Coming home

This is my final post about Rwanda for the Addison Independent. And now, back to the daily routine.

Last Thursday morning, after grabbing an omelet, a passionfruit, a couple bananas and a cup of coffee, I sat down to my second-to-last breakfast in Rwanda.

Minutes later, a large baboon loped through the swinging kitchen door, hopped onto the breakfast buffet and began stuffing bananas into its mouth amid shouts from the hotel staff. The chef at the omelet station charged toward the baboon, spatula raised high, and the baboon took a last handful of bananas and headed back into the kitchen.

Just two days later, I stared down at the stark brown patchwork fields of the Champlain Valley as our plane tilted in toward Burlington International Airport. Where I’d hoped there might be a snow-covered landscape, I saw no snow, no baboons or banana trees, no passionfruit vines or tea plantations. Just fields of brown, sloping up to snow-kissed mountains.

It’s not that Vermont isn’t beautiful. The Green Mountains, while they’re no 14,000-foot Rwandan volcanoes, are striking in their own right during most seasons. The dense, peaceful forests are a far cry from the hodge-podge of terraces and precariously tilted fields that reach clear to the tops of most hills in Rwanda. As it turns out, 11 million mouths and the country’s export markets demand a lot of whatever agricultural land is available.

Wander through any forest in Vermont, though, and you’ll see rocky foundations of old homesteads, decaying stone walls and wizened apple trees that remind us that there was a time not too long ago when this land, too, was more field than forest.

It’s true, Vermont’s dirt roads are mostly brown and not red, and the shades of green here are more subdued, less neon-hued. At home in Vermont, I’ve come to expect that I’ll have regular running water, steady electricity, a refrigerator, hot showers and flushing toilets, which are not necessarily givens in Rwanda. The pace of a Rwandan city is different than that of city here, with fewer stoplights, more diesel fumes, more pushing and pulling and haggling in the close aisles of the markets.

But beyond the cosmetic differences, the superficial luxuries of life here, the exhilarating chaos of cities there, at the root of it all, we’re all humans, more similar than we are different.

So would we here in the U.S. be capable of a genocide like that of 1994, when Hutu rose up against Tutsi and, in just a few weeks that spring, murdered well over half a million people?

Given just the right combination of colonial rule, repression, ethnic division, economic depression, struggling government, inflammatory media and who knows what else, I think any group would be capable of it.

After all, we here in the U.S. hold the memory of a genocide, though we rarely word it in such strong terms. Elsewhere in the world, we show up first in chronological listings of international genocides: “the American genocide, 1492-.” According to some estimates, that genocide may have had higher casualties than the Holocaust.

This is not a call to feel ashamed or guilty about lack of action. What’s past is past. Instead, it’s a call to recognize that in an increasingly connected world, there’s no excuse for retreating into our own lives, our own business, our own countries as people are murdered in the streets, fields, churches and hospitals over an ethnic, racial, sexual, national or religious division.

Kofi Annan, U.N. Secretary-General during the Rwandan genocide, expressed his regret for the organization’s inaction in a 2004 memorial speech, concluding:

“May we all reach beyond this tragedy, and work together to recognize our common humanity. If we can accept that everyone on this earth, regardless of colour, creed, language or ethnicity is fully human — and, as such, fully worthy of our interest, sympathy and acceptance — we will have taken a giant step forward from dehumanization and toward a stronger sense of global kinship.”

Crows

Image

Originally posted on Cowbird.

The crows always knew when the rain was coming. They gathered on the rooftops like old men preparing to commentate on a football game: a peanut gallery for the weather. Perhaps they were actually saying something, but we never understood it through the clicking of their feet on the roof.

We knew when the rain was coming, too.

Sometimes it was the lights flipping off and on again after a few minutes. The American students screamed each time this happened. The Rwandans continued about their business; this was their everyday.

Sometimes it was the dull rumble of thunder in the distance, coming closer and closer, and if you looked outside at just the right moment you might also see the lightning spiking down to the far-off ground, and as you watched you hoped that in a few minutes you weren’t going to be the far-off ground in someone else’s vision.

Then, after a still moment or two, the rain on tin roofs: first a patter then a roar.

Connections

The view across Lake Kivu

This is my week 3 dispatch for the Addison Independent.

On Wednesday morning I was up at 6 to attempt to check up on Town Meeting Day results.

On a bench looking over Lake Kivu toward the Democratic Republic of Congo, I just barely got the addisonindependent.com homepage to load, but although I could tell the whole crew was still in the office at what was 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, the connection was too slow to load the live blog. I didn’t have my hopes up for it. While mobile Internet is fairly stable in Kigali and a bit slower in Butare, it’s spotty at most out there on the far western edge of the country, just miles from the DRC border.

