We wound through Rwanda like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now (cue the appropriate Doors song), but overground in an SUV and not a boat. We had traversed most of the country on the way to lake Kivu – a huge mass of water at the westernmost part of Rwanda. To get there we drove seemingly forever. The actual distance itself wasn’t that long. Rwanda is actually pretty small. The distance is magnified however by the amount of back and forth that one has to do in order to go a little way forward. Rwanda is definitely the land of a thousand hills – small ones. Rwanda is also the land of 500 turns and a million shadows.
As you pass one locale (a hill or one person), you are seemingly held in place as your path winds around them. Imagine sitting in a swivel chair as your landscape changes. There, see the partially covered hut on the left, then a door and a banana tree, then quickly you see someone carrying a bucket, some movement in the bush and a cow, then behind the hut are 15 people carrying boxes up another winding path.
Rwandan travel is almost like telling someone to observe what you can as best you can. Fathom it, you will not. What is contained here had defied all others.
Clearly, I did not expect to go there, see things and understand. I was skeptical of this political ethnographic approach. New York had taught me that people were duplicitous, self-serving, lying fuckers as did the time I spent with my father after I was sent to get an idea of life from a man's perspective (another story). I was well aware of the many tales spun by African Americans when academicians showed up to comprehend the negro like in “All Our Kin” (the problematic book by Carol Stack). It is quite different to see it though; to look at something that you know you will not fathom – in the flesh.
We paused on the roadside at one point, exhausted and sore. We had just passed the part of the “road” where the Italians had stopped and the Chinese began. This was one of those stories of development, high politics and intrigue where one international developer was brought in to do a job at the same time some other international developer was brought in to do another, each completed their roads up until a certain point. Between the two stretches, was an earthern, rocky section that lay prepped for someone to finish but no one was coming. Around you, you saw Rwanda in its splendor: hills, ridiculous vegetation (anything seemed like it could grow there).
At some point, we began a descent; like in a plane you could feel the pull of the decline. You knew that the earth had selected a direction and you were following it. Through the hills, down the roads, past the people, past the cows and past the trees.
Then, just as quick, we passed a military base. The hardened faces of hundreds rolled past us on the side of the road; hungry, angry, dirty, exhausted and armed to the teeth. We were looked over thoroughly. I was shocked at the sight – both theirs and mine, but it all happened so fast.
Moreover, any thoughts I had about who and what we had just seen were soon overwhelmed by the sight of lake Kivu. It was immense, quiet and set against a large hill/mountain. Imagine some Lord of the Rings like shire with a lake and that should do it. Don’t forget the base of Orks nearby.
At the lake’s edge, before the pier, was a front office of sorts and to the side one could see a disparate collection of small buildings. Once we got to the front desk, we had the usual greetings. Keys were distributed from a jar – seemingly random but after everyone had grabbed one it was clear there was nothing random about it. We found ourselves all over the compound/resort, seeing each other walk off in different directions. One there, one there, another there, one all the way over there and one there. We were either being given space or being spaced. These were matters to be pondered later. It was midday and hot as hell.
In ten minutes, we were at the lake, ready to jump in. I hesitated for a moment, looking at currents, floating stuff and huge insects. If there were ever a place where great man-eating turtles from the 8th century or prehistoric times existed, this would be it. Why are there no guests here? Where are the Rwandans? Additionally, if there were a group of people who seemed like they would let you swim in a radioactive or prehistoric playground, to be riddled with cancer or eaten, I would put the guy in reception at the top of the list.
Now, truth be told, I was very sympathetic to the foreign sacrificial lamb idea; "get the freak out of my country with all your wealth, attitude and strange ways", kind of made sense to me. It reminded me of the time when I was in Bimini and wanted the residents to burn down the local Playboy hotel and casino in disgust after I saw how the people working there were treated. At the same time, I was not up for being sacrificed. I was the sympathetic accidental tourist scholar activist outcast representative of the Western world.
As I stood there in my shorts, baking in the afternoon sun, Mason, Jenni and Candace (not their real names) jumped in. They had been there before and had evidently overcome any fears. After I saw that they did not get eaten and two Rwandans went for a dip, I felt that it was alright and jumped in. The water was beautiful, warm and soothing. At one point, I thought I felt something rub against me but I was just getting out anyway, so it was cool. Looking back, I did not see anything.
Later, we had some local fish and then went to our rooms. It was late, I was exhausted and somehow unsettled. The room was boxlike with a small window in the bathroom; enough for my head to stick out but nothing more. To get in and out of the room, you had to use your key. You could not open the door even from the inside without it. I found this odd because it meant you needed to know where your key was at all times.
