Sunday, August 20, 2006

Rwanda Workcamp 2006

For the issue, finally, is not judgment. It is understanding. To make the effort to understand what happened in Rwanda is a painful task that we have no right to shirk - it is part of being a moral adult. - Susan Sontag

Thank you for your tax-deductable donations; your funds have been used to build a welding workshop at the Mwana Shuti vocational school (pictured partially-complete above) in Rwanda: Little Chapel of All Nations, Inc.; Nicole Smith; Levi Gomez; Ishmail Sillah; Michael Pockuba; Amjad Chatila; Allan Bushnell; Hymonty Hasib; Ben Mollenhour; Vanessa Robles; Jamie Clayton; Perla Rojas; Kelli Iannarino; Megan Wright; Chelsea Kammeyer; Lindsey Cure; Candace Reveles; Ryan Davis; Allen Godard; Megan Mohaupt; Ryan Russell; Michael Bradfute, Mike Matejka, Gillian Jerome, Sahee Kil & co., Josh Carney, Laura Markowitz, Martha Swan and Vito, Sharonne Gavron, Michelle Kuhns, Leslie Dupont, William Broussard, Hiep Nguyen, Laurie Bergner, Marla Foster, Irene Yeh, Ana Muniz, Arianne Burford and Greg Grewell, and Nancy Hand. Thank you for your loving support: Evelyn Rios, Dalina Castellanos, Corinne Cox, Leann Licata, Sheena Kawamoto, Kristin Reyna, Julia Tenen, Mayra Carpena, Jami Reinsch, Margaret Canovas, Gretchen Hildebran, Caitlin McDonnell, Darcy Alexandra, Claudine L., my parents, and everyone else who has wished me well on this journey. Thank you, especially, my clearness and support committee members: Nancy Hand, Ishmail Sillah, Teena Jo Neal, Erec Toso, Nurdeen Lawal, and Jim Bowman.

Workers and Workcampers

Friday, August 18, 2006






Penn Station

A man tried to touch a child in a stroller at Penn Station yesterday. The child’s mother was at first engaging, but jerked the child away as the man reached out.
“Your child?” the man asked.
“Yes,” she said, pushing the stroller away across the terminal’s polished floor.
The man shuffled off, tongues of his worn-out, black sneakers untucked. He was black, tall, extremely thin. He didn’t react to the woman’s leaving him. I registered, only after he’d asked the question that the woman was white and her child Asian.
The man’s want to touch the child had seemed human. I’ve watched older men touch young children – to whom they are obviously unrelated – in trains and other public spaces. This man, I assumed, was friendly.
I was sitting on my suitcase in the middle of the train station waiting on my train. The man’s question lay at the heart of the entire matter, as his own racial experience had raised his curiosity. The child’s mother had intuited the man’s physical movement as the result of his intent to separate her from her child, because the man’s words had, in fact, already functioned to separate mother from child for a second, at least linguistically. Such a separation could not have been possible had the mother and child been of the same race – or had the man not been homeless or of color, at least given the reality of all societies, the extreme violence of differentiation due to internalized racisms. The child’s mother had viewed the man as a threat, because he was black and looked homeless.

Ethiopian Airlines

“There is a fine line between martyrdom and suicide, and this is one of the most troubling aspects about martyrs – especially for the people closest to them. According to the biblical origins of the word, a martyr is a witness, someone chosen to bear witness for his people. But does bearing witness justify the sacrifices that martyrs often have to make? What makes martyrs seemingly indifferent to the pain they cause those closest to them?” – Ken Wiwa

On the flight to Ethiopia, I sit next to B. A mole on her eyelid, another on her cheek, a forehead full of wrinkles. She smells of baby powder. B. is Ethiopian. She was twenty-eight when her husband was politically assassinated by the Ethiopian government during Communist rule. After her husband’s death, she brought her children to the U.S. as refugees, educated herself, worked a variety of jobs. She is returning with family to Ethiopia for a visit. When I ask her how she survived her husband’s assassination, she says, “You keep going.”
She has also recently lost a son to leukemia. “He didn’t want to take medicine. He believed God would help him.”
We speak of religion, women, culture, AIDS.
“Is it really a disease of poverty?” B. asks.
I mention the positive AIDS activist in South Africa who refused to take the cocktail until the medicine was available to all HIV positive people in South Africa.
“How stupid!” B. responds. “People are so selfish! He should be taking the medicine and teaching others about AIDS.”
I listen to her point, assuming her outrage is linked to the death of her son. I am not sure I agree with her. I am, however, made aware of how huge an impulse I have to heroicize martyrdom when linked to social protest. I am addicted, almost, to the idea an extremist can somehow prove his or her conviction – and thereby attain respect, if not social change.

Kigali, Rwanda

A white woman arrived in Africa today reading The Graves Are Not Yet Full. She walked down the wobbly airplane stairs onto the tarmac afraid of the black woman walking so seriously and purposefully in front of her, leading her to the terminal. The black woman wore an orange vest. She motioned the white woman to the doors of the airport.
There was something about the proximity to the killing (she was now walking on killing fields) the white woman could not fathom, as she came from a culture that killed, largely, from a distance. The realism of her situation was such that distance had always before protected her –
She knew good and evil were elementary terms; there were always more than two sides, always more complexity than was assumed, and yet she was scared – scared of walking among those she did not recognize –

The ground is red, hills rolling, roads, for the most part, dirt. Beyond the taxi’s shattered windshield, I see girls in shockingly bright blue school uniforms. I am deposited at a cement house. Metal bars guard the windows, and cracks run down the walls. Inside is a large wooden table, a concrete floor, sofa, kerosene lamp.

“Which bunk are you on?” G., the first Rwandan to welcome me, asks.
“The bottom one,” I tell him. He laughs.
I walk with him, holding his hand, our fingers interlaced. He has come to take me on a tour of the compound. We walk up a gentle incline on a winding dirt path, past men on mopeds, bicycles, and others walking. The buildings we walk past are brick, tin roofed. At the top of the hill is a large block building complete with wooden ceilings, accompanied by a smaller building that houses a small library. This is Urugu Rw’Amahoro (Peace House). In it, African Quakers associated with the Evangelical Friends Church of Rwanda administer a variety of peace, reconciliation, and conflict resolutions programs.
Some children served by these programs attend Mwana Shuti, a vocational school housed in a series of buildings, some crumbling, one new, we pass on our right as we make our way back down the hill. Here is where we will begin building a welding shop next week. Eventually, these children, many of whom have lost a parent or two to the genocide, will learn to fashion window bars and metal doors here.

The sun is out, the wind slight. G. stands next to a field of corn. “Do you grow maize in the United States?” He has large ears that stick out and is shorter than I am.
“And do you have parents?” he asks me after I say we do have corn, and sorghum too. He is chewing on sorghum berries, the plant he’s pulled them from taller than he is.
“Yes,” I say.
“A mama and a father?” he asks again.
I nod.
“Sister and brother?”
I shake my head.
“And you?” I ask, knowing it is a loaded question.
“I have no parents because of the genocide,” he answers. We are still holding hands. I squeeze his.
“Brother or sister?”
“My bother was killed, too, but I have a sister.”
He tells me he is married and has a two, almost three year old daughter. I rub the ridge of muscles that run down both sides of his spine.
“That is good; that is very good,” I say.

G. has a scar off his right eyebrow. When he raises his arms, I see he has missed buttoning the second to the top button of his blue dress shirt.
“People like me,” he is saying, talking about his place in local politics.
He waves his hand, snaking it back and forth to demonstrate how to negotiate to get problems solved. He is talking about gacaca (a people’s court that is now trying genocide perpetrators), about how some people don’t want to admit their guilt.

We stop at Rwandan Friends’ George Fox Secondary School to tour the computer room (its computers donated and sent by Texas Friends). G. picks up a drill on a desk. I ask if he is intending to drill a hole in me. He laughs, pressing the drill bit to my stomach. Denis watches. Denis was one of only two students at this school who survived the genocide.

As we leave the school, a woman greets us. G. tells me she has four children and no longer has a husband. She is a widow. “She is lame, too,” G. says, pointing to her deformed foot. “But she has lots of energy…”

G. – who tells me he didn’t know if, after the genocide, he should “stay alive or die” – found a home among white people.
“They made me feel better,” he tells me. One white man paid for his secondary schooling and encouraged him to attend university in the U.S.
“The ministers here didn’t want me to go,” G. explains, having already spoken to me of embracing the Quaker faith, but rejecting the overly evangelical practices most prominent among Quakers here in Rwanda.
“They are too strict,” he says. “They don’t do anything, build schools, health centers. They just wait for God to provide.”

Anna, the other North American workcamper, who is returning for a second summer here, tells me, as we play cards together at the dining room table in our small concrete house, there is friction and divisiveness within this Quaker community between evangelists and those whose faith is less evangelical.
“Was G. too touchy-feely?” Anna then asks me, out of the blue.
“No,” I say.
I don’t tell her I crave physical contact; that it’s almost as if I need it in order to sustain my ability to process what horrors have happened here. I’ve also been told such intimacy is normal in Rwanda, especially between members of the same sex. I am not worried the contact means anything other than comfort, but Anna, obviously, is.
She then tells me G. touched her last year in an uncomfortable way.

Three-Day Alternative to Violence Program (AVP) Training

The opening question of AVP is: “What is violence?” As defined by those fifteen or so participants around me, suicide is – but I don’t learn this until we are coming up with examples of “transformative power” (a term inferring an ever-present alternative to violence) and I bring up Thinh Quang Duc’s suicide – burning himself in protest of the Vietnam War and violations of religious freedom – as transformative, and I am told suicide is violent and does not solve problems. (Other participants give examples more like the one given by Louise who says transformative power is counseling a pregnant friend into keeping an unwanted baby.)
“Violence,” Jonas – the Mwana Shuti teacher – insists, “including suicide, is always bad. It is never a problem solver. Killing yourself is equivalent to killing someone else.”
I try to argue, but Josephine, an AVP facilitator, interrupts me. “We are teaching you an alternative to killing yourself,” she says, calmly, sweetly. Josephine’s hair is done magnificently – braids sweeping one way, then another, woven into a ball at the crown of her head with beaded braids hanging down in back. I associate strength with her statuesque poise.
I can listen now that I understand the basic function of the workshop, now that Josephine has explained the purpose of what is being taught. I remain suspicious of the church-based pedagogy, however.
The only other person in the group not won over by AVP’s religious ideology is G. He’s defined violence as “any time your heart breaks,” and now he raises his hand. I am thankful he is participating.
“How could we have peace now [in Rwanda] without guns?” he asks.
“There is still conflict. Guns haven’t solved everything,” Jonas replies, peering over the glasses he wears on the bridge of his nose.
Perhaps because there are many of us and everything has to be translated, we end there for the day. I’m left thinking, however, about our differences as I walk down the hill, having noted who speaks and who doesn’t in the room, having questioned the hierarchy, as well as the intensity of belief of those around me. There is tension between us, but I do not know enough to understand it. I realize, though, that the commonality most shared by those in the room is religion. Another thing most of us share is relative wealth; I’ve noticed children in ragged clothes, barefoot, carrying things I suspect they’ve scavenged from the dump up the hill, pass by, sometimes stopping at the window of Urugu Rw’Amahoro to stare at us. Otherwise, we are a group of mixed ethnicities; some raising children orphaned by the genocide; others – young and relatively quiet – orphans; still others have husbands in prison. There are also a number of returnees – those raised in Uganda who moved to Rwanda after the genocide…
At the end of the day, I find myself still consumed with the question of whether the wish to martyr one’s self is selfish. Do I actually think it’s selfish and is this why I have come to reject Simone Weil (a woman who resisted any religious conversion, but whose spiritual search was exhaustive) – because she starved herself to death when she was my age? Do I reject Weil’s sainthood, because I have chosen life?

R.’s Arrival

…“never have I felt the word supernatural to be more charged with reality than when in contact with [Simone Weil]…. She actually experienced in its heart-breaking reality the distance between ‘knowing’ and ‘knowing with all one’s soul’, and the one object of her life was to abolish that distance.” – Gustave Thibon

“At that time (1942) [Simone Weil] was in exile from France. Extreme homesickness contributed to her final illness. People are repelled by her loss of will at the end, but war can make people sick and defeat them even if they aren’t stuck right in it.” – Fanny Howe

“I’m your mom,” R. announces.
She has just arrived from Uganda with two small bags. “I packed in a hurry; I didn’t know I was coming,” she says.
Anna and I have been expecting R.’s daughter who is now, we are told, taking her exams at the University of Kampala.
R. has said her daughter told her, “You’d better go, mom, because I have to take exams.”
R. has eight children. She is 36 – two years older than I am. Her husband is an electrician. And, she tells us, she is saved.
We light her candles, find her a towel.

R.’s arrival occurs minutes after I return with G. from a restaurant in Remera – its lawn fantastically green. G. had sat across from me, eucalyptus trees towering in the background. Behind him, to my right, I’d thought I’d seen a squirrel scampering around a mango tree. It was a monkey.
“There are two!” G. had exclaimed.
I’d watched, delightedly, as one monkey shook the mango branches in front of the kitchen where a woman cooked in an open window.
Then two restaurant workers had thrown rocks and old, dropped mangos into the tree.
The party sitting to my far right had been discussing which cell phone plan was the best.
G. had told me his story there.
Before 1994, G. had changed secondary schools, hoping to escape his ethnicity. But his identity had followed him. Eventually, he’d stopped going to school and stayed home. But soon it was determined too dangerous for the entire family to be gathered in one place. It had then been decided G. would join the RPF (Rwanda Patriotic Front). So he’d gone to where they were fighting. At this time everyone had been trying to hide in swamps, trees, attics, other countries… He’d joined the army. Many fellow soldiers died, he’d told me, “by bullet.” After liberating the country, he’d explained how the army had gone back, retracing their steps through each village they’d passed through during the war. In G.’s home town, he’d found his parents massacred and had buried them. The general had then told G. he was too young to stay in the army and had arranged for G. to take a test; G. passed with flying colors. The general had then paid for G. to go to George Fox School. While at George Fox, G. had become a Quaker...
As G. had spoken about going back and participating in the gacaca hearing for his parents’ deaths, I’d experienced myself as Philip Gourevitch… There had been something incredibly eerie about the way G. told his story – amidst the splendor of the environment that reminded me of Gourevitch talking to survivor Paul Rusesabigina. The beautiful backdrop had transformed the experience into a story. I’d found myself hungering for more details –
On the way home G’d told me, “I am your friend, I can touch you, hug you, kiss you. I love you.”
I’d told him in my culture there were different boundaries.
“Thank you for telling me!” he’d said.

I am thinking about this clarification I had to make as R. bathes in the adjoining bathroom. She exhales loudly as she pours water over herself. There is a splash, then a huff.
There is the truth, I tell myself, of G.’s liking me too much – perhaps something to seriously consider, but part of me craves the intimacy of such a connection, its depth –


Lay your clothes on the grass.
I see you, polishing your shoes against the red dirt,
brushing one fiercely, foot propped
against a pile of brush.
I see the mud bricks in the courtyard
and Louise who likes milk,
her clavicle deep.
I hear the snap of fingers,
feel others’ hands in my own,
taste the cassava, the green beans.
I squint against the grit, as you sleep in a chair.
The quick sand of movement you slip into
in your dress slacks and shoes
belonging to my grandfather’s
generation. Dogs howl. You sip your Fanta.
They came and cut your wife’s brother’s thumb off
and made him eat it. Then they cut his arm
and made him eat it. Then they cut his leg.
“Forgive me,” he begged. And they went away.
They tell this story – those who did this –
and ask forgiveness, too, from you.
Then they feed you,
offer you a straw.

AVP role plays

In the morning the church is alive with women singing and drumming. This morning R. ate three pieces of bread and two bananas. I drank a tea. Then we made our way very slowly up the hill. A man with a shirt the color of sorghum was talking at a bend in the mountain path with a woman whose baby, tied to her back, was bending backwards to touch the plants. The man had a crutch. We greeted them. He asked where we were going. To the school, I said in broken Kinyarwanda. He laughed that I had understood and attempted to speak…
The workshop today consisted, in part, of breaking into groups. We rehearsed and then performed everyday situations in which ‘transformative power’ was employed. Although not their implied purpose, the role plays offered glimpses for me into the society of those Rwandans participating in the workshop – most of whom work at Urugu Rw’Amahoro. The situation my group elected to perform was that of a neighbor desiring to steal a maid from a couple by offering the maid a decidedly higher wage. The act of ‘transformative power’ occurs when the couple return home from shopping to find a disgruntled maid and then work out a deal with the neighbor (the wife says she’ll help the neighbor look for another maid) and the maid (to whom they promise a raise). As we put on the role play, Etienne, the maid at Urugu Rw’Amahoro came over, barefoot, in her sleeveless shirt and pattern skirt and flop hat to watch from outside the window. She giggled at one point, sincerely interested. I wanted to know what she was thinking.
The two other plays had to do with issues surrounding fertility and pregnancy. In one, a woman is pregnant after sleeping with her boyfriend. Her boyfriend is too busy talking on his cell phone to bother with her pleas. She is not shapely, he admits to a friend. She then goes to her brother (as she’s lost her parents in the genocide) and tells him what has happened. Her brother says she has to take care of her child and herself, but also promises to be there for her. She has the child and then runs into the boyfriend who discovers she’s become more “shapely” and decides to marry her. ‘Transformative power’ was said to be, in this context, the brother’s easing the conflict by being loving. It was argued whether or not the act of impregnating the woman was violence, due to the pregnancy having occurred out of wedlock. The majority opinion was that it was violence, although Josephine argued it wasn’t, because the sex had been consensual. Diodene, a returnee wearing a jean jacket and biker glasses, raised his eyebrows when he heard this.
The last group’s play was about a man angry at his wife for being barren. In it, a pastor comes and speaks to the man, telling him to go to the doctor to see whose problem it is. The pastor then reconciles the couple, but the question of infertility is never solved. After the play was performed the woman actress, Jean, was told to sweep herself clean of the part; clearly, the acting suggested the potential of infusing her with such ‘bad luck’ as infertility.
These role plays challenged my sense of equality. The womens’ roles in the plays mirrored the stress of a society that undervalues both womens’ human and reproductive rights, and empowers the man in most matters. Even though the women in these plays were strong, their power was extremely limited, if not proscribed, by the men around them.

