I’ve been in Kigali for several days now, wandering and visiting and learning this very unique, and seemingly un-African city. I write “un-African” because there is a very real organization and structure that feels Western and familiar. Things work here. The city is beautiful, and clean and safe. Yes, much of this framework is mandated by government, but it is the populace that makes it work. Rwandans of every class are proud of their city, proud of the strides they have made, and it is on display for all to see and appreciate.
The town is a physical manifistation of the old saying “You can’t get there from here.” Even as I sit atop the Kigali Library enjoying the view from the Shokola Story Teller Cafe, I can gaze across two hills to my guest house. If I were a pied crow, I could cross the 2.5 kilometers in minutes; in a taxi it will be 20 at least plus another five explaining to the driver how to actually get to the house which is down a dirt lane in a newly constructed neighborhood in the community of Gikondo.
New and modern architecture crown the numerous hills, older buildings flow down the sides to the valleys where football fields and small farm plots are cut by roads crammed with motos and taxis. These paved arteries snake through the low lands before climbing the hillsides again to connect the various distinct districts and neighborhoods.
The layout of the city is a contradiction to what I have witnessed in South America. Think back to Black Orpheus, the seminal film that introduced Jobim and Rio carnival to American audiences. The slums of Rio were as much a character as Orfeo and Eurydice and I remember being confused as the cameras showed extreme poverty on the hill tops, and wealth in the valleys. The opposite here, with Chinese-financed skyscrapers and affluent residences crowning the hills; becoming tiaras of twinkling lights as the day fades.
With all of its functioning infrastructure, Kigali still offers up that frenetic continental energy I have witnessed in film. During the day, roadways and sidewalks are indistinguishable as thousands of people on foot, either mingling or hurrying to their next destination, move in chaotic waves, all seemingly involved in some sort of commerce; and all bustling between moving and parked lorries, cars and motos without incident.
The choreography combines women in tribal dress and flip flops, trays of mango and avocado balanced on their heads and cell phones to their ears, flowing gracefully around suited businessmen conducting a measured meeting in the street. Young men with converted bicycles balanced high with jerry cans of water pushing through throngs of starchly uniformed, squealing school children. A well- dressed matron with the evening meal – a live chicken under her arm – pushing Rommel-like through a group of truck drivers, their idling vehicles belching diesel, and spotting the truck she wants beginning a negotiating for what looks like corrugated siding loaded in the back.
This colorful crush of humanity is common across the continent in city and village alike, but here in Kigali with its clean streets and green spaces, it feels almost theatrical. There is a sense that as I turn a corner, someone has, moments before, yelled “Action!” and I find myself part of a Zanuck epic complete with a symphony of impatient horns; shouting vendors, blaring radios, bleating goats and laughing children.
It is a chaotic, beautiful film and I’m happy to have been cast even in this tiny role of observer.
Lives and livelihoods are being lost today in Rwanda…a massive, unseasonable rain arrived early this morning with flash flooding, mud slides, and washed out or blocked roads in the country side.
Kigali is being scoured with up to two inches of fast flowing runoff and the neighborhoods, normally bustling with commerce, are relatively quiet as folks hunker down.
Any other country in the horn of Africa, subjected to this, would most likely find itself in dire straights; however, Rwandan infrastructure is solid and “this too shall pass”.
I wonder how the ladies of Azizi handle this: wanting fresh water and receiving it, but too much too fast. Knowing the hillside where they have their plots, I’m certain some major damage is being incurred. But also having an awareness of their sense of community, when the rain stops, everyone will be helping those in need repair and recover, and all without drama.
Living with the land truly builds character. Hmmmm…perhaps we need a cultural exchange program at home…red folks from rural areas can be hosted by Blue city folk, and vice versa. I don’t believe we are as far apart as the politicians and media would like us to believe…we just need a massive rain.
Its been a rainy day, and such days are good for museums and contemplations of uncomfortable things; and so, it was with some trepidation that I began the drive to Kigali’s main Genocide Memorial.
If you were born after 1990 or have been in a coma these past decades, or just didn’t give a rat’s behind about events outside of our borders, you may have missed this little gem of human on human evilness. Of course the butchering of 1million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the span of 100 days in Rwanda wasn’t the first action of its kind…homo sapien has gotten quite good at mass anihilations-Armenia, Nambia, the Balkans, Cambodia, and, the one that ‘didn’t happen’- Europe. Hundreds of books have been written on genocides – on the whys and hows and what could have been done differently – and I’ve read many of them.
And perhaps because I did not come innocently to the Memorial, it did not have the same affect upon me as those with whom I traveled through the chronologically curated rooms. Tears, both quiet and not so, sniffles, horrified intacts of breath, and resigned sighs surrounded me.
I read the stories, many familiar; I looked at photographs that never appeared on US television because they were deemed too troubling for the American viewer, and I remembered the attempts of individuals from NGOs and the UN trying to get somebody’s attention…anybody’s…to no avail. I clearly recall one newscaster in April of 1994 saying ‘we have unconfirmed reports…’ and those reports remained unconfirmed because to do so would have required action on an international scale.
So what did I feel? Disappointment. Some anger. Mostly resignation that the three genocides that have occurred in my lifetime won’t be the last because someone always has to be right which makes the rest of us wrong.
I left the Memorial and drove over to Heaven…a lovely open-air restaurant owned by some expats that is an ‘easy’ dining experience. I didn’t want to have to work at finding sustenance, and the patio is just as it is named, heavenly. As I waited for my ginger tea, I noticed a lamp post on the street side of the deck. It was lovely; white with sweeping curves and a silver orb perched on top. Someone, some industrial designer sitting in an office perhaps 6000 miles away determined that something as utilitarian as a lamp post should offer beauty for anyone willing to look up from their busy day. How can the same species wield a drafting pen and a machete with equal passion?