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current fortune

"Are your legs tired? Because you've been running through my mind ALL DAY LONG!"

My fortune cookie has achieved sentient thought.


I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens.

~Woody Allen




Rwanda, Part 6: Carved In Stone

I don’t notice the scars.

I don’t notice the scars because I never notice things like that. This woman has been showing us the country all week, bumping along dirt roads in sweaty buses, and I never see them until someone else mentions it to me. But there they are, sharp lines that could only be from a dull machete, marked on this woman’s neck. Remnants of a time I don’t dare bring up. Maybe she doesn’t even see them anymore when she looks in the mirror. Maybe she’s forgotten they’re there.

She can’t have forgotten. But maybe she’s trying to forget.

When you travel in Rwanda, it is immediately apparent that you are visiting towns and people that live in the shadow of the genocide. People can’t stop mentioning it, and yet, when you try and reply, you find that there are only so many questions you can ask that have answers. You can feel around for stories, prod carefully for details, however you like; all you will discover is the “how,” never the “why.”

The only thing you can ask is about the now, the Rwanda that you currently stand in. One that seems markedly different from the one you imagined.

I’ve been struggling to write this last piece because on some level, this piece is supposed to make sense of the other two pieces. And I don’t know how to do that, I think because there simply isn’t any way to do so. All I can do is talk about what it was I found there, and what I found there wasn’t devastation. Instead there is…

I don’t want to say it. It sounds flat and inadequate to write it down, to try to measure it in Christian buzzwords. There was death and now there is this, and what this is is… unity. Resiliency. Hope. We use that last word so often, and it means nothing most of the times we say it. But not here.

You forget what hope, real hope, feels like until you feel it up close again. There is something palpable about hope. It fills a room.

We meet a young man named Emmanuel, whose life is a sad story entirely typical to this part of the world. His parents were killed during the genocide; his older brother abandoned him because it became too difficult to care for them both. He was, for all intents and purposes, left to die.

Zoe Ministries – the ministry we have come to work with – found him, years later. He was starving and sleeping out on the dusty paths that make up his rural village. They had him draw his dream out on a piece of paper, and he drew a picture of a bag full of food, with “50 Kg” inscribed on the outside.

The smile on his face as he leads us into a storeroom packed with hundred-kilogram bags is bigger than the room itself.

His older brother came back one day, destitute. He pleaded for money and – I was stunned to hear – received it. While I listened to Emmanuel speak about it, I had the distinct impression I was much more resentful towards his brother than he was, even though I knew nothing about him; not a face, not a name. But the younger brother seemed to have no room for bitterness in his life, as if his troubles weren’t a wound that nearly all men would choose to take to their grave.

The next day we meet Clementine, an orphan girl newly adopted into a Zoe group. She is tiny, wafer-thin, but seems smaller even than her diminutive size. She shrinks as we enter the room, until we fill the space and she is reduced to nothing at all.

She keeps her eyes averted, staring blankly at the wall. Her one-year-old daughter, Ellise, clings to her neck and stares at us curiously, while just off to the side, her 12-year-old sister Faith stands with her head respectfully lowered, listening as Clementine tells their story.

At 19, Clementine and her sister were working for a family and sleeping in their front room. The family’s 25-year-old son raped her, and when she became pregnant, the family forcibly removed her from the house. Some of the Zoe orphans found her a few months later, sleeping in a banana plantation and stealing food to survive. They brought her into their group and adopted her, teaching her how to find work and to learn to fend for herself.

She speaks in a mumbled monotone; and in my efforts to snap pictures surreptitiously, it is a long time before I notice the tears that are running freely down her face. Her eyes occasionally leave the blank space on the wall that she is staring at, but only to look down at the dirt in front of her. She chokes back sobs and struggles to breathe, but she keeps plowing her way through the story.

I am conscious, then, of how many of us are in this room, listening to this grueling story; we are packed in sardine-tight. Speaking to a group of strangers in conditions like this must be terrifying for this poor young woman.

We should leave, I think. We should cut this short. This is too much for this girl to handle. This is wrong of us; we don’t need to see her pain up close in order to know her story. But I am pulled up short but what she says next.

“She is very grateful that all of you have come so far to visit her,” Our translator, Jermaine, relays. “She has never had visitors before.”

Never? I think. That doesn't sound right.

