Opinions flew like darts as soon as I floated the idea: a solo journey to Rwanda in 1998, four years after the genocide that claimed 1,070,014 souls in one hundred days. My family made no secret of their dismay. Friends indulged me with restrained encouragement. I had my own anxiety about the trip, not so much over personal safety but about what it might do to my soul.
Admittedly, problems asserted themselves even before I left my home near Washington, D.C. I had never traveled in Africa. I do not speak French, the dominant imported language, nor Kinyarwanda, the native tongue. I didn’t know any Rwandans. The expatriates in Rwanda with whom I corresponded, joked that no Westerner came to Rwanda without a “mission.” Fortunately, I had one: to do research for a novel I’d begun to write. I hoped for better than a dangerous, exhausting trek.
March 7, 1998
I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, on a Saturday night, exhausted from an eighteen-hour flight with a layover in Frankfurt. The first task: to negotiate a ride to the hotel. Though no other flights appeared to have arrived, the austere Gregoire Kayibanda International Airport had dissolved into chaos. I struck up a conversation with a Korean-American woman who’d come to join her husband, a communications contractor for the U.S. Embassy. She volunteered to drop me at my hotel. I navigated through the noisy customs area, falling into a conversation with a young Swiss woman working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). She was embarking on a nine-month mission (there was that word!) to work with prisoners in the nineteen detention centers, all still desperately overcrowded with suspected perpetrators of the genocide. This clear-eyed woman seemed undaunted by the prospect of witnessing their subhuman living conditions and working as their advocate.
At the exit, my new Korean-American acquaintance, laden with baggage, demurred on the ride offer, explaining that the car belonged to the embassy and the driver would not risk the appearance of chauffeuring random Americans.
Outside, the night had been freshened with a sweet fragrance I could not identify. I marveled at the lovely sensation of Rwanda’s “soft” air, a kindly blend of equatorial heat and high-country breezes. A couple of young taxi drivers slouched near their unmarked late-model compacts, looked disenchanted with their prospects for the evening. One, a lanky, sad-faced guy in a much-worn jersey, approached and took my bags to his car.
DeoGracias was his name. He spoke only enough English to take my brief request. Launching the taxi, he maneuvered down the exit path at a speed even American road-ragers would find intimidating. Unlike his fellow drivers, he tended to brake at the sharp, unlit curves in the hilly road. I took this as a measure of sensitivity to my white-knuckled grip on the seatback. Pinpoints of light, few and faint in the forested landscape, became my only assurance that I had, in fact, entered an inhabited area. Soon I caught sight of the Hotel Kiyovu sign, a fractured marquee that stained the heavy darkness with yellow light. We bounced into a parking lot rutted like a minefield and clotted with battered cars. Rwandan military men, natty in their khaki uniforms, eyed me curiously as I approached the office. Loud pop music spilled out of a dusky bar. A nervous teenage boy escorted me down a dim, covered walkway past low barracks-like structures. Banana trees and exotic flowers grew wild in the terraces between them.
My intended room was equipped with one working low-watt ceiling bulb. I told my escort I needed a reading light. Rather than fetch a bulb for the room’s only lamp (my purely Western response in a country plagued by shortages of every kind), he moved me next door to an identical little room with peeling paint and a working lamp – but no ceiling light. A frayed cover on the narrow bed concealed dingy, threadbare sheets. The paper-thin walls and a screen panel above the door allowed me the full auditory impact of my neighbors’ routines, both social and hygienic. I surrendered to the thought that nothing more comfortable would be possible, not that night – and maybe never in this country.
Suddenly, a thunderstorm pounded the inn with rain. Despite misgivings about possible rodent or insect roommates, I was nearly lulled to sleep by the hissing torrents. In what might have been – to my jet-lagged mind – the wee hours, a party erupted down the hall. I passed a long, restless spell listening to the musical stylings of Boyz2Men and Gloria Estefan. Despite the loud intrusion, the music offered a hint of comfort in its familiarity.
