Sunday, July 29, 2007

Life in Kibungo

Life in Kibungo seems worlds away from Kigali's sprawling suburbia. The drive itself is a transformation as you depart downtown Kigali with its massive American-embassy-in-progress that looks like it intends to cast a shadow over the surrounding hills and wind through the countryside. The bbrrrr of motorcycles gradually fades into the clickity-clank of bicycles, and the concrete fences topped with broken shards of Fanta bottles give way to enclosures made from tall reeds bound tightly together called imiyenzi. The roadsides are full of pedestrians. There are mothers in kitenge with babies bound tightly to their backs with colorful cloths-umbrellas raised at high noon to shade the tiny bobbing heads. Woman march to the market with their wares balanced expertly on their heads in great plastic tubs or cloth sacks. Boys labor on bicycles so over-loaded with bananas and pineapples that their bodies are obscured and it appears that the fruit is peddling on its own. Men sit on grassy embankments chewing stalks of sugar cane and eyeing passing cars like invading armies. And the sight that continues to disturb me-tiny children no older than three or four, wandering the roadside barefoot and alone. Houses here are gray concrete or mud and stick-almost all without electricity and water. People collect and pay for water at communal pumps in giant yellow jerricans and truck them home on their heads or on bicycles. The water isn't potable, but I can't imagine boiling such large quantities of water every day by fire.

I love the remoteness and the closeness to nature. I've often heard my grandfather, an organic farmer, speak of the Slow Food Movement, but it always seemed obscure to me. Slow Food is an ideology that celebrates the full life-cycle of crops. A carrot isn't simply an orange vegetable you buy pre-sliced and bagged at the supermarket. It's a tiny seed-planted, nurtured, weeded, and harvested by hand and then washed, peeled, and sliced before being savored by humble and appreciative taste buds. There's nothing but slow food here in Kibungo. Meals taste wonderful-not because the food is different (although eggs and fresh fruit taste worlds better)-but because we labor to make it. Milk is delivered straight from the cow every morning. We boil it to kill the bacteria, siphon off the thick cream, and drink it with breakfast-thick, filling, and 100 percent more flavorful than the watery excuse I force myself to drink at school. Bread isn't pulled from the freezer here, it's mixed, kneaded, left to rise, and baked fresh. Fruits and vegetables are either grown in our garden or negotiated for at the village market. I haven't had the heart to ask for meat, however, because I've been warned that the live chicken or goat will be brought home and butchered at our doorstep.

Mzee tends the garden and does some of the cleaning around the compound. He appears to be in his fifties and is so thin (I marvel that I can't see a trace of his legs beneath his cotton pants) that I wonder where all his strength comes from. He doesn't speak a word of English and has a sort of self-constructed version of French, so after we greet each other each morning in Kinyarwanda, its all smiles and gestures for the rest of the day. Last week, he taught me how to make bread-sweeping his hands around in great cloudy arks to signal me to pour more flour. I love to observe his resourcefulness. While gardening, if he needs another terrace for the cabbage patch, he hacks down a sapling with his machete, strips the tree, and drags it over to the garden. Mzee keeps three hand-made beehives up in the trees behind our house. He makes them out of hollowed out logs that he hangs from the upper branches. Once a month after sunset, he climbs the tree-feet and hands clamping the trunk like an inch worm, and smokes out the bees to get honey. We sat outside and watched one night. He carried a bucket, a long length of rope, a torch, and a machete up into the tree. It was too dark to see, but after the sudden humming of a thousand displaced bees, a shower of sparks, and the lowering of the bucket, Mzee climbed down and showed us the empty honeycomb he had sliced out. He explained that he had waited too long and the bees had already feasted on all the honey. Maria asked if he'd been stung and he grinned and nodded, turning his forearms over to show us the marks.

