Gisenyi is the fifth largest town in Rwanda, located right on the western border of Rwanda and spilling over into the Congo. It is a popular vacation spot for Rwandans and tourists alike, as it sits right on the edge of Lake Kivu. Myself and two other AVP facilitators from Kigali traveled by bus to Gisenyi to facilitate the AVP workshop that kicks off the AGLI workcamp for the four visiting Americans and their Rwandan team members.
The bus ride to Gisenyi was breathtaking. I stared, open-mouthed, out the window for the entirety of the three-hour ride. The western part of the country is far more lush and mountainous than the east, and the scenery was almost surreal in its grandeur. The most awe-inspiring part of it all is how the Rwandans perch their homes along almost vertical slopes and manage to farm successfully with all their crops seeming to grow sideways. I was the only umuzungu on the bus, and though I’ve gotten used to the stares that seem to defy all rules of social etiquette that I grew up with, a kind older woman leaned over to me in the beginning of the ride, patted my arm softly and said in slow English, “Don’t worry about them, my daughter.” I could have hugged her; there was just such understanding and empathy in such a simple comment!
The most amusing part of the bus trip was when, just past Ruhengeri, the American pop song (I don’t know the title) that goes “Boom, boom, I want you in my room” came onto the radio that until then had been playing only African/Rwandan music. The bus was suddenly full of veiled Muslim women bopping along cheerily to the lyrics “boom, boom, boom, boom, we’ll spend the night together, together in my room,” while several men in the back where whistling along like it was their favorite tune. I couldn’t help but laugh, the song and their reaction were just so startling to me against the backdrop of rural Rwanda with banana trees, mud homes and dirt paths. We arrived in Gisenyi with ABBA’s “Chiquitita” blasting from the bus…it was perfect.
The three of us from Kigali, plus our translator (a Pastor from Congo and also an AVP facilitator), stayed in a Presbyterian welcome center/hostel that was nestled into gardens right around the corner from the centre of town—with running water and extremely nice rooms, such luxury! We could see two active volcanoes from where we were, one in Congo and one in Rwanda, the tops of which glow red at night from the lava inside reflecting against the clouds. I was also able to stick my toes into the beautiful Lake Kivu, which is free of crocodiles and the scary insects that cause nasty diseases (this is opposed to Lake Tanganyika which boasts its own crocodile, affectionately named Gustav, who has apparently eaten a whopping 3,000 people and counting).
The workshop took place in the Friends Church, located in sight of the Congolese border and the city of Goma. The workshop was made up of the four Americans, plus 18 Rwandans of many ages, varying language abilities, and even literacy. Language proved to be a frustrating barrier, as some participants weren’t able to speak with one another one-on-one throughout the entire three-day workshop—definitely not the AVP environment we try and foster. However, the workshop was a success and it was really inspiring to have many of the Rwandan participants come up to us and thank us for their newfound understanding of how to be nonviolent.
I was most struck by the difference in atmosphere that I sensed in Gisenyi, while understanding that my impression of atmosphere in Kigali is fairly limited. There were a startling number of people who were injured in some way, missing limbs, suffering from visible diseases and other physical problems, or visibly disturbed emotionally or mentally. I think the noticeable increase must be due to Gisenyi’s proximity to Congo and the brutal war that has been going on there for years and years. We walked to the border on our last day and I felt an almost tangible harshness to the way people were going about their lives—a pace that was both fast and slow at the same time, aimless and urgent, suspicious and yet also easy-going. Zadie Smith wrote in one of her books, White Teeth, of a mother who says she never wants her son to learn what it’s like “to hold one’s life lightly,” in reference to people who have very little and whose wellbeing is never guaranteed, always potentially one minute away from natural disaster, sickness, war, or poverty. The Gisenyi/Goma border was the first place I’ve ever been where that expression came to mind, and I felt I was watching people hold their lives lightly.
I also witnessed two instances of violence that were jarringly public and seemingly normal to everyone else around. Walking home from dinner one night, we saw a young teenage boy being hauled down the street by four older men. He was kicking and screaming for help, but no one did anything. I couldn’t understand the Kinyarwanda, so perhaps the boy was a thief, but perhaps he wasn’t—still, we just watched. The second was much more personal: my female co-facilitator, Solange, and I were walking back to our hostel in the dark after our first day in Gisenyi. As we came around a corner, we accidentally stumbled right into the middle of four heavily armed Rwandan soldiers, walking in a single-file line. It is absolutely forbidden here to interrupt a line of soldiers walking—it is interpreted as an enemy aggression. We almost literally bumped into two of them, having not seen them in the dark. One grabbed my arm and roughly shoved me backwards, ripping the sleeve of my shirt. The other grabbed Solange equally as roughly, but didn’t let go. She said something to him that I didn’t hear, and he slapped her hard across the face. I just stood there, shocked. The soldiers moved on, and Solange and I talked about it. She was fine, and when I told her that was the first time I’d seen a man hit a woman like that, she laughed at me and said, “welcome to Rwanda.” I am having hard time reconciling the fact that I was in Gisenyi to lead a workshop on nonviolence and the skills we need to confront the everyday violence in our lives, and yet I did nothing in both instances of violence that I witnessed there. At the same time, intervening would have been idiotic in both cases—so how do we respond to such inappropriate actions when we are outsiders or just bystanders? I have no answers.
It is nice to be home now, and I’m ready to celebrate the 4th of July with all of you, though I’m far away. The American embassy will have a lunch party for all the Americans a long way from home. Less than three weeks left, time’s flying!