Still bleary at dawn, I encountered an enormous cockroach residing in the bathroom. No running water was available, but I was told that buckets could be brought. I sat on the edge of the ancient, irrelevant tub, vowing vengeance on my Washington acquaintance, a seemingly normal guy, for recommending this inn. In truth, I was undone. I called my friend and mentor, Helene Monteil, blubbering about what I had gotten myself into. In her inimitable style, she reminded me that I had chosen to make the trip, had work to do, and better get to it. Her no-nonsense tone was exactly the virtual face slap I needed to get my sorry mind in order.
March 8, 1998
My search the following day for other accommodations included a series of reckless taxi rides through downtown Kigali – fares always negotiable! My survey revealed hotels of even more depleted façade and aura. The Hotel des Mille Collines, managed by the Belgian-owned Sabena Corp, appeared to be the only game in town for creature comforts. I knew that a functioning bath and comfortable bed would make critical contributions to my mental health, to say nothing of my appearance. I was to wait three days for a room there.
March 9, 1998
The city of Kigali sprawls over a series of rolling hills. Groves of eucalyptus and banana trees separate clots of dun-colored houses and shops, few taller than three stories. Mass transportation remains a distant dream here; the red clay roads carry mostly pedestrians. Most conspicuous were the women wearing long, wraparound skirts (umushanana), batiked in dazzling designs. Sunday morning offered my first opportunity to “see the people.” In this predominantly (62 percent) Catholic country, church seemed the right venue. I followed the singing to a crucifix-topped building packed with an overflow crowd. A non-practicing Catholic, I found the liturgy familiar, but the congregation’s grace notes unique: hymns in Kinyarwanda, prayer responses in Latin, all offered with a mix of suburban stoicism and Southern Baptist-style exuberance. I was smitten with the singular beauty of these slender, mahogany-skinned people. Little girls modeled their frilly pastel dresses. Somber men stood stiffly in dark, mostly ill-fitting, jackets. I wondered if this place, like so many of Rwanda’s churches, had been a human slaughterhouse during the genocide. Could the parishioners’ obvious devotion soften the pain of their recent past? Their diffident gazes gave me my first wrenching whiff of communal grief.
I wandered to the Church of San Famille, a cathedral in central Kigali, the scene of numerous executions and rapes. At midday, it stood empty, except for a lone woman kneeling in the candlelight under a statue of the Blessed Virgin. Row upon row of backless wooden benches lined the towering, shadowy sanctuary. Sorrow seemed to dwell in the very air, muted but all-present. I felt it latch on to my psyche like a dark willful wraith.
I fled back to the streets, where passersby watched me with frank curiosity. A white woman alone on foot was, evidently, a rare sight. As I walked, the city seemed to resolve itself into areas of activity. I followed the pedestrian flow to an open-air market. There, low rickety shelves displayed baby formula in battered boxes, rusted canned goods, and meager offerings of fresh produce. Dried fish had been piled high on ancient wooden tables. The oppressive odor eventually drove me out, to loll in the hot sun on the broken sidewalk. As I considered how to take photos unobtrusively, a troop of scruffy boys gathered around me. I communicated with one in broken English and mimed appreciation of his Chicago Bulls jersey. They wanted their pictures taken and began to pose playfully, maneuvering for position. One had no right foot, another deep facial scars. They seemed briefly entertained, though sadness never left their eyes.
I met Andre at the entrance to my hotel. I was to learn he was an ever-in-motion eight-year-old. He accosted me with a plea: “Cent francs!” (one hundred Rwandan francs). I wondered how far the equivalent of twenty-three cents would take him. Andre lived on the streets and slept in the empty city fountain. He always appeared suddenly at my side, dressed inevitably in the same ragged shorts and dirty t-shirt. He smiled winningly, but if not quickly granted his request, whined and pouted. He developed a fondness for Starburst candy, the sucrette I had in plentiful supply. One day, I brought him half of a hamburger I had ordered in a bout of homesickness. Though it was still warm, he refused the unfamiliar food – until another of homeless boys made a grab for it. He asserted his “rights” to the food almost viciously. Always he refused to be touched, but his practiced independence could not hide his child’s neediness. I imagined that he would die young of a preventable disease, if not from the sheer weight of his deprivation.
