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, and she plucked at her shirt to fan her chest. He hooked his fingers through her belt loops and pulled her towards him. She met his mouth with a tight-lipped kiss, and he pushed his tongue against her, fighting her lips apart, and ran his hands up her ribcage under her shirt. Suddenly she bared her teeth like something feral and said, “Don’t touch me.”
He froze. She extricated herself and rubbed her fingers across her eyes. “Oh my god, I’m sorry, just, it’s so damn hot. Please, I need to take a shower. I feel sick.”
He let out a little cough of air. “No, of course. Take a shower. I’m sorry.”
He lay on his back on the bed, kicking off his shoes. The water turned on. “Damn it,” she said. The warped wood of the bathroom door wouldn’t close, and there was no latch. It creaked open each time she closed it.
“Here,” he said. He handed her the trashcan and she propped it against the door on her side. He lay down on the bed again, and now he listened to her movements, amplifying the sounds in his head of her clothes dropping on the floor, the water, low-pressure, settling on her shoulders, the red dust being washed from her hair. The water ran for a long time. She came out when the light had already faded from the little room and stood next to the bed. Though she didn’t move, he had the impression that she was wringing her hands.
“Maybe this was a mistake,” she said.
“What?” he sat up.
“No, I just mean—” she knelt beside the bed and took his hand. “I think we should be careful, with each other. We need to make sure we’re in the same space.”
“We are in the same space,” he said, fluttering his hand.
“I’m sorry,” she said after a long pause. “I’m only trying to preserve some sense of—a sense of aloneness. I don’t know how to be without it. I think I go crazy without it.”
“You want to be alone?” From across the street he could hear the low voices of men and the clicking of beer bottles. A streetlamp flickered on. She frowned.
“I’ll go for a walk,” he offered. “I’ll pick up some beers, some dinner. We’ll meet back here.”
“I’m not really hungry,” she said.
He left her there. He crossed the street to the corner store where the men sat outside drinking. “Bite,” he said to the small boy in the doorway. All he could remember from the volunteer handbook was that one word, bite, used to greet small children. The kid pushed his stomach out and giggled uncertainly. The woman behind the counter said something, and the boy swung his arms back and forth.
“Habari gani?” Jordan switched to Kiswahili.
“Nzuri sana. U wewe je?”
“Nzuri.” And then he felt the slow blush of mortification rising up across his neck. He couldn’t remember what came next. Later, living in New York, he would tell girls that he was a dilettante of little known languages. It was a party trick, being able to say hello in three African dialects. He switched to French. “Je vieux acheter un biere, et un…” and now he gave up entirely and just pointed. Beer, mangos, crackers, and—his finger strayed over the cigarettes. The woman pointed to them, the question on her face. He shook his head no, paid, and left.
Instead of walking back to the hotel, he turned down the street. Past the glare of a few streetlights the stars strained to come through the hazy twilight. He lengthened his stride, breathing deeply, swinging his arm holding the black plastic bag. Kigali seemed to be cleaner than Kampala, with more paved roads and medians with patches of well-kept grass. Or maybe they were just in that part of town. He felt good. He wanted to run, but he knew he shouldn’t. One of the other volunteers, a guy named Paul, was assigned to a site up-country, in the north, where people were still living in refugee camps even though the insurgency had moved across the border to Sudan. On one of his first days on site he set out for a run, and almost started a panic in the camp. “What’s coming?” they all called to him. “Who is chasing you?” And so Paul learned to play soccer for exercise instead. It was too bad, really, because the air was perfect tonight. How spoiled, to be a man who runs for pleasure!
In high school, a social studies teacher had shown him a documentary about the Rwandan genocide. Jordan couldn’t remember much of what he’d seen; it all seemed to run together with other things he’d read, things he’d imagined, nightmares he’d had when he was small. But there was an image, video footage shot from far away, of three Hutu men chopping off the limbs of another man. And he remembered the sensation he’d had, listening to the interviews of United Nations men who’d tried to protect the Tutsis: I will be that kind of man.
When he grew older, he began to have dreams. Of hiding under a desk while two faceless men walked from room to room with rifles executing everyone he knew—teachers, friends, his sisters. Waiting his turn.
There was a special kind of fear he felt on nights like this, when the disappearance of sunlight seemed to actually clarify the air. The sky was tremendous. The road sloped down away from him and the smells of the daytime heat seemed to relax, soften, dust, soil, whatever that red quality was the earth had here. He was afraid of death, but that was obvious. No one knew where he was. It was like playing hide-and-seek when he was very small, the moment before he was found, and how delicious it was to be alone before the babysitter pulled him out from behind the dirty plaid couch, singing, “I found you!” On nights like this he felt the rare desire for God, for something grand enough to answer him; he was expansive, beatific, saturated.
