The life of the collines.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 6 – March 26

It is hard to get an early start at the Béthanie. Morning coffee on the lake, with the birds crying hysterically in the trees, and the water slapping rhythmically against the jetty, is a two-hour affair. It’s half-past eleven when I finally leave the compound, compelled only by hunger – I had just a few flimsy samosas for dinner last night – and my reluctance to fork over five grand for a mediocre lunch.

Instead it is another plate of riz and haricots and legumes and viande – the scenery changes, but the meal stays the same. Years from now, I will look back at my time in Africa as one endless lunch buffet. It has spoiled me, in a way: I’ve come to expect a heaping plate of hot food at the ready as soon as my stomach demands it. And what terrible preparation, too, for those interminable dinners at the Béthanie, with the sluggish service and hour-long waits for tepid soup. Better to stock up on samosas again – which I do, greedily, abundantly – so I can nibble away in peace and solitude in the comfort of my room.

After lunch I’ve planned to visit the memorial site at Bisesero – easier said than done. My trusted Bradt guide (true to form) describes this evocative hilltop site near Kibuye; it makes no mention, though, of the hour-long drive over rocky roads to reach it. This prompts lengthy negotiations with half the moto fleet of Kibuye, most of whom won’t budge from a Rwf 10,000 asking price. (Never mind when I ask about the cost to Cyangugu – they just laugh.) In the end, though, I’m introduced to a friendly young guy named, fittingly, Aimable, who settles for a rate of Rwf 8,000. For the trip to Cyangugu, too, he is enthused – the cost, at Rwf 20,000, more than I’d planned, but probably, in retrospect, about what I should have expected.

Off we go, Aimable chatting amiably in French, me struggling to follow along with the wind rasping in my ear. The road climbs steadily as we leave Kibuye, and the views are sublime, endless. The hills are green and tumbling down to the water, which is laced with peninsulas and dotted with little wooded islands. Everything seems to be in perfect proportion to the landscape. Whoever made this place had a masterful eye. In the distance more islands, and beyond them only the blue-gray line of the horizon. Beyond that, Congo. Beyond that – Congo, still.

The narrator, with Aimable, en route to Bisesero

Looking across Lake Kivu

We scoot and skid over the gravelly road, here passing a small village, there surprising a group of women carrying bundles of wood on their heads. “Mirwe,” I say. “Yego,” they say, smiling. We climb another hill – even the hills have hills here – and suddenly, in the distance, a sprawling city comes into view. It is a Congolese refugee camp, says Aimable. I can see the sun glinting off tin roofs; the whole place has an air of permanence. It has been here for 15 years, he says, with some 27,000 refugees to call it home. I remember the stories of the Rwandan refugee camps in Goma, built in the weeks and months after the genocide, when the Interahamwe and the Hutu refugees – killers and innocents alike – crossed the border and established themselves in Zaire. Along with the UN tents provided for refugees, they built general stores and hair salons, movie theaters and mechanics. This they did in a matter of weeks. It is impossible to imagine what 15 years can do to a refugee camp. But already we’ve scooted off, goodbye, the camp is far behind us.

It is beautiful country here. Little country homes crown the hills – the tiled roofs, the soft earthy palettes, have a Mediterranean air – and there is a constant commotion of farm work. I can see villagers swinging their hoes on the hillsides – even the steepest slope is home to a little vegetable plot – and there is endless traffic on the road: men with machetes on their shoulders, women carrying charcoal and wood. Narrow footpaths zigzag through the fields, crowded by village women walking single-file. I remember a passage from African Laughter, by Doris Lessing, still echoing in my head:

The people living here are poor. Their lives when the rains fail are hungry. But surely it is better to be poor here, in this sunlight, this beauty, than, let’s say, Bradford or Leeds. There ought to be different words for poverty that grimes and chills and darkens, and this poverty where people live in splendour, lifted up on to the Altitude into ringing windy sun-scoured skies.

I think of these words as I watch a woman, barefoot, sitting in a small patch of sunlight on a hill, staring off at the sunlight on other hills. But then, this land, this beauty, is already overcrowded. There is not enough to sustain the rapidly growing population. It was a reason, too, for the killings in ’94. Peasants were promised the cattle, the land, of their dead neighbors. I think of these things, too, as we go speeding over the hills.