It won’t be until that night that I learn the significance of this statement. Orphans in Rwanda are viewed as subhuman – more akin to dogs than neighbors. The fact that a group of Americans had traveled to her village just to visit her will raise her standing within the community exponentially. She will come to viewed as human, with actual value – an opinion that, from what I’m told, perhaps even Clementine herself does not currently hold.

Sharon, one of the women in our group, is sitting on a stool in front of Clementine, leaning in closer and closer as she speaks, hoping to catch her eye as she talks. “Can you tell her how proud we are of her?” she asks Jermaine, her eyes never leaving Clementine’s face. Jermaine relays the message, and a revolution seems to course through Clementine’s spine. Her shoulders move back from their slumped position, her head slides up. It is miraculous; she is a different person. She finally meets our eyes, just for a moment; and then her gaze drops back to her feet once more.

I wonder how many moments like that one it takes to make someone a whole person again.

When the genocide ended, the country set about rebuilding itself. It soon became clear that the current justice system wasn’t going to be able to handle the massive amount of trials – most of the judges had been murdered or fled, and there were only 50 lawyers left in the whole country. So the country set up the Gacaca trials, where defendants were paraded, lawyerless, out into the open for their day in court. Over a million people were tried in this fashion before the courts were finally closed.

There is a video in the genocide museum of one of these trials. An inmate stands in the courtyard of his prison, telling the story of his crimes to the panel sitting at a table there. He mumbles it dispassionately, as if it is something he memorized for school, giving the whole narrative a strange, almost disembodied feeling. It is as if he is describing a dream he once had, watching the action through his own eyes but never creating it.

I went into the house of my neighbor, Mihigo. I hit him with my machete, and he falls to the ground. He reaches up towards me, but I hit him again with my machete and he dies.

One of the men at the table interrupts him. “Speak up!” he says. “Face them!” His tone implies that he has heard all the inaudible confessions he can stand for one day. The man reluctantly turns around and faces the other direction. The camera cuts away, and the video now shows that the hill behind him is packed with people silently watching the proceedings. There are in lawn chairs, or perched on blankets, umbrellas shielding them from the sun. It looks like a cutaway at a cricket match, save for the grim look on the spectators’ faces.

The man continues, raising his voice but not his head.

I walk outside the house, and I see the other men have Mihigo’s wife, Akaliza. They hold her down in the street. I cry, and I say to them, “Stop! We must not do this! This is wrong!” But they kill her anyway.

The video abruptly fades to black, then starts over again, playing the same confession, a constant loop of muttered penitence. I wonder how many confessions they actually heard that day, how long the people sat there. Were they there for hours out of anger? Or to see justice done? Or were they there to hear just one story, for one last bit connection to someone lost?

I wonder what I would have done in their stead. Would I want the mumbled explanation? Would I want to see the face of the man who killed my family? I don’t think I would.

But I also don’t think I’d be able to help myself. As I watch the video again, I realize my face would have been on that hillside, too.

It’s an inauspicious way to start to rebuild a country – a public shaming, a release into the public while wearing a colored jumpsuit, a functional scarlet letter.

But they did rebuild, and in ways I never thought possible. The inmates returned to their towns and went to the families and friends of those that they had murdered, and somehow, those people forgave them. And they didn’t stop there; they welcomed these people in, they made them part of their lives again.

A man I met at our hotel told me about the villages he goes out to visit all across Rwanda, villages created by the families of the slaughtered, and the men who slaughtered them. He’d just returned from one where the two leaders of the town were a woman who had lost her whole family during the genocide, and the man who had killed them. How is it that even possible? Who has that much forgiveness inside them, anyway?

The orphans we worked with lost their parents in the tragedy, in numbers so staggering they defy all understanding. In a country of only five million people, a full million of those were cut down in just a hundred days – 800,000 of them with machetes. The streets literally ran red with blood.

When the killing was done, the men dropped the machetes in the fields and moved on. The orphans took the machetes from the fields and used them to chop wood, to fashion shelters, to harvest food. They rebuilt their lives out of the instruments of death that had destroyed it.

When we talk about how people live in other cultures,
we often do so in demeaning terms. And so casually! The same phrases always pop up. These people who have nothing else shows up a lot. Grateful for so little.  The word simple gets used in every possible context. We act as if we are jealous of them, envious of their existence, but we are not. We are emotional tourists, and we want to get in and we want to get out.

