Friday, August 31, 2007

Live radio interview on my summer in Rwanda...

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Uganda travels

Robin’s return to Rwanda in early August brought a sad end to my teaching duties. In addition, I had cataloged every paper-clip and pipe-cleaner donated to the Rwanda School Project and the absence of library books left me restless and itching for adventure. So Maria and I decided to take a trip to Rwanda’s northern neighbor to check on an ailing friend, visit Maria’s sister, Jenny, and travel to the source of the mighty Nile River.

On Friday, August 3rd, we packed our bags and caught a bus to Kigali. After purchasing tickets for the 7:30 am bus to Kampala, we took motorcycle taxis to the home of our host for the evening—a cousin of Pastor John’s. Her four children had all been raised in Canada, but had returned to Rwanda last year to spend time in their native country. Although they knew and loved Maria, the children grew shy at the arrival of a stranger in their home. Determined to break the ice, I pulled out my camcorder which was wrapped in a kitenge and announced a game of 20 Questions to see what was inside. They began timidly, but soon shed their inhibitions.

Is it blue? “NO!” Is it hard? “YES!” Can you eat it? “NO!”

It took about 30 questions, but no one was counting. At the winning guess, I revealed the camera and began taking footage of the giddy little actors cart-wheeling and somersaulting all over the house, pausing to play back the clips to the tangle of eager bodies. It’s a fail-safe tactic and by the time we settled down to watch a sing-along movie for the three youngest, I had children crawling all over me.

At dinner, I was introduced to another Rwandan staple food which I soon came to love—ugali. It’s a sticky mound made from slowly stirring cassava flour into boiling water. You pull pieces off with your hands, roll it in flavorful sauce, and pop it into your mouth. After dinner, Maria and I headed to bed because we had to be up early for the bus. As I settled down to read my book, I permitted one of the small boys to play with my hair because he assured me that he was an experienced braider. After fifteen minutes of strange tugging, I put my hand up to feel his handiwork and discovered that he had tied most of my hair into tight knots. I winced in pain as Maria ripped them out with a comb, but I had to laugh at my gullibility that a boy of six years could braid hair. We shared a bedroom with the three eldest children, and soon discovered their secret habit of staying up all night. Maria and I spent a sleepless night grunting and turning from their attempts to wake us by shining flashlights in our eyes. In the morning, we groggily caught a taxi to the bus station and climbed aboard for the 12-hour ride to Kampala.

I’d been warned that these long-haul bus rides were dangerous, but I felt conditioned after five weeks of crazy mini-bus drivers. The trip was decent enough to the Rwandan border, but once across, the driver took off like a bat out of hell. Maria and I gripped the seat backs as we steamed through towns and skidded around bends. The driver laid on the horn incessantly and children and goats scattered before us. A woman seated in front of me opened her window and vomited outside. She hadn’t bothered to check if our window was also open (thank goodness it wasn’t) and as the throw-up streaked horizontally across the glass, I concluded that she had never been instructed of the laws of physics—another reason why a good education is critical for everyone. We slowed only once…to observe the chaos surrounding an overturned cattle truck. Farmers were slaughtering the cows too injured to walk, and I turned away as they began to slit their bellowing throats.

From the fast-forwarded screen of my window, Rwanda’s rolling hills gave way to gentle ripples of land. The Ugandan county side displayed a brilliant spectrum of green flora—from the dark patches of bean plants to the light neon of tea plantations. Mud and stick houses dotted the land and an abundance of small children teetered around, always barefoot and sometimes naked. At fuel stops, Uganda’s teaming entrepreneurial spirit showed itself as young boys and girls rushed to the bus windows holding up goat meat kabobs—skewered on strong reeds, baskets of roasted bananas and corn, and folded hot chapatti (like fluffy flour crepes). I abandoned my traveler’s instinct and bought us two cobs of maize and two steaming bananas for the equivalent of five cents.