A rural church

Rwanda

This is the life of the collines – so attractive, as you drive past, the modest, tidy homes, the sweat and sunlight and industry. But it is in these collines that so much of the fear and suspicion of Rwandan life is bred. A man described to me in Burundi how his countrymen would never talk to you straight, how everything was told cautiously, circuitously. It was how word traveled between the collines: never in a straight line, from hilltop to hilltop, but twisting down into the valleys, following the winding paths, bending, distorting. It is easy to see how rumors could spread here – how plausible a story might sound, how a lie could become truth as it made its false, winding way between the collines.

Now there are tea plantations on either side of us, as far as I can see – a picture-book greenness, a greenness that shames and shuns the dark, shadowy greens of the trees. Here women are plucking the leaves and carrying them in baskets on their heads. Always there are children nearby – sitting on a mound of dirt, like young sentries, or playing in a gully on the side of the road. Now and then we pass weighing stations – a venture, no doubt, of some American NGO, or the EU. Here there is a festive, communal air. Leaves are being weighed, bagged, to the great delight and pride of the farmers. At some of the stations the bags are being loaded onto trucks; at others, wiry, barebacked men are taking the bags onto their heads, trudging off to some distant market. The farmers are organized into cooperatives, says Aimable. Their lives are better today than they were a few years ago.

Tea plantations

Bags of tea leaves being transported

Now the temperature is dropping, the road carries us along a high mountain ridge. On one side, plump cumulus clouds, sunshine; on the other, a cool, damp fog blows across the valley. It is like being in two places at once. The road tunnels beneath a canopy of pines, conifers. The air is brisk, alpine. Storm clouds are brewing distantly over the hills. We reach the memorial site in an appropriate atmosphere of gloom – even the green hills look gray as they vanish behind the fog.

Bisesero was the site of one of the most defiant stands by Tutsis during the genocide. In April 1994, more than 50,000 had gathered on the hilltop. For six weeks they repelled their attackers with machetes and sticks, fighting, too, the hunger and the cold. It was the rainy season, and there must have been little solace in the gray skies and muddy slopes. Many were undoubtedly weak and sick when the killers returned in mid-May. This time they were well-armed and determined – the killings went on for days. By the time French soldiers arrived at the end of June, just 1,300 survivors remained, scattered across the hilltops, hidden in the forests. It was the most complete ethnic cleansing in all of Rwanda.

The road to Bisesero

At Bisesero the doors are locked, the memorial is empty. Aimable scoots off to a small nearby settlement, looking for the custodian of the site. It is a somber place, but I know this is all in my head: on a sunlit day, facing the valley, I imagine this would be as cheerful as any place in Rwanda. Ten minutes pass, and Aimable returns with the guide: a pretty, petite girl named Odette, in a long skirt and a heavy overcoat and a pink kerchief wrapped around her head. She is an orphan of the genocide, both her parents killed, she explains, during “la guerre.” I would like to know how the task came to her, to be the custodian of this site at Bisesero, but we struggle to communicate in French. She opens the door to a long, narrow shed; inside are skulls and bones, hundreds of them arranged neatly on tables, with pale shafts of sunlight falling through the windows. Odette asks if I have any questions, but where would I begin?

The dead of Bisesero

She shuts the door and we walk outside, toward a path that zigs and zags up the hill. There are small houses – odd oblong buildings made of brick – regularly spaced along the path. They are, I take it, from what I can understand of Odette’s explanation, works in progress as the memorial continues to grow. I ask if many tourists come to Bisesero. She says the last one came about a month ago. I ask how she spends the rest of her days; she shrugs. She has no money to continue her studies. She gestures vaguely to the road, which ribbons toward her small village, where she passes the time until another tourist arrives, asking for the girl with the key.

At the top of the hill the tombs: plain tiles laid across the earth, beneath which lie the remains of 50,000 bodies. We circle the place, our feet crunching over the gravel, the birds in the trees. Here is a cairn to commemorate where men and women were killed with machetes and spears. We walk back down the hill, Odette pausing to lock each building behind us. She and Aimable are talking easily, laughing – even here, life goes on. At the bottom, in the visitor’s center, I sign the guestbook. I notice that the last visitors had come just a day before. But these were Rwandans; Odette seemed to take my question as, “Do you get many foreigners here?” I find it ennobling – important even – to see page after page of the guestbook filled with Rwandan names.

Outside the rain clouds are almost above us. Aimable is impatient to go. Odette reaches up on the tips of her toes, struggling to throw a bolt across the door of the visitor’s center. It is a grim little thing, concrete, formless; I imagine it is how Stalin would have dreamt up a commemoration to the killings at Bisesero. Before we leave I ask if I can take Odette’s picture. She smoothes her skirt and stands rigidly, eyes wandering off to the treetops. I show her the picture, and she is pleased. She stands on the side of the road and waves as we drive off for Kibuye.

