Friday, June 20. Kigali, Rwanda.
Stayed up and read “We Wish to Inform You…” last night, Philip Gourevitch’s book about the genocide. Bizarre and awful fact: there aren’t a lot of dogs in Rwanda today, because U.N. peacekeepers shot them during the genocide when they started eating dead bodies on the roadside. These are the same U.N. forces who managed to evacuate the embassies and escort white Europeans and Americans safely out of the country – but couldn’t be bothered to protect the 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus from being slaughtered during the 100-day massacre.
Also learned this from Todd: when one sees large teams of workers in a field, as I did on the road to Rwinkawavu, those are the genocidaires who confessed their crimes. The other murderers, who killed side-by-side with them but refuse to confess, are still in prison – or across the border in Congo. Odette told me with great bitterness that many people argue for more humane prison conditions for the killers, while ignoring the struggles of young women who were orphaned and raped in their pre-teens.
Nicholas, my waiter friend from Hotel Gorillas, meets me at Bourbon Coffee and from there we go to Irikezi, the bilingual bookstore where I buy him an English-language copy of Barack Obama’s “Dreams From My Father.” He’s very happy and a tad embarrassed. He earns just 30,000 Rwandan francs per month as a waiter at Hotel Gorillas — roughly $65. He’s also a secondary school dropout and wants to go back but lacks the tuition. That’s a familiar lament here; anyone with his hand out tells a similar story. Nicholas seems so guileless, though, and I don’t think he’s a hustler. I leave him on the main commercial road and shake hands. Rwandan handshakes are lingering and earnest, which I like.
Today’s interview is Sarah Mukandutiye, the RAUW treasurer who works as financial officer for the United Nations Development Projects (UNDP) in Kigali. She’s more Americanized, more yuppie than any of the Rwandan women I’ve met. She arrives in a massive Land Cruiser – the largest I’ve seen in Rwanda.
Sarah is lively, engaging. She says her biggest mistake was spending two years in England getting her Masters degree while her husband stayed in Rwanda with their two small children. She feels lucky to be part of a new generation of Rwandese women: “I know that in some African counties women are struggling because of imbalances. Some societies don’t seem to think that a woman’s place is in the office. But I must say, that in Rwanda it’s different.
“You know, like, my husband doesn’t have a problem with me working. He’s perfectly OK. Also at work, I have never felt that I was discriminated again. In actual fact, I’ve been motivated by male counterparts, even to be what I am now.”
(For more on Sarah, see www.ifuw.org/rwanda/profiles/mukandutiye.shtml.)
In the early evening, Shirley returns from Kenya. Knocks on my door and, sari-clad and grinning, walks into my room and gives me a three-part European kiss. I’d already made plans to dine with Tupo, and Shirley says she’s happy to join us. “I don’t particularly want to be here,” she says, referring to the youth-hostel atmosphere created by three new houseguests. One is the sister of Julie from Gardens for Health; the other two are Yale undergrads, cocky and self-satisfied, who’ve arrived by eight-hour bus from Uganda. They’ve colonized the living room, covering the floor with backpacks and bedrolls, an imposition given that Shirley has to walk through this room to reach her bedroom.
The interlopers are in Kigali for the Gorilla Naming Ceremony (Kwita Izina), an annual event, just four years old, in which a baby gorilla from Volcanoes National Park is given a name. Traditional dance, speeches, all manner of hoopla and pomp, plus an address by President Paul Kagame. It’s all about boosting tourist revenue and establishing Rwanda as a fun place to visit. “Gorilla tourism” is an industry unto itself. Kwita Izina draws a huge crowd — Natalie Portman was last year’s guest celebrity.
Tonight: a wonderful dinner at Aaron Schubert’s villa-like home in Nyamarambo, a grittier neighborhood than the one I’m staying in. I love meeting his menagerie of housemates, mostly young and very bright. Mougey, Persian American, studied at Vassar and Yale. She’s gorgeous and funny and shares my passion for Meryl Streep. Laura, an American, studied French on the island of Reunion, east of Madagascar. Emmanuel, a young, lanky Parisian, is doing research in Kigali for his Ph.D. Sabrina, a loquacious and friendly German, and Carol, a middle-aged American with a world-weary Judy Davis affect, are all active characters in the evening’s jumble of ideas, conversation and humor.
Aaron tells the group that I wrote about circumcision for the San Francisco Chronicle, and an animated exchange follows. Everyone loves hearing about my research: the cut vs. uncut argument; the reasons circumcision was de rigeur in the 1950s and ‘60s; why it’s losing favor; why women often prefer the uncircumcised shaft to the blunt, circumcised knob when it comes to intercourse. No one is in the least shy in discussing the subject. Jean-Paul, Aaron’s Rwandan partner giggles unabashedly. He’s either befuddled by us, entertained or shocked at the unbridled sex talk – probably all three.
In Africa, I’m told, sex is a taboo subject within the family. According to Odette, mothers don’t even discuss menstruation with their daughters, The girls discover it on their own and if their first period occurs at school, like Sissy Spacek in “Carrie,” they become terrified, rush home and refuse to return to school.