I need to write to you before time flattens my memories into a photograph.
All those months I worked in the center of the sun, Bugesara Disctrict, by far the hottest and driest section of Rwanda. Any chance I could, I escaped to you, Kigali. Just to reach you, I slivered myself onto an overcrowded bus/ “taxi” and jolted along for almost three hours. As we approached, I hunted the cityscape for the gorilla billboard above the Sonatube roundabout, because it meant I had finally arrived to home in you, Kigali. Your breezes never failed to provide the sweetest respite.
I miss your green, your hills, your raucous hope. I miss all your delicious contrasts. Instead of TV, I perched on our deck and watched the sweep of hillside before me. The sounds of cows, goats, and hymns wafted up from the valley. Meanwhile, your hotels lanced their pinnacles skyward. Above background moos, cockadoodledoos, baahhs, and laughter, your skyline reigned, its accompanying neon so ready to party.
Our Kigali Terrace
In my favorite parts of you, Niboye and Nyamatarama, I drank tea on terraces and contemplated how none of these pastel mansions, or mud huts, or any buildings whatsoever existed here before the 1994 Genocide. But to the utmost destruction, you responded with the utmost resilience. For that, I will always admire you, Kigali. Even your streetlights attest to the endless tasks you have completed since Genocide. After all you endured, you remade yourself into the safest city I have ever known. A woman can safely walk alone at any time of night, thus granting me a freedom I had never felt before.
The rhythmic slap-slap I did not know when we first met, Kigali, I later recognized to be the sound of flip-flops hitting pavement, as one neighbor or another raced to make her job on time. A sleeping baby secured to her back, she hurried up our street, her morning’s offering of bananas stacked atop her head, a cell phone stuck to her ear. The sheer volume of your foot traffic, the steady stream of walkers along your red dirt streets. All this I love. Even the Mutzig Beer “Makes You Strong” signs, the royal blue Tigo Telecommunications vests your moto drivers wear. Even the ubiquitous smoke that lingers in my hair, I love, as farmers rescue your cows from flies.
Your dogs are coming back to you, Kigali. Two decades gone since the murder of all canines, because all dogs love the smell of dead things, and Rwanda’s dogs feasted on the corpses that carpeted your streets. The barricades of rotting bodies. Two decades gone, and, finally, the sound of barking has started to fill the air again. Even the dogs have been forgiven.
The quarter of a million human corpses you hold at Kigali Memorial Centre bespeak death’s omnipotence. The adjacent wall of names lists the smallest fraction of the dead. Something compelled me to pause on each name etched into that black granite. One name pulsed through the list more often than any other: Innocent. Yet you embrace it all, as your eternal flame burns on. A sculpted granite base looks like a broken double helix but steadily cradles the embers. Meters away, new scaffolding upholds construction workers who sweat into their red-dusted coveralls, workers who wield the latest tools and the latest technology beside the ancient fire. The Memorial Centre calls for us to remember both the atrocities and the massive force of forgiveness.
Kigali Memorial Center’s Eternal Flame
Komera komera, the most important Kinyarwandan words I learned: be strong, be strong. After Genocide, you possessed not one paperclip or stapler, let alone a functioning computer to recoup an inch of your infrastructure. Yet you remade yourself entirely, Kigali. In doing so, you taught me that we all possess such strength, even when faced with the worst of life—and more death than we can ever fathom. You taught me that forgiveness works, no matter how hard.
Out of all the cities, in all the countries that I have lived or visited, it is you I love, Kigali. You remade yourself into such beauty. All I can do is savor you. And return.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,100 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 18 trips to carry that many people.
Is it a sin to own three shelves of coffee mugs? It might as well be, because the tsunami of Catholic guilt I felt my first morning home from Rwanda could drown every Akagera hippo. Oh, my endless guilt about the coffee mugs and shampoos and socks and all the other signs of wealth and comfort that I can’t stop noticing everywhere.
What was the first thing I noticed after touching down in a country other than Rwanda? All the white people. They were everywhere. After becoming so accustomed to being the only white in sight that I stopped noticing, I became appalled when the scene reversed itself to all white people and only one African. On a conscious level, I knew that of course Doha, Qatar…
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When I faced the mass grave where so many bodies had been buried–now simply a massive, empty hole in the red earth–I fell on my knees for the first time in my life. I prayed.
