Ian Poulton lands in Kenya this morning before getting an onward flight to Rwanda. This post was written before he left Ireland.
I land this morning in Nairobi, having flown overnight from Heathrow. Later this morning I fly on to Kigali, to set foot on Rwandan soil. I have become old and hard; I can stare straight ahead in the knowledge that I cannot change the world alone. When I return, I will be able to cope with the things I have seen, well, most of them. The images of the 1994 genocide will always be beyond comprehension.
This visit will be easier than my first visit to the developing world. On the Feast of Holy Innocents, 28th December 1990, I went to the Philippines. I had read much about what lay ahead and attended extensive briefings, but no matter how much I had tried to prepare for what was to come, I couldn’t cope with the reality of what I met.
Seeking somewhere to pray before going to Victoria Station for the journey to Gatwick, I had stepped into Westminster Abbey, only to be confronted by a demand for payment. Deciding that the Church of England wasn’t much interested in praying, I went instead to Westminster Cathedral, where a beautiful Latin Mass for the feast day was being sung. There were clouds of incense and a sense of the transcendent.
A day later it all seemed a travesty of the Gospel, as I travelled through the streets of Manila, I wondered what abbeys and cathedrals had to do with anything.
It was a haunting trip, people living on the streets, people living on the city dump, people with nothing. A priest who spoke for the poor was murdered and we went to his wake, his bishop said that unless people were like the priest, they were not Christians at all.
Returning in late January, as the news was filled with stories of billions of dollars being spent on the First Gulf War, I had repeated flashbacks, panic attacks in the early hours of the morning. In retrospect, the taking of the anti-malarial drug, Larium might not have helped, although it was the best option and came with a warning. I could not claim I had not read the small print.
I devised a strategy for coping with the attacks: I imagined being in a refugee camp with a dying child, trying to conjure up each detail; I then looked around at my five bedroomed Victorian Rectory, I counted each thing I had, I then thought on my greatest treasures of all, my wife and baby son. The attacks would be dispelled and I would return to sleep.
The panic attacks mercifully went away but the thought process remained useful. When the days are horrible, as sometimes they seem to be, I look at the pictures from Darfur and the other truly painful places of the world and I ask myself, what do I know of anything horrible? What do I know about about realities?
In the days to come, I shall think of home and the so many good things there and I shall pray that God may be with those who really need him.