My friends, the survivors

I settled in to my role as an adviser at the Kigali Genocide Memorial – I got a desk, there was wifi and I had a workplan agreed with my boss Freddy. My colleagues made me feel at home as soon as I was introduced to them at our Monday morning meeting. What struck me at once was how similar they were to young people all across the world;  modern professionals, keen on getting on, having meetings and following up on actions; they were all young, articulate and spoke at least three languages, (English, French and Kinyarwanda).

(This is part of a serialised post called Letters from the Heart of Africa  and can be read as a stand-alone piece of narrative or in sequence, as part of the series).

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Although primarily a place of dignified burial for 250,000 genocide victims the Kigali Genocide Memorial had many other activities and these people were the life-blood of its functions:

It has one of the finest museums in Africa, which examines the dark chapters of human history, from Rwanda, Bosnia, Armenia and other places. There was a whole team of articulate and eloquent guides, like Serge, Henriette, Emmanuel and the head guide, the bespectacled Honore who could speak 5 languages.

There was a documentation centre led by Yves which aimed to create an online archive with Harvard University, to record testimonies.

There was a Communications unit led by Patrick, a poet in this spare time, and there was tall Jeff the finance manager.

The centre had a thriving social programme, offering care for survivors, providing support facilities and a social enterprise to employ orphans led by young Francine who was just 20 (Some years later I was delighted to learn later that Jeff and Francine got hitched).

There was Thierry, a resourceful man with boyish looks who looked after the building and could source anything from car hire to socks and there was Martin with whom I would travel to Kampala on a long weekend across the equator.

The centre had an education programme led by Emery with an aim to make the lessons of the genocide heard and understood far and wide, including to remote rural areas. There were also non-Rwandan volunteers like Morley from Canada, Alicia from Australia and Sam from the UK who developed the centre’s youth programme.

The whole place was manged by Freddy, the general manager, whose driven but relaxed manner made it easy for me to work for him; James Smith, the CEO of Aegis Trust, the UK charity set up the centre would often be there too for guidance, an inspiring, humble man, with a wonderful sense of humour, who gave up his job as a doctor to help set up the centre in 2004 after setting up the UK’s Holocaust Centre.

***

Before I arrived in Rwanda, I had thought working in a grave-site would be depressing. I was wrong.

Ofcourse it was a solemn place, the tombs that reached far down the valley behind the rose trellis were a perpetual and heart-wrenching reminder of that; the museum, with its glass cabinets of skulls and machetes was both shocking and saddening. But in the office where we worked, there was vibrancy, a tremendous sense of purpose of people working for a common good cause.

Rwandans have ready smiles and even more ready humour – just walk down a road in Kigali and smile at a passerby and you will probably receive a smile in return. (Try this on the metro in London and you might get a return, or you might get spurned or arrested). Rwandan humour can be a bit slapstick at times, but it is ready and waiting to find an opportunity to manifest itself.

One morning we settled down to work at our desks after the usual handshakes (in Rwanda, you shake hands a lot), saying our mwuramutses (hellos); suddenly the power cut out and someone called for Thierry to start the petrol generator.  Someone started to sing Snap’s 1990 hit “I’ve got the power”, but changed the lyrics to “I’ve got NO power”; soon we were all joining in, singing. Some of us did ‘the running man’. Francine said, “Wrong dance, it’s not Snap.”. A debate ensued. The consensus said it was MC Hammer that did ‘the running man’, not Snap. It was a bit of Friday morning silliness.

***

Although they appeared the same as young urban people around the world, they liked Coldplay, and Rihanna, and Beyonce, they had MP3s, they wore cool t-shirts and trainers outside work, and swapped DVDs, they were different. Something marked them out as special.

Nearly all my colleagues were child survivors of the Genocide.

What struck me most, was these weren’t broken people as I had expected them to be. They had survived in camps, in attics, they had run barefoot through forests, they had crossed river borders on the backs of adults to escape. They had built up their lives from utter devastation, with resilience and courage and they carried with them dignity in their work and affection in their interactions. Yes, no doubt, I was in the company of extra-ordinary, special souls.

***

Before I arrived in Rwanda I had read several of their personal accounts in “We Survived Genocide in Rwanda”. I don’t normally promote products in my blog posts but for this I will make an exception – it is an incredibly important book, because it focuses on where the genocide hit hardest – families and friends, the human side of the genocide on the ground, of how sons and daughters became orphans overnight.