After lunch I was approached by Diodene who grew up in Goma (Congo), attended Great Lakes Seminary in Bujumbura, and moved to Rwanda after the genocide. Raised Catholic, he told me, making conversation, he had wanted to become a pastor, originally, just for the monetary benefits, but after settling here at Urugu Rw’Amahoro, he’d become Quaker and now he lived the true life – not drinking, etc… He then asked what I believed and I told him I had never chosen religion. Before any time had passed, he was telling me we were all children of God, that Jesus sacrificed himself for me, and wouldn’t I accept him into my heart? I declined.
In offer of explanation, I said I’d read a lot, mentioned Thomas Merton, Simone Weil, and spoke, too, about my father’s leaving the Catholic Church largely because he’d found it racist. I said I didn’t want to join a church because I believe everyone has a right to religion and no ones’ religion is wrong, and that I don’t consider any way to be the correct way.
I then said white people brought Christianity to Rwanda and that I respected the people who were here before and their original belief systems…
“But even they have learned not to sacrifice to idols and to believe in the Holy Spirit,” Diodene argued.
“Our sister,” Diodene then said, turning to Jean who had approached us on the concrete steps to Urugu Rw’Amahoro, “doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ.”
Jane, recently returned from studying computer science in India, made a long face and then addressed me. “You need a religion, it is your family, your community and provides for you when you are in need.”
I said, “It’s different in my culture…”
“So what do you believe in?” Diodene asked.
“That there is a power greater than myself and others, but I don’t give it a name, and that everyone is good…”
“You are saying you believe in everything?” Diodene questioned.
“What do you believe?” asked Jane. “What do you call it?”
“It is hurting me to talk like this,” I then said. “I feel you don’t respect me and you want me to be like you.” I then began to cry.
“Spring, are you tired?” someone asked.
I shook my head.
“Spring, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”
G rescued me. He took me to the far end of the concrete porch where, in the distance, I could see workers applying concrete to the side of a newly built house.
“I’m okay,” I said. “I believe in things. I’m a good person. They told me I hated myself, and I don’t; I love myself.”
As I said this, I realized it was the first time, perhaps, that I’d ever truly questioned whether I did love myself. Battling self-hate has been a constant in my life, but as I defended myself, I realized I was preserving my identity, my rights to love myself in the way I deemed fit.
Then Diodene approached me again.
“I’m sorry, Spring,” he said, after having to look first at my name tag to address me. “I respect your belief and you have given me things to think about and helped me.”
Then Jane came and said, “Forgive me.”
We were enacting transforming power. I shook Diodene’s hand. His and Jane’s voices were still in my head. I wanted to believe we had healed the rift, but all I could hear were their words, “She is in the middle, between Christian and Pagan… You can’t be in the middle…”

I felt myself closing involuntarily, everything turning cold. During the last hours of AVP, I had to participate in a group activity in which we were asked to draw a community, and the experience was horrible; we couldn’t work together. One person took over commanding another person what to draw; everyone else’s comments were silenced. Then, after coming back together, the AVP leader rebuked everyone. We’d all forgot something on our maps, he said. This was the lesson: “You think you know a place or a community and how it works, but you don’t.”

In the evening, while writing in my journal at the table, R. asked to borrow my AVP workshop notes, as she had only attended one day of the three-day workshop. I couldn’t share my notes with her, because I had interspersed them with my own reflections on the religious nature of the environment, and she, more than anyone, was adamant about being saved. Suddenly I felt like crying again. The religious aspect of the workcamp, I wrote – sitting across from R., unable to assist her – is oppressive.
“You knew it was coming,” G. had said, comforting me as I’d cried.

In the AVP workshop, after I’d been crying, I had found myself wishing for the feeling I’d had when I was with T. – of complete happiness and trust in a person. And I’d been feeling sorry for myself; sorry for T.’s leaving me. I didn’t want to have to be looking, again, for a partner…
The irony of my thinking this at that particular time is that the religious difference between T. and I was probably what had separated us. T.’s religious conviction had been, in some way, something I couldn’t respect. I had thought it had ladened him with self-hate and sexual anxiety, even though he’d explained it was what helped him cope, and he’d then rightly accused me of keeping him from his religious communion.

Religious difference does create a divide. I have privately distanced myself for a long time from evangelical persons. I have so many questions regarding extreme faith.
“What passage don’t you like in the Bible?” Diodene had questioned.
I’d told him the one where man is supposed to have power over woman.

Night falls and I dream of a pastor who is let down by other members of the church when he discovers they all sleep with their girlfriends – and so he does, and then feels torn.

The First Day Building

This morning I tell R. that we make our own food here. I am trying to tell her that I don’t want to cook everyday for her.
We walk up hill. The same girl who held my finger my finger the other day and wouldn’t let go is rolling in the dry grass. A boy pushes a small tire with a stick. They follow us a ways shouting, “Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour!”
“We have a parade,” R. says.

Yesterday when we passed an infant crying, R. had laughed and said, “She’s afraid of you, because you are white!” It was true.
R. is dressed today in bright yellow. She wears a head wrap and when we get to the worksite she sits on a stone. To her left Anne Marie, a Mwana Shuti student in camouflage jeans listens to a small hand held radio. G. stands on a hill of stones. We use a “goat” or ihene, a wooden stretcher two people carry, to haul the large stones to where we will begin to build the foundation. We haul rocks from two piles to where the mufundi are digging the foundation, marked by rope and stakes, with pickaxes, hoes, and shovels. They work with their shirts off and give me the thumbs up sign for carrying heavy stones.

Anna’s back is hurt and she carries small stones with R. who soon stops and says she has the flu and goes to sit in the shade. My arms become bitten by stones, rubbed raw by the sandy quartz. I like the work. One pile of rock is too big to move. Jean-Baptiste, another Mwana Shuti student, sits on them in his wool cap, long tank top, plastic flip flops, and headphones. The mufundi pause and watch us. One uses a panga (machete) to cut a stake, narrowing the end to a point. It is strange to see the panga here in Rwanda. I look at it. It’s crude, but still glistens in the light.

Noon comes and we sit in the shade of a mango tree, having bought freshly boiled corn on the cob, still in its sheath. I don’t want one. Anne-Marie and Judith (also a Mwana Shuti student) lie together in the grass. Aime, son of a pastor and student at a Congolese school in Kigali, helps me conjugate Kinyarwandan verbs.

After lunch I sit with G. on the concrete steps of Urugu Rw’Amahoro. I ask him what he’s thinking. Is he just looking at the view?
“It’s a very nice house, that one,” he says.
He puts his arm around me and tries to kiss me. I turn the other way.
Etienne comes and sits beside us. She is dressed in tight clothes (a blue velour skin tight tank top and jeans with a belt) and looks stunning. G. tells me she has a child. She had it when she was twenty-two. Then the child’s father left. I ask G. if she will be able to marry again, and G. says it will be very hard. “Men can meet and fuck her,” he says. “Or she can marry an old, divorced man.”
I tell her I, too, was left by a man.
“I didn’t think men left women in America, only in Africa,” she says.
I shake my head. Then, still curious, I ask her what she thought of our role play. She, G., and I then share a good laugh about its impossibility, its fairy-tale ending.

In the evening we accompany J., one of the workcampers, to his friend Daniel’s house. Daniel lives in a cul-de-sac. To get there, we walk along a concrete walkway worn smooth by foot traffic and rain. There is a collection for water in the center of the compound. The young children who live next door all come out to shake our hands. Daniel’s room is decorated with large posters – one is of a tropical beach scene, another of a snowy European village. A clock in the shape of Africa is positioned above the chair I choose. The door is covered in cloth and children pass in and out. We have come to watch the World Cup game – Germany versus Argentina. At half time, Daniel puts in a music video of a Kenyan Christian singer named Ester. One of the songs, “Ester in Europe,” is partially sung in a limo. In another Ester is dressed as a nurse and the song’s refrain, “We don’t have medicine, we have Jesus,” is nauseating. I am overjoyed when the game begins again.

The moon is a red crescent as we walk home in the darkness. R. is lonely and I don’t feel like entertaining her. I do feel like serving food to Alfred, the guard, but instead we eat behind closed curtains. R. says Anna and I don’t eat a lot, but in Africa they do.
Alfred is twenty-four. His parents live near Burundi. They have problems with finances, he says quietly. He lives alone. He is shockingly thin.

Fifi, the housekeeper and occasional cook, is thirty and has four children. Three boys and one girl. Her husband is as beautiful as she is. She laughs when I say I will have two by the time I’m thirty-six.
“I advise you to marry and have three children, not one like you,” R. tells me.
Meanwhile, R. says she is poor and doesn’t have money for school fees for all eight of her children. She didn’t finish school, so only her husband is working.
“Men love children,” she says.
I cannot reconcile myself to having servants, especially black servants.

Saturday and Whiteness

I sit outside in the morning sun. R. brings a chair out and joins me. I feel like a prisoner locked up in a house with no privacy. My skin color marks me. “Skin is expensive,” G. told me yesterday; when Rwandans see my skin they think ‘money’. There is also the cultural need I have for private space. R. doesn’t understand it.

Behind the umuyenzi or living fence – the green knotty, rubberish plant that bleeds milk and which J. has told me tastes terrible and stings when it gets in your eyes – children are playing. My arms are on fire from lifting rock. R., I can tell, is bored. She is wearing her new pink flip flops she bought with Aime at the market yesterday. She has Anna’s small Bible in her hand and rests her chin on the back of the chair. I take off my Rasta sweater – the one I bought in the Ethiopian airport because I was freezing and had no warm clothes. A prisoner of skin, of religious difference, of womanhood – and yet there is no forgetting my white, Western privilege. I am simply feeling temporarily alienated. Plus, there is tension in the house.
I go inside. Water, I’ve learned, is of utmost importance. I pour it from one bucket to another. Already the large bucket is empty. It has to be hand-hauled; usually Alfred hauls it. I don’t want him to. R. comes back inside, too, bringing her chair with her. I dreamt, last night, of blood, bile. Yesterday, a used condom on the path. I was surprised to see it – so like the U.S. I’d assumed condoms were expensive here; I’d assumed a cultural suspicion surrounded them…
Aime invites Anna, R., and I to his house. His father Samuel – a seminarian. The talk is empty. Both Aime and his brother Innocent sit patiently, leaning back in their chairs, staring at the ceiling. I notice R. is put out by Samuel’s lack of questions for her. Most of the conversation is directed toward Anna and me. I feel badly. To top it off, on the walk home Innocent tells me he wants to marry a white woman.

Toward evening, R. discovers she has lost her cell phone. She is crying. “My husband,” she says, “is very harsh, very harsh.”
I don’t know what to do. In many ways she is unlikable, in others she is human and I care for her welfare – especially when she laughs.
Alfred comes with corn and is grinning. He gives two cobs to R. The hypocrisy of his offering us what little he has, and us hoarding all we have – instructed not to share with him, as he’ll come, we’ve been told, to expect it – is not lost on me.

I am thinking, as I write tonight, about loss and its overwhelming presence here. When Aime said his mother was dead, R. said, “Tis not uncommon.”
I think, too, of G., who, after enduring horrendous loss, reaches out and comforts me when I am hurting.
When R. loses her Nokia phone, however, she fears the abuse of her husband.

How to understand Aime’s gigantic smile, brightly colored and well-tailored shirts, and Samuel, jobless, with five children to feed and school fees to pay? The gacaca, Samuel said, is like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But is it? Is the truth being told? How publicly? And what of the varying, unequal punishments (I’ve read of instances of those guilty of similar crimes receiving widely differing sentences)?

Violence nor loss can be ameliorated by gacacas or three-day workshops (such as AVP and the Trauma and Healing program) the Friends provide. But baby steps must be taken. I fear I critique too adamantly, dream too largely, and – in the process – lose my humanity. To desire too much is genocidal. “‘It’s the belly,’ we say in Africa,” G. had told me at the restaurant the other night, explaining how he and other Rwandans made sense of the genocide.
“Greed,” I’d nodded. I knew the African story of the belly. In it, a man without a stomach goes to worship at a shrine. On his way there, he meets a stomach. The stomach calls out. It has been looking for him, missing him. Before he knows it, the stomach has jumped on and attached itself to him. The man keeps walking, but soon finds he is very hungry. The stomach wants food, but the man is aggravated, as he’s never been hungry before…
G. and I had been sitting that evening under a mango tree. The monkeys had been hungry and were battling the mangos. The restaurant workers were battling the monkeys.

The red clay binds us, seeps into our shoes, our house, bathing the road, scratching our eyes. R. shows me her traveling papers and has me help her add her expenses together.

Walking Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death

We attend church – walking to the bare-raftered brick building, filled with stark light.
Alfred, our guard, introduces the pastor and prays on stage effortlessly and loudly. His religious intensity is completely unabashed. He leaps to the beat of the synthesizer, jumping.
R. takes up her seat and half of mine. The sermon is translated for me by J. who has lived in Uganda and is fluent in English. In the sermon, Ruth, we are told, leaves her her community to follow a widow woman who is following the word of God. As he preaches, the tall and thin pastor points with his long finger, thrusting it in the air. Children dance with small steps and mimetic gestures on the wooden stage and sing.

Three hours later we are walking back home, Aime carrying our newly purchased bread for us, wrapping it first (you don’t carry bread without a bag, he says,) in Anna’s sweater. We pass one white butterfly.
At home, I squat over blue plastic buckets and wash our dishes.

In the afternoon we take a taxi to Gisozi to the museum I have wanted to visit ever since I saw the picture in the New York Times of the wall of photos of those killed in the genocide housed at this museum. It is my first time really glimpsing Kigali as we are staying outside of it in Kicukiro. I stare longingly at the hand-painted advertisements and street signs; large-scale photographic representations, I’m reminded, are expensive. The signs are beautiful.
The museum is contemporary and other-worldly in comparison to most realities in Rwanda with its touch-screen videos and finely printed history boards. Two displays grab my attention; one, a video of a gacaca hearing, in which the prisoner in pink expresses no remorse, and the other, a board of photos and stories of proclaimed heroes who saved people, risking their own death, during the genocide. (Paul Rusesabigina’s story and image is not among those presented here and I wonder if his story’s absence is the result of President Kagame’s accusing him of selling out, profiting from the making of Hotel Rwanda. The film director, speaking on behalf of Rusesabigina, however, has stated Kagame is simply threatened by Rusesabigina’s critiques of Rwanda’s government...) One hero, it says here, dug troughs, covered the troughs with leaves and dirt and planted sweet potatoes over the people he hid in them. Another Muslim man hid thirty people. A woman hid people beneath her bed, because otherwise their tears, she said, would have always judged her.
The room with the photos is incredibly powerful, despite the fact that many have been copied and repeatedly hung, disturbing the effect of the individuality of the persons killed which the photographs – all personal snapshots – otherwise so profoundly elicit. I stand in front of these photos a long time.
There are headshots, pictures of families, shots of men with soccer balls, men with cows, children’s faces, old women with sunken cheeks. There is a photo I love of a woman, arms outstretched. Many images are faded, blurred. There is one of a white man. On the back of the photo I find his name: Craemers. A missionary. In another, a man poses by a lake. And I like the one in which men with gourds and straws drink banana beer. But the most haunting piece of evidence isn’t an image – it’s what’s scribbled next to the portrait of a woman. The words read:

5 Juillet 1994
I am thinking about
my best dearest
I am very happy
But don’t forget my word
in your heart.
EXCEPT… to die
Mani Uwemewe Delphine +
famille Mruboyiza Souzane

R. is ready to go. I don’t want to, but I must.
A white woman is weeping as I emerge from the room, clinging to an African woman. “How can you still like us?” she sniffles.
I walk past her and the memorial flame that burns for one-hundred days, April through July, each year – to commemorate the one-hundred days of genocide. A man on a ladder tends the flame.
On the way down the hill to catch the bus, I ask R. what she got from the museum, as I’d noticed she didn’t make an effort to read any of the displays. “People died,” she says matter-of-factly, “and in their culture they have one-hundred days of fire.”
She is stone. She is red clay like the path. She is, I think, a self-satisfied advice-giver. She walks down the path in her high-heeled sandals. I smell burning garbage. In a far field a child is being bathed. Water is thrown on her and she squeals, her body wriggling, alive.

We talk, after the trip to Gisozi, with Theoneste, a Trauma and Healing facilitator who witnessed the genocide. He’s asked R., Anna, and me if we have any questions. I ask about the government’s decision to outlaw ethnicity. He shakes his head.
I fear such a law is harmful, but before I can say anything, Anna interjects, innocently, “There wasn’t much difference between them [ethnic groups in Rwanda] anyway.”
“People can’t forget,” Theoneste responds, gently, gracefully.
Anna talks about the hope of children, the hope that they’ll forget, not know the difference…
I watch a man sweep maize that has spilled on the ground in front of a shop into a bucket, barefoot, using his hands and a whisk broom made of straw. I don’t think ignoring difference is the answer; respecting difference may be. T-shirts worn by passers-bys feature rappers Eminem and 50 Cent, and reggae musician Bob Marley.

In the evening I cook for everyone and lose my patience with R. who bathes again, consuming our water, and then asks me to serve her tea.
Alfred relieves the tension with his friend Freddie. The five of us play cards. R. wins all the games.


Birds, bright red, yellow, blue and white with black streamlining, tiny birds, at the outdoor faucet near the worksite. A lecherous stone mason who points to my belly and says, Enfant, and calls me ‘Fiancé.’ We work hard in the morning, mixing one part cement to three wheelbarrow-fulls each of sand and gravel. I am physically tired, lifting stones in the sun. The next thing I know I am slipping and Aime is holding my arm. “Sorry, sorry,” everyone is saying and I am shaking my head.

Tomorrow is the RPF celebration of independence at the stadium. Another American, M.K., who has just arrived to facilitate AVP workshops in Goma, says stadiums remind her of executions – like those that took place in Afghanistan. I tell her, here, too, the stadium was an execution site. I think about stadiums everywhere and wonder whether it is the competition they breed that turns them into hells.
M.K.’s presence reminds me how important it is for me to be in a country of almost entirely black people, to see an environment in which (even if the West calls shots from afar), blacks run everything. It is hard for me to see blacks here ‘enslaved’ to each other. I am the minority – made fun of, stared at, and regarded as other – but I receive privilege and honorary treatment due to the cost of my skin. The tables are not turned, there are simply different measures of oppression, tweaked relationships, other systems of power.
In the late afternoon Anna and I visit Alfred. His room – a dark, damp multi-bedded hole in the wall costs 5,000 francs a month. He can’t marry, he says, because he doesn’t have enough money to buy a house. He feeds us omelets with potatoes and Fanta. Shows us photographs of his friends, his baptism, his school. Looking at them is slightly sickening after having spent so much time studying the photographs at the museum in Gisozi. For a minute, I imagine Alfred, too, is dead, killed during the genocide, as I look at his face in a photo, even as he sits across from me on his bed.

It is horrible to be welcomed by Alfred and then come home to the two water jugs of ours he takes to fill.
“Why do some people have hard lives and other people easy ones?” I ask out loud.
“I can’t tell you, because I’m not God,” R. answers.
She has stayed home all day because she says she feels sick, has a pain in her chest.

Independence Day

The overwhelming stadium. Lorries crammed to their gills full of people singing, hanging off the sides. Children with stickers for earrings. The crowd a nightmare. I have never been so surrounded by people. I become claustrophobic. Don’t want G. touching me, move my leg away from his. Fold myself into myself. A man fans himself with a piece of cardboard, his elbow in my thigh. The stadium is entirely filled with black faces. Soldiers in green uniforms march like robots around the running track to crude, unappealing band music. Social groups, educators, and businessmen parade for hours. A doctor carries a plastic uterus, another waves a white plastic baby. Veterans arrive in wheelchairs and sit beneath the overhanging bleachers near the track. Drummers and dancers take to the track. The women dance like underwater birds with graceful, outstretched arms; the men sport white straw wigs, carry spears and jump. People are named heroes. Some are dead. Others, still alive, rise to receive medals. Kagame makes a speech about the need to continue being heroic. The sun beats down so intensely everyone tries to hide their faces. The women in front of us with braided extensions cover their heads with a faint blue wrap. People grow rude to one another, hitting and slapping. Don’t move, they say, keep still. Those suffering heat-stroke try to leave, but soldiers have cordoned off the exits. I panic. We are sitting near the exit and people stand behind us, trapped, unable to go back to their seats, their knees digging into our backs. I have no more energy. Something feels zapped inside me; to live in this collective society requires my patience, as the need I have for private, personal space is continually violated. Anna was spraying bug spray in our room in the middle of the night… My dreams filled with rapists…
I am groped by a man in the crowd as we leave the stadium. The swarm of people is so thick I am afraid of being trampled. We pour out of the gates and down the streets in a slow, coagulated stream. I feel cracked from thinking about the genocide, and about the snowball effect of peoples’ decent into complicity, their lawlessness growing as they lose more and more of their inhibition.
Maintaining the order of law is paramount to preventing genocide, contests Bill Berkeley, author of The Graves Are Not Yet Full. I wish I believed in the law, in prisons, but I don’t. Nor do I believe, necessarily, in education, or God. What is left? My father says he believes in trees…
I am homesick for the Africa I read about in Conference of the Birds – an Africa other than the one that feels oppressive, over-bearing.
On our walk home, Aime says he wants to be rich like his grandfather and do good things for people, unlike the egotistical leaders in the Congo. G. walks ahead of us, his tight belt cinching his dress slacks around his high waist, long arms swinging. He sometimes turns his hands in toward his thighs. This has the effect of making his walk appear terrifically calibrated.

