and AIDS education to the people who need it most. "Even in the poorest of the poor communities, you have two things; the church and the school," says Sandra Thurman, president of the International AIDS Trust at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and a former Clinton Administration member involved in AIDS work for a quarter century.

"AIDS does to society what it does to human bodies," Thurman says. "It finds the weakest point and attacks there." While the 3 percent infection rate in Rwanda is far lower than most of southern Africa, and while the Kagame government is the most enlightened on the AIDS issue on the continent, less than 40 percent of those infected get the medicine they need. Malnutrition makes staying healthy even more of a challenge. World Vision's unifying idea of the economic development is to view poverty and disease as symptoms of the same illness. "It's about a holistic approach to dealing with humanity," says Thurman. "We have to help not only the infected but the affected." In 2006 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Muhammad Yunus, an economist from Bangladesh who was one of the pioneers of the concept of microfinancing. Essentially, this involves small loans -- usually less than $100 -- to help people establish businesses that can lift them out of poverty. World Vision employs microfinancing with great success.

In Kigali, for example, women who were prostitutes or perhaps sold bananas on the street are trained in the traditional Rwandan craft of basket weaving and then loaned enough money to begin a basket-weaving operation and rent a stall in the market. Another woman borrows money to buy kerosene in five-gallon containers and then re-sells it to those who can only afford to pay for a pint. Her seed money came through microfinancing.

"Commercial banks won't allow women like this inside their doors," says Scott Bellows, managing director of Vision Finance Company, a microfinance bank associated with World Vision. "So they dig a hole in the mud behind their hut and hide their money in the ground. If a husband comes home drunk or a neighbor finds it, it is gone. Now they have a safe place to keep their money for free." Remarkably, the repayment rate of the loans is 95 percent.

"Seventy percent of the loan recipients are women," says Rowin Floth, a World Vision administrator from Phoenix. "They are responsible because they are looking for survival of their children. They don't feel they are borrowing from wealthy Americans they feel they are borrowing from the community, and they don't want to disappoint them."

*APRIL 6, 1994. A plane carrying President Habyarimana and Burundi's Hutu president Cyprian Niayamira crashes near Kigali airport. RTLM blames the RPF and tells Hutus "the Tutsis are coming to kill you." The notion that Hutu extremists shot down the plane is supported by the fact that within an hour death squads with lists of key Tutsis and moderate Hutus pull people from their homes. On April 7, Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana is killed along with 10 Belgian U.N. soldiers. Dallaire says he can restore order with 5,000 troops. He is denied. By April 11, 32,000 people have been killed. *

It doesn't take too many turns to get off the main road in Rwanda. Mudasomwa is a collection of villages totalling about 70,000 people in the southern part of the country. Rutted dirt paths, barely drivable, tie the villages together, providing the lifeline to the marketplace. The children Golf Fore Africa sponsors through World Vision live in this remote area where electricity, running water and sanitary bathrooms are scarce.

"My job as a mother is to teach my children about other children and give them the opportunity to be whatever they want to be," says Inkster, explaining why she brought her daughters to Rwanda. "My children's jobs are to go to school, treat people with respect and learn how to help other people with their lives." Hayley Inkster, whose New York Yankees cap bobs above a sea of 200 fifth- and sixth-graders crowding around as she hands out candy, says, "My favorite subject is history so I can learn about other cultures. That's why I am here. You must find what you like best and pursue it."

Inconveniences the players faced, such as power outages at the hotel and concern about what was safe to eat, were placed within the broader context of the way Rwandans live their life day to day. The disparity of lifestyles hits home dramatically when children pushing around the cars carrying the golfers repeat a word over and over. Asked what they were saying, a Rwandan driver replies, "They want your bottles of water." Clean water is crucial in Rwanda where 20,000 children die annually from drinking dirty water.

The Rwandan children in Mudasomwa play soccer with a ball made of banana leaves and twine. The roads, always jammed with people on foot, are even more crowded here because the traffic includes goats, pigs and the occasional water buffalo. There are no dogs in Rwanda. Soldiers killed them after the genocide because they fed on the flesh of the dead. As the roads wind through villages with names such as Buhoro and Kinkanga, billboards scream "No More Genocide" and warn about AIDS prevention. There is an almost incongruous enlightenment amid the squallor.

Soldiers march pink-clad prisoners -- some of the more than 100,000 locked up because of the genocide -- into the fields where they work. Some of the best coffee in the world is grown in this part of Rwanda, and the beans are hauled for washing and drying on bicycles, some handmade from wood. There are no gears on these bikes and when the mountain road becomes too steep the rider gets off and pushes the bike up the hill. One project World Vision is involved with is working with a bicycle designer to come up with a lightweight, more efficient bike to get the coffee to market.

While the problems are large in Rwanda and at times the mountain seems too steep, there is reason for hope. There are about 35,000 children in Mudasomwa and 4,212 are involved in World Vision programs. Of those, 2,870 have sponsors. Vocational skills such as tailoring, shoemaking, masonry and carpentry are taught by 148 trained teachers. Since World Vision came into the area in 2000, school enrollment has increased 6 percent and the dropout rate has fallen 4 percent. Sanitary cooking methods have been taught to 144 households. Sixty new springs have been added to the community along with 10 water tanks and a hydraulic pump. Anti-AIDS clubs where children learn life skills have been formed.

"Children were committing suicide because they had no one to talk to," says Andre Nkulikiye, the World Vision regional manager for southern Rwanda, explaining that in many families, children are raising children as the oldest takes care of the younger siblings and often unrelated orphans -- 67 percent of the population is younger than 25. "We created a mentorship program with people trained in psych/social skills and HIV counseling. Mentors visit homes every week to try to solve conflicts in the family. The children are asked who they trust and then that person is approached and asked if they want to be trained as a mentor."