Odette, in front of the memorial

We take a different route back to town. Aimable has no doubt weighed the probability of rain each way; the other road, I suspect, has already been drenched. He revs the engine and pushes our little moto forward, looking anxiously over his shoulder, as the clouds continue to gain on us. Soon the first drops catch our helmets; a steady, light rain is falling. It is not unpleasant to drive through, though Aimable is forced to tighten his grip on the handlebars – the road is slick. In the villages we pass, everyone is huddled joylessly under awnings and overhangs, any protection they can find under the rusted eaves of a general store. The road is still busy with men carrying bags of charcoal, or driving their goats with a stick. Women walk slowly with bags on their heads – they must get to a far-away village, to the house of some relation, rain or no. A boy uses a broad banana leaf as an umbrella. Another chases a bull uphill, its nostrils flaring, its horns like scimitars.

Aimable does well: we’ve escaped the rain. The clouds seem to sit and brood over the hills as we race down toward the lake. The road wraps and bends, past the wagging leaves of banana plants and the small steep plots of villagers. The hills jut into the lake, they grow and recede as we round each bend. It is one of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever seen. By the time we reach Kibuye, the rain still dragging its heels, I am convinced of my plan to take a moto to Cyangugu. Aimable is thrilled; we set a departure date for Sunday. I wave as he goes scooting off through town, buoyed by his sudden good fortune.

The restaurant at the Béthanie is crowded by early evening – weekenders, I suspect, coming down from Kigali. Andrea, too, is making the trip from the city. She has never been to Kibuye, and with just a few months left in Rwanda, she thought it would be a pity to pass the town by. But now her bus is delayed; the timing couldn’t be worse. Just after dusk a fierce storm blows across the lake, lightning ripping across the sky in terrible bolts. It is a beautiful, frightful storm. Even after it passes, I can follow the lightning as it flashes further along the lake. An hour later the rain returns. It will keep on like this for the rest of the night.

Andrea rolls in, soggy and flustered, after eight. She is wired, breathless. She’s just come from a village school about an hour’s drive from Kibuye, where she listened to the school nurse giving a talk on sex ed. The students – teenagers, in Standards four and five and six – were frank, curious. Andrea – who has spent almost two years in this country already – was shocked to see such a candid discussion about sex, in rural Rwanda, of all places. This is noteworthy; Andrea has seen much in Rwanda, she doesn’t shock easy. Often I envy the richness, the variedness of her life here. Last year, in that same village, she had watched as a friend’s parents – killed during the genocide, buried in a small family plot in the yard – were exhumed and reburied in a national burial site during a formal ceremony. It was, she said, a great honor for the family: they carried pictures of their parents at the head of a procession, saw them interred with elaborate rites. But she wondered – we both wondered – whether all survivors felt the same. Bodies across Rwanda were being exhumed, reburied in national burial sites commemorating the genocide’s dead. Did all the families consider it an honor? Did they feel they were being exploited – their private grief made public in the name of “national healing”?

The conversation, as always, takes off on tangents. The struggles of New Times journalists to square the demands of their consciences with the need to earn a paycheck. The impending visit of Canada’s governor-general and assorted dignitaries. And always, of course, the intrigues in Kigali, where her house – the house where I spent the past three weeks – saw a constant flow of foreign journalists, here to train Rwandans on the ethics and demands of the media industry. It is a fickle business, handling the needs of a half-dozen journalists under the same roof, like a poor-man’s Big Brother. Always a fresh problem to handle, new needs to deal with. Listening to her tired monologue, I get the feeling that this short “vacation” is hardly enough. Not until Rwanda is behind her, I suspect, will Andrea be able to sleep with a clear head.

Beer, dinner – we leave our problems for another day. Hundreds of bugs – crawling, slithering, flitting on filmy wings – have assaulted the lighting fixtures. It’s like a buffet for the lizards prowling along the walls. We watch them scuttling, tongues flicking, giving chase. We are rapt. I’ve seen this same scene repeated in dozens of hotels across Africa. With a few weeks, or months, or years, a neglected home would be completely overtaken by invasive weeds, by night creatures. I can think of no better advertisement for man’s irrelevance in the greater scheme of the earth’s history. Amazing, too, that we can do so much harm in so little time.

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One response to “The life of the collines.

  1. Pingback: Kivu redux. | This Is Africa

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