In the afternoon I try to hide behind my notebook, my camera; they are welcome defenses – living fences. But R. worms her way through…
My feet are so caked with red clay they look black. R. tells me to bathe. She’s happy after having gone to church to pray.
I think of the one soldier fallen, collapsing in the middle of the stadium from the heat – men with stretchers carrying him, like an injured soccer player, away.
R. is telling me her husband is harsh with words. “I don’t trust him,” she says.
She’s seen him looking at other girls. She is worried she could be or get sick. It’s a problem in Uganda, she says. She feels better, though, when she goes to church. She’s saved, anyway, so she’s not worried.
I think of Witness JJ who just wanted to be shot, but was gang raped instead, during the genocide. She had to watch her sister be raped, also, and then hacked to death. I ask R. if she considers leaving her husband.
She says she stays for the children’s sake.
I tell her that women in the U.S. have more of a choice; they can leave their husbands and receive child support from them sometimes – if they are lucky. But culturally, even if they leave, they can remarry; they aren’t badly stigmatized.
“You are lucky, then,” R. says.


I sit at the table – early morning in Rwanda. R. is washing her sheets and the smell of soap is making me nauseous. Or maybe it’s my tea, or reading all the accounts of death and dying. I was thinking yesterday in the stadium about what happens when Big Men (to use Bill Berkeley’s term) in Africa have power, and about Kagame’s suspicious 90% election results… Where is Rwanda heading? The day is starting.
“Please don’t go in my bag,” Anna is telling R.
“I was just looking for a pen.”
Josephine has arrived to take R. to town. Why come to participate in this workcamp, I ask silently, if you aren’t going to work?
Meanwhile, R. is taking her time in the bathroom. Josephine is exasperated. “Why did they send her – a mom?” she whispers.

I am the only one who goes from our house to the worksite this morning. Anna stays home sick. R. goes with Josephine to buy a purse with our food money. I mix cement. The sexual harassment by the stone mason continues – he grabs his imaginary breast as I walk by. After lunch he is drunk.
There is, however, another problem. It concerns our amazi (water) supply at the worksite. We have been getting water from the outdoor faucet nearby which Jean Baptiste – who lives at the Mwana Shuti school and uses the faucet for all his water needs – has been turning on with a wrench from a pipe in the ground near the worksite. Without Jean Baptiste’s wrench, no water reaches the faucet. The problem is that the water bill hasn’t been paid. Jonas has simply instructed Jean Baptiste and other Mwana Shuti students, in the interim, to use the wrench and draw water illegally. Now, too much water is being used, so we are banned from this source. There is no clear solution in sight.

Fifi greets me when I get home in the afternoon. She is so calm. Often she sings. When she washes our dishes she sits in the back door stoop and talks with the neighbors through the living fence.
R. has bathed and is pacing.

Before bed, Anna reads to R. from the Bible, as R. says her eyes are bad at night. She asks Anna to read the section on circumcision. After Anna finishes, R. asks us whether men in the U.S. are circumcised and when it happens.
“At birth, I think,” Anna says.
I mention circumcision reduces the spread of HIV.
“No –” R. argues.
I say I’ve read this and that they are now beginning to circumcise men in South Africa.
The red moon grows.

“R., sometimes I think you don’t like me,” I comment.
“What did she say?” R. asks Anna.
“She said she thinks sometimes you don’t like her,” Anna says.



Today, after work, I climbed the hill alone to the memorial. The road was weeping ivumbi (dust). The man walking beside me was ancient. His shoes were high-heeled. His unsupported ankles looked like nails. How could he stand, he was so thin, so wizened? He wanted to trade my taking his photo for a Fanta, but I had no change. We crossed the road and walked on a path through banana trees and past doorways to empty houses slated to be destroyed by highway construction.

At the top of the hill was the memorial – completely fenced in and guarded by men in uniform with guns. Inside the gate was a statue dressed in plastic, a concrete rendition of a panga at its feet. Inside the fence a stone plaque had been etched with names of those Hutu and Tutsi who fought the Interahamwe.
“Why didn’t more fight back?” I asked Cyprian, a young man who’d been sitting among the guards and who’d accompanied me inside the fence.
“We can’t all be heroes,” he answered.
He was tall. Sweat ran down a scar on his right cheek. His entire family had been killed on this hill where five thousand others were now buried in three mass graves covered in concrete.
Cyprian had finished his second to last year of secondary school before the genocide – but after it, he’d had nothing. Now, at 26, he was essentially hopeless.
“It is better not to work, because if you work you may not get paid,” he was saying. He was unemployed.
We stood in the sun in a field of small metal crosses, looking out over a banana plantation. I said I was a teacher, but that I didn’t know what good I was doing. “I’m not sure education helps,” I said. “Those in the government who ordered the genocide had university degrees.”
Cyprian nodded. “If educated people get power and want to kill,” he said, shaking his head, “it’s very bad.”
I’d come to Rwanda, I told him, to help build a school, but also because I needed to ask myself what one person could do –
“Nothing,” said Cyprian. “You can do nothing.”
We stood in silence. I took his picture. He said he would like to go anywhere if he had the means. “Anywhere but here.”
When he said this I felt tremendously sad. “Are you angry?” I asked.
“Yes, but I don’t want what happened before to happen again. I saw what happened… Hutus are now coming into Rwanda from the Congo, killing, and then going back. I tell people I know if they are angry and a Hutu is there, just to keep walking.”

I thought, then, of Cyprian at fourteen. I tried to imagine the fear of this man who was telling me the climate in Rwanda is dangerous for growing crops. I thought of him standing on this hill, wondering how he could survive –
“There were Interahamwe everywhere,” he said, “coming there and there with all kinds of weapons, sticks, clubs, machetes.”
He hid with some people in the school on a hill above us and helped cultivate maize, potatoes.

Now what I think of is Cyprian, whose face I have already forgotten, waving to me. In my mind he has turned into one of the ghosts who wanders this place, who can’t separate himself from its grief.
“Just pronounce, manage to pronounce my name,” he’d said, telling me to come back and ask for him.

As I’d left, small girls in school uniforms had crossed the dirt road at the stop sign resting without a post, propped in the middle of the road. “Muzungu,” the girls had cried out, noticing my white skin.
One had wanted to touch me – and had run back across the road to give me a hug. She’d giggled as I greeted her in Kinyarwanda. The soldiers behind me had smiled. She’d broken my heart with her excitement, her love. I’d felt something inside me spilling – like the milk inside the living fences does when a limb is snapped, stinging if it gets in your eye.

I’ve been reduced to walking in silence through killing fields from memorial to memorial from dust to dust, through pushing children, and past women with babies tied to their backs. The feeling of helplessness, acceptance even, of this fate, this disaster, s ominous. Prisons can’t hold the swelling bellies. I see you, I’m bound to you, I want to say.

I am home. The light has fallen to the corner of the garden outside our house. R. has me spell the word “memorial” for her.


Yesterday morning I joined the children of Mwana Shuti in their shack of a classroom. They were singing, clapping, drumming. My friend Isa (who R. noted has a Muslim name) sat on my right. He is the only student (excluding Anne Marie, Judith, and Jean Baptiste who are, officially, part of the workcamp) who voluntarily comes to the worksite to visit and work. He says he is fifteen. He looks ten.

This morning Isa draws a finger across his neck, asking about my parents. He then pretends to dig in the dirt. Aime has to translate for me, because Isa thinks my parents are dead. They’re not. Isa tells me his mother isn’t alive.
At the worksite we have been forced to walk up the hill to draw water at Urugu Rw’Amahoro from water-filled oil drums. More stone have arrived by truck. We mix cement and carry it to the workers. One wall of the foundation is complete and they are now beginning the second side. This side won’t be dug because there is a huge rock under the earth. They will build the wall directly on top of the ground.

After work I run into G. who shows me, with pride, his new blue driving permit. He is coming from the church, around which more than forty people are gathered.
“They have AIDS,” G. says. He has been speaking with them.
He kisses my cheek.

At night, R. and Alfred continue to play cards after Anna and I go to bed. We listen to them from our bunks. Neither of them pronounces the other’s name right. They speak English to play, but break into occasional Kiswahili to discuss a rule. R. plays until she wins.
“Hey, Spring,” she calls out into the black night. “I am the winner!”


Nyamata. Skulls. Ten thousand massacred in the church. Seventy-eight thousand corpses found around town.
I set out on foot at six in the morning, determined to reach this town where Cyprian said the bodies are still uncovered, at rest in the original positions in which they were massacred, and determined, too, to leave the compound behind.
I walked the twelve miles, beginning the climb amidst boys pushing bicycles loaded down with yellow jerry cans full of water up hill, women carrying loads of potatoes on their heads, others carrying sugar cane and pangas, some with bundles of firewood.

At the crest of the hill where I’d visited the memorial and met Cyprian, women laughed when I greeted them in Kinyarwanda. On the other side of the hill banana groves turned into a young eucalyptus forest. Descending, I saw trees wrapped in tin and hung on tree trunks and stopped to take a picture.
“No photo,” a woman said, appearing from a path on the other side of the road.
Soon others joined her. A man asked for money. I gave up and began walking away, only to have the woman gesture to say it was okay to take the picture after all. So I did.
I gave the man a dollar – the only money on me that wasn’t a huge bill. He laughed, seeing the money was foreign. The children around him giggled. Everyone was waving by the time I again started off – even a woman on the road with green bananas on her head.
I walked down the hill behind a man wearing a backpack. Barefooted child’s foot prints marked the roadside. The man greeted me, told me he was a builder on his way to work. He asked if I had children. I told him I didn’t, and he said I should look for an older man to marry. I left him at Gahanga, and passed through the city’s center, where a good number of people were sitting around bundles of sticks.
The landscape changed as I walked into a valley. A four-year old boy kept up with me for some distance and then turned onto a path to the left side of the road. Fires burned in spots across the plain and fog lapped the edges of the surrounding hills. Yellow dry grass softened the landscape and houses marked with white painted Xs – their price in francs sometimes also written on their sides 3,000m or 8,000m – stood empty, awaiting destruction.
Mothers and children sat on the sides of the road. I saw one mother tying a head wrap on a younger girl, readying the girl’s head for a load. A small boy hurried after me. Older boys overtook me. “Give me money,” they demanded.

Where the land became level storks gathered in the tops of very tall trees. A boy coming toward me pushed a small metal wheel with a stick in one hand and carried a jerry can in the other. A river surprised me, snaking below the road. Wooden dugout boats floated at the edge of the reeds.

Women stood near the water’s edge and children sat on the bridge, begging me for umufaranga (a franc). They got up and walked beside me, insistent. One boy was dressed in green, another in yellow. A man cutting sugar cane posed for a photo. One of the boys explained he needed money to study Kung Fu.

Beyond the sugar cane bottom, police manning a checkpoint stopped me. One spoke French to ask where I was going. I told him.
“Quinze kilometres,” he said. “Quinze!”
I laughed and kept on. I’d been walking, then, for several hours. And even as I laughed, I was apprehensive – not knowing how far I’d already walked, how far fifteen kilometers was or how long it would take me or how, exactly I would get back, but I kept on, past a man holding the bloody leg and hoof of a goat, and another man whose hand was dripping with the goat’s insides.
The road grew steep. The hillside forested. Two men walking alongside me tried to flag me a ride. I sped up my pace. Road construction began. My fear of not knowing where I was going, the language, or how safe it was to be walking alone began to overtake me. I’d told G. what I was doing, and he’d tried to stop me, just as Diodene and Jonas had tried to stop me from walking just up the hill to the first memorial. G. was coming to check on me in the afternoon – I’d said I’d be home by then. I thought if I wasn’t there he’d come look for me and this calmed me some.
About this time, a truck driven by a white man passed me and the man waved. After he was gone I was overcome with a feeling I should have stopped him – if only to have asked what lay ahead. I wished, then, that he would turn around, imagined him my savior, imagined my meeting someone to marry – like my parents had met one another in Africa – here, on this desolate stretch of the road.
I continued on like this, worrying I would not get to where I was going. In the banana groves along the road, I spotted cattle. As I began to crest another hill, a bus stopped. It was headed to Nyamata. I got on and arrived minutes later.

The town was big. I had no idea where the memorial was. I began walking again. Past wooden storefronts, brick schools, wheelbarrows lashed together with dark leather. I walked in the thick red sand past a market filled with food, used clothes, and massive amounts of African cloth. A boy greeted me, then, speaking half-English, half-French, dressed in a long coat. He was shorter than I was, but not by much. I noticed he limped and was carrying a jerry can. I asked if he knew where the memorial was, and he nodded. I understood he would walk me there. He was an orphan, he said. His parents had been killed in the genocide, a brother was still alive. At the church entrance amidst the purple and white plastic flags, he left me.

A woman sat at a desk beneath the church awning. The church, as I approached, looked insignificant, like a building I would walk by without glancing twice. Nothing about it, visually, drew my attention. I approached and the woman rose and showed me in. She spoke in Kinyarwanda, pointing to the broken metal door, lock smashed, and then to the room on the left filled with bloodied, disintegrating clothes. It was so full I didn’t, at first, quite understand what exactly she was showing me. I was looking for bodies, but then she pointed to her shirt. In mime, she explained how the Interahamwe had smashed the heads of babies, swinging them around and hurling them against the brick foyer. And with staccato sound effects, she gestured to the alter full of bullet holes behind which blood had stained the brick wall and to the holes in the tin ceiling that rained down light. Looking up, I thought of the Nigerian story my mother told me when I was a child, about how the sun, having exited through a trap door in the side of the earth, circled around over the night’s dome, shining down through holes in the dome soldiers had poked with their spears when they’d died.
We walked out and around back to the catacombs, past the grave of an Italian nurse killed two years before the genocide for denouncing Hutu Power and demanding the government do something about the starving women and children in this largely Tutsi populated city. We descended, then, down concrete steps into a hole in the ground. On either side were coffins. The guide dislodged one of the plywood coffin covers, and tapped on the mass of bones inside. Each normal-sized coffin contained the remains of twenty bodies. The coffins were stacked ten feet by sixty feet and each one was covered by a purple cloth. One coffin, however, stood alone. In it, the guide told me in crude sign language, was the body of a woman who had been raped. Later, I learned the Interahamwe shoved a pole through this woman’s vagina and didn’t stop pushing until it had been forced all the way up her body, and through her skull.
We climbed back up out of the hole and descended into another one filled with stacks of skulls and shelves of arm and leg bones. In the skulls you could see clean gashes in those cut by machete. Other skulls had been smashed and were missing giant pieces of bone. I stood underground with the skeletons. The guide’s white shirt glowed, lit by overhead shaftways through which a small amount of light traveled. What I saw was clean and ordered. I’d expected, from what Cyprian had told me, to see skeletons in flight. The tour, though, wasn’t over. We climbed up the stairs and the guide, whose name was Seraphine, showed me the mass graves, the people in them unidentified.


The bus back to Kicukiro is crowded. We sit five to a row, forty altogether. A man next to me speaks to me in English, asking me how he can study abroad, what natural resources my country has, how much school costs, how much a plane ticket to Cuba costs. I ask him what he thinks of President Kagame. It is hard to hear him in the jolting bus, its broken ceiling banging with each bump we hit.
“Kagame,” he says, is dangerous. “You have to agree with him. He’s intelligent, but you can’t disagree or he’ll kill or imprison you. No freedom of press, of speech.”
This man’s name is Celestin. He is traveling from his hometown near Burundi to Kigali where he studies education at the Kigali Institute of Education. He is wants to know who I respect. I can’t think of any popular figure.
“The ordinary person,” I say.
He looks at me strangely. “There is no one?”
He then tells me Nelson Mandela is his hero. I regret not being able to mention someone… He asks about Bush. I say I disagree with the war. He nods. “What do you think of segregation?”
“Can you imagine Rwandans as one people?”
“The past three years,” he tells me as the bus rounds a bend, “things have gotten better, but still there is something that isn’t right, something that is rubbing underneath the surface.”
We get out at checkpoints, stepping over a giant bag of potatoes in the aisle. Guards check our papers.
It is one-thirty in the afternoon when I get off the bus. For a second I imagine there are skulls in my belly.

Eating with G.

G. proposed fucking. I refused and, annoyed, paid 5,000 francs for his dinner.
“Are you afraid you’ll get pregnant?” he’d asked.

You are hurt by those in vicinity, I reminded myself.
I was safe on my walk.

G. urged me not to tell anyone, but it was not my secret to keep.

I should have known, I told myself. You shouldn’t follow a man who wears a jacket with the words “Screwball” embroidered on the back, down a dirt path.

“How are you not depressed? Is it your family that keeps you happy?” I had asked.
“Not family, friends. Like you,” he’d answered.

The night had felt clammy. On our way home, I’d been revisited by accounts I’d read of rapes perpetrated by the RPF.


...“[Simone Weil] always remained on the borders of the Church and was never baptized. One of the last letters she wrote me shows very clearly her attitude with regard to Catholicism: ‘At this moment I should be more ready to die for the Church, if one day before long it should need anyone to die for it, than I should be to enter it. To die does not commit one to anything… it does not contain anything in the nature of a lie…. At present I have the impression that I am lying whatever I do, whether it be by remaining outside the Church or by entering it. The question is to know where there is less of a lie….’” – Gustave Thibon

…“Sylvere Lotringer gave a convincing talk on Weil’s likeness to certain artists – Celine and Artaud – who foreshadowed in their work the cruelty about to be imported from Germany, and who heaped on themselves the loathing that would be projected out onto Jews across Europe… In his analysis, to be chosen (a Jew) was to have no choice during those years. He helped to construct a bridge between those who were convinced of a virulent anti-Semitism in her thinking by suggesting there was irony, even play, in the bizarre way she denied being a Jew.” – Fanny Howe

Reading Umutesi’s book, Surviving the Slaughter, I smart; it’s Rigoberta Menchu’s equivalent – but it won’t be canonized. The unthinkable becomes thinkable with two sides (I have needed desperately to hear the non-perpetrating Hutu side of the story) – or have I simply needed to hear a woman’s voice?
Umutesi argues the blame and genocidal motivations blanketly assigned all Hutus. She complicates stories. She complicates the unwanted pregnancies and rapes during wartime. Rape and murder are surely often ideologically driven – Hutus raped to erase the Tutsi line (as Hutu-fathered children are considered Hutu), and Hutus charged of genocidal crimes in prison are now claiming the imprisonment is another form of genocide, as they cannot father children behind bars… But Umutesi also draws attention to rape as the result of war’s depravity, poverty, misery, lack of women’s rights, parental absence, bargaining for one’s life – rape that is not always an overtly political agenda.
Outside children laugh. The wind blows faintly. There is no such thing as taking sides – and yet there must be. This is Jean’s insistence. Since everyone has religion of their own, you can, too; you need a family, she’d said. The in between, I’d realized, as I argued that day with her and Diodene, isn’t, in itself, a way to be neutral; it, too, can perpetrate war, violence, misunderstanding.
Just as I judged T.’s self-hatred as stemming from religion, so Jean and Diodene assumed I hate myself, because I have not been saved. Where does it come from, this assigned blame of self-hatred to religion – or religion’s lack? Don’t we all have (and sometimes battle) both self-love and self-hate? Sandwiched between Hutu and Tutsi, I find myself at the table with a married man who says his wife won’t mind if…

Sandwiched between religions, cultures, between man and woman – what is this zone I occupy? And who does it serve? How selfish or full of self-hate is it? Is a non-conformist of use?

