It’s late when we get back tonight, later than life in Kigali really allows. The normally crowded streets wrapping about the hotel are now nearly empty. Crosswalk signals blink furiously at no one at all. Most of the team blearily awakens, blinking, as the vehicle lurches over the sidewalk and up the incline into the hotel’s parking lot.
I’m stationed in what I don't know yet is my usual perch in the jump seat up front, a position I’ll occupy for most of the trip until another team member’s carsickness graduates from “aggravation” to “vomit-spewing,” at which point I gladly surrender the spot. For now, though, I can use the seat to take a million blurry, poorly-framed shots as we bounce along the dirt roads of the Rwandan countryside, in hopes of getting lucky once in a while. It is not a high-percentage strategy, and it leads to hours of glumly poking through photos, trying to talk myself into the idea that my accidentally canted-angle landscapes are “artsy.”
Our headlights illuminate the hotel’s stern-faced guard as he waves us through the gate, the movement revealing the butt of a rifle glinting below his shoulder. I involuntarily shudder, as if I’ve never seen an armed guard before. But it's this country, and the tremors of its recent, violent history, brought sharply to life by the twenty-year memorials fluttering throughout the city. It makes me uneasy.
A well-armed guard protecting this tiny hotel is just one more sign of the divide between the haves and the have-nots here. Down the road is a grocery store that has a door flanked by angry stone lions, with two metal detectors at the entrance and three armed guards always on duty. Rwanda might be in a state of peace, but the people who have money are deeply cautious in a way that makes one wonder how firm their footing really is.
We are returning from the Hotel del Milles Colenes, which you might know better as the Hotel Rwanda, the spot where 1300 refugees hid during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I had expected a solemn memorial, especially given the occasion, but the hotel shows no signs of being anything other than a four-star hotel in the wealthier end of Kigali. There are no brass plaques or reflective chapels, just sleek modern wallpaper and a large tiki bar overlooking an azure pool. Hotel employees will acknowledge the building’s history, but only when asked. It is the exact opposite of the Western way of thinking, which would extort the tragedy for every cent it could muster. Here, no one mentions it. It’s not polite.
My unsettled feeling disappears by morning, though, as bright sunshine seems to reveal a different Rwanda than the one I went to sleep in. The dour guard who waved us in the night before is all smiles as I make my way to breakfast, and greets me warmly as I pass by his post.
“Mar-ah MOO-tay!” I say, stopping to shake his hand. Everyone here is trying to teach me the language, which is an effort in futility that Sisyphus would wag his head sadly at the sight. While English was recently named the national language, residents of Rwanda still speak Kinyarwanda, a Bantu language somewhat similar to Swahili that will not stick in my brain. This is not surprising. When it comes to other languages, my head is no so much a sieve as an actual water hose. I lived in Romania for a summer, working at an orphanage, and when I returned I could still only count to ten and say, “don’t hit,” though frankly, when it comes to orphanage work, that’s really all you need.
“Mwaaramutse,” he says warmly, correcting me without correcting me. “Good morning.” He is friendly to such a degree that I feel guilty for shuddering the night before at the sight of him and his gun. He speaks almost no English, but he is friendly and kind, and he addresses me as if we are old friends, so that I immediately feel like one. His name, it turns out, is Vincent, and by the end of the week we’ll take a picture together with his cell phone so he can remember me.
I wish I was better with the language so that I could talk to him more, but I’ve narrowed my vocabulary down to half-a-dozen phrases in hopes that they’ll finally stick. They don’t, so I give up and start writing them phonetically on my arm. I feel ridiculous, but my futility has unexpected benefits. While taking pictures, I attempt to warm each subject up with a few kind words, but I stumble over each expression so badly that the child usually breaks down laughing. Then I take their picture. It works out nicely for everyone.
“Mwore-a-coze-eh CHAH-nay,” I say to Vincent as I walk on.
“Muracoze cyane,” he replies. “Thank you very much.” He seems to mean it, more than I do. He is honestly grateful for the way I stopped and spoke to him, and for my sad attempts at speaking his language, and I don’t really know why.
I don’t know anything about this country. I don’t know anything at all.
[This post has been edited to note that Kinyarwanda is similar to Swahili, not French.]