And blogging here this year... hope to see you:
(Continuing the trek)
And blogging here this year... hope to see you:
I went to see where Elinah stays today (Ugandan english for "where she lives"), and my first thought when I got off the moto taxi was that I shouldn't have worn my one clean pair of shoes. Roads up the grinding hills in the poorer sections of kampala follow a progression from paved, to relatively hard packed dirt and gravel, to muddy ruts. As I ride up, I see a man with a faded jacket saying "Keep Kamapala clean of mud and dirt" picking his way through ankle deep reddish mud on the side of the road.
Elinah picks me (again Ugandan English) at the MTN stand at the edge of a semi-paved street, and apologizes for how messy the road is. We walk slowly, holding hands, hunger flickering to life for me at the smell of chapatis being grilled in street stands, despite my big breakfast. I remember how unnerving all of this felt the first time I came here, how after a week in Kasese I fell upon the sheraton as an oasis. I've adjusted to travel in rural africa, just a little grossed out still by how filthy my sandals are from tromping on the rather mucky floors of latrines. Now I've adjusted. What is here is here.
As we turn off the road and make our way over rocks and mud toward her home, Elinah asks me if I know the word "ghetto." I smile a bit, realizing how this would hit me if I were seeing it for the first time. A banged together tin shanty off to one side, chickens and ducks wandering. Baby chicks running madly around. There is a little girl, probably less than 2, in a red dress. I smile at her, and Elinah says, "she lives near me -- she's travelling." She firmly grasps the little girl's arm and wordlessly leads her with us. When we reach the baby's home, she hands her over with a slightly sharp comment I assume means "she got away."
We navigate concrete troughs in narrow spaces between the crammed dwellings, and Elinah reaches inside a metal gate. Her place is shaped in a way I've come to understand is fairly typical -- a gate protecting a kind of narrow outdoor corridor, people's rooms along the sides, communal latrine and water in a central space. People bring out their small stoves and cook on the steps in the central corridor.
Elinah's place is more solid than I expected, clean tiled floors, two rooms. THe front one is almost empty, cooking supplies on a little stand covered by a cloth, a bucket and basin stacked neatly in a corner. No other furniture. THe little figure of a woman with her arms around another woman I've given her hanging high on a hook, no place to place it.
"I have not got a table, Auntie," she says. "I study on the mat." She takes out her mat, and I joke that I could buy her a table, but that people in Canada are very awed by her dedication, so determined to go to school that she works on the floor. I take her photo, and she poses for me, reading studiously.
She bounces up to show me her hijab, to ask me to take her picture. SHe's not muslim, but she goes to an islamic university and must nwear it. "I wasn't comfortable at first, but now I know how to tie it better than the other girls." She demonstrates, posing model=-like for me. I tell her she rocks the hijab, and she does. Somehow she brings flair to it.
We giggle and I try on the embroidered robe, try to tie the headscarf. She takes my picture, laughing. Later, we talk about what I study, and I talk about how making shared stories is about things like both of us trying on something that belongs to a culture neither of us know. Now we know what it feels like inside hijab -- hot, anonymous, envelopped.
She introduces me to her landlady -- "greet her," she bosses -- and I meet two other students who live in this space, the children of the landlady. One has some kind of brain defect, a deformed ear draining some fluid that makes me uneasy. Edmund. He's entranced by my camera, and I take photos of the girls peeling cassava, the socks flung on the pocked wall to dry, sticking on the rough surface of their own accord. I show him each shot, and he smiles hugely, uncertain teeth awry.
One of the other boys asks me suddenly if he can ask me a question. "Sure," I say. "What's an equinox," he asks. My mouth drops open as I realize I don't know how to explain it, something about the relationship of the sun to the earth that happens in spring and fall, but I can't say anything more certainly. I answer as best as I can, and ask him what it is, assuming this conversation was a way for him to display his knowledge. "I don't know," he says impatiently. "That's why I asked!"
Edmund follows us back into Elinah's place where we look at photos for a while, and tries to get my phone to play music. I disappoint him. I ask Elinah twice what the future for a boy like this is, and despite her excellent english, she hears me asking how this happened to him. I have my answer.
"He is the best friend of Annet," she says. Annet is the other girl who lives here sometimes, one of our kids who is studying hairdressing but has been gone for holidays for a while. "He calls her Comfort." I look at her. "He calls me Auntie Comfort. THe girl who lived here before was called COmfort, so now everyone who lives here is Comfort."
We sit cosily together, looking at photos on my camera and eating raisins. We talk about how happy she is, and what my African name should be. Kavara, she says. It's a rwandan name.
What does it mean?
She thinks. "I don't know. BUt it was my mother's name. And you are like a mother to me."
Later, she sends me a text saying how happy she feels to have me with her, a mother she's not had. I hate that our time is limited to this, a few hours once a year, a few emails. But it's time that matters.
Earlier this week, I was listening to an audiobook of Elizabeth Gilbert's sequel to Eat Pray Love. I found the book a little limp as a whole, but I loved her rhapsody on The Auntie Brigade -- how historically, the world has depended on childless women (nuns, teachers, nurses, aunties who raise their siblings' children) to be the aunties of the world, to fill in the mothering gaps. I'm a little surprised at how readily this fit me, as I never sought it. I love being Elinah's auntie, a thin strand of mothering tethering her to the earth in her moments of doubt and fear.
As we walk out, I ask if I can buy some airtime for my phone, mostly because I need change for the boda driver. I buy 5000 shillings worth -- about $2.40 -- and suddenly offer it to Elinah, confirming that it's the right carrier. "Auntie -- I've never had this much on my phone before! The most I've ever had is 1000 shillings!"
She puts me on a bike and bargains with the boda driver on the price, tells him to treat me well. The driver waits patiently as we hold hands, unable to let go. We squeeze again. Ndagukunda chana, I say. Chana chana, she answers. I ride off through the kampala streets, my driver careful not to do anything that would splash too much.
On my last full day in Rwanda, I hired a driver and went on a pilgrimage to Murambi, possibly the most horrifying memorial in history.
Murambi was a technical school in the south of Rwanda, where thousands of people sheltered during the genocide, and something like 50,000 were ultimately murdered. It sits starkly on a hill, gaping holes still in the walls of the buildings where grenades landed, a tattered flag in the middle of a dozen deeply verdant hills.
The memorial is simple. A few months after the genocide ended, the mass graves were exhumed to give the corpses a decent burial. They decided to preserve about 1800 of them in lime, and laid them in the classrooms. That's the memorial. More than two dozen classrooms, with bodies laid on simple wooden frames in each.
No one should see this. Everyone should see this.
What follows is upsetting.
Most of the corpses are, by now, faded negatives of themselves, bone coloured and close to bone, shriveled. But here and there, gut wrenching signifiers of individuality remain. Tufts of hair. Clothing made of fabrics that didn't compost -- sagging and set on the flattened frames. A tiny figure in the arms of a larger one.
I'm trying to describe the indescribable. Door after door of this. The guide, alone and weary, in a suit and pumps completely out of context, has dark circles under her eyes. "And here are more bodies." She's very persistent on the topic of the volleyball court the French troops supposedly constructed over the mass graves after the massacre, when they were posted here to "protect the community" and supposedly protected the Interahamwe. I've heard about the volleyball courts before. It's one of the only "exhibits" here, actually -- signs showing where the french soldiers played volley.
Where the Kigali memorial is lush and thoughtful, the careully tended headstone, this is the worms and maggots under the overturned rock. Just... corpses, and a weary guide. The small exhibit is closed, with no explanation. There's a visitors' book to sign, and toilets that have no running water in the sinks. At first, my driver and I are the only ones here, then a pair of uncomfortable swedes show up. They can barely bring themselves to glance into the rooms, and the male of the pair asks me "do you want to see more rooms?" when the guide takes us up the hill. His wife chastizes him in Swedish, and he's silent.
There is no fence around this horrifying space, the classrooms typical of rwandan architecture, a long outdoor row, open to the air. There is a tiny farm about 20 metres from the end, where a child stands calling mzungu! mzungu! to me. I hold out my hand and she comes forward to take it, and the guide yells at her to get away. As she admonishes the two boys making an incursion to do something vaguely gardening like on the other side of the building.