An hour from Kampala, Maria and I stepped off the bus in a town called Nsangi. It didn’t look like much, but this was where Jenny (Maria’s sister) attended boarding school, and we trudged down the dirt road with our packs to the school gate. In addition to seeing Jenny, our plan was to save money by convincing the head master to let us spend the night. While Maria lobbied the administration on our behalf, Jenny offered me a tour of the school grounds. After observing and working in some decrepit public schools in Africa, this private school was a breath of fresh air. The grounds were clean and pleasantly landscaped, the classrooms roomy and decently-equipped, and there was even an outdoor swimming pool and a soccer pitch with grass! Maria returned with our permission to stay, and we washed up and headed over to the cafeteria for dinner. A rumor had spread that there was a new muzungo student, and all 500 sets of eyes were on me as we passed through the serving line of rice, ugali, and beans. As curious boys and girls came up to greet us, we played along with the rumor for a while before confessing that we were just weekend visitors.

After dinner, a projector was brought out for a movie and we pulled our plastic chairs up to watch. The chosen film was a horror flick about an American college spring break gone wrong. Seated in the center of a cluster of girls—I sucked on a Blow Pop someone had handed me and mused over my situation. I once watched Schindler’s List with two German friends. I knew that they probably had no more sympathy for the Nazi regime than I did myself, but still it was an agonizing experience for me. What were they thinking? What were they thinking I was thinking? The incident helped me realize that nothing can be fully understood in isolation—just as a word, a symbol, or even a blog can take on different meanings for different people. Enjoying an American horror flick isn’t exactly like rocking a confederate flag or a swastika, but I found that something that I could view with careless abandon in the States with my friends suddenly demanded a heightened awareness. What were they wearing? What cars were they driving? Why the over-exuberance for the “f” word? How did the African students watching this feel? Minus the gore and killing, I felt I was watching a version of my own social life in America through the eyes of an African teenager, and the new perspective distressed me a little.

Following the movie, we headed off to the dormitory. Jenny’s dorm was a giant concrete room with 38 sets of bunk beds and consequently, zero privacy. Maria and I shared Jenny’s twin-sized top bunk, and some of the girls were afraid of the dark, so the electric light directly above us remained lit all night. I had my fifth consecutive asthma attack and needless to say, Maria and I didn’t get much sleep.

The next morning, we hugged Jenny and other new friends goodbye and caught a crowded taxi to Kampala. The city both excited and disgusted me. It was enormous with a zillion smells, sounds, shops, and people milling about, but the streets were filthy. Heaps of trash, veritable streams of sewage, and clouds of exhaust fumes made navigating the city on foot a complicated dance of leaps, side-steps, and nose-plugged rushes. We decided to continue east to the town of Jinja at the source of the Nile, so we fought through a sea of honking taxis and insistent drivers at the park till we found one headed in our direction.

In Jinja, we found a guest house based on messy notes I had jotted down from the travel guide of a Korean tourist I had schmoozed on the bus from Kigali. Maria and I had made no reservations or even concrete plans for our travels in Uganda, and were pretty much making decisions by whim. [This, by the way, is not the best idea in Africa, but we are young, penniless, and easily amused.] After heaving our packs onto the bed and checking under it and in the closets for hiding mass murderers, we set out to explore Jinja on foot. It was a spirit-soaring day with just enough breeze to temper the heat of the African sun and an exciting tease of grey clouds on the horizon like the rains might come right when you were least prepared. From our hill-top hotel, the Nile glittered like a melting icicle in the green valley beyond the city limits. It was impossible to tell how far away it really was, but I suggested we walk to the banks and touch its hallowed waters. Dear Maria was game, as always.

