The life is good, but it is a lot of change.

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 5 – March 25

It’s half-past eleven when I finally get out of bed. It feels like my body is slowly returning to me. I have five missed calls on my phone – John, periodically checking on me since just before 6am. His concern is of the overbearing variety. I take a hot shower and spend the next two hours working through a giant Thermos of coffee. Though I’m paying close to twenty U.S. bucks for my room – a small fortune, on my budget – the narcotic pleasures of coffee by the lake remind me why this is one of my favorite places in Rwanda. Across from me, the green wooded hills of a peninsula jut into the lake; beside it, Amahoro (“Peace”) Island; beyond that, Napoleon Island – so named because it is said to resemble Bonaparte’s hat. From here, it looks like any other island on the lake – its slopes covered with trees, a denuded hilltop. Beyond it are still more islands, tiny and picturesque, so that you want to pack a picnic basket and spend the day exploring every one.

A view of the lake, from the Bethanie

This, of course, can be arranged. There are boats shuttling tourists between the islands; at the lunch hour they idle beside the jetty at the Béthanie, hoping to attract some clients. One boy, Haybarimana, a spindle in oversized clothes, offers to take me to Napoleon and Amahoro Islands for Rwf 20,000 – a steep price for an hour-long tour, considering I just spent ten hours traveling half the length of the lake for a fraction of that price. I tell him I’m waiting for friends to arrive from Kigali – Andrea & Co., escaping the capital for the weekend – and that we’ll talk when I’ve found a few more passengers. Or when he’s cooked up a more favorable rate.

Walking into town, with the cries and splashes of children rising from the lake, I compare images of Kibuye with memories from my last visit, nearly two years ago. Here a small vacant lot where women sell Fantas and ndazi beneath beach umbrellas – this I remember. There, on the hillside, the skeleton of a new building – no doubt a gaudy business hotel, soon to be welcoming the budding technocrats of Kigali. It looks like they just started building it a few months ago. Closer to town, the biggest change: a sprawling new “Regional Centre for Blood Transfusion,” sponsored by the American Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Next to it a maternal health care clinic, which is showing its years. Dozens of women in colorful wraps and dresses sit in the shade, cradling infants to their chests.

My first great shock comes at the stadium – one of the few places I vividly recall in Kibuye. It was here, in 2008, that I came to watch screenings for Hillywood, the traveling leg of the Rwandan Film Festival. That day there were hundreds of people crowding the grandstand – sitting, standing in the aisles, dangling from the railings. Mai and Ben, two friends from Uganda, had come down to Kibuye for the weekend. There had been heavy rains, and we picked our way through the mud to find places closer to the screen. It was slow going; at places the mud came up to your ankles. We watched a man with a lame leg navigate the field on a single crutch, poling himself like a gondolier.

The main feature that night was We Are All Rwandans, a 20-minute short film by the English director Debs Eugene-Gardner. It was based on events from a village near Kibuye in 1996, at a time when Interahamwe who had found refuge in what was then Zaire were staging periodic raids across the border – attacks to sow chaos in rural regions, and to test the stability of the newly formed government. In one such attack – the basis of the film – gunmen raided a boarding school and, seizing a classroom, demanded the students separate into Hutus and Tutsis. The students refused; one girl, defiant, insisted, “We are all Rwandans,” before she was killed. It was a story that was little reported at the time – Philip Gourevitch mentions it on the final pages of his famous book – but was seized upon as a seed of hope for a new, united Rwanda.

I had watched the film at screenings across Rwanda, and the effect was always dramatic. It is, by Rwandan standards, a graphic film, and there was much shock and grief as the students were gunned down in their classroom. (Six died, many more were injured.) In the end, though, amid the head-shaking and tongue-clucking, the film was powerfully received. It carried a message, I thought, that many Rwandans wanted to believe in.

It was a message, though, that seemed to win few fans that night in Kibuye. There was a sense of restlessness, and growing unease; before the film finished, the mood was outright hostile, with hisses and jeers directed at the screen, and many throwing up their hands with disgust as they left the stadium. Something to remember about Kibuye: it was this town and region that saw some of the worst killing in 1994. Tutsis were almost entirely wiped out from this prefecture; by some estimates, nearly 60,000 were killed – more than 90 percent of the Tutsi population.

