November 6, 2007

Rwanda: Hope in Help

The message of Rwanda is not about our differences, but rather our similarities

Golf World's Ron Sirak (from the left), World Vision's Ananais Stentozi and photographer Dom Furore.

Golf World's Ron Sirak (from the left), World Vision's Ananais Stentozi and photographer Dom Furore.

On that Saturday afternoon, I got back to my hotel room in Kigali and cried. They were not the first tears I had shed in Rwanda, but they were the most painful. That morning I had been with five LPGA players and a teaching pro as they met the Rwandan children they sponsor through Golf Fore Africa and the Christian aid-organization World Vision. As we left the children in Butare we all had the same thought: We knew the world to which we were returning and we knew the world to which they were returning. Those worlds are more than an ocean apart.

Still, the message of Rwanda is not about our differences, but rather our similarities. The genocide there in 1994 and disease in the refuge camps afterward killed more than a million people and, along with the AIDS pandemic, left another 1.3 million orphans. Children beg for bottled water because thousands die every year from drinking water most Americans wouldn't consider dipping a toe into. If you can experience Rwanda and not come away changed, something essential has died within you.

I woke up the day after I returned to the U.S. missing Rwanda and the people I shared it with. Dom Furore, whose amazing photographs you see in this issue (above right with me and World Vision staffer Ananais Stentozi), and I spent 12 days witnessing grim urban slums, mud-hut rural villages and shocking reminders of the genocide. But they were also 12 days immersed in the hope and joy of Rwanda's people. We left not demoralized but determined that people of good intention can make a difference.

Sleep was not always an escape for me in Rwanda, and I don't think it was because of the malaria medicine we were taking. I had a lot of anger dreams while there -- not about Rwanda but about situations in my own life -- but clearly it was all a coded way of expressing what I was feeling about what I saw. Why can't more be done? A well can be built for $3,000 and a well can provide safe drinking water for a village. Yet 20,000 children will die there this year from drinking dirty water.

Children die in Rwanda from preventable diseases. We can fix that. Children die from malaria. That doesn't have to happen. And even though the government of President Paul Kagame is the most progressive in Africa in dealing with AIDS, fewer than half of those infected are getting the medicine they need -- far fewer. These are problems that have solutions.

The six golfers who made the trip -- Betsy King, Renee Powell, Juli Inkster, Reilley Rankin, Katherine Hull and Wendy Posillico -- are inspirational in their efforts. With retired businessman Steve Roberts and Debbie Quesada, who helped King launch Golf Fore Africa, they are trying to use golf to call attention to much more important issues.

The clinics the players gave at Kigali GC were but a small part of the trip. Golf can't help the problems of Rwanda, but golfers can, people can. Golf Fore Africa is a good idea. It's a small way to impact some very large problems. Of the childen we visited in Mudasomwa in southern Rwanda, one in five will not live to their fifth birthday. We can do better.