Tag Archives: bisesero

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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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.