Yesterday marked a dubious anniversary: Twenty-one years ago on April 7, Rwandan state radio announced chilling instructions to the majority Hutu population: it is your responsibility to rise up and kill your Tutsi neighbors—the “cockroaches” who are ruining our country. This began a 100-day period in which Rwandan citizens, backed by the country’s military, did the unthinkable.
The details of the genocide are so brutal, it almost defies description: hundreds of terrified people who fled to a church for refuge, only to find that the church’s priest was collaborating with the killers, who then systematically murdered every person in the church (I will never forget standing alone in that church in Ntarama, now a memorial site, tears freely flowing as I stared at the blood-stain on the brick wall where babies had been systematically grabbed by the arms or legs and flung against the wall). Drunken soldiers setting up roadblocks throughout the country, then gunning down anyone who couldn’t produce a Hutu ID card. But most disturbingly: seemingly normal residents, taking up machetes and other farming implements to hack their neighbors to death.
All the while, the anemic U.N. troops in Rwanda were unable to restore order. And in a shameful moment for the United States, we were unwilling to get involved because we refused to classify the bloodbath as “genocide.” When the nightmare finally stopped after a Tutsi-led force took over control of the government, approximately 1 million men, women and children had been murdered in cold blood.
How does a nation possibly recover from something like that? The answer to that question is extremely complex (one example of the complexity: although the genocide was led by Hutus, many acts of revenge committed by Tutsis were equally horrific…so there is plenty of guilt to go around).
But another event occurred yesterday that reminded me of part of the solution: yesterday, the first shipment of coffee beans from the Cyimbili (pronounced "chimbilly") plantation in Rwanda arrived in the United States. Personally, the sight of that burlap bag, stamped with the word “Cyimbili,” stirred a deep gratitude and a tangible reminder of how God can bring shalom in the most unlikely places.
The biblical concept of shalom is so much richer than simply “peace.” It implies human relationships that are mutually supportive, respectful, and interdependent. It evokes images of people who sacrifice for one another, defer to one another, and work together for the common good. In a word, “shalom” means “flourishing”—community life as it was intended by God. And when the Rwandan genocide happened in 1994, the shalom of that nation was obliterated.
But on the Cyimbili coffee plantation, on the shores of Lake Kivu in western Rwanda, shalom is being restored. Actually, calling Cyimbili a coffee plantation is inadequate. The community includes a boarding school where about 500 high school students live and study. An elementary school where about 800 young children attend every day. A medical clinic. A wood shop. A church. A training institute for future pastors.
But it’s the coffee plantation that provides the economic engine for the community. Rwandan coffee is among the highest quality in the world, and Cyimbili is one of the largest plantations in Rwanda. When the genocide occurred, the plantation was all but abandoned…until around 2006, when a team of people from Jacksonville Chapel learned of it, formed a non-profit called “Hope for a Thousand Hills,” and partnered with several Rwandan groups to begin a process of restoration.
In the following years, many teams were sent by Hope, always cooperating with Rwandans. The first priority of the teams was to focus on the community’s infrastructure (water, electricity, sanitation). The medical clinic was repaired and improved. We worked intensively with the students of the community: teaching English, coaching sports, giving spiritual guidance and direction. And special attention was given to the women of Cyimbili—encouraging and equipping them to use their skills and start businesses.
But the core goal was to restore the community’s coffee production. Coffee experts were consulted. Thousands of new coffee trees were planted. The earth was terraced, weeded, fertilized. Irrigation systems were developed. Hundreds of workers were hired. Over the years, it was awe-inspiring to travel back to Rwanda and see the plantation begin to thrive and produce coffee.
And finally, after about nine years, the coffee is good. In fact, it’s great. It’s the kind of high-quality Arabica beans that are most in demand by gourmet coffee sellers around the world. Honestly, after multiple visits to Rwanda, drinking coffee (black, of course) made from fresh-ground Rwandan beans, I have become a coffee snob. It’s really that good. And now they’re producing a lot of it. And yesterday, the first bags of it arrived on U.S. soil, ready to be marketed and sold here. How awesome.
But for me, the most awesome thing is what’s happening in the community of Cyimbili. The sick are being treated and babies are being delivered in the expanded, more sanitary medical clinic. The church is thriving. Bridges and roads throughout the community are safer. Seeing the investments being made in the community, the Rwandan government decided to connect Cyimbili to the national electrical grid. The schools are filled with students. And most importantly, Rwandans who were once pitted against each other are now working side-by-side.
If I said there are no problems, I’d be lying. Cyimbili has dealt with theft, agricultural disease, and all the challenges you’d expect when thousands of people work together. But in the midst of the normal conflict, there is something beautiful happening: this community is flourishing. The wrongs of the past—while never forgotten—are softened by the reality of a better present and the prospect of an even brighter future. Participation by Americans is very minimal now, as Rwandans are fully capable of running and improving the coffee production. It is a beautiful thing to see. And now, with the opening of a U.S. market for their coffee, there is every reason to believe that Cyimbili will continue to thrive.
Any day now, I hope to be starting my mornings with freshly-ground, pour-over coffee from Cyimbili. And when I do, I’ll be reminded that shalom is possible in the most unlikely places.