At the same time, I want to write one more post about Rwanda. Not only because I promised it in the first post on Rwanda (more to myself than to anyone else), but because there is more I can say. And more I want to tell. So in lieu of any grand conclusions about the trip or huge statements, I give to you three little snapshots, events from the trip that encapsulated much of what happened as a whole, while also providing some entertainment. These events are not in chronological order.
Live at Gisenyi
The trip was harrowing; twice I have mentioned the thundering rains that could have ended our trip prematurely. We rode 10 passengers in a van designed to carry 14 passengers max in theory, but a van with bulky but thin cushions that did little to hide the feel of the steel bars beneath, a van with seats too close together so that there was no leg room even for the midgets like me, a van that had a multi-colored lamp inside that could do the disco rotation as needed, and a van that came from Dubai, where it was apparently the van for a hair salon. Riding in the van for four hours already that day (with stops), we were worn out as it was, and in no condition to weather the storm peacefully. We were saved by the steady driving of our main man Pascal, a driver who switched on to our group with the new van and who, on his first day, wore a bowling shirt with the name "Baker Hughes" stitched on the back. Maybe a code name? Or his bowling nickname, ala The Jesus?
In any case, the trip was harrowing. It led to our only night out of Kigali, a small hotel on a hill overlooking Lake Kivu, a Great Lake (Africa style, obviously) on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. We arrived shortly after dusk and, after divvying up rooms and unpacking, a few of us went out on the porch and talked and watched the lightning storm. I brought my guitar out and provided quiet and (I hoped) non-intrusive background music to the more serious conversations around me.There was an uneasy beauty of the moment.
We went to a relatively lame hotel restaurant by the water, mosquitoes infiltrating the overpriced dining hall, but our bonds were tight and the chocolate mousse cake I ordered (for dinner) good. Indeed, though I was weary from the car ride and the trip in general, hitting its 11th and 12th days, and though this trip marked the final high water mark before travel and group fatigue wore on my experience, we were at a high water mark at that restaurant, and the glow of our mzingu bubble on Kivu preserved that positive feeling.
We returned to the hotel just shy of midnight. I was most interested in going to sleep, but there was a general clamor for some music. And so I pulled out my guitar and played some tunes, pulling from the back catalog of hits ("Barcelona," "Ain't No Minivan Mama"), the fruitful summer of 2010 writing I had done ("Cellulite", "Stuck at the Start"), and the two Rwandan-inspired tunes I had written ("Any Given Day," "Hey, Mzingu", and yes, I did just cite a bunch of my own songs that most people have never heard. It's my blog, roll with it). My lovely audience that I would have liked to take home supported and enjoyed cigars, waragi, tequila, and the company, as well as the scenic backdrop, one of the nicest I will ever play in front of in my amateur musician career. The beauty here was easier, more exhausted, but joyous, a true cap on the high water experience.
An hour and a half later, I woke up in my bed in the hotel room to the evil sound of a nearby buzzing mosquito. My roommate was not on anti-malaria pills and had avoided vaccinations and in general was doing things all naturally to protect his body (we enjoyed watching him put together his herbal cocktail each morning at breakfast). No problem; I had all the respect in the world. And when we roomed together in Gisenyi, with two beds but only one mosquito net, I said, "No problem, you take it. Mosquitoes don't like me much anyway." My macho stubbornness striking again, as you see.
So when the mosquito woke me, I lay still for a few minutes, thinking I could wait it out. I slapped at the air aimlessly as well, or not aimlessly since I could hear him, but with very poor accuracy. The quiet desperation of hearing a mosquito buzzing around you and knowing there is nothing you can do to stop her, and knowing that the noise (definitely the noise and not so much the fact that she will bite you) would not let you sleep, and that sleep is the thing you most need to preserve your calm, your patience, and your sanity, this quiet desperation set in for me.
My roommate, fortunately, is a good sleeper. Fortunate, because my solution was to turn on the lights, sit as still as possible in a poor lotus position, and kill as many mosquitoes as necessary to allow me to sleep. There is always the illusion, after all, that it's only one mosquito that is buzzing around your head; their buzzes sound the same. I killed one mosquito. A buzz returned. I was not fooled. I killed another mosquito. I swung and missed at a few more. Somehow, my roommate stirred but did not wake. I imagined myself to be a modern day Mr. Miyagi with a lower hit-rate. Much lower.
In the end, I killed about 10 mosquitoes over 20-30 minutes, turned out the lights, and pulled the sheet over my head. I slept soundly if incompletely until the morning.
The World's (or at least Rwanda's) finest football pitch (Or backdrop)
East Rwanda, on one of the rare spaces in the country flat enough and big enough for a football (i.e. soccer) pitch, with 25 some-odd (we played about 13 v 13) boys aged from 16-24 or so who were ostensibly sophomores in high school, all orphaned or made vulnerable by the genocide, in the sunny but fading late afternoon light, with a beautiful vista to the east that suffered not at all for the fact that we wouldn't be able to see the sunset over it.
