From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
The Student Life
Audrey Merrill

Audrey Merrill traveled to Rwanda over the summer to study how individuals use their religion to heal themselves or others.

Creating Safety and Healing Through God

By Audrey Merrill

I had a hard time writing this article for fear of not being able to express my experiences in a way that could be fully understood. I say this because I had no idea what I would witness when I went to Rwanda. When I was asked by Maggie Zraly, assistant professor of anthropology, if I would be interested in going with her to Africa to do research I was speechless—a dream that I have had since childhood was being handed to me.

It was made possible by a student stipend from professor Zraly’s grant and a summer Undergraduate Research & Creative Opportunity (URCO) Grant I received. Obviously, I accepted and spent the next few months preparing to leave. I arrived in Kigali the second week of July.

I had hoped to not have any preconceived notions, but being human I had my share. First of all the city was very clean, drivers obeyed most traffic laws, and it was all well-lit. The place we stayed was huge with a 10-foot tall cement wall surrounding it. The house was right across from small stores called boutiques, which sell a variety of miscellaneous staple foods and are where I bought many a chapatti, akin to American tortillas.

Most of the main roads are paved, but there are beautiful red dirt roads diverting from them. I came during the dry season so there was a lot of dust. I had to clean my feet off or my sheets would turn red from the sand coated on my skin. Because of the altitude of Kigali, a couple hundred feet above that of Logan, the temperature never reached above 90 degrees.

Even though this was all new and fascinating I wasn’t here to be a tourist, I was here to do research. I assisted professor Zraly whenever she needed help with her research, which was on youth heads of households and drug use. My research was on religion. In particular, I was looking at how an individual might use their religion to heal themselves or others, and if they use religion to create a physically and/or emotionally safe place. I picked these topics in response to the genocide that happened 18 years earlier. I found that people did do both.

But what was amazing was why and how these individuals did what they did. Everybody I talked to was a genocide survivor. Some witnessed it as children, others as teenagers. These individuals had lived through unimaginable horror and were still dealing with phenomenal hardships. I interviewed individuals who did not have a parent or a caregiver, who were mostly homeless, without a job, and didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. They were taking time out of their lives to come talk to me—some American from some college doing research.

I was both humbled and heartbroken by the experience. Walking the streets of Rwanda and mingling with the locals you would never guess that something horrible had happened here, let alone genocide. It was only brought up in a few discussions. I really learned about it from professor Zraly and my own research on the topic.

The way these young individuals would come to me with a smile and eager to tell their story was indescribable. They found safety through prayer. They used prayer as a way to heal themselves and others; they were trying everything in their power to make it to the next day and do it with a smile. Whether they were actually happy or not is another matter, but everything they did was to the best of their ability. It was an honor to get a glimpse of their human experience.

Even though this all sounds dark, the whole experience was enlightening and a relatively positive and happy one for me. I learned that I am a lot more adventurous than I thought I was, that I could communicate even if I didn’t know the language, and that I wasn’t afraid to learn the truth from the victims and survivors of genocide.

Going to Rwanda reiterated why I wanted to be a cultural anthropologist. Learning about the life of another, whether happy, sad, tragic or what have you, is an amazing process for me. It also motivates me to continue my goal to create a fusion of anthropology and western medicine to really help and understand the needs of others. I feel that this opportunity will drive me to accomplish my future goals as both a medical doctor and an anthropologist.