Later, he didn’t talk about Rachel. He would tell people that he had made the trip with a girl, but not much else. It never really interested anyone. There were so many tangible details to remember, quotes from conversations, facts, statistics. To talk about her seemed unfair, in a way, as though he were betraying her trust.
She wasn’t back in the hotel room. Their packs were neatly leaned against the wall. A book rested on the pillow. He sat on the bed and took it up, feeling, through the mattress, each tightly coiled spring. It was a guidebook for East Africa. He opened to the chapter on the history of Rwanda, where she had dog-eared some pages. He’d read it all before. It had been part of his adolescent fixation on Africa. He had needed to believe in it as a forsaken part of the world, he had needed to believe that there were dangerous, undiscovered corners of the earth. That had faded, of course.
He went down the stairs to the little courtyard. The grass was well watered and the scent of its damp health wafted up as he kicked his feet through the lawn. Rachel was sitting at a table with another man, a vaguely familiar white guy. Jordan pulled out a chair and sat down.
“There you are,” she said fondly. “Have you met Nick? He works at the office in Kampala.”
He held out his hand. “We may have met.” Nick’s handshake was strong but stiff-fingered, as though he didn’t want to commit to it.
“I remember. Last January, you were in for a grant proposal meeting.”
“Maybe that was it.” He pulled the beers out of the bag. “You’re here playing tourist, too? That’s a coincidence.”
“Rach had mentioned that she was planning on making the trip, but I didn’t know it would be this weekend.”
“Did she?” He had never heard anyone call her Rach. “And for us all to end up at the same hotel.”
Rachel opened a beer. “Nick has already been here for a few days. He went out to the churches at Nyamata and Ntarama.”
“They’re really extraordinary,” Nick told him. He was one of those lean, angular men who would never really put on weight.
Jordan knew he would turn out like his father, heavyset and florid. He had always considered his father’s heaviness the result of a moral deficiency somehow, and he resented inheriting it. “Here,” Nick was fiddling inside a canvas shoulder bag slung over the back of his chair. “I took pictures.”
Rachel leaned in as he switched the camera on and the glow of the screen lit up his eager, straining features. Then she caught Jordan’s glance and her eyebrow flickered in a teasing, half-mocking arch. But who was she mocking, Nick, or him?
“This is Ntarama,” Nick narrated, turning the camera to him. It was just a broom-swept courtyard, with a ramshackle building in the back. Crumbling brick walls. Nick ticked to the next photo. A pile of dirty clothes against the bricks. “Those are bloodstains,” Nick pointed at the clothes and then again the brick wall. Jordan wouldn’t have noticed it otherwise.
“Do you take pictures of car crashes, too?” he muttered.
“Jesus, Jordan,” Rachel breathed. She took the camera from Nick and switched through the photos, frowning. Nick leaned back.
“You think I’m being sensationalist, right?” He ran his fingers through his hair with the expression of a weary crusader. Jordan despised him. “It’s important to bear witness to these things. Don’t you think we have an obligation to share our knowledge?
Isn’t there a moral imperative to help other people recognize the scale of the genocide, to recognize their own culpability?”
He must have practiced this speech, Jordan thought. “Whose culpability?” he asked. “Ours?”
“Ours, as Americans who stood by.”
“How old were you in 1994? I was eight. Want a mango?” he asked Rachel.
She shook her head. “He has a point. It’s about cultural remembrance. I’ve gone to Holocaust museums for the same reason.”
“Taking a picture of a pile of bloody clothing is just gruesome. It lacks…taste.” He took a sip of his beer. It was insipid. They were agitating, he and Nick, towards something, they both wanted something from each other. Then he thought, maybe they just wanted Rachel.
Across the courtyard, under the lights along the cement passageway of rooms, a woman was walking with a bucket hanging from her hand and a mop tucked under her same arm. She turned slightly to look at them, though there was no way she could have heard them.
Nick didn’t want to let up. “Nearly a million people died. I think you should go out to the churches tomorrow. It really changes your perspective. I don’t think you’re comprehending the scale, here, the kind of tragedy this was.”
“Well, then, cue the Greek chorus,” he snapped. Under the table, Rachel let her hand fall lightly to rest on his knee. “Look, it’s just that tragedy is such an insufficient word. It makes it all sound romantic, and it’s not. It’s vast and human. Never mind. It’s a stupid argument.”
“Agreed,” Rachel said, and changed the subject.