But more than that, we want to give ourselves a reason why we don’t measure up to these people. Our faith is lacking because of the culture we come from, not because of any deficiency on our end. We can’t help where we were born, who could?

We want to have our wealth, our health, our comfort, and still be better than these people. And deep down we know it.

Visiting places like this, we find that we are laid bare, and we are embarrassed of our nakedness. We say we want to keep some of that feeling with us, but we don’t. We want to leave and not feel this way again, unless we are glossing it on atop a bubble of self-righteousness.

I can’t claim that I’m any different. I can’t claim I’m even trying. I’ll go home and I’ll forget, because when I look in the mirror tomorrow, I won’t see any scars, I won’t have anything to remind me of what happened here.

I want to go home and raise an Ebenezer to what happened here, to mark the words above my doorway in stark uppercase letters. Never forget. Never again. But I won’t. We aren’t built to remember, we’re built to forget. We’re built to move on.

I wonder if Christ left the scars on his hands and feet and side because without them, we wouldn’t have any way to believe what happened before. The past is always the past, and it carries no weight in the present if we don't want it to.

The Rwandan people are smart to carve their dreams for the future into stone. I can only hope to scratch it lightly on the back of my mind, and hope it sticks. And so for the moment, the words sit there, emblazoned behind my eyes.

Never forget.

But I will.


Rwanda, Part 5: The Light At The Top Of The Stairs

The information, at first, is clinical. The first few panels are essentially a sketch of a history lesson, a bare framework on which to hang the rest of the tragedy. There are tiny bits about tribes and population, but the story doesn't really begin until the arrival of Dutch settlers in the late 19th century.

Of course it does, I immediately think. When you hear about a tribal battle based on insignificant racial distinctions, the odds that the conflict sourced from vaguely well-meaning European colonists are astronomically high. This is what we have always done. John Oliver had a good bit the other week about how being British is a little like being an alcoholic. "When someone says you did something awful, you find yourself going, 'honestly, I don't even remember doing that but, yeah, probably, probably!'"

The difference is so small – the tiniest difference in skin tone, the shape of the bridge of a nose – but it was enough for the colonists to decide that these people were more like them than those people, and all the nonsensical racism that follows such a statement came shortly thereafter.

A century, I think. That's how long it look before this whim of a classification became identity, and then separation, and then disgust, and then hatred, and then murder. The museum seems to be operating as a guide for how many generations it takes us to lose all sense of humanity.

The curling exhibit path leaves me for a moment at the base of another flight of stairs. At the top is a brightly-colored stained glass display of a narrow white staircase, surrounded by swirls of iridescent blue. My ever-present narrator informs me that the piece was commissioned by the museum to represent the genocide. A pile of skulls at the bottom represents the horror of the holocaust, the light at the top of the stair represents the hope that followed.

I don’t know if I am allowed to move closer, and yet I suddenly find myself standing at the top of the steps, only a few feet away from the glass. As I stand there, the screaming begins again, a new voice this time, shuddering its way through the window as I study its luminescent panes.

No matter how long I stand there looking, I never see the light at the top of the stairs. It always looks like a path leading to nowhere to me.

I walk away, down the hallway, along a dark crimson carpet. Except, no, the carpet is brown. It is only my imagination that makes it red. It is only my imagination that soaks it with blood.

By the time I am halfway through the displays, I have pulled out my phone to take pictures. Not artistic pictures, portraits of strangers standing in the shadows, gravely studying sorrow. Pictures of the displays. Pictures of facts. When I get home, I write them down word for word, so I don't ever forget what they said.

Tutsi women were systematically raped and sexually mutilated as a weapon of genocide. The rapes were often performed by HIV-positive men, who were then given access to anti-retroviral medication. The women were not.

There are political cartoons on the wall here, but ones of such utter strangeness that I cannot fathom how anyone ever took them serious enough to print. In one, a Tutsi military leader is pictured marching his troops over the caskets of Hutus, shouting over his shoulder, “Cockroaches, fighters, let’s go! We are coming to live by force with those from whom we have robbed everything!” I study the drawing carefully for a long moment, wondering what sort of newspaper would run such a piece of disturbing propaganda, and what sort of person it would take to believe it.

