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Constructing Narrative: Introduction to Rwanda

July 9, 2013
Rwanda scenery, taken in June 2013.

The scenery of Rwanda, land of thousand hills.

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.

Children from Rwanda, June 2013.

Some children posing for the camera in Gisenyi, Rwanda.

It proved difficult for me to experience Rwanda simply in reference to and as itself; every new interaction was tinged with memories and lessons and experiences that came before.  I was the only constant, and my lens through which I interacted with Rwanda was self aware and self referential.  I wonder how different my experience of Rwanda would have been if it had been the first African nation I had visited, or if I had explored an entirely different set of countries before visiting.  As it was, I constantly compared Rwanda to other places I knew (not the most similar locations, perhaps) as a method of categorization and understanding.  Not only was I guilty of comparing Rwanda, I also was fitting it into a preexisting mental schema of ‘Africaness.’  When I first saw the green hills, I thought that it looked exactly as I imagined it would- where did this preconceived notion of what Rwanda should look like come from?  A postcard?  ‘The Gods Must be Crazy’?

Constructed self-focused narrative, country comparisons, imperfect mental schemas…

I merely bring these up as a caveat to all the explanations, impressions and stories that are to follow.  These are my interpretations, nothing more- I cannot provide you with the objective truth of what Rwanda is, anymore than anyone can.  I can merely provide a filtered glimpse of what I got from my ten days there.   My narrative, a solipsistic recounting, a weaving together of disparate pieces of data and inputs to construct a cohesive, single story of: “My Trip to Rwanda!  Complete with the requisite pictures of quaint natives, meals of meats of dubious origins and primitive facilities!”

In short, you will have to go yourself someday to know what it was really like.

This is the first in a series of posts exploring Rwanda as a modern, post-conflict African country.   

Gorillas of Rwanda.  June 2013.

Painted on the side of a building near our hotel in Kigali. Gorillas are one of Rwanda’s few tourist draws.

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