Usually, my prayers are what I consider “cheater prayers,” because I pray only during the most extreme, most wordless moments. My best friend needs to defeat cancer. Or my mother has died, and I exhort God that she damn well better send my mom to Heaven if there is one. In those most extreme of extreme situations, I summon God or whatever might be out there to heal my beloved. I pray only when when no other means of communication can even begin to sound the depths of those out-of-control moments, the times when we realize that death will take us all, and worse, will take those we love–and force us to live without them.
A day and a half ago, I visited Murambi, the school where 50,000 people were massacred. A school should be a place of perpetual hope. But twenty years ago, megaphones called the Tutsi hiding amongst the green hills surrounding Murambi Technical School. The megaphones lied. They told all the hiding Tutsi to go to the school for a safe haven. Then the interawahamwe (militia) cut off water and gradually killed all the thirsty who tried to sneak to the river. Then reinforcements came and massacred everyone else.
The bodies remain on display, including a massive rooms full of shelves and shelves crowded with clothes, 1994 relics. Nike logos. “Just Do It” t-shirts. Mud-dulled remnants of early 90’s colors. Neon pink. Highlighter yellow. Some of the bodies remain on display, not all but enough. These corpses include a roomful of babies. Yes, babies. Perhaps the saddest thing I have ever seen in my life: the wing filled with photos of children who were murdered there. Paul Kagame–the head of the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front), the rebel army at the time, and the current president of Rwanda–had escaped the early 1960’s Genocide when he was just a toddler. Thus, the decree issued on state radio during 1993 and 1994 ordered the murder of all Tutsi children: look what happens if they are allowed to live.
The experience this memorial haunts me and probably always will. I will never forget the young man who gave us an after-hours tour. My tour guide and soon-to-be inshuti ziza (best friend) and I arrived at closing time, and the guard refused to let us in, but this haunted and haunting young man from Murambi village showed us around because he needed us to see and understand what had happened. Though he was probably thirty at the most, cataracts blinded one of his eyes. That eye was not clouded, the way my ninety-three year old aunt’s was when she had cataracts. Rather, he seemed to have a sort of binary vision, one eye focussed on this world and one focussed on eternity, eerie as a cat eye, powerful enough to stare down death.
Alexis and I peeked behind the shaded windows to see the museum of corpses, along with a roomful of skulls, all so real that they seemed unreal. My mind tripped into instant denial: those are mannequins, I thought. Paper mache. Strewn across tables at hip height, like some deflated art projects. For some inexplicable reason, they smell like salt.
Why are they so white, the forces of my denial wondered. Later I learned that they’re white because they’d been preserved with lime and bleached by equatorial sun. The corpses–not all of them, but enough to make the point–remain, curled into each other, the big sheltering the small. Others frozen in mid-scream. They are displayed to defuse Genocide deniers, cowards who deny from afar and remain too afraid to come home to Rwanda.
I do not want to rant about this any more except to say that in the five days I’ve been here in Rwanda, I’ve already met people who were orphaned and met so many people who are haunted in so many ways from the Genocide, souls who will always be scarred by this event the world chose to ignore. Today my cab driver said simply, “Genocide, very hard for me.” Then he stuttered something that began with “m.” I waited. He made a chopping motion with his hand, the action of a machete cutting sugar cane. Then, “My mother.” All I could say, “I’m so sorry.” I meant this apology both for what he endured as a twelve-year-old boy and for my insensitivity for steering the conversation there.
This Sunday evening, just a few hours before the twentieth anniversary of the Murambi massacre, I prayed that the world would not forget, that the survivors would be comforted. Somehow. And I prayed that the world would learn.
Is it a sin to own too many coffee mugs? It might as well be, because the tsunami of guilt I felt my first morning home from Rwanda could drown every Akagera hippo and nile crocodile. Oh, my endless guilt about all the coffee mugs and shampoos and socks and all the symptoms of wealth and comfort that I can’t stop noticing everywhere.
What was the first thing I noticed after touching down in a country other than Rwanda? All the white people. They’re everywhere. After becoming so accustomed to being the only white in sight that I stopped noticing, I became appalled when the scene reversed itself to all white people and only one African. On a conscious level, I knew that of course Doha, Qatar, our first stop, would be packed with muzungus (whites) and other shiny objects. But my conscious mind had dried up in the vicious sun of the savannah. Rwanda is known as “the land of eternal spring” for its perfect, low seventy-degree days, all except for the district where I taught for ten weeks, Bugesara, a infernal place, so hot and inhospitable that the government had exiled Tutsis there, so certain that they would all die. (They survived, until Bugesara became ground zero during the 1994 Genocide.) My rationality also died, along with the maze and other crops we tried to grow amidst the desiccation the the alleged rainy season.