Writing, Umutesi argues, helps her not break down. Opens the space to others.

Giving Thanks

In church a man whose pants were cinched and high-waisted came forward to thank God because God had given him a girl. I was feeling sorry for the woman he was referring to, especially when he pointed at her – but it wasn’t a girlfriend he was talking about. His wife had birthed a baby girl. She held it up. He went over, picked up the swaddled child and I started crying.
Other than this, the service didn’t touch me; it was in fact revolting, as the sermon was about whether or not you deserve to be healed and go to heaven.

After church was a ‘crusade’ – a gathering of neighboring congregations. When Anna told R. she didn’t want to go, R. cried, “Don’t you like the word of God?”
Anna, who is Quaker and whose mother is a pastor, was tremendously hurt.
I was let off the hook, because my reason for staying home was not that I didn’t feel like going, but that I was expecting a visit from Isa.
R. left and Isa came. He brought a boy named Ari with him. Ari was tiny, too. I fed them pineapple and then followed them to their respective, overcrowded homes. Ari’s home had a window. His mother was the lame widow I’d met with G. my first day in Rwanda. Isa lived in a green room with no windows, but his home seemed full of laughter. His father had remarried and there were other children, including a baby.
In the evening, Alfred came with Freddie and Sandrine, another friend, to ask for school sponsorships. R. translated, telling me to go back to the U.S. and find people with money. I was exhausted, but she was in a good mood – that is until I told her we needed to hurry if we wanted to meet up with Anna at Katie the missionary’s house to see the World Cup Final. She then promptly announced she was tired and sat down in her chair, refusing to communicate.
At Katie’s, I ate a waffle and watched with disgust as Zidane head-butted an opponent and was barred from the game. The winner/loser mentality was wretched and reminded me how ugly humans can be. Anna and I then returned home to Alfred on his cold, hard chair. He was not his usual, happy self. I blamed his mood on my inability to financially help him and my not inviting him to watch the game. This must have come as a blow to him, especially after he’d arranged for us to watch a previous game at the church guest house.
The moon was full. I feared the mosquitoes were infecting me with AIDS.

Roads of Fear

Twelve years have passed since refugees – Umutesi among them – ran to Gahanga from Kigali, were not welcomed, slept outside a building and were pissed on in the night. I walked this road, entrusting myself to it, and to the goodness in people. I passed dozens of men, boys carrying knives.
I think of the politics behind images of white women on TV dancing to sell Thai food in Kigali, and behind the Rwandan World Cup ad in which a man jumps out of the closet cheering and embracing his lover’s husband. I remember reading Eldridge Cleaver’s coming to consciousness of his having been socialized to desire white women. Then there is Innocent wanting a white wife. This desire to marry white is more complicated than Philip Gourevitch reveals in his preface to We Wish to Inform You… It is not necessarily the result of internalized self-hate or the Rwandan who tells Gourevitch, “The African is sick.”
The want to marry white, at least here, I think, can be the result of wanting out of poverty. One of the reasons G. likes white people, I find myself thinking, cynically, is because they helped pay for his school, the cows he presented his wife’s parents, his house…

I feel sick. Gravel in my stomach. Unable to shit.

This morning I met with Laura, a trauma and healing workshop leader, also American, who works at Urugu Rw’Amahoro and is one of the overseers of the workcamp. “Sexual harassment matters to me,” she said, and also mentioned something similar, also involving G., had happened last year with another workcamper. She proposed she and I meet with G. to say if it happens again it will be reported to his superiors. I agreed to this. I could not abide by me, a white woman in Africa, reporting such an incident that would insure the ruin of G.’s career, not to mention family.

After meeting with Laura, I was walking up the path to get water to bring back to the worksite with R. when she said, “There is something I want, but it costs money.”
I asked her what it was.
I said nothing and we continued on our way.

Meeting with G.

“We hoped that with such a document [of women’s refugee experience] our situation [in Goma] would stop being perceived as a just punishment for a group of genocidal people who did not want to go back to their own country for fear of reprisals.” – Umutesi

“Even now… the image of the young girl [dying] haunts me and with it the feelings of futility and revulsion that I felt every time that I found myself faced with the death that lurked all around me and against which I was utterly powerless.” – Umutesi

Just finished Umutesi’s book. I am broken. Law-abiding. Faith. Double genocide? The disasters of humanity. Today I must confront G. I’m not looking forward to it. I sit outside waiting for the bathroom. I feel scared of life here. I don’t want to be scared – but I see so many people stifled.
Today, too, I’ve realized, I don’t always only represent money to people here; I often represent “freedom,” and to some, a ticket to North America.
I think, too, the walk to Nyamata was key and that I have to “get out” more. Everything here feels closed and locked to me here in this gated religious community. Simultaneously, I am easily accessible. I sit outside the house in the morning sun.
I don’t want to face what it is to be a woman in this land.
A madwoman in Umutesi’s narrative is the most caring person Umutesi comes across as a refugee, as the madwoman is the only person she meets unburdened by a conventional social role… Others, on a whole, Umutesi’s narrative reveals, are out to get what they can from the refugees if they offer them assistance.
What role do I play in my own servitude?
We need to hear all sides of a conflict – and to be human even to the inhumane.

Pink geranium, children clapping, the living fence grown between what saps and what leaves, bitter milk inside. To stand this way: between. To mark what passes. I do not want the humility of being a boundary – I would rather be boundariless, broken, and yet living is about surviving, not only surrendering. It’s about direst circumstances. What choices do we make? The discipline of standing, of continuing to grow, of attaching ourselves to land, and then some of us being forced from it…

The broken heart that tries to sabotage for pleasure – why? I was asking G. He was bending before Laura and me, repenting. “Forgive me.” His biggest fear that we might tell someone. He misjudged my intelligence, my want not for it to happen again. What do the broken suffer?
I ask why he desires white women. Please, I say silently, let him not desire whiteness – please give him self-love. But who am I to qualify his self-love? Or to say what he should desire? Then I say, silently again, Please let Laura learn to help people embrace their differing sexualities.
“You love your wife,” Laura is telling G. “If your daughter overheard this conversation it would break her heart.”
My real question for G. is, What are you searching for? But there is no way for him to answer this question in Laura’s living room, given her standing in the church, and especially, given her and my whiteness. I feel like a member of a lynch mob.
G., what’s your hunger?
He is scared now and runs to buy Laura a phone card to appease her.
I am thinking of all the sexual advancements Umutesi had to negotiate for survival. How there was rarely a free gift – everyone expected a payment, something in return for aiding her. If a payment or sexual favor was not given, they would stop helping.

My head aches. I need space, solace. I want to understand why people are so debased. I want to understand what justice and love mean. The end of Umutesi’s book so abrupt. I am sad. Sad for all the loss. This is my space, sadness. I don’t want stock phrases. I don’t want any words that are flat. I don’t want anyone not to question.

The worksite, however, is happier without the drunken stone mason. He was relieved from his duties today.

After Being Tested

“Rape as a part of warfare is not just about having sex, it is also about having someone else’s property.” – Elizabeth Nueffer

“I sensed all too well the powerlessness, terror, and shame that so many of the rape victims I had interviewed had known. I suddenly understood why sexual violence, in all its intimacy, is so different from other kinds of violence. Noting had happened to me and yet I still felt degraded and ashamed.” - Elizabeth Nueffer

I need to go to Ntarama. This is where I can find the memorial about which Cyprian was telling me. Laura told me I passed the road leading to it on my way to Nyamata. I must take that road past a widow’s village…

Yesterday the Mwana Shuti students went to the hospital to receive the results of their blood tests. Today they are back at school, helping us carry cement blocks from the building the workcampers finished last year (that now functions as a classroom and a storeroom) to the foundation we’ve been building that’s almost complete. My clothes are filled with grit from the cement blocks as they crumble.

I’ve read more and more about the genocide, and about the problems of how justice is being served in its aftermath. These problems include the government’s refusal in 2001 to work with the UN tribunal when the tribunal proposed sending back a main suspect to the Cameroon; the problems with UN backing, given the UN’s knowledge prior the genocide certain people would die and their refusal to bring these facts to light, compromising the tribunal, and the entrenched system of non-neutral judges.
G. days ago had explained to me that he quit the government position offered him, so he wouldn’t continue to be the one to sign the guilty or not-guilty orders in gacaca courts. The weight of deciding the futures’ of others, and the fear of reprisals he might thereby suffer had become too great.
I stare out at the cornfields, blue mountains. Women walk the roads behind me, loads on their heads.

Scrapes on my knees and arms from football played tucked away in a patch of eucalyptus by the technical school. Mwana Shuti kids play barefoot. Jonas with them. On pure hard dirt – all of them – girls and boys. One refs with a whistle. The bad luck of having walked to Nyamata not knowing about Ntarama. Fifi’s daughter in the kitchen, sitting on a stool under the window, singing a church song.
Anna will be gone to Gisenyi on Sunday. This will leave Rose and I alone in the house. Laura shocked I walked all the way to Nyamata. The evening falling. My expressing my dislike of the idea of going to a game preserve – this the suggested outing for workcampers as a “reward.”
Fifi’s small girl empties our garbage. I think about Witness JJ’s agreeing to testify despite being pregnant; and what this meant – as another witness’s husband was killed after his wife testified. JJ’s lover then leaving…
I think, on the other hand, of what it can mean never to see justice, to always live with the feeling of being hunted.
I imagine Judith and Anne Marie would be the children who would stay together, die together, refuse to segregate. I think of how they’d been counseled about the HIV test. They didn’t have to take it. I think, too, of Jean-Baptiste saying he has life problems because he is an orphan, and of Anna’s nonsense talk, talking simply to comfort herself. Fifi is talking now across the fence.

Justice as a court in which to tell your story. Justice as that which may not exist, but must be strived for –
What I realize is that justice has to be inside of you. It has to grow from belief –
I am mourning security. I am mourning who I’ve decided to be, a nomad. Wanderer. Unattached. Trying not to align myself with evil, trying to be true to my spirit. Sometimes this takes all my strength.


Went to bed very early. Mostly I just needed space. The luxury I’ve had most of my life of celibate space. Anna reading out loud to R. in the front room. My trying to block out her loud voice.

Two days ago, Twa with pots on their heads, standing outside the school gate staring and Anna and me. “Umufaranga?”
“Oya,” I shake my head.
G. has told me Twa don’t like sending their children to school. They are primarily potters. He spoke of them as lower class citizens.
His proposition to have sex with me explains why he never listened to me, just talked his long-winded, emotionless stories, and then would watch TV or tune out when I began to speak, never asking me a question. I take that back – he did ask me about how water got to the Arizona desert, and I told him it was piped from the Colorado River and came out of faucets inside houses. He was thrilled.
Here, water is collected in jerry cans mostly from a central spring or tap about a half-kilometer away, near the village market. The first time I saw people milling around the spring, waiting their turn to fill their cans, I thought of the film “Yesterday,” and of the news that traveled and was received in this drama, while the women waited their turn to pump.
My name here is translated into Kinyarwanda not as spring the season (as there are just two seasons here – the wet and the dry), but as spring, a source of water, isoko…

“You have two sides,” R. said last night, telling me when I got quiet I made her worried.
I explained I had moods in the U.S., too, and asked her why this worried her. She explained my moodiness made her think about all her problems – her lost cell phone, being separated from (with no ability to contact) her family, missing her planting days, worrying she would be reimbursed for the money she has already spent, and thereby not being able to afford the trip home. D. says she was given money to make the trip here; she says she borrowed it…

The mosquito netting above me is like a wedding veil. A bird calls with four short, monotone bursts followed by two high pitched coos. I want just to concentrate on the mosquito netting, because other things are too painful. I don’t want to think about starting all over again, moving to Iowa this fall. Or about men. I don’t want to think about Brazil last summer or Rwanda this summer, or the purposes these places have served, freeing me from (or nailing me to?) ghosts of relationships. Part of me feels hurt to the point of unfeeling, the other part doesn’t know how to separate literature from reality. The justice I am looking for is people’s justice – the same justice I once scoured Black Panther texts for –
I have always wanted to believe a separatist movement could work; I’ve wanted to believe in armed revolution. I support Chavez, the Zapatistas, and yet, looking at history, do revolutionary movements work? What unfolding occurs? More unrest? A more dictatorial leader? What do these struggles to overthrow power bring? And at what point does racism take over, become so linked with land, power, and money, that as soon as one people exterminates another, a new social movement is created, and revenge killings then occur in the name of justice?
I suppose these questions boil down to more questions, like how to govern fairly and how to live with difference. These questions lead me to think about the point at which those who’ve been enslaved become so frightened to lose the power they’ve won that they fight an all-out-war to retain it… And a country then can fight, preemptively, simply to retain their stranglehold on resources, land, power…

If justice is defined as trying individuals for individual crimes so as to wrestle free from history individual acts and to judge each one accordingly, must one, then, ignore history?
Impossible. One must answer to it, change it. There is a relationship between individuals and history; this relationship is the story that must be told, the story I am searching for – the story of what this relationship is able to expose.
I look for openings in a mosquito net, holes in a living fence.
Separatist movements still entice me. Perhaps countries will break apart, ethnicities adhere to certain lands. Boundaries – some hurriedly drawn by colonial and post-colonial frenzy – will shift, merge or divide. Can those with nets and fences protect themselves?
“I am sad for the world,” I tell R., when she asks me what is wrong.

Today the worksite is pleasant. Anna in constant chatter. I carry cement in shovelfuls back and forth to the wheelbarrow from the cement pile. In the eating room at Urugu Rw’Amahoro, men are hanging curtains – dense, olive green curtains with gold trim and design. Now those carrying loads to and from the dump won’t be able to look in.

Under the Surface

Freciem, one of the workers, walks like a horse – his lame leg lifted high – cement in a round tin on his head. He steps carefully in his flip flops. Baptiste, the man R. calls ‘The Big Man’ (whose voice is like a barrel and who talks very slowly, annunciating each Kinyarwandan syllable), is happy we are moving dirt, filling the foundation. R. is wearing her head wrap. Yesterday she crouched in the interior corner of the foundation. “My shadow,” she said, meaning she’d found her shade for the day. Eternally resting. Isa is my favorite. He smiles. The worksite is more pleasant now that the one mason isn’t stealing up the hillside in the middle of the morning with his jug of banana beer. Freciem chews on a corn stalk.

I am dusty and tired. I stand up and blood rushes. Calluses have formed on my hands. We’ve finished the foundation, filled it with dirt. I feel like I’ve accomplished something. It makes me want to build my own home. It’s the first time I have really felt this. At the same time I mourn the dreams T. and I had; what could have been built and was destroyed. How easily things die. And how broken we are after these props collapse. The foundation – this is what I have helped build. From the ground up. From underground. Awakening old dreams to bury them, to plant them in basements of skulls and bones – unable to be identified, pieced back together.
My loneliness is palatable. It tastes like dust. It looks like a white man in a white truck, a stranger.

Joyce, an AVP facilitator, stops by the worksite, so beautiful and gentle in her skirt, tennis shoes, and orange nail polish, petite build. She appreciates the work. Someone, a mother of a two-month old baby in her family, has just died...

The snapping of held hands, fingers. A culture full of contact. Jonas with his cell phone, notebook, whistle. My warming to him, seeing his ease with the Mwana Shuti children. So many beautiful children, half-clothed. Energetic. What are their futures? Do I impose hopelessness upon them, because I am now feeling the loss of my own dreams? Now I am scared, quiet, alone. I am other than who I dreamed I would be. I suppose this feeling is all around me here – and yet I feel so separated from it. It is like seeing an email I can’t open or respond to. This maddening surface. Aime trying to remember the English word for ‘deep.’

Fifi. Her gracefulness, composure. Her beauty. She is the first to give me a real hug. Her real name is Francine. She makes me feel better. I call her nimwiza (beautiful) and her friend laughs with joy.

G. comes in the evening with his wife who, he says, wanted to visit us. She speaks of having gone to Uganda for work eight and a half months pregnant, and how she’d worried, because she’d wanted to be with G. at the birth and he was in Rwanda. She talks, too, of how women in Rwanda are oppressed. How even within the schools, girls are subservient and expected to bring things to the boys. She says at home it’s odd, because G. is used to white people, so he will fix a tea of take care of their child and other people will talk. “Did you see…?”
I am avoiding looking at G. I feel sick and sad for his wife and all I can hear is the word ‘fuck’ coming out of his mouth.
“You are amazing,” Anna says, after they leave.
“So are you,” I answer. “I’m glad you are here with me.”
“The whole time I was trying not to cry.”

Night falls. R., who has heated water, is complaining, “What do I do? I have no soap for washing.”
“That was my soap,” I say after she tells me she had found some soap, but that now it’s missing. (I’d been hiding that particular bar of orange soap in an empty toilet paper roll in the bathroom, but when I’d spotted it in the soap dish, I’d returned it to my room.)
“If it’s gone what will I do?” R. repeats.
I don’t answer.
“Maybe you aren’t understanding me,” she says – she’s learned this phrase from Anna. She explains that Laura told her to tell Anna to buy soap with the food money.
“I cannot help you,” I say.
“Maybe tomorrow I will bathe,” R. says.

Today R. left the worksite after doing almost nothing after lunch. She was lying in the grass when I came home. Tomorrow I must go off on my own for my sanity.


I dream of sleeping with a married man, but awake thinking about learning Kinyarwanda and returning next summer to walk around Rwanda.

