“Are you strong?” she asked, and with her big brown eyes she asked me again, this question which has never been afforded to the young ones of Rwanda, let alone the genocide victims we were approaching. “Cousin, are you strong?”
April is the month of mourning in Rwanda, and this year the country marks the 22nd anniversary of the 1994 Genocide. I’m in Nymata, visiting one of my girls, and after a day of chatting and eating with her various family members and neighbors, her sisters and I walked the quietly peaceful streets of her village until we arrived at the Nyamata church. The walk, maybe half a mile, took us over 30 minutes because we had to stop and greet every passerby. Greeting is very important in Rwandan culture – I have seen meetings literally come to a screeching halt when a newcomer arrives, in order for that person to individually greet everyone in the room with a hug and a handshake. Greeting is particularly important if you are a Muzungu, because, after all, it’s not everyday a white woman walks through town.
Arrival to the church is abrupt; one moment you’re in town, shooing away the men trying to sell used clothing, cell phone credit, or snacks, and the next moment you’re entering a genocide memorial site. It’s fitting when you think about it, because April 6th 1994 ended quite normally with a typical Rwandan sunset, and by noon the next day hundreds of innocent men, women, and children, were being hunted down and brutally murdered by their neighbors and friends and family. Only one hundred or so days later, hundreds of thousands of people had been slaughtered in their homes, workplaces, on the streets, and everywhere in between all across the hilly countryside of Rwanda.
The Nyamata church was no exception. Most Rwandans are deeply deeply deeply (I cannot emphasize this enough) deeply religious, and on April 10th, hundreds of Tutsi civilians fled to this house of God, thinking this place would be safe from the madness sweeping the country. Devastatingly, they were mistaken. The genocidaires threw grenades at the iron gates, shot through the corrugated metal roof, and the 10,000 or so innocent people were slaughtered in their church as they did the only thing imaginable under such circumstances: prayed. The church was preserved in order to allow survivors the opportunity to mourn and pay their respects.
The church is a small building. Maybe it accommodated two hundred worshippers and it’s easy to imagine how they would have filled this space with their joyful songs every Sunday. The walls are white (well reddish-white, because not even church walls are spared from the layer of clay-dust that covers literally every surface in Rwanda) and the exposed brick creates a simple backdrop for the small statue of the Virgin Mary. She hasn’t been moved, by the way, since the day she watched her community’s murder, and now she stands solemnly and greets the memorial’s visitors. The pews of the church, where once sat a lively mixed community of both Hutus and Tutsis, are now covered in the clothing worn by the victims of the Nyamata Massacre. Reminiscent of the shoes which line the pathways of Yad Vashem, the clothes and jewelry left behind are an undeniable testimony to the lives abruptly cut short. They were real people. They really lived and they really died, right here on these very seats, while you and I were having lovely spring days in April.
“Are you strong?” she asked. She didn’t bother asking her 12 year old sister who had come along. “Cousin, are you strong?” pleaded her 22 year old sister, as she looked around, and prepared to shield me if my face showed any trace of fear or weakness. “Are you strong?” my 17 year old cousin asked once more, as she took my hand and let me down the steep white tile stairs to a small basement below the church. There, laid out on the glass, were displayed dozens and dozens and dozens of skulls and bones. These are the people who died here, the girls explained. Some of them have coffins but many, too many, are left so open and exposed that one could reach out and touch them if they wanted to. It’s impossible not to think about the Holocaust in such a place, and I caught myself thinking ‘These survivors are lucky to know exactly where their loved ones’ remains are’.
Are they though? Are they lucky? Walking through the mass tomb reveals a simple truth, known to anyone who knows anything about the Rwandan genocide: these people died horrible, violent, impossibly personal deaths. The tools used to slaughter them are displayed on what used to be the alter of the church: government supplied machetes, kitchen knives, sharp tools, and just about anything else that could be used to tear apart a human being. You don’t need a degree in forensic anthropology to infer the trauma these people experienced and they pain they must have felt before their deaths. Many of the skulls have grisly cracks, while others are missing huge chunks – revealing, of course, that these people had been struck at close range with machetes, presumably wielded by a neighbor and in some cases, even a family member.
No, I decided, I would not feel lucky if my friends and family were displayed in such a way. And yet, there were my three Rwandan cousins, holding my hands, leading me through the darkest moment of their personal history, saying quiet words of remembrance to the members of their community whom they would never have the chance to greet along the dirt roads of their quiet, peaceful village.