Her job: pointing out corpses, telling the volleyball story, chasing away children. Sitting alone in this enormous building on top of the hill, with 1800 corpses.
As we drive down the winding road away from murambi, I pull out two nut bars from my bag. I offer one to Regis, my driver, who has been here before, but stayed with me through the whole thing, muttering. "les bebes." We speak in french, his fluid, mine primitive. "Apres avoir voir qu'el que chose comme ca, on doit manger et reclaimer notre humanite." He agrees, and we eat in silence.
Back in Kampala for just over a day, I had dinner tonight with the elusive Elinah, the oldest girl in our project. She's just finishing her first year studying public administration at university, and we had an amazing and textured conversation about comparative government, who she's going to vote for and why, why, on balance, she supports the way Kagame is running Rwanda ("he is doing everything for the genuine love of his country, not for his own interests -- you do not see the corruption of uganda"). We skirted a bit around the authoritarianism and the fact that "recently" women wearing miniskirts have been arrested. (I did wonder why all women's skirts, even suits, were so long).
We also talked about her family's history, and getting passed around from family to family, and the different cultural and superstitious traditions that continue. Some valuable to her -- the wedding goats and cows -- and some questionable. She was wryly hilarious about the male circumcision rituals of one of the tribes in the east ("he must be a WARRIOR," she said drily, and darkly outraged about the "big men" who believe that they need to sacrifice children or they will lose their wealth.
Over coffee and chocolate ganache in the comfy chairs in the hotel bar, my obsession with the wedding cows and goats continued. "Now it is maybe 4 or 5 cows," she said, "but it used to be 30." "Thirty?" I exclaimed, understanding that this is untold wealth for most rural people. "Who has 30 cows?"
"People have cows," she said darkly. For some reason, this struck me as guffaw-funny, even while the next sentence was about her aunt who brought 200 cows back to rwanda after the war ended, but then a year or so later, there were only 10 left. "They all died -- there was not enough grass, there was disease."
Even over cake in the sheraton bar, it's so elemental.
I went to the Kigali Genocide Memorial today. The Swiss owner/manager of my tiny pristine hotel dropped me off on his way to an errand, looking slyly at me before he gave his opinion of living under Kagame's rule. "They want us to switch to right hand drive cars," he said. "They're all really ugandans."
That conversation and the memorial tangled themselves into a twisted question mark for me about the telling of stories. The story of the genocide was at first untellable, no one listening as Dallaire and others of UNAMIR attempted to tell the world what was going to happen, what was happening. Now there is an official story, embodied in this oddly tidy, tasteful, comprehensive memorial, and many mumblings of untold and unheard stories.
The official story is laid out in the carefully designed and thoughtful exhibits of the memorial. First, three rather massive slabs of mass graves. Women in uniform aprons sweep away the vegetation that falls from the forest of remembrance. The cemetery is simultaneously horrifying and sanitized -- long slabs of concrete that hold uncounted, unidentified bones and bodies -- but one only knows this because one is told. The gardens around are painstakingly symbolic -- the garden of unity (Rwanda before colonization); the garden of division (Rwanda during the genocide); the garden of reconciliation. Three of the 11 or so gardens set around the main building, each of them with some highly symbolic clay figures inset. An elephant on a mobile phone, for example, symbol of not forgetting and communication with the modern world. The only really jarring note: a sign saying "please do not step on mass graves."
That flow matches the story told on the posterboards and artifacts of the main exhibits. Pre-colonization Rwanda: united. Colonization by the germans and then the belgians: concepts of racial divisions introduced. Tutsi minority made the elite who oppressed the Hutu majority until independence, when the flip happened, creating rifts that resulted in deeper Hutu extremism inside Rwanda and the Tutsi and Hutu moderates gathering strength for conflict in Uganda, Zaire and other neighbouring countries. A few signals of Hutu intent to massacre Tutsis that were ignored by the global community, heavier conflict, the ill-fated Arusha peace accord, the defanged UN peacekeeping force, then the story we all know. 100 days of genocide, a civil war that resulted in Paul Kagame's RPF victory, scattering of Interahamwe into Zaire, overthrow of Mobutu, creation of DRC, several more years of rebel incursions, a reasonably secure Rwanda under Kagame's leadership, and dispersal of the extremism into DRC where it festers and waits.
