Every day here is a challenge,” said Lauren, my friend in my program. We were discussing how we had all been catapulted out of our comfort zones, and what she said couldn’t be more true, because here in Kigali, I really don’t think my comfort zone exists. Every minute is a new obstacle: how will I cross this road without getting hit due to nonexistent traffic laws? How will I find my way home on this riddle of a bus system? When will I stop being called Muzungu (never)? How will I tell my host family without eternally offending them that I don’t want a fourth bowl of oatmeal? Those are the minute-by-minute uncomfortable situations, but there comes a steep drop off in finding the balance between light-hearted issues to an issue that will change who I am to my very core forever: The Genocide.
There’s subtle evidence of it everywhere, but it can be easy to forget that the entire scaffolding of Rwandan society is built upon the ashes of this tragedy. It is easy to forget it when I am building card castles with my host brothers. It is easy to forget when I am seeking a chocolate bar in stores nearby the SIT office with my classmates. But today, there was no forgetting. Today, we went to the Rwandan Memorial, a museum in Kigali, and two churches on the countryside that were also memorials. In the attempt to describe what I felt and what I saw, words are trite, but I will continue the attempt. The museum was somewhat similar to the Holocaust Museum in DC, but there is something about being in the very place the museum remembers. It was chilling to say the least. We listened to videos about survivors who described their families’ deaths, rapes, beatings. We watched videos of people crying, silent videos of victims with scares marring their head, hand, anywhere. We read blurbs about the international community’s inaction. The silence and crackling of a video reels changing laid upon us thickly, and remained for the rest of the day, especially in a room that was decorated wall-to-wall with pictures of missing people. What came to mind, (among many things) was an earlier conversation with Bebe. She had told me she loves horror movies and I had laughed and told her I didn’t watch them because then I would be up ALLLL night, fearing whatever villain in the movie was in my bedroom. I had been thinking, however, that Rwanda had been a horror movie. One of the scariest the world has ever seen, and suddenly the idea of watching something imitating any kind of horror felt unnatural. Wrong. I had remembered when I had taken a dean’s seminar on Holocaust and Genocide Studies, after watching so many films of people barely alive in Auschwitz, the image of the skull seemed gruesome, crude. It suddenly had taken me aback to see it on clothing. Well, last night, Ganza was wearing a pirate hat with a skull and crossbones on it. The skull design was half peeled off the hat and when I asked him about it, he told me his mother didn’t like it and tried to remove it. Though my family hasn’t said anything about the genocide, there it was: subtle evidence. And I understood.
Here, I will get into more detail and as a warning, it is extremely disturbing. In the museum, I was becoming sick to my stomach, feeling nauseous and knew it had nothing to do with adjusting to the food here. We then got lunch and took the bus to the country-side. During some time, that heavy silence, the disturbed reflecting eased a bit, and on the bus we were talking and laughing, telling crazy stories as we do. We were driving through rural Rwanda, what I had originally pictured for my time abroad. After about an hour, we reached the memorial site. It was a church where Tutsis had sought refuge during the genocide. Our tour guide showed us how the interwhame (one of the main militia groups who were exterminating the Tutsis) used grenades and bullets to break in. The interwhame were intent upon not only killing Tutsis, but also humiliating them and torturing them in the worst ways fathomable. When I stepped inside the church, I saw benches and upon them, piles and piles of old, withering clothes that had belonged to the victims. People had been hacked to death, shot, beaten by clubs, and some bashed against the walls. The blood stains were still there. The guide then took us to a mass grave. He led us downstairs and as soon as I was half way down the stairs, my every instinct urged me to go back up. I found myself in a tight basement, either side with shelves containing rows upon rows of skulls and heaps of bones. There was no barrier. There was no glass. I couldn’t remove myself. I was inches away from hundreds of human bones. Bones that were once covered in muscle and skin, belonging to a person, a human being, who had every bit of life in them that I did in that moment. Taken away. Snatched by atrocities too heinous to imagine. It felt wrong and unnatural and like I was intruding on the most personal, the most intimate of situations. Why was I in Rwanda? I had nothing to give. Only knowledge, only tragedy and stories of survival to take. Why was I impeding on this story of restoration after the rest of the world turned away when the machetes were hacking? These were the things that were going through my mind. We walked away heavy. Everything else shrunk away. Miniscule matters. Microscopic worries so insignificant.
We were taken to another church, and from how I described the first, I think you can imagine what we saw there as well. After, we went back to the office to reflect, which was much needed. Trying to wrap our heads around this is like trying to button pants much too small. Every time I feel like I am coming to an answer, some thread of rationality, something in the logic rips, tears at the seams. However, as quickly as possible, gears shift. Suddenly, I am trying to find my way home from school and due to a fire (which actually burned half the store my host parents own), my bus stop is closed, and I was lost in town with Kelsey, panicked and emotionally exhausted. And it began again, another challenge. Constant challenges, never ending, so disproportionate their varying weights.