To Remember

Kwibuka

To remember

The seventh of April is a day of poignant significance in Rwanda. 

Twenty-three years ago, in 100 days beginning on 7 April 1994, over a million people were murdered in Rwanda, not because of anything they had done, but because of who they were.

“Genocide means . . . acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group…”

From Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (source)

Every year on this anniversary, the nation shuts down for a day of united mourning and memorial, and today I, an American for whom this day holds no memories, was invited to stand in solidarity with those who remember.

My neighbour Theophile took me to the Gahana cell office near the town centre where most of the residents of our area were gathered, sitting in desks brought over from the school. Aside from quiet greetings, the crowd sat silent—a rare occurrence among Rwandans, who are, in my experience, generally social, jovial, and unselfconscious. 

We opened with a prayer by one of the local church leaders and some remarks by a local cell leader, describing to us the theme of this year’s memorial—remember, unite, renew. The theme, as he explained it to us (and as Theophile translated for me, since I understood only some of what he said) is to remember the genocide against the Tutsi, fight against genocide ideology, and continue to build up the country. 

The speaking was punctuated intermittently by a men’s choir from the nearby Adventist church. From what I could understand of the lyrics, they sang that the genocide happened because love was cold, that this earth is old and we must journey, that someday there will be no death.

 “Genocide is possible when the messages of hate from would-be perpetrators go unchallenged and when the people at risk fall outside the awareness—and/or the sense of moral obligation—of anyone who could help to ensure their protection.”

(source)

After this, we all walked to the memorial site. Every area has a genocide memorial, usually a building and a small landscaped space, often including mass graves. Ours is in Songa, a distance of about two kilometres from my village, and together we took what Theophile referred to in English as “a walk of remember.” 

Mostly silent, collecting people along the way, we walked together, shoulder to shoulder the width of the road, moving feet and bowed heads as far as I could see ahead and behind.

A primary student from my school, apparently with no adult supervision and one of the few children I saw, came up beside me and stayed quietly through the whole of the event. He was born after the genocide, but he will grow up remembering these memorials every year.

A few neighbours and teachers shook my hand in passing. Nobody else seemed to notice me. On this day, in this place, my foreignness ceased to be important. I never heard “umuzungu,” and no-one looked at me as if I should not be there.

As we neared the memorial, Theophile nudged me and pointed off to the left. The trees broke to give a stunning view of the hills and valleys rolling away to the east. This, he told me, was where the abatutsi in this area were brought to be killed.

“Over the past century, more than 200 million people died as a result of state-sponsored mass murder.”

(source)

At the memorial site, we gathered, as many as could fit inside the fence standing pressed together, more lining the fence outside, some sitting across the road on the grass. Theophile and I stood next to a low wall separating the walkway from one of the mass graves, and he whispered to me that in this place were buried 43,000 Tutsi.

The leaders of three different churches prayed, and various community members and officials gave speeches. One speech—whose words I understood none of—was presented in short passages over and in between the constant sound of a choir I could not see, who sang over and over in Kinyarwanda, “Rwanda nziza—ntuzongere.” 

“Beautiful Rwanda—never again.”

Someone turned on the radio and we listened to the official broadcast—speeches in Kinyarwanda, French, and English detailing the history of Rwanda and of the ideology that lead to the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, reminding us of the immense progress made since then, and urging people to be unified as we move forward. 

In front of me, sitting on the low wall by the grave, five abakecuru—old women—sat with their hands to their faces, wiping tears away for the entire three hours that we stood there under the sun in that place of grief and memories. Beside me, Theophile occasionally let out an audible sob.

During 100 days in April 1994, over a million people were murdered. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped, many intentionally infected with HIV/AIDS. Thousands of children were orphaned.

(source)

We held a minute of silence to remember those who had died. President Kagame told us that we must live our lives by remembering what happened, accepting that we cannot change the past, and making it our task to prevent such a tragedy ever occurring again. I thought of the way radio was used in 1994 to stir up hatred and violence, and of the way it was used today to encourage peace and unity.

And then, together, we walked home, no Hutu, no Tutsi, only Rwandans—and me.

Today I felt the weight of the privilege I have of living with these people; of being invited into this country, this culture, this village; of being welcomed, not as a visitor, but as a member of the community; of standing united with those who remember.
If you want to learn more about the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi in 1994 or about the memorials held in Rwanda during this time, you can go to one of these websites:

National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide

Kwibuka 

Aegis Trust 

How to Say Goodbye

I’ve made a lot of goodbyes in my relatively brief lifetime. Long ones, short ones; temporary ones, permanent ones. Some I saw coming for years, and others appeared out of nowhere, bumps in an unexpected turn in the road.

