“If You Knew Me:” Borrowed Words and Journal Snapshots
by Christine Weatherby
Snapshots from a Journal:
A few short pages from my travel journal to Rwanda in 2011. Time spent during a two week internship, partnering with World Help.
Emotionally attempting to move passed the background of skulls:
“Go back to your Universities and tell their stories” – Bishop John Rucyahana (paraphrased from a lecture given at the Bloom Hotel, Kigali, Rwanda, 2011).
Our group tugged up to the curb, in the white bus, the one with the faded Bob Marley sticker clinging to a back window that could not open well. Deep purple and dirty white crepe tissue streamers adorned the carcass structure we were about to enter. Taken back, I remembered the places we had been, though it was hard to make sense of these surreal carcasses of structures, these mosaics of stained broken glass, these artistries of artifacts, and these watercolors of emotions that lingered too close for words- but not too close for Lily Yeh1 inspired art! Outside the smell of coffee and bananas adorned the lush green plants and unearthing rich soil that seemed to pop. I garden at home and envied this lush soil. We had been driving and everyone was excited to finally get out of the vehicle. There was an eruption of noise as we chaotically departed to make our way to our new destination.
People wearing bright blue and yellow patterns hurried along a curvy dirt road. Some were riding rusty bikes while balancing so many objects to sell. Some seemed to be smiling at us and even shouted, “Muraho” to which we replied, “Muraho” trying hard to copy the language and to mirror back the same kindness. Outside a gardener was hacking at the landscape with a machete. He is keeping it beautiful we are told to honor those that died here. Our group walked passed a sign, Ntarama Urwibutso Rwa Jenoside. There is a stone wall with the names of those that died here. We know the facts about what has happened here but I am not prepared as I enter through the narrow entryway of broken bricks and collected collages of chaos. It is the shelves and shelves of skulls staring back catch me off guard.
Memory Mosaics in Honor of the Women of Rwanda:
“When Western countries can make themselves feel good about their virtue by offering “relief” to others, they will do it. But when help calls for sacrifice, as it did in 1994, the West seems to prefer sacrificing Africa to putting any of its own resources or people at risk” – Emmanuel Katongole “Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda, p. 44).
Talking softly now is a beautiful older woman. Huddle I, to the front to hear her speak in spite of the scary skulls. I get as close as I can without being impolite to those in my group. I feel like I have been punched in the stomach. I can’t move. I can’t speak. I am trying to hold back tears. My legs are shaking. She pulls back her long hair, she pulls back her dress, and she pulls back her shirt to reveal multiple machete scars on her body. Behind her, skulls- rows and rows of skulls. In back are hanging clothes splattered in blood. Shoes, church pews, pans that should be filled with umutsima, isombe, and mizuzu. There is also this heavy lingering sadness like the ghosts of many people who can no longer speak with words, just the etchings of displaced artifacts. But these are not yet arranged artfully to bring hope and community. In contrast, these still tell the story of those that died here. The woman talks about coming to this church for protection. Many of the men fought outside. Overtaken, crash, and running to hide. Her worst scars are no longer visible. Someone grabbed her baby that she was carrying on her back. She watched the whole thing. She has survived the whole thing.
With respect, why do you stay here? Is it healthy to stay in such a place? “To honor my loved ones, to care for the grounds here, and to tell their story so the world may know and so it will not happen again.”
She narrates amid these chaotically arranged artifacts. She reads a poem written by a boy who stopped to write while the church’s outer body was being broken and attacked. I don’t remember the exact words, but they are similar to: “you don’t know me because if you knew me, then you could not do this to me.” It sounds better- more elegant- in Kinyarwanda. There is a broken stained glass window. In other places in Rwanda, many people had come to worship together before the killing started. Now, something different in the architecture of churches and many unanswered philosophical and geopolitical questions remain with the skulls.
She took us to another structure in the back. We are told this used to be the Sunday School room. I can’t breathe. There is fractured wood and more artifacts on the floor. I can’t look down. On the wall are stains of blood and chunky splattered brains. There is an object we are shown, like a pool stick or pole, but I don’t understand at first all the logistics. We are told this object was used to hurt the women. They died bleeding slowly. It may have taken hours to die. The last images they must have seen are of their children smashed against the wall and splatters of blood. This used to be an architecture and body of faith and community. I would hear similar stories when we visited the Genocide Memorial in Kigali. I would see more rows and rows of skulls. I would see pictures of children and more women.
I am a mother and I have trouble emotionally leaving this place and the widow’s village where I sang songs with a survivor on the floor of her home. We just held each other. I can’t imagine surviving something like this, I would want to die too. I doubt I would have the same courage. I don’t understand how my country could let this happen. I don’t want to leave. Our group is told by many Rwandan Nationals we meet that it is important to tell these stories when we get back to our Universities. I want to honor those that passed here and other places by telling their stories so that the people of my country may fall in love with the people the way that I have fallen in love with them. Could there still be hope to change things? Could we really prevent something like this from ever happening again, anywhere? There are so many stories of courage, of compassion, of survival, of forgiveness, and of rebuilding to live life well. There is still much I am continuing to learn from the people of Rwanda.
Such profound beauty in nature collide with people unlike anything I had ever experienced. Memoires equally mixed with pain and a resilience to repair what broken bodies could still be mended. You don’t know them. If you knew them then you could not have let it happen.
1-Lily Yeh is part of Barefoot Artists, an organization that uses art to rebuild distressed communities. Learn more at: http://barefootartists.org/projects/the-rwanda-healing-project/genocide-memorial-park/
2-Ntarama Urwibutso Rwa Jenoside. A small Catholic Church about 25 km South of Kigali. About 5,000 people were killed here. Women were systematically raped. Violence against women was a strategy of war. Learn more at: http://www.rwandanstories.org/genocide/ntarama_church.html
Umutsima, Corn with Pasta
Isombe, Cassava Leaves
Mizuzu, Fried Plantains