Wednesday, November 9.
[N.B. – In the usual messy spirit of this blog, I’m fast-forwarding a few weeks, as I still try to cope with the terrible backlog of things I’d like to write about Kenya. Below are some thoughts since arriving in Rwanda this week. In the days and weeks ahead, I’ll continue to fill in the blanks from Kenya in my typical, shitty, roughshod way. Thanks for bearing with me.]
You know you are back before you’ve even hit the tarmac, because the hills outside the window are green and seem to go on forever. You remember the phrase you heard before, how they called this place “God’s country.” Kenya is far behind you now; if you flew over the endless tree-freckled plains of the Maasai Mara, or the great silver saucepan of Lake Victoria, you can hardly remember. The world beneath you is lush, abundant, and you’re flying close enough now to make out the tiny figures of motorbikes and bicycles moving over dirt roads, the flash of sunlight on tin roofs. Banana plants, palm trees, the little hilltop shambas of manioc and taro and maize. The green quiltwork of a land cultivated to within an inch of its life. The pilot announces your first descent, into Bujumbura: the flight is a puddle-jumper, passengers hop on and off along the route from Nairobi to Buja to Kigali and then back to Nairobi, like a matatu. Lake Tanganyika, fingers of land jutting into it, the mountains of eastern Congo like a man who took his last tired steps and slumped onto his side. On the tarmac you pick up a WiFi signal. The second “u” in Bujumbura hangs crookedly from the terminal. There is a door for departures and a door for arrivals and a door into the salon d’honneur, for VIPs. A dapper man sits beside you, he has an Afro and a pair of flared plaid pants, a spiritual descendant of Fela Kuti, some Highlife legend. His accent is posh, he is visiting from Oxford. Family? Friends? The rural health clinic he founded? He doesn’t say. You try to place this man in your mental geography of the region. Perhaps his parents fled the ethnic pogroms of the ‘60s. Or were killed: he was raised an orphan in the UK. Some sympathetic, church-going retirees took him in, gave him the best of everything. He’s come back to discover his roots, to find some lost sibling, long thought dead. Or is visiting the parents who are, in fact, still alive. They had fled to Kigali, to Zaire. His father had worked in the Belgian consulate. His father was a prince. You cannot imagine this black man with a BBC accent being a casual tourist. To Burundi, of all places. This little forgotten country in the troubled heart of a troubled region. Last year the opposition parties boycotted the presidential elections; Agathon Rwasa, the leader of the last of the rebel groups, just went and disappeared. Rumors that he is hiding out in the dense, lawless forests of eastern Congo, that the FLN is regrouping, planning to reignite the civil war that destroyed this country. A few weeks ago there was a massacre in a border town, more than 30 people shot dead by soldiers in Congolese army uniforms. A witness said they were given instructions, “Make sure there’s no survivors.” To leave not a trace, no eyes to bear witness and record and remember. Memory in these parts is a dangerous thing.
We lift off again, adieu, adieu, Burundi, à la prochaine fois, dear heart. It takes 30 minutes to pass through the looking glass, to cross the imaginary line that divides two countries which share so much and so little. Dysfunctional Burundi, slouching toward another war, its great open-hearted people held hostage by kleptomaniacs and thugs; and now Rwanda, the West’s darling, the land of a thousand hills and a million miracles, of 8% annual growth, a marvel in boardrooms, on spreadsheets, a land that when I close my eyes to picture it resembles a clenched fist. The sky is blue, dazzling, as we coast onto the runway: the very heavens seem to be smiling on Kigali. A battalion of blue-capped peacekeepers, South African flags stitched to their fatigues, is waiting in single file on the tarmac. They’re holding flipcams and pointing cameras at us, maybe getting some cheap, prosaic thrill out of the simple fact of our existence, their senses scrubbed dull by long, hard months in the Congo. A Europair plane is waiting for them. Their very souls seem rumpled, worn. Off they go, homeward bound, back to Johannesburg and Nelspruit and Port Elizabeth, to the families who have sung Sunday hymns for them, to mothers who have bent on creaking knees, Lord Jesus, please, bring that one back in one piece. A man beside me, his suit double-breasted, his face double-chinned, carries a leather bag with a nametag that reads, Hon. J.B. Dauda, Foreign Minister, Sierra Leone. Another, fedora’d, speaking elegant French into his cellphone, holds a garment bag that says Francesco Armmani. Inside, the terminal has hardly changed. The immigration official is lean and frank and cheerless. The woman at the forex bureau is reading the Bible. A Rwandair billboard on the street outside says, Ikeze Iwacu: Welcome Home.