Why does R. have to get up when I do? I need this morning time…

At 7:30 I set out for Ntarama. Cows and herders in the bananas at the top of the hill. Smell of milk and sweat. Dust. The sound of wind in banana leaves, a bicycle going down a bumpy dirt road – a can on its back end, hitting the metal rim with each bump. A girl claps my hands. At the sugar swamp people fish beneath the bridge. I cross the bridge with a man – Abraham – who I soon discover is related to Joyce, the AVP facilitator. He is going to bury his sister and visit his mother who is taking care of the two month old child of his dead sister.
We walk. He stops often to tie his shoes. He carries a black hand bag and a long coat over his arm. He is thin. He tells me he fought with the RPF in Uganda (where he was reared), Rwanda, Zaire, and Angola. In Angola he fought alongside Savimi (leader of CIA-backed UNITA) who he’d read about, while in school, in history books.
Abraham speaks English in a soft voice. He says he is walking all the way to Nyamata because God told him to. He tells me Biblical parables. When I ask about preachers turning into killers during the genocide, he says, “Judas. Even Judas was Christ’s disciple.”
Thirty-one years old. “Backsliding,” he says about his drinking during the war. But, he maintains, God is the only thing that helped him stay alive.
When he was in the fourth grade he wanted to be a preacher. He never wanted to become a soldier. He was pressured by his Rwandan parents (refugees in Uganda who fled Rwanda in 1959 along with other victims of ethnic violence). They’d never let him forget he had to fight for his country – a country he had never known. He says now he wonders what it would have been like not to fight – to have refused. Others did refuse, he tells me, and many of them, too, had also been pressured to fight.
He is finishing school – computer engineering. He says that with God there is no law. On earth, in politics, governments have law and because of the law some people die, are killed, punished. Still, because he fought for this country, he’s invested in its politics.
He never slept with a woman while fighting, he said, but waited for a fiancé. He kept God in his heart, even when fellow soldiers would go bring women back to their quarters and offer him first pick.
He vowed to himself he’d follow the word of God if he made it home from Angola. A soldier was killed beside him directly as he took the oath. Recently, he was asked to go to Dafur, but chose to go to university instead. “Soldier was never my profession,” he repeats.
We reach the split in the road and sit in the shade. He, too, is called muzungu (white or foreign person), sitting there, talking to me. I invite him to dinner. “Do you have a fiancé?” he asks, and when I tell him no, he says, “I can be, I can be.”

Something about Abraham, despite or even because of his religiousness is beautiful. Something about his living through brokenness? His sincerity? His walking with me uphill? His sister has just died – so young – why? From malaria or meningitis? She was sick for just three days. The old people thought someone had bewitched the family. Abraham told them otherwise. “Bewitching is just their explanation for disease. Only ten, twelve percent of the time is it actual bewitching,” he tells me.

“I have loved you so much,” he says, as we part.

I walk to the memorial site through banana groves and past the empty-looking Nelson Mandela Peace Village. Dative, the guide, sits outside the gate to the church, reading a small English/French dictionary. She lets me in. White and purple flags decorate this place, too. Skulls. Grenade holes in the church’s brick walls. “The government,” Dative informs me, pointing at the debris between the pews, “decided not to clean.”
We walk on the low church benches that tip and sway over debris that was once bodies, belongings. I feel I will fall. I spot a bone – then many bones, a hip bone, a femur. Beneath me a purse. Near the alter a mattress. Why? A skull near the cross. Five thousand killed here. Not Dative’s parents, but her aunt, her uncle. A bullet riddled poster of the pope…

In the next hut, clothes. Pangas hang from the ceiling. Skulls and bones in a pile. Teeth. A faint smell of death clings to them – sweet, salty, musty. Child skulls look like badgers’ skulls. Or foxes’. A room in which people were burned. Sunday school where objects of those killed have been brought, collected, and sorted. There is one big, dark stain on the wall where someone was killed. Shoes, gourds, jerry cans, thermoses. Necklaces hang from the rafter. This room, for some reason, is the hardest to bear.

Outside again, we sit on a fancy brick bench with a rectangular window behind it – made for the memorial. I give Dative my address and take her picture and the picture of all the empty places for names of the unidentified dead. I ask her why she works here; she says she would like to go to university. She is twenty-two. At night she dreams of skeletons and war.

Two girls accompany me on the first leg of my return journey. When I tell them I am walking to Kicukiro they hold their stomachs and bend over. They say I will be hungry, tired. They are around fourteen years old. One is tall. She has a long nose. The backs of their heads are elegant. They provide me company for a short while, then turn off to the left on a path.

Crossing the river, I meet children eating sugar cane and carrying fishing poles. The sounds of their crunching and the smell of the fish is overpowering as we walk alongside the sugar’s rushes. Girls are crossing a small hand-made bridge with dry sticks on their heads tied in bundles. They are the same girls who accompanied me on the way from Gahanga to the river. They are perhaps nine years old, yet wizened already. One girl has a regal face. A man with a rap shirt walks behind us and a boy wants to know if I’ve seen Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee…

As we walk uphill, the girl with the regal face stops with the dry reeds on her head and picks up a dead fish the size of a large man’s thumb that has been dropped in the sand on the side of the road. She scrapes it with a nail. Breaks open its stomach – near the tail. Red insides. She makes a face and drops the blue black thing. A week ago at this same spot in the road a woman with horrible sores on the inside of one arm showed them to me. I’m sorry, I said. The arm looked too sore even to lift. Purple, black.

I notice the landscape in ways I didn’t the week before. It seems to open to me.

I am extremely thirsty after walking uphill to Gahanga. Outside a bar, I buy a tonic. Men are obnoxious. I drink it there, return the bottle, and leave. Not far out of the center, a man approaches me. He’s drunk. His brother, he tells me, lives in Toronto. I don’t care. I am tired and impatient, but he scares me. He’s the only person I’ve met walking who has scared me. I am rude to him and ask him to leave. He insists he will accompany me and I refuse again. He makes strange, erratic, drunken gestures. I don’t want him around. He turns finally, and his place beside me is soon taken by a man pushing a bike. Even though I do not feel like making more conversation, I am relieved by the change of company.
This man explains a new airport is to be built at Nyamata. The widening road will change the course of flight. I ask him if people are upset at having to move to make room for the road and he says, “Oh no, they want development.”
My legs, shoulder, and hips hurt by this point. I’m thirsty again and dusk has arrived by the time I reach home. The house is stultified. There is stress. I have felt so far from it, swaddled by countryside and care from all sides, by so many strangers willing to talk, share their thoughts, and so many curious children…
Home from the road that welcomes, that drips, provides solace from the omnipresent weight of R. The unbearable duration of her waiting. I won’t sit next to her at church. I will disappear from her gaze, her boredom, her deliverance. Like a white net was waved over my face, like I was saved, like the road was my religion.
We had taught each other nouns in our respective languages, the girls carrying the twigs and I. One had learned the word for “fence” in the morning as we’d walked downhill, and she’d remembered it in the afternoon. She’d smiled as she spoke it, beneath her load, as we walked uphill together.


I dream of beautiful stones – a path with curved and raised sections made by my father. Black granite squares.

R. wants me to read John to her, so I do.

I nap after church and wake to receive Celestin who has come to visit with his friend, Laurent. Without my glasses on and disoriented from my nap, I don’t recognize Celestin from the bus the week before. He is put out. We speak for a little while until he says, curtly, “I don’t like to talk about the genocide.”
Laurent tries to make everything okay. I change the subject. A bird flies through the vents above my window and into the room as Celestin is saying he’d like to visit Cuba. He thinks Fidel Castro has been “a good dictator.”

After Celestin and Laurent leave on Celestin’s cue, Alfred comes into my room and catches the bird with his hands. He pinches it in one hand, picks up his stick, and I follow him out into the twilight.
“Your visitor,” he says.
He stands straight and thin in his collared white shirt, his bald head giving him a fierce look, the bird squeezed in one hand and the stick still in the other.
I begin to worry for the bird. A minute or two passes. Then Alfred walks to the gate and throws it, a tiny thing, up into the air. I make him an omelet and feed him fried bread with his tea.
R. quizzes us about marriage, being saved, and needing to get one’s blood tested.

The Labor

“Conversion to Christianity was admittedly sometimes achieved by persuasion; often it was enforced through military conquests, terror of enslavement, and primitive economic controls. A world that separated humanity into the saved and the damned, the latter being qualified for mass deportation to distant lands as beasts of burden, provides at least a prima facie case for a preliminary hearing in the Court of Reparations. We can proceed to use it as a yardstick of criminal responsibility.” – Wole Solinka

Photos are the only things that make sense today, since they represent the unrepresentable – because they speak of how love or attraction can override any governing law. I am thinking of Robert Lyons’ photos of Rwandans. Who are we after such massacres, genocides – as humans? Perhaps we are all sinners like the preacher yesterday said. (And we have a choice, he said, to be saved or not… As if once we are saved we won’t commit such crimes?!)
Photography explains what we cannot. It speaks of ignorance and something much deeper and bigger – it speaks of the way we see, the ideologies behind our seeing. How do I see Rwanda? How does it see me? My walks have shown me this more than anything else. My walks have shown me the labor of life here. The obedience to authority everyone claims Rwandans have, is about survival, about coping – if it even exists as a cultural trait (if anything exists as a cultural trait).
Religion is what takes place of wealth; it takes the place of what’s missing. Photographs concentrate on what is not missing. Or is it all about how one reads them?
Banana trees through my mosquito-netted bedroom window (I moved when R. came, to the high bunk; Anna, who is still in Gisenyi, sleeps on the lower one). Perhaps it’s the countryside that explains a certain indomitable labor –

Ultimately, I am separated from many here by the absence in my life of horrendous, crippling need.

Communication, Laurent said yesterday, is important. But what needs to be communicated, I think, is something so deep inside it is rarely, if ever, communicated. I know this in my own body, in the terrors of loneliness, of loss. I know when I walk long distances alone what it means to need solace, to seek the saddened corners of the earth for communion, for comfort.

At lunch today, Stephen, the new English teacher employed by Urugu Rw’Amahoro, says some people think you cannot cover up (deny) ethnicity as a response to genocide. I happily began speaking of respect, of acknowledgment of differences… Then he asks me if I am a Christian.

At home in the evening, I let R. fix dinner. I am tired of serving her.
“Didn’t Laura say Fifi was cooking for us?” she asks.


Up at the worksite, Isa is singing. R. and I have walked past the drumming church, past the man who washes white cars on the hill above George Fox’s volleyball court, past the staring, giggling students, past a girl jumping rope in front of the tin siding, past the Tutsi woman in tradition dress, the pattern of it complementing the banana tree leaves behind her. The jump roping girl has passed us, heading up a parallel path, still skipping, arms windmills. The ball of urchins at the top of the hill have descended on us, slathering us with greetings, little hands. The girl with the devilishly impish eyes and doll dress has held my hand beneath the avocado tree. And now Isa’s tiny body is swaying as he sings, one ear plugged into a borrowed miniature radio. He takes it off when he sees me, and lets me listen to the English news about the UN failure in Sudan.
There is no water at the worksite. I don’t feel like carrying blocks. Baptiste, ‘The Big Man,’ arrives late. He says he went home last night and his wife had taken everything from the house and left. “He’s funny,” Aime says. “He says he thought the house was small, but he found it was big.”
When R. learns what happens, she predicts they will stay together.
“She will pay,” R. says, referring to Baptiste’s wife. “Women in Africa suffer.”

At lunch I hear news of Israel’s “revenge” attack on Lebanon.


“Only by teaching beneficiaries [whites] that they benefited from the workings of apartheid whether they intended it or not – could it [a truth commission] hope to convince them of their moral responsibility… to redress [apartheid’s] consequences” – Politics of Memory 183

Yesterday in the room of bricks, Baptiste spoke of how his wife accused him of saying one day he would kill her. Birds flew to their perch on the windowless bars. Anne Marie in blue and black, leaned backwards over the blue water barrel. Baptiste – the middle of the morning – his pronounced waist – his rolled and cinched cuffs, his left hand partially paralyzed, thumb awkwardly straight – his and Obed’s matching shirts. Aime squatting across from him. The brick floor, the spaces in the block wall at the far end – church-like. Tin roof. School next door. No pencil sharpeners. Students outside with the backside of a hammer, clawed a nib.
Yesterday when I asked R. about justice, she said, “Rwandans just have to forgive. You have to ask, ‘Am I the one who is wrong?’”
“Sometimes you don’t have to ask this,” I said.

Today Aime tells me the story of his mother’s death. It was a heart attack. She had asked for water with which to bathe and the children had brought it to her. His father, Samuel, had just gotten out of the hospital – he was suffering from malaria – and had gone to his first day of seminary. The children called him. They’d left Goma just two weeks before. Samuel consoled them. He’d lost his father when he was a young boy. Aime said when mothers die in Africa fathers leave their children to get remarried (I’ve heard of mothers doing this, too). Samuel didn’t. Aime says he owes his solace, his healing to his father.

This afternoon, again, I find myself needing time away from R. She forgot to bring the key to the worksite (she came late to work this morning). And so I return to the house after lunch to get the key, passing an older man walking under the thunder clouds in full suit, hat, and walking stick down the road, August Sander-style. How much I detest wearing a skirt, looking nice. Being looked at. But I look…
My time away from R. doesn’t last. She soon joins me, waiting for Fifi to come with the key.
I can’t take it. I leave, go back up to the worksite and she takes the rest of the day off.

Back up the hill the Mwana Shuti students are putting on a play about AIDS. I stand outside the dark, wooden-shuddered classroom, after work, and watch. In the play, a boy and a girl go to a bar, sleep together, and then go to get tested. One (the girl) finds out she is positive, is counseled, and then dies. “Protect Your Life,” is the play’s title. It resonates. Perhaps it is the stark darkness, the chipped concrete of the classroom’s walls, perhaps it is the delight of those playing the roles or those watching, or just Isa’s brilliant enthusiasm. For sure, the hospital scene is moving simply because I know the children have just themselves been tested… And there Jonas stands in his “Golf nuts” green sock and red docksiders… It is a morality play. Completely simplistic, but I commend the children. Even if it makes me sick that they are taught abstinence…

In the afternoon, I talk and listen, until the classroom has grown dark, with students of English, accepting Augustin’s invitation to teach his class. Augustin, who recently became an English teacher after learning English in prison – having been accused of killing several people while driving and then bribing the police – has left me in charge. I ask the students what they would like me to tell Americans about Rwanda. They say there are many rich and very poor persons; it is a developing country; people need training; universities need equipment like labs and computers; they, themselves, have never sat down and used the internet; the country is changing; they are developing solar power at the university; girls are now being encouraged to go to school in the villages which is new, because boys were primarily the ones to attend school before 1994; there are many problems from the war; HIV is a problem, as are street children who are orphans. They say I should tell Americans, ‘Welcome!’
When I come home I need space. But as I settle on the couch with my tea and some food, R. says dejectedly, “We are separate.”
“We aren’t separate,” I spit back.
I’ve come to a breaking point. I need clear communication with R., but it can’t exist. So I use a sledge hammer.
“I think we came to Rwanda for different reasons. I came to work and you came because it was God’s will,” I begin, moving to the table, knowing it’s the wrong time and that I should keep my mouth shut.
“I work!” R. exclaims. “I’m there everyday, working alongside you.”
I argue she leaves the worksite early or arrives late and sits in the shade every day. Then I switch gears, trying to uncover the root of my frustration. “Something’s wrong in this house,” I finally manage. “There’s tension between us. Why?”
Whatever has urged me to open this huge can of worms is not something I’m proud of.
As I speak about the house, I look up at the vents, the holes in the block birds sometimes fly through, and I think about Toni Morrison’s Beloved, about the ghost, and I feel for a minute possessed – as if something in the house itself was making me act this way. My saying this is not to excuse myself or the workings of the history of colonialism and the evils of white privilege that are part of my suitcase; I am only speaking of what I felt at that moment, and how I then responded to R.’s ensuing, growing hysteria.
“If you don’t like me, tell me,” R. says. “You tell me what is wrong. Everything is fine. It is your imagination. I don’t quarrel. Why are you quarrelling? Why don’t you like me? There is no difference between us. I am a human being, black and white people, all of us are human beings. If you don’t want me to stay here, I will leave. If food is the problem, tell me. If –“
“R., I like you. I want you to stay here, but something is wrong. I’m just asking –“
I’ve watched sobs build inside her, shake her chest, incapacitate her. Now she is crying uncontrollably. She wails, prostrating, crying out to God, as I sit stonily at the table. After several minutes pass, still hysterical, she goes out and talks with Alfred. Then Alfred comes in and I go sit outside. I sit on the concrete porch and hug my knees to my chest and look at the gigantic avocado tree across from me growing outside our gate at the outskirts of the church yard. I think about racism – all the internalized racisms both R, and I are suffering. R. has misunderstood me. “Why are you hurting me? Why do you quarrel. I don’t quarrel,” she’s cried. I have hurt her. I have wanted to break the tension.
Alfred comes out. “Come back in,” he says. I say I will in a moment. When I feel able to join them I do. R. stops crying. I take the cue and speak very in a very controlled, level voice about how I planned since December to come to Rwanda, raised money, and also worked so I could have this experience. I speak of my investment and of Rose’s coming spontaneously in the place of her daughter. I speak of cultural differences, of not knowing what it’s like to be in R.’s situation. I don’t know what it’s like, I say, to be a mother of eight, to live with white people, to not have spending money…
Alfred suggests we drink a tea. R. demands I not tell Laura what has happened. She thinks I have been telling Laura things about her. I blow up.
“I have been talking with Laura about G.,” I say. “Not about you!”
Alfred tries hard to assure us there is no problem. “There’s no problem, no problem,” he says.

After we’ve calmed down, after I’ve promised not to tell Laura or Anna anything, after we’ve drank and forgiven one another verbally. Alfred holds my hand. The lights have gone off. The candles are on. R. is singing in Kiswahili, Alfred and I join in after we learn the chorus. Soon R. is singing and dancing. I read Psalm 123-7 for her and drink a laxative tea.

There is something in a book I am reading differentiating reconciliatory language that covers up versus exposes. How to bare truths? I think of it now because I do not feel reconciled. I feel like I become bare and starving in response. I cannot exist on the surface. I cannot reconcile without articulating and reaching down and fixing what is underneath. I can’t abide by cosmetic remedies. The only way I’ve been able to heal from such unreconciled breaks with others in the past is by leaving them...

How to Go On

Etienne. Maroon locks offset by brown skin. Her purple lolli. Her perfect body by the water tap outside the library. The way her body bends sideways – a fulcrum – against the weight of the water-filled bucket. Her Navy Crew shirt and simply long skirt, sandals swallowing one toe.
I fill my bucket. The work bustling today. I feel like working. Sometimes it is blissful. The location, the simplicity, the repetition. Anne Marie and Aime talk about swimming. Anne Marie is afraid to swim in a lake, but not a river. Anne Marie sucks her lolli – Alphonse, the small worker who wears a wool cap all the time, has handed the suckers out to us. They are stale and taste like kerosene at first, but gradually grow sweeter.

At lunch, I’m informed that the U.S. Embassy is granting money to finish the welding building we are building (and that Anna and I have raised most of the funds to finance). The embassy will pay for the tin roof and the welding tools. Despite, or perhaps because of the embassy grant, I think of my genocidal government and what it does to people. I can’t stand the helplessness I feel…

I buy sugar cane after lunch and we all eat it.

M.K., the AVP facilitator from the U.S. who has been in the Congo the past three weeks and Katie, a newly arrived intern from Washington, D.C., have invited R. and I to go out tonight. There is no way they can understand the repercussions this will have on the situation in which I am feeling trapped.


