22 July 2012

Overdue Thoughts on Rwanda

We crossed the border into Rwanda and Milton – our driver who made the trip from Kabale, just over the Ugandan side of the border, to Kigali a few times a week to deliver stacks of Uganda's New Vision and Daily Monitor newspapers – swung the car from the left to the right lane, from British to Belgian. On a giant billboard, the words 'Welcome to My Country' soared over a bottle of Primus beer. The tarmac was smooth and flat and noticeably free of Ugandan-style potholes; it wound around the bases of green hills, between them, over them: the land of mille collines, truth in nicknaming.

The three of us sat in the back seat of the blue Toyota Corolla. In front with Milton was [I forgot his name], who was traveling to Kigali for the presentation of his football team's Rwandan league championship. He split most of the trip between his touchscreen smartphone and his only-slightly-larger tablet computer. We dozed and stared out the windows and checked for service on our blocky, black-and-gray Nokias.

It was less than an hour before we saw Kigali: a cluster of hills in the distance came into focus through the overcast midday sky, buildings tumbling up and down between the greenness, stretching skyward, too. The road widened: a median soon split the two sides, manicured grass and squat palm trees planted at equal intervals; white painted lines halved the road on both sides of the median and – gasp! – cars stayed in their lanes: traffic moved like it did in – I swear! – America. The boda-bodas – motos, as they're called in Rwanda – all carried only one passenger behind the driver, instead of the two or three plus matooke or luggage in Uganda; the driver had his license number stenciled on the back of his helmet and his teal-colored vest; even the passengers were given helmets. There were no holes in the roads, no massive open sewage pits in the sidewalks, there wasn't even any garbage. Plastic bags were outlawed in Rwanda a year or two ago, and the last Saturday of every month is Umuganda – Community Day – where shops and businesses close and moto drivers switch off their engines and everyone stays home and cleans their yard or neighborhood or whatever until at least noon (and police roadblocks make sure you're not out before that). Kigali was beautiful, clean, orderly. It was, in short, not Kampala.

We laughed about the juxtaposition between Kigali and Kampala and, on the larger scale as we left the city, between Rwanda and Uganda; we marveled at it, basked in it. But at the same time, there was some niggling sense of unease that went along with it. It's just not possible (nor should it be, really) to spend time in Rwanda and not wonder: How much of this was here before? What was it like before? How much of everything – the cleanliness, the order, the semi-forced community days – is a result, directly intentional or not, of what happened here?

It was only eighteen years ago, after all, 1994, when the country exploded into genocide.

Walking down the street, handing a few francs to the woman at the supermarket after she packed our bread and cheese (yes, cheese: on more than one occasion we wished, as awful as it is to be wishful towards any aspect of colonialism, that Uganda had been a French or Belgian colony, for the breads and cheeses, instead of a British one, for the … fish and chips, I guess) in a brown paper sack, butchering our (very) limited French or speaking in a ridiculously affected French accent when trying to get directions from someone we passed on the street, drinking a draft beer (yes, a draft beer: one more point for Rwanda) on a sunlit restaurant patio – doing anything, really, it was impossible to keep out of my mind for any extended period of time thoughts about the genocide and how everyone over the age of twenty saw and experienced and remembers. But you don't talk about the genocide. That's what we were told before we went: No one talks about the genocide. So we'd drop it from conversations, like a curse word, just to be safe, or polite: “I read that during the [dropping voice to a whisper] genocide...” But I couldn't help but want to ask about it, to hear stories and learn things and be brought into it and by being brought into it be relieved of that still-niggling unease that I felt and forgot and felt and forgot the entire time, the unease that comes with tourism in former war-zones. (The feeling went from niggling to full-blown when we sat by the pool at the Hotel Milles Collines, the “Hotel Rwanda” from the movie, and drank a beer and there was nothing there, no reminders or memorials, just a classy, upscale hotel.) It was hard, almost, not to have conversations with everyone in my head.

You, moto driver, you saw a thousand million horrific things.
I did. Sometimes I still do.

And you, woman packing our breads and cheeses, you ran for your life or hid quietly, holding your breath and your children.
I did. I ran. I dragged my children with me. I bruised their wrists because I wouldn't let go, and I didn't let go, not once. And then we hid. I covered their mouths and held my breath. We lived.
And your husband?
He is dead.
I'm sorry.
That doesn't matter.
I know.

Maybe you saved people, man pouring my beer, maybe you allowed Tutsis to hide in your home even though you are Hutu.
I didn't. No. There are times when I wish I had, but I didn't. They would have found them anyway, they would have killed me then, and my family, so I didn't.
I understand.
I had to protect my family first, and I do not regret this, though sometimes I do.
I understand.

And you, smiling on homemade crutches, is that why you're missing your leg from the knee down?
Yes. But my arms are strong now.
You look happy.
I am, again.

You lost a husband, you lost a wife, you lost sons and daughters.
We did.

And you, did you kill someone?
Do you know someone who did?

Did you forgive them, any of you, they who killed your friends and family and who would've killed you?
I did.
I did not.
I cannot.
I won't.
I will. But not yet.

Do you forget sometimes?
Sometimes we forget how they died, our loved ones. Many times we try to forget how they died. But we will never forget them. And we will never really forget how they died.

