|The now baron hillside of southern Rwanda.|
Sunday, February 13, 2011
Part of the Solution
I can remember art history classes in college. The exams were usually a combination of obscure pieces that we as students had to describe in detail considering their form, medium, movement, etc. The catch was that my professors always liked to choose the most abstract works to compare and contrast, Kandinsky and Caravaggio aren’t exactly in the same ballpark. For some reason I always liked finding ways to connect these works, however, just for the sake of argument it was fun. But seeing legitimate connections between artists that came from completely different worlds with supposedly completely different motivations behind their artworks was interesting too. It affirmed the idea that regardless of when or where these works were created, historically, they can only exist together. One without the other is pointless. Without an exhibit A to compare to exhibit B the values of exhibit B are lost. We need opposition to find identity in this world, to grow.
I thought about this again this weekend as I hiked to the market near my village. The travel time is over an hour, but the views of the rolling hillside make up for it. There are just miles and miles of lush farmland, exquisitely terraced into perfect patterns. Once in a while there is a house or two, but that is the rare exception. Once I arrive at the market I’m already in a different world. The villages in the rural southern part of the country, like mine, are very small, so instead of having a market in each one there is a type of regional market for several of them. And it’s ginormous. People buzz past on bicycles carrying sacks of potatoes, rice and beans. Children swarm me as I try to make my way through the crowd. Rabbits, pigs, chickens and goats wander aimlessly while picking at old kernels of corn left behind from last week. Market day - pandemonium. It usually takes the same amount of time to buy food at the market as it does just to walk to the market, the crowds are overwhelming and besides, everything is slower with me because I’m a big American spectacle in the middle of their normal Rwandan market. This time as I was leaving though, a truck pulled over to the side of the road and offered to give me and my groceries a lift. He explained to me that his name was Christopher; he was the mayor of the town next to mine and the nephew of one of my Kinyarwanda teachers from training. I realized I had heard of him before, and so I told my shopping buddy Media to hop in. On the way Christopher asked me if I enjoyed the scenery here and I started babbling on about the beautiful view of the hills as seen on the way to the market. He asked me if I saw any houses, and I replied that there was a few but barely any. I sat in the truck stunned as Christopher explained why the hills appear the way they do.
Before the genocide in 1994, the hillside was jam-packed with homes. Rows of neighborhoods filled the hillside, and the only hint of farmland was a family garden here or there. Families typically lived in close proximity to each other, with each generation setting up camp year after year. There were hundreds of houses, some mud brick with grass thatched roofs, and some wooden or cement. During the war, those involved in the genocide torched the houses at night, burning their victims in their sleep. Some tried to flee and were attacked, either to be killed or just permanently disfigured. Barely anyone from this hillside survived, a few houses stand in an open sea of sorrow. Christopher’s family was a victim of this crime, and out of six brothers, he is the only one that survived. Him and his mother, whom he carried for hours away from their burning house in the dead of the night.
His words cut into me with aggressive reality. This was the first time I had even heard a Rwandan use the word ‘genocide’ in conversation. On top of this being the first time we met I had no idea what to say. And since he was speaking in English my friend in the back that only speaks Kinyarwanda couldn’t enlighten me either. I stammered for a moment, trying desperately to maintain a good impression while being supportive and empathetic. I asked him, “what did you do after that?”
Not once did Christopher’s solid expression break. It was difficult for me to tell if he was still grappling with the situation or completely at peace with it. He replied quickly, “I became a part of the solution”. He described to me in detail his feelings after losing everyone in his family but his mother, his neighbors and friends. He told me how angry he was for a month or so, cursing everything around him and wishing at times that he would have just died as well. And then, he realized that every problem that we face in life is really an opportunity to rebuild. He decided to be a part of the solution, instead of the problem. Christopher finished secondary school with extremely high marks, got a scholarship to attend one of the best universities in the country, studied political science and is now the mayor of a major town in Rwanda. Not to mention he owns his own vehicle, which is a serious accomplishment. He still takes care of his mother and he’s also starting a family of his own as of last year. Comparing my “problems” to Christopher’s made me feel nauseas. I expressed that to him, and in his normal fashion he told me that I am no less of a person just because I haven’t lived through a traumatic war or lost family members. It is not the problem that defines us, but the solution that builds character. Everyone faces problems in different degrees, and how we are conditioned to handle those problems is a result of our environment. A genocide in America would not transpire the same way as in Rwanda, or Australia, or Finland, or Morocco. Once again, despite where and when two people face a problem, no matter what the problem is, the result of that problem can be the same. In opposition we co-exist, and only in that way. We are different yet the same.
I have not had many moments as profound as this here in Rwanda. I was truly amazed by Christopher’s attitude and tenacity. It’s still difficult for me now to wrap his explanation around my mind as I replay it over and over in my head. We are different yet the same. That’s impossible! I could never be as courageous as Christopher, could I? But one thing I could conclude is that in my day to day life, I can emulate his philosophy. I can always be a part of the solution. In the past couple days it has sort of become my mantra, I’ve found myself questioning in several situations, is this working towards a solution? If anything, it keeps my motivations in check. So thanks for the pep talk, Christopher. You should seriously have your own TV show.