I felt a little chill travel up my spine as she spoke, and I wondered if anyone else felt it, too.
A survivor of the Rwanda genocide now nearly a generation ago was in Storm Lake describing, in the soft steel of her voice, the actions leading up to the horrifying time in which over a million lives were lost in her corner of the world in four months' time.
At first, the supposed leaders of the country began to split the people up into two groups, she said, for no reason other than to be able to manipulate one group against the other.
In her country, it was dividing people into two arbitrary tribes rather than simply being the Rwandans they had always been.
Is it so much different, I wonder, than dividing the people into rabid factions of Republicans and Democrats, rather than being simply Americans? Or dividing them into native-born and immigrant? Or dividing them into haves and have-nots?
Then, corrupt government in Rwanda began to use the media, empowering shock radio announcers as mouthpieces to slowly begin to convince the people in the opposing tribes that they were enemies, and should no longer cooperate. Slowly they spread the disease of belief that not only was the opposing party always to be seen as inferior and wrong, but that they should be treated as less than human.
Sound familiar? Have you listened to slanted media reports lately in our country, or heard an attack commercial? (This may be the point that you begin to experience that tickle of the backbone, people).
Once Rwanda's government had hopelessly divided the people to the point where neither tribe could mount any power to question it or unite in any way to demand reform, the tainted leaders orchestrated a tragedy, caused one tribe to blame the other for it, and used one side to begin to exterminate the other.
Now I'm not suggesting that our leaders are out to convince you to kill your neighbors, but then again, it's not like it hasn't been done before.
Remember the Civil War? Racist unheavals of the 1960s? Attitudes that once placed women as little more than property and allowed for abuse of them to never be spoken of? Homophobia which not so long ago allowed human beings to be abused because they were different - didn't we just see a gay teenager in the area bullied to death? Certainly, through history, Hitler, and other despots ancient and modern were masters of the conquer through social division strategy.
No, our political machine isn't out to massacre anybody since it lusts after all of their taxes, though each party seems as though it would surely like to exterminate the opposing one to the point where only they remained strong enough to hold the White House and both houses of Congress, command Supreme Court seats and the statehouses. Then, boy, finally, something would get done.
Be afraid of that philosophy, be very afraid.
In our own version of social chasm, we are slowly being manipulated, split further and further apart, eroding our American unity and sense of cooperation.
You've seen it. Every statement from either party is designed not to make the country a better place, but primarily to damage the opposing party or candidate. Everyone is asking you if you are better off than you were four years ago, or twelve years ago, depending on the party. Why isn't anyone asking you where you dream of being four years FROM now?
We are being successfully split into two tribes, without even knowing it. Conservatives vs. liberals. Young college tuition sponges vs. senior citizen Medicare recipients. Rich vs. poor. WASP vs Hispanic.
Watch your leaders carefully, see what they do and listen to what they say, and see if you don't feel that chasm being widened just a little every day. See if a bit of our freedoms aren't being sacrificed, year by year.
Hopefully it will not take a tragedy to wake us up and remind us that it does not have to be that way, but if history is our guide, it may be true.
The terrible tragedy of 911 created an American unity, determination and pride that we have not seen the likes of since. In history, we have been able to put our political and social differences aside when faced with a greater threat from without - most notably, the world wars.
Our Rwandan visitor reminds us that there is hope.
After the terrors of their genocide, the people came together and buried their false separatist regime. They are no longer tribes, but simply Rwandans. From two universities when the genocide broke out 18 years ago, they have now established more than 25.
It's amazing what can be done when people begin to work together; not necessarily agreeing on all of the issues, but with at least human decency and respect. If they can survive what passed for leadership in Rwanda in the past generation, we can surely thrive under our still relatively benevolent system, with its underlying lights of Constitution, Bill of Rights, justice, religious freedom and equality.
What do you do to begin? Hell, I don't know... I slept through most of Poly Sci 201. If you are a Democrat, take a minute to listen to a Republican aquaintance, or vice versa, maybe. Tell them you may not agree to it all, but that you admire their passion and belief in their country and respect their right to their opinion.
Don't listen to the people who spew hate. No matter how many millions of listeners they have, it doesn't make it right.
Don't vote for people who have no ideas, and simply promote themselves by tearing down others. They're the black mold of poltics.
And when something needs to be done, in your community, state, nation or world, don't waste precious time assigning blame. Demand that your leaders seek unity in reaching a solution, and be ready to roll your sleeves to do your little part. Pound a nail for Habitat for Humanity, read to kids in a classroom, whatever.
Our spines weren't intalled just to run chills when faced with weak if not downright scary government.
We were given vertebrae to stand up for something, I suppose. Maybe we should show some backbone in demanding better from our leadership, and for joining shoulder to shoulder to push in the same direction for a change on a good cause. A good cause, I supsect, is one based not on what is different about us, but what is so very much the same.
Thanks for the warning, Rwanda. We needed it.