It’s Saturday, and two women are dusting the skulls. Sun streams through afternoon clouds. Rain patters on the red dirt road. The sky is at once bright prisms and dark stratus swirls, and the duality is raw and promising. The women bend over shelves of bones inside the tin-roofed memorial site, pausing occasionally to look out over Rwanda’s rolling hills.
Down the road, the church choir is rehearsing, a gospel harmony streaming out of a brick-walled house. I pause on the roadway to listen.
“Keza?” an old man asks me, stopping alongside to adjust his knee-high rubber boots. Beautiful, no?
“Keza,” I agree. Beautiful.
We stand for a minute longer, the man and I, and he begins to murmur along with the hymn. As the music concludes, he extends his hand.
“Amahoro. Murakaza neza Kibeho,” he offers. Peace. Welcome to Kibeho.
* * *
I have lived here, in Kibeho, a rural town in southern Rwanda, for the past ten months. In some ways I belong. In many, I remain an outsider. I am a guest in a beautiful and layered community, one that I have come to very much admire.
Signs just outside Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, begin directing you to Kibeho, “The Holy Land.” As you get off the bus in town, a signpost orients you to the memorial site where victims of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide rest. Small painted markers point down to the valley spring where visions of the Virgin Mary occurred. Hand-lettered notices advertise cell phone credit, bus ticket sales, and chapatti at the local canteen. Up the hill, a banner declares the opening of a Catholic hotel, where portraits of Jesus, and, a little higher up, Rwanda’s President Kagame, decorate the walls.
Kibeho is a place of spiritual visions, of genocide memorial, of fields of cabbage, and a new bus line, and home to a little girl that, yesterday, learned to walk. It is also the site of a massacre, the Kibeho Massacre, which occurred in April 1995. Here, soldiers of the Royal Patriotic Front, the army President Kagame commanded and which brought a celebrated end to the 1994 genocide amidst international inaction, killed a contested 330 to 4,000 people.
I am an outsider, and as such my job is often first to listen and to learn. Each time I am told a new story, I realize how much I don’t know. I couldn’t possibly know.
There are no signs for that.
Walking about Kibeho, I often am reminded about the selectivity we use in recounting our stories and pasts. Where I am from, in the United States, dialogue on race and religion is often punctuated by conspicuous quiet. While events may pass concretely, their legacies stretch into the present, malleable by the language — and silence — with which we pass them on.