Rwanda: A Beautiful Mystery

Crossing the border from Uganda to Rwanda the road was bumpy.  I strained to see both through window and the darkness of night on the other side.  I could make out trees and then a wall of rocks that had been blown through to make passage possible.  I was reminded of Northern Ontario.  Thoughts drifting back to Rwanda, I could not stop thinking of how many people may have been trying to flee this country years ago on this very road, or would they have been off the road hiding in the trees?  It seems so unbelievable that this was once a reality as I so easily let the coach bus carry me up and down and around the rolling hills.  I later learned that although the genocide had a slow start, commencing before 1994, it was far more organized and fast than I remembered hearing before.  Or perhaps the reality just sets in deeper when you actually take the time to walk through history.  Questions rang out within the confines of my mind that I had no answer for, the biggest one: how many people would have had time to make it this far and into refuge in Uganda?

So here we are.  Kigali.

The big first surprise was how safe and peaceful Rwanda felt.  Our coach bus, having nearly flown through the night, brought us into Kigali much earlier than we intended to be there; not to mention that we miscalculated the time-change and thus found ourselves arriving while darkness still blanketed the city.  The one thing I always plan never do – arriving in a strange new place in darkness makes you a most vulnerable target.  Thankfully this mistake occurred in what we quickly learned was a country much different from the other African countries we had recently seen.  Not that they are unsafe, but that Kigali felt incredibly calm and peaceful.  Why was this?  There were barely any taxis to choose from.  Instead we were swarmed by motorcycle taxis, known as boda-bodas.  The rebel in me loved it.

The second big surprise was the French.  Before the trip I was excited to go to Rwanda because I knew I would have to speak French.  Finally a way to force myself to seriously think in French again!  I was so excited; however I had completely forgotten about this during our travels until I tried to speak to someone on the bus and realized they had no idea what I was saying.  Right!  French it is.  Rwandan French is so beautiful, my friend continually observed.  I agreed.  After all, it didn’t hurt either that Rwanda presented the perfect opportunity to speak French, with enough people speaking English in Kigali just in case you can’t get your point across.  Thanks to the Explore Program and the French classes provided at work, my French proved very conversation with most people understanding – a nice confidence boost!

My third surprise came when the sun was up.  Kigali is officially the cleanest African city I have seen.  (From what I hear its only rival would be Malindi, the Italian city on Kenya’s coast, which I unfortunately did not get to see.)  In Kigali there are not only intersections and traffic lights (as is uncommon in many African cities) but, bewilderingly, they are also followed (just as uncommon in many -most- African cities).  The intersection even counts down the amount of time left on each colour.  I am further shocked to see that there are lights on the ground which serve to give the drivers a sense of direction at night.  This is something I rarely see at home outside of the airport landing strip.  To top it all off, every boda-boda driver has a helmet, and even more incredible is that they all carry one for their passenger too.  No where else in my African experiences are the rules of the road followed like this.  I’m not saying that the helmets were in top-notch condition, and trust me some would not have provided much protection at all, but the fact is, they were there. There was only one passenger to a motorcycle, quite unlike West Africa.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that things with road traffic are running completely smooth.  In fact, on one of our travels my boda-boda ran out of petrol while climbing a hill.  The driver and I dismounted, the driver lifted the bike in such a way that the petrol would get to the engine, we remounted and off we were up the hill and around the corner to the nearest petrol station.

From our travels within the city and into the countryside we noticed that homes were also very different, not only from West Africa, but from Rwanda’s East African neighbours as well.  One of my traveling companions works in low-income housing in Kenya.  We were stunned to see the number of homes in the rural areas outside Kigali which were made with brick, a costly material.  The few which were not brick still looked sturdy to the eye.  It was incredible.  So unpredictable.  An unexpected reality which should be used to help re-shape the many images held in outsiders’ minds when they conjure up pictures of Africa.  The infrastructure in Kigali is developed to a level even unlike Nairobi, or perhaps its cleanliness just makes it seem that way.

***

There is so much more to Rwanda than the genocide but with its recent shadow over the country’s history, I could not help but think about it.  With everywhere I went, my mind was flooded with what could have happened where I was presently standing if I had arrived 17 years earlier.  With everyone I saw, my mind would wander, who was I looking at?  What had their role been?  I tried not to focus on this and to remember that things have changed.  That it seems like this country has found a new way to move on.  That there are no longer Hutus or Tutsi or the other ethnic minorities, such as the marginalized Twa.  That these ethnic classifications are now illegal to speak of. That everyone is a Rwandan.  That now, all are one.  This seems to make sense, that it was necessary in order to piece together a country in utter disaster, but is it even possible?  Can you wipe away someone’s identity?  As peaceful and far from their past as the nation seems, it is near impossible to move on from something so large and grotesque; whatever happened then, has formed the Rwanda of today.  This I want to know more about.  Who are these re-identified Rwandans?  Who am I interacting with on the street in daily business?  I am not all about touristic sites and the idea of genocide tourism, however I do believe in learning from the past.  Following my prison walk of Idi Amin, I could not help but wonder what happened here in this neighbouring country.

