Amakuru?

Amakuru?

In my last message, I told you that murakozi means good morning in Kinyarwanda. It doesn’t! It means thank you. So obviously, my grasp of even the few words I thought I knew is still tenuous. Anyway, murakozi to all of you who wrote in response to that message. It was great to hear from you.

Before I visited Rwanda in February, I knew little about the country. After spending a week there, I know that I have barely scratched the surface. The photos remind me that the seven days that passed like a dream were real. The memories are joyous, warm, amusing, and haunting. I’ve been thinking about Rwanda since I left, and I’ve been feeling Rwanda, too.



In the Mombasa airport two weeks before we left for Kigali, I found Philip Gourevitch’s book We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda. I had seen the book before, but had not purchased it. This time I did. I read it while I was in Rwanda, while I was traveling through the towns Gourevitch mentions...Butare, Gitarama, Ruhengeri, Gisenyi, Kigali. I finished the book a few days after I left Rwanda and then began reading it again. I’m not sure why.

Maybe because I’m stunned at how little attention I paid to the genocide and the war as they were creating one of the most tragic chapters in the history of humankind. The killing was systematic throughout the entire country and the people from each town through which we traveled can tell gruesome and painful stories. I tried to imagine what it must have been like when the stories were just being written...in Kigali, in Butare, in Gitarama...in the river we crossed, in the hospital where we were to hold the clinic, in the neighborhood in Kigali where we slept. Then I dig for memories from 1994, in the days before I had any interest in Africa. What memories do I have of the reports that I heard (but didn’t really listen to) on NPR on my way to and from work? All I can remember are the words Hutu and Tutsi, strange sounding names in a country about which I knew nothing. I didn’t even know where Rwanda was and didn’t bother to look it up on a map. I unconsciously added this story to others in the category of Conflict In Africa, Over There Somewhere and went on with my life. And I didn’t think about it again until John and I went to see Hotel Rwanda about 14 years later and left the theater in tears.

We met many Rwandans who were not born in Rwanda but in Zaire, (now Democratic Republic of Congo), Uganda, Burundi or Tanzania. There had been incidents of ethnic violence off and on in Rwanda since 1959 and many Rwandans had fled the country in the 50s and 60s. There is a long buildup to the events of 1994, and I outline the history in the back of my book, trying to understand the sequence, looking for something that makes sense. Over time, everyone in the country, and Rwandans outside the country, too, were affected in one way or another.

I don’t think I imagined a reticence and a detachment in many of the people we met, as if there is something they’re not saying, and in any conversation, no matter where it starts, if it goes on long enough, the genocide comes up. You can feel, in the living, the tangible impact of the lives lost and of the spirits that haunt the country. The world powers did not care to fight genocide in central Africa in 1994, and the reason, or excuse, that is given in the case of Rwanda is that the entities that could have done something about it could not agree on a definition of the word genocide that would have empowered them to take action. No one was willing to empower the UN or anyone to act.

Last June I read a newspaper article about Rwanda that described the great steps President Paul Kagame has taken to lead the country out of the ruins in which it was left after the war. Rwanda now enjoys low corruption it is punished severely, the education system is good and there are new schools throughout the country; The roads are wonderful, people are encouraged to build houses of the local brick instead of the traditional mud, and while we were in Gisenyi, the President and was also there meeting with government officials about how to reduce dependence on foreign aid which is currently at 51%. Foreign aid has been pouring into Rwanda since the war and the number of NGOs still working there is staggering. There are also many who have come from other countries, including Kenya, to work or start businesses there.

Rwanda is clean...the last Saturday of every month is clean up day, and everyone is required to clean their homes, their yards and if they don’t have trash for collection at the end of the day, they are penalized. Rwandans love President Kagame.

But the article mentioned that there is still some tension about genocidaires who returned from exile in DRC after the war, pardoned and welcomed home and some of the RPF soldiers who did more killing, in the name of stabilizing the country than necessary and that Kagame is reluctant to bring to trial some of the RPF soldiers who participated for fear that the attention and proceeding might stir up emotions still simmering just below the surface. For now the country is stable, and the feeling is let sleeping dogs lie. Words from Gourevitch? This may be part of what we feel.

Some things I did learn about Rwanda...it is small. So small that on most maps the name Rwanda doesn’t even fit within its borders. The name is usually placed in one of 3 of the 4 countries that share its border...Tanzania, Uganda or Democratic Republic of Congo. The fourth, Burundi, is as small as Rwanda. Rwanda is also incredibly beautiful. There are roughly 8,000,000 people in the country.and 95% of them are farmers. Education is highly valued and there is a push now towards technology and medicine...one young man told me that Rwanda is a leader in Africa in the area of fiber optics. Another young medical student told us that he is learning to do surgery from surgeons in other countries who can watch the surgery on a television screen and guide him in his technique.

In my last message, I left you at the bus station in Kigali. Our friends Tim and Carol and their friend Nitin, a Kenyan Rotarian who owns a business in Kigali and spends two weeks out of every month there, collected us at the bus station. We spent the night in a lovely neighborhood just a few blocks away from the President’s house and the next morning, Jordan and I went for a walk to gawk at the impressive homes and the lovely vegetation surrounding them. We were awaiting the arrival, from Nairobi, of team member Francis Nzioka. Francis is the first Kenyan recipient of the LN-4 hand. After four years with his hand, Francis is an expert at demonstrating its use, helping to fit hands on new recipients., answering questions and helping the recipients get used to their new hands. As we all drove to the bus station to catch our bus to Butare, we drove past the Hotel Rwanda, a lovely hotel whose real name is the Hotel Milles Collines (Thousand Hills).

It took us about two hours to reach Butare. We crossed the Ruganwa River on the way out of Kigali and followed the smooth but crowded road up and down the lovely hills and through the villages of Kabgayi and Ruhango. In Butare, Leonidas, a member of the Butare Rotary Club who was helping to organize the clinic, met us and took us to the Mont Huye Hotel, named for the hill on which Butare sits. We met other members of his club at a nearby restaurant for dinner. As we sampled Primus, the Rwandan beer, others joined us and we added additional tables as the group grew in size. The administrator of the hospital, some of the staff and the orthopedic specialists joined the group and we shared brochettes (skewers) of goat meat (one each) and half of a roasted banana (one each). It was a small meal, by western standards, but it was satisfying nonetheless. Most of the men, they were all men, spoke French and English. It was fun to try to speak French, and to watch the words pop into my head after 49 years! Je suis enchantee to faire votre connaissance. Je m’appelle Gwen Meyer. Comment appelez vous? Pretty elementary, but I was thrilled to be able to communicate my pleasure at meeting them even in a minimal way.

Back at the hotel, I was ready for a shower, but after undressing and turning on the tap, I discovered that there was no hot water and there was no bath towel, either. I dressed and went to office and did my best to explain the situation in French Je n’ai pas l’eau chaud , Je n’ais pas towel (with drying gestures). Amazingly, the woman understood and told me in French that the hot water was not working and that they would bring me water in morning...what time would I like it? A few minutes later, someone brought a towel to my room.

At 6:30 am, the agreed upon time, a young man, running, brought a large bucket of boiling water for my bath. The black bits floating in it looked harmless...like pieces of leaves or grass that had fallen in at some point. I now had most of the ingredients I needed for my bath..... hot water, cold water from the shower head, a 3’ x 3’ square plastic shower floor insert in a corner sans (French for without!) shower curtain; a large plastic basin, a bar of soap and a towel. I’d have to pour out some hot water to add cold and I hated to throw away hot bath water. Should I pour some in the basin and add cold to that? Should I sit in the basin, like a bathtub? The visual image of me squeezing myself into the 1 ½ ft diameter round plastic basin made me laugh. Even if I decided to do this, I had nothing to scoop the water from the bucket with and nothing with which to pour the rinse water. Or, should I use the basin to mix cold and hot water, stand on the insert, soap up and and then rinse from the basin with my hands? I decided to sacrifice some of the hot water and add cold from the shower, stand in the basin, and splash water from the bucket with my hands, trying to avoid the black bits. At the end, the bathroom, which also contained the toilet, was wet

The flip flops...(I got smart the second day and cut the top off of a water bottle to use as a scoop).


The next morning, we were taken to the Butare Hospital where the clinic would take place. The clinic came about because of Christian Rusangwa who had seen a LN-4 display at a Rotary conference and asked Tim and Carol to come to Rwanda. Christian is the president of a Rotaract club in Butare, the group for young people up to age 30. the Butare rotary club also helped to organize and support the clinic with the hospital administration. A number of young men and women from the Rotaract club participated in the clinic and we found them to be delightful young people. Christian and Claude were medical students, Gilbert was studying journalism and others IT. They were funny, smart and dedicated to the project. took time out from classes to assist during the week long clinic.

We congregated at the Orthopedic clinic and as Tim and Carol went through the boxes that they had shipped from the US, people were beginning to gather on benches on the porch. Some with one hand, some with both missing, a mom with a baby on her back, and woman with no hands and a disfigured face...machetes had chopped people in the face and hers was pulled together. They were silent waiting. We all went to the medical school conference room. Francis did a presentation, telling his story about the loss and then the hand 5 years ago. He was one of the first recipients. The hopefuls were attentive.


after a tea break, they were invited into the room and each person had someone fitting a hand. I worked with a man...how old was hard to tell...he picked up a cup and the smile on his face...used a pen....Jordan was videotaping us and the man picked up my camera and with his new hand, took a photo of Jordan videotaping us.
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