Now, I have stayed in some pretty messed up rooms in my day. There was the red roof hotel in Atlanta with Darren Davis back in the day before we got tenure complete with bullet holes, stained bed-covers and thieving porters who waited for you to go to dinner so that they could rifle through your luggage. Never, however, did I feel like the structure of the building and the physical landscape was constructed to get you.
With these thoughts weighing on me, I managed somehow to get to sleep (holding the key in my hand).
At about 2:30am, the key fell from my hand and bounced on the floor – waking me. Chest heaving, I moved my legs over the side of the bed and in the distance, I heard something.
There were drums, singing and occasionally screams or was that a yelp.
My heart raced as I rose to put on my clothes (in the dark, not wanting to signal my location). I felt that I had to get out. I looked for the key in a frantic 45-second interval.
The sounds coming from the distance continued to grow.
I ran into the bathroom, remembering there was a window but forgetting the size. Realizing that I could not get out that way, I returned to the front room.
The drumming grew louder.
I fumbled around, trying to find the door and then the keyhole. After a few minutes, I opened the lock, pushed open the door and ran into the woods – directly next to my cabin. Once there I knelt, feeling around for a stick or anything I could use to protect myself and listened for the attackers. If they came, from which direction would it be? Where is the parking lot? Where is the water?
A scream in the distance – gutteral, pained.
I couldn’t believe I was going to go out like this. There is no phone. I couldn’t remember the way back to Butare, so even if I got off this compound, I had no idea how to get back. There is no swimming across the lake. It is absolutely huge. I am completely screwed. Man, I thought, there is so much that I wanted to do but I had to be all let me help humanity like and go to Africa, to get killed in some backwater, lakeside cabin. Never go to the empty lakeside resort, never go to the empty lakeside resort – I chastised myself.
Then after what seemed like hours of reflecting on my life and the paths chosen/not taken, I wondered: what’s the difference if I get out of here? I am on the other side of the country.
More drums, more screams.
What the hell is that? I have no Kinyarwandan and if I did know any my accent would give me away. I have little money and a big Mizungu tattoo on my forehead. Mosquitoes started in on me.
Wow, I thought, no one will find my body out here. How will they recognize me? With that thought, I went back into the room for my passport – for identification purposes and perhaps to escape to another country. Stealthily, I ran, leaned up against the wall and snuck into the room, felt around for what I needed and slipped back out to the woods. I repeated this again for my money – for bribes and a new identity to escape the dragnet. And, I returned to the room a final time for my jacket – it was actually cold (surprising to me because I was in Africa after all).
Damn, I thought, which way do I go? At that point, I really wished that the boyscouts in Manhattan had taught me something other than how not to get beat up in Central Park. I started out to go find the others, but realized that for me to save them, I would have to go from room to room. On top of that, all the buildings looked alike. I could be looking for quite some time. Oh, they are also likely locked in. They would all have to find their keys to let themselves out.
A gun shot. Then laughter. I pushed back further into the bush, squeezing my little stick and what was left of my dignity.
I turned further on myself even more. Why was I there? Why did I come to such a place? My heart continued to race. Should I try to swim? Where does the bush lead to – along the mountainside? Are there lights anywhere? It was pitch black.
Trucks were moving toward the compound. Another shot and some screaming.
I took a deep breath, swatted a mosquito that hit the motherload of blood circulation. I then got really quiet and wondered if this was how it had been back in 1994 when individuals heard people coming for them. I had considered every possible way out of the compound and took none for I was paralyzed with fear. Individuals back then would have known more about the local terrain but they were also cut off and isolated.
The trucks continued to get closer and then they seemed to pass by, without incident.
Listening, I could hear talking now, music (other than drums) and I saw the distant glow of lights. The soldiers were just letting off some steam and partying. It must have been horrible back then, I thought, standing upright for the first time in hours.
After some deep breaths, the coolness of the breeze and the passage of time, I returned to my room. It was 6:48 – damn. I closed the door, locked myself in, splashed some water on my face and settled back into bed – fully clothed. I had made a mess and things were all over the place in the room but I figure I would just deal with it later.
When I woke up, the second time, at about 8:30, I was exhausted from my early morning activities. I then realized the source of my rambling thoughts and delusions. There sat my malaria medicine and very clearly I remember someone saying that it gave them vivid dreams. At the realization, all I could do was laugh, unzip my combat gear and prepare to go for a dip in the lake. Damn the creatures below.