11. RINGING OLD CHURCH BELL
Back on the road to Butare, after stopping in the church at Gitarama, I commented that the churches are similar in their brickwork and in some of their design, with their huge arched doorways and formidable bearing. This one had reminded me of one I had seen on the road to Akagera last year.
Oliver said that the oldest church in Rwanda was on the way to Butare and asked if we wanted to go see it. I said "yes" but that I had thought St Famille - built in 1913 - was the oldest church in Rwanda but he said it was just the oldest church in Kigali.
Before too long the driver turned left onto a dirt road off the main highway and we bounced along touching the ceiling once or twice. It was almost dusk and the sun was fading as we passed through small roadside villages - surprising the locals who obviously don't see much traffic.
I wondered if we were going to have to take this road back to the main highway after visiting the church but the driver explained (through Oliver) that this was a back road and we could take it all the way to Butare. That pleased me greatly because it was a deep wish of mine to see villages off the main roads, "up in them thar hills".
Finally we came upon a clearing and the church was in front of us.
There was no one there at first but then a nun came out to greet us and took us inside the church.
It was huge inside - much bigger than it appeared from outside - and it was emmaculately plain and simple - the polished wood benches reflecting off each other. The sister told us that this morning there had been a thousand people sitting on those pews.
We met a priest outside and he took us inside the bell tower. He let Kevin pull the rope and ring it a few times.
Then when we went back out to the front of the church, the bell started ringing again, and it went on for quite a long time. The priest was sounding an amazing welcome, like letting the whole village know there were visitors. It felt like such an honour. "Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee".
Finally the bell stopped ringing and the priest joined us to pose for a photo. The visit had been a far cry from the subdued tone I'd been expecting.
The sun went down soon after leaving the church and it was dark except for flickering candles lighting up the occasional window. Our driver's sister lived in a village down the road a ways and we stopped and had a quick visit with her. She was looking after the family's plantation and we drove through some of the land when we turned right to head to Butare. This took us through marshland and over a few little bridges and often we met people alone or in groups - walking or pushing bicycles - obviously returning home from Butare.
During the genocide Tutsis had run in to these bushes to hide and it was easy to imagine the terror.
Eventually we came to lights and the outskirts of Butare then on to find a hotel for the night before heading out for dinner.
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