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Writing from Rwanda


After a few hours of writing the man I am traveling with comes and sits next to me.  He tells me he understands that he could never understand unless he had come.  I watch him walk to the fishermen on the rocks.  I see mouths move and a finger draw in the sand.  A smile then laughter comes to me and I sit alone watching with white herons that stretch on the pier.  He comes back to me and tells me the men are from the Congo and have no work.  They say, “Maybe you can stay and do something.”  He says “What can I do?” and they hold out an open palm.  They say maybe they will catch fish tonight to eat.  Their fingers close after conversation and for the first time in Africa he understands pride.  I bring a chair to the balcony and stretch my legs like the heron and write.

It is my fifth day in Rwanda.  The sky is covered in spreading cloud and has turned the water a plate of silver.  Country music plays in the background and I don’t remember ever being in a place so peaceful.  A Rwandan lays on a pier kicking his legs in the air, a pink towel covering his face.  A girl in a swimming costume smiles a white, sad smile and waves at me from behind a bush.  She walks to me and speaks in rapid French which I have forgotten.  She says, “What do you want to ask me?”  There are a million things but I can’t find the French words so I say, “Is the water warm?”  She giggles, nods and walks away.  I feel I have disappointed her.  The people are beautiful here.  Tall and thin but it is their smiles that catch me.  Full fledged and bright and when I pass in my truck often all I can see are flashes of white, their teeth like short feathers sticking boldly out at all angles.  It’s difficult to understand their peaceful grace when only nine years ago they were in the midst of genocide.  The town I write in today was overtaken by the Hutu and 90% of its inhabitants murdered.

I hire a driver to take me through the country.  He is quiet and gentle with a chipped front tooth and oversized glasses that sit crooked on his face like two bicycle tires without spokes.  He says, “We should go to the genocide memorials so you can understand.” We drive to a graveyard miles from town overlooking banana trees and green mountains.  There are 70 simple wooden crosses and five cement squares.  He walks with me through the rows and tells me 20,000 people are buried here.  We are quiet and I don’t know what to say.  There are no flowers and the place looks forgotten.  I ask him if people come here.  “I come here,” he says.  “My brothers are here, and my sisters.”  Out of twelve children he is the only survivor.

We drive two more hours and stop at a market.  He means to just point it out but I ask to walk through.  He looks at me unsure but lets me go.  I walk through endless tables filled with mangos, tea, bananas, soap, lipstick, fabrics.  People literally stop what they are doing and stare as I make my way past.  I smile but only a few smile back.  Children start to gather behind me following at a safe distance.  I can hear their gossip and laughter.  I turn and charge at them with stretched arms and they run screaming and laughing.  I turn around and resume my path and more join the pack.  By the time I reach the truck about fifty are behind me.  They encircle me and begin to touch my hair and run their fingers over my skin.  John tells me many of them have never seen a white person.  One boy of five begins to do karate and when I pull out my camera they all make horrible faces and one stands on his head.  I get in the truck and yell good-bye in a high pitched voice.  They mimic me and I throw them pens.  They run after the truck against the orange dust spitting from the tires.  The boy who did karate runs the farthest, and there is a point when I can no longer watch him.  He tries so hard to reach us and I can’t understand why.  When he stops I look back and see him standing there watching, concentrating, like he is trying to memorize the shape of the truck before it disappears.  Every child we pass yells “Chupa!!” meaning water bottle.  John, my driver, throws out an empty Evian bottle and tells me they want it to put their boiled water in and take to school.  I think of how many kids I could help if I knew before hand.  I buy ten bottles at the next stop and throw them randomly out the window, but there is never enough.  There are always, and will always be, children running alongside car windows begging for simple things.

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