The classrooms at Murambi Technical School smell of preservatives and decaying bodies.
Nobody ever studied there. The genocide began before construction of the school was completed. Political leaders rounded up Tutsis who were fleeing the violence and encouraged them to go to the huge school and seek refuge there. Once the victims were gathered, leaders shut off the water, cut off access to food, and weakened people for a few days.
Then, on April 21st at about 3 a.m., genocidaires slaughtered an estimated 50,000 people.
After the genocide, the mass graves surrounding the school were exhumed. Intact bodies were coated in limestone and now lie scattered across tables in the never-used classrooms. The remains are white, mangled and mummified. You can still see curly black hair on many heads.
We visited the school this morning. It was an intense experience. Overwhelming. I couldn’t go into every classroom.
I have conflicting feelings about it all. There’s no denying how powerful and emotional the experience was. Out of all the memorials we’ve seen, this one hit all of us the hardest. We all cried. My stomach twisted. I had to take deep breaths to try and stay composed. For the most part, we were quiet after.
There was something so striking about it all though, that it denied comprehension. Maybe, as one of our group members, Noah, said, “You’re supposed to leave feeling like shit.” But I also wonder where the line is and what the purpose of a memorial should be.
Murambi is controversial here for the way bodies have been displayed, rather than traditionally lain to rest. I wonder how it all fits into this country’s struggle to offer irrefutable evidence that a genocide happened (deniers still exist inside and outside the country), but also to foster peace and reconciliation and move beyond the violent past. There are no easy answers.
To balance our difficult morning, we had a very pleasant afternoon. In some ways, it felt wrong to hop on our bus and rumble into the nearby town of Butare for lunch and tourism. My instinct after visiting the memorials seems to be to isolate myself and be quiet and inactive for a while. In hindsight, though, it’s probably much healthier to get outside and be reminded of life.
We had lunch at a little motel, then drove to the National University’s Butare campus to take a look around. The University of Victoria, where my little sister studies, has a rabbit infestation. The campus in Butare has monkeys.
Security was suspicious about why a busload of tourists would want to see the university, so they wouldn’t let us get out of the car, but we did take a quick drive around campus to snap photos out our window and see where some of our Rwandan counterparts study. It was a quick glance, but the campus seemed very nice—full of green space and beautiful new residence buildings.
We made a stop at what is apparently Rwanda’s first and only ice cream shop, a place called Inzozi Nzina—Sweet Dreams, in English. N., D. and I each ordered a medium bowl of vanilla ice cream with a sugar cookie stuck in the side. It was heavenly.
We stopped in a craft store on the way back, and while we waited for people to pick out some souvenirs, our guide got a text message from a contact who said he knew where we should go to pick up some banana beer. We cobbled together 7000RWF (about $10.00), drove down a narrow dirt road, and picked up a jerry can of thick, yellow-orange liquid. Noah filled his water bottle and passed it around so we could each have a sip. It tasted more like wine than beer, wasn’t as strong as I would have expected moonshine to be, and had a distinct banana after taste. Still, I stopped after my one sip. Ever cautious, N. opened the window so he wouldn’t inhale too many alcoholic fumes.
We drove back to Kigali in the darkness of Rwandan countryside night. As we drove, N. asked me what I thought about the “development” of Rwanda, and, as somebody from a developed country, what I thought Rwanda needed to get better.
I answered honestly, telling him that I think it’s amazing how far the country has come in 20 years, and that while there is still a gap in infrastructure between here and the West, they’re working against a huge disadvantage of circumstances. “I think what it needs is just some time,” I said. He seemed to like that answer.
“You only have one week left,” he said, changing the topic.
“I know! Don’t say that. We’ll all miss you,” I replied.
“Maybe we’ll see each other again,” He said.
I nodded. “Maybe.”
“Maybe I’ll come to Canada.”
I smiled. “Yes, maybe.”