Last night’s dinner: the entire event something I should – and knew I should – have avoided. Before even going out, R. not understanding my need for space, became upset when I said I was thinking of not going. “I won’t go then,” she said.
I said I hoped she would, and she got more upset, accused me of starting to quarrel again, and refused to come with me to inform Katie that I didn’t think I would go. I had invited her along, because I felt that if I didn’t, she would think I was going to tell Katie something. On the way out, not knowing what else to do – knowing they would go out and not wanting R. to feel awkward if she did go and didn’t have money – I gave R. four thousand francs.
We all ended up going, anyway, even Alfred. M.K. paid. The whole thing was horrible, the price of the restaurant unaffordable – enough to send Alfred to school for half a year. R. and Alfred talked of it at the table after we returned home, Alfred saying we could have used it to visit his family in Kibungo.
The evening’s finale however was Alfred asking me to marry him. First, I had to negotiate M.K. yelling at the taxi drivers, R. bucking the seat belt – perhaps having never worn one before, Alfred on my lap, feeling responsible for us, not to mention a dinner, during which no effort was made on M.K.’s or Katie’s part to include R. or Alfred in conversation until Alfred darted over to help R. who was wrapping up her leftovers in napkins, and M.K. assured them the waitress would bring a take-home box…
Back home, after Alfred asked me to marry him, R. translated a story he’d heard and wanted to tell me about an American secondary school student who sponsored a poor Rwandan secondary student. The American (a girl) then sent the Rwandan (a boy) a plane ticket to visit her in the U.S. He’d heard they were now marrying.
I didn’t react.
“Didn’t you see the white man married to the African woman and their three kids at the restaurant?” R. asked me.
Then Alfred asked, “Why do I love you?”
“Because I’m white,” I said.
“No,” he shook his head.
“I don’t know who’d marry you, because you are so difficult,” R. commented.
“It’s my personality,” I said. “God made Alfred a happy person and it’s a gift. But God also gifts sadness.”
“I don’t believe this,” R. huffed. “Sadness is not God’s gift!”
“I think it is,” I hurled back. “In India, they think being disabled is a gift; that it makes you closer to God…”
Rose was visibly steaming. Alfred excused himself and went outside to sleep on his stool. I took the cue and stormed off to bed, saying, “A boy was hungry tonight. He asked us for food. Did we feed him? And you say there are no problems?”

In bed, I thought about how I couldn’t accept R. without accepting God. And how she couldn’t accept me without becoming a non-believer – if that’s what I am. We were at a stalemate. I thought of first my world privilege of debating for pleasure. And I thought of how my survival does not depend on my happiness in the face of poverty. I repeated Mary Oliver’s poem that begins, “You do not have to be good, you don’t have to walk for miles across the desert on your knees… You just have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves…” But I didn’t believe myself or the poem.

I dreamt of knowing there was no future, but continuing to hope. I woke up feeling terrorized, rain pounding the tin roof.


Today after work, I went with Aime to his house. Samuel had invited me. He was leaving soon to vote in the Congolese elections – the first in forty years. Their neighbor’s goat had just given birth to three kids. This is my religion, I thought to myself as I watched the day-old kids stumbling around on unsure feet.
Samuel made conversation and eventually asked me for money for sponsors for Aime and Innocent. I said I would try. Then he told me I had to choose my religion. He would be waiting, especially, he said, to hear which religion I chose.

I returned home to find Fifi doing R.’s hair. Dying and relaxing it. This is what had come of the money I gave R. yesterday. Fifi motioned me around the side of the house in plastic gloves; the front door locked. R. sat in her brown towel in the back doorway, holding the hand mirror. I heard the neighboring commenting through the living fence. I thought about Gauguin, and about how despite or because of his being a racist, sexist perpetrator of violence, he’d captured in his paintings a sensation of black pride and self-possession. His subjects, I’d always thought, had more power than he did – more real, substantive power, regardless of their being subjects, systemically and otherwise oppressed.

Street Signs

“[The Civil Rights Movement and the anti-apartheid fight] failed to take into account the systemic nature of global apartheid. Dramatic court victories are important. But they need to be linked to efforts to eliminate the crushing debt burden on African and Carribean countries; to secure equal access to healthcare and life-saving drugs; to gain equal access to education and information technology, and to achieve the democratization of the U.N., the Bretton Woods institutions, and the World Trade Organization.” – F. Njubi Nesbitt

“The best guardians of the new humanitarian consciousness are ordinary people, rather than any state apparatus… [or] traditional state mechanisms of persecution and punishment.” – Peter Dale Scott

What reparations as an ordinary people can I make?

Green bananas truck. God Bless bus. Jesus bus. God is Great bus. Black Mama bus. Home Boys Salon. Day to Day Store. Birds held by their feet, necks out, craning to see where they are being taken. Painted signs look like Kerry James Marshall’s paintings – the people in them black black.
Clouds of black smoke. The poverty different than Brazil’s. I think this because it’s not white rich and black poor – at least like it was in Santa Cruz do Sul. Just as polluted as Kathmandu. At the bookstore: The Dignity of Manual Labor; Portrait of a Racist; How to Make it Big on the Information Superhighway; Hot Flashes. Truck full of bulls. The industrial valley, shanties above. The grisly grey of the city and the day. Collapsed papaya. Men sitting under the painted ad for Nido (Nestle’s powdered milk) cutting stencils of Che’s face to spray paint on thin, rubber mud-flaps for bicycles. “Pay taxes to lesson our foreign dependence.” Roads. Motorcycles. A garbage truck with no cover, debris flying out onto the road. Worksites. People sitting. Standing around bus stops. Children singing.

Samuel saying America needs a revival, needs Christian Africans to bring the spirit back to the overly material. We pray for America, he told me. His boys under his belt, staring at the ceiling. His words empty for there is an underlying purpose, we were not partaking in the luxury of exchanged words. Need overrides communication.

My need to cross borders and the extreme pain that accompanies the crossing.

Twelve years and the face of war is erased, for those who weren’t here then – for all appearances. You look like a calf – child of a cow, the Kinyarwandan complement. Beauty. Makes visible the otherwise invisible.

Alfred brings African beans and cassava. We eat spaghetti by candlelight. Slavery begins at home. “Get your mom some hair oil,” R. commands.
“I already contributed,” I say.
“Bless you,” R. says and looks to Anna who has just returned from Gisenyi.

“Dark and Lovely. Time to Get Lovely.” Paintings of plugs, appliances. The discipline of not speaking. Fifi sweeping the whole church.

How to bring a superpower to its knees, how to order it guilty? Genocide, torture of prisoners. The smell of shoe polish overwhelms – I open doors, windows, diaries. Bring me your poor – what has been done to them? What have you made them believe? Ideology as killer, redeemer, police, arbitrator, friend. No accorded truth, but a coming to truth on one’s own. Thinking, deciding for oneself, the beginning of examination – the end/beginning of tradition?
Not journalism, not boxes. Not academic speak – a language of one’s becoming – accorded from the heart – an attempt to regain clemency, to embrace inner knowns. That to gift is to allow – to provide passport – however the heart is also divided, is lover and murderer –
Shined shoes at my feet. Like new. “In Uganda we don’t have shoes like this one – so durable,” R. is saying. The admirer, the laborer, this wistful begotten, and me the getter. The ugliness of this transaction – my not wanting my shoes polished, R. polishing them. The history of shoe shining, the history of presentation, looking nice, the luxury to dress down…

Haves and Have Nots

“What message,” M.K. has said, “is the Peace House sending – what with its elaborate and elegant building for the superiors and the plain, block construction for the Mwana Shuti school?”
And: “You and Anna raised the money for that building – where is the sustainability in that?”
The slow foundation of an idea – of water poured over a foot. Still – there will be a building –
There will have been Aime’s listening to Alphonse’s update of the latest radio-novella scene. There will have been putting my all into the work. There will be relationship – as it’s formed at the worksite – shined shoes – relationships of a house frought with inequalities, filled with need – the haves and have nots. The house that became Beloved with R.’s upheaval and my own. What is it? I was asking. What is wrong here, in this house, between us? Colonialism the beginning. We – its inheritors – jesters in this house. Another Beloved. Aime’s name.
A boy called Isa. A woman who wants to see a plane on the ground. The use of water. Sugar. Milk. Tea. Bread. Hoarding. The fierce fighter in me. The muscled woman, the surrogate umuhungu (boy). Place me in your fingers, world. The asking is the seed. Sweet limit. Unheard of – as time is returned, past to past, dust to dust, the degree of inhumanity and humanity as it mixes, sickly – streaked dirt.
“Cassava is a tree,” R. says. “You take just part of its root, then cover it back up with dirt. You can take it year round.”
Alfred’s generosity that cannot be reciprocated – elements of hunger – denial – sickness. Passages that do not begin or end. Hauntings that begin with skin – under skin. Skinned. Women asking for medicine to remove their scars. A white American coming to Africa as a surrogate Pan-African… As a white should to understand her roots…
Like a tick, buried, bears its head. A self-hater, lodged in someone else (‘s land). These elbowings. The crease in one’s misunderstanding – a white shirt – a need not to be the wanted and yet a want to be wanted beyond all else – the collapse as it drills a hole into – collapsing the admirer, collapsing the host – and the tree around which the sucker grew? It too demolished. So it is the release to the lack, the miscalculation…
What isn’t seen is the absolute, is the place of – breakdown – the porch from which all hope fell, an ailing aloe, the misremembering of fireworks. A July I never knew – an April –
The journeys to fill a hole that has no end to its leaking. Where am I in the march? The forced march? Do I hold the whip? Is the problem not guilt but the inability to overcome self-hatred?


The walk down paths, red clay routes, dark sky. Umuyenzi shooting green, grabbing us with stick fingers, knuckles. R. calls me. I have been walking ahead – behind Jean-Baptiste in his shiny rose vest, and big pocketed jeans, faded from the knee down. R. shows me the red veins of the green cassava plant – its stem a walking stick, semi-swirled. Underneath are sweet potato. Down the path, the rain comes. We duck inside a salon. The walls papered with magazine leafs, reading, “Have You Lost the Spring in Your Step?”
“Look, your name!” Aime declares, pointing. “What is ‘step’?”
“’Walk,’” I explain. “Have you lost the jump in your walk.”
And an image of Barcelona’s soccer team. Aime pointing to the black player: “I like him…” The place otherwise bare, two mirrors, two fluorescent lights hung vertically – one turned off because the holes in the tin are leaking through the sheeted canopy above. The shearing extensions are in white wooden boxes beneath the mirrors. Outside the rain pours down, turning the road into a red riverbed. Triumph of weather over walkers…
Across the street tall young people emerge from a newly built house. The tall one in jeans looks at the water bucket under the tin eave. The water is pouring out farther than the bucket’s mouth can reach. A smaller boy sitting on the porch-like wall, moves the bucket out. He is so graceful, twirling capoiera-like, off the balcony and disappearing behind the taller boy back into the house, through the front door. The taller one comes back out, eating a banana. A woman is beside him, laughing, pushing him. They go back in again. Now a man in gum boots has stopped by. The tall boy talks with him on the porch, as he grinds something in a huge mortar and pestle.

The rain and situation remind me of rain in the documentary ABC Africa, which reminds me of the nearness of Uganda. The same red running water, same people braving the rain, happily. Ducking in and out, coming by with umbrellas. A hand with a pot reaching out to fill it with water. Coals beneath on a small stove smoldering – the image is one of John Trotter’s taken while in Africa. I don’t catch it with my camera. Inside the man is smiling. I am dancing to the Ugandan music, making an effort to speak Kinyarwanda. R. is sitting. Aime’s eyes glow. He wears a white dress shirt and black pants with an ‘OK’ belt. We wait. I think of Greek rain, of the shelter under an unfinished concrete building. We leave, R. asking the barbers to polish her shoes, taking them off and walking barefoot, Jean Baptiste buying her a paper bag to put them in at the Amata store at the crossroads to Judith’s.
We continue past villages, markets, children. Chickens. A singer sewing machine out on a porch. Men with bunches of fish. Store fronts beneath street level. Porches (dirt) full of pineapple. Charcoal sellers. A child in a hooded, short-legged snowsuit – with an unzippered square in its front exposing the face of a rapper.
“50 Cent” on motorcycles mudflaps, mirrors.
We pass the tax collector station, tin fenced and guarded, and wind up to Judith’s village, her house on a hill past Mwana Shuti’s Musafiri Johanna’s. He accompanies us up the last leg – R. having washed her feet in a puddle and put back on her shoes.
Judith’s house is high up, her yard concrete. Inside the house, it’s dark and the concrete walls are decorated with small hand-written and drawn signs. We sit around a low table and Judith brings us food – the same meal as at Peace House – rice, cabbage, beans, fried potato, and sweet ginger tea. R. speaks with pride of cow-dunged walls in Uganda, and Aime of cow dunged baskets – the dung making them stronger.
Children come in and out of the house. The tea is served in tin cups from a giant thermos. Musafiri says he’d like to teach us an English song. Soon he is performing.
R. notices Judith’s older brother has a Muslim name. We have heard the call to prayer on our way here – the mosque must be near. Judith’s brother’s baby, David, is fat. One of the children is coughing.
How to describe the dark dampness, the dark walls, the extreme blue of the metal door, opened to the courtyard with its clotheslines? The bare concrete floor, the step up to the kitchen with its curtained door – children’s legs visible – their peeking in to look at me. The baby making noise – only one year old and already knows the difference of my hair – grabbing at it curiously.
In the darkness of Judith’s, Musafiri sings. His voice is high – falsetto and perfect. He performs, taking off his vest, his floppy hat he wears high – hair grown. A crystal on a string tightly bound at his neck. He sings writhing his body, jumping, and twisting it to an original routine. “He is a musician,” R. proclaims.
He twists his arms and hands in, gesturing in undulating movements, pressing them into almost impossible angles, crossing his legs like a snake charmer, dipping down, jumping, scissoring –
The children and Judith giggle. “We are happy,” they say in English.
He keeps on. His falsetto, the impromptu performance in this rural village in Rwanda, this boy full of what he has made only for himself – a kind of magic – out of Christian pop tunes.
Later we visit his home of crown-shaped cut papers that hang on strings from the rafters, outdated calendars on the walls. He has imagined himself a palace, there, and we clap for him as he performs again and again, and Judith’s mom laughs, too. We are visitors and treated like kings. I think of Ana Paula in Brazil – impossible not to – her bem pobre – her beauty, her assurance – the similarities between the two communities, women.
I don’t want to leave, I say. We stand on terraced earth. They invite me to spend the night. Below us is a bustling market. A truck unloading bushel bags of cassava…

On the way home, a child does pushups – his hands in his sandals – on the dirt road. Others count. “We have enjoyed your visit,” one of the barbers says, as we pass back by the salon. We are walking in the dark – shops dimly lit by warm, bare, yellow bulbs. The only other light the headlights of motorcycles.
Judith’s name Amahoro (Peace). Her niece’s name also. Her father “Died justice,” as Judith says, killed during the genocide. The dampness and darkness. The sports car calendar. The chill that creeps. The number of people, the small – putrid – of the market where the truck has drawn up full of cassava. “Noisy,” says Aime, but it is smelly.
The rain has started again by the time we are almost home. It’s drizzling.
“No light,” Alfred greets us. The electricity is off.
R. locks the door on stark Alfred with his sugarcane-thin body, without saying goodnight.
How easily we lose our humanity.

And this morning, in church, a woman preached a sermon about how Jesus asked many people to come to his field to work. He asked people throughout the day – promising them all the same daily pay. When some who had worked harder still received the same wage they were outraged, but Jesus treated them all equally.
A lesson I can apply to my judging R.’s not working. We are all doing the same work, regardless. She is here, too. She has told me as much.

Outside Alfred listens to preaching on the radio.

How do I explain the possibility I feel in the darkness? The verge of it? There is something remaindered from my childhood without electricity –

Most all the world lives like this, I found myself thinking on the walk up the hill home. It’s good to live like this, too. Beyond the privilege I can’t entirely erase, is an effort I am making at trying to live equally.


“The stigma attached to sexual violence worldwide further exacerbates the lack of justice. In many places women who have been raped dare not reveal publicly that they have been raped for fear they will be marked as rape victims and may be ostracized by their families and communities… and… will never be able to reintegrate or to marry” (“Justice for Women Victims of Violence: Rwanda after the 1994 Genocide” 163-8).

“Since abortion is illegal in Rwanda, doctors have also treated women with serious complications resulting from self-induced or clandestine abortions arising from rape-related pregnancies. In a number of cases, doctors have performed reconstructive surgery for women and girls who suffered sexual mutilation… A large number of women became pregnant… extremely young girls… were raped… The ‘pregnancies of war,’ ‘children of hate,’ ‘enfants non-desires’ (unwanted children) or ‘enfants mauvais sourvenir’ (children of bad memories), as they are known, are estimated by the National Population Office to be between 2,000 ad 5,000. Health personnel report that some women have abandoned their children or even committed infanticide, while others have decided to keep their children. In some cases, the mother’s decision to keep the child has caused deep divisions in the family, pitting those who reject the child against those who prefer to raise the child” (168).

“Rwandan women have also indicated that they are more comfortable telling their testimonies to women investigators… in large part because of the stigma attached to rape. In some areas, women even specified that the woman translator had to be another genocide survivor and not a returnee, because of the tension between the survivors and returnees” (173).

“Some of the returnees [Rwandans who had been living, prior 1994, primarily in Zaire, Burundi, and Uganda] view the genocide survivors with distrust and suspicion. These survivors voice resentment against the returnees, including those in government, and criticize them for, among other issues: neglecting the problems of genocide survivors; falsely denouncing the survivors as genocide ‘collaborators’; illegally appropriating the land and property of the survivors; and being politically extremist in their blanket denunciation of the Hutu” (168).

The rain has continued. My feet cold. My body clamming. The broken and repaired white candle, streaked black like a chimney, slumps its greasy wax on the table. Outside the growl of diesel powered Diatsus. Fifi here. Yesterday she danced in church. Her hardworking happiness. Sand in my eyes. It blinds the old here, J. told me. Light falls into the rain of twilight. A child with a child on her back passes. A child in church, with a voice to die for, called out to the response of the children’s choir, yesterday. A voice without ornamentation, raw, and rich.

My place has been at the worksite carrying things – doing the grunt labor that isn’t well-paid here (cementing blocks is). My place is not here in this house with Anna and R. Even though it is – I am here…

Thoughts of T. and tears in church. And thoughts, too, of my subsequent relation with L. The breaking, torture of it. And my past hurts surrounding race, body, sex. The loopholes through which I thread Rwanda. Smoke from wood fires. Last night I dreamed of an old love I re-met; he was in a relationship and I had to tell him I could no longer continue to see him…


My stomach problems. The tense house. At its social limit. I keep hearing R. telling Katie, “I’m lonely. Spring and I don’t communicate.”
And I hear Alfred asking, “Did you tell Anna the story?”
The difficulty between R. and I persists. Her distain, her silent judgment, mirrors my own. The irony of my loneliness, my need for space. Fifi showing us fruit. “Asian pear,” Anna says.
I feel disgusted and disgusting. One more week. The slowness of time, of food passing through me.

Freciem back at the worksite, after his two-day absence. Baptiste yelling at the Mwana Shuti kids about how young they are and how they should be carrying a lot.
“They are complicated children, orphans,” Aime says.
Jean Baptiste’s bedroom a black hole he shares with others.

