13 July, 2011

Genocide Baby

Just watched a powerful documentary on BBC3 about one young man's journey to understand his past and walk with hope into the future. See it on the iPlayer here.

12 July, 2011


I mentioned briefly my visit to Kigali Genocide Memorial and at the time I needed a bit more space to process what I’d seen. Before I set off to Rwanda I’d been earnestly picking up books on the country (see menu on the left) to try and understand its culture and what happened in ’94. I’d also previously watched Hotel Rwanda and Shooting Dogs. That’s all very well – shocking, moving, horrifying etc – but when you’re in situ, it’s a bit different.

It’s obvious that they’ve put a lot of thought into creating this memorial centre. There are numerous symbols which carry meaning and significance, the gardens have been beautifully created to convey something of what Rwanda has gone through – like the cactus garden symbolising the pain experienced by its people – and to reflect the nation’s hope for the future. The rose garden celebrates the diversity of the people of Rwanda and thus remembers the diversity of the genocide’s victims. The central exhibition’s panels are in 3 languages with Kinyarwanda largest, then French, then English and I liked the fact that this centre is somewhere for the Rwandese to come and reflect on their past, it’s not exclusive to tourists.

When I arrived at the memorial centre, a large crowd of people were proceeding into the central exhibition. Many of them were wearing purple scarves round their necks. In the days following this visit I noticed the recurring theme of purple at various memorial sites across the country and I’m guessing this is because in many cultures purple represents death and in some traditions it represents repentance. Initially I thought there was some kind of memorial service happening but later I realised it was simply a large group visit to the memorial. It seemed to be a group of mixed ages and I’m guessing that they were relatives of victims, or perhaps survivors, or orphans. I decided to wander first through the gardens outside the exhibition centre and purchased an audio guide so I could get descriptions for what I was seeing. 250,000 people are buried on this site and it was hard to comprehend the scale of the mass graves. They’ve started work on a wall of names of those buried there, which will take some time to complete.

When I had wandered through most of the gardens and was closer to the exhibition centre, I heard a woman keening – the sound of her mournful cries were penetrating and I found myself working hard to keep it together. Then I noticed a man lying down on a mattress with one of the centre’s attendants comforting him. Later when I was inside the exhibition centre I noticed a large pile of these mattresses – it’s obviously a regular occurrence for people to collapse with the weight of their pain and grief. It made me realise that although 17 years have passed since the genocide, the pain and grief is very real, raw and present.

Part of me felt like I was intruding. Here I was, this white foreigner, a citizen of the international community which only stepped in when it was too late to the bloodbath that was Rwanda. I know nothing of what it’s like to have watched your family and community murdered in front of you, the tendons on my ankles were not slashed to prevent me running away, I was not gang raped, I didn’t watch my baby be flung up into the air to fall smashed into the ground…this and worse was the experience of so many and words fail to describe the depth of the horrors of the 100 days of the genocide. And so I felt ashamed to show my emotions as if I was intruding on the pain and grief of others.

But later as I was reflecting more on what I had seen and experienced, I felt that if I believe in one human race, in a common humanity, then it is right for me to share the pain of others. ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn’ – I think it’s right for the whole world to lament for the loss experienced in Rwanda, and in other places – Sri Lanka is an even more current example. People lost their humanity during the genocide and perhaps we need to keep focussing on our common humanity so that things like this never happen again. Nothing should ever become so big a problem that we lose our respect for each other’s humanity. Trite? Maybe. The international community essentially didn’t believe that a ‘small’ African conflict mattered, that the deaths of Africans were worth risking the lives of international peacekeepers – they (and we) lost sight of our common humanity.

I’m glad I went to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. It’s possibly more ‘sanitised’ than some of the other memorials in the country with its displays of skulls or bones in glass cabinets but to be honest its no less disturbing particularly when you notice the obvious signs of blows to the head. I guess the only thing that doesn’t sit overly well with me is the recurring phrase, ‘Never Again’. The reason that skulls, bones, clothes, pictures etc of victims, and in some places preserved bodies, are on display is so that what happened in 1994 is never forgotten and never repeated. But from what I can gather, despite commitment to Rwandan unity and building one nation, there is still a lot of division between Hutus and Tutsis. The phrase, ‘Never Again’, although very important, just seems to be lacking in a positive commitment to building a shared future together by working through the problems of the past. That’s just my take for what it’s worth (which isn’t very much). On a personal note I guess my resolve to do the work I do has been strengthened and that can only be a good thing.


Most of the photos from my trip are now here. Feel free to browse. But I'll post a few here just to give a wee flavour...