I am told that I once spent nearly six months living in Kigali, though this seems hard to believe. From June-December 2009, I rented a room in a beautiful house in Remera, a three-bedroom with a small garden and a lovely hillside location that faced the morning sun. The house had high ceilings and the common rooms were flooded with sunlight; of the grainy memories I have of that time, what I remember best is writing at the dining room with my morning coffee, the garden full of birdsong, the cries of children floating up from the valley. The mornings were tranquil, but it was a busy house: turnaround in Kigali is especially high, and every few months, there seemed to be a new face smiling at me in the kitchen as I wiped the sleep from my eyes. We’ve mostly stayed in touch: Lydia, an American, her laugh like automatic gunfire, now mulling a move to South Africa; Kari, who returned to the great wild wilderness of Alberta (me, qua New Yorker, imagining all of Canada between Toronto and Vancouver as great and wild); Francesca, who had come to Kigali with her boyfriend, whose compass poles never quite aligned with African life, now back in Italy, safely on the other side of the Mediterranean. I remember the musical sound of her voice as she and Pietro chattered over coffee in the evening, rehashing the day’s highs and lows. For a long while it was a strong conviction of mine that every house should come with its own pair of Italians.
Fond memories, but perhaps I’m mentally varnishing that period of my life, giving it an unnatural shine. In many ways, those were low months for me: I was broke, anxious, my career was going nowhere. Just a couple of months ago in Cape Town, visiting an old Kigali friend, I was reminded just how unhappy, how unsure of my footing, I was. (This was long before Harper’s and Conde Nast Traveler, before The New York Times.) It is hard to remember now how the days and weeks passed, the mileage I accrued on the backs of motos whisking me from Remera to Kimihurura to UTC. Little writing survives from that time; no doubt my Gmail archive is crowded with the futile pitches I sent to countless editors, emails that were sent and resent and always unreturned. Struggling to recreate those months, I’ve consulted a certain Delphic document, known only as “spent.doc,” in which I’ve been filing my daily expenses for the past three years. But here my cryptic notes leave few crumbs; whole days are recorded as little more than moto, moto, coffee, moto, beer, beer, moto. Perhaps this is revealing in its own way. But what fears, what abiding passions guided me through those months, grasping toward some distant fulfillment, have been buried by the steady passage of time.
And here is Kigali now, the hills knuckling under a cloudless sky, the airport road smooth as a pool table. The median is planted with palm trees, a long, leafy colonnade, as neatly manicured as Versailles. (Later in the week, briskly crossing one such median at night, I’ll be tsk-tsk’d by a Rwandan woman: walking on the grass, she says, is against the law.) The city has been growing, new construction projects flank the road, the rickety wooden scaffolding, the blue reflective windows much-loved in this part of the world. Sun Rise House, Agaseke House. The distant skyline of the city center, the swooping necks of construction cranes, new office buildings which could’ve been transplanted from Dubai. The phallic thrust of City Tower. “You can see it is changing,” my taxi driver says, chuckling, no doubt attuned to the Western platitudes we whites always utter upon setting foot in this, the great “African success story.” (Remembering here the memorable story about President Kagame, after a speech to a crowded auditorium in Boston, snapping at the young man who had praised him for the safety and cleanliness of Kigali. “What did you expect?” said Kagame. “That we are dirty and live like savages?”) Passing through Remera, Chez Lando, the Ndoli’s supermarket I trudged up the hill towards, shopping bag clinking with empty beer bottles. And then clinking again as I walked down the hill, the bottles now full.
