Five months pregnant with her second child, Rehema held her toddler first born still, careful not to move, breathe, show any form of life as they lay amongst dead bodies. That morning the killers had struck Rehema’s village, her husband had been dragged out and killed. Paralysed with fear, Rehema held Asma close, lest they be found, tortured and killed too.
Alpanadi, my sister-in-law, begun to tell me Rehema’s story just a few minutes ago, when amused that Rehema, her Rwandan cook, had made Bengali styled moong dal, shukto and payesh, I’d exclaimed, “Really? You taught her all that?”
Alpanadi shook her head, “No, my mother-in-law taught her all the Bengali recipes. Rehema has been with us since the time we came to Rwanda—both as our cook and house-keeper.” With that she started to tell me about Rehema’s life…
Hutus’ hatred against the Tutsis brimmed over in April 1994 and they tore upon the minority tribes likes beasts, bringing about one of history’s worst genocide. Tutsis had been killed like flies…their women and children raped and tortured in ghastly ways. After her husband was killed before her eyes, Rehema had clung to her daughter and played dead. They had not been found and thus, almost miraculously, Rehema escaped the brutalities of that 1994 summer with both her daughters, one a toddler, and the other, yet to be born.
When my sister-in-law and her family moved to Rwanda in 1995, somebody recommended Rehema to them for household chores. That’s how she entered their lives and has been with them ever since. As the country limped back to normalcy, so did she. Asma was enrolled into a government school and was proving to be a bright child, topping her class year after year. But, the excessive brutalities she’d witnessed as a toddler in 1994 had left their imprint on her–doctors said, she had a weak heart. In 2002, Asma attended a Gacaca court hearing of the genocide cases and she came face-to-face with her father’s killer. The man admitted to the judge that he was responsible for her father’s death and that proved to be too much for her already weak heart and within a day Asma succumbed. Rehema lost one more family member and relived the harsh brutalities of 1994. She was left with only her 8 year-old Asiya, her second born. Almost every home in Rwanda has such heart-wrenching tales of how the 1994 atrocities changed their lives.
The previous morning my husband and I had gone for a run and found, to our pleasant surprise, that the streets of Kigali did not have any stray/street dogs. A remarkable difference from India, we’d mentioned this to our cousins. The reason was far from what we expected. After the genocide, thousands of dogs, rendered homeless during the massacre and unable to find food, had slowly turned man-eaters. They had started scavenging on the dead bodies they found lying around. That meant all the street dogs had to be killed. It was a chilling truth, one that drove home the point that every corner of Rwanda echoed its brutal past.
Yet, as we went around Kigali and even outside it, there were unmistakable signs of resurrection, rebuilding. Rwanda, a nation that had been battered only 20 years ago, seemed determined to leave its traumatic past behind and walk toward a brighter horizon. We saw schools, public utilities, government-built market places, good roads, reliable infrastructure, fertile fields, children frolicking around… we saw people going about their everyday business with their beautiful smiles. Rwanda had struggled to make peace with its past, but today, is surging forward with an eye only on the future. Mithi, our niece, told us that Rwanda is one of the fastest growing economies in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the third easiest economy to do business in. A large number of women are the driving force in rebuilding the country. And education is compulsory.
As I sat at the breakfast table that morning pondering over Alpanadi’s account of Rehema’s and Rwanda’s intertwined journey, I could hear the clanging of utensils in the kitchen, the ladles in the pans—the sounds of Rehema at her daily chores. Rehema hurried into the dining room to take away our empty breakfast plates. I stared at her, almost searching, for some answer. Did she live with her pain every day? She saw me looking and smiled at me—an innocent, sincere African smile that warms your heart. I tried smiling too, but looked away as tears started welling in my eyes.
As if to read my thoughts, Alpanadi told me, “Asiya, Rehema’s younger daughter, is pursuing her Masters in Social Sciences currently. She wants to join the administration once she completes her course.”
I nodded, and smiled back at her… finally, Rehema’s past had been relegated to where it belonged, the past.
How to get Happy Tripping to Rwanda!
Best time to go to Volcanoes National Park: Dry months of Dec-Jan & June-Sept
a) By Air: Fly down to Kigali International Airport, and drive from Kigali to Virunga
b) By Road: Kigali to Virunga is about 180 kms and is about a 3 hour drive
c) By Train: No train services
Permits for Gorilla Safari:
Book your permit at the RDB Tourism & Conservation Reservation Office via email to firstname.lastname@example.org; or via phone 252576514
HT. Do. Not. Miss.
To go for the Gorilla safari at the Volcanoes National Park, trekking the Virunga Mountains. The safari includes a trek through the lush mountain slopes of the Virugna volcanoes and past thick bamboo forest that house the mountain gorillas. Truly, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
P.S. Do not forget to take your Polio and Yellow Fever Vaccinations one month prior to your Rwanda travel!
Deepa Dutta Chaudhuri
Writer, blogger and one half of the warring couple of Wheels on Our Feet. And a newbie marathon runner!