I’m no Rwanda expert. I’ve only been there once, for about 3 weeks. I worked with a group of about 10 Rwandese, most of them in their early 20s, and a couple in their mid 30s to 40s.
During those 3 weeks we worked hard, but man did we also party. M. was a big fan of Waragi with passion fruit juice. Every day around 5, she’d start in and eventually the rest of us would join her. Waragi is Ugandan rum, with the fame that you can drink and drink, and you don’t get a hangover. That’s what most of us did. It was one of the best times of my life, drinking, joking, dancing, and working with this group of beautiful people.
As I sat with them all in meetings or at meals, everyone sharing jokes together, I couldn’t help but wonder: who’s who? I’d seen Hotel Rwanda. I’d read about the horrific genocide that had happened about 15 years earlier. I knew that everyone I was working with had been somehow affected, that they’d all been caught in the middle of it at some point. It seemed like an incredible feat for them to be working together, sitting around a table together, talking about working against genocide mentality, when they must have been pitted against each other, willingly or not, only 15 years earlier. As much as I tried to stop it, my mind kept hovering there, secretly observing people, looking closely, wondering “is he a Hutu? is she a Tutsi?” Yet at the same time, something a colleague said was etched in my mind: We want to talk about something else. We don’t want to only be known for the genocide, there is so much more here in Rwanda.
It was clear from everyone that they wanted to put the past behind them. To not be represented or categorized by ethnic or other divisions. “The president [Kagame] has said we should not discuss it. We are one people. There is no ethnic division between us. We’ve always spoken the same language.” But in the course of the 3 weeks, privately, I heard stories. People revealed things. And I listened, always with a grain of salt, not knowing why they were telling me things, or if I should fully believe them. And then I’d mentally scold myself for thinking there were ulterior motives.
One day, we drove past one of Kagame’s homes, next to Lake Muhazi. Someone mentioned that ‘he has a lot of cows.’ I detected universal reverence for President Kagame. An unwillingness to ever contradict him or his ideas in public, or to discuss politics or history. I didn’t know if that was out of fear, or because people were grateful to the president and respected and supported him fully.
B. was around 24. He told me that his parents were killed and his sister was raped. He then escaped with that sister, walking to Congo. I never asked what ‘side’ he belonged to, but made assumptions in my own mind. He was writing a book about his experiences that he hoped to get published. He was very adept at talking with INGO staff and getting in good with foreigners. At the same time, he had a purity about him that was hard to overlook or read ulterior motives into. He desperately wanted to go to the US “for a short time, not to remain there, as I know I should help my people”. I visited the Genocide museum with him and J. on one of my last days in Rwanda, and the experience sat heavily at the pit of my stomach. ‘Only 15 years ago’ kept running through my mind. I kept thinking: this has to blow up at some point; there’s no way this can be forgotten, and it hasn’t been dealt with at all yet….
I became quite close to P., who was the same age as B. at the time. We’d stay up late, drinking Waragi or beers, and he loved to talk about himself and his dreams for the future. I could sense that he had expectations of me, he thought I would help him. I also could sense that maybe I wasn’t like the other foreigners he’d talked with — perhaps I was harder to convince? One night while talking, his face contorted awkwardly. I think he was crying but I’m not sure. I didn’t know if he was faking it to earn compassion or if it he simply didn’t know how to cry, how to let go of the emotions. It was a touching but uncomfortable moment. “I don’t know my father,” he said. “My father was Congolese, and he abandoned my mother. My mother is HIV positive.” P. had one arm which was thinner, weaker than the other. There was a long and ugly scar on it. He’d lost part of the use of that hand. He was self-conscious about it and would only wear long sleeves. As he cried, he said that he’d fallen from a tree a child and broken his arm, that the bone had been sticking out and infected. That the Tutsi doctor his mother took him to had refused to treat him because he was Hutu. I mostly believed him, but not fully, and I felt angry and confused with myself for doubting, for not knowing if he was opening up to me with a difficult experience, if he’d come by that wound in a different way that he was horrified by and didn’t want to tell, or if he was making up a story to get me to help him. I wondered how he managed to put things in the past. One of P.’s strongest dreams was to earn enough money to go someplace to fix his arm. His other big dream was to have a laptop computer so that he could earn his own money as a consultant.
In talking privately with R. one day, he told me that the Hutu were not as savvy as the Tutsi. That historically they were very easy to manipulate. That their nature was not to question, but to do as they were told. The Tutsi however, were headstrong and refused to be ruled over. He seemed to imply that it was right for the Tutsi to be in power, because the Hutu didn’t know how to handle it. He also told me that there had been massacres of Hutu, before the official genocide, that the Tutsis had not treated the Hutus fairly at all and had abused their authority, but that those things are not discussed. It dawned on me that maybe some of the historical elements of a class struggle were also present at the heart of this conflict, but I didn’t know enough to come to any kind of conclusions for myself. R. felt that there was a lot bubbling under the surface also, and that a culture of debate and dialogue needed to be learned so that these issues could be brought into the open.
L. even though she was 25, was the most innocent of the crew. She was very religious. A couple of weeks into my time there, she came to me one evening to tell me that she had gotten her period and was unprepared and could I help? I gave her a few tampons, thinking in the back of my mind that she might not normally use tampons. I was right. She came back asking how exactly they worked. I got out the little instruction pamphlet to show her the diagram. She seemed to still be quite unsure of what was going on. Finally she said “So you mean there are 2 holes!?” I’ll admit, my jaw dropped but I played if off nicely, and we sat for a long time, talking about female anatomy.
I went downtown with B. and J. one day to do the requisite souvenir shopping. Kigali was beautiful and clean. B. subtly commented, while praising Kagame, that the president was firm and strict. That he had mandated that every week (or maybe it was every month?) businesses shut down in the morning and cleaned their storefronts and the areas around the stores. Plastic bags were not allowed into the country by law so that trash would be controlled. Kigali was orderly and proper.
Not quite so the community where we were working, where the numbers of street children abounded. I’ve never been in a rural community with so many abandoned children living on the street. It was unsettling. Another disturbing and unanswered question…. why?
Once I got home, some of the group stayed in touch with me for awhile, P. and B. more than the others. Mostly because I had (against my normal policy) agreed to help P. buy a laptop if he gave me the money ahead of time. (He did, and I sent it to him) and it turned out that B. wanted support to get his visa to study in the US. (He sent money for me to help him get a student visa, I did, and he arrived to the US and promptly disappeared to Canada).
P. told me on g-chat one day that he was worried about things in Rwanda. I’d heard about the arrest of Rose Kabuye in France and asked him about it. He said there was a big rally, and that the government and telephone companies had sent everyone an SMS telling them that they were to shut down their businesses and attend. He said that things were getting difficult in Rwanda for journalists and free speech and that he needed to be cautious.
I haven’t been in touch with B. or P. or any of the group for quite awhile now, in part because things naturally fell off, and in part because I’m afraid to ask them what is happening there. But I have been watching with great interest the unfolding of the Rwanda situation… the assassinations of high level officials, the recent elections (Kagame winning 93% of the vote), and the most recent leak of a UN report stating that Hutus were potentially also victims of genocide perpetrated by the Rwandan Army (RPA).
I’m not a Rwanda expert, but it seems like that fragile smooth surface I witnessed a few years ago is cracking. I wonder what else will be revealed over time? I’ve lived and worked in countries in conflict and civil war before, yet Rwanda got under my skin in a strange and surreal way. Is it because the media has made me think and feel about it in a certain way, or because the genocide was so brutal and unthinkable, or was I sensing something hidden and bubbling quietly there, soon to reach boiling point and/or explosion?