The woman reached the end of the passageway and awkwardly bent her knees to set the bucket down, and then shouldered the mop away from her until it leaned against the wall. As she turned back, walking with weary steps, he could see that she was missing an arm.
“Why does everyone want to co-opt this kind of thing for themselves?” he asked Rachel when they were back in their room.
“What kind of thing?” She was putting the guidebook away in her pack.
“Being a victim. It’s like everyone imagines what it would be like to be hacked to death by machete and then they congratulate themselves for their ability to sigh over the nature of human suffering.”
She faced him. He could feel her tensely coiled, bracing herself for something. “Are you trying to get me to say that I don’t like Nick, either?”
They paused, measuring each other. He wanted to deny it, but then he laughed. “Please,” he said, “please, please tell me that you don’t like Nick.”
They were already taking their clothes off. He would remember this, too, the closeness of Rachel’s human body and the feeling that there was another body underneath it, another self that he couldn’t get at. Her body was a knot he had to untangle. He was on top of her, holding her wrists down, twisting them. He was hurting her, he realized, but she didn’t say anything. Instead she wrested her arm free and pulled him closer by the neck, so that he couldn’t see her face.
After, as they were falling asleep, he wrapped his arms around her from behind and pulled her into his chest. The light from the street cast a strange shadow through the iron grate on the window. He felt as though he were at the very edge of the universe, pressed up against some invisible shore.
“Jordan?” she murmured. “I think we should go to Nyamata tomorrow.”
“Fine,” he said, digging his chin into her shoulder. He didn’t want to go Nyamata, but that was why they had come and he had to go through with it. Later, he would have liked to think that he had some sort of premonition, that he was stalling against some foreknowledge of loss, but the truth was that he knew nothing then, and slept deeply, like a wild animal in the cold.
By nine the next morning the sun was already heartless, pinning them down by the shoulders to the sticky gray seats on the way to Nyamata. He had the window seat, which made him the primary recipient of the sun’s anger, and he wasn’t sure he would have objected to being trapped in the center seat if it had meant he could win some reprieve from the glare. It was too hot, and he had the kind of headache he usually got from a hangover.
Leaving Kigali, they’d passed a group of men cutting grass on a highway median, swinging their machetes low, wearing the candy pink of prison uniforms. How strange, that men convicted of mass murder by machete would serve their sentence using that same weapon on blades of grass. How strange, too, that word, genocidaire, for which there is no word in English, one who commits genocide. He thought to point it out to her, but when he turned, her eyes were closed, as though in prayer.
Everyone riding with them seemed to know where they were going. The van rattled south through what, in the rainy season, was swampland, where cattle twitched and rumbled through the grasses like prehistoric creatures. When the driver pulled in to the bus stop, a man spoke a few words in French and pointed down the freshly paved road.
“Merci, merci,” Jordan said, holding his hand out to Rachel as she climbed out. Several passengers nodded and smiled, as if in approval, distantly.
Wooden signs indicated the church was near; the road was speckled with shade. Rachel gripped his hand and raised her other arm to wipe away the lines of sweat and dust off her forehead. They turned onto the dirt road and climbed the hill to the brick church.
“I’m nervous,” she said. “Isn’t that odd?”
“Not at all,” he said, having no idea what was odd and what was normal.
Outside the church, an older woman rose from her chair to guide them through. It was an open, one-roomed building with high, metal-sheeted ceilings. Long, backless wooden pews radiated out from the pulpit. Later, he conflated what she said with what he had already read about the site. It felt as though he were underwater, listening to the sounds of the outer world with great difficulty. There, the bullet holes in the roof, where the sunlight came in and splattered on the floor. There, the blood on the wall, where infants were thrown against the brick, swung by their ankles, skulls crushed. Here, a rosary found in the rubble. Ten thousand people sought refuge in the church and the surrounding area. The killing went on for three days.
Rachel had her arms crossed against her chest and her hands gripped around her elbows as though she were very cold. She stepped around the pews as though they might break. She gazed sorrowfully in every direction but his.
He was caught up in the image of ten thousand people, and how close they must have been pressed together, waiting. At the center of the crowd he wouldn’t have been able to move, but the killers would have surrounded them, working their way inward, patient, methodical, vicious. He felt a sudden sweep of terror, the old nightmare rising in him. His stomach hurt. The quiet feeling of the church, the slap of their sandals on the cement, the high rafters and metal roofing shuddered over him, threatening to collapse. He spent a moment monitoring his breathing to regain control, and then the guide led them across the room to the far wall, to examine the bloodstains.
