From the title you’d think this was an action-filled movie with hostages and chases in the jungle, or a love story featuring researcher and local boy who fall head over heels in under three days, Romeo-and-Juliet style. You’d probably be disappointed to know it is neither. I can only promise there will be coffee and baby elephants and stories to touch your heart.
Rewind to just over a couple of months ago, when Mr Husband was approached with a tantalising project in Rwanda. Carl is a medical engineer. TL:DR: he works in hospital planning. While he grappled with negotiations and the other boring bits, I prayed he’d take the project for my own selfish plans. When my prayers were answered (I found it very hard to believe it too), I was met with scepticism from pretty much everyone, especially the parents. It went like this:
“Rwanda? Mela qed tiggennu? (Mela you’re crazy?)”
“Irwanda? Is that Africa? Hemm l-Ebola?”
“Il-madoffi kemm sejjer il-boghod! Ma jistax isib progett l-Italja? (Il-madoffi how far! Can’t he find a project in Italy?”
“Hemmhekk tal-genocidju? Tista tibghat lil haddiehor?” (Is that the genocide place? Can you send someone else?)
So yeah, not very encouraging. To my lasting shame, I did not know of the genocide which took place here in 1994, until I started researching about it. The details were horrific but I was mostly reassured by what I found: 25 years on, the country had managed to rebuild itself at an accelerated pace, and – contrary to everyone’s belief – it is now considered to be one of the safest countries in Africa. I still had a hard time convincing everyone but by then I was more than convinced. I was going.
Since this was primarily still a business trip, I decided I’d work remote when Carl had meetings and book us an extra three days ahead of work. So without further ado, I give you the probably- not-as-exciting-as-it-sounds memoir of my three days in Rwanda…
This is going to be a long one, so I’ve decided to split it up in three to give you the option to navigate to what interests you the most.
Day 1 – Friday
Early wake-up call and hurried breakfast this morning. We need to be at a particular café by 8am. We’ve had less than 4 hours of sleep but the adrenalin fuels us well enough. So, where are we going? The café is called Question Café but this is not just any coffeeshop It is a roastery which sources its beans from the surrounding thousand hills this country is known for. It was to one of these plantations we would head later on, after we’ve sipped our own delicious coffee outside. We feast on the greenery that invades our senses; exotic trees sit with us while wafts of wet grass swirl with the scent of freshly ground coffee beans. It’s the rain season and it rains for a while every single day, so that the entire place seems to be bursting with foliage. And we were still in the city. Half an hour into the drive and just before I fell prey to sleep, I wondered how, if it could, the green would probably take over the streets too. The ground beneath the car’s wheels was already red like the soil anyway…
The plantation was… how best to describe this? Eye-opening. Like the 157 out of 160 other co-operatives, the one we visited was run and led by women. They walked us through the entire process, from preparing the fertilizer, to seed planting, to harvest, to quality control and finally drying. They greeted us with dance and song and we clapped and danced along with them. They sing while they work to help keep them motivated because THE.JOB.IS.TOUGH. Not tough, but tough tough. These women toil, back bent, in hot temperatures all year round. They have to balance kilos of beans on their head and walk for miles to the washing station. And yet, they are some of the most dedicated women I have seen in my life. The amount of detail, the care, the strict control they adhere to, so we only get the best beans for our coffees, is honestly laudable. They take pride in their work because it has given them hope at a time when there was none. And this is where I first heard of the genocide from first-hand experience. I still get goosebumps writing this.
The genocide killed off more than a million people. Most of these deaths were men, while most of the female survivors had been tortured or raped, scarred for the rest of their life. These women realised however, that if they wanted to give their children a better life, they needed to stand back up and start filling in the gaps left by men. These co-operatives were a means to help women regain their confidence and independence, as well as offer them work so they can keep the family going. I don’t know whether the women singing and dancing in front of me had suffered horrible fates, though they were all of the age to have surely remembered it. But the hope and their strength left a lasting impression, as bold as the coffee they served for us in front of rolling green hills.
The tasting was very interesting. They explained the different process used in the washing stages -natural, honey-coated and fully washed and they invited us to taste the difference in the cups they prepared. It was a unique experience, being with these smiling women, sipping the fruit of their labours. As we rode back to the café, we passed by a village close to the plantation. The children ran out of homes or stopped what they were doing to wave and shout at us, their faces breaking into smiles or shy grins. I swear some of them were too young to be able to walk or run, but run they did, some with sticks of wood on their heads or shovels over their shoulder. I recalled a spider climbing up the wall of one of the buildings we were walking close to. It had five legs but was scurrying up in a manner that did not suggest any form of impediment. I thought how everything in Rwanda learnt that to survive, you make do with what you have. Life is precious in this country.
Day 2 – Saturday
The day did not start too well. We realised 15 minutes into the drive to the national park we were visiting, that the guide had picked up the wrong customers. It went something like this:
“So Valenz, is lunch included?”
“Oh, ok. I thought it was. I will check with Nicolas.”
“Nicolas? You talked to Nicolas?”
“No, definitely Nicolas.”
“Oh (slows down car). Then we have problem. There is no Nicolas in the office.”
