Today was our first full day in Rwanda. We woke up this morning to the sound of someone sweeping the driveway – this would be our routine for the full 3 days in Kigali at 6am. We both managed to fall back asleep but were up with the hot sun by 7:30. We sat at breakfast, offered for free with accommodation at the Discover Rwanda Youth Hostel, and while waiting for our toast met Amber from South Africa who also arrived the night before and was planning to go to the Genocide Memorial. We decided to go together. After breakfast and showers we were off, on moto’s. This was my (Lindsay’s) first experience of the moto-taxi which is a motorcycle…in retrospect, it was probably the best place to begin this experience as Rwanda has strict helmet laws and restrictions on the number of people a moto can carry (driver and one passenger). Meanwhile, I was not enjoying losing my moto virginity – I held tight to the driver and hoped to God to make it through the traffic circles and high hills alive. Luckily we all made it.
The Genocide Memorial was better than I expected…I think better than any of us expected. I had somewhat anticipated walking in to photos of the horrors that overtook this small country – but instead the exhibits were set up in a way that slowly led you into the darkness of what took place, gradually immersing you in the political, economic, colonial and tribal issues that were at play. It was brilliantly done, with videos along the way of people talking about their loss, their experiences, and the impact it has had. While there were graphic photos, they were tasteful and not to excess to overwhelm. Early in our journey through, a man approached us while we were discussing some of the information in the Lonely Planet guidebook and told us he was 16 when the genocide began – he was from the Tutsi tribe and had been refugeed to Kenya. He told us about the colonial divisions from his perspective and the impact this had for his family. He told me about the losses he sustained, his entire family massacred, his 6 year old cousin buried among the mass graves located outside on the memorial grounds. He told me he lived in Canada for several years, attended Carleton. He said he only trusts the Canadians and Rwandans now. We discussed what it means to trust Rwanda – the shift that has happened here during the past 18 years, and the success of the current governments call for unity – no longer hutu or tutsi, all are Rwandan. It was amazing to talk with him…I didn’t even get his name, but his thoughtful insights will remain with me always. Following the main memorial section, with photos of many who died, clothing and possessions found among the mass graves (including a small child’s t-shirt that read I love Canada), and bones displayed behind glass, there is a section of the memorial dedicated to other genocides that have occurred in history to open discussion regarding the fact that this is not just Rwanda’s problem – it has happened so many times before, even recently…even now. There is also a section dedicated to the children, photos of children who were killed with plaques stating their age of death, their favourite toy and food, the last words they spoke…if they were old enough to speak at all. Many were only infants. We discussed the strange gladness we each felt when we read that the child had been killed by gunshot to the head, as this would have involved the least suffering.
Following our tour, which took several hours, we each needed time to decompress. Simultaneously a storm has hit and it was pouring outside, so we made a beeline for the coffee shop onsite and sat to think, talk, and have something warm. We sat, looking out over the city and discussed the strangeness of thinking that these city streets were at one time covered in bodies. That people we had encountered had been involved in some way or another – the questions comes, when you are sitting ordering dinner and see that your server is over the age of 30 – in the back of your mind you wonder “how many people did you kill?”. It is strange, and paradoxical as our experience of the people in Rwanda is that they are the kindest, most welcoming people we have ever known. How could these people have done such things? It is almost easier to imagine them as cruel evil people – at least then it would make sense…and allow us to distance ourselves from it. But they are not, they are like us…which means we could do such things too. It is complex and confusing and impossible to wrap your mind around…trust me, I’ve tried. My brain often hurts here, it just can’t make sense.
What I know of Rwanda now is that they are a wonderful people with a beautiful country. They have worked hard to come back from the brink of disaster, and are likely the most successful people to do so. While I am dumbfounded by what happened, I admire these people for setting aside the past and working hard to unite and be one people, Rwandan people.