We paid our respects to Antonia Locatelli, an Italian citizen living in Rwanda, who vocally protested the genocide and worked to alert the global community as to the horrors being carried out in every village and city across the country. She was murdered for her efforts, and now she rests alongside those she tried to save.
The girls led me away from the memorial and began to explain the details of their family’s experience. They wanted to know- had I noticed their mother’s scars on her arms and legs? No I hadn’t, because everyone in this country older than 22 has been affected by the genocide in one way or another, and my American political- correctness has trained me not to dwell on noticing physical differences like scars or missing limbs. Did I realize that their eldest sister is 28 years old and the second born is 22? She was born in January, just three months old when her government made a series of decisions which forever changed the narrative of her country’s history and future. Just three months old, when her mother fled to this very church in an attempt to protect them from their neighbors- turned- murderers. Just three months old, when her mother was beaten, left bleeding, and sentenced to death by machete. Just three months old, when they somehow escaped- a young mother, her six year old, and their brand new, three month old baby.
My girls walked me out of the memorial, holding my hands, and (despite my protests) buying me chocolates for my journey home. Had I enjoyed my visit? How had I found their village? Would I come back and visit again soon? Of course, I smiled, as they hugged me and put me safely on the bus back to Kigali.
Have a safe journey Cousin! Stay close to this person, he’s our neighbor, he’ll take care of you, but for the love of God won’t you please zip up your bag? Rwanda is a safe place, but come on, you’re going into the city!
I zipped my bag, blew one more kiss, and as we pulled out of the station, began to reflect on the one question which has baffled me and many others in the years since the Genocide: how how how how HOW could a person survive something as bloody and horrific as the massacre of hundreds of civilians in a community church and then return with their family to that very village to peacefully live out the rest of their days? How can you ever trust your neighbors, when you have seen these exact people become the worst versions of humanity? I pondered this question, which has been echoed time and again after nearly every example of the horrible ways in which humans hurt one another, across the eras, cultures, and geographies that make us who we are, from the beginning of time all the way up to today- why do we keep coming back? Why do we return to places where horrible things have happened to our ancestors and to us? Why do we refuse to leave places like Juarez, like Detroit, like Sderot, like Gaza, like Pyongyang, places which are not safe, which haven’t been safe for a long time, and won’t be safe for even more time, just because one day, some long ago relative decided this would be home? Why would you live there, amidst violence and corruption and terror, when there are places in this world like the white sandy beaches of ZANZIBAR for crying out loud?!
As I thought about this question and tried to put it in the context of my own unending desire to be in Israel, a place which often meets the criteria of ‘why the hell would you live in such a dangerous place?’ I happened to look out the window. I saw, of all things, a brilliant rainbow piercing through the dark clouds of what will surely be a heavy afternoon rain. How fitting, I thought, to drive away from this genocide memorial site and see a rainbow, which, for those of you who never heard of Noah and his ark, is a widely accepted symbol of forgiveness. Forgiveness, then, seems to be a force greater than anger or hatred or vengeance or any of the other hundreds of human emotions that we use to fuel obscene and horrible actions. Forgiveness is why we keep coming back and why many of us refuse to move in the first place.
Are you strong? they asked me, over and over again.
Yes, I said, I’m strong. But not nearly as strong as you.
This post is my own and does not necessarily reflect the views of the JDC or the Agahozo- Shalom Youth Village.
Sometimes you wake up in the morning and you’re not sure how your day will go. Sometimes you book a $25 dolphin tour and get one step closer to achieving your lifelong ambition of becoming a mermaid.
By the time we met our driver at 8 this morning I had already been up and yoga-ing on the balcony of our hostel while the morning rains washed the heat and humidity away for a little while. We drove for about an hour and arrived at the Southern tip of the island. Because it’s the off season, we were able to have a private boat just to ourselves! As we motored out to deeper water, we marveled at the incredibly crystal clear blue water against the pure white sand. We saw flying fish and jelly fish and looked around for the main attraction: the pod of paradise dolphins.
There they are! On went the snorkels and the flippers and into the water we tumbled. With my equipment- enable efficiency I pulled through the water quickly and easily in order to keep up with the pod. I was thiiiiiis close to being able to touch the spectacular creatures I was chasing but they were having none of it. As soon as we got close, they dove down down down and coasted just above the sand, many feet below us. Then it was a test of endurance and vision. How long could we track the dolphins until they disappeared?
