Anybody who knows me in the slightest shouldn’t be surprised that the thing that affected me the most about Rwanda (besides of course for the traveler’s sickness which lasted twelve days and borrowed five pounds) was the children. The choruses of kids running and shouting “Muzungu, Muzungo” ( white person) as we drove down the two lane highway or walked along the red dirt roads was at times deafening. To some of these children in the more remote villages we were the first white people they had ever laid eyes on and they stared at us as if we were in fact aliens. When the initial shock wore off they would practice their english on us, always leading strong with ” My name is…” and becoming shy by the time it came to say their actual names, they held our hands, sang for us and listened to us sing in our strange sounding language with wide eyed excitement. The last day when we were filming in the church where a significant part of the genocide occurred I struggled to keep composure, a few of us wandered outside to sit and grab a breath of fresh air and within minutes a group of about twenty kids gathered and circled us. I remember sitting there thinking ” If only I could speak Kinyarwanda then I could ask just for a hug, because after what I saw today, I really could use one”. At that point I really didn’t care if I looked like a crazy, alien lady, I just opened up my arms and smiled and waited. First a little teeny tiny girl in a faded red dress stepped forward and though tentative at first she cuddled right into me when I squeezed her, then as if on cue the whole front row jumped on line and a few came in for seconds and thirds. I spent the next twenty minutes hugging these kids, deliriously happy and oblivious to the sorrow I had felt so heavily just half an hour before. Without a doubt that moment was the highlight of my trip, even though as I got up to go back inside I was unable to shut my eyes to the visual reminders of the beast inside mankind, I had something with me infinitely more powerful, the endless gift of children’s love and innocence.
This is about my fifth attempt to finish this column, there are so many things I want to write about Rwanda that I’ve been somewhat paralyzed. There are amazing things that jump out like their no plastic bags policy and when I say no, I don’t mean you are forced to buy them at the grocery store, I mean it’s illegal to enter the country with them. I could talk about the villages of people that though besieged by poverty and eat only one meal a day have managed to save enough money to create their own credit union where they lend money to group members to purchase things like goats or charcoal so they can start and own their own businesses, or the country wide program called Umuganda, where every single person is required to do community labour one day a month. Then there is the group of thirty or so kids either living with or orphaned by AIDS who wrote and performed songs about HIV for us and the Rwandan artists that came into the studio for our Song For Africa record. But as I sit on a low pew in Nyarubuye church I can’t think of anything else besides for the wood, bricks, straw and stations of the cross that envelope us like nighttime as we film a video for Amazing Grace. Looking down at the floor I wonder how many people laid here in wait for rescue, after being told the Red Cross was coming to save them, only to be laid in a trap in the church. I look up through the straw roof wondering if they felt relief from the heat when the rain came as more and more of their countrymen sought refuge from the genocide and joined them. The one thing I do know is that they had no idea that in just a few days thirty five thousand people would be murdered on this very spot, which is about the size of the first floor of Atlantic Place as police as militiamen surrounded the perimeter. This morning as we toured the memorial we walked alongside walls lined with cases of skulls and bones of unidentified human remains that are still being discovered some fifteen years later and thought about how I would feel if that was my family in there. Our guide said that as a child he was one of the very few who had escaped, though his family did not and when we asked how he dealt with having to talk about it every day he answered that he simply didn’t have a choice. I have always known how lucky I am to love and be loved but after today, it seems even more achingly clear than ever.
There aren’t any words to describe the beauty of Rwanda, pictures don’t begin to do it justice and songs and stories are a pale version of the truth. I am sitting in a rented house in Kigali looking out over rolling hills of such a deep intense green that St Patrick’s Day would flush with envy, and sparkling with flowers as neon as Times Square. I am not a morning person but I have found myself awake everyday at five, partly not wanting to miss a waking thing and also because my anti-malaria drug filled dreams have been so intense I shock myself awake. The first day we got here we visited the genocide memorial which pays tribute to the over 800,000 people who were killed in just 100 days fifteen years ago. We had an incredible guide –who like every living person here was a survivor of the tragedy, whether they themselves were tortured, raped, made to watch their mothers, fathers, children be killed in front of them, or they or their family members were the ones who did the killing. We walked through the memorial seeing a clear picture of a peaceful people living side by side until the colonialists came in and did the old divide and conquer. They assigned ethnicities where previously there were none, designed a class system and pitted them against each other so they could create a need for leadership and claim it as their role, only to rape the country of its resources and strip it of its harmony. I kept it together through graphic pictures of bodies piled up on the road hacked to death with machetes, heart-wrenching video testimonials by survivors and tales of churches filled with people burned to the ground, but I lost it when I came to the children. I came across a plaque for a little four year old boy with his cute little picture and a caption underneath which said his name, his favourite food-chips and egg, his favourite sport-football and his last words-” Mommy where do I run to?” and I just about doubled over in pain. You walk down the street here and you would never for a second believe it’s the same place, the joy and sense of hope is so profound you can actually see the dust trail of them rising above the ashes. Every single person I have met has been exceptionally kind, graceful and proud, the type of person we all strive to be. They will not let this define them, they have crossed over the bridge of blame, so much so that known killers live side by side with the families of those they have murdered. They have recognized the path that led them to that horrible point and are refusing to ever let it happen again. They are keeping their own council and they have voted for peace and forgiveness and I am in awe.