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To the Rwandan backcountry!

17 Oct
I’ve been struggling through my Rwandan homestay this week, employing my limited people skills and broken French and Kinyarwanda, as well as the Spanglish sort of gobbledygook that comes from their marriage (the languages, not my parents).  My two younger sisters (neither of whom live at home but rather at boarding school) speak pretty good English, but my parents speak almost none.  It makes for an easy transition to the awkward-silence-dominated dinner company for which the Rwandese are so popular.  It is not that there is nothing to say, just that it is sometimes pleasant to simply occupy space with another human being, no conversational strings attached.  This, if you know me (and I suppose if you don’t) is not something to which I am accustomed, but it is definitely something to which I am quickly warming, especially since I couldn’t communicate complex development theories or socio-political debate if I wanted to.  There is a chicken here who I have made friendly acquaintance with, but I know from my last late friend that I shouldn’t grow too attached, as its next stop will probably be on our family dinner table.  Of all of my homestay experiences both here and in Gulu, however, what happened yesterday was simultaneously the most unexpected, angering, serene, beautiful, and despairing experience I’ve had yet.
My family woke me up at 7 in the morning my time (11 pm yours) and informed me that I must be showered and in my best clothes in 20 minutes.  We were going to see the cows and the family’s grandmother/mother/matriarch.  This is a pretty big deal in Rwandan society.  I’m on the same day meeting essentially the elders and the source of family pride and wealth in one fell swoop.  The catch?  (Yes, of course there’s a catch.  T.I.A. – this is Africa.)  I would be riding for two hours to Godknowswhere Rwanda with about 10 family members I’ve never met before who may or may not speak my lingo to preach the word God to said remote village’s Apostolic inhabitants (more on my perceptions of the Rwandan manifestation of this religion which is so blatantly different from my own in a later blog).  That is one big, ugly, behemoth of a catch.  We rode around Kigali (pronounced Chee-GAH-ree in the local accent) for about an hour, picking up my (thank the God of the Apostolics) mostly-English-speaking relatives.  I was mildly annoyed at this forced family bonding, mostly because meeting your new family and getting settled and learning the language is pretty stressful, and I wanted a day off.  As we drove the road to Gitarama, however, (you may remember this road from the movie “Hotel Rwanda” as the place where they inadvertently drive over the bodies in the fog) I was more and more pleased that I had come, but for opposite reasons, of course.  We climbed up the hills on those classic spiral roads (up one hill cork screw style, down the next, and so on) into the misty haze that blankets the whole country.   Eventually when we reached Gitarama we turned onto a road reminiscent of the roads in Uganda (or the Boulder, if that’s your particular frame of reference) – red dirt, “bush” all around, only scattered white smoke every few miles from coal stoves in the distance.  We drove for almost three hours in total, which is an impressive trip when you consider that driving from border to border in any direction will not take you longer than 7 hours at maximum, so I am told by my family.  We arrived in the village and stood waiting for 11am to roll around and for church to start.  What I had definitely not anticipated, however, was the fact that the entire village had somehow gleaned from drums on mountaintops miles away and smoke signals that there was a muzungu in the village, just begging to be inspected by a large group of people.  Literally the entire village showed up to stand in a closely huddled group of about 70 to stare at me, the boundary of the mass of humanity a mere 3 feet from my face.  I asked my cousin why they were so intent on checking me out and he told me that for all except perhaps some of the very oldest people there, I was the first muzungu they had ever seen.  Talk about a mental kick to the gut.  I suddenly felt like such a jerk for being irritated at their close inspection of my white skin.  My cousin also told me that these people were talking among themselves about whether or not I had skin – they thought my lack of pigment was because they were actually seeing the “meat” instead of the skin that I had at one point, and were amazed at my ability to survive what seemed like a pretty thorough kiln firing.  Amazing in so many ways.  It was nice to be able to practice my Kinyarwanda with them.  “Amakuru?” (What’s your news? Or, how’s it going?) was met with mutual giggles at my terribly American pronunciation.  I asked a little girl how old she was, and she hid her face in embarrassment and shifted to the back of the crowd.  It is absolutely terrifying to talk to a total freak of nature, it turns out.  I stood awkwardly in front of this crowd for almost an hour before church began.  To be totally honest, I don’t know how much attention the late great JC received that day – I felt every pair of eyes burning holes in the back of my head the entire time.  After church, some Lutheranish mingling minus the potluck ensued, providing even further endless opportunities for scrutinizing the stranger.  What’s even better?  African time.  This process could last all day.  Luckily, my cousins whisked me away after only and hour and a half, but not before the aforementioned little girl could push her way meekly to the front of the crowd and be the first to offer me her hand.  We shook hands and she stood decidedly taller as she sauntered back to the group, who examined her hand just to make sure all was well.  It was a fascinating experience, and I hope I haven’t created too awkward of an impression for muzungu who may follow me in the future.