Many of the Hutus seemed to believe that the Tutsis were on the verge of attacking them and wiping them out, that the genocide was an act of protection. All this, even though the Hutu people outnumbered the Tutsis by almost nine to one. Fear is powerful. Even more powerful than hate, perhaps.

I feel dizzy. I can't tell if I'm walking straight anymore. The blood rises from the carpet, and I am wading in it now.

Children were frequently forced to participate, often by killing their friends or neighbors.

Victims were sometimes forced to kill their loved ones just before they themselves were killed.

There is a video of corpses lying ignored on the street, blood pooled underneath them. Sometimes they lie face-down, and that is better, because I can’t see their faces. It is so much worse when I see the faces.

The video ends with a long shot of an execution, filmed shakily out the second-floor window of a house. Distant figures are gathered around a kneeling, motionless man. An arm swings down, and a blurry head drops and bounces once on the street.

It is a short video, maybe only thirty seconds in length. I watch it over and over and over again. I don’t know why. This place is so filled with blood that it’s up over my head and I cannot move.

Many families had been completely wiped out, with no one to remember or document their deaths. The streets were littered with corpses. Dogs ate the rotting flesh of their owners.

Rwanda was dead.

“Rwanda was dead.” One little sentence, hidden amidst an ocean of facts of UN troop estimates and murder statistics. One little opinion in the middle of cold assessment.

Or is it opinion? Do wounds like this heal, or did Rwanda truly die twenty years ago, bleeding unnoticed in the street? I don't even know if I'm standing in the same country that existed back then. Perhaps when you light yourself on fire, you are instead given the phoenix’s choice – to die in the ashes or fly out of them.

I emerge from the exhibit and back out into the bright sunlight, and standing next to a line of scribbled prayers tied to a length of cable. I parse through them, but they have no more answers than I do, or than the museum did, or than anyone seems to.

The wind takes the prayers from my hands, and they dance for me, fluttering sanguinely in the breeze, stark white against the blue sky.

It is then that I notice the quiet, broken only by the rustle of paper.

The screaming has stopped.


Rwanda, Part Four: Our National Heroes...

We can’t get away from it. Even in the most remote villages, even in the furthest reaches of the country, the bus jolts and rocks past another reminder – usually, another mass grave, encircled by a spiked iron fence, a wobbling arch above the entrance. On each arch, the same bold letters: “Never Again.”

Around seemingly every corner, we pass another, a mirage of ribbons and close-cropped grass in the midst of scraggly banana plantations. Never again. Never again. Never again.

We talk about it, of course, not in whispers, but in quiet tones. New facts wiggle up and down the bus. The genocide is still ongoing – a revenge killing, usually… they still find bodies… there are people still missing.

And then the stories get more personal. The boy we are visiting is an orphan of genocide – he saw his parents murdered… our guide lost both her parents and five of her nine siblings during the genocide. It is everywhere. It is all around us. I’ve become afraid of saying anything to anyone – I feel as if I were dropped in the midst of a minefield that stretches from border to border.

But I am not prepared for the genocide museum when our bus drops us off at the gates at the end of our trip. I suppose it would be hard to be prepared anyway – has anyone ever wandered through Auschwitz and thought “Now this? This I get.” – but I thought I grasped the events well enough not to be surprised.

That assumption didn’t even make it to the front door.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial Center is an exceptionally well assembled institution, and every Rwandan I talked to about it spoke highly, even proudly. At first glance, though, there isn’t much to the place. It’s a pale concrete structure, roughly circular, with a pleasant but unremarkable overlook of the city. Understanding the gravity of its contents, it does its best to ease visitors in as they arrive. The guided audio tour takes you on a slow circle of the building, through a series of small, well-maintained gardens. The businesslike male voice on the recording dispenses with each in a few sentences.

This is the children’s memorial. The fruit trees represent the children lost during the memorial, cut down too soon… this garden represents the women lost during the genocide, and those who gave their lives to save others… this is the garden of the states… this is the garden of remembrance… this is the rose garden… 

I stop in this last one, as the voice explains to me that each rose that blooms is dedicated to a different victim of the genocide. The garden is bare except for two paired roses, bobbing lightly in the breeze. I snap a picture of them, wondering whose names and faces and stories have been bestowed upon them. A brief, fading dedication to two people who must have left a much more lasting wound somewhere.

