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.

1 comment:

Jeanne Siler said...

Benjamin Franklin once said, "If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing."

You've already done both.