I've had a diverse array of bathing experiences while in Africa. On Kilimanjaro, I didn't wash at all. At the guest houses of Arusha and Kigali, I was pampered with hot showers or baths. But here in Kibungo, the bathing experience is my favorite. Every morning, I stand in a basin and pour cupfuls of water on my head. The air is warm, the water is warm, and it feels blissfully natural to be bathing this way. This is how humans have washed themselves for thousands of years and here I am at 21 trying it for the first time. I press my hand to my forehead like the brim of a hat to keep the soap from stinging my eyes-like I did so many times for Stella when she was a baby. When I'm all scrubbed and clean, I've only used a tenth of the water I might otherwise have in a high-powered shower back home.

Waste disposal is a problem in a country the size of Maryland with a surging population. President Kagame has even outlawed plastic bags-a move that is pure genius but would be viewed as a huge breach of the Bill of Rights back at home. We compost everything edible, and I'm speaking truthfully when I say that as a household, we produce only a half a bag of trash a week. It makes sense when you consider that there is no packaged food or supplies. We save and reuse everything from the milk jug to the yellow plastic phone cards we turn into flash cards for the class. I've been told it takes 28 days to build a habit. I'm curious to see whether any of these newly acquired and environmentally conscious behaviors will stick when I return to the states.

Another difference between the city and the countryside is the complete absence of muzungos. Beside Mama Jean, Robin, and myself, I'm aware of only one other white person living in the area. She's a British headmaster training Rwandan school administrators in the area. I've glimpsed her twice, met her once, and though she was perfectly nice, our conversation confirmed my suspicion that most muzungos are territorial of remote African villages in which they are the sole pale novelty.

Because of the color of my skin, I've grown accustomed to the stares, laughs, and shouts when I walk or drive by. I have to figure that most of the young children in the remotest of villages have only seen whites several times in their lives, because what else can justify the shrieks of "MUZUNGO!"? That's like screaming "ALBINO!" every time you see a person with that skin affliction. It's shocking, hilarious, and a little disconcerting to be on the receiving end of such targeted racial commentary (the word muzungo isn't a racial slur, but it certainly isn't polite either.) Never in my life have I experienced so completely what it feels like to be a minority. Of course, being a minority with celebrity status is an entirely different thing, but there are times I wish I could just blend in.

Maria and I have started jogging several nights a week. At first, we ran on the main road, but the reactions of the people were so alarming that we decided to pick another route. Pedestrians would literally stop in their tracks and stare and shopkeepers would come out of their shops and stand in the doorways. I felt like a zoo animal on display. So we started jogging on a dirt road near the LWF compound. The reaction of the people was no different, but there were more children than adults there and I enjoyed observing the homes and life-styles of the families as we passed by. Often the kids would come out of their compounds to watch us, and one day they began running after us. If you've ever been chased by a large pack of children, it's a truly frightening experience. I caught a surge of adrenaline and was ready to sprint away, but Maria was visibly winded so we kept our pace. To my surprise, the children caught up with us and slowed down, silently running along side while looking up at me with wide eyes. Maria giggled and I looked down to see a tiny boy who had managed to squeeze himself in the small space between us. His arms were pressed flat to his sides and he shrunk up his shoulders to fit in the gap-running like a tiny little pole. It was too funny. We continued like that for about a half mile before the children dropped out one by one, as silently as they'd come.

It's the dry season in Rwanda, which means we haven't seen a drop of rain in the five weeks I've been here. As Maria and I jog, we kick up orange clouds of dusty dirt-coloring our skin and our clothes an earthy tone. My sinuses suffer, and even letting down my dust-coated hair at night prompts a sneezing fit. Post exercise, I wash-rivets of orange streaming down my legs into the murky water I stand in. Afterward, dinner preparations-washing, pealing, slicing, boiling, steaming, serving, eating.washing, drying, stacking. sighing, sitting, chatting, reading, sleeping. There are no shortcuts to life in Kibungo. We're beyond lucky to have running water, electricity (at times), and a stove and refrigerator-not to mention shelves of books on faith, war, genocide, peace, poverty, fantasy, and fiction.

