Today’s post takes us to Africa… twice. It is written by my friend Geordie. Now, I went back and forth on whether or not I should keep the first paragraph in because I feel silly and maybe even a little embarrassed posting it (gah, thanks G!), but… Geordie wrote it (not me – I swear!) and he intended it to be posted, so I will just leave it there and say thank you, G, for your kind words. Sorry to anyone who reads it and rolls his/her eyes… Just pretend it’s not there I guess. Or, just know that I have some pretty amazing friends.
Wait! I just realized that the last time Geordie contributed to TwT, it was the exact same time last year… Here is his post, Gone to Dogon Country, from February 6, 2010. Cool.
My Two Trips to Africa
Tavel once saved my life. No, not in the literal sense (although that would have been pretty amazing) but in an extremely important figurative sense. I will not take up any more of your time than necessary with this totally sincere panegyric, nor will I spell out in painstaking detail the improvements in my life for which Ms. Tavel is responsible. Suffice it to say that her keen emotional intelligence, her compassion, and her uncanny knack for finding just the right way to say just the right thing (“Focus on people, not your thoughts”), has made her one of the best friends I’ve ever had. I shudder to think where I might be right now without Tavel, and that is only a slight exaggeration. But enough of this. On to the exploits.
I am going to try and do a difficult thing in this post. And that is to combine a very serious subject with one that is not quite as serious. I have my reasons for doing this, and I will trust you to trust me on this one. And I have faith it will work out, so perhaps I should just stop talking.
Mopti, Mali (December, 2003)
Picture, if you will, a young man of 20. He is spending the year in Africa on his junior year abroad. It is Christmas vacation, he is travelling in Mali, and he finds himself on Christmas day with scarcely a penny to his name (the only ATM machine in the town being broken). That evening he is boarding a boat to Timbuktu (yes, THE Timbuktu), for which he has bought a five dollar ticket which entitles him to a concrete bed under the stars. With his final few francs he purchases a thin blanket for himself and his platonic female travelling companion. The temperature that night is frigid. They are sleeping on the concrete upper deck of a ship. To have purchased a bed would have been more expensive and shamefully less adventurous. Still, it is very cold. He eventually abandons his companion (thus depriving her of his body warmth, only later does he realize) and eventually finds warmth on the floor of the second class bathroom with Ayn Rand’s The Fountain Head for a pillow. It is miserable to be sure, but what a story! That morning, he goes up on deck and sees the entire sunrise — total darkness, merging into streaks of pink and purple before finishing as a vault of brilliant blue sky. All of this while floating down a river that seems lost in time, surrounded by men in robes and turbans lounging on giant burlap sacks. Even as the sun is rising he scribbles frantically in his black moleskin notebook, trying to capture every moment of this glorious experience.
Kigali, Rwanda (January, 2011)
Picture, if you will again, this same young man, now a robust 27, standing in Kigali, Rwanda. The mission is different this time. He is not here for pleasure, nor is he here for adventure. Or if it is adventure it is certainly of a different sort. The young man is now a PhD candidate at a large Northeastern university. This university has agreed to pay for this young man to travel to Rwanda in preparation for his future writing (dissertation, journal articles, books, who knows?).
Traveling to Rwanda is a difficult undertaking, and not just because it is far away and getting there is tremendously expensive, but because of what happened there. The more time the young man spends in Rwanda, the more he speaks to people about what happened, the more he visits the different sites where the massacres took place… He feels something changing, or rather something becoming more the same… Well what?… It’s hard to put into words. It’s just one of those things. One of those things that’s hard to explain. And one of those things that he’ll spend the rest of his life trying to explain. That is his job, he realizes, trying to explain, understand, that thing he feels that feels impossible to explain.
Dogon Country, Mali (January, 2004)
The adventure for this young man continues. Timbuktu is one and done. There was a camel ride, eating with his hands out of a communal bowl while squatting outside a hut in the desert. He met a group of other tourists on the ferry, and now they call themselves the “Timbukcrew.” He went on a camel ride wearing a blue turban.
But Timbuktu is done. Now they are in Dogon country, a beautiful part of Mali, except they are there with a lying, cheating Malian guide, who grows angry at us for not giving him more money. He flecks my face with spittle as he admonishes us for our lack of understanding. He is not a cheat, we are simply ignorant. Since no one else in our group speaks French, it is I, the French major, who gets shouted at the most. However, despite the yelling and its mind-numbing unpleasantness, we can’t deny that Dogon country is beautiful — simply gorgeous. Like the American southwest, except with whole villages built into these enormous hillsides, blending in seamlessly as if the huts had risen organically out of the earth.
