I met Aalia when we chased the same cat in a park in Amsterdam. My friend V was rolling a joint on a park bench, but she wasn’t very good at it. She muttered under her breath. A beautiful calico crossed my path, and I decided to try to make friends. It trotted around a bush, and so did I. That’s when I collided with Aalia.
She was a short little thing, wearing an all black dress, and had wispy nut brown hair that looked inexpertly dyed under a floppy black hat. Her eyes were shiny and bright brown, like an inquisitive squirrel’s, and her face was lined with wrinkles. She had a white scar on the right side of her face, just under her cheekbone. She was smiling like a child when I nearly ran her over. The cat darted under a large bush with an angry meow to show us she wasn’t pleased at being hassled.
“Couta awlad goed, bis bis baby, sa’ah? Inti tchoofee?” I stared. It didn’t sound like Dutch, or English, and I thought I understood… but I heard bastardized Arabic in the wind those days, because when you study a language everything reminds you of it. “Bitacki Arabi?” I asked cautiously, not wanting to scare the nice little Dutch lady. She let out a gasp of happiness.
I didn’t understand everything, but in rapid, pleased Arabic she announced she was from Iraq, she lived in Amsterdam now and had for many years with her only son. She was chasing the cat because she wanted to see if it had babies hidden under the bush so she could steal a kitten and take it home and care for it. My friend came over, seeing that I had been accosted. Aalia asked us then if we wanted to come over to her house for tea. And my friend and I, after sharing a barely perceptible shrug of ‘why not?’ agreed to follow her.
“A song for /someone who needs somewhere/ to long for. Homesick/ Cause I no longer know where home is.” – Kings of Convenience, Homesick
I have snuck into an Ottoman mosque with a professional Egyptian masseuse and danced on the roof under the stars. I have been told that I talk a lot of shite by an old drunk Scottish man in a pub in Edinburgh. I have hitchhiked my way from Jerash to Amman, getting in debates about Mohammed in Arabic with four devout men who I just met. I have climbed to the top of Table Mountain, and then descended down the other side into the verdant gardens of Kirstenbosch. I have night dived around Saba island, the golden bioluminescence trailing my fingers as I descended into the inky water with my flashlight. I have weaseled my way into an African UN prison facility by pretending to be someone else’s secretary and looking demure and non-threatening. I have skinny dipped with my best friend on a cool night at a beach outside of Barcelona, after a five course meal served by a kind old man who we communicated with quite well, despite him having no English and us no Spanish. I have woken up on a train and had to ask what Eastern European country I was in, honestly unsure of the answer I would receive (It was still Serbia, luckily). I have wandered, and lingered, and missed flights and made connections. I know at least a few words in over a dozen languages. I have friends on six continents.
To the unknowledgeable lay person, Paul Kagame’s face more readily lends itself to belonging to a nervous librarian than to being the visage of the president of an African state. If the Nigerian physical modality of leader is usually a man with thick set eyes, a powerful wide frame and sensual lips, Kagame represents the opposite vision of what an African visionary should be: an empirically-based intellectual, discursive yet pragmatic. But does the package that Rwandan leadership is wrapped in actually indicate that Rwanda has a Western style, democratically elected and respected president?
Kagame has certainly been a successful leader by many measures. He inherited (okay, won by force while with the RPF) a nation that was essentially dead, with over a million of its population killed by mid-1994. Since then, whether officially the vice president of president, he has led Rwanda, enacting austere social and economic measures that have not only prevented Rwanda from becoming a failed state, but also led to it becoming a developed powerhouse in the region.
“We will squash the infestation. We will kill the cockroaches.”
-Hutu Power Radio
“Rwanda is clinically dead as a nation.”
-Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, Los Angeles Times, 11 May 1994.
The first thing that hit me was the stench of rot, of sickly sweet decay, death and embalming lime. I had never smelled anything like it before. Then I noticed the bodies. White caked figures of preserved sinew and skin. The bodies of children, their skulls split open. Women with a bit of preserved hair and curved pelvic bones. Thigh bones heaped and intermingled with fibulas, with shoulder blades, ribs, feet. Thousands of bodies, hundreds in each room. They lay in many identical little wooden houses on top of a hill, the site where they were brutally killed almost twenty years ago. These people were herded there, with promises of safety, protection by French soldiers. They didn’t know that the local Hutus were being evacuated from the area. They didn’t think that once they were on top of this hill that there was no place to run and hide.
Five days after 65,000 people fled to that unfinished school at the summit of that hill, the genocidaires came for them.
I began to heave ragged breaths of air. The smell continued to follow me from room to room. Every room was the same, more desiccated bodies, more lime-white crooked forms, but I couldn’t stop myself from entering again and again. These people died horribly, and somehow that meant that I felt that I had to acknowledge their suffering, it was my obligation, my duty, my burden to at least see.
If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought I was driving down a small highway in Pennsylvania. Conifers and deciduous trees both dotted the side of the road, and the night air was percussive with the sounds of insects, perhaps cicadas. The road curved gently back and forth, and stars sometimes were faintly visible ahead of us. It felt like a long car ride up the east coast of America, even though I was halfway across the world. Rwanda was all at once nothing like- and everything like- my mental schema of it.
Everything I saw in Rwanda, I fit into a larger fabric of comparisons to my previous experiences. Kigali is like Amman; a hilly, relatively clean, safe and boring city for the region, a capital made from nothing, with a limited history beyond a colonial past. But on the streets of Kigali I saw women dressed in a riot of colors, with matching turbans, shirts and skirts of bold patterns. They carried baskets and buckets and bananas on their heads; this reminded me more of South Africa. Even the few Muslim women I saw were wearing bright abayas and hijabs of red and yellow, blue or purple. Trying to envision them in the Middle East was a mental challenge. And the children I saw and greeted, those who swarmed around me in friendly and exploitative curiosity, asking for pens and money and photographs and to touch my hair, they reminded me strongly of when I was in the Caribbean when on every island we stopped at, the children would meet us on the beach and yell “D’argent! Donnez-moi d’argent!” with seemingly unabashed avarice.