And I’m facing another one.

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I hate goodbyes—the messy emotions, the awkward eye contact, the lingering guilt of being excited to leave while I’m folded in one last hug. I’ve avoided them, skipped out on them, brushed past them. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to do them properly.

But what makes a proper goodbye?

I’ve heard formulas and read advice—mostly checklists of things you ought to do and say and feel, places you should go, people you must see one last time.

I hate seeing an inherently emotional experience laid out like a to-do list. Goodbyes are deeply personal, painfully beautiful moments in which we pass from one world to another. They are, to me at least, too mystical for the mundanity of mnemonic reminders and check boxes.

It’s not about a formula; I think it’s about balance.

See, I’ve tried wallowing in the impending loss, and I’ve tried waltzing away without looking over my shoulder. Neither leads to satisfying transition. So I’m striving for balance, for an intentional halfway between disregarding my present and fearing my future.

I’m preparing to arrive in Kigali while preparing to leave Arizona, nurturing the anticipating and tending the grief simultaneously. I walk a fine line, noticing all the lasts while envisioning all the firsts.

I wonder if I’ll have a new pet as my dog licks my fingers, and at the moment I envision some vague, furry shape in my future, I realise my absence will be an eternity for this solid furry shape in my present.

I buy seeds to plant my favourite herbs and vegetables in my future garden, and I know I will not see the first flowers and fruits of the baby trees growing now in my present garden.

I hope my unknown host family will like me even while I’m exchanging bad puns and sarcastic banter with the family I’ve always known.

A photo by Kalle Kortelainen. unsplash.com/photos/HnWoAM0bMec

Every day, every moment, I am beginning goodbyes.

Goodbye to my books as I stack them in bins for storage. Goodbye to short shorts as I pack for a more conservative culture. Goodbye to soul-baking desert heat as I look forward to a milder climate.

Goodbye to the sunflowers we picked along the highway and planted in the backyard, and goodbye to the overgrown tomato vine that supplies my breakfast so often. Goodbye to morning cuddles when my mother flops on top of me to wake me up, and goodbye to evening scuffles when my brother tries to correct my faulty karate form.

It’s goodbye to more than that, though. It’s goodbye to effortless communication and innate cultural understanding, to time-proved friendships and subconscious patterns enforced by years of interaction. It’s goodbye to knowing how I fit into the social structure.

It’s goodbye to everything familiar.

Every day, every moment, I am beginning to grieve, to see the world through the lens of an upcoming ending.

Every hug, every wave, every “see you later” might be the last. Every flash of light against familiar walls and rooftops is the sun setting on this part of my life. Every drop of rain as the monsoon season finally wrings itself out is time washing away what I know.

Saying goodbye properly, I think, is not a matter of right or wrong, of checking every correct action off a list before you step onto a plane and into your future. Goodbye isn’t a ritual of words and hugs, a cliché of tears and tissues.

Goodbye is a perspective.

It’s noticing the moments passing and embracing them while you can. It’s acknowledging the apprehension and excitement tangled up inside you as you consider your future and knowing they are both valid, natural, healthy. It’s slowing down for the view you may never see again and still speeding up for the one you’ve never seen before.

It’s knowing that the road always curves, that goodbye is inevitable, and that, whether or not you ever loop back to this stretch, the road beyond the bend holds adventures, joys, sorrows—life.

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I Cried

I cried over a bowl once.

I don’t remember what it looked like, really; I was six or seven, and it was some kind of mixing bowl, but it had been my great-grandmother’s. We were packing to move overseas, a process I understood in terms of its end result. My parents were up late, deciding what to pack, what to put in storage, what to get rid of. You don’t realise how much you own until you have to condense a houseful of belongings into a few airport-ready bins.

I remember yellow kitchen light and open cupboards and the chaos of boxes and kitchenware littering the floor, and my mother holding the bowl and deciding to get rid of it.

And I remember crying.

She told me it was silly to cry, because I hadn’t even known the woman, and it was her grandmother, not mine, and her bowl, not mine, and she told me that sometimes you have to get rid of things, even sentimental things, because you can’t keep everything.

She got rid of the bowl.

I don’t know why that mattered so much to me; all her reasons were right. Maybe it was the stress of the transition catching me unawares, or maybe I was an emotional kid awake after my bedtime. Somehow, though, in the moment, it felt right to cry, to mourn without inhibition what I saw as the loss of something beautiful and meaningful.

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I used to cry a lot, actually, but I don’t so much anymore.