* * *
After a seventeen-hour ride and bits of Benadryl-induced sleep, the plane set down in Philadelphia; I could not believe how tall and clean an airport could be. Kigali won my heart; I am truly in love with that city. Today, I started to watch a You Tube Video called, “Kigali, the Cleanest City in the World,” but after a few seconds, I hit “stop” because I miss Kigali so much I wanted to cry. Perhaps because of Umuganda, the once-a-month service day that all Rwandans participate in, the capital city Kigali and the rest of country seem pristine. But the last two months of my stay were the Iki (pronounced itchy), the dry season. Thus the dust from the red dirt infuses everything–outdoors and indoors. That dust powders the faces of Gashora’s roadside children who hail the rare passing white by yelling, “Muzungu! Give me money!” (Except for one child who made the most brilliant demand: “Muzungu! Give me chocolate!”) After several weeks, I learned to say, “Mehangane nayo,” which means, “Sorry, I have nothing,” an utter lie. But according to the government’s policy of self-reliance, no one should beg or give money to beggars.
Now home, I miss my Rwandese friends: Alexis, Teo, Jennie, Patrick, Michael, and especially Jonah.
I miss the green, the hills, the raucous hope of Kigali. I miss my Kigali bedroom’s view, all the delicious contrasts. Instead of watching TV, I watched the sweep of hillside before me. I listened to cows, goats, roosters, laughter, and the most beautiful chorus of hymns–except when the sound of some nearby church’s preacher drowned out everything. I could not understand his words, but his tone bore alarming similarities to that of Adolf Hitler. Meanwhile, Kigali’s hotels lanced their pinnacles skyward, along with its one semi-skyscraper. Amidst moos, cockadoodledoos, and baahhs, the Kigali skyline rose above all, its accompanying neon so ready to party.
My first days home, my peripheral vision superimposed red dirt, red dust and a steady stream of walkers over this world of fake hedges, fake flowers, and boastful cars. As we glided through Metrowest Boston, cars and cars thronged everywhere the Rwandese people had been walking. I do not want to lose this double vision, this view of my spoiled life here informed by what I came to see as the real world, the one not so much of poverty but of normality. The one where, like most of the world, not everyone owns a car–or even a bike to haul a day’s worth of water.
Now back in my tall, skinny blue house, I gaze at trees, full-leafed in their lime green. Automatic sprinklers say chick, chick, chick to the already-perfect lawns. All that water activity, rather than children lugging jerrycans of water that wag them from side to side. All those dusty children working when they should have been in school. After some time, this sight no longer phased me. But the well fertilized and watered greens my car now passes everywhere do, wholly and entirely, phase me. They seem obscene. And I do not want to leave this phase of noticing just how unfair the wealth of our “new world” is.
In Kigali, on a certain Saturday morning at 5:30 am, the horns of soccer fans blared for the first match of the day. Awakened to this annoyance, I padded out to our pristine terrace and peered down to the sun-cemented red dirt of the valley below. Not one blade of grass graced that entire futbol field, but no one seemed to care.
Now home, I must admit that I cannot resist our laundry machine’s siren spin. For ten weeks in Rwanda, hand washing clothes became my only option and my utter obsession. Not bad as addictions go, although my bras and panties became so stretched out from wringing that they now fit any Akagera elephant. After months without a hot shower, I now shower multiple times a day. Hence, the guilt, not just because of the wealth but because I, too, am a major water waster.
“Guilt is a wasted emotion,” my late mother told me, advice she stole from her favorite talk-radio program. Now I have so much guilt I need to train myself in the Zen of letting it dissipate into the well-conditioned air.
But this cultural whiplash just won’t quit. My mind jolts backward in its attempt to return, to keep laughing with my Rwandan friends, to keep helping my best-of-the-best students win scholarships to U.S. schools. Recently, I received an e-mail from one Gashora student that said, “I miss you so much it’s killing me.” Exactly how I feel.
And I now know that everything was worth it. From my students’ giving me a farewell speech that began, “We love you so much, Miss Anne,” to my inshuti Jonah’s e-mail: “I’ll love it because it’s from you.” To Alexis’ laughter and tears when I gave him the cartoons I made of our trip to Nyungwe National Park, the world-famous birdwatching destination where we never spotted a single bird other than a crow. All these I miss, all the moments, even the dust.
And I cannot tell you why. All I can say is, if you feel compelled to go somewhere for no reason except that your intuition nags at you to do it, then go. Do the thing your heart longs for, whiplash or not.
