Rafiki Callixte reminded me of some parts of his story that I had forgotten when he spoke at Firelight Foundation in Santa Cruz tonight. Rafiki is Project Manager of a Rwandan grassroots organization called Les Enfants de Dieu, which gets much of the money it needs to shelter and educate street children from Firelight. Now Firelight, whose goal is bettering the lives of children put at risk by AIDS and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, has brought Rafiki to California for a week. Earlier this evening he gave a talk at Firelight’s Open House.
Les Enfants de Dieu, or “Children of God,” takes its name from its near-rhyme, les enfants de rue or “children of the street”—an audacious reversal of status for homeless boys typically valued and cared for no more in Rwanda than anywhere else.
Although Rafiki denies that Les Enfants de Dieu’s name carries explicit religious meaning, this probably suggests not so much a secular as an ecumenical spirit. Religion rarely seems a distant phenomenon in Africa, and least of all when its people mention forgiveness, as Rafiki did tonight. In Richard Dowden’s fine study, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, he writes of being “always struck by the spirit of forgiveness” when Africa’s wars stop and “there is little or no revenge.” Dowden identifies the “most remarkable story” of forgiveness as the one about the Namibian lawyer Bience Gawanas. During the nineteen-nineties she recognized a beggar who accosted her at a traffic light as the man who had tortured her years before in Angola, and she gave him money. Yet I see that as no more amazing than Rafiki’s story about asking the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the army which ended the 1994 genocide, to spare the life of the man who had shot him in the leg and left him to die in a ditch.
Rafiki justifies forgiveness in therapeutic terms, as liberating oneself from the burden of hatred. I can see his point. But I wonder if the Christian conviction of the universality of sin doesn’t lie beneath this unstoppable refusal to hate? Why should I hate my would-be killer if different circumstances could have put me in his shoes and him in mine? In Rwanda, whose genocide saw huge numbers of the most ordinary people commit the most unspeakable atrocities, one could easily accept the universal presence of sin.—Don Stoll