This week started out with a trip to church. Rwandans are famous for asking visitors about prayer and religion. I have answered honestly about being Jewish, but no one here knows what that is. Many missionaries have come here both before and since the genocide so there is a mixture of different Christian denominations and there is also a Muslim community. I had heard the catching melodic tunes bouncing out of church walls as I walked down the street and was interested in seeing what the Sunday experience was for my students. So, when the invitation was extended I quickly accepted.
We slipped in late at 10am. The band was live and electric and the congregants were singing and swaying to familiar tunes. I smiled. Their enthusiasm was contagious. A man squeezed in next to me and explained his role as translator for foreign guests. He would explain each song, sermon, and speech as they rolled along. Interestingly, there was a guest minister from Germany at the church who would be giving his sermon in English with a Rwandan translator backing him up for the crowd.
His sermon was about gratefulness which excited me. I was even more enthused when he mentioned that he would be using the Old Testament which I am somewhat familiar with. I straightened my spine in alertness and receptivity. And then he spoke. My first thought was that I would indeed need an interpreter. My second was that if I couldn’t understand the minister’s heavily accented English, his Rwanda translator was bound to have some difficulty as well. My assumption was accurate, but my reasoning was off. The trouble with the translating stemmed not from the voice, but from the content. The parables of barns and seeds of evil that would not grow in gratefulness did not translate but the minister’s ignorance of his audience did. Determined, he plowed on.
As the sermon climaxed the band took over and the minister began to walk around. There were cries and exclamations for Jesus coming from a woman in the front. I struggled to see the face attached to such emotion, but I couldn’t pick her out. Instead my eyes landed on a body being carried out of the church. I wondered if someone fainted which has happened in the heat of a crammed Yom Kippur service at my hometown synagogue. But then I noticed that it wasn’t the only lifeless body around. The minister was pressing his fingers into chosen congregants’ faces and blowing on their foreheads. He was staring fiercely at them and some were dropping down to the floor. My expression must have been one of concern because my translator turned to me and whispered, “Don’t worry. They will be okay. They simply can not stand in the face of G-d, ” and then went back to dancing.
The week ended with a trip to Murambi, home of one of the biggest genocide sights and memorials in Rwanda. My housemates and I took a two and a half hour bus ride down to Butare and then another bus Murambi. Beautiful does not describe the rolling African hills that sailed beside us. At Murambi we employed the drivers of motoscooters that knew our destination all too well. We were about to be at the site of one of the most horrific killings imaginable, but dirt road was lined with big leafed trees and the wind was running through my hair. I was smiling as children and adults stopped what they were doing to wave at the muzungo (westerner) riding by. I was happy to be in Africa.
The moto stopped at large school back dropped by the kind of scenery that makes you curse your imperfect camera. We were greeted immediately by our guide one of just four survivors from the tragedy that took place here. I knew that I was going to see dead bodies. The perpetrators of the genocide had thrown the dead in a mass grave. Later the grave was dug up so that the victims could be accounted for and buried according to regulation. However, when they unearthed the skeletons, they found that they had been preserved due to large quantity of limestone in the soil. It was then decided that the remains be placed on tables in 24 of the school rooms open for viewing.
Without warning a door was opened and there they were. Dead people. I gasped. The stench was nauseating. I pulled my shawl up to my face. I wanted to scream. My mouth opened but my throat was clenched. Ribs. Shoulders. Pieces of hair not yet rotted away. Could I do this? Could I really stand here in front of this? I hoped I wouldn’t faint. The guide said her husband and children were in this very room. A couple tears plopped. I felt sick. We moved on to the next room. The same. And the one after that also more bodies. A dismembered head. A child. It started to feel unreal and for a moment I marveled at my brain’s ability to disengage, to make me think I was on the set of a movie. I had to tell myself once more that what was in front of me was real. I had to face that one day I too will be bones. I took one more look and said goodbye. We had seen about 10 rooms and we didn’t want to see anymore. The guide said it was okay; “They are all the same anyway.”
We decided to take the walk back toward the buses, and we were just steps down the beautiful dirt road when the children started running. A pack of them gorgeous and giggling came toward us like gift from G-d I thought. The hugs were endless and the smiles wide. They held our hands and giggled at our whiteness. There was no time for mourning.
In front of me was Life.