The players meet their sponsored children at the National Museum in Butare, the nearest city to Mudasomwa. Like much in Rwanda, it is simultaneously, uplifting, enlightening, joyful and heartbreaking. The children are given colored pencils and paper, toy cars, toothbrushes and tooth paste and, most popularly, real soccer balls, as well as their first footballs and Frisbees. The interaction is awkward at first, with introductions made through interpreters. Then shy hands reach out for the sponsors and they walk off through the museum, pointing at exhibits in what is a first visit to the facility for most of the children. Returning outside, the gathering breaks into a spontaneous soccer game with multiple balls and no rules or goals -- just lots and lots of laughing. When loudspeakers begin playing Rwandan music the children dance naturally within the soccer game.

"I have been to this part of the world about 25 times, but nothing has been as moving as this," says Powell. "We are all one world. Nothing brings that home more than seeing what the people here have gone through. These children are the hope for a future in Rwanda." Leaving the children is difficult. "Now I know what it is like when our parents say goodbye to us," Hull says as her tears flowed. "It's so hard to think what they are going back to," says Rankin. "Can you imagine how differently people would live their lives if they could experience this?" Posillico adds.

*APRIL 16, 1994. The New York Times reports the deaths of 1,200 men, women and children in a church in Musha. The massacre at Ntarama claimed more than 10,000 lives. By April 19, the death toll is 100,000 and Gen. Dallaire is down to 2,100 troops. A week later, the Belgian troops pull out and only 450 ill-equipped soldiers are left. The death count is estimated at 144,000. *

The church at Ntarama, 18 miles south of Kigali, is a small brick building with 20 rows of low, wooden benches bisected by an aisle. Set off the side of a dirt road in the midst of a meadow of banana trees, the tranquility of the surroundings makes the impact of what you see there even greater. Government officials decided the most effective anti-genocide memorial they could create was to leave the massacre site pretty much as they found it.

Bloodstains remain on the altar cloth and daylight trickles through the bullet holes in the tin roof. The back of the church is lined with bins containing countless skulls and other human bones. The walls are lined with the clothing of the dead, colored by dried blood. Bone fragments can be seen in the dirt of the tiny classroom next door, and the blood of children killed there cover the walls. "Look," says Cori Inkster, poking at the shell of a bullet wedged in the mortar between the bricks. Of all the places the group has visited, this is the one greeted with the most silence.

APRIL 28, 1994. Asked if genocide is occurring in Rwanda, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman says, "We have to undertake a very careful study before we can make a final determination." On May 17 the U.N. agrees to send 5,000 troops and the U.S. to send 50 armored personnel carriers. Neither arrives before the killing stops. The estimated death toll is 328,000.

One of the reasons the genocide was so efficiently carried out is because the Interahamwe militia tapped into the traditional tribal structure. Every 10 huts has a captain and every 100 huts has a captain of the captains. When it came time for the killing, the message swept swiftly through the Hutu community.

World Vision uses that same tribal structure for good. Orphans, widows or others considered vulnerable are trained to be AIDS caregivers. Often, the caregivers are HIV positive. A caregiver gets a job and a person with AIDS gets someone to help him get to clinic visits, have food and get medicine, if it is available.

At a caregiver center in Kigali, women are asked how many of them have children, and all 23 hands go up. When asked how many are raising children who are not their own all 23 hands remain in the air. Christine Mukankusi is a caregiver. She is a 38-year-old widow whose husband was a soldier killed in fighting along the Congo border in 2001. She is raising five children, four of whom are hers. One of her clients is Jeannette Niyitegeka, a 24-year-old woman with AIDS who has a 3-year-old son of her own and a 12-year-old boy and 9-year-old girl who are AIDS orphans.

Niyitegeka lives in a two-room mud hut illuminated by one fluorescent light. A couch, three chairs and a table fill one room, and behind a hanging cloth functioning as a door, mattresses on the floor serve as the bedroom. Niyitegeka is not having a good day, perhaps a reaction to medicine, perhaps hunger. On one wall is a framed Bible passage in Kinyarwanda from Romans 12:21: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." That seems to be the inspiring sentiment for all of Rwanda.

JULY 4, 1994. Kigali falls to the RPF. On July 17 the government flees and Kagame does what the U.N. refused to do -- he stops the genocide. Disease and killing in refugee camps after the war pushes the death toll to 1,071,000, according to the RPF.

The airport in Kigali has three gates. The security guard at the metal detector asks the most common question posed to visitors. "Are you coming back?" he says with a smile that grows even brighter when told there would be a return visit. In Golf Fore Africa, King has found a passion for her post-professional life. The project is nascent and the problems in Rwanda have no end in sight. Still, the business model employed by World Vision brings with it not just short-term hope but long-term potential.

"The idea is sustainable community development," says Floth. "Every investment we make requires an investment from the community as well. We don't just give handouts. Our goal is to make ourselves obsolete by teaching them how to become self-sufficient communities." The magnitude of the problems in Rwanda and the innate obstacles built into the culture make much of the work frustrating. In the movie "Blood Diamond" whenever something went wrong the Leonardo DiCaprio character would say simply: "TIA -- This is Africa." It was a phrase uttered often on this trip. Or, as one veteran aid worker would say when a plan went awry: "Africa wins again."

Sitting at breakfast on the last day of the trip, King acknowledges the enormity of the task and is well aware that Golf Fore Africa is one extremely small piece in a massive puzzle. Still, she says, all pieces, however tiny, are important.

"Get involved, do something," King says when asked what she would tell people about Rwanda. In the land of a thousand hills, there are a million dreams.