A few hundred yards away, a dim candle lights a mud room, and a woman tends a low-burning fire-feeding sliced matoke, garlic, and beans into the boiling water as her children play quietly around her. It's only 6:30, but the sunlight has fled, and along with it, the useable hours of the day. It's early to bed, early to rise in this household. No books, no lights, no laptop computers, just family, friends, a few goats and chickens, a cherished plot of land, hard work, and dreams.

Rwanda for me is a brief cultural emersion-like playing house or a family vacation to an isolated log cabin. It's fun, but it's finite, and perhaps that's the reason I can enjoy it. It's no passing experience for the students I teach and the people that gawk as I jog by. That's a truth that is hard to fully appreciate. Maybe an opportunity for a better life won't come for these people. Maybe the closest thing is a free English lesson three times a week with some crazy muzungos that smile so much their mouth is likely to get stuck like that-acting like the world doesn't have problems.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

TIA- This is Africa

It’s been three weeks since the setting of my last blog entry and the chronological congestion has been preying on my conscious like a lie I need to come clean about. I’m no longer living in Kigali, but am staying in a house at the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) compound in Kibungo, Rwanda. My cousin, Robin, and an American volunteer named Jean, arrived in Rwanda on July 7th. Robin and her husband, Pastor John, live at the LWF in Kibungo, and her project of building a secondary school is the reason I am here this summer. Robin is fun and fearless, with an inspiring ability to understand and assimilate into foreign cultures. She spent 8 years as a teacher in Japan, and for the first part of my life, I knew her only vicariously though the stories of my older sister, Helen, who visited her there. It has been wonderful to get to know her in this setting, and she is a natural teacher—both inside and outside the classroom. Jean is a tiny grandmother from Harrisonburg, Virginia, with more spunk and hutzpah than her compact height suggests. Now in her sixties, she has returned to school to get a college degree and is studying religion and community organization at James Madison University. She’s full of funny stories and has more stored-up knowledge than an almanac. With the addition of two such vibrant figures, the group dynamic has changed dramatically, and Maria and I find ourselves swept into long post-dinner discussions about liturgy, culture clashes, and puppy (or rather owner) training.

Contrary to how it may appear in this diary, I did not come to Africa to climb snow-capped equatorial mountains and sight-see. I came on a grant sponsored by the 100 Projects for Peace Foundation to catalogue, label, and assemble a small library in Rwamagana, Rwanda. Like many countries in Africa, Rwanda has an appalling shortage of books. There is not a single public library in the country (although one is currently being constructed in Kigali) and the only bookstore I’ve heard of is a Christian bookstore in downtown Kigali. It seems as if a person’s best chance to study English is by reading a bible (the only book readily available here) or surfing the net. For a country with an enormous potential to develop and with such a divisive past to overcome, education—and especially a command of the English language is critical. The people and the government know this all too well. The Rwandan government is increasingly pushing the Rwandan people to pursue the English language, and the push is hardly needed—everyone I’ve met here appreciates the value of education and embraces it whole-heartedly as a means to escape poverty and improve the lifestyles of their families.

For the past six months, I’ve been purchasing, collecting, and shipping books and supplies for a library that will be a part of the secondary school Robin is building here. She plans to commence classes in January of 2008, but as of now, there are no physical buildings. My summer goal is to collect all the boxes of books from the Kigali Post Office and truck them to Kibungo, where I can catalog, label, and organize them all into big boxes than can be easily transplanted onto library shelves in Rwamagana when the time comes.

I’ve encountered one major problem in my plans…the books and most of the materials haven’t arrived here in Rwanda yet. The first shipment of two thousand pounds of books was mailed from California in March. The second shipment of books, I sent from the Lexington Post Office in April, and the library supplies were shipped priority from Harrisonburg in early June. All of the books were sent via m-bag delivery—a method of shipment for paper-products only that costs about a fifth of the standard shipping price and purports to take 6-8 weeks for delivery. You cannot purchase shipping insurance on m-bags, nor can you track shipments, but Robin has used this method frequently and has never had any trouble…until now. Once a week, I take a bus from Kibungo to Kigali to check our P.O. Box. I’m confident that the books will arrive sometime soon, and I’ve adopted the acronym from the movie, Blood Diamond, to cope with the delay…TIA—“this is Africa”.