Jinja was a bustling little town where just about everyone seemed to have something to sell. Some of the buildings looked recent, but most were shells from the colonial days—crumbling yet picturesque. It reminded me a bit of the Portuguese influence I observed in Mozambique, although Uganda was formerly a British colony. There was an obvious Indian presence in the town reflected in the wafting curry smells and the ethnicity of many of the merchants. Maria and I walked down the streets, shaking our heads at the hissing motorcycle drivers (hissing isn’t rude here but is a means of getting one’s attention) and the begging children who had spotted a possible benefactor in the paleness of my arm. Gradually, quant shops fell away to hollow factories and we found ourselves in the industrial outskirts of the town. We were walking through what seemed to be a junkyard of cars, still following the straight road that promised to take us to the banks of the Nile. All around us were men—elbow-deep in greasy engines like male mid-wives delivering baby machinery. One by one, they picked their heads up and stared at us—cat-calling and making kissing sounds as we passed. Like peacocks unwillingly on display, our bright clothing accentuated us against the black and brown and gray of the stock yard, and a quick visual assessment revealed that what I thought was a vast field of green grass on the banks of the Nile was actually a green swamp we would have to wade through to get to the river. Maria and I held a conference through clenched teeth, and then turned confidently into a side street like we’d seen what we came to see and quickened our pace until we could no longer feel the stares boring into our skin.

We found a motorcycle driver who agreed to take us to the source of the Nile for 2,000 shillings, or roughly a dollar, and we both climbed on the back his bike for the six kilometer ride. The source was breath-taking. In the distance, the waters of Lake Victoria glimmered calmly before surging into the mouth of the Nile to begin the 4,000 mile ascent to the Mediterranean Sea—a journey that takes three months to complete. We hired a motor boat to take us out to the seam where the still lake waters swirl into motion like a great tub being drained. Of the seven passengers on the boat, Maria and I were the only ones given life jackets, and as I later observed—the only ones charged money. I passed around a bag of potato chips and gave an impromptu lecture on the importance of love to a young Ugandan who asked me to help him get a muzungo wife. Some traditional dancers were performing on the bank when we docked, and Maria and I left the Nile to the pounding of cow-skin drums.

It was a pleasant evening, so we walked back to Jinja instead of hailing a motorcycle. Along the way, we heard extremely loud music so we followed the sound until we came across the album release concert of a popular Ugandan singer. There were hundreds of people lining up to buy tickets and at my beseeching , Maria agreed to join the queue with me. I was the only muzungo there among a crowd of a couple thousand and we rocked out for a couple of songs before leaving to beat the setting sun. We ate a dinner of vegetable curry and naan at a posh-looking Indian restaurant in town and then fell asleep at the guest house watching a Nigerian detective movie.

The next day’s journey took us to the roaring Nile waterfalls. Instead of deserting Maria and spending ninety dollars to go rafting down the chute, I opted to sip a Nile Special on the banks of the beer’s name-sake and watch the locals tempt death by body surfing down the class-six rapids on empty, yellow jerricans—their bodies like black polka-dots in the frothy white swells. The raft of muzungos I surely would have been on passed in a blur of yellow rubber and I silently thanked my stars for my dwindling money supply and Maria’s unshakable common sense. The next day, we were shocked to read in the Kampala paper that an 11-year-old girl from Ethiopia had been killed rafting that same stretch of river.

After leaving the falls, we caught various modes of transportation to reach the secondary school of a friend about an hour away. She had been suffering from a double bout of malaria and typhoid and our main purpose of the trip to Uganda was to check on her and take her back home to Rwanda with us, if need be. Maria and I sat in the stuffy waiting room of the principal’s office for about an hour before being admitted to speak with him. It took less than ten seconds to peg him as a scummy guy, and we listened in disbelief as he asked us for $150 in “extra school fees” but failed to come up with sensible reasons for the additional expenses. It was the middle of the exam week, but we managed to get permission for our friend to leave three days later. On the taxi bus back to Kampala that evening, we met two Ugandan journalists who struck up a lively conversation about democratic presidential candidates in the U.S. and our mutual admiration of the actor, Denzel Washington. They explained why they thought the recent Last King of Scotland movie did an unfair portrayal of Idi Amin and what exactly was going on with the sporadic fighting over Sudanese oil in the north of Uganda.

