There’s not much that would entice the average tourist to Rwanda.
There are the ‘Gorillas de Montagnes’.
As we draw into the city from the airport there is a circle of crudely carved metal structures that announces their importance. Mostly the overriding impression from my approach is of their rear ends. They are positioned in a circle facing the seat of government, the ‘Pentagon’ , (as it is referred to by the locals) . The gorillas look they are about ready to ward off the invasive ‘Muzungus’, the foreigners. Damascene, our FXB host , is a dark skinned, large man with an infectious full bellied laugh. He takes us to the Iris Guesthouse situated in a leafy, affluent looking suburb of Kigali It reminds me of Johannesburg – red roofs, high walls, security guards, bright green manicured lawns adjacent to the smooth road we travel on in our big four wheel drive, so necessary for the many dirt roads we will travel on later. The guesthouse has welcoming staff and the atmosphere is warm and homely. The travelers appear to be mainly American (hence the Pentagon reference and Voice of America on the radio) either visiting the reconciliation educational programmes related to Rwanda’s dark Genocide history or missionaries come to spread God’s love.
It’s at this point I need to spread my love and gratitude. Allow me to digress briefly from the subject of my present dwelling, and my mission in Kigali. Thanks go to Imogen Stubbs whom I photographed just before I left. She is an inveterate traveler as well as an acclaimed actress. Take Avon Stay Soft, she urges, the mozzies hate it. You can only buy it online. I dutifully do but still manage to get a ‘welcome to Rwanda (or was it Uganda?) mosquito bite. Thanks to my assistant Pierre who said that he had packed toilet roll. How ridiculous, I thought, as I stuffed one into my luggage anyway. Ingenious idea, it turns out.
I am in Kigali with the staff of FXB. Their names reflect Rwanda’s colonial past. Emmanuel, Candide, Josée, Louise and Immaculate, or Immaculée. Due to the country’s no plastics policy, the city is impressively clean. Street sweepers are everywhere, and there is an obligatory community service on the last Saturday of every month. Conservation is a by word to the national pride one senses. But so is subtlety and elegance. Women glide effortlessly carrying baskets laden with produce arranged in the most beautiful, picture shapes and displays. Bananas lie down with tomatoes and potatoes as if they were perfect bed fellows. Not only that, the women emerge from the landscape dotted with the poorest of dwellings, the reddest of dust and the most foot trodden paths wearing tailored stylish outfits adorned with colorful patterns. I wonder if French style has rubbed off here too – truth is it was the Belgians who had the most influence – not all good.
The root and origins of the Genocide lie in the divisive, sectarian rhetoric spread ‘thanks’ to the missionaries who pushed the inferior – superior notion where the Hutus and the Tutsis were concerned. At the Genocide Memorial a large cellophane covered bouquet of flowers sits on top of an open grave – ‘from the Belgian Airlines. Always in our hearts’ a sign says in French. The story on the walls inside the museum is heart wrenching. A million Tutsis killed in the blink of an eye. How is it possible that these friendly, warm, extraordinary people turned against one another so suddenly and with such brutal force? That, I guess, is a far reaching life question about good and evil, light and dark and touches far reaching questions about man’s quest in this life. In the days after my visit to the museum I see the tools – the machetes, the hoes, the hammers, the clubs put to the work for the task they were intended. (There is a display that gruesomely showcases the Genocide tools and they are that – basic worker implements). Someone told me that if you paid one dollar you could request a bullet to the head rather than the other route to meeting your maker, if you so believe – or face a painful hacking to effect your end.
Furaha stands tall in his banana plantation which sits atop a stunning location overlooking the greenest valley in mountainous surrounds. He was unable to feed his nine children before FXB gave him the leg up that he so desperately needed – majestic in his purple velvet hat with his worn machete, mustard yellow handle in hand, he shows me how he cuts into the low stem of the baby banana plant separating it from it’s mother, only to replant it nearby so that it replicates and the multiplication process begins. These are skills he has learnt through the FXB’s guidance. It’s hard physical work – and that is my overriding impression for all the men and women I meet who have been carefully pinpointed by FXB to be beneficiaries – the poorest families, the orphans, the widows and widowers and the HIV sufferers. We all watch as one man smelts metal manually for an hour in the hot sun looping a bicycle wheel over and over again, as the attached brassiere sporting flames does it’s work turning the recycled metal to liquid. He casts the mould into the soil and pours the silver liquid which has reached a temperature of well over 600 degrees into a hand-made vessel that turns, once cooled, into the crest-like shapes one would see that make secure gating around a home look more attractive. By the time the work of art emerges, as if by some miracle, from the ground the entire local community is watching, as are the staff of FXB. It is the balance of delicacy and the physical exertion in the task that is so awe inspiring. Rosemary is dressed in the most exquisite garment as she feeds an entire yard of squealing pigs. She tosses the ‘trays’ made from converted water containers, that are filled with left over food that looks, in our world, like its headed for the compost heap – bananas, beans, leaves, into the pigpens. Once finished she emerges unsoiled and resplendent in her beautiful garment to show me her other work, besides child tending. Beans. Beautiful pink beans drying on the hard earth. When I show her the image of her lying against a backdrop of beans she said ‘Beautiful – they look like drops’. I am not sure what she meant but I love the line anyway.
Day after day I am witness to the simple transformation of people’s lives – from a woman bedridden with HIV, an unmotivated man, a woman hopeless and unable to feed the many children and orphans dependant on her.
I keep thinking about François-Xavier Bagnoud and the legacy in his name. He died in 1986 while participating as a transport pilot in the Dakar car rally. In his life he was involved in over 300 rescue missions in his role as a helicopter pilot, and as part of Sion’s, Switzerland’s Air Glaciers.
He was 23 years and he already seemed to know what his mission was in life.
I’ve pondered about brave men and brave women. About dignity, and humility. About needing a helping hand. And about using it when you get it. . I ask Emanuel “we seem mainly to be visiting women. Why is that ?” He has a simple answer. Women are better with money. They save. Men are less reliable. The women are more likely to spend the money to support the family. I have seen it, he says. Even my own wife, if I ask her for 5000 Rwandan francs, she will only give me 3,000. And there are more women because of the Genocide. Even though I tell him that I did notice that women and children were killed. But it was the men who were targeted first, he corrects me.
It is the women who tend the orphans, bear the children, make the home. It is said that here in central Africa some spend up to nine hours per day on domestic chores alone. Yes women are strong and African women need to be even stronger.
This therefore is a good spot to salute the many mothers and their good sons.
I would like to thank my son, Gabriel Speechly who, like me is traveling in one of the poorest countries of the world similarly close to the equator. He is in Bolivia on his Gap year journey. I read his blog called southamericanjournal which inspired me to write mine.
And here’s to Albina du Boisrouvray who birthed Francois-Xavier and whom by creating FXB, continues inspirationally to honour and cherish his memory.
Images thanks to Pierre Maelzer.