Luckily, I sent some books and materials in Robin and Jean’s luggage because their airline permitted 50 more pounds than British Airways allowed me. So I have about 50 books, a stack of DVDs, a few bags of science and math-related instruments, and some art supplies that Robin collected to catalog. I have no prior experience with setting up libraries and am teaching myself as I go from two books—the first is a massive volume on Dewey Decimal System classifications, and the second is a thinner book titled, Small Library Cataloging. I teach Maria as I teach myself so the project will be sustainable. I’m incredibly fortunate that she’s here, can speak fluent English, and truly wants to learn. Thankfully, many of the skills will be useful to her in life. This week, I taught her how to use Microsoft Excel—how to enter data, how to sort columns alphabetically, how to classify a title starting with a conjunction, e.g. Wrinkle in Time, A. and where to find the Dewey Decimal classification in books with newer copyrights. I’ve purchased two lap-top computers and a printer for the library and am showing her how to use them as well. Some of the grant money has been set aside to pay a student-librarian for a three-year work study position. If the books don’t arrive soon, it looks like Maria will either fill this position herself, or I’ll allot a portion of the money to pay her to train someone after I’m gone.

But even without the books, I’ve found that life has mysterious ways of working itself out, and my time here has been incredibly fulfilling. Robin was summoned back to America after only a week back in Rwanda to complete her missionary training, and Jean and I have taken over teaching her English class. After my teaching experience last summer in South Africa, I thought I’d never get to make this statement again, but teaching this class in Rwamagana is most inspiring thing I’ve ever done.

The inspiration starts with Robin. As if spearheading the planning, fundraising for, and construction of a secondary school isn’t enough work for one person, for the past six months, she has been travelling the hour-long distance to Rwamagana three days a week to offer free English classes to those who truly wish to learn. She is not discriminatory about age, and the class ranges from a nine-year old girl that comes after her primary school lets out to a married mother of six. After a few weeks of teaching, so many people started showing up for her class that she had to start turning some away. The current roll-call is 42 students, all of whom pack into a small classroom with equivalently small chairs at a local primary school. There are electricians, farmers, pastors, college hopefuls, and many unemployed persons in the class—all of whom view English as their ticket out of poverty. It’s a sobering inspiration to think about the hope and determination of these people compared to the way in which many Americans (myself included) take education for granted. Only a small handful have had the chance to attend secondary school, whereas there was never even a doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t attend college. These people survived a genocide, picked up the pieces of their lives, and somehow found enough determination to return to school to learn a language that is barely spoken in their country, but holds the promise of a new beginning. I have no idea if any of them will be able to make those changes—if they’ll learn enough English to communicate well or if they’ll be able to find jobs in such a dry market, but I do know that even if only for a few weeks, I’m lucky to be a part of their lives.

More on the class, various marriage proposals, and other funny experiences I’ve had during these past few weeks later.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Forth of July

On the fourth of July, I woke early and stepped into the claw-foot bathtub of the Kigali guest house—conscious that I would be doing the exact same thing a half a world away if I were home in America. Every fourth, we drive to the family’s organic farm in Brewster, New York for our annual reunion of scattered cousins, heavy eating, and dynamic games of Hell and Dictionary. The old Sycamore farm house was built in 1795 and hasn’t changed in nearly as long, with its low wood ceilings, ancient horse-hair furniture, and faded daguerreotypes of scowling ancestors. Each year, crossing the threshold feels like stepping into a portal into the past, and as kids, our imaginations ran wild. We’d put on plays for the adults in the great sitting room. Most involved ghosts, and all ended in death or despair—which is how we imagined life was in those days. In the upstairs bathroom is a deep claw-foot bathtub, which takes about an hour to fill. As I lay submerged in the tub in Kigali, I let my mind drift across the ocean to Ryder farm. It would still be night time there, but I knew what the morning would bring—little cousins to the chicken coops to collect eggs and then to the pastures to watch the sheep dogs at work and a bustling kitchen of elder cousins making rhubarb pies, smoked ham, deviled eggs, steamed vegetables, and my favorite—a giant American flag cake, iced in white with fifty blueberry stars and stripes of sliced strawberries.