When we lost sight of them, we climbed back on to our boat and waited for them to surface. Our captain would put us in position and tell us when to JUMP and we would swim with all of our strength for as long as we could. Up and down and through the water we flew with the dolphins and their jellyfish friends. The pod swam and played together, with brilliant twists and dives to evade their pesky human followers. They chirped and sang to each other and we were awed to join them for as long as we could. I had to keep reminding myself that it was not worth it to drown in order to keep up with my new friends- I kept getting water inside my mask so I had to actively tell myself to come up and breath because lord knows those dolphins were not slowing down for me. The saddest moment of my Africa experience thus far was the moment when our captain told us ‘this will be your last dive’.
We leapt into the water, determined to make the most of this last spectacular moment. For ten minutes, I kept up with the pod as they dove and glided up and down. When they surfaced I kicked with all my strength to keep up and when they dove down I kept my eyes focused so I wouldn’t lose them. Breathless, we climbed aboard our boat and realized how incredibly lucky we were. I often feel grateful for the strength I’ve developed through yoga, but never so grateful as I was today, when my muscles and bones worked together in a way that allowed me to race through the water with everyone’s favorite sea creature.
We scarfed down an incredible lunch of coconut rice and vegetable sauce with roasted tuna steak, drank enough water to drown a fish, and made our way back to our hotel. Exhausted, we marveled at the amazing morning we had had while the afternoon rains took over the town. We fell into our beds for an afternoon nap but not before booking our next Zanzibar experience for tomorrow: giant tortoises!
Gooooood morning Zanzibar! My my my aren’t you looking glorious today! Have you done something with your hair? Salt water? 90% humidity? It’s doing wonders for your complexion, really you must give me some!
We enjoyed a delicious breakfast at our hostel and met our driver for the spice tour we had booked the night before. We learned that Zanzibar is famous for its spices and, formerly, its slave market. We joined a few more travelers and walked with our guide through a spice farm to learn about the various crops Zanzibar produces and exports. Our guide hand-picked all kinds of yummy things like guava, lemongrass, cardamom, cloves, oranges, nutmeg, annatto, ginger, turmeric, giant passion fruit, pomelo, vanilla beans, neem, and peppercorn.
We munched on freshly harvested cinnamon bark as we learned about the different plants. Did you know that white black and red peppercorn are all the same plant, just at different stages? And that lemongrass and citronella are the same thing? That cardamom pretty much goes with everything? As we walked and collected our samples, one of our guides was creating gorgeous trinkets out of palm leaves. By the end of the tour, we had bracelets, frog-necklaces, and headbands!
Our tour included an AMAZING lunch with rice featuring many of the spices we had sampled, some kind of sauce, and sautéed spinach something or other. Delish.
We bought essential-oil based perfumes and soaps and went on our way. From there we drove to explore a slave cave. We learned that while Zanzibar natives weren’t taken, this port was used to move thousands of other people stolen from their villages throughout East Africa.
After slavery was outlawed, the black market businessmen used caves to hide their human-merchandise. The cave was dark and wet and hot and terrifying but we learned that the people kept there usually just stayed one or two nights and were definitely fed while they were held captive, because of course, well fed slaves command a higher price. We learned that the natives of Zanzibar didn’t report the illegal activity to the British because turning a blind eye protected their communities from being targeted.
Our tour ended with a one hour swim at a private beach. The water is crystal clear and warm as a bathtub and the gorgeous white sand is soft and smooth. The waves are gentle and it’s the kind of magical place that makes you never want to go back to work, no matter how wonderful your day job might be (Don’t worry Sara and Arielle, I promise I’ll go back to the Village) . Taylor and I high fived ourselves on a vacation well planned. This place is SO much better than Dar….
After resting and showering, we wandered the whimsical streets until we found ourselves at a park on the water. Local vendors set up stands and you can walk from stand to stand ordering small things until you have a delicious and unique meal. We took turns going out and and ordering treats and by the end of the night not a single one of us could eat a single more bite. The only thing left to do was watch the kiddos playing nearby. We ran into a woman who had been with us for our spice tour with her 2 year old daughter, so they joined us for dinner. After the little one got bored of our adult conversation, she started wandering the boardwalk to find a friend. A friend is exactly what she found, in a little girl precisely her height, dressed head to toe in a mini hijab. The two girls giggled and played with the dozens of cats that rule the streets of Stonetown (relatives of the cats in Israel I’m sure) and I realized that the longer their parents allow them to play together, the closer we’ll all be to the kind of world we’d like to achieve. Two beautiful little girls, one Muslim in traditional dress, one born in the States, with Caribbean roots but growing up in Kenya, both laughing together at the feisty felines begging for some leftover morsels – let them play, I said to the mom, and let them laugh and let us hope that neither of them ever forget this moment of connection with another soul who could not be more different from themselves. They played for as long as we could stand it – they were constantly getting dangerously close to the edge of the water- and when it was time for bed they gave each other one last curious look and went back into their separate worlds, but this time with the memory of the strange little girl who turned out to be a friend.