The headlines on our homepage and the little I could load of the New York Times website brought me back to U.S. news after two weeks only catching brief glimpses of Mitt Romney on French or Kinyarwandan television news shows (though we’ve also spied pictures of President Obama on some of the brightly colored fabrics people wear here). Looking out on the dim outlines of mountains across the lake, I knew I cared about what was happening locally and nationally back home, but it was hard to feel connected to things happening half a world away.

During our stay in Butare, we visited Butare Secondary School (G.S.O.B.), one of the top-ranked high schools in the country. It’s a science and math school, and it was clear that the students had access to many more resources than at other schools in the country. The ample library and the full computer lab looked much like those in any U.S. high school.

There, we spent some time talking to students in the English club. Students there had as many questions for us as we had for them. How do American schools compare with Rwandan schools? Is it true that only old people go to church in America? What is the literacy rate in the U.S.? Do people like President Obama? How are you dealing with overpopulation in the U.S.? What are American politics like right now?

After two weeks of immersion in another country — scrambling to take in as much of its culture, its politics, its landscape, its people as possible — I found myself struggling to answer questions about America. Standing in the sun in an open-air high school courtyard, with students playing basketball and chatting in Kinyarwanda all around us, I realized how little I know about the country where I’ve lived all my life. Mallory, another multimedia instructor on the trip, went to college with me in Vermont but has worked with students in New Orleans ever since. Our answers to many of the questions were very different, just by virtue of the different areas of the country where we live.

It’s experiences like these, where I’m forced to look at my own reality through the lens of another person, that give perspective. On this trip, I’m not only learning about Rwanda. I’m also learning about my relationship with the rest of the world, and how we — as a group of Americans 7,000 miles away from home — fit in.

Over the course of this trip, we’ve talked and thought a great deal about how, exactly, media can help us to understand the stories of individual people and to express our own experiences.

But we’ve also had conversations about the limitations of media, and the limitations to understanding a country on a three-week trip. As we’ve worked with students to create ethical media using the audio, photographs and video that they’ve collected on this trip, the limitations are a thought I keep coming back to. The more we learn about this country, about our own country and about our individual experiences, the more questions we can ask. The more we see, the the fewer universals there are, and the less we really know.

This is all to say that, as we draw near the end of our journey and look back on the people we’ve met, the towns and cities and mountain roads we’ve traveled, the interviews we’ve done, the genocide memorials where we’ve cried and the coffee plantation where we helped, just a little, with cultivation, it’s tempting to look back on the trip as entirely separate from our daily lives back home. It’s easy to view the thinking and learning we did here in a vacuum.

It’s harder to bring the wonder and awe that comes with a new place back to our own lives. Around each corner here in Rwanda there are new people and places to photograph, and each person we meet has a fascinating, heart wrenching, beautiful story to tell. The same is true back home, though sometimes it’s difficult to preserve that sense while walking the same route and driving the same roads day in and day out.

I came to Rwanda to ask questions about the place, but when we wrench ourselves away from this country on Friday for the day-long trip back home, I’ll be leaving with even more questions about the place where I’m from.

That, for me, is what travel is all about.

A whole lot of things to say

I don’t really know where to start. So much happens so quickly here and the trip, long as the first week felt, is flying by now.

Yesterday we left Lake Kivu, where we spent two days staying at Kigufi, a retreat run by Catholic nuns. Our group of some 30 people brought a lot of noise along with us, but it’s normally a quiet place were priests go to take their vow of silence.

Still, I don’t think any member of the group was untouched by the tranquility of the place, with its good food, teatime every afternoon and majestic views of mountains across the lake in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Students spent the time working on media projects, which meant we spent the time running from computer to computer working with students to edit audio, pick out photos, cut down video. And of course, it wouldn’t have been complete without two or three minor disasters.

It’s also a time to reflect on the trip, or at least to try, and a time to swim and play a little Frisbee here and there. We even taught a nun to toss the disc, kind of.

To be clear, this place isn’t entirely removed from the rest of Rwanda, or the rest of the trip. Wooden canoes slid by throughout the day, sometimes loaded down by bananas. Elsewhere in the country, we’ve seen those bananas atop the heads of men and women walking along the roads. We could hear shouts from the village across the bay, and see acres of terraced farmland. Within the compound, as seems standard for most rural homes, there’s a plot of farmland and a pen of animals. In the morning we could hear the pigs snorting, and other pens held chickens and rabbits.

Then there’s the power. Fairly regular in Kigali, the power grid is less than reliable outside of the major city. This wreaks havoc on our computers, which never seemed to be fully charged when we needed them to be.

Butare, where we spent five nights, is a much smaller city than Kigali. Power outages were regular and unsurprising, especially paired with the roar of oncoming thunder.

Last Wednesday we went to Inzozi Nzizi, an ice cream shop in town founded by a woman from Brooklyn and run by local women. We stood in line for hours as the lights died and the freezers ground to a halt over and over again, powering on again with a “whoosh” minutes later. All the while, the dark clouds came closer and closer and lightning ran jagged across the sky.