Submerged in the bath water, I occupied the nexus between my two worlds, but right outside my window was the hypnotic beating of cow skin drums, spirited singing, and honking taxi buses on the street. Rwanda also celebrates its Independence Day on July 4th—the day that the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) swept into Kigali and secured the capital city from the genocide. Already, crowds were streaming down the streets to the stadium, where the cultural events were to be held.

Egide had put me in touch with a friend of his, Senator Gasamagera, so that I might have an official invitation to the stadium events and sit in the dignitary section. I kindly refused the Senator’s offer so Maria and I could sit together. We knew we had to get to the ceremony early, but when we reached the stadium an hour and a half before the start, guards had formed a barricade at the gate to prevent more people from getting in. The crowd swelled as people packed in to see what the congestion was all about. To my surprise, the guards swung their batons in wide swipes in front of them, and I heard a crack as one made contact with a boy’s back. Maria and I held hands to stay together, but we were being shoved around and were packed so closely with others that it was difficult to breathe. I knew crowds of people, like rushing water, have incredible power and I was fearful we would be crushed or trampled. Suddenly, there were shouts as people broke through the police barricade. Like a dam breaking, the crowd started pouring through the gate. It was all I could do to stay on my feet and retain my grip of Maria’s hand. A policeman seized my arm as I passed, but Maria jerked me away and we somehow fought our way out of the stampede.

Once inside the gate, however, our hope of entering faded. There were 18 entrances, and all were blocked by armed guards and sustained massive crowds of pushing people. Only those with official invitations could pass. A rumor spread that an opposite entrance was admitting people to sit on the field, and I thought of the wildebeest herds in the Serengeti as the crowds blindly took off running to the gate. Those who remained were either elderly or had young children. Maria and I stood to the side, watching as people in fancy suits or beautiful umukenyero (the traditional dress of women) raised their white envelopes above their heads and pushed through. I called the Senator’s cell phone, hoping to get help, but he didn’t answer. As Maria and I sat there watching the gate proceedings, the head guard shouted “mzungu” [white person] and beckoned me over. He asked if I had an invitation and I responded that I did (small lie) but I couldn’t get in touch with Senator Gasamegera. He seemed to believe me so I gestured toward Maria and said she was my friend and translator. He nodded curtly and shouted for the crowd to make way. I felt guilty as we pushed through—knowing that my white skin was the only reason we were being admitted, but it was a relief to be inside and we found good seats in the shade to wait for the start of the ceremony.

For hours we watched the parade of soldiers, policemen, security forces, and marching bands. Later came a procession of students, teachers, and the private sector. I laughed aloud as businessmen and women traipsed behind a huge banner that literally read, “private sector”. Next, traditional dancers, drummers, and a sequence of orating poets performed their various arts. When President Kagame and the ministers came in, the stadium seemed to gyrate with excitement. Spectators were packed like sardines on the field as well as in the stands, and I heard someone comment that there were 42 thousand people packed into that stadium meant for 25 thousand.

By the overwhelming number of soldiers and policemen participating, it seemed like the intended message of the demonstrations was one of strength and safety, but Maria and I were both surprised by the final military demonstration. After a series of karate simulations performed at the center line, troops ran out onto the field and erected five white targets. Next, soldiers were called onto the field to demonstrate how they might kill these ‘enemies’ by using only common garden tools and everyday supplies. Maria and I watched in confusion, and then horror, as one by one, they hurled machetes, hoes, pick axes, shovels, scythes, and kitchen knives at the targets. As each was embedded into the center with an echoing thud, the MC shouted comments like “Got him!” and “He’s dead!” Some people laughed nervously and others remained stony-faced. These were exactly the killing tactics used in the genocide, and for an Independence Day celebration, it seemed like an incredibly tactless and insensitive simulation.