The plight of Rwanda's orphans persuaded me and forty other wazungu (white people) to engage in a benefit five-kilometer race through Kigali. Local residents watched us with bemusement in the midday heat, the usual inducement to lay low. Those of us who hated running, strode past the bullet-scarred government buildings along dusty roads. A co-walker embassy employee pointed out places where the Tutsi-led rebel army had fought battles as it overran the capital to end the genocide. AK-47-toting soldiers now guarded some compounds. A palpable cautiousness – or was it lingering sorrow? –seemed to subdue people in the streets. Only young children darted about laughing, though briefly and with restraint. The genocide produced at least 75,000 orphans. The race proceeds were earmarked for one orphanage. The needs clearly overwhelmed the resources available to homeless children as Andre, with his flea-bitten cherubic face, would remind me silently and daily.
Most Kigali residents navigate their neighborhoods on foot, but use matatus to travel around the city. These converted vans seat about twelve, but I saw as many as twenty people crammed into some of them. The drivers observe a driving code of survival of the most aggressive. Most visiting Westerners drive white Land Rovers emblazoned with the logos of international relief organizations. The Hotel des Mille Collines provided their primary parking lot. I walked all over Kigali and never found cause to worry about my safety. Rwandans, whom I perceived to be a naturally reserved people – my perception undoubtedly colored by my own reserve – seemed too muted by their personal burdens to pose physical threat.
I adopted the slow-rolling saunter of the mothers. In the heat of one afternoon, I perched on the steps of the National Parks administration building (no benches in this town) to watch the passing scene. Children quickly gathered. A world-traveling friend had prepared me for this. I produced a packet of paper stickers in the shapes of frogs and butterflies and rainbows. With bursts of giggling, the children proceeded to plaster the shiny scraps to their faces and arms. Even their sad-faced mothers asked for shares of the crayons and paper I offered.
Our little impromptu party drew onlookers.
In the middle of workaday bustle, I caught sight of a purple heron strutting quietly in the weeds across the road. Rwanda delivered these surprises with uncanny frequency.
I combed the few bookstores and numerous street stalls for a Kinyarwanda/English dictionary. Failing to find one, I apprenticed myself to any Rwandan willing to teach me their melodic language. Some, like the proud-faced janitor in my hotel, seemed pleased by even feeble efforts – “Mwaramutse!” (Good Morning!) – and stoically corrected my pronunciation. Most preferred to practice their English.
March 11, 1998
After exploring Kigali for three days, I hired a driver with a serviceable Dubai-made Toyota knockoff. Innocente, the only pudgy Rwandan I was to see, spoke rudimentary English. At the outset, he politely insisted that I provide for a meal during the trip. Our destination: Butare, the largest town in southern Rwanda and the country's cultural hub. At breathtaking speed, we headed out of Kigali. The road wound past neatly terraced ishyambas (farms) where people worked communally, tilling and planting fields. Huge long-horned cattle, the former sign of wealth in this agrarian culture, grazed along the road. At one point, after executing a two-wheeled U-turn, Innocente stopped to point out a traditional round hut with a conical thatched roof. It had become a relic amid the newer boxy houses constructed of mud bricks with ocher-tiled roofs. Though Rwanda's population density is the highest in Africa, neighbors maintain respectable buffers of land between their compounds. The countryside, lush and verdant with market crops and banana groves, could have been paradise.