So how to interpret the hostility of the crowd? Was it a reaction against the film’s message of a unified Rwanda? Or against the violence depicted – sure to upset the sensibilities of a rural audience? Or was it that particular story – drawn from a village just a few miles down the road – that hit too close to home? Was this predominantly Hutu crowd tired of being reminded of its crimes? Were they hoping the ghosts of the genocide might finally be put to rest?

Two years later, here is what’s left of that stadium: the overgrown grass of a soccer field, the crumbling remains of the grandstand. Packs of children scamper across the pitch, kicking a ball, or whatever bundle of rags and strings passes for a ball. Goats are chewing at midfield – chewing and chewing, in the manner of their kind. And yet the sight of that crowded grandstand, the hissing old men, the fat drops of rain that fell like silver dollars in our headlights – the memories are as vivid as if they’d happened just last week.

Kibuye stadium: then

Kibuye stadium: now

Across from the stadium, as a fresh rain begins to fall, I duck into a small restaurant for lunch. It is typical of rural Rwanda, with plastic tables and chairs arranged here and there, and a small TV flickering in a corner of the room. A menu is taped to the wall; the name of the restaurant, it says, is Sport Restaurant Long Life. Two short, stout young women bustle about the place – almost comically busy: there are just two other diners. There is a confused exchange between us in a mixture of Kinyarwanda, English and French. “Come, I show you,” says one of the girls, leading me into the kitchen. There is a large bowl of cassava, another of beans, two empty basins with grains of rice sticking to the side. She says something else, in Kinyarwanda. “In French, they say ‘chou,’” she says.

Chou,” I say. “Cabbage.”

“Cabbage,” she says, enjoying the feel of the word on her lips. She breaks into laughter. I order rice, beans, and cabbage, and we have another good laugh as she begins to fill my plate.

It is a good meal, served with a bowl of sambaza – tiny, silvery lake fish – in a watery tomato broth. It costs about a dollar. Brazilian telenovellas are playing on the TV, beamed in by satellite from Mozambique. The waitresses are rapt. Outside the rain falls heavily, then lightly. I stand in the doorway and look at what’s left of the stadium across the street. There is still some sport going on, but so much for the “long life.”

I ask the two men sitting by the door, finishing off their Sprites, what became of the stadium. One of the men, speaking in slow, cautious English, says they are tearing it down to extend the maternal health clinic next door. He mentions the American NGO – Peace something – which is funding the project. A new stadium is being built, he says, further down the road.

The man is young, in his late-30s, I guess, and neatly dressed. He says his name is Jean Baptiste Ntimehuka, and he is a bailiff at the high court in Kibuye. He takes from his pocket a small lanyard with his name and photo, about which he is very proud. How many Rwandans, I wonder, dream each night for such a job, such a lanyard! Jean Baptiste points to his surname and translates: “God is good.” He was born in a village not far from here and studied at the Université Libre de Kigali. He has now been living in Kibuye for nine years. He has two small children, a boy, five, and a girl, three. His wife was raised in the Congo; her family returned to Rwanda after the genocide. “And then she met you and she fell in love,” I say. Jean Baptiste laughs uproariously, the words “not exactly” implicit in his body language. I ask him about the life in Kibuye now, and he says, “Kibuye is the development. The life is good, but it is a lot of change.”

For this small town, the changes have probably been dramatic. Beside the gas station, where I remember there being rows of wooden dukas, there are now two construction sites: future homes, according to the signage, of new commercial plazas. There is a new shopping complex nearby, with a long arcade where the jobless youth of Kibuye can wait out the rain. It is full of small shops, a FINA Bank, a restaurant with two long tables over which are hunched lean men eating large plates of potatoes and rice.

Plans to build a new shopping complex in Kibuye

Outside the boys are milling, pushing, arguing, laughing, passing the time. Tanzanian R&B plays from a barber shop. I pop into a smart little supermarket for a Fanta to revive my flagging strength. The rear wall is covered with liquor bottles – Ugandan waragi, Malibu rum. There are a few staples of the Rwandan diet – Zesta brand fruit jam, Blue Band butter – as well as imported luxuries like Pringles and Cadbury’s hot chocolate. There are also five-gallon cans of vegetable oil sporting the USAID logo – relief supplies that at some point made their way from the international aid food chain into the parallel market of Rwandan commerce.

Parked in front is a truck from the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda. The message on the driver’s side door exhorts Rwandans, “It’s Time to Deliver!”

