Rwanda: Beauty and Loss

When our matatu emerges from landscape blanketed with banana trees, we get the first view of Kivu. It is oceanic. It was a good idea to come. On the beach a man and a boy secure the netting used to catch tilapia. When I walk past, I encounter more boys of 15 or so, all asking for sips of my bottled water, and of course I oblige them. Within minutes I am lounging with them on the shoreline, the sand thick like unrefined sugar, and the boys place handfuls of it on their shoulders. Papy and the others sing a song, in Kinyarwanda, about the power of love, which I record. After that I ask Papy about his life here and he tells me that during the genocide he and his two younger brothers and sister were taken by their mother to neighboring Congo. His father was taken to Kigali and killed. The boy beside him, Abubo, lost his mother. The talk is soft, gentle. I tell them that broken bones heal the strongest and they translate for one another and for themselves in Kinyarwanda, throwing in some actual muscle-flexing for extra emphasis. We chat a bit about music — they like rap, not Celine, she's too slow — and when I dole out my RwFr100s, I joke with them — they're wearing only swimming trunks — that they have no place to store the cash. We part after posing for photos in which we flash our own versions of gang signs, and with promises to e-mail, promises I will keep. I hope to find age-mates for them to correspond with.

At the Tom-Tom Lounge here I am tended by a gorgeous Tutsi who convinces me to eat tiny deep-fried and battered poisson and chips. Alone for a few minutes, I turn on my new Celine tape and look into Kivu, and when the group breaks into harmony, I break down in despair at the abject beauty and corresponding loss. And my tired psyche plays into it, reminding me of the reports of bodies floating on this lake, the surrounding collines smoking from torched homes. This is the saddest place I've ever been. Nearby, where the Sebeya River pours rust into the blue lake, the brown heads of the boys bob over the little waves, and I can hear them singing.

It is ancient, not of this age, and yet from our earlier interaction their emotional and intellectual sophistication is apparent. When my waiter catches me crying, he sits in the chair behind me, and listens quietly as I struggle, in my ridiculous French, why I am, as I put it, a mental project. "C'est fini," is all I hear of his soothing words. I manage to return to my lunch, and swallow a bite, although the wad it causes in my throat seems to activate more tears. I am a complete mess. I am so overwhelmed by this experience. I am so sad to leave, and yet experienced with such sadness. I know the routine — falling in love with everyone and everything and plotting some return. Except I don't know when or even if I will return — it's already taken the height of my career (so far) to get me here. Maybe the opportunity will never again arise. And besides, the flight absolutely sucks.

I cry for the survivors, all of us, who forever will miss Rwandan fathers and mothers, grandparents, cousins, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, none of whom had a chance. I cry for the land, ravaged of its beauty with the bodies of its faithful stewards, scorched from grenades and evil, evil fires that stole history, photo albums, treasured books and weavings, beloved toys and animals. I cry for the rivers, running red with blood to Lake Victoria, carrying with them the bloated corpses of women, men and children, and for Lake Kivu, whose fish cannot be tasted without a thought of where the genocide wound up placing it on the food chain. I cry for the men and women of Rwanda, and recognize the beautiful child in each of them, and love them, too. I cry because I love them all, and now I must leave without having given them enough.