It was resolved within 30 minutes when our proper guide, Edison, arrived with his (much more comfortable) van, accompanied by a sweet American lady who would join us for the tour (and with whom we’d practically share our entire lives during the day), and we were finally off. It was so foggy I swear we would not be able to see each at the park, let alone the wild animals. But the fog somehow lifted magically as we rounded one corner. Funny how it seems to stick to some places more than others. At the park we had coffee (Question Coffee, no less) and got back inside the van to start the journey. The roof was extended so you had a little perch from where you can see the animals better. Needless to say, Mrs I’M-SO-EXCITED-I-CAN-HARDLY-BREATHE stood up for most of the drive, swallowing bugs and God knows what along the way. It was worth it.
It takes around 6 hours to drive through the park, mostly though it’s because we make frequent stops to stare at the wild animals as they stared back at us in a competition we would never win. We also stopped to have picnics. I was quite uncomfortable with the signs that read:
“This area is not fenced. Animals may and have in the past, walked through. Please stay on your guard and report to your guide if you see an animal.”
Not too sure what the guide would have done in the horrible scenarios that played in my head but then again, I don’t think anyone was ever injured at this park. At least, I think so but don’t quote me on that.
The thrill whenever someone exclaimed “Look!” and pointed in awe, or when the guide, more soberly said, “Giraffes on the right” is hard to put in words. It’s like a child being shown a gift he’s always wanted, or given the promise of an adventure. We saw Impalas (apparently the men fight for control of the entire lady herd and the losers hang around the loser’s bar somewhere else), Baboons, Warhogs (Pumba from Lion King means “stupid”. Apparently Warhogs are not very bright because they forget very quickly), Giraffes, Zebras (their stripes are meant to make the predator dizzy), Buffalos, Hippos, Topis, what I believed was a crocodile snout (though it might have been a log, I didn’t get too close to find out), birds of every possible shape and size and finally, finally, elephants. We couldn’t spot them anywhere in the first almost six hours and then, they just casually walked across the trail in front of us. I’ve seen many of these wild animals, including lions that we hadn’t been able to spot in Akagera, but never elephants. The mummy was huge, as she approached us slowly, raising and lowering her trunk in warning. Then we saw why; two young elephants were playing just behind her, one chasing the other like my little brother would have done to annoy me when we were the size of the small elephant’s leg. When we killed off our engine and just listened to their stomping and trashing and excited gambolling, I thought of how happy I was to be there. Mummy elephant kept circling around the younger ones, protecting, chiding, while the littlest hung on to his elder brother, even though the latter tried in vain to shake him off. Family is precious in this country.
Day 3 – Sunday
We stayed in the city on Day 3. We visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, a walkthrough museum the likes of which I had never visited before. Not because of how it was presented or anything, but because of what it contained. I emerged numb to my core and for a while, I could not say anything to Carl. He too could only shake his head. I was about to cry at least three times, when the emotion of all I had read just welled up and spilled over. I could not believe I had never read about the atrocities that happened and, I am sure, many are like me. I don’t wish to go too much into detail, but it deserves a small breakdown;
The problems in Rwanda started with colonialism, when the Belgians started identifying and labelling different ethnic groups, defining them as superior or inferior. This created a divide, a large chasm that found its breaking point in 1994, when the leader of one of the groups (the Hutus) ordered his people to kill the Tutsis. It was hell on Earth. Friends, neighbours, families, turned on each other after having been subtly and sometimes not so subtly brainwashed for years. They broke into houses, they killed and tortured, burnt and buried alive. They gathered people into churches and stadiums and threw grenades. And all this happened in a matter of days. Help from outside was slow to come. When it did, the genocide had taken a million lives, and left millions other broken. What shook me more than the graphic photos on display, or the material objects they found on people buried alive, was the Gacaca Courts. These were communal affairs, where the killers – members of the Hutu group – were trialled and sentenced by the victims and other innocent Hutus. Very often these admitted guilt and asked for forgiveness. And very often, the victims who had lost so much, would give it to them. The Hutus would then be sentenced to years of community work, which involved a certain degree of hard labour, while those who did not admit to their crimes, were sentenced to prison.
But let’s just backtrack a little. The Victims.Forgave.The Killers. After that, I knew I would not leave the building without seeing the people around me with renewed eyes. How could any normal human being, work alongside the killers of their families, to repair all that was broken? How can the woman who saw all her children massacred, face life again? How could this land be known as the Land of a Thousand Smiles? I have no answer to these questions. I simply have a special place in my heart for them, a newfound faith in the capabilities of man and woman, and a fervent desire that more people know of Rwanda and its history, because it teaches us that even the largest tear can be mended. It will never be forgotten, because it should never be repeated. But even on ground drenched in blood, a flower may still grow. Hope is also precious in this country.
Three days, three different worlds in the heart of one of the smallest countries of Africa. I believe I will always carry the memory of Rwanda with me. Of the slow, unhurried pace of the people, their gentle, smiling faces behind which lies so much pain. Rwanda is a lesson to the entire world, one I will gladly cherish until the next time I visit.