January 8, 2015

Most days, Kigali is bursting at its dusty seams with activity. It’s busiest in early evening, when ‘rush hour’ means triple the amount of motos weaving in between SUVs, cars that are missing dashboards, and pick-up trucks hanging so low to the ground that sometimes whatever is down there scrapes the road with a very loud screech. (I know I should know what is happening there—I still have a lot to learn about cars.) The honking is incessant, but nearby, birds perching on the power lines chime in to the cacophony. The sounds of Kigali traffic can be accosting, but I’ve come to depend on the evening’s crescendos and diminuendos, the way the city revs me up before letting me down easy.

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On Christmas, my mom and I have one of our spontaneous dance parties, doing our thing across the tiled living room floor while singing—belting, really—“Sweet Caroline,” her favorite. When my parents leave a few days later and it’s just Katrina and me, we stay up late catching up on months of being apart. We paint our nails and eat spoonfuls of peanut butter and watch Friday Night Lights. The chiding begins immediately: she slaps my hand every time I crack a knuckle and I growl stop biting when she nibbles on her nails. We settle into our sister routine, which I’ve been missing more than I realized. There are almost always thousands of miles between us; sometimes I forget how well she knows me, how we know each other better than anyone else.

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with love from Rwanda to the cities we call home
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Mom attempts to take a few selfies with her new iPhone.

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***

It starts pouring in the middle of our hike in Nyungwe rainforest. The water comes down hard and fast and within seconds I learn that my waterproof jacket is not, in fact, waterproof, but my brand-new water-resistant hiking boots repel water like it’s the one thing they were brought into this world to do. I blink my way through the rain, breathing hard through my mouth. The rain never lets up and we never stop walking.

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***

It is heavy here. The weight of the worst things humans can do to their fellow humans is pervasive. Twenty years ago, after Rwanda’s genocide left over a million people dead, the bullet holes in the walls of the Parliament building were left as a reminder. Bodies were dug up around the country—skeletons of mothers and husbands and grandparents and babies, their bones preserved with limestone—and placed delicately on display on top of wooden tables to serve as reminders, too. So their surviving relatives and countrymen can come see. So the world can come see.

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At the Murambi Genocide Memorial—once Murambi Technical School—each classroom is full of preserved bodies pulled from mass graves.

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In her book The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison wrote: “You’re just a tourist inside someone else’s suffering until you can’t get it out of your head; until you take it home with you—across a freeway, or a country, or an ocean.” The stench of the skeletons was overwhelming, but I couldn’t bring myself to cover my nose and mouth. To know inside the heart is difficult, Fidel said to me. Maybe the difficult part is realizing we too often try not to know.

***

It is light here. Light enough to put a million tiny cracks in the armor you and I and everyone builds up after difficult times. Light enough to let the Rwandan sunshine pour through. Light enough to melt resistance. When you are riding on a moto at 60 miles per hour and all you see are the city lights painting the hills and all you feel is the warm night breeze tucking you in and all you want is to be tucked in, by this air and place and even by that feeling of your stomach in your throat when the moto driver doesn’t break hard enough for the speed bump and you’re airborne, light for a weightless second and all you can think is, I trust this.

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Last night, I made a simple dinner. I roasted garlic and sautéed a couple red onions. I cooked a sausage and a bit of rice. I cut up fresh vegetables—cucumber, carrot, tomato—and put them on a plate with pieces of ripe pineapple. It was a simple, fresh, colorful meal, made in a small, breezy kitchen on a small plot of land in a small but tremendous country.

Today, like usual, I woke up under my mosquito net and lay listening for a while. Cars and motos were scuttling down the street, their horns punctuating the morning. The birds outside my window were having full conversations. The caretaker, Felician, was doing some kind of gardening that entailed hitting a metal tool repeatedly against the brick. I smiled, remembering many mornings waking up in Ghana and Sri Lanka, where I learned how in some parts of the world, when your neighbor is up, it means everyone else should be up, too.

And so I’m up, opening all the doors and windows in the house because I can’t get enough of this country’s breeze and sunshine, all 70-something degrees of it. I start boiling water for coffee and walk out into the yard. I decided a long time ago that if I could go barefoot for the rest of my life, I would. The earth under my feet, the grass and dirt between my toes—this is what grounds me. After coffee, I take my time hanging things on the clothesline because in the history of chores, this is one of my favorites. When I was young, I helped my grandmother hang clothes in the backyard of my grandparent’s home in northern New York. The line stretched from the patio to the grandkids’ tree house and I’d stand on a chair, stretching up to secure the clothes, hanging on to every word Grandma said. Years later, in Ghana, hand washing and pinning up clothes was a sweaty, tiring, three-hour ordeal. I loved it so much I saved all of the clothespins I bought there to use again in the backyard of my future house someday.

Felician walks by with his loud metal tool. “Mwaramutse,” I say. Good morning. “Amukuru?”

The light, heavy day begins.

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