Photo of the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda photo by Kristen Allen
I dreamed about Rwanda again last night.
I was walking down a red clay road. School children in matching uniforms were running and laughing in a group ahead of me. The air smelled of eucalyptus and smoke. The diminutive Sister Donatella was holding my arm, grinning from ear to ear. In her French roast coffee accent, she is telling me about unshakeable faith. Her joie de vivre should be a contradiction. She, herself, has survived unspeakable horrors, with amazing courage, and a tenacity for her country that usually brings to mind decorated war heroes. Yet, here she is encouraging me as we walk through Kigali…
Road in Kigali, Rwanda photo by Matt Brennan
When I was a little girl, I saw a National Geographic special about Dian Fossey. Like every kid my age, I was fascinated by her work with apes. That her death was a mystery made Fossey even more compelling to me. Add the gorgeous Nat Geo footage of central Africa in what is now Rwanda and I was hooked. It was a childhood dream to travel to the Virunga Mountains to meet the “gorillas in the mist” myself.
And then it happened.
Through a series of incredible events, I was able to chaperone two student trips to the Land of a Thousand Hills in 2012 and 2013. As anyone who has ever experienced a culture and geography so different from their own will tell you, those months in Rwanda changed me in very real, very powerful ways. It was more than my broadened worldview, though. In my very core, I am changed.
I still dream about Rwanda often, waking up homesick for the place and its people.
Over the years, I have read dozens of history and ethnographic studies of Rwanda—about Dian Fossey and the apes, yes, but also the nation’s colonization, the ongoing redistribution of borders, the genocide of 1994, the rebuilding of the nation since. It makes for both sobering and inspiring reading.
It is the music, dance, design, and poetry of the nation that has most deeply moved me, though. By my second trip to Rwanda, I had come to know enough about the people I had met (enough to not generalize the entire population of the nation) to start to be able to see the world through their eyes, and not my American eyes.
Their art has been key to helping me do that.
There is a fluidity to Rwandan traditional dance and pop music that also shows up in their poetry. At first, I thought it was a sharp contrast to the tenacity of the people who continue to farm on steep mountain slopes; the persistence of a people rebuilding their families, communities, and nation post-genocide.
I thought their art would be somehow sharper, rockier. Now I see how Rwandan art moves the way flowing water over time will shape landscapes, smooth stones, carve canyons. Sometimes it’s just a trickle. Sometimes it’s whitewater. On it flows, though, shaping a nation.
Mountain Stream in Butare, Rwanda photo by Kristen Allen
Here are some spoken word poets for you to check out:
Thunderstorm in Virunga Mountains over Lake Kivu, Rwanda photo by Kristen Allen