Home from work I am incredibly tired. The intensity of my need for silence is huge. Two more work days before the official end of the workcamp. I would like to spend the rest of my time here taking daily walks, reading, making food. The grey spell has ended. My body is tired. Today carrying block after cement block. Isa holding his fan – blue and white plastic and battery-driven – to my hot face.
R. and Anne Marie sitting. Jean Baptiste disappeared, Judith gone after lunch. R.’s increased silence. Anna’s forced cheer.
I have lived this. It hurts. In the newspaper, an ad for a position inquiring into gender-based violence in Rwanda and what happens to women who admit their HIV status.
Silent tension is drilled through dinner; now we sit in silence, too, because talking is too hard.
“There was another tin of milk in the kitchen,” says Rose, accusatorily. She’s wanted milk, has thought we’ve hidden it from her.
There is no way to reconcile what can’t be reconciled. The disturbance is thick and uncomfortable. The pen slogs through it. My stomach (I still haven’t been able to go to the bathroom in a month) is the actor – politics of the belly in our house.
What touches me is like gossamer – something invisible but finely woven, finely designed to trap me. Each second feels like warm milk – and my being forced to drink it. Being victim of R.’s glare. I have learned not to handle it; I have learned not to ask, to speak. Now there is no point. The attempt was made and rejected.
I think of the nights my lover L. and I argued. Of the nights I spent hugging my knees outside. His saying he’d sleep under the table – me begging him back. The hysteria – mine. I can’t stand myself – now as I block out the night. As I block out what tries to find itself whole but only ruptures. My stomach the uncompass – the diverger. The one that won’t release what it has seized.

Amandazi, a bread that stings, closes, won’t let air in. The impossible pockets, mistakes of light, of drawn accomplices. I have nothing to offer – no peace to attempt. A block is just a block. I carry them. I carry them. The workers build the inside walls. The block is ugly and cold. The view is beautiful. I arrived a skeptic and have become more skeptical.

Today the rain moved in – its giant arm bringing clouds. I turned off the radio Fifi had on. Bathed and feel better, except for my stomach that remains… R. breathes heavily. She is awaiting only – the end (of this workcamp). I am, too, I suppose, to be honest. This gesture, this disease. The candle. The trucks going by. The disaster of a journey to help that seems instead to complicate, divide, ask more of me than I can give or even stand.
People who had told me they would come to help at the worksite haven’t – only Isa with his cement-covered hands who says, “Cement isn’t flour,” who attempts to bridge the divide, who is still open-hearted and curious…

R. is praying out loud now. Desperately, loudly. I have turned from warm to cold, like the Mau Mau described some of their white torturers’ personalities. I haven’t fixed tea for Alfred in days…

In the middle of the night, water pours from our tap – that only provides water rarely – outside the house. The yard is flooded. Anna finds someone who rouses Alfred at five in the morning. Alfred brings his round key, fills our buckets, turns the faucet off –


“Solange Manirguha watched her Tutsi parents being killed with machetes after the Interahamwe broke into their house through the roof. on April 11th, 1994, five days after the genocide began, a relative working for the UN pulled her at the last minute from a gathering of 5,000 people slated to be slaughtered just up the hill from the Friends Church. Neighbors hid her for two days and how she survived the remaining 93 days I don’t know. She breaks down and… cannot tell the rest” – Laura Shipler-Chico

The road’s innumerable turns for two and a half hours to Kibuye. People lying on the sides of the road in the grass. Bare wooden posts and soccer fields on the only flattened scraps of land. The terraced land, raised beds, women hoeing. Children, markets, sorghum, a large mortar and pestle. Sorghum pounded into flour and spread to dry on square sheets on the dirt. The man sitting near me with a special machine that plays music videos – of African girls in bikinis. On the side of the road women carrying loads on their heads, babies on their backs and sun umbrellas. A child covered in vomit still holding the fry-bread she is carrying – her mother also car sick; the cramped bus, the arsenic road.
Prisoners in pink. Floppy felt hats. Marriage photos taken at Lake Kivu. The colonial dresses, long gloves, rimmed hats. The lake out of the underbelly of a dream, the place touristy and ugly in its moneyed atmosphere. A green snake is smashed by an attendant with a broom. A boy shows off his body by the lake.
Solange. Her proud carriage. Showing us the bathrooms, readying us, presenting and welcoming us to Kibuye. There are Fantas in threes set about the table. She is the one of the Friends’ Trauma and Healing facilitators. A genocide survivor. Her demeanor not so much sad as it is tired. Her resignation. There is something perfect and yet unaccounted for in her presence. She wears bone-like bracelets and a matching ivory-colored ring. Her hair is straightened and styled. She is very slim. It is her looking into the lake, her time remaining in Kibuye (one year), her back, the way she departs while present, tag sticking up out of her nylon shirt, the uncomfortable-looking bra that shows through. Her toenails manicured a soft violet, white on the ends.
Theoneste, meanwhile, puts up with us. It’s his duty. Solange’s duty. Their job. To take foreigners to such places. To take the Mwana Shuti children on the boat.
There is something strange about the trip, ephemeral. It bespeaks of the inequality of the world. R. wanting to see a boat. Then riding in one. Still wanting to see an airplane, up close, no idea how big it is. Playing net ball on the island. The island surreal. The first time I haven’t heart people or been aware of another person almost since I arrived. I’ve craved the silence.
The song of the boatmen rowing the only sound. Aime’s marveling that the captain steers from the rear of the boat.

On the way home, an angry driver almost taking out the motorcycle in front of us. R. pointing out rice from the bus. We connect identifying plants. The hush of grasshoppers, locusts, crickets. A man with a typewriter on a porch typing letters for pay. Fifi doing our laundry. Alfred’s sad night song. R. saying she can’t live in Rwanda without a cow. “And there isn’t enough land,” she says. “It’s too crowded.”
The candle falls over as I remove bread from the oven.
On Peace Island was a monkey, tethered to a tree.
I think of Cecile, a woman I’ve met briefly who lives near us who keeps the books at the church and started the Women in Dialogue meetings, confronting a man who had tried to kill her during the genocide (her husband, a Hutu, hid her while she was pregnant underneath a bed; he is now in prison – I haven’t asked what for) when she heard he’d returned to Rwanda. She told him about her life, invited him to her house, got him computer training, and later a job.
I imagine prying loose T.’s fingers. Physically breaking my last effort at necklacing love. I am not who I’d imagined I’d be… Except I continue to accept this complicated call, ethically, morally, to be a writer at this genocidal time.
Soul force – the meaning of the original African word for non violence.

The mark of a survivor. I find myself looking for people with missing limbs. Why does the invisibility, their ability to ‘pass’ shock me the most? I spent the afternoon with someone who witnessed the death of her parents and it was not mentioned. I would not have known this had I not read it in the Quaker literature given to me by Anna. Had I not known, would I have misread her personality as surly, and not looked deeper – past the pastiche? Her grace, her togetherness a hard shell that simply decked itself, as she sat on the concrete post and stared down at the white open gate below, waiting for the bus at Kibuye.
“It is true some are fetching,” one of the prisoners interviewed in the book Intimate Enemy says about Tutsis.
The jealousy, fear, poverty, need for power and land that drove the killing. The NEVER AGAIN sign at a memorial site we passed by in the bus.
Not many cows, herders – a traditional Tutsi occupation. This noticed absence.
The saved soldier – Abraham.
Survivors’ stories aren’t to be told through tears. They aren’t, perhaps, for many, stories for telling. Mostly, there is just the silent afterward.
I am afraid of Kagame’s popularity and reign. I’m afraid it, too, will become brutal, ethnically divisive and corrupt. Dictatorships – as Kagame’s power almost is – are precursors to more killings… But who am I to speak? I am from a supposedly country perpetrating genocide in the name of democracy.
Why am I not in Iraq? If I want to see what war looks like? What wounds are like? What survival is? Here the scars are wanting vitamin E – the erasure is surface – is the faux finish, the marbleized rock, the impeccable dress of everyone…

Wattle fences, goat, sheep. The effort of my parents. My mother ‘digging,’ as they say here (cultivating). The truth of lifestyle. The need I have to make it my own, not the expectation of another – this need incredible (for everything) – to escape obligation, to escape tradition, family, to find a passage through to some ‘true north.’ YUCK. What is a journey? There is no darkness here, nor characters to argue for the evil or good of people. No clear delineation when speaking of genocide – between victim and perpetrator… We so badly want a good guy and a bad guy, a hero, someone to respect. Beyond this – what is there? What we have within? An ability to change, become good? What is good? Good is so complicated and changes, is mutable – there are many ways of perceiving or acting in a situation – and yet there must be a base morality? “Strip mining is wrong.” “Genocide is wrong.” “Racism is wrong.” And yet laws – laws in themselves – are they lawful? Not inherently, says Derrida. Do they facilitate good? Does ideology – the church, academia, etc…– function without oppression? Culture essentially a question of freedom and community – a structure within which everyone must compromise – but always some forced to compromise their freedoms more than others…

“Capitalism allows those who have power to grab what they have, and those without to be exploited. It’s a system of survival of the fittest. There is not enough space for everybody… It’s a doctrine that will produce inequalities of society. If you have a nation-state built on the basis of capitalism, then you likely to run into a lot of trouble” (Guns and Ghandi in Africa 130).

Anatomy of the Kicukiro Compound

The men are arguing about whether milk in one’s diet makes one a better singer. If it does than the argument is weighted in the favor of Ugandans.
“Have you heard of a Rwandan singer?” one man asks the other.
A Ugandan woman is laughing, a gap between her front teeth.
Baptiste stands below on the side of the hill with a trowel in his hand. His wife has accused him of threatening to kill her. Brilliantly colored birds visit him as he waters the cement. He has to give up the things she has taken, things that in their absence make his small house seem monstrous. His skull is wedged, almost duck-tailed, his hair so closely shorn you can see the bulge of muscles around the base of his skull.
Beside Baptiste, a boy listens to a radio through an earpiece. Each day he has a different radio, a different earpiece. He attends a vocational school. At times he carries cement blocks on his head. The blocks dwarf him. He must weigh the equivalent of two of them. His favorite clothes – one of the two sets he owns – are a blue and white striped button up short-sleeve and purple gym pants that no longer zip.
At the bottom of the hill with a bird in one hand and a stick in the other, is Alfred. “Why do I love you?” he asks me. The bird has been in his hand for some time and I am afraid something will happen to it. Alfred has just finished high school, sleeping each night on a wooden chair outside the house where the woman with the gap teeth at the top of the hill and I live.
The woman with the gap teeth is afraid I will beat her. She has said this. She has bought a new handbag, a jacket, flip flops, hair dye and relaxer. I have given her a T-shirt for her youngest son.
On the hill, between where Baptiste stands and the bird in Alfred’s hand is a small block building in which those with AIDS mend clothes. The building is marked, its inhabitants known. Baby goats are shitting themselves not far away. Shit the color of light pine wood runs down their marionette legs. Aime, who is looking at them, is all legs and arms, still growing.
This morning the children at the vocational school will perform a play in which a girl and boy get drunk and get a hotel room. The girl in the play will test positive and die. “African women suffer,” says the gap-toothed woman. I believe her.

A Wished-for Wound

On the path this morning, a boy carrying a load on his head wears a T-shirt printed to look like a tux. (This reminds me that yesterday after the child threw up on the bus, a boy in a shirt designed to look as if he was wearing an x-ray, showing the rib cage and shoulder bones of a torso – was looking on.)

Espoir, a Mwana Shuti student, walks me down the hill after work. The workers have forgotten a window and will have to remove some block we have already laid.
“Do you like children?” Espoir asks me.
“You are like Jesus, then.”
“I want to have one of my own.”
“You will.”
My childlessness is, perhaps now, my ultimate sadness. I own it – a bitter truth. A lost branch –

The baby’s vomit on T.’s wrist wedged so deeply into me I still can’t shake myself free –

Leticia, in Brazil, and how she said she felt herself complete after she gave birth.

R. sits outside on a chair in the lawn. She’s come home early from the worksite. Four trips with the jerry can and she’s finished. Now she is waiting for Josephine.
The afternoon hangs its head. I help Fifi peel potatoes. The house is calm. Tomorrow is our last day at the worksite, and the next day R. goes home. My fingers smell like starch. I am feeling the tension lift.

It is like R. has given me a mirror to look into made of round red plastic. The image I see in it is Isa’s white woman torn from a magazine and bashfully unstuffed from his shirt pocket. I am crumpled.

R. knocks on the kitchen window to tell Fifi her friend has arrived. We are really a dysfunctional family.

Alfred, bone-hungry knotted thread Alfred – seized with power on stage in front of a congregation – the battle tone of his voice – soldier of God – dancer of mad proportion – wants a flashlight now that the cruel darkness is not relived by tea, friendship, a possible way out.
Alfred – navigator between light and dark – keeper of the faucet’s key – has cared for me. I have been the chameleon white with clammy skin and smooth head – whose magnetism vanishes, who falls and drops.

And R. – mighty R. – with a stomach for full plates. Hair as it relaxes straight up – having changed social locations – angry at Fifi for buying too many bars of soap – she only wanted one – who have I made you? Slave? Aunt Jemima? Representation of Africa? Bitter root? Cassava leaf? One who mourns a cow, an empty tin of powered milk, an empty dish of orange soap? I have dressed you in your belted dress that swishes and sat you on an empty cement bag.

In a history of the Quakers in Rwanda that Anna has lent me, I find the following extremely disconcerting passage: “If Christians do not act quickly, the vast harvest in Rwanda will go to Mohammed and not to Jesus Christ.”
The basis of the teachings of this evangelical branch seem to be fairly straight forward. In other words, today they preach, “Go and forgive those who have murdered your family,” and, “Go and ask forgiveness from those whose family you have murdered.” Genocide has provided a window of opportunity, created a people in need, that is presently being exploited. As the pamphlet reads, “None of us knows how long the opportunity will remain.”
This stuff makes me sick. And yet I know I am a part of those coming – to profit in some way, even if I am trying to help, from others’ loss. “A wished-for wound,” my father has called the pain I need or look for and, perhaps, inherently cause, because I want to “help.”

Our block building has been built not only to serve children’s needs, but to uphold a boundary, to claim ownership of land. It’s an occupation of space. Others, I’ve been told, are encroaching, building their houses on the church’s plot…

Workmen sit for me. I draw their portraits. Only men in Rwanda can be artists. Girls sew. All the signs in town are painted by men. Artists, Aime tells me, earn much money. The girl with knobs in her hair carrying the folded mattress – did I think a woman painted this sign?

R. slamming her flip flop against the wall. The moth, she says, causes the cough.

R., an adult literacy educator at her church in Uganda, received a bicycle as thanks after two years of volunteer service. “When my children are home,” she says, “they are free –“

Coffin makers on a hillside in Kibuye –
What I have witnessed in Africa: Life, not death –
A sneeze blows out my candle –
The dark real, not artificially illuminated –

“They will tell you you are fat when you return home,” R. says.
“I’m not,” I respond.
“You are,” says R.
“They will tell you you are skinny,” I say back.

Over dinner I ask R. if men whose wives leave them can remarry. She misunderstands, thinks I am asking about women. “If they haven’t received the dowry,” she says. Meaning, No, they can’t.
“I mean men.”
“Yes, they can remarry,” she assures me.
“Why are men lucky?”
“Because it’s God’s wish. Don’t you know? Women are made from man and are under him.”
“I don’t believe this.”
“I’m sorry for that.”

The End of Work

…“[Simone Weil] felt that it was only through work that a person fully comes to terms with the human condition. Physical labor especially connects each person with the mechanisms of physical necessity…” – Fanny Howe

“In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry. In that land of beginnings spirits mingled with the unborn. We could assume numerous forms. Many of us were birds.” – Ben Okri

Last night Obed said he awoke with the thought we couldn’t just part like birds – without saying good-bye. We have spent time together, laughed together, danced, he said today at the worksite. I have drawn the workcampers, and photocopied the drawings for them. The end of the workcamp has come. The building is half-constructed and the workers will continue and finish it after we’ve gone.

I am dehydrated, my skin peeling. The light a crazy yellow. I am saddest to leave the worksite…
Back at the house, Anna and I divide things in our suitcases into five piles – one for each workcamper. There are still full suitcases left over – filled with items we collected for the community here.
There is a dinner and a final giving of thanks – during which the workers are waiting outside to be paid while we eat and drink.

R.’s way home isn’t paid in full and she is stressed.
“I have been embarrassed,” she tells me. “Laura said not to give me money. I have a brother-in-law in Kampala – but I don’t have his phone or where he lives – how can I find him? I don’t think the money I have will be enough –”

At the dinner I say, “Please put everyone’s name who participated in this workcamp on the building, not just Anna’s and my own.”

R. Departs

The women pour out of the meeting room, one’s eyes rimmed with blue, eclipsed. Another toothless, jaw dominant. All dressed in marvelous colorful fabric suits that swarm their ankles, each extending a bare arm, shaking my hand –
A steady stream of them. A walking stick. Which women have lost their husbands? Which have been separated from their husbands who are now in jail? Women in Dialogue, women walking past, wizened, still human, or all the more human; I can’t tell them apart – the bereaved from the bereaved.

Reading of rapes during the genocide – then of retaliation – RPF rapes of Hutu women. Men taking out their anger on women. Or RPF soldiers demanding Tutsi women thank them with sex or marriage for saving them/their country.
There is no victor’s justice. Is there a survivor’s?

How to make it past the absolute appropriateness of the name Solange as she sits on the cement post, a beautiful maroon and tan gargoyle before effervescent trees?

There is one survivior and there are forty women and there is Jane, a student at the university in Butare, her head poking out of the bars of the meeting house window. There is the physical discomfort of smelling another’s discomfort in the bunk below, and Ben Okri’s refugees and spirit world, wall-geckos, women with firewood on their heads, Kerry James Marshall’s paintings of jet black flattened African figures –

The button in the ear – the music shared –

A lame woman in dialogue.

The returnees, themselves the original refugees, now self-satisfied, foreign, filled with rightful return –

R. has departed, having washed her things at midnight – slapping cloth, slinging the excess water across the bathroom floor (my foot is wet) – and having measured the kitchen counter with her cloth tape measure – her kitchen is outside at home.
Anna and I have cried –
And Abraham has just arrived –
He is now asking for sponsors for his two kids.
“You didn’t tell me you had children,” I say.

He says he was in love with a woman from Uganda. He was 23 and she, 38. Her husband had gone to India and died in an accident. He didn’t go back to Uganda with her when she returned there, later, to claim land. I miss part of the story of why she left, as I don’t catch everything he says, every word of his Ugandan English… He is saying he didn’t think they could mix their two families – her children from the first marriage and the two boys they had together…
After she left, though, he had to go to the hospital. He was suffering from ulcers. His friends came and said, “You are a soldier – are you going to die because of a woman?”
He laughs. “But I loved her so much. I wanted to beg – I will go with you…”

He then tells me his found his mother, when he reached her after leaving me on the road, had gone on a hunger strike, in protest of the death of his sister. His mother, he said, was near collapse, having also not taken anything to drink.

Abraham – mysterious Abraham, a man, a soldier who says, “I cannot kill a man I’ve heard… But during the genocide, people killed their neighbors, hacked them with machetes.”
Abraham and his suddenly appearing wife. His talk of sickness. How could he survived, unscathed, he asks, without even having “the acquired virus”? His talk of the extremity of nationalism in Rwanda, especially in those who left the country as refugees… His face is beautiful, his eyelashes curled.
There is something familiar about Abraham, about his heartbreak, the events befalling him. Something, too, about his love out of bounds, his travel, his survival, his humanity, his need.
I don’t understand how lives as complex as his can be rendered in such simple words. Or perhaps I am overwhelmed by the fact they can’t –
“Writing books here is expensive,” Abraham says. “We have stories to tell. Real stories you don’t hear.”

There is something of the length of the road, the journey he and I took together that has bound us. What the road becomes – the utter insignificance of it, of travel…
“Everyone, everywhere is the same,” Abraham says.
“Even here,” I say, “for me.”
“You don’t realize anything new. It’s all here – inside.”