Last in the line-up, Paul Kagame spoke. Maria translated his words as I arched my neck to glimpse his thin frame at the podium. It was an eloquent speech, though tame in fervor. He spoke about the great distance Rwanda has come since the time of the genocide, and what more it hopes to achieve in the coming years. One part in particular stood out to me. Kagame lamented that the Western world still sees Africa as only a charity case—like a sick child in need of guidance and care, instead of recognizing the great contributions Africa can make and the lessons it can teach. I found myself considering Kagame’s message carefully. It is true that almost all of the Westerners I’ve seen on the continent are either tourists seeking to glimpse primitive lifestyles or wild animals, missionaries hoping to spread the Christian faith, or aid workers. But am I any different? Here I am, thrilled by the Maasai’s cow-skin pouch of blood, elated by the serenity of a cheetah slinking through the elephant grass, and living among Lutheran missionaries, while my personal purpose here in Rwanda is to organize a small library for a school in a rural Rwandan town. It practically stinks of that Western oxymoron, the preservationist/development-minded philanthropist ideology that is rather like saving fish from drowning (Amy Tan). But what sets me apart, I tell myself, is that I know that when all’s said and done, I’m the one who is receiving the greatest gift. No matter how many English phrases I teach or books I catalog, I will come away from this experience with a set of life lessons that no college seminar could ever teach me.

Behind us in the stands was a group of five Americans. I felt bad that they had no one to translate the fast-paced Kinyarwanda, so I turned around and smiled, “Happy Forth of July!” Excited to talk with an American on this day in particular, I struck up a conversation with an older woman wearing an American flag vest from Minnesota. She asked me what brought me to Rwanda. The library is something I feel pretty uncomfortable speaking about because any way I phrase it, it always sounds self-righteous. With Kagame’s words echoing in my head, I explained a little about the project. “So you’re a part of the solution,” the woman stated, approvingly. Changing the subject, I asked her why she was visiting Rwanda. She gestured to her group and very seriously explained, “We are here for a week, helping with the malaria and AIDS problem in Rwanda.” I know she had the best of intentions, but I cringed inside, deeply conscious of the English-speaking Rwandans around me. Later, Maria and I recapped the conversation and laughed at the conviction with which she spoke. And here for only one week! To be sure, it’s a noble cause and a serious problem, but our brief exchange typified the Western mentality that Kagame spoke about and I felt sad for my fellow Americans who can’t possibly know better than to share her same outlook on Africa.

After the ceremony were a series of soccer matches, starting with the Government ministers against the private sector—an idea I thought was brilliant and would make the world a lot more interesting if problems were solved in this way. Maria and I were starving and the matches weren’t scheduled to begin for a while, so we set off to find a distant Kigali suburb with a well-reputed Chinese restaurant. We sat outside under red paper lanterns, clinking chopsticks and listening to blaring Celine Dion and Boyz-2-Men songs until our bellies were sated and our ears were ringing. Rwanda has a very severe power problem, and when we left the restaurant, all of the street lights were out to accommodate the lighting needs of the stadium. There wasn’t a single mini-bus to be found, so we stumbled for a couple miles down the pitch-black streets until we reached a lighted area and took a bus back to the guest house. This Forth of July definitely broke the mold of family reunion feasts at the farm, but it left me with plenty to think about concerning what it means to be American and how that appears to others.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

New cousin

On Saturday the 1st of July, I was writing in my room at the Beausejour when an employee knocked to tell me I had a visitor. It was my third such visit because my Rwandan contacts in the States had been enormously kind and have made sure that family and friends are checking in on me every so often. I slipped on my shoes and walked out to the garden where I saw a Rwandan girl about my age sitting at a table. I knew immediately that she was Maria, the adopted daughter of my mother’s cousin, Robin, and her husband, Pastor John Rutsindintwarane. We shook hands, smiled shyly, and sat down to get to know each other. As I’m apt to do in all awkward situations, I began to talk quite a lot and laugh just as much. Maria was the opposite, smiling sweetly and patiently answering my volley of questions. She speaks wonderful English because she studies in Uganda, though she’s taking the year off to do an independent study of French and English reading. We hit it off immediately and have been constant companions for the past two weeks. Some quick calculating determined we were second cousins, and we immediately began introducing each other as such. The amusement we get from people’s shocked expressions as they examine our skin tones and speculate (often not so subtly) about the circumstances of our family ties is endless.

