Monday, April 11, 2016

Rwanda

I’ve been avoiding writing about this; can you tell?  

Depression on the road is rough.  You’re in a foreign country with nothing comforting or familiar around, and often times your typical go-to “feel better” options aren’t available: no tv, no chocolate, no internet, no friends, no one to call, no comfy secluded corners to curl up in and take a nap or cry.  It’s an oppressive feeling mixed with loneliness and helplessness that comes in bursts of intense waves that make me feel like I can barely work up enough strength to grasp whatever I’m holding or stand up and walk to wherever I’m supposed to go next, let alone concentrate on work.  It’s hands down the worst part about traveling alone, and for me, traveling period.  I had a solid week of it at the beginning of this journey in Kenya, but Rwanda brought on a fresh tidal wave of darkness that lasted almost the entire two weeks I was there.  I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy country to be in, but even looking back and writing about it now, I’m hesitant to relive that emotional low point of the past year.  I was also at about the four-month mark in my travels, which is often the time that depression hits long-term travelers, questioning what I’m even doing traveling in the first place and if I can muster enough energy to keep going and how many more months I can keep this up.  All of this left me mentally and spiritually grasping at things that seemed to dissolve the minute I could almost recognize what they were.  But there's not much I could do about it in the moment besides pray and try to remember to eat.

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After waking up to leave the hostel at 4 am in a tiny border town in Uganda that my computer couldn’t even register the correct time zone for, I shuffled myself onto what I hoped was the correct bus and promptly stuck my earbuds in.  In the States, we all know this is the symbol for “don’t bother me,” but that mindset hasn’t made its way across the Atlantic to this dark continent quite yet.  But when I’m tired and grumpy, I still put them in and try to escape into a world of familiar sound, despite the dust, heat, and constant jostling of the wheels struggling to maintain speed over ever-widening dirt potholes that are a constant on any road we travel over.  I settle in with my scarf bunched up by my face to keep my head from bashing against the rattling window, try not to make my iPhone too visible to deter theft, and wonder how long it’ll be this time before someone taps me on the shoulder and starts asking questions about where I’m from, what I’m doing here, and if I’m married.

We crossed the border into Rwanda at about 7 am.  Actually, I’m not really sure when the precise moment of “crossing” happened, but the whole ordeal took about three hours: shake hands with the police over here.  Go get this scrap of paper stamped.  Get shuffled to the front of the crowd because I’m the only white person around (yes!) to give said scrap of paper to someone else.  Go stand in this line.  Fill out this form.  Get suspiciously eyed by immigration officer as I try to muster a smile watching as he hovers the entry stamp above a blank page in my passport.  Shit, which bus is mine?  Good, my bag is still there.  More police.  You want to look through my stuff?  Be my guest, have fun rifling through my sweaty dirty laundry.  

When all of this was coming to a close, I found a secluded spot on the lawn by the bus and squatted down to repack my backpack.  I could see out of the corner of my eye that three Rwandan men, all shorter than me with jet black skin, were slowly approaching from different directions.  They stopped in a triangle formation around me without acknowledging each other.  One squatted and at the exact same time they all started talking: “Hellohowareyouwhat’syournamewhereareyoufrom?”  I paused to look at them and then burst out laughing.  “Do you realize that I can’t understand you when you all talk at the same time?”  In unison, they gave up.  They slowly turned around and walked away in different directions, never once looking at each other or attempting to make any further attempts at conversation with me.  I was left kind of stunned, but still cackling as I finished shoving everything into the backpack.

Again, I assumed I was done with East African culture shock.  Nope.  Something was off as we drove further into this tiny country.  I couldn’t figure out what it was until I realized that it felt like we were driving on ice.  The road was well-paved, with clear lane lines painted on it, with zero potholes or even chips in the pavement by the sidewalks.  Wait, did we just pass a Mercedes G Wagon?  Were those locals really playing tennis?  Woah, what are we swerving for?  CYCLISTS?!?  In pristine cyclist uniforms?  Holy cow, this is not like the other places I’ve been.  And man, this country is clean.  The bus porter informed me that once a month, the entire country takes a Sunday, including the president, and cleans/picks up trash/fixes things, whatever needs to be done to keep the country sparkling.

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I spent the next week immersed in everything I could find that had to do with the genocide.  I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I felt like out of respect for this history of this country, the least I could do was to learn about it.  I’m not a weepy person, but I had to stifle sobs within minutes of visiting the Genocide Memorial in the city.  I read every description, looked at every photo, watched every video, and then had to spend an hour sitting outside by the mass graves staring into space and concentrating on the crunching noise the crackers made in my mouth when I bit into them.  