The next day we explored Uganda on foot—purposefully avoiding the richer, cleaner part of downtown in favor of the crowded mayhem of the city center. I bought a couple bootlegged CDs of popular African songs, savored my first ice cream in weeks, and visited the home of a former school-mate of Maria’s. The next day, we boarded the crowded bus back to Rwanda feeling a little wiser and quite weary.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Maria and I at the source of the Nile

Goat-meat kabobs, anyone?

The porters were extraordinary!

View of Kilimanjaro from inside tent

Hotel Des Mille Collines

Teaching in Rwamagana

Teaching the buzz/fizz game to the class

Goat in ivy

Cousin Maria

...Followed by a cohort of children wherever I went

Cataloging library books


On August 1st, I attended a Gacaca traditional court hearing—an experience few foreigners get to have because the application process for a visitor’s pass is lengthy and purposefully discouraging. One of the lessons I learned early on in Africa is that personal connections are everything. Incidentally, the friendly pastor who had accompanied us to the community organization project in Mumeya the previous day, was also the president of gacaca in the Eastern sector of Rwanda close to Rusumo. So I bypassed the bureaucratic humdig and asked the pastor point-blank if I could attend gacaca with him the following day. To my delight, he said yes, and we arranged to meet at 7:45 a.m. at km marker 113 where he would take me up the dirt road to Rukira on his motorcycle. I needed a translator, and Maria kindly agreed to accompany me.

We woke at 6:30, took our breakfast of coffee and eggs, and walked down the road to the taxi stand. The taxi to Rusumo had just left, so we climbed in the next one and began the agonizing wait until the taxi was completely full (20 people) before we could depart. Because the pastor was doing me a special favor, I felt a strong need to be punctual, but I’ve learned that life in Africa rarely follows schedule and sure enough, we didn’t pull out of Kibungo until 8:20. The pastor and his friend were waiting patiently for us at the turn-off and after profuse and heart-felt apologies, we jumped on the backs of their motorcycles and vroomed up the mountain side.

I should have predicted that we would first go to his home and take African tea and food together. We pulled over at a compound where I soon found my right arm grasped enthusiastically by the pastor’s wife in the traditional Rwandan greeting, my head bowed in prayer, and my plate heaped with steaming ibitoki and beans. That we’d purposefully eaten enough breakfast to tide us over till dinner was irrelevant, and Maria and I exchanged sympathetic smiles as we dutifully praised the meal and accepted second helpings. The pastor’s house was designed similarly to many Rwandan households I’ve been received in and as we sat sharing stories and sipping tea, the likenesses of President Kagame and the pastor’s first-born son shared in our merry-making from their positions on the walls of the sitting room. After eating, we climbed back on the bikes and motored up to the gacaca hearings.

Gacaca is a weekly traditional court that is held in every district in the country and all Rwandans over the age of 19 are encouraged to attend. While the masterminds and planners of the genocide are tried in long, expensive hearings at the UN tribunal in Arusha, the lay people who carried out the killing orders are given the chance to give a full disclosure of their actions and seek forgiveness in gacaca courts that are based upon the African principle of ubunto or humanity. Following the genocide, Rwanda’s legal system was in shambles and its prisons were horribly overcrowded. With such an urgent need to foster peace and reconciliation, these traditional courts were set up and respected community members were elected and trained to serve as functional judges. Once a week, shops close, work stops, and for a few tumultuous hours, Rwandans come together to seek truth and forgiveness regarding their painful past.

A few hundred people were gathered at the site when we arrived, and I felt a little like Moses as the sea of colorful kitenge parted before me. Five courts were being held—two dealing with reparations to the families of victims and three concerning accused killers. All but one of the courts were held in the fields—judges seated on wooden benches under the shade of a tree while the accused stood before them and spectators sat in the grass behind. Maria and I watched as the line of judges passed by—their blue, green, and yellow sashes labeling them as leaders, respected ones. The pastor invited us to observe the indoor court were he presided. As we climbed through the window into a cement room with no proper floor, he apologized, explaining that the builder had walked out mid-construction and had taken the door keys with him. Maria and I sat on a low bench against the wall as others climbed in. An older woman in a green kitenge greeted us respectfully and sat down beside me. Though the bench was not yet full, she sat pressed against my side. Most spectators remained outside—heads darkening the pane-less windows.

