A Year Abroad

China, Uganda, and Rwanda

I Bless the Rains Down in Africa

Two weeks and three memorials into our Rwanda experience, we were nearly burned out. Lee suggested a pizza and movie night for the following Monday to alleviate the mounting stress, but for a few of us that break seemed too far away. So Friday afternoon, after a day full of lectures about the justice systems set up to deal with the aftermath of the genocide, eight of us jumped on a bus to Gisenyi. Although assignments were beginning to pile-up, we decided that we needed a mini spring break more and chilling out by Lake Kivu seemed like the perfect place to leave the genocide behind, just for a little bit. We were scheduled to see another memorial on Monday and I was desperate to prove, if only to myself, that I did more than visit memorials while in Rwanda. But Lee’s last comment of the day followed me onto the bus: “there is no justice after genocide”.

After three hours of nauseatingly windy roads, we arrived in Gisenyi. We arrived at the bus station without any idea where our guesthouse was located, and the pitch black darkness of the night did little to help us find our way. And it was pouring. We managed to find the Presbyterian Guesthouse with the help of some people also taking shelter from the rain at the bus station. Only half our group had rainwear with them, and I was not part of that lucky half, and most of us arrived completely drenched. Deena arrived with her backpack unzipped, the only evidence of an attempted pickpocket. Apparently the thief didn’t want her toothbrush all that much.

The next day wasn’t bright and sunny, but it was nice enough to go to the beach. It turns out you can’t go anywhere in Rwanda and hope to leave the genocide behind. Even if I hadn’t selected ‘The Media and the Rwanda Genocide’ as my light beach read, there is nowhere you can go where people weren’t brutally killed. In that sense, all of Rwanda is a memorial. Still, as we lay out on the beach, we tried to forget. When I swam, I didn’t think about all the people who were dumped into the lake, and when we indulged in western food served to us right on the beach, I didn’t think about the survivors who spent weeks hiding out in the bush, starving. Well, I didn’t think about it much.

After struggling with Murambi for the better part of a week, which in hindsight isn’t all that long, I began to make my peace with it when I realized that, naturally, the key to it all is balance. I don’t want to forget Murambi or any or my experiences just because remembering is painful. It would be a dishonor to the people who died and a disservice to the people who survived. But at the same time, you can’t dwell on it. Life goes on.

When the sun was spent and the rain began to fall, we left the beach. That night in the guesthouse, hardly able to stand the feeling of cloth against our burned bodies, we laughed at our shared pain as we passed a bottle of wine around. We woke to the sound of singing from the nearby church and breathed in the fresh morning air, the kind of clean that only follows a downpour.

A little lighter than when we’d left, we returned to Kigali, to the topic we’d come to Rwanda to study. The next day, only a week after Murambi, we visited another genocide site turned memorial. This time it was a church.

“Were there any survivors?” I asked Lee as we walked up the pathway.

“Probably,” he responded. “There are almost always survivors.”

He pointed to a house just beyond the fence.

“You see over there? The woman who lived right there used to talk to people who came here, would tell her story, how she survived. But then her name came up in Gacaca. She wasn’t a survivor at all; she was a killer.”

He laughed, and somehow it wasn’t bitter

Inside the church bones lined the shelves, skulls and femurs, pelvises and bones I couldn’t identify. 5,000 people were butchered in the church, but the only evidence that remained were their bones, their clothes hung up in the rafters, and their few possessions piled in a corner along with the left behind machetes. It was disconcertingly, hauntingly beautiful.
Unlike Murambi, where I tried to take it all in, inside the church I waited and looked for one moment to connect to, one moment to remember rather than remember it all. I watched Lee look at the skulls, wondering, not for the first time, how he could force himself to come back, again and again. Like the Kigali Memorial Center and Murambi, Lee had a part in preserving the church and making it into a memorial. He reached into the sea of skulls and tenderly pulled one up and gently rearranged it, preventing it from falling through the grating. Lee, once again making sure no one ever fell through the cracks. His face was grim, jaw clenched, as he wiped his hand on his pants. Unlike in Murambi, where the bodies wore sickening expressions, skulls don’t have faces. At least, to me they don’t. The way Lee looked at the skulls, I don’t doubt for him, they all have faces. He left the church and I wondered, with him looking out for all of us, who was looking after him. By the time I made it to the door he was already halfway up the hill.

He caught up with me outside the church, half an hour later.

“How are you doing?”

“I’m ok.”

Somewhere along the way, he’d stopped believing me when I said “I’m fine” or “I’m ok”, but that didn’t stop him from asking.

“You know, this memorial does something to me, makes my stomach sick.”

“Is this the hardest one for you?” I asked.

“No, that’s Murambi. But it’s easy to see why Murambi is so hard. But this one,” he made a face, “this one just does something.”

“Lee, can I ask you something?”

“Lily, I said you can talk to me about anything. That means you can ask me anything too.”

“Why do you keep coming back here, to memorials, I mean, when they’re so difficult?”

“I think if I didn’t go to memorials I’d go crazy. If there were no memorials and you came to Rwanda, you might not know anything happened. The killings have stopped, people are living together, but terrible things happened here. Memorials are important; I need them to survive.”

It was Lee who said you can hardly step foot in Rwanda without stepping where someone was killed, Lee who set up so many memorials to make sure people would remember, so it would never happen again. All of Rwanda could be a memorial, but it isn’t. Just like the Gacaca court system was set up to speed up trial and reintegrate genocide perpetrators into society because you can’t turn an entire country into a jail, you can’t turn an entire county into a memorial and move forward at the same time.

After the memorial we went back to the SIT office, ate pizza and watched a stupid romantic comedy. The movie was made all the more hilarious by the terrible subtitles and we laughed our tension away. For all the difficult experiences there have been amazing ones too. That night, we didn’t forget what we saw, just like we will never forget any of our experiences in Rwanda, but we felt life go on, and we went on with it. After the movie ended, I stood out in the rain waiting for my ride home and remembered.

1 Comment


    I’m interested to see how you will integrate back into American life after experiencing all that you have. As I’m sure you’re aware, coming back from Uganda and Rwanda will be very different than returning from China. If you ever need any support or someone to talk to, feel free to contact me.

    Be safe.

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