It is then that I first hear the screaming.

There is a woman in the next garden, flat on her back, wailing in grief. Four employees are there, each one stationed over an arm or a leg, holding the woman physically down so that she stops thrashing about and hurting herself. Her cry seems to extend eternally, never pausing for breath, closer to the call of a banshee than the voice of a human. 

I heard someone wonder once if the reason we sing in praise of God is because singing is so primal. Professional mourners used to wail and sing dirges to honor the dead because the deepest, most intrinsic parts of us are only expressed by cries.

If that’s true, then mourning like this is the most terrible of all songs. It is the sound of rending.

I slip past her as unobtrusively as I can, not daring to look down, to make eye contact with a grief so monstrous. Instead, I leave the path and circle around the small elephant statues that dot the garden. Their rough-hewn eyes stare relentlessly at me as I pass by. Never forget. Never again.

I hurry through the gate to the next garden and find myself atop a plain cement slab, with a row of small bushes bordering the edges. To my left, there is another just like it, and another like it after that, all the way down the hill.

“Excuse me, sir,” says a polite voice behind me. A woman stands there, holding a camera in one hand and indicating a small sign I had unheedingly hurried past with the other. “You aren’t supposed to stand out there.” 

I step off the slab and inspect the sign, which informs me that the rectangular patch of concrete I had been standing on covers the final resting place of over half a million Rwandan citizens. I nod shamefacedly at the woman, who moves away with a disapproving look. I click the button on my electronic guide, and the recorded voice tells me that these bodies have been recovered from mass graves all across the country. More bodies are brought here every week, says the voice, in the curious, unemotional way that it does, as if the bodies as just a casual delivery, left on the stoop by a careless UPS driver.

The screaming has not stopped. I glance back at the woman, and see that she has at least stopped thrashing about. But the voice continues unabated, a steady, unstoppable howl. I find myself beside a small door leading into some random part of the museum, and I enter it without thinking. The door closes behind me, utterly failing to cut off the screaming.

By the time we leave the museum, there will have been three different women who are overcome like this, their screams sweeping insistently through the grounds. Even downstairs in the basement, sheltered by massive stone walls, there is no corner in which you cannot hear their voices.

My eyes adjust to the darkness, and I find myself in a long, narrow room, lit by thin windows, and strung with long lines of thin cable. Attached to each are dozens of photos, recovered from homes, each with the face of a smiling child in happier times. People move from picture to picture, occasionally picking up one and then dropping it again quickly, so the cable drops back down and swings awkwardly back and forth. There are too many pictures for each cable, the photos sometimes crowd and overlap each other. The pictures are light paper nothings, but the cables seem to creak beneath them. Each is heavy with death.

I have entered the building somewhere in children’s wing, at a point perhaps halfway through the exhibit. I seem to have come in through the “out” door, one of the many exits the museum has scattered through the building, like a haunted house.

Turning away, I deliberately walk the wrong way, back towards the beginning. I don’t know what I’m walking away from, other than a determination to not feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I will experience this on my own terms, somehow.

Another young woman brushes past me, helped along by two more employees. Or are they the same ones as before? I cannot tell, especially with my eyes so carefully averted. I slip past them into the dark room that they just came from.

I find myself in a much smaller space, devoid of all lights and windows. The only illumination comes from a pair of massive backlit black-and-white photographs on the wall across from me. The first shows a young boy, running smiling towards the camera, with his name glowing above his head. Patrick. A small, shiny plaque below his picture tells his story:

Patrick Gahugi Shimirwa
Age: 5
Favourite sport: Riding bicycle
Favourite food: Chips, meat and eggs
Best friend: Alliane, his sister
Behaviour: A quiet, well-behaved boy
Cause of death: Hacked by machete

I can’t breathe. I know that this plaque, this room, this building, is here to manipulate my emotions, but this one catches me off guard, an unseen left hook when I was looking right. It’s so clinical. Cause of death: Hacked by machete. Like a coroner’s report. Like a dusty fact from an ancestry site. Like it barely even happened in a way that mattered. Like I can’t see his smiling, life-size face running at me.

