Jonathan Weaver, the college student, became captivated with Africa 41 years ago when he made his first trip to Nigeria to help build a clinic. Over the years, he developed an interest in raising the awareness of African Americans about a continent that many know little about.
Weaver, now 62, and pastor of Greater Mt. Nebo A.M.E. Church in Bowie, remains impassioned about exposing African Americans to Africa, and this summer led a delegation of 12 to a country he said is misunderstood – Rwanda.
"I think most people in the U.S., if you ask what's the first thing that comes to mind about Rwanda, invariably it will be genocide or 'oh yeah, that movie,'" said Weaver, referring to the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda. "Most people are frozen in time when thinking about Rwanda and what the country is like."
The central African country of Rwanda exploded in bloodshed in 1994. Civil war and genocide led to the massacre of an estimated 800,000 people during a three-month period. According to the United Human Rights Council, three-quarters of the Tutsi population perished at the hands of the Hutu people.
However, Weaver described the country – known as the land of a thousand hills – today as one that has been transformed, in which reconciliation has taken and continues to take place.
"It opened my eyes," said Weaver. "I was just absolutely floored by the tranquility in Rwanda. There was such a sense of calm. It absolutely boggled my mind."
Weaver said the purpose of the two-and-a-half-week trip during late July and early August was to dispel myths about Africa and Rwanda and to strengthen the connection between members of the AME church in America and Rwanda. They were also seeking ways to help some of the women who have been traumatized by the current strife taking place along the borders of western Rwanda and the Congo over diamonds and other natural resources such as coltan, a metal found in cell phones and laptop computers, Weaver said.
During the trip, the group traveled to Gisenyi in western Rwanda to meet with about 30 women from Goma who talked about being terrorized, raped and then shunned by their husbands, Weaver said.
They also visited the Village of Hope in Kigali, Rwanda, where women whose husbands had been killed during the 1994 slaughter now make baskets to earn money to support their families. Weaver said church members brought back suitcases full of hand-woven baskets, which they have sold here. Weaver said he recently sent more than $1,500 back to the women.
One member of the delegation – cardiologist Ramon Nelson – set up a makeshift clinic in a church sanctuary and examined 130 patients one afternoon and an additional 70 or so on another day, the pastor said.
"Most had never seen a doctor," said Weaver.
Weaver said the trip didn't involve any stays at posh hotels or typical tourist sightseeing activities, however, the group, which visited five AME churches, were treated like VIPs.
"Because we were the first group of any size from the AME church, we felt like we were treated like international dignitaries," he said, adding that villagers turned out en masse to sing, shout and dance as the delegation arrived on buses in Mahoko village.
Victoria Edwards of Cheverly has traveled extensively throughout Africa [Zambia, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Togo and Benin] but this summer's trip to Rwanda with the delegation from Greater Mt. Nebo A.M.E. Church was her first.
Edwards, who described herself as 50-plus, said meeting the Rwandans turned out to be the most meaningful part of the experience.
"I was amazed at their faith and their ability to get beyond all the things that happened to them during the genocide," said Edwards.
She said she plans to return and is working with others to figure out ways to continue to support – spiritually and financially – many of the people they met during their visit.
Weaver said he's already planning another group trip to Rwanda in 2013. "It was a life-altering experience," he said.
Greater Mt. Nebo A.M.E. Church will host a forum "Opportunities for Faith-Based Initiatives in Africa for the 21st Century" on September 22 from 9 a.m. to noon at the church, 1001 Old Mitchellville Road in Bowie, Md. The forum is free and open to the public, however, a reservation is required. Call 301-249-7545 for more information.