Amakuru? (How Are You Doing?)
In many important ways, I see parts of myself in Rwanda, parts of Rwanda in myself. But in other ways, I recognize that I will never be Rwandan.
A home is not a home until you’ve nursed the soreness in your calves following a 10-mile run alongside steep volcanic hillsides and endless blue-green valleys filled with banana and avocado trees and potatoes awaiting harvest. I won’t be winning any marketing contracts for Hallmark anytime soon. But I do believe that I am on to something. The things that make us feel at home, that smooth the fractures of transition and soothe the fault lines of hearts globally divided- they are different for everyone. Approaching one month in Kigali, I’ve successfully baked banana muffins twice in our staff house oven and banana pancakes once on our stove (can we talk about the time I ate 7 bananas in one day?). I’ve run miles around Kigali, Musanze, and Ndera. Today, I found a church family. The Lutheran Church of Rwanda, Kigali Parish, houses a small English-speaking congregation (about 10 members) a mere 20-minute walk from my home. The pastor, Veronica, is a Tanzanian theologian still in her early to mid-20s, and speaks English as impeccably as her native Kiswahili (bonus: potential conversation partner!). The worship leader is a Rwandan lawyer employed by International Justice Mission’s Kigali Office (the organization just so happens to be on the short list of my dream future employers and its founder, Gary Haugen, on my short list of role models). My entire morning resonated with blessing, from the small, humble, intimate atmosphere to the indomitable female pastor (again, points for Rwanda).
I am Rwanda
The slew of fellowship applications that formed a backdrop for my final semesters at university appeared merely evidential of a Type A millennial. More than resume builders, however, endless interviews, applications and sleepless nights paved for me the long and mountainous road back to Rwanda. My elevator pitch became second-nature; I effortlessly recounted-in vivid, image-conjuring detail- the 6-hour bus ride from Kigali to Cyangugu (Southwest Rwanda-DRC border on Lake Kivu) during the summer of 2014, the genesis of my Rwandophilia. The pitch contained no falsehoods, (Google image search “Rwandan countryside”) but it was not the whole story.
Rwandan culture, a bastion of East African order, systems, and rules, appeals intuitively to Westerner. My father, “the military man,” would ogle Rwanda’s militarily precise efficiency and its “no-nonsense” workplace culture. But order and efficiency, discipline, obedience and severity- these traits are not uniquely Rwandan.
Histories and narratives defined in terms of “before” and “after” characterize much of our global consciousness. Antebellum slavery vs. reconstruction, apartheid vs. post-apartheid, the “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.” The international community continues to position Rwanda with 1994 as a reference point, and “pre-genocide” and “post-genocide” replaced “pre-colonial” and “post-colonial.” The event earned distinction as the UN’s first declaration of genocide since the 1948 Geneva Convention. Violence took nearly a million precious human lives (figures disputed and estimates vary) and displaced nearly two thirds of the country, as the world watched. The United States, never accused of passivity, adopted a more aggressive approach, actively campaigning to undermine intervention. Current Rwandan President Kagame once remarked of UNAMIR’s peacekeeping performance: “They had armored personnel carriers, tanks, all sorts of weapons-and people got killed while they were watching. I said I would never allow that. I told him [General Dallaire], ‘In such a situation, I would take sides. Even if I were serving the UN, I would take the side of protecting people.’”
21 years later, “Donor Darling” Rwanda astounds economists and professional humanitarians. The Vision 2020 plan projects middle-income country status, expansion in the technology and eco-tourism sectors, systemic sustainability measures and universal English fluency within the next five years. I was learning to walk as Rwanda’s “pre-” transitioned tumultuously into “post.” Rural-urban inequalities aside, Rwanda should not be where it is today. I should not be where I am today.
In 2006, Rwanda’s GDP grew at a rate of 9.2%. In 2006, I began shrinking. Rwanda emerged from 1994’s cycles of tumultuous showers and dust-enclosed dry spells entirely alone, and yet soon to lead regional indicators in health and social progress. In 2006 I plunged into the abyss of anorexia, only internally alone while practically amidst the supportive embrace of family. Another short-list idol of mine, civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, writes in Just Mercy,
“You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it. We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent…being broken is what makes us human.”
I will never comprehend the sheer magnitude of Rwanda, 1994. My analogy is sloppy and irreverent. But my attraction to 2015 Rwanda, “underdog” Rwanda, “rising star” Rwanda,” is a peculiarly human attraction. It is the heaviness of silent pain, of suffering that may be at once individual and communal. It is externally imposed prescriptions of perpetual suffering: “pre-” doomed to remain “pre” with “post” always slightly out of reach. But it is also a conscious rejection of this heaviness, it is “Ni meza” (I am well) in response to “Amakuru” (How are you?), it is moving forward because forward is the only place left to go.
I am Not Rwanda
Phillip Gourevitch writes in We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow You Will be Killed With Your Families (an invaluable read for any human rights activist, and particularly potent when read while in Rwanda) that “power largely consist in the ability to make others inhabit your story of their reality.” I am a white, college-educated, middle-class American. In the United States, I am powerful. In Rwanda, I am powerful. In the United States, the superstructure of my society guarantees that I am never forced to interrogate this power, to examine its implications for my fellow citizens, to feel uncomfortable. In Rwanda, discomfort defines my daily reality. It is discomfort in knowing that (Rwandan) professional peers speak fluent Luganda and Kiswahili, artifacts of involuntary childhoods in neighboring Uganda or Zaire. It is discomfort in knowing that inquiries about siblings and parents, staples of American small-talk pleasantry, require curated relational trust when such interrogations stand to recreate the experience of loss. It is the discomfort that accompanies an encounter with an amateur photographer in a rural Rwandan town who-unbeknownst to you-charges locals 100 RWF for a “photo with a Mzungu.” It is the discomfort that comes from resting in the knowledge of the perverse historical hierarchy of race and nationality that provides the foundation for such innovative scheming. It is the discomfort of sharing workdays with smallholder farmers in rural Rwanda and nights and weekends with (comparatively) affluent Rwandans and foreigners in a secluded Kigali suburb. It is the discomfort in knowing that while my monthly stipend is not enough to afford one gorilla sighting, it roughly equals Rwanda’s average annual income.
Discomfort is often optional, though ease of avoidance varies by degree. I could easily immerse myself in Kigali’s many pseudo-Western-and at times eerily and specifically American-hotspots (think Meze Fresh-aka Rwandan Chipotle-need I say more?), and I certainly will do so from time to time. There is no harm in this-no harm in familiar, no harm in home. But I don’t want a comfortable Rwanda. I want an authentic Rwanda. I am not Rwandan, and as much as I admire this place and its people, I will never be Rwandan. I don’t think this precludes turi kumwe (“we are together”). I think instead that embracing the uncomfortable may be step one in “turi kumwe for Dummies.” Amakuru?