Rwanda: Colonialists in Kigali (reading Peter Nazareth and Benjamin Sehene)
November 9, 2007 – Kigali, Rwanda
Woke up early in Addis and got a cab to the airport. Spent the last of our Ethiopian birrs at the airport buying stuff, including a hand-bound little book in Amharic script with a bark cover. Catching the plane was interesting. You really have to be paying attention, there are no signs or announcements telling where you go, you just have to keep asking and keep your eye out for a movement of people and not get swept up in the wrong tide of stampeding passengers. Managed to get on the right plane. It was about a 2 or 3 hour flight here to Rwanda.
On the plane I finished reading In the Trickster Tradition by Peter Nazareth, which analyzes the trickster tradition in African-Diaspora writers, concentrating on Andrew Salkey, Franic Ebejar and Ishmael Reed. Okay, I lied, I started skimming it towards the end. Some interesting insight and comparisons are offered between these and other writers of African descent, but it was too scattered and academic for me. As the title implies, I was interested to learn of the trickster tradition in African literature, but very little was said about that. Then again, I haven't read Salkey, Ebejar or Reed, so if you are more familiar with their works, this book might be more interesting.
I tried to find a book by a Rwanda writer before I left, but couldn't get anything. There's Benjamin Sehene, but I couldn't find any of his books in English, though he has this blog that he posted a few of his stories to. Sehene is a Rwandan whose family fled Rwanda long before the genocide and returned in 1994 in the aftermath. The first story is his observations upon return.
We got picked up at the airport and taken to someone's house who works on the project. From now on, I'll just call everything a Project and a Site, as that's how it seems to be with the ex-pats and white NGO (non-governmental organization) workers here. In stark contrast to the Ethiopia site (which had all local Ethiopians working there), the Rwandan site consists mostly of white ex-pats who have nice houses and cars. We wanted to stay in a hotel, but they insisted we stay here. They have security guards, a cook, a maid, etc. and we are told by the other ex-pats staying here that we should utilize their services because we are giving them a job. But I feel uncomfortable having people clean up after me. It's colonial logic. Here we are living in luxury, with running hot water, etc. Meanwhile within a mile of here there are people carrying plastic jugs to fetch water, which is surely not potable. And the whole point of them being here is to advocate for things like running water, shelter, food, etc. How can you truly understand their problems unless you live like them?
Almost every white person you see here works for some sort of NGO or relief organization, and while their intentions are good and there is lots of aid pumping into this country, is it doing any good unless you are encouraging sustainability and non-reliance on foreign intervention? Their argument is that you can't find reliable workers in Rwanda as all the educated Tustis fled. Even if it was true, it's circular logic. Rather than train and entrust them to rebuild and sustain themselves, they are working as part of a system that will continue to encourage reliance on foreigners.
The first night we went out to eat at Indian Khazana, which was really good, though we ordered everything on the mild side because we were with a Rwandan, and they aren't too keen on spicy food here. The atmosphere was really nice, open air with a waterfall in the restaurant. Most of the clientele were ex-pats and the waiters wore these ridiculous uniforms that, again, made it all seem so colonial.
Rwanda: the Genocide Memorial and Off to Ruhengeri
November 10, 2007 – Ruhengeri, Rwanda
Woke up and went to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which was very informative and well-done, but obviously depressing. We went with this nice woman working on the project who is from Kenya. Kind of an awkward thing to do with someone you don't know very well. There are these mass graves on the grounds with 250,000 bodies from Kigali alone. While it is not as graphic as the Nyamata memorial, where the bodies were left exposed as they died, the sheer number is staggering when you look at all the concrete tombs. Then we went on to the second floor of the museum, which covers genocide in general: Nazi Germany, Armenia, Cambodia, etc.
The first floor was all about Rwanda. What is most striking about Rwanda in comparison to the other genocides is the level of public involvement. The other "genocides" were for the most part systematic operations carried out by governmental forces or armies, victims were herded off to camps shielded from the public eye, etc. But in Rwanda, it all happened in the streets for everyone to see. It was more spontaneous then calculated. And if you were Hutu and not a part of it, you risked becoming a victim. But if there is any blame to be placed, it is on the Belgians who systematically segregated the Hutu and Tutsi populations to their advantage, and the rest of the world who did nothing as this all took place. Rwanda is a product of colonialism. It is a sad situation.
It is hard to not travel around Rwanda and not think about the atrocities committed here 13 years ago. I can't imagine the mind set of the Rwandans, weather you are Hutu or Tutsi. When you walk the streets or ride the bus, you can't help but to look around and look at every person and wonder what they were doing in 1994. Whether they were Tutsi and had to flee and come back, or lost family members, or whether they were Hutu and were swept up in the hysteria of the violence in a participatory way to save themselves. I can't imagine what would be harder to live with. It is not something you can ask them about or that they appear to talk openly about. We have met a few Tutsis who left for Uganda and came back post-1994, but you can only assume the rest. The collective psychological mind set of Rwanda is unfathomable to me. On the outside, everything appears relatively fine. Kigali has been rebuilt and everyone has been living in relative unison since. Citizens are no longer labeled as Tutsi or Hutu on their identity cards, and are encouraged to think of themselves as Rwandan, but those are deep, deep scars that will be hard to forget.
A sobering way to start the day for sure. Afterwards we went to a crafts market and walked around Kigali, though there is not much to see here.
We caught a 2 pm bus to Ruhengeri. The whole bus situation is pretty funny. Even if you buy your tickets in advance it doesn't mean you get a seat. You wait around in this empty lot for a bus to show up, and then everybody stampedes to get on it. Shoot first and ask questions later. If you take the time to ask if it's the right bus, then you'll miss out on getting a seat. We clawed our way onto one bus only to find out it wasn't the right one. Fought our way onto the next one, and it was going to Ruhengeri. The buses are not full-sized, maybe ten rows, but every available space is used. Seats fold into the aisles up next to the driver's stickshift and in the stairwell of the bus. Once we were situated, it was a great time. We climbed higher and higher, through the rolling green hills of Rwanda, which is almost entirely farmland of some sort or another. Rwanda is the most densely populated of the African countries, every available space is used. We passed through terraced fields of maize, bananas, tea, sugarcane, etc. There were also a lot of eucalyptus groves (presumably for paper) and the branches often held these cylindrical banana-leaf wrapped bee hives.
Once we got to Ruhengeri, we negotiated a cab to our hotel, the Gorilla's nest, which is a nice hotel up near the ORTPN (the Rwandan tourist office where you meet for the gorilla tours). We were up in in the mountains surrounded by high volcanoes and it was chilly.
We were hanging out in the hotel bar having a drink, when I heard distant drumming and singing. In the distance I saw a troupe of dancers. As I went back to our room to get my video camera, I passed them. They paraded through the hotel grounds and then stopped in the middle courtyard area where they basically performed for Jess and I and their teacher. Evidently they were from a nearby school. It was quite a spontaneous treat. Here are some videos I took of it. The little girls in the blue dresses could really move!
Four people that worked on the project met us at the hotel (they drove up in an SUV). We had dinner, a choice of goat or pork, that was awful. Went to bed early excited for the day to come...
(c) 2007 Derek White