Don’t wait until retirement or old age or the perfect moment. Don’t wait for your mind to catch up with your instincts. “Some day is today.” 50,000 people were murdered at Murambi Technical School. None of us know how much time we have. We all have a death sentence; that is not a question.
Don’t let fear or logic or a job you hate waste your life. Take a breath, take a break, step back. Then do the thing you long to do. Your intuition, your instinct, your need to do something illogical–all of that is way smarter than you are.
Do something that no one understands, not even your own mind. No one but your own heart will understand, and your heart will be happy. Your heart will break free.
Since most of my posts have not been terribly lite, I am going to break out of that and share the essential information that I have learned about my favorite monkey, sometimes called “the magistrate” because the white beard against black fur makes both the males and females of this variety look like little old men.
Perhaps most importantly, the magistrate colobus is peaceful. The tribes never go to war with each other and also do not kill off members of their own tribe. Two males might engage in occasional spats. Nothing serious. For each group, no dominant male exists. They share power. Imagine that.
And what, you ask, is the most enlightened trait of the Magistrate Monkey? The male and female colobus put in an equal amount of time taking care of their offspring. I actually witnessed a male and female passing their little white monkey baby back and forth to each other.
They seem to enjoy snuggling together and grooming each other as well–but who doesn’t? When one group member swings over to join the others, everyone emits a series of calls that sound like pig snorts. My guide told us that this is the way the group members say, “How are you? How are you?”
After all the books I have read about Rwanda’s genocide of Tutsis, and all the memorial sites I’ve visited, all the places I been to, quiet as libraries but with skulls shelved where the books should be, I now see how much humans need to learn from these little-old-men monkeys. We definitely should learn to live without killing members of our own clan–or other clans–and we definitely should share childrearing responsibilities equally. And, most importantly, we should all engage in a chorus of pig-like snorts because we’re just so happy to see each other that we simply cannot contain ourselves. Life is simply too short not to. Some day is today.
Last night, I dreamed of rain. At home, such a detail would melt away in the daylight. But here, we wish for rain in order to prevent a great hunger from ravaging Rwanda, especially Gashora, the hottest and driest region of the country and my temporary home.
Yesterday, I stood naked and sheathed in sweat and Deet. Beside the shower that did not work, I waited, then tried the nob again. And again. Lately I have not exactly been ecstatic about living in this inhospitable dorm in this inhospitable place known as Gashora.
I collapsed from heat exhaustion three days ago. The only remedy I’ve found in this savannah section of the country has been cold showers, at least three per day. Luckily our dorm has no hot water. Yesterday, though, the shower remained dry. To put this in context, the washing machine does not work either, the Internet cuts out often, my phone sometimes does not work, and the only way to mail a letter is to try to find a ride to Kigali, an hour away, or rent a moto and a taxi (up to 3 hrs). And it’s so hot that a cold shower is not a luxury but a necessity so that I do not pass out from heat.
I waited most of the day and into the night to try again with the shower. Late at night, I’m full of hope and dirt. I turn the nob. Again, no water.
In order to prevent myself from becoming sick, I double filter all water I drink. No one told me that the tap water had so much magnesium that it could not be filtered out. I drank this bad water for three days, at the three and a half liters per day of water that I always drink here. Finallly someone warned me not to drink the tap water–even after double-filtration.
Meanwhile, as soon as I step outside the Gashora Girls Academy gates, I see school-age children by the side of the road. They balance jerrycans of water atop their heads or push bikes with water jugs strapped to the back. I’ve seen rural people who have to lug water to their mud huts every day. Yet still I am becoming desensitized to the privileges that I have.
All of this leads me to wonder just how spoiled I am with my “first world” problems. I’ve learned so much about Rwanda, about the miraculous resilience of the people here, who do not even call themselves Hutu and Tutsi any more. I’ve also learned about the human capacity to forgive. One of the first-hand accounts has remained with me from when I read it a year ago. When asked how she could live next door to a man who murdered her whole family, one genocide survivor said, “I have to forgive, what else can I do? God did not make me the one to survive so that I could hold hate in my heart.” When I think about struggles and triumphs of that magnitude, my little problems in determining how to reach my family when no technology seems to work, how to clean myself when I’m drowning in heat and Deet, how to sleep when the fan I run constantly makes my mosquito net fly into me like the most persistent ghost.
If I could rig the mosquito net and the fan to work at the same time without keeping me awake, I would. If I could put on something healthier than Deet to keep away the malaria-infested mosquitos, I would. If I could find a way to ignore these small discomforts that do not feel small at all in the moments that they hit me, I would.
