Sunday, June 22. Kibuye and Kigali, Rwanda.
Such a bizarre adventure in church this morning. Steven, the scattered waiter from Hotel Bethanie, arrives late in his oversized suit and striped shirt. We take a pew in the back of the bunker-like church. A minute later, a church deacon approaches us, takes us up front and seats us next to the pastor.
I knew from visiting churches in Cameroun that this might happen. I’m a novelty – probably one of the few muzunga ever to set foot in this church. A young girl, probably 2 or 2 ?, approaches me, her eyes wide with fascination and fear. “She’s never seen a white man before,” Steven explains.
A half-hour into the service, I’m brought to the pulpit and introduced to the congregation. Holding the microphone, I speak in French, giving a version of the speech I made in a Yaounde church about my missionary grandparents (and included in my movie, “Return to Cameroun”). I’m going along, trying to be engaging, when the pastor taps me on the arm. I instantly think, “Oh no, he doesn’t want me stealing his thunder. I need to wrap it up.” In fact, he just wants me to slow down so he can translate my French into Kinyarwanda.
The pastor is gentle, overly solicitous with me. He doesn’t deliver a sermon but leaves that to another man in a suit who yells, points his finger and drains the energy from the room. The orchestra is bare bones — one drummer and two men on creaking Yamaha synthesizers — and the music ranges from perfunctory to ecstatic. When they strike up a Rwandan pop tune, the young people in the congregation explode with energy and joy.
I don’t know the language, but I gather it’s a song about the resilience of the Rwandan people, their recovery from tragedy. As the song builds and soars, the spirit in the room is delirious. There’s a fever of happiness. I feel tears welling as I think about Rwanda’s miracle of renewal –about the 1994 genocide that was particularly brutal right here in Kibuye, and all that’s happened since.
I’m sure this high point marks the end of the service. Instead, the offering basket is passed and the bellicose Elmer Gantry comes back for more hectoring and vein-bulging. I’ve been here three hours and finally I whisper to Steven, “I’m late, I must go back to Kigali,” and rapidly slip out the back. The pastor follows me but instead of looking hurt or urging me to stay, he thanks me for coming. We exchange e-mail addresses.
The drive back to Kigali is more leisurely, even more beautiful than the day before. Is it possible that this country, with its gentle, contoured landscape, its gorgeous skies and harmonious social rhythms, is the same place that erupted in mass slaughter?
My friend Rob Jerome has traveled the world as a photojournalist, and says he pondered the same questions in the former Yugoslavia. “When a people participate in or have at least witnessed something as horrible as genocide,” he e-mails, “can anything ever be ‘normal’ again? It’s like a raped virgin trying to smile and be a virgin again.”
In its attempt to rejoin the world — to overcome its legacy and create a “normal,” viable, Westernized society – is Rwanda simply masking a horrible volatility that lurks beneath the surface? “What places like Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia terrifyingly suggest,” Rob says, “is that perhaps violence is really the normal state of things — that the true nature of man is murderous and that it takes very little for the volcano of human brutality to erupt again.”
I don’t know the answer. And I can’t tell, after two and a half weeks in Rwanda, if this apparently peaceful country with its clean streets, orderly traffic and breath-stopping landscapes, isn’t fated to eventually devolve again into violence. Yes, Tutsis and Hutus live peacefully side by side, the economy is growing, medical services are vastly improved thanks in part to Partners in Health and the Clinton’s HIV/AIDS Initiative. There’s a forward movement here, so dramatic and so unlike the rest of Africa. Can it last?