Jul 11

No Ordinary Steps

by Nikki

There are no ordinary steps to recovering from a genocide. None at all. The steps, big and small, meander along an unseen path, until eventually, in hindsight, you can distinguish them as steps. The Kigali Genocide Memorial has steps like this; graves, a resting place for 250,000 and a figurative resting place for the hundreds of thousands of bodies scattered throughout the country in known, and unknown locations. I walked right up to them, confused by why they were so long. After reading a sign, I realized they were graves. Graves that looked like steps.

The sign on the steps read ”please do not step or sit on graves.” I thought about this for awhile. This is a very specific request. I wondered how I might handle a family member resting inside these steps.  What if my mother was in there?

I wouldn’t sit or stand on them, I would lay on them, cry on them, talk to them, spread my chest across them, open my arms and hands as wide as they could stretch, rest my cheek on its side and hold them in the heat of the day with my eyes closed in hopes of something coming back to me, a smell, a feeling, a sensation of how it felt when she was alive. I’d think to myself, “maybe if I breathe really deep I can feel her again, hug her, tell her I love her.” I was mesmerized by these steps, what they meant, how they just stood there. Even if my mothers body wasn’t there, this is where I’d go to hug her. The latrine she might have been dumped or buried alive in wouldn’t be something I’d want to hug. Cement can’t replace a human body,  but I would feel closer to her because someone she knew at some point in life was in there, and could pass the message.

Thoughts like this plagued my mind during my first week in Rwanda. A detailed and disorderly spatter of blood stained thoughts coming and going throughout the day. Thoughts compounded by the eighteen year old genocide described at the Kigali Genocide Memorial and in Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You, only to be  contradicted by the magnificent country I lay eyes on today, jockeying Colombia for a spot on my list of favorite countries.

Kigali is by far the cleanest and safest city I’ve come across in Africa, with paved roads, safe drivers, and little corruption. It’s beautiful, set amid endless mountains where urban development and green landscapes intermingle in a cool climate perfect for riding a moto-taxi through the hills with the wind in your face. Everyday has been a new adventure. The warm embrace of every Rwandan I’ve met has made being here the most peaceful experience since the start of my journey.

 “God might visit other countries by day, but every night he returned to rest in Rwanda.” 

-Philp Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You

Lake Kivi from Kibuye, Rwanda

The border crossing from Tanzania was my first taste of Rwandas beauty. Rusumo Falls was like a welcome committee, water flowing strong and hard in front of the bridge to customs. An older Rwandan woman I’d met on the Tanzanian side of the border sat on the bus to Kigali with me. At the last minute I decided to change all my Tanzanian shillings to Rwandan francs, and she helped me flag down a “cash man,” to handle the transaction. Before I could think he scooped up my bills, counted them and handed me a light wad of francs. My face scrunched a bit, trying to calculate and make sure I was given the proper amount (I’m terrible at math). The woman could tell I was either concerned, or doubtful of the transaction. She reached out to touch me and said, “Don’t worry sweetie, Rwandan’s are very honest.” Still hot from the first few pages of Gourevitche’s book, my mind wanted to give her the side eye, but my heart told me she was telling the truth. I stopped worrying about it and abandoned the equation. The tenderness of her words and gesture moved me, but my mind was still stuck inside the tomb of the past.  How could she make such a generalization considering the countries history?

Both the genocide memorial and “We Wish to Inform You,” depict a gruesome time in Rwanda, a time that wasn’t so long ago. Perpetrators and victims of the genocide make up half of the countries population. If you are my age, twenty four, you were six when the genocide took place. The youngest imprisoned for committing murder or other crimes associated with genocide were seven years old. Victims included children that age, and much younger. The memorial confrims this with a children’s room on the top floor. Portraits of child victims line a corridor, their names, favorite things, and last words etched on a plaque just below their feet. “The UNAMIR will rescue us,” were the last words of a seven year old boy who was tortured to death.  The UNAMIR never came to his rescue, and his words were documented by a survivor, probably a family member, if not a parent who somehow escaped the terror the little boy met.

My mind estimated the age of every Rwandan I met during my travels through out the country, and calculated their age in 1994. I couldn’t help it, I couldn’t deny my mind its curiosity, I never have. It’s only led to more curiosity and questions I know I can’t ask. Every person from this generation, the previous generation and the coming generation have been affected by the genocide. And, considering the ratio of Hutu’s to Tutsi’s (75:15)  most that are of age have probably committed crimes associated with the 1994 genocide, or lost loved ones because of it.

“The Rwanda you are seeing today is very different from Rwanda before,” a survivor  from Musanze told me. Umuganda, a required day of service for all Rwandans was my first time interacting with a local community. I worked in a neighborhood just below my hostel to clear a road and the crops along side it of trash and excess dirt. The Rwanda Tourism Board reminded me that community service soothes the heart, in a tweet later that day. Everyone participated, sharing tools, trading in and out when someone needed a break.  Women and men of all ages contributed. My favorite sightings were a woman, no younger than 65 dressed in a suit jacket and skirt, who never put down her shovel, and a woman with her baby strapped to her back, pausing only once in a while to check on the jumble of joy she carried around. In three hours we cleared the entire road. It was spotless. The evolving role of these tools, once used as weapons, now a means of community building best articulates the progress Rwanda has managed to achieve in the eighteen short years following genocide. A place of healing and progress that, on occasion, has made me pause a moment, realize its history, and marvel at the beauty and happiness so ripe for the picking.


“We live in the flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday.”

-Joseph Conrad

In essence, my heart is in love with Rwanda, while my mind still grapples with what took place here when I was six.  The two are constantly struggling to find common ground. I think the imbalance is a necessary part of being here, something every visitor experiences while wandering through the big city and countryside. To deny either of them would be selfish self-sabotage, limiting your scope of understanding perseverance. Moving beyond, but not forgetting the historical elements of my experience in Rwanda, I am inspired by its growth and excited to see what the future holds for a country thats already defied its assumed demise after genocide.

There is much more to be said about the tiny country in the heart of Africa that’s making headlines again for all the wrong reasons these days. But, right now, I can’t help but mention its rise from the ashes, a part of history that’s largely unseen by the international community, and goes unmentioned in international media.



Previous post:

Next post: