It’s already Saturday evening, and I haven’t even had the chance to tell you about Monday.
Monday was a transition and travel day between the two days of solar panel installations. We drove from Kigali down to Huye (previously known as Butare – apparently I was using an older name in my previous e-mails. The hotel wifi is down as I’m writing this, so I’ll research it a little further later on), and en route we stopped in Nyanza to visit the King’s Palace Museum-Rukari. This was a combination “modern” home tour (built 1931), plus a reproduction of a traditional thatched, beehive-shaped, Rwandan king’s palace from pre-colonial times.
The difference between the traditional home and the modern home of King Mutura III Rudahigwa is striking insofar as it spoke to me of how quickly and almost violently Rwanda was torn from its traditional and ancient societies and monarchies and shoved unceremoniously into the 20th century. Rudahigwa almost single-handedly brought Rwanda into a modern age, both through his diplomacy with Europe – specifically Belgium – and through his deep connections to the Catholic church.
And then, abruptly in 1959, he died, of unknown causes under mysterious circumstances. His half-brother ascended to the throne but fled from political and social unrest to the Congo in 1960, and thus Rwanda entered an age of “elections” and military coups and continuing ethnic and tribal divisiveness that led it, almost inevitably in hindsight, to the 1994 genocide.
It was delightful to learn about the complex and multifaceted traditions that surrounded the daily life and responsibilities of the monarchies of Rwanda. From how to beg the king for an audience, to the virgin boys who take care of the milk from the Inyambo cattle (and also turn it into butter and buttermilk), to the separate entrances to the bedchamber for the king and his many wives.
And meeting the herd of Inyambo and their keepers was terrifying and wonderful at the same time. Terrifying in that I have a mild-to-moderate fear of large mammals that can bite, gore, or trample me; and wonderful in that these enormous cattle with massive, gracefully-arching horns were completely docile, gentle, and responsive to the men who herded them.
I patted an Inyambo and it didn’t attack me. I felt that this was a personal victory, especially since when I first laid eyes on the herd approaching us I actually ran and hid behind Chuck for a few minutes.
From there we drove to Huye and the Ethnographic Museum. I was expecting to simply go on a museum tour, but instead we were escorted around the back to a covered concrete performance area.
And then the Intore Dance began.
I’d read a little bit about the Intore Dance, and watched some clips on YouTube. To sum it up rather poorly, there are parts of the dance where the men show their skills with spear and shield, where women show sowing seeds and preparing the land for a good harvest, and where men don unique headdresses that mimic a lion’s mane and show their strength.
But absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the power, ferocity, and joy of the young Rwandan men and women, some singing, some drumming, many dancing, as they began their performance.
Everything about it was amazing, and I’m going to lose my words here, because I think it is intrinsic to dance to be able to evoke and describe that for which there are no words. But within moments of hearing the drums, the singing in harmony, and the incredibly beautiful women in fuchsia and gold, I was close to tears.
Because, in them, through them, Rwanda was ALIVE.
At the Kigali Genocide Memorial, at the bottom of the final panel describing the first horrific months of slaughter, there were three terrible, heartbreaking summarizing words: “Rwanda was dead.”
But here, in front of me, jumping and swaying and embracing the world around them with their entire bodies, their eyes, their smiles, all of themselves, they showed themselves to be a brilliant phoenix, risen from the ashes and soaring free. They embodied their dance, their culture, their history, tying joyful Gordian knots that bridged their past and raced into their future.
It was incredible, and then I cried.
The performance lasted about an hour, and sometime in the middle of it I had a fairly shocking personal realization.
First, I realized that I was looking at a country that was essentially whole, essentially “well,” and that I did not truly see Rwanda as a country that needed to be “fixed.”
I know that this seems completely contrary to the drive to fundraise for and install solar panels in rural areas, but in my own head I’m using this language on a somewhat different level.
I see the solar panels as an “assist,” supporting an idea and project generated by a Rwandan.
I saw my work in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Haiti as “help.”
I saw West Africa and Haiti as countries that “needed my help,” and thus I travelled to “help” them.
And here’s the realization that kicked me in the teeth at the Intore:
When I intellectually and emotionally described these countries – to myself – as needing “help,” I immediately viewed them as “broken.”
And thus I viewed them, by my own definition, as “less.”
This was a pretty painful and shameful moment, but it’s part of a much larger process that’s been ongoing for me since leaving Sierra Leone in the spring of 2014. I actually went into nursing back in 2001 because I wanted to “help needy people” around the world, and it is only quite recently that I’ve moved into a realization that that mindset is an entirely colonial one. It is the mindset of someone who sees something that’s not working, and immediately believes that they know the “right” way to do it.
Europeans have been doing this for centuries, and I think it’s safe to say we’ve generally made a fuck-up job of it, with horrific repercussions for the countries we’ve “helped.”
(Americans and Canadians have done the same for Native/First Nations communities, by the way. If you think you don’t live in a country where there is an ongoing genocide, think again.)
I have a lot to unpack here, and I don’t want to drag you down with my own whirlpools of self-reflection and self-examination, but the point is that the Intore dance was the highlight of my trip thus far in Rwanda, both for the incredible joy it shared with me, but also for a moment of incredible clarity.
What a journey I have yet to undertake in my own head, in my own life, and in my own future.
The Ethnographic Museum itself was well-curated and very interesting, but I was still in emotional-shock-mode and regrettably I didn’t absorb very much of it.
And that evening in Huye half our team went down with Rudahigwa’s Revenge, and so we all moved into damage-control-mode, which mostly involved sending Claver to the pharmacy for anti-parasitics, antibiotics, and electrolyte packages about three or four times.
We’re back in Kigali now, and will be here for the remainder of our time in Rwanda. We have a few more activities planned, but for now the whole team is recovered and well, with some at the bar, some at the pool, and the rest of us relaxing in our rooms.
I hope to be able to send one or two more posts from Rwanda, and then I fly to Tanzania to spend two more weeks exploring central/east Africa, enjoying my time as a 100%, unadulterated, off-duty-nurse-slash-mzungu-tourist.
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PS: Butare v. Huye. The town was historically known as Butare, renamed Astrida in 1935 (King Leopold III’s wife was named Astrid), then renamed Butare in 1962 with Rwandan independence, and then 2006 administrative reforms essentially changed the name to Huye, which is also that of the district. But it sounds like most people recognize it under either name. Mystery solved.