A Garden of Forgiveness in Rwanda

By February 20, 200910 Comments


The hills of Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, and site of the “Gathering of Forgiveness” conference.

I just attended a remarkable week-long international conference called the “Gathering of Forgiveness” at the La Palisse Hotel in Kigali, Rwanda, the “land of a thousand hills.” Invited by an organization called Gardens of Forgiveness, lead by Reverend Lyndon Harris, we were there to learn about how healing can take place through following a path of forgiveness, and to look into the possibility of creating a Garden of Forgiveness there.


The conference was held at the La Palisse Hotel, Kigali.

The conference was the vision of popular Rwandan-Canadian singer/songwriter Jean Paul Samputu, founder of MIZERO Children of Rwanda, a dance troupe of Rwandan street children.


MIZERO’s vision is to bring, build, and spread hope to Rwandan children. Last year, they toured the US and Canada, ending with a concert at the United Nations.

2009 marks the 15th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, when nearly one million innocent women, men and children died over a period of 100 days, leaving many widowed and children orphaned and traumatized. During the conference, we learned about what happened in 1994, heard testimony by both survivors and perpetrators of the genocide, and stories of how Rwandans have learned how to forgive each other to be able to heal themselves and their country. It’s vital that they do that, because otherwise this society would continue to be broken apart by the tragedy here.


The church in Ntarama, where 5,000 people took sanctuary from grenade blasts by the genocidiares. Only 10 people survived the attacks at this location.

The government, run by President Paul Kagame, is remarkable in that it is institutionalizing forgiveness as a national policy, so his country can heal from the terrible scars wrought by the genocide. It’s the most intense place I’ve ever been, given this background, but with wonderful people — gentle, expressive, smart and ambitious for their country. It’s the most stable government in Africa, and one of the safest, despite the problems of Uganda and Burundi nearby (caused in part by the Genocidaires who fled there 15 years ago).


We visited a Reconciliation Village where victims and perpetrators of the genocide live side-by-side in peace through forgiveness.

It will take my son Max and me a long time to digest the intense and action-packed experience that we’ve both had. We attended a concert of the Mizero children and heard Burundi and Uganda musicians perform. Artists from a group called “Today Marks the Beginning” shared a massive art piece on which you could write or speak words of forgiveness. We went out into the countryside to visit reconciliation cooperatives and villages and saw churches where many thousands of people who fled to them for sanctuary were killed. We attended a panel discussion with young university students who will be taking Rwanda’s message of forgiveness out into the world. We shared the garden idea with cabinet ministers and the Vice-Mayor of Kigali, articulate young leaders intent on making their country a model of responsible development and of reconciliation in the world.

zebra-at-akegera-national-p cape-buffalo-at-akegera-nat

We took a day off to visit the Akagera National Park where we saw many animals and birds, including giraffe, hippos, baboons, and these zebras and cape buffalo.

img_0051Some members of Gardens of Forgiveness with a group of new friends. Julie’s son Max is in khakis, on the right.

Our Gardens of Forgiveness group also visited four possible garden sites. And one special evening, at the famous Milles Collines Hotel made famous in the movie Hotel Rwanda, I ran a short design exercise that included 15 members of our conference and the hotel manager and his staff. I’ll share the results in another posting.


Our Gardens of Forgiveness group and friends visits the possible garden site. From left: Carly Ritter, Pastor Jerry King, Julie’s son Max, Reverend Lyndon Harris, and Julie.

I know I’ll be back to Rwanda to build a garden there. It’s truly an inspiration.

Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • Bethany says:

    Julie, I am floored by the way you can already write so eloquently about such an intense and complicated journey. An absolutely beautiful entry–Garrett and I are thrilled! I can’t wait to hear and see more!!

  • Abbe and Jerry says:

    Julie and Max,

    The story is beginning to unfold. We know that you will give this project the care and sensitivity it requires. Keep the notes and pictures coming.

  • Marguerite Batkin says:

    Hi Julie. How exciting. I’m glad you and Lyndon connected. Was that front he Kanuga conference last year? will look forward to hearing how things progress.

  • Callie West says:

    A thrilling example of the courage required to leave our (American) fears and expectations to really learn about another important if frightening human experience. It ALWAYS rewards. I know you will make this a unique, special project Julie. So happy to hear Max could take in the experience with you.

  • Diane says:

    Hi Julie
    I returned fatigued and fell ill with a cold. My dog Truly was hospitalized so re-entry from Rwanda required some purging for me. Thank you for the shout out to Today Marks the Beginning. Mark me as an even bigger fan after reviewing your website and your beautiful work. I now humbly go out to my sad garden space and dig out spring weeds. Weather in Dallas is Rwanda-esque today at 80F. Traveling mercies. We shall meet again-
    Diane Hosey
    PS-Stations in its 800 pound glory lies in Kigali somewhere awaiting its next home-which might be somewhere there after all! The adventure continues.

  • Al and Dola says:


    What have you been up to on our turf? Seriously, thank you so much for sharing your experiences and for bringing back into our consciousness the terrible tragedy of 15 years ago. We know that with your expertise and sensitivity to the world around you that you can truly make a difference with the Gardens of Forgiveness. Looking forward to seeing you soon. We will be home from Bucknell for the Spring Break in time for the G&S at MSA.

    Love, Dola andAl

  • Max M says:

    Hi All,

    Sorry for the delay in responding, it’s taken a while to process all that happened on our trip. The overwhelming feeling since returning to San Francisco has been one of haunting; that I was infected by the hills, the air, and the people of Rwanda. I keep coming back to the stark contrast between the gentleness of the people there, in their mannerisms and their interpersonal relationships, and the brutality of the 1994 genocide that I have read and heard so much about. There is a cognitive and emotional dissonance between “knowing” about the genocide and experiencing Rwandan culture that has been impossible for me to reconcile. Hopefully subsequent visits will help to shine some light, but I suspect I will never come to understand the genocide, as it is fundamentally beyond the scope of human comprehension.

    I have more thoughts at my blog, linked to in my name above, but I guess I’ll just note that I’ve never been to such an intense, brooding, and yet edifying country as Rwanda. I can’t wait to go back.

    Max Messervy (the son)

  • Ivan Tizikara says:

    Am a Ugandan, Architect by profession.Saw The Garden of Forgiveness is an inspiring Project which will touch many peoples hearts. How can I be part of the design and implementation of this great Project?
    Thank you
    Ivan Tizikara