So I guess I’m officially at the point in my life where I forget to blog about spending a few weeks in Rwanda and Uganda. I am equally horrified and pleased with myself. As usual.
Here are your spoilers up front:
- Rwanda is absolute paradise. Garden of Eden. Cradle of Life. Evict all other assumptions you have about what this country is like.
- My ego enjoys it when you guys think I’m “fearless” but we were so safe and everyone was super friendly and welcoming. I didn’t experience anything remotely resembling fear (of my surroundings) until we got back to Denver: a rather safe city.
One last note on fear: Anytime I go on a trip, people tell me to “be safe.” That’s fair. I have to tell myself to “be safe” when I’m only going to Whole Foods, because of stuff like this but people also ask “aren’t you scared?” when I tell them about an upcoming trip. I know I’ve talked about this elsewhere, as well as making a comparison between gun-related deaths in countries I’ve traveled to and the states (one more spoiler: Rwanda’s murder rate is 2.52/100k to America’s 5.35/100k) but I came to a realization while we were away, and it’s this:
I may as well do “scary” things because fear is something I carry with me everywhere I go.
I had a panic attack our first night in Kigali. Not because we were in Africa. Not because it was an unfamiliar place, a strange bed. No– I had a panic attack because I have some kind of PTSD hypervigilant wounded person situation that makes me wake up in the middle of the night, unable to breathe, heart pounding, with one thought: this is it.
Even though I was able to retrace what woke me– the sound of a plastic chair scraping on a patio outside– it didn’t change the fact my body was convinced this was a true Kill or Be Killed situation. It had nothing to do with where we were. And it only happened that one time, which may actually mean it happened less while we were away than it does when I’m at home in my so-called “normal” life.
ANYWAYS my point is this: We do and don’t do a lot of things because of fear. I’m not saying all fear is illegitimate, I just think there’s an argument for… I don’t know, doing things even if they seem scary. Because if you’re me, fear is going to latch onto whatever it can find regardless of how “safe” you try to keep yourself.
Part One: Rwanda
Rwanda is like if Ecuador moved to Africa, had a baby with Nepal, then got KonMari’d because the country is *spotless*. I’ve heard complaints from people in Austin and other US cities about having their plastic bags and straws taken away, but damn– if Rwanda is any evidence, it works.
When we first got here, I posted on Facebook about how this was the cleanest city I’d ever visited. But as the trip went on, it turned out all the cities and villages were that clean– in my random videos you can see workers sweeping the dirt and dead leaves from the gutters. I never really saw any litter. It’s also super safe. You can walk around at night without any fear of someone messing with you. I’m not sure I’ve ever been or lived anywhere else where you could say the same.
We brunched at the Hotel des Mille Collines (aka “Hotel Rwanda” a la Don Cheadle) where 1200+ people sheltered during the genocide in 1994. It was disorienting to sit with that information, looking out over the city knowing this same vantage point would have given those who hid there a view of the genocide unfolding, or that the pool full of children and European tourists had been slowly drained for cooking. Even weirder was the non-far-away-feeling of the place, thanks to a live band covering Beyonce’s Halo (a song that haunts me) and a mounted TV flashing Trump’s phosphorescent face on CNN with the headline “Trump says he never said Mexico would pay for the wall (he did).”
The First Thing You Think of When You Think of Rwanda
I was in 10th grade the first time I learned about the Rwandan Genocide, though I was 8 years old when it happened. My high school Current Events teacher was old as dirt with a few strands of white hair and he popped a VHS into the rolling TV and said “I’ll probably get fired for showing this to you, but you need to know. Otherwise, it will just happen again.”
What I remember most from his news coverage were images of bodies floating down a river, and my confusion over the word “genocide.” I thought that word only applied to what happened in Nazi Germany, and I thought it was a one time deal— perpetuated by the embodiment of evil, and left in the past like some marker of how bad we were once capable of becoming.
We toured the genocide memorial in Kigali our first day. There’s a beautiful garden out back, with tropical flowers and palm trees and mass graves where 250,000 people are buried. That’s more than double the population of my hometown.
People seem to think incidents like the Rwandan Genocide just kind of happened. Like there are places in the world where things are different, humans are different, and in those places— “thank God we don’t live there”— something like genocide can just happen overnight. But that’s not how it works. That’s not how anything works. The killings were long in coming. Decades and decades of racial tension concocted by colonialism and racist religious teachings, cemented by oppression, stoked by propaganda, and then planned. Meticulously.
Inside the memorial there are rooms full of photos, provided by the families of the victims:
>Moms holding babies.
>Kids grinning with school certificates.
>Couples on their wedding day.
>Family portraits where everyone is smiling— other than a scowling four year old with his arms crossed who is clearly not having it.
They have that barely old look— like photos I still have stacked in the bottom of boxes, waiting to be stuck in an album. But they also look familiar because they look like YOUR families that I scroll through and like on Facebook and Instagram every single day.
Each photo is clipped to a long metal wire, and when you lean in to look closer, your breath makes them flutter back and forth like clothing on a line.
Another room is dedicated solely to the children. Below their photos it lists information about them. Favorite food. Best friend. Favorite toy. Just like you do when your kid has a birthday. Except then it explains how they died.
I’ve seen the movie. I’ve read several books about Rwanda. But I honestly never understood how it could happen. On a soul level, I still don’t. But I’m starting to kind of get it because of what’s happening in my own country (not to mention in the past). It’s far too easy to teach someone to hate a group of people by telling them *those people* have taken everything from you, or that they will if you don’t stop them.
In one of the museum exhibits there was a quote from a guy who grew up being told the Tutsis (the victims, 70% of whom were murdered) were responsible for the genocide. But then he researched it for himself and discovered that was a lie and said something like “now I go out and find the truth for myself.”
The media and propaganda played a huge role in what happened in their country 25 years ago, and it scares me because it’s starting to feel familiar. When we talk about innocent human beings as threats, when we make policy decisions that make it clear we value some lives more than others— where do we think it’s going to lead?
A few days later, we were at Lake Kivu eating breakfast to the sound of one million goats and Alex showed me a Facebook post shared by one of his family members. I’ll have to talk about this some other time, but it was chilling how similar this “must save America’s white culture from being diluted by outsiders” message was to the racist propaganda used to stoke the genocide in Rwanda.
I’m not Wikipedia. I know .000infinity% about anything, and I myself have a tendency toward divisiveness and hostility against people I think are wrong. But I want to do better, and like that earlier quote, I’m trying to go out and find the truth for myself.
There was another quote written on a wall toward the end of the tour. I don’t think I will ever forget it.
“If you really knew me, and you knew yourself, you would not have killed me.”
And Then We Hit The Road[Read more…]
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