That was the scene. We were visiting the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, and as part of our visit, we got to play football with the kids (or basketball, or volleyball, but I chose the footie). The village is an oasis, of sorts, for the aforementioned vulnerable and/or orphaned population of Rwanda, operating as a high school for these kids. So far they have 250 students, admitting a new freshman class of 125 students each year to hit a maximum of 500 students in two more years.
But enough about the technicalities. On the pitch, the kids are about what you would expect them to be: talented, able, but lacking savvy, teamwork, or foresight that comes with coaching and paying attention to sports. Understandable, of course, considering they have a lot more important things to deal with than being good at football; this isn't a factory or even a competitive high school. It's just a place for kids to play the game.
So a couple of us joined in the game, running up and down, making a couple plays here and there and getting frustrated from time to time. I learned the appropriate words to call for the ball, "Karibu" (meaning "welcome") and "he-he" (short e's; the word means "here"), and called for the ball plenty, but didn't really get many touches - there were a couple sweet crosses I made that didn't lead to goals, but ah well, I screwed up plenty times too. Meanwhile, the light grew hazier and the beauty rose to match it.
And then we had to leave. The game was still going, and we had to leave. My unfortunate response was to fall into "Cheese Fries or nothing" mode*. I ignored the first several calls. Then I turned in and gave up, gathering my t-shirt, walking sulkily off the field and probably spitting to the side a few times more than necessary. I entered the car and, making sure to voice my frustration, said, "Tha's some bullshit."
After a pause, somebody asked what this so-called "bullshit" was.
I hemmed and hawed as I got the words out, then said, "When will we ever get a chance to play on a field like that in a setting like that? We can eat in Mzingu restaurants for the rest of our life," in reference to our rush back to Kigali.
Another lost temper. Another blown fuse. And though I won the battle this time - I got the cheese fries, so to speak - I lost the war, failing to make it two weeks without losing my cool. Haval, as we would say. Haval.
But it was a good line. And a pretty place.
Our Redemption From the Children
I sat in Nyamata church, the second of two churches on the day. We had been to the Nyabarongo River earlier, where genocidal killers dumped their victims' bodies to "send them back to Ethiopia", via Lake Victoria. We had been to Ntarama church, of the bloodied Sunday school wall of the previous post. Whatever one might say about the reasons for our trip, the futile nature of it, the inability we faced in plumbing the depths of our or others' trauma, it can at least be conceded that we had not had the most pleasant day.
After writing a poem in my journal and sitting inside the church on my own for a few minutes, I heard a harmonica play. Evan was blowing out a tune; "Love Me Do" it sounded like. In an otherwise solitary and silent moment, it made for a pleasant break. I went outside to see where he was.
When I got outside, I found that Evan was not just playing on his harmonica, but playing on his harmonica for twenty or more schoolchildren. Others from our group were out there dancing and smiling and talking to the kids, taking pictures and then showing the kids their image on the camera. No better balm in this world did God invent than the smile and laughter of a curious child.
We spent the next hour walking around the village, chasing after different groups of schoolchildren and picking them out, spinning them around, hugging them, and laughing with them. We drank over-sugared Coke and broke into sprints after the over-cute kids. We alternately terrorized and brightened everyone's day. On my trip in Europe,
Ben made the point, in Hamburg, that no matter how unsuccessful we were in achieving our objectives, or how annoying our requests might have been, we certainly made everyone's day a little bit more unusual and, dare I say it while trying to avoid sounding arrogant, more special. Well, that was at least ten times as true in Rwanda, and even more true in Nyamata village.
But we, of course, were the bigger beneficiaries. I talked about the dissonance between visiting terrible sites and experiencing beautiful people and scenery: this was the greatest dissonance we felt, and the loveliest. It was the most special moment we had on the trip, I feel, and I doubt my companions would protest too much.
Ah hell, one more bonus note from Rwanda - the last night
Our going away party featured a long round of speeches from everybody we managed to rope into our goodbye circle from our friends in Rwanda - potential sugar daddies, sons of reggae stars, good friends we had met in Israel, our friendly hostel security guard, our guides, friends from our blog we weren't as close to - and from us. Then I played on my creaky guitar, loud enough over the roar of the fire to bother the other guests in the hostel and lead us to leave the hostel and go to a nearby traffic circle. Where, after waking up the guard on duty sleeping in the fountain itself (no running water), we proceeded to run through a few more songs. Then a few more goodbyes. Then a giddy, solemn march back to the hostel, I on an improvise-ready little riff with Evan accompanying on his harmonica to a little ditty while the others reveled in the beautiful possibility and sadness of Kigali's night sky, together for the last time. The trip was everything it was supposed to be, even when it wasn't. It was every happiness we could hope for even when we were sad, every calm realization we sought even when we (I) lost our cool. It was certainly a success, a victory, an experience, and something to remember. And, almost a month later, I can still say with certainty that I don't think it'll be a last time, either in Africa or Rwanda. No, one way or another, this was just a beginning.
The Chorus of the other Rwanda related song I wrote, by the bonfire.