Even during the outages that lasted more than five minutes, our crew was too desperate for dairy products to abandon hope. Though people have cows here and use milk and butter, cheese is rare and ice cream is not generally feasible in a place where many don’t have refrigeration at home.

And believe me: when it did come, that ice cream was fantastic.

I have to admit, though, cheese is what gets me. Until yesterday, when we had cheese and papaya pineapple jam on bread, I hadn’t had cheese since that last dinner in D.C. When I saw the cheese — a gouda sort of thing, with a strong taste of milk straight from the cow — I shrieked, then spent the entire meal in a state of extreme happiness.

To be fair, though, there are lots of things here that make up for the small amounts of cheese. Avocado straight from the tree, passionfruit, mango, banana, tree tomato (a strange fruit, but delicious), fried plantains, beet and cabbage salad. There’s an amazing cooked cabbage and tomato dish that I’ve seen occasionally, and also a dish with greens and peanuts. Most meals contain at least two starches: French fries and rice, rice and pasta, French fries and pasta, green and potato soup.

All in all, this is a good place.

Murambi

This is an excerpt from my journal just after our visit to the Murambi genocide memorial, outside of Butare.

We’ve left, but the smell of calcified bodies in unfinished rooms still lingers. Rooms that would — should — have been classrooms. Instead, contorted bodies, gnarled hands, twisting feet of lime-covered bodies on the tables. Small to large, infant to mother, father, grandparent. On some of the heads, curly, thinning black hair.

Everything else is white. Some of the corpses wear underpants, waistbands too loose to fit on their desiccated owners. Some wear shirts, in many different styles, with just a hint of former color remaining.

Just down the hill from those rooms, which hang frozen in time, the patchwork fields begin. Women hoe their crops, stand outside of mud brick houses laughing. From across the valley on a nearby hill, echoes of children laughing reverberate between brick buildings.

All around Murambi, this memorial to 40,000 murders in the space of three days, life goes on.

Before you enter a room, the stench hits you. It’s a stench that, in itself, would be merely unpleasant. In context, that smell makes you gag, makes you want to vomit just to rid your nose and mouth of the particles you’re breathing in. It’s not a rotting smell. It’s the aging, stale smell of lime.

You want to forget the smell, but you continue to enter the rooms, one after another, all down the balcony, twisted corpse after twisted corpse. Each time you leave a room, there is the woman in pink hoeing her field, the brilliant green rolling hills, the dirt roads shimmering with rain, the mist hanging low. Life and death, sadness and laughter so close together.

Then come the mass graves, the ones filled in a hurry, with a bulldozer, to hide evidence of the massacre. When French soldiers came in on Operation Turquoise, they set up camp at the half-built school and built a volleyball court atop one of the graves, allegedly not noticing the turned-up dirt or the evidence of a massacre.

It took years to find those bodies.

We’ve heard from some who say they’ve forgiven those who killed their parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts or siblings — sometimes all — and some who say they haven’t.

Honestly, I don’t think I could forgive. Visiting these sites, I’ve felt the strongest emotions when small details have reminded me of loved ones, and I’ve broken down recognizing that those clothes, those skulls, those corpses preserved in lime could be my family.

I can hardly imagine living with that memory and that loss for the rest of my life, and I can not imagine forgiving the ones who caused that loss. The ones who can are stronger than I will ever be.

Kinyarwanda

Written Kinyarwanda looks enough like Kiswahili that I keep thinking that I should understand the language, but words in the two languages are different enough that I definitely can’t.

Both languages cone from Bantu roots, though, and comparing them side by side — as is done in my otherwise infuriating translation book — it’s easy to see the connections.

I’ve noticed lots of similarities in the two languages: three is “tatu” in Kiswahili, “gatatu” in Kinyarwanda. “amazi” is water in Kinyarwanda, while “maji” is water in Kiswahili. Verbs are conjugated using prefixes rather than the suffixes of many romance languages, and the “we” prefix is “du” here in Rwanda, “tu” in Kiswahili.

In Kinyarwanda, “c” is often pronounced “ch,” and “r” and “l” are almost interchangeable. There are also a whole lot of “y”s kicking around. For example, tea is “icyayi,” but it’s pronounced “ichai.”

It’s overwhelming to encounter an entirely new language and to try to pick it up in just three weeks, and of course it’s not a reasonable thing to expect. Still, I’m having a lot of fun picking up on the grammatical details and making constant comparisons to Kiswahili.

Honestly, my most common sentence starter here is “When I was in Kenya,” and I think if I were someone else listening to me I’d be pretty annoyed by now.

But hey. Nakibazo (which can, it seems, also be pronounced “nachibazo”). Hakuna matata.

Some key words:
Muraho = hello
Ibiryo = food
Amazi = water
Imeneke = banana
Marakuja (or Matunda) = passionfruit
Imucere = rice
Inyama = meat
Ndashaka = I would like

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