Reconciling horror with beauty

Last time I wrote it was the eve of our Rwandan adventure and now as I sit in Kigali on our last night in Rwanda, it is difficult to get my head around the week we have spent here – never mind to try to put it into words.

After an epic 10 hour bus trip that brought us from capital to capital – Kampala to Kigali, we arrived exhausted and exhilarated. The drive through northern Rwanda south to Kigali is spectacular and it was clear to see why this place is called ‘the land of a thousand hills’. I lost count within the first hour. Densely cultivated countryside sprawled across the hills in a patchwork of every kind of green imaginable. Mud huts clung to the edge of steep valleys as women and children carried all kinds of things on their heads around the winding roads. Stacks of terracotta roofing tiles, jerry cans full of water, a spade head, giant bunches of bananas, huge clay pots, two-metre long lengths of sugarcane, an uncountable number of giant sacks of potatoes, a man in a tiny village dressed immaculately in a suit with a briefcase on his head, another man carrying a 4-foot high sack of firewood – sitting vertically on his head… The list goes on.

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So the first thing that hits you about Rwanda is its overwhelming beauty. However, this is quickly undercut by the unspeakable horror that took place here not so long ago. On day one, Kirsty and I went wandering only to stumble across Hotel des Milles Collines aka Hotel Rwanda. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, it documents a local Rwandan man who managed the hotel and during the genocide gave refuge to over a thousand Tutsis, ultimately saving their lives. We entered the immaculate foyer and ended up in the most beautiful gardens sitting beneath umbrellas sipping coffee. It was hard to try and picture the scene here in 1994 when people lived in constant fear of death and were so desperate they drank the swimming pool to stay alive.

The following day, Cherie joined us from her gorilla trekking experience and the three of us went to the Kigali Memorial Centre – a museum dedicated to the genocide. It was truly horrific. The museum is incredibly well done and gives a build up to the genocide, trying to offer some kind of explanation as to how something so unthinkable could have taken place in a world that had so clearly denounced genocide after the Holocaust. There is a very moving quotation that states:

“When they said ‘never again’ after the Holocaust, was it meant for some people and not for others?”

The pictures and stories deteriorate into a scene of absolute horror as the genocide takes hold of the country. Over 800,000 Tutsis were murdered in 100 days, a rate of death that I still cannot begin to get my head around. The complete apathy of the international community is chilling; the world literally stood by and watched as people were slaughtered, mostly with machetes, all over the country. People were sending messages to the world, reporters were sending stories to editors but the world was not interested. America had recently been embarrassed by a major blunder in Somalia and didn’t want to get involved again. The press said people were ‘sick of Africa’ and, besides, Princess Diana and Prince Charles were getting divorced – that was what sold papers.

I am in the middle of reading an incredible book called “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families” by Philip Gourevitch, an American journalist who came to Rwanda after the genocide to try and find some answers. That night, lying in bed, images of horror still fresh in my mind, I read about massacres that took place in a church in Kigali called Sainte Famille. Realisation hit me – we were staying at the Sainte Famille. I lay in bed looking around me, trying to take in stories of thousands hiding in these very rooms as the massacres took place outside the doors. There were lists of names of Tutsis to be killed and the Father of the church actually helped the genocidaires to locate these people from within the church. Needless to say, I did not sleep that night. Continue reading

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On the road

After a whirlwind of dust, discos, catastrophes, hospitals, illness, heartbreak, vino and ultimately laughter, we are at last on the road. In a Jack Kerouac-does-Africa sense of the word. We will be jumping on and off public transport as we journey across East Africa for the next six weeks. It’s going to be intense, amazing and I can’t wait.

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But first… Stories from the last couple of weeks. We arrived back at KAASO after our Nile adventure to be met with an epidemic of sickness. Children were lying everywhere in various states of disarray, burning with fever and delirious from malaria and other unidentified illnesses. It was heartbreaking to see and I have never felt so helpless. Here, it seems, there are two types of medicine – malaria medicine and panadol. If it’s malaria, you take malaria medicine. Anything else can be fixed by a panadol and a cup of syrupy juice. Apparently. Except for the other day, when Rose came back to school dressed in her beautiful gomesi. She had been at the funeral of a 17-year old girl who had died the previous day. I asked her how she had died.