Two sisters I met at the hostel went with me to church sites where thousands tried to escape the fighting and ended up being slaughtered.  We wandered the aisles of one church, still staring at the piles of weapons and clothes, brittle with old dried blood, that were left by the site curators as a reminder of the violence.  We walked down the stairs into the dark mass graves that held thirteen thousand bodies into narrow aisles with floor-to-ceiling shelves containing nothing but skulls.  It was obvious how each one had died: bullet hole, machete gash, half of the skull smashed in.  We saw the three-meter long wooden poles that the women and girls were raped with.  If they planned to kill you, they would push the pole all the way through your body until it reached your skull.  If they didn’t kill you, you’d be gang raped by a group of HIV positive men that left you alive for the next group to rape.  We saw the blood stains behind one church where infants were gathered and one by one, had their heads smashed against the cinderblock wall.  Some of the skull fragments were still lying in a pile on the floor.  We saw the president’s plane wreckage, still resting where it landed, his death marking the hour that the streets of Kigali started filling with blood up to your ankles.  After the genocide, all the dogs around Kigali had to be put down because they had gotten used to the taste of human flesh.

Obviously, any mass human extermination is despicable, but visiting concentration camps in Germany has a different feel to it: there are no traces of the people that passed through there.  Everything feels a bit cold and scientific and distant, where hundreds of people died in a gas chamber with the push of a button in another room.  It’s unsettling and creepy.  But this was the first time I had really been exposed to a genocide where every killing was done by hand.  So many people died, and everyone was slaughtered with eye contact from their killers.  So much hate with every hack of the machete.  So animalistic and so disgusting.  

But this is why I dove into learning about this: because we have a choice if we want to see this or not.  Rwandans my age and older, if they didn’t flee the country, didn’t have a choice.  Most everyone I talked to lost a parent, a sibling, or their entire family.  Many older male Rwandans still bear scars that leave me wondering if it was from the genocide: missing limbs, dents in their skulls, mangled hands and fingers.  This didn’t happen in my grandparents’ generation; this happened during my lifetime.  And if Westerners didn’t do enough harm by colonization and by requiring national ID cards that started pitting Rwandan tribes against each other, we also all knew about the genocide and chose not to do a damn thing about it.  Americans promised tanks, but they took months to arrive.  The Belgians quietly withdrew when political tensions started escalating.  Walking around the Genocide Memorial in the city, I was burning inside with so much anger and guilt and shame about what my skin represented in this whole picture: absence.  And here I was, a Western tourist, on “vacation”, crying and feeling sad about all the people that died.  And all that was left for me to do was to blink back tears and stuff a pathetic amount of money in the donation box on the way out and go see a movie in an empty theatre to try to distract myself before I had to work.  All I could think was: I’m so sorry.  I’m so so sorry.  I know international politics are tricky, especially in times of conflict, but try explaining that to an emotional 26-year-old woman that’s been traveling around East Africa alone for the past four months.

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Today, it’s immediately obvious how the genocide has affected Rwanda.  Walking around downtown, people are quiet and meek and seem shell-shocked.  Much different than the noisy streets of Nairobbery, excuse me, Nairobi, teeming with people shouting and honking and grabbing your arm.  Yes, the Rwandan president is a dictator, but it seems to work pretty well.  Their economy is doing great; people are very well educated and there’s lots of solid economic infrastructure that makes Rwandan businesses really reliable and great to do international business with.  Even those living in remote villages get government assistance in the form of a cow, providing they can prove they have the resources to take care of it.  As a country, they’re doing really well; better than any surrounding country.  But is this economic stability worth the price it took to get here?  They lost their history and tribal identity after the genocide, since no one dares discuss what tribe they’re from.  What would it take for the surrounding East African countries to get to this point of economic growth?  Are Rwandans really better off because of the genocide?  Or, to be completely politically incorrect, is this just making lemonade out of lemons?

I can already feel myself sinking back into a mental darkness as I rethink these issues.  And the anger and shame are boiling up again as I recall overhearing a conversation by some fellow Westerners in the Kigali hostel: “Did you go to Hotel des Milles Collines?”  “Yeah, it was such a letdown!” “I know, right?”  …what the hell?

But more than anything, I still harbor a strong glowing respect for Rwandans.  They got some really shitty lemons and they made some damn good lemonade.  These church sites and memorials aren’t really for tourists; they’re mostly for survivors, that’s why they don’t charge an entry fee.  They’re incredibly well laid out and maintained, and from a museum studies perspective, the Genocide Memorial was the best museum I have ever been in on an international level.  Incredibly well designed, powerful, and a good balance of visual and text information.  They even had an exhibit upstairs highlighting other genocides that happened throughout world history.  Very well done.  And Rwandans are friendly people, interested in art and music and culture, which is not something you really encounter on a broad scale throughout most of Africa.  I would definitely go back to visit, but I don’t know I have the emotional strength to step foot in any of the memorial sites again.  

It was rough, but I’m glad I did it.  It was a good reminder that even though I can stay relatively naive on the tourist trail here, this is a continent riddled with turbulence and violence that’s not isolated to the past.  Right when I feel like I've got this place down, I'm forced to realize how much I have left to learn.



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