Driving Through Rwanda

Tonight I watched Hotel Rwanda again while stuffing envelopes with support letters for the May Congo trip. On the letters are pictures—of Asha, of her baby Faida, of Bishop. Sometimes I feel such a weight, such a weight, like I came back from Congo a hundred pounds heavier. The knowledge of them and what they’ve lived through and what they’re still living through can be hard to carry around. I email Bishop and Fiston on a somewhat regular basis, telling them I’m coming back. Right now, I’m listening to a CD I bought in a Bukavu music shop, a tiny room whose walls were plastered with pictures of musicians, a black boom box with bad speakers belting out music in a language I couldn’t understand. The sounds of Bukavu—the music, always piped through bad speakers, unless played live; the lovely clinking of bottles as men carrying sodas in tin buckets on their heads advertised their goods by running metal bottle openers against the glass bottles. People, and cars, and chickens, and motorcycles.

I’d watched Hotel Rwanda before the trip last year, but this was the first time I’d seen it since. It was a shock in the beginning to realize I recognized things. I couldn’t pick out or label any building except the airport, but it was immediately familiar to me. When we landed in Kigali and drove out of the city and toward the border, it had seemed entirely and utterly foreign, as if I had walked off an airplane and onto another planet. But now, having seen parts of that city, having passed through those streets, the sights seem familiar. I wonder what it will feel like to be there again. To walk across that border.

Before I went to Congo last year, my parents worried over our itinerary, which had us spending the night in a Rwanda border town. They knew about the genocide—by now, pretty much everyone knows at least a little about the genocide. What many fewer people know is that when the architects of the genocide fled the country, they fled into Congo. Set up camp. Reorganized. There’s a line at the end of Hotel Rwanda, just before the credits roll, that references this, a line of text about Congo. When I saw that line, I thought, And so it begins. How strange to think as one story wraps up, another begins. Or maybe the story never ends, it just relocates.

But the funny thing is, for all my parents’ concern, Rwanda has done spectacularly well, all things considered. I’d vacation there. Lots of people do just that. You’d never guess something so ghastly could happen in a place so beautiful; that’s what was running through my head as we drove on fairly good roads from the capital to the border. The closer we got to Congo, though, the worse the roads became.

Rwanda gives me hope for Congo, to see how far a place can come, to see what odds can be surmounted. Maybe one day, we’ll see a movie about Congo, and we’ll say, can you believe that happened there? Can you believe the country was once in ruins? And that, I know, will be a wonderful day.

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