“I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us.”
-What is the What//Valentino Achak Deng & Dave Eggers
“What will you tell people back home about Rwanda?” my host sister and neighbor asked me on separate occasions a week before I left.
I paused, unable to articulate a meaningful response. I had been asking myself that same question for a while. “Be good ambassadors to our country,” Rwandans always said. But that is such a loaded request.
“You,” I finally told them.
They seemed surprised.
“The hills,” I continued.
They laughed, a kind laugh, but a laugh all the same. As if to say: How naïve. How young. How American.
They do not understand how I can love a country that is not my own. Sometimes I do not even understand.
When I told people I planned to study abroad in Rwanda, they usually displayed looks of pity, as if a trip dedicated to understanding the complexities of genocide meant I would only experience sadness. But a country made up of survivors is naturally filled with life—the best kind of life, life that is thankful.
I will tell them about the dancing, I wanted to say to my sister and neighbor. About how children, Hutu and Tutsi, greeted us with song and dance in a village where survivor and perpetrator live as neighbors; and how we stood by in awe of the world’s ability to resurrect itself from dust and filth. How movement and music serve as street children’s salvation. How villagers stretch their hands towards heaven after communion, converting dance itself into a sacrament.
I will tell them about Kibeho. Its quiet strength and betrayed beauty. How the mother of the crucified carpenter transformed its hills into holy ground. And how humans, weak and drunk with revenge, destroyed the faithful over the course of two days. I will tell them about the spunky nuns and devout pilgrims and a young college graduate’s deep commitment to his country.
I will tell them about the hills. How the hills seem to stretch towards eternity, becoming shadows of one another. How sometimes I think that no memorial is needed to remember the genocide because a thousand hills stand in their place.
But most of all, I will tell them about the people. Their affectionate handholding. The head nods between men—a gesture so intimate one feels the need to look away. I will tell them about the perpetrator who asked seventeen American students for forgiveness because he believes no man is an island. I will tell them about my neighbors, three men who taught me more about Rwanda than I could ever learn from a classroom or a book. I will tell them about two brothers, humble and kind, dreamers that long to share their artistic talents with children reduced to life on the streets. I will tell them about my sister, who bears the name of a man she will never know, but longs to emulate. I will tell them about my adopted mother, her laughter, her fierce kindness, and her unspoken stories.
When I told people I planned to study abroad in Rwanda, they often praised me for selflessly helping others, as if mission work and volunteering are the only sane reasons someone would travel to Africa. As if Rwandans required a savior.
“You need to teach us,” my neighbor said to me one night. It became a routine of mine to stumble in the dark across the pothole-studded compound to my neighbors’ house, sit on their couch, and beg them for stories.
“No, please don’t say that. That feels colonial. You have taught me more than I could ever teach you,” I said.
“Fine,” he sighed. “We can teach each other.”