Of all the valuable skills I’ve learned through my teaching, the ability to hold my pee for extremely long lengths of time has been the most valuable by far. On Friday morning we said goodbye to our kiddos, packed then up on busses, and sent them back to their villages. We had a short staff seminar to close out first term, and then Taylor, Peter, Jordan, and I packed up our backpacks and began our journey of a thousand miles. It all started Friday night.
8:00 pm – Dinner in Kigali.
10:00 pm- Pass out.
2:30 am – Wake up and catch a moto to the bus station. Laugh at the moto driver who tries to charges twice the normal rate.
3:30 – Take Dramamine, board bus, pass out.
5:30- Wake up at the Tanzania- Rwanda border. Disembark bus, walk across international line. Say hi to the monkeys we see on the side of the road! Pay $100 for Tanzanian visa. Look at the bathroom and decide, nah, I can hold it.
7:30- Board bus number two. Now this merits elaboration.
This teeny little van would be our home for the next little while. Great, we thought! Lots of space.
NOPE. With rising anxiety we watched as person after person after person after person boarded the van. 24 people and a toddler later, and we were literally sitting on top of each other. Knees and elbows and legs were everywhere and there was not a centimeter of space to shift positions. I looked at the guy in front of me and asked a silly question.
How long are we on this bus?
Yes when will it stop?
Oh very far.
It will be a long way
Yes how long?
Yes six hours. In this situation we will be sitting for six hours.
And that’s exactly what we did. Packed like a bunch of sardines in a clown car, we drove for six hours. It was hot. It was smelly. It was bumpy. It was a level of discomfort the likes of which we have never known. At one point, our friend looked at the squashed pile of humans in front of him and said with a giggle “In this situation if we get into an accident we are all dead. DEAD! There’s no chance! We are FINISHED!”
2:30 pm- Lots of yoga breathing and one time zone later, and we were in Kahama, Tanzania.
We hadn’t exchanged any money yet so we had Rwandan Francs and of course US Dollars, but no Tanzanian Shillings. We had about two hours until bus number 3 so we wandered around trying to find a place to exchange some cash so we could buy some food. This wouldn’t have been difficult but at this point it was Saturday afternoon and everything was closed. Eventually we were able to find an ATM that accepted our cards so we withdrew 100,000 shillings and giggled at the 2187 shilling-to-dollar exchange rate. We feasted on apples and bananas and French fries and avocado and freshly cut sugar cane and looked for a bathroom. Nah, I decided. I can hold it. One look from Taylor told me this was a bad decision so we held our breath and pretended not to care about the lack of soap. Or toilet paper. Or toilet.
7:00 pm- Board bus 3. This is a good point in the story to explain that we hadn’t really planned out any itinerary. We didn’t know where the busses were stopping so we didn’t want to book hostels in case we didn’t end up where we thought we’d be. Emphasis on the ‘we didn’t know where the busses were stopping’. We basically bought bus tickets in Kigali and relied on the kindness of strangers to tell us when and where to get on and off. Luckily for us, a few English speaking Rwandans were traveling all the way to Dar Es Salaam with us, so we just kept them in our sights and didn’t move unless Lady in the Pink Sweater or Man in Pinstripe Shirt with Sharp Knees did too. We had been told the bus wouldn’t drive in the dark because of safety so when we boarded the bus we didn’t know how long we’d be driving or where we’d be stopping, but we didn’t think we’d be on the road for long because it was definitely getting dark soon. Also, the bus was so packed that all the seats were full and there were at least 10 people standing in the aisle.
10:00 pm – Still driving, very dark. Damn, phone died. Guess I can’t listen to music anymore. I’ll get some sleep. I’m sure we’ll stop soon so we can pee.
12:00 am – Still driving, haven’t stopped. How will we find a hostel at this hour? Don’t worry about it, go back to sleep. Good thing it’s not hot. Oh those poor people- they’re still standing!
3:00 am – Still driving. I guess we’re not stopping. I’m kinda hungry and maybe have to pee. I’m sure we’ll stop soon.
5:00 am- Definitely not stopping for the night. Bus is slowing down! Get some snacks look at the bathroom and decide nah, I can hold it. I’m sure we’ll be there soon. Good, the people in the aisle are at least sitting down now. Bus is starting to move. WAIT! Lady in Pink Sweater isn’t back yet! We can’t leave until she’s back!