Next to him are a pair of girls, their photos blurrily blended together. Irene and Uwamwezi, aged six and seven. Sisters. Their favorite toy was a doll they shared. Died together when a grenade was thrown into their shower

The next room is the same. Aurore, aged 2. A talkative girl who loved hide-and-seek. Burnt alive at the Gikondo Chapel. Fabrice, aged 8. Loved chocolate, his best friend was “his mum.” Bludgeoned to death with clubs.

I want them to stop smiling at me. I want their lives to stop mattering to me. I want them to stop being real. I want to stop feeling.

I make it at last to the end, or the beginning, the point where I was supposed to enter but now can’t leave fast enough. A small glass plaque sits alone on an empty wall by the entrance, and I glance at it as I pass by.

“Children, you might have been our national heroes…”  it says. No source is given, no sense of where the ellipsis leads, past that of the reader’s imagination. If I’d traveled this exhibit in the order it was intended, I might have realized that I would find no answers here, only a great “what if.” There would be no understanding as to why.

But there must be, somewhere in this building. I have to go back to the beginning and start this experience again fresh, digging at the roots of the destruction. I descend a staircase to the basement to begin the exhibit where a visitor is supposed to, at a tall glass display marked with a shiny steel “1.”

The screaming, still unwavering, follows me down the stairs.


Rwanda, Part Three: Mythical Creatures

This is not a lone antelope.

The reason that it’s not a lone antelope – in addition to the reality of it being an entirely separate animal - is because a lone antelope is not a real thing. It is, in fact, not a thing that is at all. The number of lone antelopes that exist is a null set, a void, a nothingness. And that is a bitterly disappointing fact. Because I was very excited to see one.

Our safari had been going well, up until this point. Our driver was a friendly, chatty individual, and we’d had the foresight of placing Greg up front with him. Greg’s defining personality character is that he can talk to anyone, and will, whether they feel inclined to or not. I first discovered this when, during a 30-minute layover in Instanbul, he’d turned several fellow passengers waiting with us at the terminal into fast friends, despite the fact that few of them were traveling to the same place we were, and none of them spoke any English.

As we left the hotel not long after sunrise in an oversized forest-green Jeep, Greg and the driver fell quickly into a lively conversation about the city, its government, and the nature of the Rwandan people. This allowed the rest of us to immediately fall back asleep.


I awoke in the way you do when you fall asleep in a strange car, startling upright, sticky with sweat and disoriented, at the edge of Akagera National Park. The park is a long, winding chunk of country in Rwanda’s northwest border that houses much of Rwanda’s wildlife. It costs only $30 for a safari, but the park is almost entirely deserted, as most of the visitors who make up Rwanda’s sparse tourist industry choose to travel to the far north for an overnight experience living among the gorillas. In fact, we’re receiving a tour from a company that specializes in gorilla visits, and large gorilla decals decorate all the doors of our vehicle.

The gorilla experience is apparently quite something, though I am not sad that I missed it. Visitors hike deep into the forest, until they suddenly discover they are surrounded by gorillas on all sides. This is not, scientifically speaking, considered the safest position to be in. Careful steps need to be taken to ensure the tourists’ safety. If a juvenile gorilla comes up, grabs you, and pulls you away from the group (an event that is apparently a real possibility), you are supposed to obediently go with him, and the guide will “take care of it.” I can’t think of any piece of advice I’m less likely to keep in mind in the moment when I’m being grabbed by an aggressive gorilla than “peacefully allow the animal to abduct you.” The likelihood that I’d be dragged off into the underbrush with just a smile and an offhand “I’ll see you all before lunch, I’m sure,” was already astronomically low before I even found out what it means when a guide “takes care of it. 

“The guide makes himself look big, and tries to scare the gorilla.”
“He tries to scare the gorilla? It’s a gorilla.
“Apparently that’s what they do.”
“Does that even work?”
“…I don’t know.”

So, should you travel to Rwanda and attempt this trip, please size up your guides based on their ability to look big and terrify gorillas. I personally do not plan on venturing into the jungle without anyone less qualified at this than, say, Lou Ferrigno.


Fortunately, I don’t have any such worries today, as our only animal guests are skittish creatures like impalas and warthogs (or, “McDonalds” and “Antennas” as they are known to guides here – the former by the impala’s distinctive “M”-shaped marking over their tails, and the latter by the way the animals race away from visitors, only their stiff, upright tails visible over the tall grass. Whether this is from long familiarity or a lack of ethology is never made entirely clear).

