"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

2.08.2006

a world gone blind where there's no more time

Yesterday morning Susanna and I went over to the Kigali Genocide Center and Memorial. It's a ways out of the center of town, so we took moto-taxis over and caused quite the stir on the little dirt road that leads up to the center. It's set on a pretty hillside overlooking the valley that runs between it and the city center. The memorial itself is beautifully put together and a very moving memorial to the 800,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans who were killed in 1994. It has an outside portion, this map of the world with Rwanda at the center, and then a really well-done exhibit inside which addresses Rwandan history, some very controversial questions about ethnicity and motivations, the history of genocide worldwide, and the impact of losing so many people on Rwanda's future.

I love it when buildings echo the sense of their purpose. For example, Liebskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin is designed in the shape of an exploded star of David. When you're inside, it's very disorienting and you don't know which way is north or south or where you came in. This represents the Holocaust's disruption of Jewish and German history and the sense that nothing will ever be the same again. The Kigali memorial is designed such that you walk through in a circle, and it feels like you're making your way down a spiral - much as a genocide is a spiral of madness. When you reach the center of the spiral, there are three darkened rooms. The first one has clothes found in mass graves in Kigali - soccer shirts and jeans and the simple cotton cloth that women all over Africa use as skirts, baby carriers, picnic cloths, and bedding. The second room is full of skulls and bones of the victims. Rwanda is very concerned that there never be an opportunity for anyone to say that the genocide didn't happen, so having physical proof that people were killed is an important component of many memorials here.

The third room, however, is the one that I found most powerful. Inside are these little metal clotheslines on which hang thousands of photographs of victims. Many survivors have donated the only pictures they had of their loved ones to the center. Some are formal portraits, but most are the snapshots like all of us have - children on the first day of school, brides in their wedding gowns, a young couple standing in the backyard with their arms around the wife's pregnant belly, nuns at a church, teenagers laughing. That's what we miss on the news: the people who died in this tragedy were not savages in the jungle, but rather were mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and people who loved and lived very normal lives in a normal place where something awful happened.

The other heartbreaking part of the museum is the exhibit on "Our lost future," which is about the children. There I read about children like Channelle, a little girl who could easily have been one of the GA's. She liked chocolate for a treat and milk to drink. Her favorite song was called, "My Native Land Which God Chose for Me." And here, in her native land, she was hacked to death with a machete when she was eight years old.

You walk out of the museum and it's hard to understand how people keep living their lives after going through something so horrible. Susanna stayed behind to meet a friend, so I started heading down that dirt road alone, looking for a taxi. Kigali is like Asheville - you are always either walking up or down a hill, and I was glad to be going down for once. But then up the road came a huge group of children from a primary school down the hill. Kids were walking home for lunch, but the first group spotted me coming and ran up, eager to practice their French. They had clearly had a lesson on formal greetings and all wanted to try it out. I have no idea how many children shook my hand and said, "Bonjour, mademoiselle" - maybe a hundred from the ages of four to twelve. We all laughed and smiled and went on our way and I remembered that this is why we can't give up on Africa - it is too beautiful, and people are too good, and the children who weren't part of the tragedies of the past are the ones who will make things better, because they're able to laugh together under the high noonday equatorial sun.

1 Comments:

Blogger Administrator said...

Hi there, I'm currently running a blog called Rwandan Survivors and have written about the memorial centre.

www.rwandansurvivors.blogspot.com

I would love for you to visit the blog and leave your thoughts.

It contains testimonials and information which I hope to use to spark a debate about genocide and bring the topic back into public view.

Thanks

-Alistair

Thursday, February 16, 2006 3:14:00 PM

 

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