I sit on a mountain ledge, our trip completed, looking out over this flat, endless plain. My god, I think, as I look out, My god. Life. Everything. Life is so complete right now. It is everything right now. I’m in the moment. I’m here. I’m in Africa. Incredible. Just simply f’in incredible. Sure, later, there’s a trip to the police station because half our group won’t pay the guide, and sure there’s a 50 hour train ride back to Senegal (my home during the year abroad) where enormous, loquacious women take up all the seats in our compartment and where I have no bed, a trip (the train ride) that feels less adventurous and more just plain shitty. And then when we get back to Senegal I get really sick, and eat almost nothing for a week. Did I mention during this whole trip I was missing a front tooth? But it was glorious. Simply, simply, simply glorious.
Nyamata, Rwanda (January, 2011)
Most of the memorials in Rwanda are sites where massacres occurred that the government has since converted into memorials. In Nyamata, around 10,000 people went into the local church, in the vain hope that the killers would balk at committing massacres in a sacred space. I am standing outside the church with my group, listening to a guide tell us what happened. The Tutsis hiding in the church barricaded the door from the inside, she explains. Unable to break down the sturdy metal door, the Hutu militia then used a grenade to blow open the door of the church. I should clarify that the people hiding inside were civilians (ordinary men, women and children) not soldiers. They were the neighbors, and sometimes also the relatives of the people trying to kill them.
In the door of the church you can still see the large hole blown by the grenade. You can still see the holes from the shrapnel of the grenade on the ground by the entrance of the church. We move inside the church, and the guide points out that there are also holes in the ceiling of the church because they actually throw grenades inside before going in to finish people off with guns and machetes. Inside the church are dozens of wooden benches covered with clothes of the victims. Just rows and rows of dusty brown tee-shirts, pants, hats, dresses…The church had formally shown exposed bodies but they had since been removed. One body, that used to be prominently displayed, now has its special crypt beneath the floor of the church. There is another crypt nearby where you walk down a narrow flight of stairs into a small corridor where there are bones and skulls arranged on a wooden platforms that are ten feet high. The effect of all of this is at one powerful and surreal. What you find most moving often surprises you. I got choked up looking at the blown off bottom section of the door. At a “Cornell” sweatshirt taken from one of the victims.
It’s also so overwhelming and so awful that your mind sort of shuts off. It wasn’t until I got back to the States that I could really process everything I’d seen (as much as anyone can ever really “process” seeing something like that).
While the rest of our group was wrapping up the visit at the church, I noticed that one of our Rwandan chaperone’s was sitting in our group’s van by himself. He was about my age and we had gotten friendly the day before so I decided to go over and keep him company. As soon as I sat down he said:
“I was here, you know.”
I was stunned. “Here in the church?”
“No, no,” he said. “But I came by after it happened. I saw the bodies and everything, it was awful.”
“Yeah,” I said, “that must have been awful.” (What else can you say?)
“Yes,” he said, “It was awful. The bodies, the blood, everything, it was awful”
Rwanda has made remarkable strides since the genocide happened. The government, which is unfortunately far from perfect, has nonetheless done a remarkable job of keeping the country stable while allowing it to grow economically. When you arrive in Kigali today, you are struck by how clean and orderly it is (one of the governments new initiatives was to ban plastic bags). It is also a beautiful country, (Rwandans calls it “The Land of a Thousand Hills”) where you are almost always in sight of a lush, green mountain tops.
Ahh, but methinks this blog entry is drawing to a close. Perhaps you are asking, so what of this young man (now almost 28) with whom you have shared the last few moments of your life? Well, he is back in the northeast, reading massive piles of books in French, thinking about past adventures, and figuring out how to do good in the world from his tiny corner of academe.
There we have it my friends. Thus ends my contribution to this blog which I have been such a fan of for such a long time. Another tip of the cap to Mademoiselle Tavel, to whom my entry owes its very existence, on so many levels. Hasta luego, compadres…
Geordie is in the first year of a PhD program in French Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. He attended Bowdoin with Tavel where he played squash, did improv, and watched ungodly amounts of French Canadian TV. His favorite place to travel is Africa, but he loves France as well.
If you want to learn more about the genocide, Geordie suggests Philip Gourevitch’s book “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families”, the Front-line documentary “Ghosts of Rwanda” (available on Youtube), and, as a feature film alternative to Hotel Rwanda, the movie “Sometimes in April” which is also available on youtube.
There is also a wonderful charitable organization that helps orphans of the genocide. It was started by Geordie’s former college professor who got him interested in Rwanda. If interested, you can learn more about it and/or donate here: http://friendsoftubeho.org/.