There were all of these questions that I wanted to ask, but couldn't and certainly wouldn't. If I had experienced what everyone over twenty years old in Rwanda experienced, it's unlikely that I would want to talk about it either. Instead, we spent most of our first afternoon there at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. It's very well done and very powerful. It takes you through a history of the buildup to the genocide, the events during it, and the aftermath. There were video testimonies from people who'd hidden others in their homes or gardens – including one old woman who was able to hide a number of people because everyone in her village thought she was a witchdoctor so even the genocidaires avoided her home – and news footage of everything; glass cases filled with machetes and clubs that had been used; a children's wing where photographs of children who were killed (sometimes the only remaining photograph the family had) were hung on the walls above plaques that gave their names and ages (a few months old or five or twelve) and a few facts, their favorite foods (matooke or beans and rice or passionfruit juice) or favorite toys (a football or a bicycle or a doll), and how they were killed (hacked with a machete or stabbed in the face and eyes or smashed against a wall); outside, a series of eleven concrete slabs mark mass graves, concrete crypts stacked with coffins that, in some cases, contain fifty bodies in a single one as it was sometimes impossible to extricate one body from the rest, and that, in an area less than half the size of a football field, holds the remains of 250,000 people. We walked past these graves, sporadic bouquets of flowers on top, and were knocked down into silence just by the size of them, the area that they covered. Then we walked up a small flight of stairs and saw the sign that said just how many bodies were there and my skin crawled and my throat grew tight and it all just became very, very real. If it had been this unspoken, historical event, ghost-like, if you'll allow that word-choice, existing just on the edge of everything, like a speck in our peripheral vision, it wasn't anymore. If people don't want to talk about the genocide, and understandably so, then it's a very, very good thing that the Memorial exists. Things like that shouldn't be allowed to be forgotten, even if so many people wish that it would be, and the Memorial ensures that people will remember.

We digested it all over dinner later, brouchettes and chips and 750mL bottles of Primus. Or tried to anyway. It, the genocide, was horrific, disgusting, tragic – the adjectives go on and are all, each one of them, insufficient. We wondered, like everyone else, how it could happen. How people could do such things, how they could be convinced to do such things by propaganda and radio broadcasts and identity cards, how so many people could be convinced to do such things – all of the questions that are always asked about genocide, all of them unanswerable by anyone who wasn't there. That's my conclusion. I can judge the actions, the acts of violence and brutality and hatred and evil. It is easy and just and fair to judge those things. But I can't judge the people who carried out those acts because I wasn't there so what do I know? I did not grow up in a poor, third-world country. I was not oppressed, nor were my friends and family, by a government and a political system – colonial and post-colonial – set up for oppression. I did not come of age in a generation that was hungry and impoverished and jobless and, because they were all of these things and saw the future continuing on the same path, frustrated and angry. I was not uneducated, nor was I educated in a school system that – and I admit I'm making the assumption that the Rwandan school system is similar to the Ugandan one – does not teach or encourage creative or critical thought, that emphasizes listening to the authority figures and repeating and obeying the things that the authority figures say, a school system that, in short, sets people up to buy into propaganda, no matter how evil it may be. So I can't judge the people. I can, and probably will, sit here and say that I would never do those things, even if I had grown up in those conditions. But that's meaningless and empty because I didn't grow up in those conditions. The argument can be made – and rightfully so – that no matter the conditions in which someone grows up or lives, evil is evil, especially when it's so blatantly, deplorably evil. And it is. But people are also people. Another argument can be made then that some people are, simply, evil. Whether or not you or I agree or disagree with that statement is irrelevant because it should be obvious that Rwanda was not filled with thousands or tens of thousands of inherently evil people. It was filled with regular, average people who were poor and hungry and oppressed and uneducated or poorly educated and taken advantage of and who fell victim to the machinations of a handful of manipulative and hateful authority figures. Is that wrong, to say that most of the people who were committing the genocide were also victims (though certainly in a different way than those they victimized)? I don't know. Now I'm running out of coherent argument and into inchoate philosophical ramblings. I judge the actions, and I feel that I'm right in doing so. I don't judge the people because I have never been in their situation and I feel right in that, too.


If that sounds like the most depressing vacation of all time, it wasn't all like that. Because we put all of that aside when it was time (because you get really good at compartmentalizing when you live in Africa or you leave) and we had fun. We had a good time out on the town (though Kampala has Kigali beat in its nightlife scene, at least as far as we could find, which leaves the score at Rwanda: 129, Uganda: eh, let's say 4) with some PC Rwanda volunteers, and we left Kigali after two days to head up to Gisenyi, a sleepy little beach town on the shores of Lake Kivu and just a couple short kilometers from the border with the DRC. We hung out at the lake, went on a long, meandering, rainy pseudo-hike up to the top of a hill, ate good steak and good cheese, though not together. Rwanda is just pretty incredibly beautiful, if you're into the whole hills thing. And after the sun had set over the lake on our last night there, we turned and walked back into town, the sky turning black except in the near distance, just above town, where the lava of the active Nyiragongo volcano – just across the border in the DRC – glowed orange, like a little sliver of sunset that refused to go away or the fires of Mount Doom.

When we got to the border crossing the next morning, we were met by a lack of forms and some head-scratching bureaucracy and then, just as we stepped across back into Uganda, by a somewhat disheveled man with a cardboard box full of sachets (little plastic bags) of waragi (Uganda's local gin) that seemed to be for sale (as he asked us if we wanted to buy some) and also for his own personal consumption (as he was sucking the last drops from one while he talked), a fleet of ragtag boda-boda drivers yelling at us to hop on (we didn't), and discarded plastic bags and garbage along the roadside.

Home sweet home.