On the outskirts of Butare, we stopped at the National Museum. Inside the bright, airy building glass cases displayed finely wrought images and artifacts of Rwandans’ ingenious use of bamboo and reeds for tools, their crafting of papyrus and banana leaves into clothing and art. Rwandans clearly liked to amuse themselves: their games ranged from a complex game played with stone markers, to robust athletic competitions. They lay claim to inventing the high jump. One exhibit traced the tradition of magical thinking with elaborate masks, amulets and ceremonial costumes. I imagine these kinds of items now stowed away in many a Rwandan’s “attic.” Unfortunately, a lot of the museum’s details were lost to me since the narrative placards were in French. Innocente made himself unavailable whenever I requested translations. Later, it occurred to me that, like 47 percent of his countrymen, he did not know how to read.
We encountered a military checkpoint at the entrance to the university campus. Automatic weapons slung over shoulders had become a common sight. Innocente confidently handled the formalities. The campus, a collection of unremarkable buildings, stands on a hill overlooking Butare town. As we strolled along the asphalt paths, groups of students inspected us with quick glances. The dress code suggested the influence of Catholicism: women wore modest dark skirts with white blouses, the men, pressed slacks with shirts and ties. These were the fortunate offspring of Rwandans prosperous enough to pay for higher education. The elite send their children to universities in Europe or the United States. In the quiet shade of eucalyptus trees, they went about their business. I found no entry into their world.
Innocente drove to a local inn and there consumed an enormous lunch of chicken and vegetables. The heat of midday had banished my appetite. I drank Orange Fanta and pumped him for information about Rwandan family customs. I learned that newborns receive both a new first name (often a Western saint’s) and a new surname. One term of endearment for children was icyana (little calf). Innocente and I covered small territory before reaching the limits of our shared vocabulary.
Outside in the hammering sun, we encountered a wizened beggar missing his left leg. The machete had been the primary weapon of the genocide and the probable reason for his loss. His miserable appearance startled me. At Innocente's urging, we avoided him, a decision I later regretted. I suspect his story, undoubtedly harrowing, would have been worth hearing.
We sped back to Kigali. In Gitarama town, we passed a prison, an eerie, windowless compound as silent as a cemetery. Innocente wanted to drop in on a cousin nearby. Her simple storefront offered a sparse assortment of basic clothing and household items. She greeted me with a shy smile. Her sensuous, heart-shaped face was a masterpiece of beauty. I imagined that, this singular beauty notwithstanding, she would likely spend her life here in a backwater town of a neglected country, her gift shining only on family and neighbors who’d survived the genocide.
After a power ride to Kigali, I eagerly transferred myself to the Hotel des Mille Collines to luxuriate in my first shower in four days. The television blinked on to CNN news, now tedious to me. Two other channels broadcast in French and Flemish. I began a routine that was to endure for the balance of my trip: rise early for a leisurely breakfast, make appointments and errands, rest at midday, write all afternoon, attempt to be social in the evening. Kigali seemed to fold up at night. I'd heard of a local club, The Cadillac, where patrons were rumored to have an HIV/AIDS infection rate of about 85 percent. (The national rate is 20-30 percent.) Prostitutes lounged nervously in the hotel bar.
Down the road, the American Club offered a "Happy Hour" that included the ritual watching of Jeopardy on Armed Forces Network. The show was interspersed with commercials sponsored by the Department of Defense touting the virtues of Sulfamylon burn cream and a surface-to-air weapons system. The beer and popcorn flowed. We spoke American English and told American jokes. I learned the casual but urgent intimacy of people living very far from everything that feels like home.
March 13, 1998
A driver named George drove me to the small village of Nymata, just south of Kigali. A rangy thirty-ish man, George had lost his wife and three children in the genocide. He professed to speak English, but as I tried to pursue a conversation, his face often clouded with the hopelessness of one who just does not understand. The bone-jarring, thirty-mile trip consumed two hours. The scenery offered sweet compensation: a vast, misty marsh populated by exotic birds of every imaginable shape and color. We passed fields studded with unmarked wooden crosses. Briefly, we stopped at a stone memorial to genocide victims. The bloodbath claimed an estimated sixty-five thousand residents of this prefecture alone.