We do see hippos, which I am surprised to learn are some of the most vicious creatures on earth, a fact I feel someone should have warned me about much earlier. Hippos are some of Nature’s most brutal hunters, a fact they might have skated over in the Madagascar movies. They tend to play with their food, so they’ll drag the animals (or people! What fun!) they catch down to the bottom of the river, release them so that they can swim to the surface and catch their breath, then grab them and pull them down again. Eventually, they casually chomp their prey in two with a snap of their outrageously powerful jaws. I can now almost certainly never watch someone play “Hungry Hungry Hippos” again without breaking into hives.

But then we get to the lone antelope. Or, what our guide tells us is the lone antelope.

“You are very lucky,” he says. “This animal is very rare. It exists only in Rwanda, and it almost never appears so near a road.”

He sounds excited, breathless even, and I immediately catch his fervor. A lone antelope! What a find! I snap as many pictures as I can before the beast moves off nervously into the woods. That night, all of my emails back home talked about the rare lone antelope I saw that day.

Except, as both you and I now know, there’s no such thing as a lone antelope. A quick Wikipedia search a few days later came up empty, revealing only an oddly named property management company in California.

Our guide had been such a fount of information, with facts and figures rattling off the top of his head, that I hadn’t thought to doubt a word of it. But now, upsettingly, everything seemed in flux - especially the piece of information on the trip I’d found most interesting of all.

width=In the center of the city was a traffic circle, with a towering statue of a woman holding a small child’s hand in the center. When I asked what the statue represented, our guide had a surprisingly detailed answer ready.

In the wake of the genocide, the new Rwandan government decided that massive changes needed to be made to ensure a lasting peace.  Some of the changes were small (the fourth Saturday of every month is now dedicated to community service – every Rwandan citizen gathers to improve the town by helping build houses, improve the roads, and the like) and others impossibly massive (discussing your tribe in public is no longer considered socially acceptable, though what sort of punishment would be leveled at offenders is somewhat unclear). And, most interestingly, they drastically increased the role of women in government.

“Women,” the driver tells us, “love peace more than men.” Men go off to war, and in their wake, women raise the children, mind the businesses, run the country, and eventually, mourn their lost sons and husbands. So in the wake of the genocide (and the subsequent flight of survivors to surrounding countries), women and girls made up about 70% of the remaining population. The Rwandan people, in a sudden and welcome break with all of human history, decided that these women deserved more of a voice, an added an electoral stipulation that 30% of Parliament must be women.

So they held an election, and once all the polls were in, it turned out that women won 46% of elected spots. Four years later, after the next election, they controlled 54% of the seats available (keep in mind, he's listing all these figures off the top of his head). They now led the world in female democratic representation, and became the first country in the world to have a Parliament with a majority of women holding spots – and have erected a statue in the very center of their capital to honor the contributions of women in the rebuilding of their country.

If I had asked you before you read these paragraphs what the first country to have a majority of women in their Parliament, how many guesses would you have taken before you got to Rwanda? Would it have even been in your first hundred? In fact, would you have guessed any African countries at all? I’m not sure I would have.

The reason for women’s success, our driver continues, is that they are corrupted much less often than men – less likely to be seduced, less able to be bought. What’s more, they value their country’s peace more than their men do. Our driver is certain that they would be at war with Congo right now if it wasn’t for the women in power.

It sounds nice and modern, a society jumping straight from brutal genocide to progressive feminism. But after my confusion with the lone antelope, I was wary. I retreated to the internet again.

And shockingly, this one turned out to be true. In fact, it’s more true now than it was then: women have seized more seats with each passing election and now control an impressive 64% of the seats in Parliament, and remains the only country ever to exceed that 50% figure. By point of comparison, its neighbor to the west, the Democratic Republic of Congo, sits 122nd in the world with 10.6% (the U.S., by the way, is 85th in the world with 18.3%).

What surprised me more was the way the driver spoke of his country’s groundbreaking feminism. A man who drives people to see gorillas every day is not the sort of person you’d expect to be bragging about the way his country is at the forefront of women’s issues, but the pride in his voice was unmistakable. It made me forgive him for the way he fooled me about that lone antelope.

Especially once I pored over a website listing antelope species a few days after I got back (I told you, I was upset), and discovered that the animal we saw was the roan antelope, a beast indigenous to most of the savannah that covers central Africa.