After the six judges had entered the room, the pastor reminded the crowd of the gacaca rules (for instance, anyone may ask a question provided that they are respectful and request permission). He then led us in a prayer and a moment of silence for the victims of the genocide. Next, a female judge read out the charges of the accused and I was shocked when the woman next to me in the green kitenge rose and joined two other male prisoners standing before the judges.

For three hours, the judges heard testimony and called witnesses. Every prisoner is given three chances in gacaca court. For two of the accused, it was their second time on trial, and for one, it was his third and final time. The three cases were not linked, and all had requested appeals for one reason or another. The two men had been members of killing squads during the genocide and had been given a fifteen year jail sentence. They both had previously denied all charges but one had requested an appeal in order to confess. He was being charged with killing two older women, and I watched as an ancient man was carried through the window. As black as night with a face like the bark of a tree, he was the brother to one of the deceased. His frail voice cracked with age as he spoke—explaining that he couldn’t rest peacefully until he knew who had killed his younger sister and how she had died. His nephew, the son of the woman was also present. The prisoner described how the two women had been found hiding in a latrine by members of his squad. They were brought before him and he had killed them with a machete. As Maria whispered translations, I watched the sad eyes of the brother and son as they listened. Their stoic composure in the presence of the killer amazed me.

I’ve read much about the African principal of ubuntu, but I never really understood the true meaning or power of the word from scholarly journals or articles. By observing the people of Rukira, I finally began to comprehend that incredible African quality of human compassion and understanding one’s self in terms of one’s relationships with others. The victims were actually listening to the explanations of the accused. Outside on breaks, people from the community brought food to the prisoners—greeting them with heart-felt though solemn arm grasps. Because the prisoner had not given a full confession at his first trial, gacaca rules stated that his sentence could not be reduced, yet he still came forward to confess to his actions and disclose what happened to the two women.

Though I was moved by the actions of the people, I felt a heightened frustration with the simplicity of the court proceedings. While a summer’s internship at a Charlottesville law firm left me feeling that the American legal system was robotic and devoid of humanity, I felt that precisely the opposite was the fault of the gacaca proceedings. Mere hearsay became evidence, numerous witnesses gave conflicting testimony and there was no capacity to check into the legitimacy of their claims. Witnesses mingled freely with each other and the spectators—perhaps collaborating stories. Although the judges and the spectators were both permitted to ask questions of the witnesses, no one seemed to be pursuing the obvious lines of questioning. The woman in green had been accused of revealing the hiding place of a group of tutsi children. She was denying the accusation and insisting that she had actually helped to save four of them from the killers. The judges listened to her and her daughter’s testimony of how she had hidden the children under her kitenge when the killers entered her compound but they never questioned how this had been accomplished. A little exasperated, I stood up and addressed the court—asking if the woman could demonstrate how she had managed to hide four children under her skirt. The woman described how she, her two daughters, and the four children had been sitting outside of her house within the walls of the compound when the killing squad came. They had shoved the children behind them and spread their kitenge on top. I asked how she thought the killers hadn’t observed the children, and she said that she surely thought they would all be killed and it was an act of God.

The gacaca proceedings were a complete novelty to me—both fascinating and positively perplexing. They system had obvious flaws in my eyes, but I came away with the impression that if the Rwandan people are indeed as resilient and compassionate as I believe them to be, then they will continue to heal, to forgive, and to live along-side each other in relative harmony.