In Nymata town, George escorted me to the burgmeister's office, a polite formality it seemed. Mayor Musonera, an angular man of indeterminate age, greeted me in English. I explained that I'd come to see the church. He promptly produced a thick photo album. These, he explained, gesturing at an open page, showed the excavation of mass graves. The next page documented the re-interment of the remains of hundreds of residents. He touched the images with reverence, and I again felt overtaken by sorrow that seemed a fluid, living thing. He finally closed the album and with a wan smile gave me a neatly hand-lettered business card. I left the warren of barren rooms, passing a secretary who labored patiently at a balky manual typewriter.
The Catholic church in Nymata bore no name plaque. The metal bars of the door remained crudely bent as an exit for desperate people. Rust-colored stains dashed the walls and benches and altar cloths, the places where machetes had carved flesh. Shrapnel holes in the tin roof focused sunlight into laser-like shafts that crisscrossed the stone floor. During the genocide, frightened residents of the town had been herded into the apparent safety of the sanctuary. The Interahamwe militia had then bolted the doors and lobbed grenades through the high windows. Any survivors had then been dispatched with machetes.
I would have missed it without prompting – the brown, grotesquely curled form near the door – a mummified human body.
A white stone slab in the center of the sanctuary covered a catacomb. Down narrow stairs, bare bulbs illuminated stacks of trays. Each contained scores of carefully arranged skulls and bones. Many were child-sized. I could not see where the shelves ended. Finally, I could not breathe. I fled the airless tomb for the sunlight outside.
George waited patiently. His face told me that his memories had risen and now possessed him like heartless wraiths. I did not press him to take me to the other church, the one where bodies had been left to decompose where they had fallen.
Later, in the comfort of my quiet room, I lay immobilized by what I had seen.
March 15, 1998
The chatter of drivers waiting outside the hotel mingled with the insistent symphony of birds. This had become my morning wake-up call. I hired Kassim to drive me to the main market on the other side of Kigali. I suspect no Rwandan wanted as desperately as Kassim to leave Rwanda. Handsome, tall, twenty-ish, he bristled with Americana: a New York Mets sports jersey, halting colloquial English, and ambition the size of a thousand dreams. He was impeccably groomed. His megawatt smile made him a beguiling companion. He maneuvered me protectively through the muddy market to a stall where the walls were draped with neatly folded batiks. I had noticed a sign for a batik factory on the road to Butare, but these bolts, I was told, were made in Dubai. I surmised that the local industry had been destroyed along with much other infrastructure during the genocide. After lengthy deliberation, with the demurely offered advice of the merchant, another stunningly beautiful woman, I settled on a cloth with wild, circular designs in emerald and sapphire. I intended to wear it as a wrapped skirt, the way Rwandan women did, but I knew the effect would never be as dramatic.
Kassim's invitation to lunch carried the undercurrent of a request for a date. Hungry and weary of trying to figure out where to eat, I agreed. He escorted me down an alley to an unmarked doorway, the entrance to a large bright room crowded with diners. Mine was the only white face in the cafeteria. The proprietors served from large pots: crispy meat, beans, rice, and a kind of banana stew. After the Western fare of the hotel, I found this simple local cuisine a welcome treat, the best meal I had in Rwanda.
Despite my early impulses to abandon the trip, I was overtaken by reluctance to leave. My “mission” in Rwanda had been a journey unlike any other. This tiny paradise and its stunning people remain isolated from the world – ignored today – as they had been during their season of bloodletting. Rwandans had journeyed to the darkest caverns of the human soul. Climbing back now to the hilltops, they find no inherent nobility in survival, only the inexorable mandate to make a better life for their children. They have no cushy tourist experience to offer. In their dusty streets and lonely churches and shabby markets, I lived for just a while on intimate terms with horror and amazement. I let these experiences inform my soul, the newest human realities I cannot unknow.