***

Breakfast at the Mille Collines saved us.  We were not in as dire circumstances as those who were flooding its compound in 1994, but our lack of financial planning left us in a country without any access to ATMs compatible with international bank cards, and without local currency.  On top of this we quickly learned that life in Rwanda is far more expensive than in East Africa.  We exchanged all our remaining Ugandan Shillings for Rwandan Francs, as well as some Euro and American Dollars.  How had we not read this part of the guide book or travel websites?  So we indulged ourselves on the Mille Collines breakfast table, because there, we could pay VISA.  We walked the halls of the building, our minds replaying scenes of Hotel Rwanda.  We overlooked the hotel’s pool, beyond which we could see city’s populated rolling hills everywhere before us.  It was beautiful.

Those of us who were Canadian knew the most about the genocide, largely due to Romeo Dallaire’s involvement and actions upon his return to Canada.  However we did not realize how early the genocide actually started.  That its gruesome head had in fact shown its face decades in advance and numerous times leading up to April 1994.  This may have surprised us, but it had come as no surprise to the Rwandans.

We went to the Kigali Memorial Centre where we learned of the Rwandan genocide and of numerous genocides which predated it in other countries with other peoples.  Inside the Centre there is also a place to recognize lost ones, to leave a photo and a story, to record their names and memories.  One room is dedicated to children lost, and the Centre’s gardens are home to mass graves for both children and adults alike.  While we were there, we noticed that newly discovered bodies had recently been laid to rest while other gardens hosted people laying down flowers in memory of their own loved ones.

We also went to two sites outside of the city where literally thousands of women and children died, Ntarama and Nyamata.  It was here we learned about the years leading up to the 1994 genocide; years in which there had been instances of genocide.  These had resulted in the Tutsis being forced to live in certain areas, and experience numerous attacks.  During these times, safety had always been found in the churches.  No one dared kill within a church.  In the 1994 genocide, the men (and boys) of Bisesero were fighting on the Hill of Resistance, while women and children sought refuge in the churches.  This time their refuge did not hold back the forces of evil.  Women were tortured, brutalized, raped, cut into a slow death by machete or mercilessly left to live with HIV/AIDS and missing body parts.  Inside Ntarama the back of the church is like a scene from a horror movie or of Cambodia, with shelves piled roof-high of human bones.  Seeing the cracked skulls was both interesting and overwhelmingly humbling.  Children had been grabbed by the foot and swung into the nursery wall.  Their blood, brain and hair still hold steadfast to the brick.  The rafters and walls of the church are lined with the stained clothing of the victims.  The church pews, rather modest benches, support the coffins of bodies discovered in 2011 and subsequently, flowers.  The quote on the banner at the front of the church reads, “If you knew me, and if you knew yourself, you would not have done this to me.”  Framing this, across the entire front of the church, are the mattresses, cooking pots, identity cards and school books which belonged to the women and children.  They had literally moved into the church.  Nyamata was quite similar in all ways but significantly larger.  As for the Hill of Resistance, the men had fought for a long time and were seen as a relatively strong force of Tutsis.  They were betrayed by French soldiers who claimed it was safe to descend only to have many of the eventually descend the hills days later to be slaughtered in the waiting hands of their enemies, the Interahamwe.  This purple website, the colour of memorials, mourning, remembering encases these memorial sites.

I had expected to see more of the genocide’s aftermath lingering in the present but much seemed gone, cleaned away, hidden from sight.  It was not that I was looking for morbidity or expecting the country to be stuck in the past, but I found it shocking how it seems possible to have such drastic past neatly filed away.  It was only when we reached these churches outside Kigali, in the areas former Tutsis had once been forced to live in, that we recognized some people walk with a limp.  People didn’t talk about it and when they did it was the story of how they had to run, how they were beaten, or how their family was killed.  I always heard the same story, even in Kigali, and eventually I wondered about it.  Obviously no one wants to re-live the history, yet those that do are always someone who was once a Tutsi (as opposed to now, when everyone is solely Rwandan).  Would not once-a-Hutu tell us their experience?  Is it right to assume, according to population, that most people I saw were once a Hutu?  Are they still in and around Kigali or are they in the countryside dealing with guilt and remorse, unable to forgive themselves?  Or are they living in neighbouring refugee camps fearing their lives, from retaliation or justice?  Or are they just on the other side of Lake Kivu, training young Congolese to become militants and finish the job they once started?  So many unanswered questions.