9:00 am- OHMYGOD WHEN IS THIS BUS GOING TO STOP MOVING?!
10:00 am – It’s starting to get hot. Oh good! It’s raining! What’s that? The bus has a leaky roof? Delicious.
11:00 am – Is this our stop? Nope. Lady in Pink Sweater is still here so I’m staying put. I wonder what air smells like.
12:00 pm – Claustrophobia. Who am I? What is my name? Where do I come from? Where am I going? I have forgotten what the world looks like. All I know is bus.
1:00 pm – Dear God make me a bird so I can fly far, far, far away from here.
2:00 pm – Did you feel that? Is that what it feels like to park the car? Is this Dar Es Salaam? Have we actually arrived?
2:02- Where are my friends?
2:05 – HOLY SHIT THERE ARE SO MANY TAXI DRIVERS YELLING AT US!
2:07 -Anyone know where we’re going? Literally take us anywhere that’s not this bus. For those of you keeping track, the journey was about 34 hours long. 26 of those hours were spent on busses, and a whopping 18 of those were spent consecutively on the SAME bus.
2:45 -Taxi driver brings us to hotel. Hotel is more expensive then we’d like but what the hell, we slept on a bus last night. Is there a toilet? That’s really our only requirement at this point. Sure, we’ll take two rooms.
3:15 – Shower! Hot water! Toilet!
3:16 – HUNGRYHUNGRYHUNGRY
We ask the receptionist for recommendations for dinner. Where can we go? What do people usually do here? The answer we got was priceless: please don’t leave the hotel. It’s not safe for you out there……
…….. we’ll be fine! There’s four of us! Where can we go?
No, really, the receptionist replied. I am very worried about your security.
Ooooook then. We ate at the hotel restaurant (which was probably why she made it sound so dangerous- so we would stay put and spend more money), got some wine and chilled at the hotel. The next day was rainy but we found ourselves on the beach anyway and spent a couple of hours collecting the most gorgeous shells before we looked at each other and decided to get the hell out of this city.
We boarded a ferry and two and a half hours later we landed in Stonetown, Zanzibar.
As we diaembarked the ferry, we were required to show our passports. This was confusing to us because Zanzibar is part of Tanzania and of course we had already done the whole customs thing at the border. Ok, Hakuna Matata (it really does mean no worries in Swahili!), we pull out our passports. You may or may not know that when traveling though certain parts of Africa you also have to show proof of having a yellow fever vaccine. We’ve all done it, and we all had the documentation. Except for Jordan, who left his international vaccination booklet in Kigali. Rookie mistake, we know, and for a long while it really looked liked Jordan was going back to Rwanda. Taylor, Peter, and I dealt with all of our required protocols (another stamp in my passport! Yay!) and then went to find Jordan. He had been taken to a separate medical room and it quickly became clear that they were planning on charging him $50 and administering another yellow fever shot before they would let us through. Nope nope and nope. We tried to explain that he’d had the shot already and please can’t his resident visa in Rwanda serve as documentation of that? In order to enter Rwanda you need to show proof of vaccination, so surely the fact that we are residents can serve as adequate documentation? It’s reasonable logic, except every time we said the word ‘visa’ the officer said ‘No. Visa is for immigration office, this is medical office.’
Yes we know but can’t we use this visa instead of the medical document?
‘No. Visa is for immigration office, this is medical office.’
Yes, but we don’t have the medical document right now. We did have it though, which you know because we have the visa.
‘No. Visa is for immigration office, this is medical office.’
Is there anything we can do? We are not paying for another vaccine because he already had one.
‘Well unfortunately your friend forgot to bring his document. This is protocol. Stay calm, you are welcome.’
But can’t the visa serve as documentation?
‘No. Visa is for immigration office, this is medical office.’
This went on for at least thirty minutes until Peter brilliantly said something along the lines of ‘what if we pay $20, no shot, and we walk out of here right now’
Well. Ok then. We were told to close the door, someone produced a $20 ‘gift’ and we hightailed it the hell out of the port before anyone could come after us with a syringe. We walked straight into the first cab we saw, paid an outrageously inflated fee , and got to our hostel as quickly as possible with our brains utterly reeling from what just happened. The only thing to do at this point was go out for a nice dinner (which we did), find somewhere to have a drink (or two. Ok fine, three.), curl up under a mosquito net and plan to have a better day tomorrow. Hopefully we can get through the rest of our vacation sans-government corruption, but I guess only time will tell.
This post is my own and does not reflect the views of the JDC or the Agahozo- Shalom Youth Village.