Even this simple chronology is so spiked with questions. This version of the narrative has Tutsi and Hutu designations as being classes, not races, until the Germans (with their obsession with eugenics at the time) and then the Belgians observed that some of the Rwandans looked different from others (tall, lanky, thin nosed Tutsis vs. shorter, wide-nosed Hutus) and constructed fixed identities, designated with official cards. If they couldn't decide which "race" someone belonged to, if he had 10 cows or more, he was a Tutsi. I have read elsewhere that pre-colonization, in fact, these designations were fluid, and that a Hutu could become a Tutsi by acquiring cattle or other wealth, that there were protective partnerships between these classes throughout history. But less than a century ago, these "races" were constructed and privilege granted accordingly. Mere decades of oppression and constructed "tribes" leading to something that was treated by the world as "centuries of conflict."
And and and... of course, there was undoubtedly class conflict between these designations pre-colonization. This version of the story is so tidy, like this memorial. All of the pieces in place, but missing some fundamental messiness. LIke my guidebook that translated Interahamwe as "those who stand together." Dallaire's book has it as "those who kill together." Abdu translates it for me was "those who attack together," which makes sense to me.
I was intrigued by but weirdly unmoved by the whole experience, even the room filled with skulls and leg bones, the 100s of family pictures of people killed. I was so conscious of a carefully told, cautious narrative. Aware that the wall of heroes -- the old woman, for example, who hid and saved 17 Tutsis by using her reputation for harboring evil spirits to scare away the Interahamwe -- is missing Paul Rusesabagina, probably the best known Rwandan globally after Kagame, the hero of Hotel Rwanda and the 1200 or so people held secure at the Milles Collines.
I dug some into this -- it seemed a bizarre oversight, to omit the "schindler of the genocide" from this exhibit. And got deeper into the feud between Kagame and Rusesabagina that I'd seen hints of when Rusesabagina was accused by Kagame of being a terrorist a couple of months ago. There is a strong faction in this country who loathe Rusesabagina, who spill a lot of fury trying to discredit him, prove that all of the claims of his heroism are false, that he was in fact a friend of the Hutu extremists and harbored people at the hotel merely for his own profit. A couple of years ago, Kagame's PR guy co-authored a book viciously countering every claim made in the film.
The more I read, the less clear it became. One interpretation is that Kagame is worried that Rusesabagina could be a credible opposition -- so seizes every opportunity to discredit him, just as other possible opposition leaders are sent off to be ambassadors to India, murdered in other countries. Like the general in Uganda who owned the half-built hotel in kasese considered to be possible opposition to Musceveni, murdered by "a prostitute" last year. Maybe Kagame just wants to be the only hero of the genocide, for whatever reason. Maybe Rusesabagina really was a corrupt opportunist. Certainly, Kagame's authoritarianism has a tight grip. "We have security," shrugs the Swiss expat. "But there are things going on, people disappearing. Who knows." The deeper I dig, the less clear it becomes. Truth is slippery, contexted, positional. Different truths from different angles.
I've been taught over and over to ask who is telling the story, and what is it achieving. This memorial is clearly this government's story. And what is it achieving?
This is the experience of this memorial for me, unsettling, but not for the reasons I expected. Not until I get to the last room, almost an afterthought, with a dozen or so minimal profiles of children lost in the genocide.
Irene Umotoni, age 6, and her sister Uwamwezi, age 7. Favourite toy: a doll they shared. Favourite food: fruits. Behaviour: Daddy's girls. Cause of death: a grenade launched into their shower.
David Mugiraneza, Age 10. Favourite sport: Football. Dream: to be a doctor. Last words: "Maman, the UNAMIR will come to rescue us." Cause of death: beaten to death.
Fabrice Cyenezo, 15 months. Food: rice and milk. Animal: Cat. Enjoyed: making gestures. Favourite word: Auntie. Killed in Muhoro church.
Hubert, age 2. Last memory: saw his mom dying.
Francine: Age 6 Last words: Mom, where can I run to?
The final words of the exhibit: Sinigizi impfubyi. I did not make myself an orphan. The one essential truth.