I cried for homesickness after every move, but at some point that stopped. Sometime between moving to the desert and moving into a dorm room, homesickness stopped being a poignant ache and started being a fact of life—like a chronic backache, it’s always present, always painful, but no longer debilitating; it’s so constant I hardly remember what life was like before it.

I cried over deaths of people I hardly knew. I cried in the living room over sad movies and in the back of the classroom over sad books that I hid in my lap and read during lectures. I cried over beautiful music and skinned knees and lost toys.

I cried a lot.

I cried unashamedly.

But somewhere along the lines things changed, and I started to hate crying. I began to develop tricks for avoiding tears—biting my cheek, thinking of something funny, dissociating, counting backward from a hundred, anything that would distract my brain long enough to regain control of myself.

My childhood self saw tears as a beautiful thing—a cleansing, a connection, a genuine expression. My beginning-to-grow-up self lost that perspective. Sometime after that bowl, tears became a weakness instead of a strength, a betrayal instead of an admission. They became something to hide, something to deny, something to avoid.

I cried over a rabbit yesterday.

bunny

She died in my hands, and there was nothing I could do, and somehow, through the panic and the grief, I remembered my mother standing in that yellow kitchen telling me that you can’t keep everything even if you love it. I held the tiny convulsing body and I cried, and in the infinity between fluttering heartbeats, I remembered every other animal I cried for.

I remembered the mouse dead in the mousetrap when I was eight, and the baby bird dead in my hands when I was ten. I remembered one puppy kicking and going still when I was nine and one puppy watching through the fence as we drove away when I was eleven. I remembered a pair of baby quail in a cardboard box and an old mare rearing in a new corral.

And as I cried, uninhibited, unashamed, over the loss of something beautiful, I thought, for the first time in a long time, that maybe tears are a cleansing.

Grief: A Sacred Space

https://unsplash.com/photos/HefnuyFh2Yg

“Most of us on campus today don’t know any of these people. Most of us weren’t here. Most of us have no idea. But here we are, to remember together an event, a day, a world of emotion that most of us don’t know. It’s a painful, terrible, beautiful thing.”

I wrote those words in my journal yesterday, when I had the privilege of taking part in a memorial ceremony for the tenth anniversary of a van accident that took the lives of five at my university.

Recently my anthropology professor said that it takes only a generation to forget—and at a university, where generations pass every four years, forgetting is a rapid process. Events, traditions, and stories are lost in the flow of life, buried beneath the ongoing cycle of graduations and freshman orientations.

Ten years. Two and a half generations. And yesterday, we who have no memory of the tragedy joined with those whose lives were intrinsically caught up in it, and together we mourned.

That story—the story of death and loss that touched so many lives that were not mine—finally touched my life, ten years later, through the tears and words of those who lived it. Somehow, a decade after a loss I did not know, I was invited into a private, painful place and allowed to weep over a grief not mine.

And this, I think, is the most beautiful thing we as humans can do. To tell stories that are not ours, to feel emotions we should have no part in, to be united in another’s grief. It’s a humble position that we take, setting aside our own joys and sorrows to focus on someone else’s, laying aside our burdens, not to lift theirs, because we could never do that, but to join them beneath the weight.

This, I think, is the essence of love—that we who know nothing of their pain willingly step into a darkness we can never lighten, choosing simply to be present, and that they, who know nothing of us, allow us into that sacred space.

Yesterday, together, we told a story that was not ours to tell—because community has a responsibility to remember, to keep telling stories that are not ours but that are important. And today I have no solutions to offer. I have only this—this sense of awe at the terrible beauty of shared loss, this sense of wonder at the holy place I was allowed to enter, washed in the grief of strangers.

Losing Diamonds

I lost my diamond somewhere in the crowded moments between stumbling to the barn in the stormy dawn and shuffling into rehearsal in the crystal cold afternoon.

It fell from my ring, gone before I ever noticed.

diamond

The ring is a narrow, graceful band of gold, delicately curved, unashamedly pretty in a way most girls today are afraid to be, set with tiny leaves of white gold, all curled around a chip of diamond. Now they curl around a blank darkness where minuscule prongs of gold reach upward toward nothing.

Their sharp bite first alerted me to the diamond’s disappearance. They scratched my bare skin just deep enough to hurt, and when I glanced down, the forlorn hole where the diamond should have been stared back up at me, accusing, like a puppy who hasn’t been fondled in a few hours. I experimentally put my fingernail into the tiny crevasse between the hungry little prongs, and then, a little horrified at the cold touch of the now-useless twists of gold, I pulled my finger away and looked somewhere else, pretending I couldn’t sense the dark cavity beside me.