 So perhaps the sight of it wasn’t as impressive or rare as I was led to believe. But I can’t be mad at the man. After all, he kept Greg occupied the whole trip home, so I could get back to sleep. 


Rwanda Part Two: A Lingering Dread

It’s late when we get back. The normally crowded streets wrapping about the hotel are now nearly empty. Crosswalk signals blink furiously at no one at all. Most of the team blearily awakens, blinking, as the vehicle lurches over the sidewalk and up the incline into the hotel’s parking lot.

I’m stationed in my usual spot in the jump seat up front, a position I’ll occupy for most of the trip until another team member’s carsickness graduates from “aggravation” to “vomit-spewing,” at which point I gladly surrender the spot. For now, though, I can use the seat to take a million blurry, poorly-framed shots as we bounce along the dirt roads of the Rwandan countryside, in hopes of getting lucky once in a while. It is not a high-percentage strategy, and it leads to hours of glumly poking through photos, trying to talk myself into the idea that my accidentally canted-angle landscapes are “artsy.”

Our headlights illuminate the hotel’s stern-faced guard as he waves us through the gate, the movement revealing the butt of a rifle glinting below his shoulder. I involuntarily shudder, as if I’ve never seen an armed guard before. But it's this country, and the tremors of its recent, violent history. It makes me uneasy. A well-armed guard protecting this tiny hotel is just one more sign of the divide between the haves and the have-nots here. Down the road is a grocery store that has a door flanked by angry stone lions, with two metal detectors at the entrance and three armed guards always on duty. Rwanda might be in a state of peace, but the people who have money are deeply cautious in a way that makes one wonder how firm their footing really is.

We are returning from the Hotel del Milles Colenes, which you might know better as the Hotel Rwanda, the spot where 1300 refugees hid during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I had expected a solemn memorial, but the hotel shows no signs of being anything other than a four-star hotel in the wealthier end of Kigali. There are no brass plaques or reflective chapels, just sleek modern wallpaper and a large tiki bar overlooking an azure pool. Hotel employees will acknowledge the building’s history, but only when asked. It is the exact opposite of the Western way of thinking, which would extort the tragedy for every cent it could muster. Here, no one mentions it. It’s not polite.

My unsettled feeling has disappeared by morning, as the bright sunshine seems to reveal a different Rwanda than the one I went to sleep to. The dour guard who waved us in the night before is all smiles as I make my way to breakfast, and greets me warmly as I pass by his post.

“Mar-ah MOO-tay!” I say, stopping to shake his hand. Everyone here is trying to teach me the language, which is such an effort in futility that Sisyphus would wag his head sadly at the sight. While English was recently named the national language, residents of Rwanda still speak Kinyarwanda, a Bantu language somewhat similar to Swahili that will not stick in my brain. This is not surprising. When it comes to other languages, my head is no so much a sieve as an actual water hose. I lived in Romania for a summer, working at an orphanage, and when I returned I could still only count to ten and say, “don’t hit,” though frankly, when it comes to orphanage work, that’s really all you need.

“Mwaaramutse,” he says warmly, correcting me without correcting me. “Good morning.” He is friendly to such a degree that I feel guilty for shuddering the night before at the sight of him and his gun. He speaks almost no English, but he is friendly and kind, and he addresses me as if we are old friends, so that I immediately feel like one. His name, it turns out, is Vincent, and by the end of the week we’ll take a picture together with his cell phone so he can remember me.

I wish I was better with the language so that I could talk to him more, but I’ve narrowed my vocabulary down to half-a-dozen phrases in hopes that they’ll finally stick. They don’t, so I give up and start writing them phonetically on my arm. I feel ridiculous, but my futility has unexpected benefits. While taking pictures, I attempt to warm each subject up with a few kind words, but I stumble over each expression so badly that the child usually breaks down laughing. Then I take their picture. It works out nicely for everyone.

“Mwore-a-coze-eh CHAH-nay,” I say to Vincent as I walk on.

“Muracoze cyane,” he replies. “Thank you very much.” He seems to mean it, more than I do. He is honestly grateful for the way I stopped and spoke to him, and for my sad attempts at speaking his language, and I don’t really know why.

I don’t know anything about this country. I don’t know anything at all.

[This post has been edited to note that Kinyarwanda is similar to Swahili, not French.]