‘Headache,’ was the reply.

I looked at her in disbelief. ‘She had a headache and… then she was dead??’

‘Yes,’ Rose said simply. ‘You know these village people, they won’t take someone to hospital until they’re in a coma.’

No, I don’t know.

It’s worlds away from all I’ve ever known. But that’s just the way it is. People here have such an acceptance of death, they understand the close proximity between life and death and people believe that there is nothing you can do about it. Just keep on going, hoping it’s not yet your turn.

I came back from class a few days later, buzzing from having had 50 five-year olds clapping and dancing, only to turn the corner to be met with a sea of bodies sprawled across the dusty ground. I was horrified and asked them what they were waiting for. The nurse. They were so hot and half of them still wearing their woolen jumpers in the scorching sun so I took them off and stood helplessly wondering what on earth I could possibly do. Endongo. My guitar. I ran inside and came back carrying this most prized possession which is still met every time with wide eyes and shy smiles. I sat down next to Brenda, a tiny girl from my P1 class and began to play ‘You are my Sunshine’. Soon there were little faces popping up all around me, lighting up in smiles, those that had the energy sitting up and singing along quietly. It wasn’t much but at least it was something. It helped to pass the time until the nurse arrived and gave them hope that at least someone cared and wanted to spend time with them when they had no parents to do just that.

So in the midst of all this sickness, I guess it was only a matter of time before one of us fell prey to it. I was the lucky one. Fortunately it wasn’t malaria but I was hit by some chronic stomach bug which left me doubled over in bed wanting to die. Kirsty was a wonderful nurse, giving me plenty of drugs and forcing me to drink electrolyte solution tasting so foul I couldn’t help but wonder if the people making it had ever tried it – especially when you feel like you have an army marching through your belly…. And then a few hours later, Kirsty was struck down so the two of us lay in bed, writhing in pain and taking solace in the fact that at least if we died, we’d die together. After what felt like forever (in reality only two days) it passed and we are now fit and healthy. Although I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat maize porridge again which was what I’d eaten just before the pain started. Not a major loss.

I was one of the lucky ones. My illness left as quickly as it came. Others have not been so lucky. Two days ago I was walking through the school when Claire, one of the tiny girls from nursery came stumbling along looking awful. I crouched down to speak to her and quickly realised she could hardly breathe and was struggling with each breath. We brought her back to the house where Cherie tried to give her a spoonful of medicine but she vomited it straight back up over me. We needed urgent help. So I’m standing in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere with a seriously ill child who has no family for miles and we need to get her to hospital but there is no transport. It’s a terrifying feeling. I became more and more panicked as the girls tried desperately to find a boda boda to take her and I held her as she battled for breath. Finally one came and I jumped onto it with Claire and the school secretary. Half an hour of bumping along the dustiest roads with the worlds largest potholes (you could picnic in one), me clutching Claire, my ear to her head to make sure she was still breathing, we finally reached the hospital where, amazingly, the doctor saw us straight away. Sorry to the lady already in the room with her coughing baby.

It was infuriating not knowing what was going on – no one here asks questions. Like the girl who died of ‘headache’, you trust the doctors blindly and don’t bother to even ask what the problem is. Doctor knows best. Fortunately the doctor put up with my frantic tirade of questions and diagnosed it as an allergic reaction to the ‘environment’ which had swollen her breathing tubes and caused them to spasm. Or something along those lines. There was one moment of laughter when he first said she had allergies and I asked to what – food? He looked at me with a gleam in his eye and said that she probably hadn’t developed a sudden allergy to porridge, posho or beans – the only three things the children here are given to eat. They have eaten these all their life and will probably continue to do so. There is no variety. Continue reading