My father gave me that ring one night as we sat in a restaurant booth, making slightly stilted conversation over steaming spinach dip–slightly stilted because we hadn’t talked in too long, because authenticity always carries that odd stiffness, like your neck when you wake up chilly. I don’t remember his explanation for the beautiful gift he handed me, but I think the feeling I’ve had ever since, that slight warmth in my chest and catch in my throat when I finger the ring these years later–I think I still capture the essence of what he wanted for me. There’s something to it, knowing that my father gave it to me, that I’m loved, valued–that no matter what I or anyone else feel about me, my worth is not in what I do or say or think–something of all that seems caught in the golden swirl of the ring’s filigree, in the minute glint of light in the diamond.

My diamond is gone–so many other things, missing before I knew it, valuable in a way I can’t define.

Like that crazy sense of optimism I had as a kid– the certainty that life would always somehow right itself, like those inflatable punching bags that bounce upright when you knock them over. That crazy optimism somehow disappeared into a vague certainty that I’ll eventually manage to fail colossally and live in my parents’ basement with a lot of unfinished first drafts and a secret case of clinical depression. It disappeared somewhere between the empty bank accounts and full sermons about trying harder, smiling bigger. I noticed it was gone one day when pessimism scratched just deep enough to hurt, that whisper that really, in the end, it’s all futile, and life isn’t a faerie tale, and probably Cinderella was miserable after “the end” anyway.

Like that hope in rightness– that right answers existed, that we could ever fix the world instead of damaging it further. It dropped away somewhere between the depressing headlines and the ubiquitous, petty infighting that stripped away my hope in people and change. I noticed it was gone when fear scratched at me, promising hopelessness and loss.

Somehow optimism and hope disappeared, and I didn’t know it until flat pessimism and cynicism cut at my frail surface, just deep enough to sting.

sidewalk crack

Funny to think, isn’t it, that my diamond’s probably gone forever. Somewhere, nestled in the warm, soiled bedding at the barn or wedged into a deep crack in the sidewalk- somewhere that little chip still glimmers, catching the light, keeping on being itself whether it’s set in gold or rendered anonymous by the earth.

 

And you know, somehow, even without those things I’ve lost, with fear scraping at me, with cynicism and pessimism staring up with hollow eyes like the diamondless cavity of my ring–still, somehow, I’m me, and still, somehow, that graceful curve of gold is shamelessly pretty; and still somehow, in the subtle glimmers of the worked golden leaves, something whispers just under the surface: “Someone loves you. No matter what you lose…you have value.”

Broken Things

When my brother’s wrist broke, he looked perfectly fine.

None of us knew it was broken. He played like normal. But he reacted to the slightest jostle. A bump against the counter or an unintentional shove while roughhousing brought an abrupt flood of tears and disproportionate anger. Two weeks later, an x-ray showed the fracture.

When my heart breaks, I look perfectly fine.

Nobody knows I’m broken. I live like normal—I smile, I laugh, I sing. But I react to the slightest jostle. My tears flood on the inside, and my manners ice over to hide the disproportionate rage at whoever inadvertently bumped my wound.

wounded

The sign-in sheet is clearly marked: Name. Class designation. Hometown. Major.

Wait. Go back.

Hometown.

My heart skids to a thudding, trembling stop. I freeze, pencil wavering above the page, forcing slow breaths as black spots swirl before my eyes.

Hometown.

I was born in Michigan’s golden autumn. I lived in four states by the time I was two and spent most of elementary school drenched by Panama’s tropical rainstorms. In junior high, we moved to wide deserts beneath Arizona’s vivid sunsets. After I left for university, my parents moved again.

Hometown.

A word that evokes warm memories and loyalty in others stirs in me only agonised confusion. Usually context gives me the answer. Like a clever student with an unexpected exam, I gauge the circumstances, read between the lines, and choose a response:

“My parents live in Arizona.”

“I was raised in Panama.”

“I was born in Michigan.”

 Hometown.

I can’t guess this one. Panic tastes like acid in my throat.

The girl behind me offers some help: “Where do you live?”

Wherever my pillow is. Right now—my dorm.

My face burns as I scribble the first address that comes to mind and rush away, that break inside me throbbing.

cast

“Time heals all wounds.”

No. Time acclimates us to pain. Time buries scars under layers of new memories. But deep wounds never really close up.

They put a cast on my brother’s wrist. It healed. Now you’d never know it was broken.

There is no cast for my heart.

But maybe, in a tiny, infinitely significant way, those golden autumn leaves balance out the bleeding inside me. The thundering tropical rains and sunset lightning storms over desert mountains—maybe, inexplicably, impossibly, they soothe the ache.