Wait, I know what you're going to say.
"But Dan, you can't dance!"
No, wait that's not what I meant you to say. Jerk.
"Dudes? Bust a move? Did we turn the calendars back to 1991?"
Ok, fair statement. But still not it.
"What the hell are you doing in Rwanda?"
Yeah, that's what I meant you to say. Allow me to explain.
This academic year, spanning September 2009-October 2010, I have studied for an M.A. in Government at an university in Israel. As part of that program, I signed up for an internship revolving around Rwanda. In essence, we were to blog with M.A. students in Rwanda about issues related to genocide, conflict, post-conflict rebuilding, reconciliation, and general questions of how to build peace, drawing on the similar though not parallel situations of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the Holocaust. At the same time, we had the opportunity to learn about Rwanda, indirectly about Africa, and our eventual Fearless Group Leader Sara (hereon known as FGL Sara) dangled the possibility of visiting Rwanda when the program was over. 10 months of blogging, fundraising, and hoping wishing praying that it might come true later, 6 of us and FGL Sara made it to Rwanda, where we followed an intense 2-week itinerary of learning, service, eating, not sleeping, and yes, dancing.
Having introduced the reason for visiting Rwanda, I'd like to introduce the way I'm going to write up Rwanda on the blog. Similar to my previous trip, I am going to send up a flurry of posts post facto, even though some will have been written while I'm on the ground in Rwanda. While plans are always laughed at by the big amorphous power upstairs, here is what I plan on posting.
- Initial Impressions and General Thoughts. I.e. the second half of this post.
- On the Mzingu
- On Being the Mzingu
- Of the Genocide
- Of Experiencing the Genocide's memorialization
- Final Impressions
Ok, are we good? Yes, we're good. Let's get to the impressions.
The view from our hostel in Kigali.
Rwanda is beautiful. This sounds like a trite statement, an obvious one, maybe even, if you read into it too much, a condescending one. But the simplest way to say something is often the best, and there is no simpler way to express the point that Rwanda is beautiful than saying it. And showing photos.
Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills. At times, whether walking or driving around in Kigali or traveling through the country, it seems there could be no possibility of Rwanda having a flat stretch of ground that stretches for more than a kilometer. Those hills are green and lush, running into red dirt sections but always something out of a picture book. The beauty is almost repetitive, to the point where the unimaginative, ungenerous mind might think that all these hills are nice but look just the same. Then a new hill, a new view, a new landscape will wipe that miserly thought from the mind and even the most cruel hearted soul will concede that Rwanda is beautiful.
The way the country spreads out develops this diversity. In the East, the beauty was more of the flat hill variety, long stretches in the landscape and red earth on the ground. Visiting the South we saw vertical hills and green plantations, almost impossible to imagine how the crops grow at a greater than 45 degree angle to the ground. And in the Northwest, amid volcanoes and mountains, the ground turned darker, black earth and mystic beauty.
Another northwest shot.
Kigali too is beautiful, though more confusing. Kigali's beauty is reflective of Rwanda's beauty; driving around the city or sitting at our hostel, I find a scenic view of Kigali's hills inescapable. And indefatigably beautiful. The city is constructed amidst its hills, and the way the main roads circle around a few valleys, one full of lower-income housing and one holding the Kigali golf course, the city resembles a race track oval encircling several pits. The city is a nice size in theory, holding about a million people, but the figure is misleading I think. The number may include all the suburbs near Kigali that make up the Kigali city province, and even if it includes only the city outskirts, that number does not affirm the fact that the center of Kigali is small. Residents either know each other already or quickly acquaint themselves with one another. The center is well-connected, posing a challenge for anybody who wants to hide after joining the scene. At the same time, it spreads out in that race track way, stretching its geography to make the city feel bigger. We end up driving by the same billboards and the same buildings two or three times a day, and often get the sense that we're doing laps.
The prettier parts of Kigali.
Kigali is also a very nice city compared with what I expected. FGL Sara tells us that the city has grown and changed a ton in the last 3-6 years since she was here; construction is constant, those race track roads are recently paved, expanded, and extended, and there is no sign of that growth slowing down. As such, the city has become something of a fascimile of a western city, with relatively expensive prices, modern conveniences (ranging from running water to wi-fi internet) available in many if not most places, and the bustle of a real town. There are plenty of dirt and cobblestone roads in the city that are no fun to drive on, the standard of living and costs are still lower than in a western city, and the power goes out every now and then, but on the whole for central/east africa, Kigali is an oasis of sorts.
Speaking of warmth, Kigali has a perfect climate for late September/early October. At its most sweltering, day time temperatures in Kigali probably reach the mid 80s, a few notches below Jerusalem or Tel Aviv a week before, for example. At night, the air is cool but not cold, so either a long sleeve or a short sleeve shirt suffice depending on the mood of the wearer. Restaurants tend to have outdoor seating, and at dinner the biggest nuisance is the occasional mosquito. We arrived during the supposed rainy season, and when it did rain it rained with a fury unmatched by many women scorned (how we survived the twilight trip to Gisenyi on a winding one-lane highway through mountains where we couldn't see five meters in front of us I'm not sure), but it only rained two or three times all trip (one of those times being our last day). Not bad for being below the equator for the first time.
This was familiar.
Sometimes the mirror is surprising.
Here is as good a case as any to travel; to look through this mirror to better understand ourselves and the world around us. This isn't easy, can't be done in two weeks, and works on varying depths and understandings. Nevertheless, as a traveler, I believe it must be done. So I propose to you a series of posts about Rwanda that at the same time are about you and me and dancing.