South of Kigali, Down a Freshly Paved Road
The thing about it was, he had gone to Rwanda with the express purpose of seeing the grave. Not the grave at Nyamata explicitly—he didn’t know what waited for him there—but all of the graves, the memorial sites, the museum in Kigali. I needed to, he told people when he came back home. Part of it, though, was in pursuit of Rachel, who had the idea in the first place. She was a volunteer at a project site about a half hour away from his, near Jinja. They hadn’t slept together yet. Things in Uganda could be complicated, romantically speaking. It was hard to perform the typical rites of courtship, especially when you were the only American in town. There was very little privacy. People were always watching you, out of curiosity and sometimes suspicion. If you wanted to get laid you had to go to a hotel somewhere, and that required that both parties commit to the act in advance.
The trip to Rwanda was the perfect excuse. They both arranged a few days off from their project sites and met in Kampala.
“Jordan!” she called to him, and he turned to see her weaving her way through the crowded bus park. His eyes had been closed. He had been smelling the way the city retained the early morning coolness as though it were protecting something, resisting the onset of the sun’s heat, the lighting of the coals, the grilling of goat meat, the hiss of chapatti on the griddle. Rachel appeared, as she had when they first met, too fragile for this climate. She was a small, angular woman, with dark curly hair. She stood with one hip jutting out, her tee shirt rumpled with sweat and her backpack cutting into her collarbone. She shifted her shoulders to avoid being jostled by a vendor carrying a barrel-sized hand of plantains over his shoulder. Jordan gripped her elbow.
“Where you going, wazungu?” A man in a crisped white dress shirt, untucked, had spotted them.
“Kigali,” Jordan said, and Rachel said, “Chigali,” the way the Baganda say it.
The man ushered them through the bus park. “Over here, wazungu, this way for Chigali.”
He had stopped taking pictures soon after he arrived in Uganda, discomfited by the attention it brought to have a camera in hand, but if he could have kept photos of anything it would have been the terraced hills of Rwanda. They crossed the border in early afternoon. It was the height of dry season and the terrain was saturated with red and green. There was a scent to the earth here that was different from any other he’d ever known. He couldn’t get enough of it; he felt something like love for the soil, for the unpaved roads that jounced them in their overcrowded seats. A friend called it the African massage. Rachel had one hand braced against the seat ahead of them and the other pressed against the window. They were both fighting off nausea. A solemn, nonplussed child observed them from where he stood on his mother’s lap. The man next to Jordan rearranged the chicken he was clutching under his arm, and the feet of the bird scraped against his thigh.
Rachel leaned away from him and retied her sweaty curls. They had spoken quietly only for the first hour before falling asleep, about her health outreach program, his vague, earnest and unhelpful presence at the children’s center. When he had woken from the rising heat, she was already alert, head tipped against the glass, and they didn’t speak. He could feel the warmth of her, the scent of her soap under perspiration, the sunscreen in her pores. At home, he would never have gone after her. They would have operated in different circles, regarded each other warily. But perhaps that was why, in Uganda, they’d been drawn to one another. She had been raised poor, liberal and highly educated. She was too smart for him. She wore her intelligence loosely, like an old garment she was bored with but too fond of to let go entirely. She didn’t know what else to do with it. Perhaps it was the novelty of her, of the uncommon, the sense that he’d only have this one chance with a girl like her.
And the fact that she had wanted to come to Rwanda, too, that she had also felt its importance, drew him to her. It seemed to be that tiny country that pulled them together more than anything; later, though they had spent much more time together in Uganda than in Rwanda, he could only remember her as she was on that one weekend.
After Jordan returned to the States, when he was living in New York, he would try to explain himself. That he would have felt guilty to live all that time in East Africa and not go see the graves. That it was like scratching an itch. No, that sounded callous. It was important, he explained to his sisters, and they nodded, frowning with empathy. But on that bus ride into Kigali, it didn’t just feel important but noble, as though he were riding into battle. He was singular. He had always felt himself a man apart.They found a cheap hotel on the outskirts of Kigali as the sun was setting. She had remained quiet for the last hour, pressing her cheek against the dirty, watermarked window with a sorrowful frown. He leaned forward to examine the sides of the road, the children in their school uniforms, a young woman leading a goat on a tether, the smoke of roasting liver meat rising and warbling in waves of sepia heat. He watched the faces of the vendors turning the spits. Kneeling in the dust was a long-fingered man cutting cassava with a machete.
They held their packs one-shouldered as they walked up the creaking tiled stairs to the hotel room. The sweat on his back dried. He pushed the door firmly behind them until the handle clicked and held, and dropped his pack. Finally, they were alone. It was a small room with one high window, a thin-mattressed bed, plastic trashcan, cement floor. Her dark hair curled and pulled loose, an