Thursday, June 12. Kigali, Rwanda.
Gary Coleman. Delroy Lindo. Wesley Snipes. Whoopi Goldberg. These are the people I’m reminded of by the faces of Rwandans I see on the street, in a restaurant, from the window of a taxi. Amazing faces: I wish my eye were a camera so I could open the shutter, capture them instantaneously and review the images later.
I meet with Marthe Bappock at Shirley’s home. I was impressed by her aplomb and dignity at the Rotary meeting she chaired Monday night and she’s just as classy one-on-one. Also lucky: none of her siblings or parents were killed in the genocide even though her politician father was harassed over the years for being anti-violence and sympathetic to Tutsis. Her parents were given hiding places during the 100 days of massacres. Marthe was living in Germany, where she met and married her Camerounian husband, and for a time was worried if not certain that some of her family was dead. “There was no way to get information.”
Marthe has been Rotary president for a year and her term is nearly complete. She’s chief auditor with the Global Council on AIDS, Malaria & Tuberculosis and told me that big strides were made in the last half-decade: the HIV infection rate dropped from 13 to 5 percent and the number of malaria patients in one of Kigali’s top hospitals dropped from 200 per week to “five or even one.”
She’s grounded, wise, but with no display or assertion of competence. She giggled a couple of times at my questions and I’m not sure why. Because I’m brash (i.e., typically American)? Because I caught her off guard? Or because the question is obvious to an African and not to a Westerner?
I’m sitting on the terrace at Bourbon Coffee, a Starbucks-like café and social nucleus for networking expats, NGO workers and the local elite. Laptops and cell phones. The Rwandan clientele are beautifully dressed, polished and confident.
The wait staff look American in their jeans, styled hair and trendy T-shirts. This is an oasis of the privileged. We could be in Santa Monica, Tucson or Santa Fe.
Bourbon Coffee looks like a showroom at an upscale furniture store with its ochre walls and sienna, parquet floors and ceiling-high cabinets stocked with woven baskets, carved elephants, gourds and drums. A framed photo of President Paul Kagame hangs prominently. Four upper-class African men are seated in padded chairs near me, one of them big and jolly and loud. When he laughs his body rears back, he stomps his foot and his hands reach above him in a fluttering dance of hysterical self-amusement.
I take a Moto up the hill to the main road to change money, then hire a cab to take me to the Rwandan Women’s Network offices for my interview with Mary Balikungeri. The driver goes 10-15 minutes outside the town centre, through a series of dirt roads into neighborhoods so ramshackle I think he was lost. Finally saw the sign for Rwandan Women’s Network. I’m 30 minutes late, which means very little here.
I like Mary. Forthright, as Shirley promised. Energetic, strong, a good sense of humor. Very take-control. She won’t let me turn on the tape recorder until I explain who I am and what I want to talk about. She immediately determines that, since I’m a San Francisco Chronicle journalist, I shouldn’t restrict my reporting to Shirley’s RAUW Web site but should also profile the Rwandan Women’s Network for the Chronicle. She’s a bit of a general.
Like Angelina, Mary left Rwanda with her family when she was small, and lived in Uganda until 1995, one year after the genocide. Mary offers me literature and a DVD on her organization at the end of the chat, then brightens and seems genuinely happy when I say “J’ai racines Africaines (I have African roots). My mother was born in Cameroun and her parents were missionaries.
“Then you are family!” she exclaims. “You are a missionary’s child.”
I have to look down and clench my teeth not to cry. I feel proud of my grandparents Fred and Roberta Hope and the tradition of giving and commitment they were part of. In the U.S., when I mention my grandparents’ work there’s often a chill. “Missionary” is a loaded word and no one wants to consider that not all missionaries were exploitive and insensitive, that a lot of valuable work was done by ecumenical workers around the globe. Only in Africa, among African Christians, do I get a sense of appreciation or enthusiasm. I remember my friend Regan McMahon getting teary months ago when I told her about this trip and the volunteer work I’d be doing. “Your mother would be proud,” she said. She drew the connection between this and my grandparents’ legacy, before it occurred to me.
The sun is falling and I can hear the traffic down the hill. Faint dog barks, a whistle, the insistent rhmmmm! of a Moto bike and the sassy, unruly call of a tropical bird. It’s six o’clock, just a half hour until Rwanda’s sudden, early nightfall.