Continuing the series, Letters from the Heart of Africa.
We all want to go places, forwards, like a car, pressing on the gas, looking out of the windscreen; but to be really safe, we need the rear-view mirror. And so it is with memory in Rwanda, for there, memorials, like the Genocide Memorial Centre, take on a heightened importance.
On the balcony outside his office, my boss Freddy and I discussed my work-plan. He had flicked through my CV and read about my corporate background and my work at the British Museum where I was a tour guide for four years; he had some ideas: he needed me to project manage the delivery of an audio guide system which the centre could hire out to visitors to raise funds. It would require the finalisation of a script, the recording of sound files, the designing of numbered signs and marketing; I was to create a visitor database; a mass email capability; a website that could take credit card donations; and for good measure, training for his staff to ensure sustainability.
It seemed I had more deliverables than U.P.S. and I started to see the mountain of work ahead of me. But more positively I started to see how my business skills could help them.
Before the Memorial Centre was built in 2004 by the Aegis Trust, the British Charity for the prevention of genocide, and the Kigali city council, it was just an empty hillside, prone to floods and landslides in a poor suburb of Kigali. With the creation of the gardens and the planting of a thousand trees in the Forest of Memory, one for every thousand victims of the genocide, birds of all shapes and sizes started to appear; the gardens became an ornithologist’s dream. White cranes would land to drink by the stream; small black and white wagtails would parade the ground in front of the reception.
On some mornings a tiny hummingbird would make its way through a gap in the sliding window and visit the open plan office; I was never sure if it was always the same one, it had an emerald green chest, a black beak as thin as a single strand of vermicelli and it would perch on a cabinet, on a computer monitor and then, rightly concluding that there were no flowers in the room, would fly off again. All kinds of birds in incredibly vibrant colours, red-billed fire finches, blue-breasted bee-eaters, yellow wagtails and white winged scrub warblers would all pay us visits. Some of them would try to court potential mates.
The windows of the centre were made from mirrored glass and reflected from the outside. Birds outside looking at the glass could only see a reflection of themselves, but were sometimes fooled in to thinking the image was of a potential mate and they would spend minutes preening and puffing up their feathers as they strutted proudly up and down the window ledge.
During a meeting morning, a loud thud hit the glass. We opened it and looked down on the ground; a bird, a tiny wagtail, perhaps the one that had often visited, sat stunned, wings splayed and quivering, paralysed, looking out through moribund eyes. Below us, visitors formed a circle around the dying bird, in curious disbelief of the bird’s foolish short-sightedness.
A gardener with a timeworn face came and cupped the bird in his hands as it blinked in its final seconds of life. It died, he says because it could not remember yesterday. Yesterday it was aware of the danger of the mirror-glass windows. Today it was not.
Such are the dangers of forgetting the lessons of memory.
For the background and full table of contents to this series please click here