It is all the senses on fire. There is laughter so buoyant it communicates through its timbre. There is a green robe of color draping Rwanda, the mille collines, the “Land of a Thousand Hills.” In Kigali there is great wealth on roads so deeply rutted a small child could be lost in them. Not far away I see hills upon hills of rural beauty. There are bird sounds I have never heard, and at Lake Kivu out of the corner of my eye, I catch a color of wings the likes of which I have never seen before. There is the whisk of a handmade broom brushing off the grit of the previous day from already nearly immaculate pavement, and the sounds of children erupting into song as they arrive at school. There is the strong smell of humanity not trying to perfume itself. There is a gentleness to the breeze, even in Kigali where clothes are washed by hand and hung on the line in mansions of sparkling tile in a modern city alive with its own energy. Sitting at a window, I see children being watched by many eyes on the side of the road as my bus careens around “S” curves. This juxtaposition of the cosmopolitan with the rural is part of the new Rwanda.
“This is Africa,” Antoinette tells me. She is the aunt of two former students, and she has taken it upon herself to show me her Africa. Night after night I am graciously welcomed into family members homes of former students Paul Runyambo (2013) and his sister Letitica (2016). Their father Dr. Norbert Runyambo has arranged this part of my trip, and the respect every single person I meet has for him opens doors for me. Dr. Runyambo’s name carries great meaning here and everyone tells me if I am a friend of Runyambo, I am welcome in their home. I am in Africa; I am family.
I am also able to make my own friends as well. I am drawn to young people, the age of my own children, the survivors of the genocide. No one shies away from the history. They want to tell their stories. On the first of my three days in Kibuye, a lovely town on the shores of Lake Kivu, I meet Emmanuel, and we strike up a conversation on the road. He is finishing up his degree in Agriculture, specializing in soil erosion and land management. He spends an entire day with me describing the difficulties of getting work despite his training. He talks of maybe earning a master’s degree or perhaps starting a small farming operation, but getting started without capital is difficult. He walks me to a church, now a memorial to the genocide.
From far away I hadn’t even seen the skulls, but Emmanuel specifically pointed them out to me. I had been to the Kigali Memorial Centre, a museum that poignantly explains the genocide with text, media and artifacts. It is gripping. And this church is equally, maybe even more painful in its starkness. Later, Emmanuel takes me to a friend of his who teaches at College Sainte Marie, an all girls Catholic Secondary School and afterwards the three of us relax at a restaurant. Also in Kibuye, I meet Habiman, my tour guide on the lake. He tells me he lives on an island of only 10 people but that during the genocide the soldiers found them there. It is through Waynflete that I meet other wonderful young people. Shingiro is introduced to me by Holly Kiehl, a woman I met just this fall in my room at school. Holly is a college admissions representative from Bennington College and college classmate of former EAL student Terekah Najuwan (2003). She stumbled upon my blog, contacted me and gave me names of contacts she had in Rwanda. I am able to meet up with one of them, Shingiro, last Saturday. Shingiro invites me to his school, Rwamagana Lutheran School, an expeditionary learning school totally focused on sustainability. (I may end up writing another entry about more of the schools I am visiting because this one needs to known! Get ready Green Team: I have IDEAS!) Shingiro shares the story of his family and how it took over 10 years before he found his sister, the only other member of his family who survived. Shingiro is now a talented English teacher who is adamant about establishing a reading culture in his classroom. He is a learned man of English and also recommends many new African novels for me to read. Earlier in the week I meet up with Yves and Elise in Kigali because my colleague Michele Lettiere introduced me to Bates College French Professor, Alexandre Dauge-Roth who helped establish Friends of Tubeho in 2006. This organization “is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization that is committed to providing access to education for more than 300 orphans of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 who live together in small houses provided by the association Tubeho in Kigali” (http://friendsoftubeho.org/). Check it out because this organization makes a difference to many young adults and is providing a service that is still needed in Rwanda today. Alex introduces me via email to Elise and Yves. Elise rents space to sell African art work and has just written a book, Le Livre d’Elise soon to be published. It begins with a proclamation that there has been enough silence in her life. It is time to tell her story. Yves is a brilliant young philosopher/Information Technology student with just one more term left before he graduates. We spend hours in lengthy conversation of penetrating depth and thoughtfulness, and he takes me to a museum in Kigali situated in the home of the first German colonist in Rwanda. Both Elise and Yves speak openly about their lives now and where they were then. They tell me how Alex has brought Bates students to Rwanda to learn first hand about the genocide. Alex is clearly an important person in their lives who has helped them move forward.
It is Shingiro who gives me the line, “There is more than one story.” He explains how everyone has a different tale in the country’s complicated narrative which is told by those who were here and those who returned afterwards. It is now a country where victims and perpetrators live and work side by side. A country where Gacaca Courts, a traditional means of delivering justice, have left a mixed legacy. Many Rwandans are practical. They explain the Gacaca Courts were a cost effective way to try the many who were taxing an already ravaged country. In 1994 many of the countries’ judges and lawyers had been killed or fled. It was estimated that to try so many at time when the country’s infrastructure both in the judicial system and in the nation as a whole was destroyed would take over 200 years. The idea behind the Gacaca Courts was that punishment would be swift and provide a way for perpetrators to learn how their actions effected so many and provide an opportunity for change. This concept was corroborated by my new friend Celestine, a law student at the University of Rwanda who says the purpose of law is to teach not punish. The implementation of this traditional justice system makes many proud of the way community based cultural practices began the process of healing the wounds of the nation. Others feel these “petty courts” minimized the horrendous actions of so many. They explain Gacaca Courts were intended to be a way to resolve local issues like land squabbles, marital problems, thievery and vandalism, not genocide (“Rwanda’s Gacaca courts: A Mixed Legacy” New Internationalist, http://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2012/06/15/gacaca-courts-legacy/). Many survivors feel the courts were an expedient way to speed up the process of reconciliation and reestablish society but that justice was not served. I have met people on both sides of this issue, and as the 20th anniversary of the genocide looms, it is clear much has been done to move forward and many are still in pain.
It seems insensitive to end with the story of the bats, but to me it is a metaphor that encapsulates the side-by-sideness of this country–the great beauty, the great movements forward, the feelings of optimism and hope right next to great horror. For me that is the story of the bats. Habiman took me to beautiful Napoleon island which is shaped like Napoleon’s trademark bicorne hat. We dock the boat and begin climbing up and up, and soon we are surrounded by the thousands and thousands and thousands of bats who fly to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to eat at night and come back to Rwanda during the day to sleep. I think of my children, now so far away both in geography and in the way I call out to their childhood selves. I am being swarmed, but I find calm and a way to move forward. I remember reading Stella Luna to Maggie, Amelia and Peter, and I can see anew the beauty in an animal that still scares me.
NOTE: I tried and tried and tried to insert the photos of the bats into this post, but despite the leaps and bounds I am making in my understanding of technology, I cannot get them to load. If we are friends on Facebook, the album from my trip to Lake Kivu have the visual of what I am trying to describe in words. Friend me if you want to see them!!