I look out the barred windows of the door to the living fence. Abraham to my right, milking his tea, his forked few leaves of tea. His newly shaved head, white ball cap, thin, multicolored, acne-scarred face… Saying about his wife, “She taught my everything…”
And if I judge Abraham for befriending me because I am American and white, would it be any different to accuse me of befriending him because he is African and black?
What do we need from one another? His head, as he talks of the pain of losing his wife, framed by the living fence. Thursday. He will come again on Thursday.

Before he leaves, he tells me the following parable, so as not to worry me exorbitantly with his request I find sponsors for his sons: A man is left alone when his son dies. Always before, the man had given money to others in need. When his son dies, everyone just gives him money. He realizes then that he needs people…
I tell him I can’t promise to find sponsors, but I can promise him my friendship.

This weekend the road has swallowed me, vomiting itself upon me, demanding I repay it… Today Abraham. Tomorrow Celestin.

In church they are cheering. I am left, blissfully alone – for now, in the house. Ben Okri’s book, The Famished Road, is mesmerizing; it is beautiful in its oppressive description, in its details of life on the road. Life in a family. In the brutality that exists in much of life, unexpected and expected, the spirit world as it overlaps the human.

The Spring

They came early – Celestin and Laurent. I cooked while Anna entertained. There were long pauses. Anna talked loudly. The spaghetti was okay. The papaya moldy. Then I took them to the worksite. Laurent constantly chatting, Celestin looking far away – his features sharp, severe. Laurent arguing AIDS is a problem in Africa because young people don’t want to go buy condoms; they don’t want anyone to know they are having sex. Celestin seemed appreciative of the building. Mwana Shuti children spoke to them cordially – we congregated, as usual, around the water spigot.

Meditations on Violence

“Thousands of pregnant girls and young women who were raped between April and July 1994 have tested positive for the HIV virus. Some of the rapes were said to be ‘tantamount to attempted murder because the perpetrators knew they were carrying the AIDS virus.” – Crary

“In Rwanda, women rarely owned land in the past and had almost no control over the products of their agricultural labour, but after the genocidal conflict of 1994 they accounted for 80% of the population in certain areas, and restrictions on women’s ownership and activities were no longer appropriate.” – El-Bushra

I wake this morning to the muezzin’s call. I read of women and violence – the charged words of complex realities. I remember Aime saying, “Women can’t own land in Rwanda.” And I remember reading how widows of the genocide sometimes had no access to their late husband’s bank accounts.
I hear Abraham saying, “George Bush, it is thought, is starting the third world war.”
I can’t forget Celestin’s reticence to talk about the genocide.
I see Ari’s mom’s smiling face, lame foot – sitting at the corner of the Women in Dialogue meeting – her husband dead. I think of returnees and their relative wealth and I of the cult of the soldier – how I do not subscribe to it – and how I cannot see the RPF as saviors. The narrative of Alexandra Fuller’s Scribbling the Cat and her African soldier’s whiteness both familiar and foreign. My walk with Abraham. To his sister’s burial. I think of the shade in which we sat at the split in the road. Of the secrets I was asked to keep here and didn’t. Of R., her harsh husband and manipulative ways. Of the gardener telling me his wife stops him; she doesn’t want any more children. Of the man at Wounded Knee, clutching my money tin, my water, wanting to kiss me. I think, too, of the man with the partial shoes at Penn Station wanting to touch the baby. “Is it yours?” The riddle of race, poverty, hunger. Abraham’s proposal, Alfred’s. Women in the shadows – who we become. The tailor shop on the hillside with the red ribbon sign. The frank talk about AIDS. The amount of warning ads. Twenty-five percent of the population. Riddled. Anna feeling too old for her shoes, stressed about marriage, wanting to return to college, to ‘normalcy.’ Wanting to watch videos on airplanes. The settling of age – of having lived through, withstood. The beauty of youth, the agitation. The immensity of healing. Fifi’s washing song. I have witnessed a going on. This is perhaps what I had to see.

It is possible to put the past in the past – to try to survive the demons, ghosts. And race? I had to be reminded of its pertinence; of my guilt, my need to do more, try harder, understand more.

Do you light my windows, umuyenzi?
I don’t know how to be a living fence, how to let some things through.

A need to bring home what I’ve learned here – love, living borders, healthy relationships, a womanist curriculum, a peasantist collaborative – like the kind Umutesi writes about a late professor she knew who “believed so deeply in the peasantry, that he organized debates between his students… and the peasants about the problems of rural life… [and] encouraged his students to write their dissertations on rural development.” A need to redefine beauty. And a need for silence, solace, and a way to empower without cultivating hatred, dichotomies, self-loathing. To build justice without condemnation, but through asserting human and ecological rights and story-telling’s inner light.

High Notes

Today a boy with a bookcase on his bike. A banana filled truck, the fruit packed in starbursts. A green MY GOD truck.
I read about Rwanda high jumpers who exceeded European standards and about Europeans who photographed themselves standing beneath the high jumpers as if to own the spectacle, as if their ownership could subsume any height differential. There is a link between how one is seen and how one sees oneself.
I sweat. Ate rolls. Saw a handless person.
Anne Marie came. We checked with her sewing teacher – all the Mwana Shuti girls in the midst of sewing projects in a room full of sewing machines – to see whether she could go with me to visit and say goodbye to Judith.
Then we walked there. I remembered the way.

Judith had just finished her bath. She stood in her yard in a white towel, her limbs shimmering. Again she fed us. And this time she sang, dancing bashfully, closing her eyes as she hit the high notes.
The house was again alive with beauty – this house alone, even though literally it is not alone, on its mountain, magic manifesting in the women in the room…

The workers on the scaffold next door call out, “Hallelujah muzungu,” as I pass.
They don’t understand how the Christian songs don’t translate for me; it is something else I am here for – another religion – that of poor people – of people who share. I’m here to be reminded of a way of living freely – free of commodity – without tools that take one away from reality.
And from their art, I am learning again of the importance of improvisation. This is real art – the way Judith’s singing classmate disappears into shadow, only her hands alight, as a small boy dashes in and out of the room with his tire toy.

Finally Judith ties the baby to her back, writing something with ballpoint pen on the inside of his plastic shoes, and we wind down paths, umuyenzi on both sides – Judith’s beautiful cloth wrap – the silent baby joined by children who follow us, take my hand, smell my skin, kiss it, stare at my fingers, fingernails, touch my hair…

Anne Marie and I pass again the women sewing at their ‘Singers’, the blind albino child with scrapes up his arms, beating a machine with a stick, the depressed store fronts, the fresh meat, peanuts spread on cloth out in the road, men playing a game like chess in the street, boys leaning up against posts, trees…

The Road’s End

“We must take an interest in politics. We must become spies on behalf of justice… We must look at the world with new eyes. We are freer than we think. we haven’t begun to live yet… We can redream this world and make the dream real… It is more difficult to love than to die. It is not death that human begins are most afraid of, it is love… We need a new language to talk to one another… everything in us is an energy we can use” – Okri.

I smell the dirt in my blue jeans. I dress in a sheer shirt. I am unkempt. Dirt on my neck – stained. Anna fills water glass after water container for her upcoming trip back to Gisenyi. I finish The Famished Road. Fifi is late and I am happy without her here. A monster truck passes. The stalk of the road. Yesterday, a girl on the road approached Anne Marie and me. “Her mother,” Anne Marie translated, “is sick.” The gradual lowering of gears. The way something inside calls out –
In my memory, children haul old banana leaves behind them, as if dragging giant tails, above the industrial pit in the garbage-filled decline of what was once field. And Celestin is there, too, remarking how this bottom must have been mined. It is here, too, a woman hoes each morning.

Today I stay home. I do not combat the road. I do not engage. But the door is open –

Tomorrow Abraham will come in the morning. I am apprehensive, frightened by my final day. I go outside and sit with Alfred after fixing him a tea. The night abnormally warm. The wind is blowing. I watch as night falls. Children play in front of the church. Their dark forms pass back and forth behind the umuyenzi. One comes into the yard. Isa! I recognize him even in the dark. His father is at the church. They have shown a film. He is small in the night, squatting with me and Alfred on the doorstep. I am happy I am outside – happy for the darkness that eases (at least for me psychologically) my whiteness. Then Isa slips back into the night, Alfred accompanying him to the gate. Dark figures, dark night. The giant avocado tree beyond the gate.

This living fence, the road. The living fence and its shadow puppetry – spirits on the road; it, too, dividing the land with its strip of heinous noise – impermanence – refugees – shiftless children’s shadows dancing like flames.

“Thank you for coming to see me,” Alfred says. He holds my hand.
“Why do I love you?” he asks repeatedly. It is pouring rain. He runs to get a jacket.
“Tomorrow we will continue to say good-bye,” he says when he comes back.


I dream of an old lover returning to me with AIDS – of kissing, a cut on my lip –
of the immensity of the challenge of loving him and my staggering indecisiveness.
I watch the red sky rise. I have felt loved here –

The bench where Alfred sits is empty this morning, alone on its square of concrete. Birds twitter, flit. I am in another space – tomorrow I depart. The green is at its morning intensity. My masala tea in its white tin blue-rimmed cup looks heavy. There is no feeling of leaving, of escaping this reality – the feeling, instead, is one of having to perpetually deal with what is outside – the guard who sleeps on that stool. And my sleeping in a comfortable bed with mosquito netting while he hoods himself, then boxes himself in as he pulls over the sweatshirt a think, wool dress jacket.
I won’t leave this reality, nor the reality of a woman who sings while cleaning dishes, who, in all respects, is this house’s wife and who then goes home and is wife all over again . I write, barring myself in my room to protect myself against the sight of her – the utter hatefulness of what I do; as Walter Benjamin said, writing is barbarism. The fact those it oppresses often want it – or respect it – has nothing to do with it still being a form of terror, of inequality, even if it serves, simultaneously as liberator…
And so I protect myself, closing doors to create privacy. Open doors, says Okri. Open doors.

I have spent the day with Abraham in his leopard suit. He has walked me like a polite mad man with an agenda around Kigali.
We got off the bus at the building with “Dark and Lovely Time to Get Lovely” painted on its side. Abraham explained to me that on one side of the road was the neighborhood of the rich and on the other side the neighborhood of the poor. We then walked through the rich district past the State House, the new Intercontinental Hotel, the medical school, Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, past the hospital and turned left, walking along land where the RPA once camped that has now been annexed to the university, until we reached the Muslim section of Kigali. “It’s the old section, rent is cheap,” Abraham explained, acting as tour guide. “You can get everything her at any time – even in the night people are coming and going.”
Then we walked back to town, past the new bank (300,000 francs to open an account versus the normal 3,000), down the hill, weaving through the commercial center until we stopped to set up an email account for Abraham.
Around noon, we took the bus back to Remera, and walked down the hill near the airport to Abraham’s sister’s home. She had prepared liver. I said I didn’t eat meat. They made me try and also had me drink warm milk with sugar. Abraham’s sister, Janette, had a new five month old baby. She opened her shirt entirely – readying herself to nurse. Abraham ate crazily and drank milk. Undid his belt. Asked for things. She patiently prepared, washed up after him, politely didn’t eat much.
“She’s fat. She’s here, eating all day,” Abraham said.
I watched her then, when the baby wouldn’t nurse, feed the baby bread dunked in sweet milk, sugary juice, cornmeal porridge. The baby with no cry.
Abraham showed me his tattered photo album. Said his parents hadn’t kept one – he was trying to. Photos of his older wife – of his family, his sisters, aunts, friends. It was a solitary, harsh life he showed me. A life of military, of little visible happiness.
Then his sister called for a photographer on her cell phone, and he came delivering pictures of the baby who they said, pointing to the pictures, was “white-skinned like me.”
We posed inside and outside the house and afterward Abraham walked me to the bus stop near Kigali Institute of Education where I had planned to meet Celestin who had invited me to visit. While we waited for Celestin, Abraham asked me if people in America could marry Africans. Then an old woman approached us. Abraham gave her a hundred franc bill. They spoke, she left, and Abraham explained she was in pain from the genocide. She’d told him she was drunk in the head. “You’re drunk?” he’d asked.
“Yes, drunk,” she’d said, “on medicine.”
Celestin didn’t come, but found us as we were walking back to Remera. I was sad to leave Abraham. “You’ll give me ulcers,” he said.
I was sad to leave his curling eyelashes, his fat lower lip, his thin self – his slight height – I had remembered him taller – his veiny arms, stubby beautiful fingers – his mad pace (he walks more than nine miles a day – to school then back home, then to work and back home) – his determination to succeed – his over-extending of himself.
Many of his phrases, like, “Sure?” and “Feel free,” remind me of R.’s Ugandan English and philosophy – including his conviction there is no discrimination in Rwanda. He blames the Twa for being uneducated and making up their discrimination (even as a Twa family – mother and father with large pots on their heads, child with sticks, obviously very poor, pass us). He also insists Muslims are respected – and says, as if this proved in fact that this was true, that few people were killed in Muslim districts during genocide. His talk, like the way he moves, is often soldierly. He speaks to me of what he believes, wishes were true, what he has fought for – not of reality.
Yet there is a sweetness – a real grace to his face, when he speaks of love, of how his sister questions him. Doesn’t he have a lover? Her disbelief when he tells her he has no time. We argue about whether it is harder to lose someone you’ve had a child with – than to loose a lover. Loosing a lover is still hard, I say.
I tell him I am so happy to have met him and that just knowing he exists, I feel less alone.

Trauma and Healing

Abraham is a product of the war – a returnee, glad for homecoming, living in a section of Remera where many others who’ve returned from Uganda also live. Abraham’s personality is that of a drinker’s without drink – he is shell shocked.
Celestin suffers, too, from post traumatic stress syndrome, from memories. His tall thinness, his sharpness I blame on the war. Stomach problems plague him, as they do Abraham. Celestin is a survivor; someone who is as skeptical as I am about politics. “You must play them or they will play you,” he tells me. He doesn’t want to get into them, but a teacher’s salary isn’t sustainable…

I am surprised by Celestin’s rapper poses. I see his goofy side in his photo album. In the photos he does not look tortured. I have only thought of him as serious. I have only seen him in pain. We sit on his bed in his turquoise room. He apologizes for not having table or chairs. Soccer posters on the walls. His quiet is lessened without Laurent around. We speak of soccer, of the dearth of money spent on education, on the excess spent on military. He tells me why he doesn’t like to speak of the genocide. During the genocide, the neighbor who was paying his school fees was killed – as was her entire family. Celestin says it replays, constantly, in his head.
He says finding a way to pay for school has been hard, especially as he is responsible for his four younger siblings; his father died in 1990.

Laurent arrives, tells us he’s just heard a report that 4.2 billion francs are missing from Kigali bank – investigations will take place…

Celestin is respectful, quiet and grounded.


Speaking with Laura I feel a squaring of things. A recognition. I speak of trusting myself to spend the day with Abraham and of having had a fine experience – of having needed to do this to reclaim what I’d wondered had been a fault of mine – in regard to my spending time alone with G.
“That was not your fault, that was culturally uncalled for,” Laura assured me.
She told me Rwanda has been the hardest, most unhealthy place she’s ever lived – the violence, the hurts, the ideologies… “People here are alienated, traumatized, feel so essentially alone,” she says. “And in a culture that values community so much, it is so difficult, because they are alienated from others and even from themselves… You had an example of this type of alienation in your house,” she points out. “R. was needing community and not receiving it, and you were needing space and not getting it.”

Fifi is washing, sitting in the doorway in the back of the house when I return home. I have said good byes. The workers giving me a handful of warm salted peanuts... A woman and child out in front of the AIDS tailoring place. The day overcast, even chilly.

“People not being able to deal with their own pain, let alone others’,” Laura has said.

I think about what my role as a white person is; how to negotiate the differences that do exist without exacerbating them. How to find the balance between giving to others and caring for myself. How to deal with guilt. I sit at the table, silent. Wish to put my knees up. Wish to hide from the world. Wish to be silent a long time.

The last Saturday of every month an officially ordered communal work day. Laura said many people visit each other during this time, standing around while a few work. I think about the idea of a work day, a day when people come together – the idea of contact being as important as the work… This, the idea of the workcamp.

Laura’s beauty, her telling me how close she and her husband, Matt, are, and how she wishes people here could have that, too.
“It’s really lucky; you’re lucky,” I say. I don’t tell her my heart is broken. I don’t tell her I once felt this –

I don’t want to be burdened by such oppressive plights as those around me, yet this is the world’s burden. I can’t not accept it. I am remembering now, the eagle on the front of Abraham’s photo album, the McDonald’s hat he didn’t buy after I explained the meaning of its logo. The golden arches haven’t yet arrived here…

Fifi tells me to greet my parents for her. Greet yours, too, I say, not knowing her mother and father were killed in the genocide.

Dear Fifi, you who have served me, cleaned my dishes, my toilet – you who have sung as you did so. You with your slim figure, your height, your shining beauty. Your husband dancing and your dancing with him. Dear Fifi, you have shown me how close and deep wounds go. I hug you like I would hug my mother. I press my cheek to yours. My forehead. You are a beautiful woman. Your spirit in this house; your parents’ suffering.

Her hand over her mouth after we say goodbye, as she closes the door. Beyond the umuyenzi, I hear her crying.

The light that reaches this table and sinks its knife in, just as I leave.

Singing in the background.

Isa comes to see me off. I feed him, give him a children’s book I brought from the States that teaches kids how to count in Kiswahili. We look through its pictures together. He watches me go –

I get into the taxi. I will leave this place a stranger to myself – perhaps as alienated as anyone Laura mentioned. I wish for something else –

In Between

Reading Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between, I imagine of the possibility of my walking Rwanda, sub-Sahara Africa. A woman’s journey.

Mostly, though, I keep seeing Fifi’s hands – bird-like, leaf-like – as they sliced the air. And I keep hearing her sing-song voice, saying, “Mama. Genocide. Papa. Genocide.”

The end of my visit.

On the airplane, there is another Alfred – an Alfred whose family has been killed at Ntarama. An Alfred whose purple shadows under his eyes are darker than his skin. I can’t, even though I try to, shake his resemblance to the author of “Black Like Me” – the white man made black by dye.
Then there are Alfred’s hands on my body, his happiness to talk to me. His wife and children are in Montreal.
My need to take myself back from his initial charm. His granite, marble-working hands traveling. My placing them back in his lap, asking for respect, telling him my truth.
“We start as friends, you never know. Like the movies,” he says. “Sometimes, you can’t control your heart.”
I run away. Ignore his finger in my back at the luggage claim.

This epilogue. My being so happy to have met someone – a translator of sorts, someone to bridge the divide – the gap between here and there… To ask such a thing of a person is impossible, however. The only human bridge I know is a story about the genocide of a man who survived by crossing the river on corpses he stepped on as they floated past.

“Pray to St. Anthony,” the Ethiopian woman, who has four maids at home in Ethiopia, tells me. We are riding the shuttle from airport to airport. “Tell him what you want, you need to be searching… Have a child soon, even if it is just one.”
Now she is asking: “The Tutsis and the who?”
“Which look like us?”
“They came from Ethiopia; I was taught that…” she says. I don’t say anything about how much pain certain interpretations of this Hamitic myth has inflicted. I am exhausted.
“Who killed who? And who’s in power now?”
I spit out my gum. Rory’s book is so stayed. Umutesi’s is so real and warm and unpolished and not hiding and not literary –

In front of me very open doors. How do I enter? My open door has been unhinged by the accountability it brings.

I set out again.