***

Not all of our planned adventures in Rwanda were realized.  Being sick with sunstroke in Kampala limited my time in Rwanda.  (Side Note: If your gut tells you to go back for the wide-brimmed hat that you left in the hotel room when you are about to embark on a bicycle ride throughout the community of Bujagali Falls during the hottest time of day under the intense African sun -even if it’s just for 1 hour- do it.  It can easily avoid days of dizziness and weakness not to mention faintly staring at the hotel ceiling while your friends are out enjoying dinner and exploring the city.)  While we saw the sites in Rwanda that I most wanted to see there were others that remain on my list to be seen another day: the volcanoes, Gorillas, caves and Lake Kivu to name a few. That is not a problem.  I would love to return and to be honest perhaps it is a better thing that we did not see everything.  Following the news leading up to our Rwandan trip we even questioned going to Lake Kivu as the DRC side was increasingly unsafe.  I cannot say that I did not wonder if rebels hiding in the DRC forest perpetrating the Interahamwe’s teachings would ever come back and if so, what would it be like or what if I was still here -but then I catch myself – their return is incredibly unlikely.  Only one thing was certain, I really wanted to stay in Rwanda.  I thought of staying longer and flying home, letting my friends bus back to Nairobi without me, but I knew I couldn’t just leave them.  While I knew I could travel Rwanda on my own, it is not a country I want to travel on my own.  It needs to be discussed and thoughts need to be spoken.  There is simply so much to digest about what you see and hear and think that one must travel it with someone from outside Rwanda who understands your worldview.

Since returning to the work I have asked many people about their thoughts on Rwanda.  Quite a few had worked in Rwanda, or have friends that do.  Some of their experiences answered questions brewing in my mind.  Others just left me with more questions.  Yes, there are many former Tutsis who have returned to Rwanda, particularly to Kigali.  Their return has brought change to the country.  For example, being educated in refugee camps of neighbouring English speaking countries has resulted in many people having a firm command of both the English and French language. This skill has seen them rise to positions of authority again as they are best able to communicate with the majority of the world, or let’s say, the majority of the funding world.  My original thought had been that the switch to English as an official language was in retaliation to France’s role and subsequent responsibility for the murders which took place at the Hill of Resistance.  (This is something I want to learn more about as one question continually comes to mind: Why? There is much I still have to learn about.)  In fact, I was shocked to learn that the Belgium’s were refused entrance to the country while the French were not.  The actions of the French seemed forgiven but the period of Belgium colonization decades before did not.  Why such a difference?  Is this stemming from the initial division the Rwandan peoples’ identities, or of more recent politics?

***

Rwanda left a deep impression of peace and tranquility on me.  Not only had its population emerged from a horrible past of colonization and a genocide which stemmed from the imposed social structure of their communities at that time, but they had chosen to move forward.  While I was later informed about more recent political actions which may have been less than favourable, I still cannot believe how effectively the country’s unifying motion for ‘oneness’ -everyone identifying only as Rwandan- has worked so successfully.  Rwanda is a country which oozes with mercy and forgiveness; understanding that is a requirement in order to move forward.  One cannot soundly move forward if they are focused on the past.  Somehow a small country in Central Africa, which once had most of its civilian population militarized and used to following orders commanded of it, has found a way to mercifully move forward.  Cannot other countries and people groups take a lesson from this?

While in hindsight, the country’s militarized past makes it come as no surprise that some things such as traffic rules are now followed to the law; however, it does shock me that only less than two decades have passed for so much to change and be accomplished.  I heard that the country was well developed before the genocide and that the greatest loss was in human resources, both physically and mentally, yet it is these same people which have left the greatest impact on me.

While I recognize that there is probably much more going on beneath the surface than what I realized at the time, this is what I have taken away: The spirit of the people in many ways is just as beautiful as the country they live in.  Perhaps this is related to the large presence of faith in Rwandan society.  While thoughts of how much time must pass before the unity of this country can accept and tolerate different ways of thinking ruminate in my mind, the strength of the people and their resilience is astounding.  In Rwanda survival has meant not to forget the atrocities of the past in order to prevent their return, but to forgive and choose to look forward to new days; to choose a future and a hope.

There is so much that I wish to say but nothing I could say or write would ever do justice.  One of the females I traveled with is a psychologist from Colombia.  Influenced by what she lived through, she is now studying genocides and the effect on children.  Our conversations were quite interesting.  Our discussions and questions have led to a growing reading list.  Everyone telling me to read We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, by Phillip Gourevitch.  It has quickly moved to the top of my reading list.  One this is certain.  We wished we had more time in Rwanda.

Also, a quick note on getting a Rwandan visa: it’s an incredible process!  I once heard that the country was run by women.  I now believe it.  Perhaps I am biased but of all the visas I have ever needed, the one for Rwanda was 100% stress-free and trust me, this is a big deal.  Let’s just walk through the process: before leaving Nairobi I applied online for a visa.  They ask the typical questions and have a map with all the border crossings visible.  You fill in the questions and highlight the border crossing which you anticipate crossing at.  Then they e-mail you a tracking number.  A couple days later you receive an e-mail with your visa and tracking number.  You print it off.  You are not required to pay anything until you are actually at the border where you present the printed visa and they run it through their system.  It was miraculous.  Sure we had to wait a long time at border while the citizens of surrounding African nations quickly passed us but I’m not complaining.  The Rwanda visa system seemed organized and efficient.  Need I say I was impressed?

***

I marvel that this new Rwanda, the united Rwandans, choose to remember the past in order to prevent the past from reoccurring as they choose to move on and live on.  By doing so they live an exemplification of forgiveness.

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