By the time Maria and I returned to Kibungo, it was getting dark. The local youth center (next-door to LWF) was hosting an AIDS awareness evening and we were lured into joining the festivities by the sight and sound of African music videos being projected onto a huge screen. We spread our kitenge on the grass and watched a pack of eight year old boys freestyle dance to the music—their twig-like limbs twirling and stomping in a mix of African styles and Michael Jackson moves. Like my experience leaving the genocide museum in Kigali many weeks before, I felt refreshed by the carefree presence of the children. How long would they remain as such, I wondered? Would their eyes learn to stare in the persistent, unreadable manner of their elders or would they keep dancing throughout life? History has such a powerful tie to the future. What are these children being taught by their families about Rwanda’s history? Will they grow up to embrace the ubuntu philosophy or will they become more fiercely militant than the previous generation about the injustices of their past—both tutsi and hutu?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Homeward Bound

Dear family, friends, and latest Harry Potter novel:

I bid a sorrowful farewell to family and friends in Rwanda this morning and am now in my old stomping ground, the Nairobi airport--basking in the familiar comfort of a seven hour lay-over. I'm currently pouring American dollars into the hands of the cashier at the over-priced internet cafe (it's hard to spend real money after weeks of living on about $2/day in Kibungo) and rocking out to Kenny Roger's "Coward of the County" on the radio--no joke, East Africans LOVE country music!

I have a flash-drive full of unfinished blogs, but there's a rather intimidating sign banning flash drives so they will have to wait.

A quick update on the past few weeks--Maria and I did a whirl-wind tour of Southern Uganda to the source of the Nile (mostly on motorcycles) and 23 boxes of books finally arrived three days before I was to leave Rwanda. We put in two 16-hour days of cataloging, inventorying, stamping, book pocketing, and tea-drinking. The 450 books are only about a tenth of what's coming and though I left pages and pages of detailed instructions for future volunteers, I'm determined to return next summer and finish the job. Who knew cataloging a library could be so exciting and challenging? I devised a personalized system that combined the Dewey approach with form-based organization--creating seperate file distinctions for fiction, non-fiction, reference, biography, media, children's outreach, teacher resource, textbooks, and maps. It was like a perpetual Christmas morning--perhaps I should rethink my career path.

Maria got her American visa and will likely come to Virginia in early September. I can't wait to introduce America to her like she shared Rwanda with me.

To those at Duck Beach, we'll be riding waves together in a few hours! Love to all!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Lasting impressions

I’ve let the memories of the past weeks accumulate like so many leaves of rich Rwandan tea—crushed together, potent in their plentitude, and steeped in time to make a drink that captures the tang of my experience. The flavor is unlike any I’ve ever tasted—a hint of fruit, slightly acidic, with a bitterness that leaves my tongue dry and wanting more. It heats me from the inside out until I lightly perspire at my thoughts, impressions, and lingering confusions.

On Saturday July 7th, Maria and I packed lightly, said goodbye to the guards at the gate of the LWF compound (LWF is pronounced [la-woof] here), and walked down the dusty road to the taxi stand. It was our first venture back to Kigali since we had retired to the Kibungo countryside and the first of our weekly excursions to the capital to check the post office box for the arrival slips of library books. We had missed our chance to catch the roomy Onatracom bus, so we were left at the mercy of the crowded mini-van taxis, where for the equivalent of $1, you can endure a two-hour jostling as one twentieth of a traveling human pile. There were two persons in my row who geometrically speaking, took up far more than two twentieths of the breathable space in the van, and so I was forced to rigidly perch on the lap of a Congolese man for the duration of the journey. We conversed a little in broken French, and as we came within sight of Kigali, he proposed marriage. Perhaps it was African decency after such forced intimacy, I don’t know. I told him that I already had three husbands and a forth would be too much to handle.

The P. O. Box was empty, so we set off for our favorite yogurt shop to ease our sorrow. Rwandan yogurt is a delightful new experience. It’s a beverage served in pint-size glass mugs that leave you with a milk mustache worthy of any Got Milk add. Thicker than milk but less dense than American yogurt, it’s an unsweetened treat that tastes faintly bitter but smooth as honey. I adore it, and this particular joint is famous in Kigali for its first rate yogurt and the fact that President Kagame’s sister runs the place. All of the staff know me as the muzungo who loves African yogurt as well as trying her limited knowledge of Kinyarwanda greetings on new victims. Last time I was there, the owner joked that in the future, she expects me to walk in carrying my belongings on my head like a true African.

