Friday, June 13. Kigali, Rwanda.
This morning as I start my swim young Dao, the groundsman/guard, stands and watches. His French is even more limited than mine, his English nonexistent. I gesture for him to go swimming, too. He shakes his head, pantomimes a man sinking to the bottom. With his soft manner and angelic face, I wonder how effective he could be as a guard.
Another guard, Claude, has been with Shirley much longer. Kind and gentle as well, he doesn’t have that “I’m-watching-you” eye you see in guards and cops. Only later do I learn he’s a Hutu, and was forced to serve his government as a murderer during the genocide.
Last night Shirley came in late from some kind of reception and was in a chatty mood, having had a cocktail and needing to regroup after a long day. I was very surprised when she referred to Paul Rusesabigina, the “Hotel Rwanda” hero, as “that horrible man.” Seems he’s raised money for genocide survivors on overseas lecture tours, and then funneled the cash into his own business in Zambia. Per Shirley, he’s also gone on record saying Tutsis were responsible for their own undoing.
My fourth interview, Ambassador Joy Mukanange, meets me at Shirley’s at 11 a.m. Professional and businesslike like the other women, but tougher. A bit imperious. Following the genocide she was Rwanda’s ambassador to Tanzania for three years and then ambassador to Kenya for three years. Shirley had told me she’s held in high esteem. One addresses her as “Ambassador Joy.”
(For more on Ambassador Joy, see www.ifuw.org/rwanda/profiles/mukanyange.shtml.)
Our conversation ends shortly after noon, the hottest time of the day. But I’m hungry so I walked up the hill to Heaven, the tony expat restaurant where Emily, Emma and Julie took me the other night. It’s exhausting to walk this time of day, because of the heat and 5,500-foot elevation. We’re close to the Equator and the sun feels much closer, more intense than at home in northern California. When I reach Heaven, I discover it doesn’t open until 2 p.m. There’s an opening here for a metaphor/joke, but it escapes me.
How ironic, in a country so recently scarred by genocide, to find a restaurant called “Heaven.” It feels like an affirmation or a prayer on the owner’s part – an effort to create or encourage a new reality simply by saying it out loud. My friend Rob Jerome, an award-winning photojournalist, saw something similar thing in Zagreb, Croatia, where the remnants of ethnic cleansing are patched over by trendy discos and restaurants, “as if being upscale and Western means happiness and everything is okay.”
Late in the afternoon Stephanie Nyombayire arrives. An amazing young woman, Rwandan, who lived the past seven years in the U.S. Three years in a Connecticut boarding school, four at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. She’s just graduated, and is back in Kigali working for Orphans of Rwanda.
(For more on Stephanie, go to www.obaasema.com/Stephanie%20Nyombayire.htm)
Stephanie could be a model, and in fact was featured twice in Glamour magazine, the first time when she and fellow Swarthmore undergrads started Genocide Intervention Network, a campus organization for Darfur relief, the second time when she was named one of the top 10 college women of 2007.
Great credentials, amazing story. Stephanie looks glam in tight blue jeans, a snug white blouse and white open-toed sandals. She’s obviously a child of privilege, but takes seriously her commitment to working for others who lack her opportunities. Stephanie was born in exile to Tutsi parents, in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and lived there until she was 7 – the year of the genocide. Her family returned to the country that year and she went to a French-speaking school, Ecole Belgique, until she won a scholarship to Kent School in Connecticut at 15.