And to start things off here's the one you've all been waiting for, yes Debs (or should I say sweaty Betty?) with the hair-braid which lasted less than 24 hours because it kept freaking me out in the middle of the night:

Here's Eric & Mary who were my guides on the day of my visit to the Nyamirambo district of Kigali:

Here's the obligatory tourist photo of 'Hotel Rwanda' - Hotel Des Milles Collines:

And this is the guesthouse I stayed in for the four nights I was in Kigali:

This photo of Lake Kivu was taken at Kibuye:

And this is the church at Kibuye which I mentioned here was the site of over 11,000 deaths during the genocide:

Lake Kivu from Kibuye was just gorgeous. I missed the sunset when I was there but I went to Moriah Hills for my evening meal of deep-fried sambazi and chips (wee small lake-fish which you eat whole - super-tasty!) and watched a lightening storm possibly a hundred-odd or more miles away on the other side of the lake light up the sky.

Watching the world go by...

This is what a very relaxed Debs looks like! This was taken on the Sunday afternoon of my trip when I was staying at the beautiful Paradis Malahide at Rubona just 5km away from the border lakeside town of Gisenyi.

The day before I’d taken a bus to Gisenyi at 4.30pm. I’d hoped to leave earlier in the day but missed the boat with tickets. The bus company’s office was rather chaotic, but one of the mechanics was a decent spud and got me sorted onto the right bus. Watching him as I waited for the bus he was obviously the joker of the outfit, winding his workmates up and full of banter, but at the same time getting the job done. It was nice to see a new(er) set of tyres going on to the bus I ended up travelling on!

The bus-ride was about 3 hours and a bit from Kigali to Gisenyi. The driver was a bit of a maniac, but then I think most drivers in Rwanda are maniacs. The white lines in the middle of the road are only really for decoration which is a bit hair-raising when you’re flying round a hairpin bend on the wrong side of the road and another vehicle is coming the other way. It was humbling watching people pushing bicycles carrying large water containers up the steep hills and I also spotted a cyclist hanging on to the back of a Primus lorry (Primus is the local brew, nothing to do with camping stoves) to hitch a ride up a steep stretch. There were a few ‘holy scamoly’ moments – one in particular when we nearly ran over a blind man who stepped onto the road – but other than that it was a great opportunity to soak up the phenomenal scenery as we listened to the driver’s reggae music CD. I’d read of Rwanda being described as ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’ and it’s very apt, except there must be thousands upon thousands of hills and mountains. The route took us within view of Volcanoes National Park where there are 5 volcanoes in the Virunga Mountain range and I managed to spot 3 of them, their summits shrouded in some cloud, even though the sun had just about set. These mountains are home to the mountain gorilla and the area is famous for the pioneering research of Dian Fossey.

We made it to Gisenyi around 7.30pm when it was pitch dark and I got a taxi to the hotel. I was taken outside to my room – a rustic chalet from where I could hear the water lapping at the shore as well as the crickets. I was slightly freaked out by the presence of some geckos and one rather large spider in the room, but I guess there are unexpected advantages to sleeping under a mosquito net. Once I got myself organised I got some eats in the hotel restaurant and chilled out by the open fire.
This little guy dropped in to see me, I have to confess he made me jump when he poked his head out of my bag!

Imagine my jaw-dropping delight when I woke up the next morning and looked out to see this view…

Absolutely stunning. I ate breakfast al fresco right by the water and listened to the sounds of fishermen singing as they brought in their catch. As it was a Sunday I could also hear singing from a local church drift across the lake. Whether they had one very long service or several back-to-back I couldn’t quite figure out but the joyful singing seemed to keep going from early in the morning right into the afternoon.

After breakfast I decided to head into Gisenyi to reserve my return bus ticket so that I wouldn’t get caught out again. My taxi-driver was a lovely man and we chatted in a mixture of faltering French (on my part) and faltering English (on his part though his English was still better than my French!) I took a wander round the busy market then wandered into a local church (turned out to be Presbyterian – seems like I couldn’t get away from my roots on this trip) where lots of singing seemed to be happening. The building was packed and I was made very welcome and shown to a space on one of the benches. In the short time I was there, four different choirs got up to sing – first of all someone would start off and the choir would make their way up to the front then they would start into their song properly with the church band trying to catch up and the keyboard person desperately trying to find the right key (once or twice they never managed to sync with the choir, but kept going nonetheless).  Everything was in Kinyarwanda so I hadn’t a clue what was going on. To be honest there were similarities with some churches at home – there was a minister in robes at the front with four others who all looked a bit stern. Some of the folks in the congregation looked a bit bored, like they were going through the motions, it seemed as if some of that austere Scottish Presbyterianism had filtered across time-zones and continents. After 20 minutes or so I wandered back to the market to meet the taxi-driver – if I’d wanted I could have walked to the border-post as Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo is just a couple of kilometres away, but the beach at the hotel was calling my name.

So the rest of the day I enjoyed the sheer and unadulterated bliss of not having anything to do bar read, enjoy the scenery and watch the world go by. I had grilled tilapia (lake fish) and chips for lunch – Rwandans make great fish and chips! 

Later in the evening when I had dinner, the hotel guests were treated to an entertaining display by a group of traditional Intore dancers and drummers. Two of the dancers wore long blond wigs – impressive enough to make Miss Piggy jealous – which is meant to be made from monkey hair. Gee whizz, being a tourist is so tough eh?