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

3.22.2006

on a train bound for nowhere

My trip to Kigali was nice, although I was really worn down by the time I arrived in the city. After the unpleasantness of Monday morning, a three hour ride through Rwanda's mountains was not exactly what I needed. On top of that, one of my seatmates really, really wanted to talk about Congolese politics and how Congo could improve its political system to be more like America. After a loooooonnnng discussion, he finally declared that the reason that American politics are better is that, "You have a Christian nation."

Ooooh, did he pick the wrong Baptist girl to whom to say that! I was so tired already, though, and was trying to be polite, so I told him that I thought the reason that American politics are stable is that the U.S. (theoretically) believes that everyone should have the same rights, and should be subject to the same laws, whether they are Christian or not, whether they are the president or the poorest person. I think he was a little surprised that I didn't think it would help Congo much to be a theocracy, but whatever.

It was nice to arrive in Kigali and check into the Umubano Hotel, which, if you ever read about the genocide, used to be the Meridian. If you've read The Zanzibar Chest, you'll remember that the author hot-wired several cars from the parking lot of the Meridian to use when he was covering the genocide for Reuters in 1994. My 6th floor room had a lovely view of the parking lot, and of the hills surrounding the administrative quarter of Kigali (these pictures are above and left). In the lobby, I ran into a friend from Goma who works for the UN; they drove me into the city center to do some shopping, then I was really happy to just hang out for the evening. It's amazing how much living in a difficult place wears you down. My UN friend had been on R&R for 2 weeks and looked so much more relaxed than the last time I had seen her. Anyway, it was nice to get away to a place where the toughest choice to make was whether to watch Bush make a speech on Iraq on CNN or to watch Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle on MNet (like that was a choice at all. I'd never seen H&K - that Wilson Phillips scene is the funniest thing I've seen in awhile.).

Tuesday morning I got up, had breakfast at the ridiculous buffet at the Umubano, and headed out to do a little shopping at a cute little shop called Amahoro ava Hejuru. Amahoro is the Rwandan branch of Amani ya Juu, where my friend Melissa worked when she was a missionary in Nairobi. "Amani ya juu" means "a higher peace" in Kiswahili; "Amahoro ava Hejuru" is the Kinyarwanda translation. The workshops are supported by American missionaries and exist to help women improve their lives through developing sewing skills, and the skills associated with running a small business. And they make gorgeous stuff, including handbags, jewlery, table linens, and wall hangings. It was interesting to see how different the items at Amahoro are than those at Amani in Nairobi. There's definitely a distinct central African style of fabric and design.

When I walked into Amahoro yesterday, a woman was sitting on the floor working on this gorgeous quilt - with no quilting hoop to hold the fabric taught. It's pretty incredible. I asked her when she would be finished and she said less than a month. I may have to stop back by the next time I'm in Kigali to check on her progress.

I'd left a taxi waiting outside the gates and as soon as I got in the car, Patrick, the driver (who was, like many Rwandans, born in exile in Goma) put on a mix CD that turned out to be all country songs! The first track was "The Gambler" by Kenny Rodgers. We drove along for a little while and he finally said, "I really like this song, but please can you explain to me what it means?" What followed was quite possibly the most entertaining conversation I've ever had in Africa - it is really hard to explain that song when you don't know how to talk about gambling in French! The rest of the CD was a trip - lots of Dolly Parton and Don Williams.

After running one more errand, Patrick took me back to the hotel to pick up my things, and he also asked if I could make him another country CD as that was the only one he had and he was getting tired of it. Patrick is used to rich foreigners with MP3's stored in their laptops, that's for sure - he had a box of blank CD-R's in the car! So I went to make a mix tape of "music that Texans like" before he took me to the bus terminal. It was SO tempting to have some fun with this list, knowing that future tourists and policy types would be listening to my music down the line. So I tried to strike a balance with some Alabama and Randy Travis mixed in with Lyle Lovett, Kelly Willis, and Chip & Carrie. We listened to the CD on the way to the bus station and Patrick's eyes absolutely lit up when he heard George Strait's "Heartland," and he turned to me and said, "I really like this." I wonder what happened when he listened to Conway Twitty's "Don't Call Him a Cowboy." And I wonder what lucky American tourist will get to explain the meaning of Sammy Kershaw's "Queen of My Double-Wide Trailer"?

The bus ride back to Goma was long and painful. About an hour into it, a theological debate started, and it didn't let up until we reached the border. It was partly in Kinyarwanda, and I was trying my best to drown it out with music, but from what I gathered, the debate was basically on all the questions of Christian doctrine. I heard something about the nature of God (man, woman, or neither?), Catholics vs. Protestants, the authority of Rome, the different Protestant sects, and finally (of course), someone asked "What about the Holy Spirit?). All of this was at top volume, because Congolese like their discussions loud, and two hours of this on a windy road was a little more than I could take. Then the customs guy on the Congolese side of the border decided to harass me (probably because I locked my bag so he couldn't just peruse its contents at his leisure), found a CD-R in my bag, and accused me of trying to smuggle political materials across the border. I just looked at him and said, "What's the problem? It's just music" and he finally let me go. I arrived home to find the place crawling with soldiers, locked myself in the house, and got some sleep.

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