Saturday, February 23, 2013

A message for America

“The weapon I had in my heart was love.”

People like Atanas and Samuel should not have to exist, but the fact that they do gives me hope, even among the bones and graves. They were Hutu, but when the orders came to take up machetes against the Tutsi these two men refused, even surrounded by neighbors, friends, brothers, who they knew might kill them at any minute for their refusal. Samuel told us “By then you were not thinking about your own life. You were between life and death, and knew you would die as soon as you were caught.”

Samuel told a story that will stay with me always. He overheard two women walked by his house talking about a Tutsi woman who was going into labor by the side of the road. He went out to find the woman, and found her and a 3 year old child, beaten and naked by the side of the road. The woman had spent hours in agony begging passerbys for help, but the most anyone had done was to bring her a little water. Samuel ran back and told his wife to bring clothes for the woman and her child, and then went to get a midwife. The midwife's husband refused to allow her to 'look at the legs of a Tutsi', and though Samuel cried and begged, they refused to help. So he went to the house of a doctor, who, though very ill, agreed to come and help the woman. Samuel had to half-carry the doctor through the rain to the Tutsi woman, who had by this time lost her baby, and was too weak and sick to deliver the placenta. The doctor helped to her to finish the delivery, and Samuel and his wife carried the woman and her child back to their home and hid them in the roof. She was still desperately ill from the delivery, and would have been killed if she went to a hospital. So Samuel taught himself to administer penicillin, and gradually nursed her back to health. Both she and her three year old child are still alive today. He saved 21 others by digging a trench for them to hide in in his banana field. I was honored just to shake his hand.

They asked us to bring the truth about the genocide back to America. They wanted us, and you, to understand that this genocide was not the ethnic tension of backwards Africans, but a carefully created evil that could happen anywhere. He said “I can assure you, you can change people and they will be how you want.” They told us that to end war “you must let go of your life as the first objective. In all means, you must fight for peace.”

I do not think that we all have to let go of our lives for peace. But I do think that we all have something to learn for Samuel, who chose not to turn away from suffering. I think most evil in the world comes not from aggression, but from apathy. From people who see suffering, and see no way to change it, and so pretend it is not there. I ask you not to give away your life as Samuel did, but to consider if your life encourages suffering by inaction. What companies might you tacitly support that create suffering among their workers so you can have things for a little less money? Can you ease some of the pain in your own town through supporting shelters or soup kitchens with time or money? We cannot be perfect, but we can remember how blessed we are. We cannot all be heroes like Samuel, but we can honor people like him by sharing some of that blessing.

Samuel and Terrance were not the only amazing people I met while in Butare this week! Our group took a picture with this women's organization of genocide widows, and the wives of genocidal working together for reconciliation and development.

The meeting was a school, and we arrived right at recess, and so were greeted by a mob of children who alternatively clung to us and fled in herds, screaming delighted in terror at the bizarre Muzungus. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Behavior Patterns of the Wild Muzungu

This is for mum; who wanted to know about daily life.  Love you!

I wake up between 6:30 and 7 to the sound of my family's roosters and my host sisters beautiful singing. I have started running in the mornings. Mornings are cool and misty, with heavy clouds hovering around the hills surrounding the lake I run around. The elevation and hills are killer here, it's going to take a lot of time to get used to. The national Rwandan breakfast food seems to be slightly stale hotdog buns, which I have with honey every day. Oddly there are no hotdogs in Rwanda, just the flavorless airy oblong breads.

The artificial lake I run around. 

My host family's lovely (and huge) house. 

By 8 I am trying to catch a cramped mini-bus to school. The buses friendly affairs, not just because we squeeze 4 or 5 people in rows of three seats, but I chat in broken English, Kinyarwanda or french with my neighbors. I have class every morning from 9 to 1 at SIT headquarters, a beautiful house near the American embassy. We start with a lesson in Kinyarwanda by the irascible JP, an enthusiastic guy who produces the music of Rwanda's top rap stars and apparently teaches American kids just for fun. We may get a guest lesson from one of Rwanda's biggest stars! JP teaches us Rwandan songs, has us do skits in Kenyarwanda and bounces with energy. Then we usually have a lecture on Rwandan history, or research methods.

Lunch we usually go to one of the anonymous buffet style restaurants with the standards of Rwandan food: rice, french fries, some kind of soup, savory plantains, and several other potatoes of various forms. Or we get snack food like Samosas and bring it back to school and eat in the garden. Did that today, along with mangoes and passion fruit which was fantastic!

Afternoons sometimes have more classes, sometimes we go to visit NGOs, or we go to the library with fast internet – a treat as delicious as food that is not potatoes. I spent this afternoon reading in the roof-top cafe of the library, overlooking mountains dotted with small red-roofed villages, drinking spicy ginger tea, and feeling incredibly lucky.

The view on the way to the library. Rwanda, the 'land of a thousand hills' is full of these vistas. Everywhere you go you can see for miles, as if you were walking to school along the blue ridge parkway. 

The lovely national library, overlooking the hills. 

I get back to my host family's house around 6:30, and hang out with the kids through the evening. I do homework while they watch dubbed Korean or Chinese tv shows, we play games, or sing songs. I kick them out of my room by 10 to have a little time to journal or read before I go to sleep. I actually get enough sleep here, a luxury compared to my bleary, coffee-fueled existence at UVA.

I am incredibly impressed with the SIT program. I feel like I've had at least a semester's worth of intellectual growth in the past three weeks. I understand so much more about how I believe the world to be: from world systems, to economic theory, to development, to human nature, to my place in the world. This is what education should be, and I am so grateful to take part in it!  