On the way back to the Béthanie I’m caught in a steady shower. The rain is like a part of the landscape here. On the side of the road is the St. Jean Catholic church, site, like so many Rwandan churches, of countless genocide atrocities. Outside is a small memorial site – a shapeless slab of concrete, hasty, artless, as if designed with all the thought and care of a traffic pylon. (Better, though, than the Marxist tributes to the “povos” and “la luta” in Mozambique – fine examples of memorial kitsch.) The church door is locked; I can just make out the forms of wooden benches through the dusty, stained-glass windows. The views of the lake from here are stunning. As always in Rwanda, you have a hard time channeling the horrors of 1994 when so much of the world around you looks like Eden.

St. Jean Catholic Church

On my way to the road I am met by two men, one in an ill-fitting coat and large sunhat; the other clutching a sheaf of papers and wearing a rosary around his neck. They are choirists at the church, here to practice songs for Sunday mass. (Jean Baptiste, too, had said he sings in the choir. I suspect there are no shortage of hymns to get you through the week in Kibuye.) The talk, as one might expect in a churchyard, quickly turns to religion. Am I a Catholic? No, Greek Orthodox. Ah, says Jean Marie – the man with the rosary – that is almost the same thing. Here is where my French fails me. I try to explain the differences between the two religions: the Great Schism (“Il y a cinq, six sant ans” – my history as bad as my French), at which point Catholics began following the Pope (“Avec la pape,” showing a fork in the road with my hands, and Catholics going to the left), and “les orthodox” following something I call “l’archbishop” (hand shooting to the right, “comme ça”). I mention Rome and Constantinople, which draws satisfactory nods. “Constantinople,” says Jean Marie knowingly. They are practically in the same time zone, after all. Jean Marie, seeking one last reassurance, asks if the Orthodox believe in Christ and Mary. We do. Rapture. We are practically brothers now. Jean Marie pumps my hand and we part on the best of terms, footsoldiers in the Lord’s vast and varied army.

On the way down the hill a young boy joins me. He has a small tire and he is beating it down the hill with a stick. What simple, Victorian pleasures you find in rural Rwanda! The boy’s sandals scuff the pavement; he is holding up his pants with one hand. He beats his little tire into a ditch, pulls it out, and starts again. There is a look of furious concentration on his face. Nothing could matter as much this afternoon as the successful completion of his mission, which is to chase his tire down the hill and all the way home.

The rain has finally ended. The sun is out. The lake is bronze and the boats are drifting slowly, silently across it.

I’ve realized, since leaving my laptop and its distractions back in Kigali, that the day is long, with many hours to kill. It is no coincidence that I’ve filled two notebooks in just five days. I’m writing more than I’ve written in months, and it’s with no small regret that I think back to past trips – my Kenyan odyssey to Lake Turkana, for example – wondering how I passed those long hours, if not with my pen and pad. I could’ve written a small book about that endless truck ride from Maralal to the lake’s shores. And then the political circus in Loyangalani: the president and prime minister, there to launch an emergency relief effort with the WFP in the drought-ravaged north. They arrived on separate airplanes – too proud, too besotted with rank and protocol to carpool. The great tribes of the north, the Turkana, the Rendille, the El Molo, sang and jangled their braceleted legs on the runway. Probably the president, fat, gray, softened by years at the public trough, didn’t know what to make of those barebacked warriors singing their archaic songs. The prime minister danced a clever little jig. The heat was unbearable.

Turkana tribesmen rush to greet the President's plane

The assembled tribes on the runway at Loyangalani

All that feels now like a story from someone else’s life. In Kibuye I listen to the rain outside my window. I sing to myself – softly, at first, then less so. Appreciating for the first time how the sound of one’s voice, the bold notes sung in solitude, might fill the emptiness that wraps around the hours of rural life. If I were a Rwandan farmer tilling some vast country tract, I might sing thusly. (Though probably not the Smiths.) The sound of the rain picks up, and then the sound of my voice does, too, until the two songs blend in perfectly imperfect harmony. It is the first time I remember singing myself to sleep – another oddball habit, perhaps, to take home from my African life.

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7 responses to “The life is good, but it is a lot of change.

  1. The building on the hill is to be a revenue bureau. Ignatious (0788754488), a moto driver in kibuye, speaks excellent english. Only drives so-so, though. Buses run to Cyangugu usually every mon, wed, friday (sometimes more) from the fork near the hospital or the defunct RDB telecenter near the turn-off to nyamishaba.

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  5. Thank you for such a detailed post about Kibuye. It makes me feel like I have missed a lot in the six years since I lived there! I miss that town.

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