There seems to be more traffic now in the city center, though perhaps it’s just my imagination: Rwanda, more than any country I know, breeds a certain kind of indoctrination. You believe in this country’s rapid growth and development partly because you see it, partly because you’ve been reading about the “Rwandan renaissance” for years. Past the Union Trade Centre another skyscraper nears completion. Then a corridor of bank towers, acres of blue glass, and a new city hall, still under construction, which looks roughly the size of the U.S. Capitol. In the afternoon, after I’ve checked into my hotel, after I’ve griped about the shitty value-for-money that, more than anything else, tells me I’m back in Rwanda, I have a coffee at the Serena Hotel. A peacebuilding symposium is in town, a UN-backed summit in which conference delegates look for ways to import the Rwandan-miracle model into their own shattered post-conflict countries. (Thus the morning’s tarmac’s Honorable Foreign Minister from Sierra Leone.) In the lobby, I manage to get my hands on a slick piece of propaganda for conference attendees, touting the 17th anniversary of Rwanda’s “liberation.” Glossy pictorials, fawning column inches. And then the obligatory tribute to the country’s Vision 2020, a computer-generated image of a futuristic downtown that looks less like Kigali than Kuala Lumpur. An American woman in a pantsuit, heels clicking briskly across the lobby, is calling out, “Ambassador! Ambassador!” Pragmatic faces at every table, a sense of handshake agreements, details to be ironed out, bold new partnerships being forged.
Above the reception desk, that familiar glower. His Excellency. The honorable and venerable P.K. I can think of no other country which has been so totally and swiftly forged in the smithy of one man’s will. You can imagine him sitting at his executive desk beneath a picture of himself; his face is hard, frank, practical. Consultants, advisors, multi-national supplicants come and go, bent at the waist, obsequious, bearing contracts and promises and opium visions, like Coleridge’s Kublai Khan. I’m reminded of stories I heard about apartheid South Africa, an isolated nation whose people were nevertheless eager to adopt any new technology, tinker with it, try it on for size. Yearning to be a part of the wider world. And so it is in Kigali, where a sign outside the Kenya Airways office in town touts the latest fares to Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Dubai. Bureaucracies have been trimmed and streamlined. Starting a business in Rwanda is roughly as expensive and time-consuming as ordering a cup of coffee. (An informative exercise is to compare that same process in other countries, such as, say, Nigeria.) A friend, a health care worker, tells me how a study had been brought to the Health Ministry’s attention last year, showing the causal relationship between bare feet and certain species of worms. Within days, the government had passed legislation requiring all Rwandans to wear shoes; it was around this time that I, much mystified, noticed the proliferation of cheap, plastic, primary-colored sandals around the countryside. “If we do a study, and we can prove something works, the government will pass legislation next week,” my friend says to me.
We are eating pizza and drinking magnums of Rwandan beer at Sol e Luna. My old house is just down the hill, a five-minute walk. The lights on the hillside are winking; somewhere far below us, we can hear children’s laughter, a stray dog howling at a near-full moon. The night air is bracing, and I feel a brief, sharp pang for the tidy little autocracy I once called home. How lovely and simple life can be here, for those gifted and blessed enough to have forex in their bank account. Around us the tables are full of white diners (another, less flattering, reminder of South Africa creeps into my mind). I wonder, often, about this Rwandan renaissance. The country’s leaders are certainly speeding ahead; often, though, you get the sense that Rwandans themselves are struggling to keep up. I recount at the dinner table a conversation I’d had earlier in the day, with a journalist friend and a young businesswoman from Kenya. She was looking to start an IT firm in Kigali, but had found the country still lagging far behind its glossy reputation. It was easy to start a business here, but there was still a terrific shortage in qualified manpower. In all likelihood she’d have to bring skilled workers from Nairobi, then hire and train a Rwandan manager who could help bridge the language and culture gaps. The much-lauded ICT infrastructure was still primitive; even the power supply was terribly unreliable.
Almost on cue, the hill across the valley goes dark. “Like a Christmas tree,” my friend says. We sit there staring out at the darkness; closer to us the houses glow like pearls of light, cars curve along bends in a road lit like a seam of gold. For a few moments I remember the frustrations of living in Kigali, the cursed Remera house where the power was spotty, where we would often go days without water. But the reverie doesn’t last; the lights are back on almost as soon as they’d vanished. The city is back in business.