If you hear the name Rwanda, most people will either:
- associate it with the mountain gorilla;
- recall the appalling genocide of 1994 that swept across the country with devastating speed, claiming a million lives in the process;
- ask you: “Rwanda? Who’s that?” (which is precisely what a young shop assistant said when I enquired about books on Rwanda);
- or: “Why on earth do you want to go there?” Hmmm.
Having just returned from my second trip to this small but fascinating East African country, my own associations extend far beyond gorillas and genocide. In fact, my heart and head are so awash with impressions, hopes and nostalgia, I hardly am able to concentrate on getting back to normal life.
Okay, so here are some snapshot impressions.
Hills everywhere. No matter where you look, hills. Rwanda wasn’t named The Land of a Thousand Hills for nothing. Volcanoes as well, further up north near the Ugandan border. Rain forest and mountains, home to gorillas and the golden monkeys. Rivers. Lakes bordered by yet more of those eternal hills. Some of the lakes so huge, their waters stretch out into the horizon, obscured by cloud in the rainy season. Lushness everywhere, and I mean everywhere: banana plants, palm trees, eucalyptus, flowers of all kinds which I won’t even begin to try and name, not being a nature expert. Red dirt roads teeming with children who call out in delight, Muzungu, muzungu! as they set eyes on you. (Kinyarwanda for ‘white person’.) Straight-backed women walking past with iconic baskets balanced on their heads. Lanky teenagers hanging around as they do in any part of the world. Men at work, also staring at the muzungus. That was the hardest part to get used to. The staring. In fact, I never quite got used to it. Very often my son and I were the only white people for miles around. But that’s okay. We were the outsiders, not them. But as soon as we said muraho (hello), the stares instantaneously transformed into smiles.
What else? Contrast everywhere you look. Modern asphalt roads within walking distance of red dirt tracks. Cluttered tin-roof shacks crawling up steep verdant hills that are exhausting to climb and probably the reason why the majority of Rwandans look so fit and lithe! Exclusive districts for the affluent, boasting fabulous homes with panoramic views from their high-fenced enclosures. The multicoloured dome of Kigali Convention Centre, which hosted thousands of guests from all corners of the globe who participated in the opening ceremony to the twenty-fifth commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. My overriding memory from that day was President Paul Kagame’s speech as he warned his world-wide audience: Don’t mess with us!
Don’t worry, Your Excellency, I won’t mess with you. But I hope you don’t mind that I’ve borrowed some of your recent history and beautiful people and bold message of reconciliation for my novel, Once Upon a Thousand Hills. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve also included some sex and humour and spice to make it more enticing. After all, academic history books and dry political articles will not inspire the ordinary Western reader to visit and admire your country. I hope that my punchy, risqué novel will entice them, via the passionate story of Naomi and John Paul.
Here are some more hopes.
On an altruistic level: that Rwanda continues with the remarkable progress she has made since 1994. Not only in reconciliation and economic development, but also in improving living conditions for the poor. For instance, supplying electricity and running water to all homes – luxuries we are fortunate enough to take for granted here in the West. But whether or not the inhabitants of those steeply terraced banks and cluttered shanty towns have running water, the overriding impression I was filled with throughout my trip was that of optimism and hope.
And here’s a bizarre aside. Everyone in Rwanda appears to have a smart phone, even if they don’t have indoor bathrooms! Mobile phone in one hand, plastic water container in the other. Mothers holding their toddler’s hand while walking down the rough-hewn road and texting a friend. I kind of loved those quaint juxtapositions. Maybe that’s why they all have such pride in their country and their president. And that, btw, is a bold statement which is a far cry from Paul Kagame’s critics in the West!
As for nostalgia? That hardly needs explanation. I’m back home now, aren’t I? No longer in the dynamic capital city of Kigali, or on the threshold of the Virunga National Park, where the Governor of the Northern Province hosted my son and me in his government residence; or in our safari tent by the shores of Lake Kivu, surrounded by those ubiquitous, breath-taking hills that enfold the horizon in a velvety green canopy in the daytime, and blink at you in the tropical evenings with their thousand eyes that glitter like as many watching stars.
Yes, I’m back home now. In Krakow. And I’m missing my Rwandan friends with an acute pain in my heart. Sounds corny, I know, but it’s true. I’m missing Gatabazi, the distinguished Governor with his magnanimous hospitality. I’m missing John, the trendy manager of Step Town Hotel and all his wonderful staff. I’m missing the droll but lovable Robert who lectured my son about how bad smoking is for you; the comedian Emanuel who teased us with such a straight face it always took a good few seconds to realise he was joking yet again; the taxi driver Didier who told us about the family members he and his wife had lost in the genocide, yet who still had such a positive spirit. And then there was Bryan, the upbeat reporter who interviewed me at the New Times office; and the bright young journalist from the EastAfrican periodical whose review of my book will soon be published … and all of these amazing people earnestly encouraging me to come back again as soon as I can; to treat Rwanda as my second home.
I feel humbled by the friendship and respect I have somehow earned from Rwandans by the simple act of falling under the hypnotic lure of their country. And by coming back here, two years after my first visit, to jointly commemorate the Genocide of 25 years ago. They are grateful for that. And by writing a novel inspired by my ‘Rwanda experience’. They appreciate that too. Hugely. They told me so, time and time again. They have taken me to their hearts: Wendy Skorupski, the Anglo-Polish muzungu who cares about their country and wants the rest of the world to know that it is a place worth visiting and remembering.
But now … now it’s back to normality, with Rwanda just a memory, albeit a living one. The Easter holiday is upon us, as are family commitments, domestic chores, taking the dog on walks, and all the usual rigmarole of everyday life that we’re stuck with for better or worse. That’s always the case when returning from a holiday, isn’t it? Post-holiday blues. But in this case, it was hardly even a holiday. Rwanda was, and is, a life experience.
Here’s one final hope I hold for this astounding country. I want my novel to help Rwanda to no longer be associated solely with the genocide and mountain gorillas, but rather, with beauty and bravery and humour and love. It’s a country that somehow exploded deep within me. A country that gave birth to my leading male character – genocide survivor John Paul Chambers, and my female protagonist – feisty sex shop-worker Naomi Lieberman. She too, like me, fell for John Paul’s country and, needless to say, fell head over heels in love with the man himself. So did I, while conjuring him in my head. Well, I did say it’s a romance, right? And romance is all about love.
As is Rwanda. Land of a Thousand Hills, no longer a prisoner to the ghosts of the past.