On Sunday, Maria asked me to attend church with her. Full of curiosity, I agreed and chose the Kinyarwanda service over the English one. From the Beausejour, we hoped on motorbike taxis for the bumpy ride to the Lutheran church. There were only about 30 people in the congregation, but practically all came over to welcome us and shake my hand. Maria translated the pastor’s sermon for me, which was about forgiveness and alluded frequently to the genocide. I studied the faces around me, searching for traces of emotion or discomfort, but found little to read. It was a sermon that could have been preached in any country, but it held an obvious gravity in this space and time. For me—new to Rwanda with a million unanswered questions bouncing in my head, it was a tumultuous forty-five minutes. Maria whispered translations as if she were narrating a story that was not her own, and I realized I know nothing about what it truly means to forgive.

The music of the service was lovely. Both the adult and children’s’ choirs were small but sang beautifully in a distinctly African way. Afterward, there was more mingling and I found myself in a long conversation with the bishop’s son who attends university in Ethiopia. He asked me where I was from and when I said Virginia, I was surprised when he placed it by referencing the shootings at Virginia Tech. It was the second time in a week a stranger had associated Virginia with the tragedy, and it made me think about the unbalanced power of media in the world. Here was a country in the heart of Africa that knew all about the Virginia school shooting, while we had buried their genocide in the backs of our papers and newscasts—just as we are now doing with Darfur.

During the next two days, Maria and I explored the city—both by the cheap but packed mini-buses and on foot through the various wards. On Monday, we lounged by the pool at the Mille Colline—straining to feel the anxiety of twelve hundred refugees against the happy splashes of European children. Tuesday brought us to the Genocide Museum, where we made the slow and painful journey down the halls of the narrative history, through the rooms of skulls, femurs, and tibias, and into the chamber displaying the profiles of murdered children…

Name: Innocent
Age: 3
Favorite food: mango
Method of death: decapitation by machete

Upstairs were separate rooms dedicated to past genocides—Namibia, Armenia, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia. Outside was a mass grave, and I watched from afar as families came and placed flowers on the giant tomb.

Afterward, we walked back down the red dirt path to the main road and tried to readjust to reality and the light of day. When I was little and woke up in the middle of the night from a bad dream, I would turn on the radio to listen to the comforting voice of my mother murmuring the news over the airwaves or the fast-paced prattle of the commercials. My mom’s voice served as a protective shield from the demons of my dreams, while the commercials were equally comforting as a reminder that the world was still spinning. As we walked away from the genocide museum, I found similar asylum from the horrors I had witnessed in the eager curiosity of the neighborhood children. They flocked toward us, shouting out “MUZUNGU” [that which gets red in the sun…i.e. white person] in high-pitched squeals. “Bonjour,” they sang out. I started to respond in French, but they had caught my hesitation and expertly ventured, “Hello!” I answered, “Hello, how are you?” knowing well the sequence of English greetings that all African children are taught. “I’M FINE!” They shrieked in unison and scattered as quickly as they’d come. Right then, I needed those children and their unabashed curiosity. They were a strong symbol of the Rwanda I’d been marveling at all week—the clean, growing, accessible, and often impeccably dressed city of Kigali. The present-day Rwanda is worlds different from the one at the time of the genocide. It seems to be full of hope and promise. To be sure, divisions are still present, but most are much too subtle or foreign for me to pick up. Every so often, I get a chill from the unsmiling stares of the older generations (something I never experienced in any of the other four African countries I’ve visited) but children are the future, as the cliché goes, and Rwanda’s future is strong and affable.