These are the extraordinary and tragic accounts of cruelty, struggle and survival. Their recorded testimonies are a difficult read, but they need to be and I owed it to their courage to read it from cover to cover. Being a survivor, and all it entails, said Freddy, is a privilege and a carries tremendous responsibility.

As my friendships developed, those accounts took on sharper poignancy, a deeper sadness for no longer were they accounts from strangers in a remote land in a distant continent, but they were from friends in a place that became my home.

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One day Henriette, who wore immaculate braids in her hair and usually a bright Colgate smile, came up to me solemnly and invited me to her family’s funeral. I asked her who died. She held out her hands and counted on her fingers of both hands and said “Eight of my family.”. Although it was 14 years after the genocide, her family had not had a proper burial. The following Saturday the team travelled to the southern town of Butare; we wore purple, neck-kerchiefs, shirts and scarves,  for purple is the Rwandan colour of mourning. After the eight coffins were put in to underground  chambers, songs of grief were sung in the open in the rain.

In the afternoon Henriette and her cousin Felix put up a huge feast in a private room at the Petit Prince Hotel. I am still touched to have been invited to something so dear to her. I hope the funeral brought her a sense of solace and closure after all those years of prolonged hurt.

***

The team was like one big family because many had lost their families in those 100 days of 1994; overnight, many would have became head of their households when most kids in the west would playing with PlayStations and Barbies. At the centre, they had more than just workplace bonds and team camaraderie – they had a new surrogate family united by common experiences and a shared vision. .

It was a joy to observe their group dynamic in the canteen. They shared everything; plates of rice, yams, plantains and brochettes, bottles of Fanta, memory sticks, ties, rides, umbrellas; it was the Rwandan way. They shook hands a lot too, many times a day, of every form: there was one-handed, two handed, one-handed with other hand on wrist, the Rastaman’s fist bump, the sportsman’s thumb wrap, the high-five. It didn’t matter which one, we just did it a lot. Kisses on greeting Rwandans is  common too, and there it was left, right and left cheeks in that order. At break-times, they laughed, back-slapped and teased each other with affection – no one was spared. I suppose it was a welcome release from the emotional reminders close by of their darkest days.

I  hated to think what they had been through; I never asked; I didn’t have to as I had read the book. But some colleagues would volunteer their experiences such as Serge at a movie night (we showed Fergal Keane’s ‘Journey in to Darkness’) when he bravely talked over one hour about his experience.

Sometimes a short recollection would appear without warning, like darkness out of the blue: One morning I waited with a friend for a bus in the central roundabout in Kigali  on my commute.

“See that roof?” my colleague said, pointing. “I lived in that roof for 8 weeks.”
“8 weeks? Without leaving?”
He nodded.
“What did you eat?”
“A piece of maize bread, I took a bite every three days.” There was no self-pity in his tone; they were stoical like that.
“Didn’t you get bored living there, in that roof for 8 weeks?” I asked.
“No,” he replied shaking his head. “When you think you are about to die you don’t get bored.”
“So what happened?”
“I managed to escape.” He paused and a boyish grin filled his face. “And two days later I returned in a uniform with a rifle in my hands to liberate my country.” He was just 16.

***

One afternoon I was asked to interview a young man for a job at the centre. He came in an oversized suit looking nervous. “What motivates you to work here?” I asked him.
“My parents are buried here.”
No amount of business coaching can equip you for that reply. Fortunately he got the job on merit.

***

To have stepped out of the wreckage, to have risen from the smouldering ruins of derelict buildings, to have made barefoot runs through forests on fire; to have crossed rivers to escape, my colleagues and friends, had grown in to well-balanced young people; they had found life after near-death, dawn-light after the darkest hour. They had taken all that cruelty and evil could mete out, yet they were healing, reconciling, some were even forgiving their parents’ killers (I will explain this in a post later in this series).

Through them I learnt about Rwanda, and gained a privileged insight in to a recovering nation. But it was more than that. To think, they are not alone – they were a team of 35, but Rwanda must be filled with tens of thousands of children who survived like them, the phoenix generation risen from the ashes, the ones left behind who found it in themselves to grow with hope in her hearts, without malice and with wisdom.

There is hope for troubled areas of the world. I know there is, for in Rwanda I saw how unbroken, how magnanimous and how great the human being can be.

***

A full table of contents of the posts so far in this series, Letters from the Heart of Africa, can be found here 

 

 

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