As a young child, my parents traveled to Africa several times without me. As compensation, they took me to the zoo to show me the animals they saw. There, they would tell me the stories of the people they met, and who helped them along their trip, and though they could not possibly recreate their experience or make up for leaving me out of the vacation with a trip to the zoo, they sparked my interest in the vast continent of Africa.

The summer of my sophomore year, I had the opportunity to travel on a four-week service trip to Nyamata, Rwanda. Initially, my father protested against the country of choice, nervous over Rwanda’s violent history of genocide and corrupt leaders. After researching Rwanda’s current status and discovering that as of 2018, they were safest country in Africa, my father caved, the plane took off, and I landed on a dark evening, lit up with white lights on the ground which reflected and blended with the constellations.

My experience in the rural though busy town was physically and emotionally exhausting. I met victims and criminals of the Rwandan Genocide, learned how they live amongst each other in peace, worked with impoverished disabled children — incapable of doing anything for themselves — and lost my grandfather in the midst of the trip.

Unbeknownst to me, or my family, this experience was the best gift I had ever received. There, in a foreign country, without the comfort of family, the Rwandan people took me under their wings and supported me through my grief, a process they are all too familiar with.

Of the Rwandans we spent time with, most were eager to share their stories of the genocide, wanting foreigners to hear about their beloved families, to know what they suffered, and how they grew from trauma. Though I cannot for a moment relate to their tragedies, I was touched by their ability to share their pain. I was inspired by the joy it brought them to speak about those they lost. Following their example, I started sharing stories about my grandfather, and expressing my discouragement over his history of health problems, and our lack of an official “goodbye” before I left for the trip.

Rwanda is adamant about moving forward through forgiveness. An old Rwandan proverb states, “Umugani uvuna uwugaya uwugawa yigaramiye,” which means, “The blame hurts the one doing the blaming, while the blamed person is enjoying life.” Without forgiveness, it is impossible to recover from loss, betrayal, resentment, or tragedy, and live peacefully either with oneself, or with others.

Inspired by their wisdom, I forgave my grandfather for his health choices. I forgave myself for our improper goodbye. I learned to live with his memory, instead of just without him.

Most importantly, Rwanda taught me that experiencing culture, people, and history is vital to understanding yourself and other human beings. Rwanda gave me closure in my personal life, exposure to different lifestyles, a hunger for travel, a thirst for knowledge, and a dream to live my life helping people — how, I don’t yet know, but I’m certain my dream requires more experimenting and exploring. I want to go everywhere. I want to learn about different languages, geography and cultures. I want to investigate and identify how political, social and economical issues come to be. I want to relate to people with whom I never dreamed shared commonalities with me.

If we take the time to explore outside the boundaries of our home, if religions, cultures, races, and countries learn about one another, if we can use forgiveness to move forward, instead of hate, which drives us backwards, then we can create a safe space to support, share and appreciate our experiences in this world, our collective home.

Madeline Pennino is a senior at Wilton High School.

She shares this column with three classmates.