He wondered how often this woman had to tell this story, how often tourists came poking around asking to see the gory details. She spoke as if from rote, but not without inflection. The women were raped and tortured before they were killed, she told them. Small children and babies were killed at this wall. Rachel took a small step closer to see. He hung back. Two assholes, he thought, one looks too closely and the other won’t look close enough.
Finally, they were outside again, and he welcomed the heat of the sun. Here, a list of names, those that could be identified, of those that died here. And across the garden was the grave itself, a large cement slab with steep wooden steps descending down into darkness. For some reason it reminded him of a secret passageway, an annex, something out of his childhood games, where the rebels, who fought for good, hid from the evil army so that they could live to fight another day. When he told his sisters about it, they reminded him about a closet in their grandparents’ house where they used to hide together. His older sister would mandate the game. They were resistance fighters plotting against a malicious regime. They were inherently just. They made sacrifices and took bullets for each other if necessary, before their parents called them for dinner.
“You can go down, if you like,” the guide said. He looked down those steep steps, a full flight down with no hand railing, and he thought, who was he to honor these dead? What right had he to pay homage to them? And he began to descend.
At the bottom he could turn either left or right down a passageway, where small shafts of sunlight illuminated the way. He chose left. He had thought, perhaps, there would be coffins, or closed chests with the ashes, something, at the very least, contained. But the passageway, only six feet or so, was lined with shelves from floor to ceiling, and on each shelf there was something he had never seen before, not in real life, not even in a science class.
At eye level, at least, there were the skulls, and on other shelves there were bones of all other lengths and body parts, but the skulls were looking directly at him and he at them, row upon row, each touching the others. The terror he had felt in the church dissipated; the skulls were vulgar, macabre symbols of death. Instead he watched dust particles float down on the beams of sunlight, and he remembered that as a child in his family living room he used to do the same thing, spend hours staring at the dust, believing somehow that there was a magic substance to the light, that it was tangible, that he could reach out and hold it. But where had the light come from? He tried to remember the room, which had led to the garage. There had been no windows, or were there? He went over each wall of the room, the bookcases, the record player. Where did the light come from? And as suddenly as though a hole had been drilled into his skull, the ceiling opened up. There had been a skylight in the living room. The light had come from above.
When he told people about the skulls, the more he pared it down, the more sensational it sounded, as though he were telling a ghost story. He didn’t tell people that he found it lovely, in a way, with the light coming in like that. He didn’t tell people that he felt that he belonged there. He would have cowered, and he would have died. He returned above ground, taking the stairs slowly. Rachel was still below, in the other passageway. The guide was waiting on a bench in the garden and she met him with an extended hand.
“Why do you work here?” he asked, suddenly free of the need for delicacy.
She had answered the question many times. “My entire family died here. This is what I have left to do.” She was unimpressed he had asked.
They sat on the bench in companionable silence. Jordan felt perfectly warm, like a cat basking in the sun. In a moment, Rachel would return, shaken, perhaps, and she would let him rest his arm around her while she gathered herself. They would return to Kigali without much conversation, sip beers in the courtyard, this time without Nick, and make quiet, desperate love in the little room. They wouldn’t need to talk much. On the return trip to Uganda they would be light, in a mood of playful relief, and take a detour through the Queen Elizabeth Park, pointing out wild elephants in the distance. Or they would take an extra day, and go stay in the Rwenzori Mountains, and do nothing but watch the sun move across the sky.
She had been gone too long. The guide realized at the same time, and she stood as he did.
“I’ll go,” he said, and started down the steps. Rachel had retreated to the bottom step where she sat with her head in her hands, and for that moment, for the last time, she seemed fragile to him. He put his hand on her back and another under her elbow, and she didn’t stir. Her thin tee shirt clung to her top vertebrae. “Okay, now,” he said tenderly, and she rose with him. She pulled her hand from his, and they blinked together in the sun.
“The memorial is funded by donations,” the guide said. Jordan fumbled in his pocket for a few hundred francs to hand her, and she retreated to the far side of the garden, inspecting a plant.
“I wanted to stay down there,” Rachel said abruptly, as though in protest. “You know what I think? I think if I had lived here, I would have ended up killing people. I think I would do just about anything rather than die.”
There was a spreading of pinpricks across his back: sweat breaking out. “That’s not true,” he said. “You don’t mean that.”
Rachel shuddered, as though she were shaking him off. And later, what he didn’t tell people was that the hardest part was yet to come, that the road was long and the bus would break down on the return trip, that they would stand on the side of the road, sweating, unable to speak, watching the driver struggle with the engine, and how long it would be before they could finally part.