Monday, 30 January 2012

Part II: Rwanda - for the first time

The night before we flew to Rwanda, I read the last pages of Philip Gourevitch's essential and harrowing account of the Rwandan genocide. He wrote, 'Even now, as I write, in the early months of 1998, Rwanda's war against the genocide continues. Perhaps by the time you read this the outcome will be clearer (...) Of course, if you're some kind of archeologist who digs this book up in the distant future, five, or fifty, or five hundred years from now, there's a chance that Rwanda will be a peaceful land of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, you may be planning your next holiday there and the stories you find in these pages will offer but a memorial backdrop...'

Fourteen years on - a sort of distant future - our university friends, and first London flatmates, Steve and Kate, are living in Rwanda. In their emails and brief visits home they've conjured for us, as best they can, the country they live in. They've talked of flying about Kigali on the back of moto-taxis, and buying bright-patterned kitenge at the market; having shirts and dresses run up by gifted seamstresses on ancient Singer sewing machines. They've talked about their house, its padlocked gates and the peak-capped security guard keeping watch, but how these things never felt as though they were really needed. They've talked of evenings spent on wicker sofas on candlelit verandas, a restaurant called Heaven, and spoken word nights where they sang jazz songs alongside Kinyarwandan poets. They've talked about the soldiers who quietly and calmly patrol the streets; ever-present, but merging into the background. Between the not so very old war reports, and my friends' accounts of the life they love in the new Rwanda, I tried to form my own picture. But I couldn't help imagining a tightrope of a place; a line walked between despair and hope. How could a tourist, an ex-pat, indeed anybody, still not find it somehow precarious? The only way to find out was to see for myself.

Now that I'm back, I can't pretend to know it all; for no tourist, however wide-eyed and open-eared, can ever claim to know a place in a week. But for all the aspects of Rwanda that I don't understand, and probably never will, there are some things that I do now know. And I treasure them. They may be only fragments, passing images, barely snatched, but they are mine. And I share them here.

I know that when dawn comes the chorus of birdsong is ballistic and indignant - the sun rises quickly, as if to bring quiet. 

I know that I never once grew tired of seeing children delight in our otherness, watching them break into gulping laughter and chase our car, their cries of 'muzungu! muzungu!' rising in the dust.

I know that I've never seen a patchwork quilt anything like the hillsides of Rwanda. The neatly stitched hedges marking the edges of potato fields, the jaunty patterns of banana trees, the row after row of stiff-tall sweet corn, the rich, dense tea plantations, clinging to the sides of vertical slopes. Not one inch of red earth is wasted.
I know that in Rwanda there are some of the people you would expect; Western do-gooders dressed in khaki, putting the world to rights over a Mojito, pasty-faced Evangelists, intense girls in drawstring pants and Development careerists with red-burned forearms. But my friends are none of these and I am glad.

I know that at a classic Rwandan buffet, the tastiest dish to pile high is the ruby red stew of savoury banana. And the shredded cassava leaves. And the purple peanut sauce. Everything's fresh, home-grown, and delicious.

I know that in Kimironko market, you'll find yourself surrounded by shifting walls of the most cheerful fabric you've ever seen; rainbow-coloured, crazy-patterned kitenge from the DRC, and Kenya, and the Ivory Coast. A stallholder will say, 'if you like it, you can buy it.' And you do, so you do.

I know that at sundown on Lake Kivu the fishermen sing for the day's catch. You sit spellbound, bobbing in kayaks, as their voices carry across the still water. Then you watch them row home, as the deceptively peaceful hills of the Democratic Republic of Congo rise behind. 

I know that when you happen upon a small boy cowherd, wandering behind his tail-flicking charges, eating a knob of maize, you return his grin. You pull over, and shake his hand. You marvel at one another, for a moment, and then you each carry on in your own direction. A little altered, perhaps.

I know that at dusk a sweet and smoky scent pervades the air, and it's the burning of eucalyptus leaves in people's houses. You realise that it's a smell that one day soon you will miss. That, inexplicably, and for all its strangeness, it reminds you of home.  

I know that when you're in the misted Virungas, and a silverback turns his lazy, soulful gaze on you, from barely feet away, something inside you shifts. You stand still, stiller than you've ever stood before. You barely breathe. And yet, part of you wants to reach out a hand, and make solid the connection you know you feel. But it's awe that holds you motionless. 

I know that in Rwanda most of the people I pass who are my age - or a little younger, or a lot older - will have seen their whole world torn to pieces. They will have been to hell and back. Lost more, perhaps, than they can ever hope to find again. And yet everywhere I see grace and laughter. I swap more true smiles with strangers than I ever have, and hear more gentle words of welcome spoken. I know that respect is due. I also know that Rwanda calls itself 'the land of a thousand hills'; its beauty is soft, and undulating and verdant. And while it would be presumptuous and uninformed to weigh the verity of Gourevitch's words, 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,' I will say this - whatever is has been, whatever it will be, and for all I still do not know, to me, this passing visitor, Rwanda feels like a place of warmth and healing. 

Finally - I know that now I'm home, I miss Rwanda. Even if, after so few days spent, perhaps it's not really mine to hanker after. I know I want to try and hold on to the memory of it for as long as I can, but I can already feel it slipping; soon it will feel a world away again. I know the only answer, therefore, is to keep remembering, to keep writing, to keep discovering. And perhaps, one day, to go back.