I’m known to many people here as Rusaro, the name for a traditional Rwandan bead (similar to a pearl) used in cultural ceremonies. It’s a name given to me by Edgar, a close friend of Maria’s and cousin to Pastor John. He’s a tall goliath of a man who flies helicopters for the Rwandan army and has a sense of humor to rival his tree-like height. The name has stuck among all his friends and family, and when I attended his wedding last weekend, it warmed my heart to hear complete strangers calling it out to me like a tacit message that I’ve been accepted as one of the clan.

The wedding was in Rukira, and Maria and I had agreed to help Edgar’s sister serve food to guests at the groom’s house. From what I can tell, many Rwandans have two marriage ceremonies—a traditional one and a more western-style ceremony complete with a white bridal gown. We woke early from Kibungo, took our breakfast, and caught a taxi to the place were taxis stop going. Then we hired motorcycles to take us the rest of the way up the mountain. Much of the dirt path was washed out by heavy rains, and at times we were balancing on little more than a ledge before the steep drop off into what Maria translated as “Death Camp Valley.” I shut my eyes tightly and clung to the driver—feeling both exhilarated and terrified. When we reached the groom’s house, Maria and I were a deep orange color from the dirt. We changed into the dresses we had brought and I tried to sponge the dirt off my arms and legs with a Wet-One only to blend it into an orange and tan marble. Many family members were already present (though it was hours before the wedding) so Maria and I went into the front sitting room to greet people. I was invited to sit with the grandmothers on a reed mat—legs stretched out before me as I clasped and greeted arm after arm, touching my right elbow with my left hand as a sign of respect.

After a few hours, Edgar and his wedding party emerged from a back room. They looked splendid in their white and black spotted mikenyero and rusaro, each carrying a spear and a small wooden shield. Following them, we left for the bride’s house where the main ceremony was being held. The compound was decorated with bundles of reeds and woven mats. The bride’s family and friends and the groom’s sat facing each other, each side numbering about 200 people. The fathers and their representatives sat in the center of their clans, and between the two parties was a white tent with a table and low wooden stools where the bride and groom would eventually be united. I was impressed that a sound system had been rented and while the people took their seats, an MC played Rwandan music and young women wearing decorative mikenyero served Fanta, Coke, and beer to the guests.

Once everyone was seated, the representatives of the fathers began the tradition of negotiating the bride price. The fathers never spoke, but let their chosen spokespersons handle the matter. The process was lengthy and fascinating, thanks to Maria’s translations. Never directly broaching the subject, the two men did a poetic tango of riddles, compliments, and gentle chides. Once they had settled on eight cows, each side called forth a young man to sing a cattle herding song and a delegation of men left to examine the dowry. A gourd of banana wine was passed around to celebrate and all eyes turned expectantly toward me as the gourd came to rest in my lap. Since the entire wedding was sipping from the same straw, I had intended to subtly slip the drink to the next person without partaking, but I now realized that was totally out of the question. I took a lengthy draught and smiled to congratulatory cheers and then sat back as my head spun to the banging of the drums. The bride and her wedding party emerged from the house, her hair twisted beautifully into the traditional Rwandan style. Plates heaped with food were served to each guest and the dancing began.

