Flashback: Rwanda-ing

Two years ago today Susan and I were in Rwanda outside
Volcanoes National Park getting set to trek mountain gorillas.


I am sitting at the writing desk in our banda at the Virunga Lodge just after midnight, having slept some four hours. I am writing this by a combination of oil lantern light and the mini flashlight that I’m holding in my mouth pointed at the screen so that I can see what I’m typing (my Alphasmart 3000 doesn’t have a backlit display and the room has no electricity). In about five hours we’ll receive our wake-up visit and get prepared for our first day of mountain gorilla tracking in the Parc Nacional des Volcans. Susan lies asleep behind me. Thunderstorms and a brief steady rain rocked us to sleep after dinner at the lodge’s bar ‚ which does have electricity and my adapter outfit was once again put to good use charging camera batteries that were not nearly put to enough use chronicling the day’s sites and journey, which began with the one-hour flight aboard a Rwandair MD-82 jet to Kigali International Airport.

After clearing customs and reclaiming our luggage we were met by Francis of Volcanoes Safaris who would be transporting us here at the Virunga Lodge. Once in the vehicle we let him know how important it was for us to visit the genocide memorial. And instead of going to it on our last day in Rwanda, he offered to take us there straight away, prior to lunch at the Hotel des Milles Collines. The drive through Kigali was fascinating, past ramshackle buildings and through streets crowded with pedestrians. Everywhere we went Susan and I were stared at by anyone who saw us inside the vehicle. I’m not talking covert viewing. I’m talking stop-what-they’re doing, turn-their-heads-as-we-went-by STARING. At first it was unique to be regarded in such a way, and I told Francis that “from the looks I’ve been getting you’d think they’ve never seen white people before.”

Time out: I just heard a jackal call out from somewhere beyond our banda. Cool. A quick sharp cry, then nothing more.

KigaliBut anyway, Francis laughed at my observation and said “Yes, you’re getting quite the reception.” Trouble was the reception was not one very welcoming. The face of Kigali that I was staring back at was one of curiosity and wariness, possibly even bordering on anger or hostility or hatred. I can’t do justice to describing the masses of men and women who would just lock on and track us as we moved by them. Individuals, groups of two, even large bands of youths gathered on patches of the red earth. It was nonstop and I’ve never felt so out of place in my life ‚ the ultimate strangers in a strange land made all the more eerie and surreal by the fact that this same red earth absorbed the blood and tears of hundreds of thousands of victims of the genocide in 1994. I’m ashamed to say that I let those feelings keep me from unsheathing my camera and capturing the open disdain and volatility, at least not until after lunch and shortly before we took to the road to the Virunda Lodge.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre sits atop a hill at the end of the climb up a red dirt road. It is not an imposing structure ‚ it looks something like any of many McMansions one might find in Granada Hills, which belies what awaits the visitor. After a brief introduction by a memorial employee, we were led Genocide Memorialoutside first to the huge, unadorned concrete tombs inside which were the exhumed remains of thousands of the slain. Tiny roses with small lengths of purple ribbon tied to them lie upon the edges of the sealed tombs ‚ the last of which was still unfilled and opened revealing two coffins bearing wooden crosses stacked upon I don’t even know how many below them. The employee told us that some 265,000 people were murdered in Kigali alone and efforts continue to this day to exume remains and relocate them for burial at the memorial. Work is also being done to catalog the dead in a database that will one day be accessible online. Being but a few feet away from the remains of but a few of the dead was stark and powerful, but the best the memorial had to offer about the worst man can do awaited inside.

First came a timeline exploring the history of occupied Rwanda leading up to and beyond the horrible atrocities in 1994. I kept it together reading about all that was done to stoke the long-burning fires of Hutu hatred against their Tutsi brothers and sisters. But I lost it when I came upon a huge photo showing a group of people killed and a video showing scenes of the violence and bloodshed that took place, and another of survivors, devoid of emotion, telling so matter of factly of how they watched loved ones die. I had somewhat composed myself by the time another visitor graciously offered me a tissue.

But the worst was yet to come. I could stop the tears coming through the timeline, but when I entered a room filled with photos of the victims, I had to fight a sudden overwhelming claustrophobia and shortness of breath and the urge to get the hell out of there.

I won that battle. I don’t know why. Others certainly didn’t. An Asian woman who came in shortly after me took one look and gasped and split. Maybe I stayed because I felt a responsibility to the faces and families who stared back at me. The pictures were arranged dangling from clips hanging from wires strung across the wall from floor to ceilings, so that each time I exhaled the pictures I was looking at stirred in the moving air. But that wasn’t enough either. In the next room were cabinets filled with skulls and bones. Many of the skulls had suffered blunt force trauma or bullet holes. In the middle of one of the cabinets were recovered belongings. A set of car keys. A smoking pipe. Some francs. A wristwatch. Then there was a room displaying clothing and other items recovered from mass gravesites. Upstairs was another chronology of the other genocides that have occurred throughout the world. And finally there was a chamber for the children. The inscription below the picture of one 7-year-old read that his last words were “Where Do I run to?” Before being shot in the head.