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Second Life of Rwanda

One of my goals of this blog is to give my beloveds at home a view of Rwanda beyond genocide. I came here to study the genocide, yes, but more importantly to study recovery. I came here to find out how a broken, bleeding society could build this beautiful city I live in, could become the lovely people I know, in less than 2 decades. I have no answers. Instead, I will share a couple of adventures that show the light of Kigali, not its darkness.

This weekend I went out exploring. I went to a market with a couple of friends, and wandered through the chaotic spread of beans, passion fruit, cucumbers, kitchen untencils, used American tshirts, Chinese shoes, and tourist nicknacks. My favorite: the rainbow of bright fabric which Rwandan women use as skirts, baby blankets, get made into shirts or dresses.

Then today I tried to walk from my house to my school, and while I was getting lost in a random neighborhood stumbled into an art studio. Overlooking a valley the studio was painted brightly, adorned with funky statues and paintings. And the art within made the fabric market look drab! It was collective, but all the art shared explosions of color. I expected art in Rwanda to reflect the torment of the past, but this studio was a celebration of life. I hope if I save my pennies while I am here to bring some home: a reminder of all that Rwanda has to offer.

Outside of the studio. 

A painting I loved using fabric bits.

You come to Rwanda for the darkness. To stare into it until you can make some sense of it, no mater how much it hurts. You come expecting victims, expecting broken, trauma, paralysis. You find smiles, strangers who call out 'hello' in a multitude of languages, kids who give you a high five as you pass, angels who point you home when you're lost. You eat mangoes. You watch brilliant birds play around tropical flowers. You find life.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"To the children who should have been the future of Rwanda"

Feburary 6th, 2013

(Note: if you read this, please read it to the end. It ends on a somewhat hopeful note, and I think this is important.)

The title of this was taken from one of the genocide memorials we visited yesterday. A line above a collection of photos of children who were murdered with their names, their favorite games and foods, how they died. An attempt to put a real human life behind the numbers – something I would struggle with as I stood before piles of skulls at the mass graves we went to later. The smiling six year old who loved to play with his brother -- tortured to death. His last words: “UNAMIR will come for us.”

When I left the museum, shattered, I wandered around a garden – so beautiful I could hardly bare it. I wondered, how on earth am I supposed to live in the emptiness between the depths of evil and suffering, and this Eden of flowers of birds? How can I live in a world of such extremes and not be torn apart?

Then we went to the churches. During the killings that preceded the genocide churches had served as safe havens, and so thousands crowded into them for protection from the priests, and from God. These churches are graves now. Dirty clothes of the dead lie on worship benches like enveloping mold, as if death is growing in the shadows. Scattered around rusty bits of mettle that bashed in someone's skull, tore off someone's arm, rosaries, the identity cards with the single word *Tutsi* that meant the end.

I have often wondered how Rwanda can be such a religious country. How can people believe in a God that would allow this world? How can they not hate him with all their being? But yesterday, we came to a wall, stained with blood and brain, where babies skulls were smashed. When I saw it I wanted to fall to my knees and pray to a God I don't believe in. For the souls of the children, and for the broken souls who killed them.

All this weighs heavy. And yet, with the horror comes honor. I feel honored, privileged even to be a witness. Even as I struggle to understand, even as I fail, I am grateful for the opportunity to learn beyond the pages of a book. To make it real. I realize that bearing witness means more than just seeing – it means honoring the dead and the survivors by spreading their stories and dedicating yourself to seeing that they will never be repeated. It means honoring the life that somehow made it through this hell and is still standing. Of everything I have learned today, it reminded me how precious  precious life is. How everyone I see is something wondrous -- especially in Rwanda. I thought of this as I walked home, and chatted in broken Kinyarwanda with the helpful strangers guiding me through the bus system. Thought of their beauty, their strength, that they could be the ones helping me. Today I am shattered, but I am hopeful. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Muzungu style!

February 1st 2013
Kigali, Rwanda

“Muzungu” is the affectionately patronizing word for foreigners, and as I blunder about Kigali on various adventures, I certainly feel like one! Moving to a new country is like being reborn: you can't speak, you can't cross the street, you can't work the bathroom, you can't find things on your own. Fortunately, Rwandans are very kind to us big white babies! It is a good thing, because information here is not regimented as it is in the states – you can't just ask google. Instead you ask: which bus, which stop, which street, which phone, how much to pay.... I am relearning everything I know, and I am learning it through the kindness of strangers.

I am now installed with my wonderful Rwandan host family! They are quite brilliant: within 10 minutes of walking in the door we were all dancing Gangnam style together. The kids all speak intimidatingly good English, preparing for American high school and college. I live in in a huge house next to an ambassador, with chickens scratching around the beautifully manicured lawn. I have three brothers and three sisters, ranging from 5 to 17.
With host brothers Omar and Mudisha 

I have also had a few good Muzungu adventures in the city! In my favorite assignment so far we were sent off to find information about communication, and I and two other students got to wander the city on the pretext of finding internet cafes and phone stores. We found a city of dizzying contrasts: highrises poking awkwardly from of rows of single story storefronts, kids hawking ipods on the street, somehow bustling and chaotic, but orderly and quiet at the same time.

Kigali, growing. 

The view standing in the same spot as above, but turned the other way!

We happened upon the Milles Collins, the famous 'hotel' of Hotel Rwanda. It looks like a standard 70s building outside, but inside chic and dotted with over-sunned Europeans, lush swimming pools, and tiny brilliant birds. Impossible to imagine, as we sat on the porch that 18 years ago this was the tense center of a slaughterhouse. When we passed a ragged man asleep beside the road I could imagine it. Almost.