Maria and I slipped out of the compound to help out with the preparations back at the groom’s house. A shorter yet similar ceremony was to be held there and as the guests filtered over, we began taking drink orders and distributing beverages. Because of my obvious Kinyarwanda handicap, I manned the bottle opener—following behind Maria and popping caps off to the whispers and laughter of the guests, who I imagine had never been served by a muzungo. Vast cauldrons of meat, sauce, ibitoke, and rice were bubbling in the yard behind the house and we loaded plates and brought them out to the people—their second heaping meal in short order. As the sun set, Maria and I realized we’d been here all day and finding transportation off the mountain would be a challenge. The cab of a departing pick-up truck was already full, but we asked the driver to let us sit in the bed. He was dismayed at the thought of the dust we would have to endure and offered to make a second trip back up for us, but we refused and insisted that we liked the adventure. We piled in and just before we left, an old woman was also lifted into the back. She was quite drunk and Maria and I giggled as she latched on to me like a baby koala—cooing that I was her white daughter, her baby girl. Halfway down the mountain, an SUV flagged us over. It was the groom, Edgar and his wedding party heading back to Kigali. They insisted we pile in with them, so we did—laughing and singing all the way back to the LWF compound.

Pastor John returned to Rwanda from conferences in America on July 22nd and lavished attention on Mama Jean and I that he almost certainly couldn’t spare. On his second day in Kibungo, he announced that we should all take a day off and drive to the north western part of Rwanda to see the great Volcanoes National Park. Even if we couldn’t afford to see the gorillas, we would go see their habitat. So the four of us set off from a Kigali guest house at 5:30 the next morning on a cross-country adventure to Ruhengeri.

Pastor John has graduate degrees in theology, community development, and conflict resolution, and spending time in his presence is similar to the head-rush of possibilities one feels after reading an inspirational book. Car trips are always interesting as he is constantly pulling over his green Land Cruser to pick up friends or mere pedestrians. But what I admire most is his openness and willingness to talk about anything from the genocide to faith to poverty. For instance, there’s a pretty open hostility for the French here in Rwanda over their involvement in the genocide. The French embassy even left the country last year! In a foreign policy class, I once wrote a research paper on America’s decision not to intervene in Rwanda in the aftermath of Mogadishu and how we didn’t merely abstain, we actively blocked a UN resolution to send aid. But despite the anger some Rwandans feel toward the Belgian colonists for fostering divisions, the French for supplying weapons, and the international community for standing back and watching, Americans seem to be welcomed here with open arms. As we snaked through the mountains to Ruhengire, I asked Pastor John why that is and why Rwandans don’t harbor any hostility for our actions and inactions. His answer surprised me but I later realized it typifies his outlook on war and development. First he mentioned President Kagame’s military training in America and his public embrace of the country and of foreign and private sector investment in Rwanda. Then he turned to the genocide, saying that the genocide was an internal conflict. The Rwandese could not just wait for the international community to bail them out, they had to end the conflict within, heal within, and rebuild lives within. Foreign aid could be a huge help, but individual empowerment and a willingness to change at a grassroots level were imperative for reconciliation and growth. It was a bold statement that grasped capability and thrust it in the hands of the farmer, the mother, the aspiring pastor. I sat back and thought about what he had said about individual empowerment and community development. I’m pretty involved in politics at my campus and it’s even my field of major, but often I feel like the top-down process I observe is more of a slow rot than an instrument of democratic possibility. Here was a new form of political expression that was non-exclusionary. It taught the voiceless how to speak and the destitute how to achieve, not in spite of, but in partnership with their elected officials…and as equals. John would later take me to the community development project that he advises in the rural town of Mumeya. There, he helped me to see that the real achievement is not the clinic they are building, but the capability and hope that has been realized within the 500 committed yet impoverished community members who carried off 480 tons of rocks from the field on their heads and dug the foundation and the project leaders (most without secondary educations) who are meeting with the governor, voicing concerns, and holding public officials accountable for their spoken promises. I believe it’s a concept that holds particular promise for the peoples of Africa who cannot count on their governments to provide for their needs due to lack of resources, corruption, or unrest.

The volcanoes were hazy but majestic, and through the mist I imagined I saw a band of gorillas feasting their way through the foliage. We returned to Kigali in the only rain storm I’ve seen in my six-week stay here in Rwanda. The pounding rain and my pounding thoughts found solace together as the dry, cracked earth drank from the sky.