After exiting the building and visiting the mass graves a final time, I found Susan at the other end some hundreds of yards away. We hugged and soon found Francis dutifully and patiently waiting for us near the parking lot. We still had to stop at the bank to exhange some dollars for francs, then lunch at the hotel, then a 70 kilometer drive through the mountains to the lodge. I apologized to him for us taking so long and he said there was no need.

“It’s just a hard place to walk away from,” I said.

Back in the vehicle we were on the road and through the incessant staring I couldn’t help but wonder if we were driving past locations of death and destruction. I stared back at the endless mean and resenting expressions and I wondered are you Huti? Tutsi? Where were you in 1994? Who did you kill? How many? Would you do it again if you had the chance?

The bank was an exercise in patience, but we soon had $80 worth of Rwandan francs (minus the 8,000 franc transaction fee, of course) and were back on the road climbing to the Hotel des Mille Collines for a poolside lunch. On the way out of the city, I finally brought my camera in an attempt to capture the face of Kigali, but I don’t think I got it. I figure I’ll get another chance when we return on July 21. Until then I was very much fine with moving up high into the mountains and getting on to our destination.

That trip was another experience in itself ‚ and a better one — even including the times it seemed we were going to run over any number of roadside pedestrians walking to and from god knows where on the road’s narrow shoulder. The scenery was almost instantly lush with banana tree groves everywhere and a narrow river that coursed alongside and under the road often. The dwellings dotting the hillsides and roadway were some made of brick but most of the deep red clay and earth found everywhere. Small villages were found along the route, but the stares I got from the inhabitants of those places were distinctly less volatile and even a bit disinterested. About two-thirds of the way there I learned a new word: mizungu.” Shouted at me by a young boy who we passed waving at us on a curve in the road I waved back and asked Francis what it meant.

“White people,” he told me, laughing.

Not too much further and we headed past the road that leads up to the Parc Nacional des Volcans and three of the areas six volcanos that we could just make out in the late-afternoon haze. The tallest one at near 12,000 meters is called “The Guide” because of its visibility at great distances. I can’t recall the name of the one next to it, but the third one is named Sabyinyo which is Swahili for “Old Man’s Teeth.” And as we got closer to the heavily rutted dirt road turnoff up the the lodge, we found more and more children smiling and waving and yelling “mzungu!” as we passed. “The face of Rwanda is certainly more friendly here than in Kigali,” I told Francis and he laughed.

Once upon the road to the lodge it was a bit of slow going. Perhaps it was left unpaved to add to the rugged and rustic charm of our destination. If so it certainly accomplished that. And the spectacular views of the lake below accomplished that we would be staying in a very special place. And boy is it. Upon arrival we were greeted with glasses of fresh passion fruit juice and announcements that we are “most welcome here at Virunga Lodge.”

Virunga LungeShown to our banda, one of only six separate bungalows, the western view from the patio at some 6,500 feet overlooking the lake and its islands and the hills beyond is just breathtaking. We sat out there listening to the tumbling thunder in the distance to the south, the occasional moo and baaa of a nearby cow and goats and the animated voices of the locals being carried up from somewhere down the hill and just knew we’d ended up at a very special place.

“Baby,” I said, taking her into my arms and giving her a kiss, “We’re in Rwanda.”

We walked up the lodge bar for dinner shortly before the storm broke and the meal was wonderful. We started with an excellent cream of eggplant soup, followed by the main course of pork chops with potatoes and spinach, and a desert of fried banana covered in honey sauce. We chatted a bit with Francis and learned we were the only guests at the lodge. Having the place all to ourselves, we made our way back to our banda in the dark, and shortly thereafter were in bed asleep. Until I woke up a few minutes ago to write it all down. Now it’s just after 3:30 a.m. In Los Angeles it’s 5:40 in the afternoon and on any other Monday I’d be just coming home from work and getting set for some dinner and maybe a DVD. But on this day it’s time to see if I can get a few more winks of shuteye before we go off looking for mountain gorillas.

Can you believe that?

— • —

An article I wrote about our mountain gorilla encounters is here. A selection of photos from the Rwanda excursion is here in this set on Flickr.

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Will Campbell arrived in town via the maternity ward at Good Sam Hospital way back in OneNineSixFour and has never stopped calling Los Angeles home. Presently he lives in Silver Lake with his wife Susan, their cat Rocky, dogs Terra and Hazel, and a red-eared slider turtle named Mater. Blogging since 2001, Will's web endeavors extend back to 1995 with laonstage.com, a comprehensive theater site that was well received but ever-short on capital (or a business model). The pinnacle of his online success (which speaks volumes) arrived in 1997, when much to his surprise, a hobby site he'd built called VisuaL.A. was named "best website" in Los Angeles magazine's annual "Best of L.A." issue. He enjoys experiencing (and writing about) pretty much anything creative, explorational and/or adventurous, loves his ebike, is a better tennis player than he is horr golfer, and a lover of all creatures great and small -- emphasis on "all."