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.

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