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.