After church we drove some 6 kms out of “town” and parked our van by a burned out mud house.  We then literally hiked on a trail in the grass up to the top of the mountain we were on, carrying water and a crate of soda, a common home warming-type hospitality gift.  We walked probably a little less than a mile when we arrived at a little cluster of mud and brick structures.  This is where the grandmother of the family makes her home.  My cousin told me that this is the house he grew up in, and then proceeded to show me some piles of bricks overgrown by plants.  He told me that different branches of his family lived in these homes long ago, but that they were gone now.  I don’t know why I had assumed that they had just moved on peacefully, or that the genocide would not reach even this village, but I was genuinely shocked when he went on to bring me to the exact spots among the bricks and grass where he found his murdered family members, including his father and three of his nine siblings.  They came for everyone, everywhere, without exception.  We sat on a hill, discussing the genocide and how it has affected his family, all the while a man watching us from atop the hill only 150 yards away.  Eventually, my cousin gestured dismissively at the man.  “Do you see that man there?” he asked me.  I said I did.  “Yeah, he’s my neighbor.  That’s actually the man who killed my entire family.”
Yup, welcome to the realities of post-conflict reconciled Rwanda, my friends.  In a policy of reconciliation and with the understanding that prosecuting every genocidaire is impossible in a formal setting, Tutsi and moderate Hutu families who have been victimized by Hutu Power extremists are forced to live side by side.  Retributive violence?  Prepare to be locked up.  Threats?  Jail time.  Coexist or move, says the government.  Gacaca (pronounced Gah-cha-cha) courts have made up for some of the past patterns of impunity, but it cannot get everyone, especially when families like mine will not turn in those they know to be guilty out of a desire for peace and for healing, or when said killers flee to the DRC.  (DRC again – I’m sensing a theme.  Are you?)  They just want to move on with their lives.  While still keeping their family members close to their hearts and always on their minds,  they  make an honest effort to put their suffering in the past.  I was both surprised and not to find that almost all of the strength they claim comes from their religious practices and beliefs.  When there was so much despair here, many more conservative or fundamentalist churches took advantage and propagated their message to those who needed something, anything stable on which to stand.  Form your own opinions on that one.
The drive home, though eventful (we got lost, mislead by the police, ended up stuck on a log bridge in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the darkest night of your life, surrounded by nothing but dark hills and the light of one fire in the distance), was amazing in a different way than the same drive in the opposite direction.  The view from atop the hill where my grandmother lives is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.  Until my cousin told me that these hills ran with his family’s blood not too long ago, it was easy to forget the atrocities these people faced.  The faces of those killed, though burned in your mind forever once you’ve seen them, are sometimes swallowed by the sheer beauty of the hills.  It was not until our ride home once we reached Gitarama that I realized that this beautiful road was the one which was impassable because of the dead.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to see the light through the clouds here in life post-genocide, but we must persist.  We, as fellow human beings, owe it to the people of Rwanda to share in their grief but to also assist in the process of moving forward.
As I left, my cousin said to me that all that they can do now is to tell the story, and that now that I have seen the dead it is as much my responsibility as it is theirs.  Now that you have seen it in your mind’s eye, the responsibility is yours as well.  We have a choice as informed individuals.  Do we keep these people locked in a period of murder and despair, or do we help them liberate themselves by associating their faces and their nation with the thirst for peace they so vehemently work toward?
 
 

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  1. Hannah

    October 18, 2010 at 12:48 am

    Brynn, thank you so much for sharing. Your experiences or waves of emotions can never fully be captured in a blog, but you do a great job sharing what you can. Thank you. Hannah

     
  2. Jenna T

    October 21, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    Brynn! First of all I miss you. Second of all this is one of the most amazing pieces of writing that I have ever read. It is hard to put into words how much I thank you for posting this. Keep on living friend.

     
  3. Carol

    October 22, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    What conflict of emotions, Brynn. 1) The church scene is a wonderful illustration of what a minority experience really is. I know you will internalize that for all your life. Who wouldn’t? 2)The reality of the genocide as “here” not “elsewhere” must be very diffcult to get to. A jolt like yours may be the only way I suspect. We here read about witchcraft trials or black persecution in America (or weird fundamentalists picketing funerals) and it always seems to be “there” to us. I admire your meeting it head on. 3) I can’t help thinking that “neighbor” must have different connotations, a whole different feeling to it, than it may once have had for the Rwandans. I can’t imagine a neighbor without the soft feeling of ease and safety it usually carries. They need a new work for a “person nearby” without the comfort feeling. So much to learn. Your writing is moving and beautiful; a powerful weapon in our world.