Since the washing machine does not work, we wash clothes with rain water from the outdoor cistern. Since I am still learning how to do this with a minimum of clumsiness, I manage–most of the time–not to drop any of my wet underwear into the red mud comprised of the most recalcitrant dirt I’ve ever met, thereby defeating the whole purpose. On the clotheslines between the men and women’s dorms, the faculty’s clothes dry right there in public, underwear and everything. At least 85% of the teachers are Ugandan, since their country used to be a British colony. Everyone started speaking English in nursery school, and, in some cases, spoke English at home as well. The Ugandans I’ve met are kind; the men are gentlemanly and generally handsome. Nevertheless, I remain separated from them because Uganda is not exactly known for its acceptance of people like me. The Ugandan woman who lives next door to me in the dorm–a serious yet beautiful woman named Penelope–asked me if I am married, and I said, “That’s too long a story.” She is the “Dean of Discipline,” and I like to make her laugh by saying that I will get into lots of trouble, and that’s why my room was placed next to hers.
The Rwandan people I’ve met are kind and resilient and always ready for a laugh. Best of all, the students are so eager to learn that the seniors even came back from vacation two weeks early so that they could take extra classes. The night I arrived, I could not meet the students yet because they were all in physics class at 8:00 pm–voluntarily. I especially love playing volleyball or basketball with the students because we can all laugh as much as we want and even dance around when we hit a good shot.
I came to Gashora Academy for the students, of course, and love teaching them and helping them with their college application essays. The classes run exactly twice as long as I am accustomed to, and the class size is exactly twice as large. All students get up at 5:00 am every day and attend their first study hall at 6:00 am before breakfast. In all of my twenty-two years of teaching, upwards of 3,000 students, I have never met anyone so determined to learn and so eager to work hard.
And yet, the substandard dorm will not suddenly metamorphose into somewhere livable. Most of the time I look at the river of ants crisscrossing the dorm kitchen–and the bathroom, sink to ceiling–as a challenge. How many ants can I kill today? I save scrap paper so that I can squish the out-of-reach varments.
It is with no small quantity of guilt that I confess to my inability to keep my spoiled, first world problems in perspective. Today I escaped on a moto (small motorcycle) to the nearest luxury hotel. I kept telling Pacific, my favorite moto driver, “Buhoro, buhoro,” which means “slowly, slowly.” And he did drive ultra carefully, just for me. Finally, after about an hour, I checked in to Palast Rock Hotel, changed into my bikini within seconds, and escaped into the pristine pool, the first time I felt like myself since I came out here to Bugesera Proivince, the hottest and most unlivable place in Rwanda. Tutsis were exiled here. Much like the U.S.’s genocide of Native Americans, Tutsis were expelled to the harshest climate in the country so that they would die off. But they did not. So many Tutsis lived here that it became “ground zero” during the genocide.
Here in Nyamata, the town where the hotel is, there’s a church down the road. More than 40,000 Tutsis were killed there after they were told that it would be a safe haven. Some of the people who falsely lured them were Catholic priests and nuns. Michael, the Gashora Girls’ Academy’s maintenance man/caretaker, has incited my wrath and earned my friendship. After I visited the dead at Nyamata Church, he told me that he went there as a boy. Sundays after the genocide, the congregation held mass right next to a room overflowing with dead bodies. Imagine the smell. He was young enough that the corpses scared him in the nightmare way that I can remember from my own childhood. Except that his nightmares were real.
As my discomforts in Gashora seem real to me. Yes, when I walk outside the school, I see dusty, shoeless children who beg for my water. But they also wave and run over to hold my hand. Several times, the youngest ones have sprinted up just to hug my legs.
We all have problems, and we all have love, and we all have the capacity for resilience. But it’s so much easier for me to recognize this when I’m cool and clean after a pristine blue swim. After clean sheets and a shower that is magically reliable. I left the ghosts in my mosquito net at Gashora.
In another lifetime, I might be one of those Gashora children, one who lives far from the village of nothing, as we who live at the school do. If I were one of those children, I would shout out “Good Morning” at all times of day and night, and call “muzungu” if a white passes by. I would wish for rain to stop the hunger this year. I would long to be tall enough to ride a bike. Some day, I would learn of the genocide and be thankful for the peace that has reigned in Rwanda for two decades now. Though the village school might not be not the best, I would try my best in all my classes. Always, always, I would try my best. And I do.