Rethinking Missions: Women From America and Africa Meet

Faitth Brooks reflects on her recent learning-exchange trip with other Black women to Rwanda in partnership with Africa New Life Ministries.

The Woman2Woman team takes a farewell picture with women from Azizi Life. (Photo: Faitth Brooks)
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Activist Faitth Brooks Reflects on ‘Woman2Woman’ Learning Exchange in Rwanda

When Amena Brown Owen asked me to go on a learning-exchange trip to Rwanda, I immediately said, “Yes!” I also convinced my mom to join me.

The last time I was there was in 2010, and I was one of two Black women on that team. I left dreaming of what it would be like to return to Rwanda with all Black women. I specifically wanted to work with an organization run by locals. I did not want to be a part of a trip where we were coming in to “save” the people and then briskly leave.

My thoughts about “mission trips” have changed. Over a year ago, I watched a documentary called Poverty Inc. This documentary is moving and troubling at the same time. I learned how well-meaning people are contributors to poverty in developing nations.

I was a contributor.

At an early age, I was passionate about working with the marginalized. My parents exposed my brother and me to serving in our community. We helped in soup kitchens and nursing homes, and we delivered meals to people on Thanksgiving before we had our family meal. My parents taught me to love my neighbor through actions and not just words.

As a result, I went on and led several mission trips when I was older to places like Los Angeles, Mexico, Thailand, Haiti and Rwanda.

Amena Brown Owen hugs Providence in Rwanda
Amena Brown Owen hugs Providence, a woman she met at Africa New Life Ministry’s vocational sewing program. (Photo: Faitth Brooks)

Owen planned to take a team of Black women to  Africa New Life Ministries (ANLM) in Rwanda. This trip was my dream come true: we would learn from an organization started by Rwandans for Rwandans. We named our trip “Woman2Woman.”

We were going to Rwanda to watch and learn how they operated their ministry, served the community and empowered the people. We were not going as the Americans with all of the money, solutions and power. We wanted to exchange experiences, lock arms and say, “We are in this together.”

We had a limited understanding of what our trip would be like. On July 14, 2017, a group of 11 women from around the country flew to Amsterdam where we met for the first time and took our final flight to Rwanda. Our team clicked instantly.

Once we arrived, we spent our time with women from all walks of life. One of the most impactful moments of the trip was spending “a day in the life” of a Rwandan woman. We partnered with Azizi Life, an organization dedicated to paying their artisans fair wages and empowering women to care for their families. We spent time learning how they cook, tend to the fields, mow the grass and fetch water from the spring. The women did all of this in addition to their work as artisans; I was humbled by their strength and resilience.

Women from Woman2Woman peel yuca in Rwanda
Women from Azizi Life show Latasha Morrison (top right) and the Woman2Woman team how to peel yuca with a knife. (Photo: Faitth Brooks)

We ate dinner with women from the ANLM leadership team while we talked about women’s ministry. We shared about traditional American women’s ministry events held annually or quarterly—what works from check-in to speakers and the length of events. The women from ANLM had similar structures for their events.

ANLM staff shared with us their vision to see women empowered and uplifted, as many of the women have experienced oppression. Our teams discussed collaborating in the future and working together to unite and gather Black women from America and Rwanda.

They asked what we have learned along the way about balancing ministry and motherhood. A few of our moms in ministry on the team talked about their first ministry being to their families while still seeking to empower other mothers. Susan Seay told the ladies about her book, The Intentional Parent, and Francine Pierson, my mom, discussed topics she covered in her book Ministry vs Family. Some of the women wanted to learn more about homeschooling. I was homeschooled from preschool until I graduated high school. I had a lovely experience, and it was neat to share that with moms considering homeschool for their children.  

Women of Azizi Life placed traditional scarves on Faitth (above) and others' heads during a trip in Rwanda
Women of Azizi Life placed traditional scarves on Faitth (above) and others’ heads. (Photo: Faitth Brooks)

“Rwandans have acknowledged their painful past. They discuss it and have not forgotten it, but they refuse to let it define them as people.”

We also visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which is the final resting place for more than 250,000 victims of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi people. Before World War I, Germans colonized Rwanda. They believed the Tutsi people looked more White and deemed them the superior tribe. In 1919, Belgium gained control of Rwanda under the Treaty of Versailles. They perpetuated Rwanda’s racialized society created by Germany, labeling the people  as Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa on their identification cards. Tutsis had access to wealth and leadership positions, but the Hutu and Twa people were marginalized. This underlying tension grew and led to the genocide in 1994. Hutu extremists had an agenda to kill all Tutsi people. An estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed between April and July of 1994.

Today, the country is thriving. Everyone’s identification card says “Rwandan.” There are no distinctions, and it is not acceptable to ask someone about his or her tribe. Rwandans have acknowledged their painful past. They discuss it and have not forgotten it, but they refuse to let it define them as people. They built museums to tell the story of their painful past. No monuments or statues of leaders from the genocide are on public display.

The Rwandan government established Gacaca court, a community justice system. There were so many people who participated in the genocide that trials would possibly take nearly one hundred years and hurt the economy. The Gacaca court’s purpose was to establish communal healing and put justice in the hands of the community. ANLM staff shared how the perpetrator would confess his wrongdoing to a deceased victim’s family member to make amends. Gacaca trials are still occurring within communities.

Woman2Woman Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda
The Woman2Woman team stands in solidarity at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. (Photo: Faitth Brooks)

This was a sobering time for our team. Unfortunately, we are all too familiar with the language of hate: a language that seems to have been resurrected in America. Our time at the memorial caused many of us to wonder if America is heading in the same direction as Rwanda all those years ago. Although our hearts were heavy, talking to the Rwandan people gave us hope. Rwanda went through an unimaginably difficult time as a country, but they named and denounced the hate. People repented to one another. Their hope is to say, “No more. May this never be our story again.” I hope we in America can learn from their painful past.

Throughout our trip, women from the villages would ask us how we are Black and from America. We told our Rwandan sisters about slavery and how our ancestors were taken from West Africa and enslaved in America and other countries. Most of them expressed sadness when we told them we do not know which country our ancestors are from. The women responded with love and held our hands or touched our faces and smiled. They would say, “Welcome home sister.” Those three words healed something in all of us. We may not know our home country in West Africa, but we can call Rwanda home. As a symbol of being a Rwandan sister, the women gave us Rwandan names.

Most of us work in multicultural spaces and have longed for a time when we could just be with our Black sisters. This trip to Rwanda gave us that time and space. I would encourage Black women to be open to experiences like this one. If you are scared or wonder how you will get the finances to go, do not let that hinder you. Just say yes. You will not regret it. I went to Rwanda as Faitth, and I left as Igihozo: new name, new country, new sisters.

Editor’s note: For related perspectives on mission trips and learning exchanges in Africa, read: 

Faitth Brooks (@FaitthB) is a gifted speaker, blogger and activist. Her passion makes her a relentless spokesperson for racial reconciliation. She currently works as the communication and programming director for Legacy Collective. 

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