Each year, since returning to Ghana in 2014, Suzanne and I have come back to Texas at Christmas because we get kicked out of our on-campus housing at Ashesi. This year will be different. We were back so often these last two years as Nelda was sick and later passed, and ten months later, my Dad. It was high time we visited more of this continent we call home, Africa.
So it is off to Tanzania for Christmas, but on our way there, we made a three-night stop in Rwanda. We’re calling it our transition culture, a palate cleanser of sorts, between our home in Ghana and this holiday vacation in mainland Tanzania and then island Zanzibar. A palate cleanser is a neutral-flavored food or drink that removes food taste from the mouth, allowing one to more accurately assess a new flavor. For us we come to Rwanda hoping to remove the residue of a difficult and stressful year whose details need not be rehashed.
We really didn’t know what to expect when we landed in Rwanda. Ashesi has a number of fine Rwandans, who are excellent students, ambitious people and deeply kind-hearted. Each has a story to tell of the Genocide that scared their home 23 years ago, forever altering the trajectory of their lives, but it is not our story. We also knew that Kigali, the capital city, is the cleanest African city, a designation that is quite safe from any city in Ghana. And the wonderful coffee. Oh, my! A Rwandan student gave me two pounds of amazing Rwandan Coffee, last fall which immediately after one sip became my preferred coffee country of origin. WOW!
Disembarking at the unfortunately initialed KIA (Kigali International Airport) we were thinking about Genocide, cleanliness, coffee and palate cleansing, arriving on an overnight flight from another KIA. Kotoka International Airport, Accra, is ironically named for Lieutenant General Kotoka, a co-conspirator and announcer on radio of the successful overthrow of Ghana’s first republic, and Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah. A little over a year later Gen. Kotoka died in another coup attempt, he was literally Killed In Action.
After checking into our hotel, we walked around Kigali and we learn many things: while Rwandans drive on the right side of the road, they mostly walk on the left. Suzanne and I try to go with the flow, but the flow goes against us. Opposing walkers we expect to pass on our of left suddenly move to our right and we end up in frantic near misses. Both of us look at the cars driving on the road and try to do as they do, but the other walkers don’t. It feels like we’re walking in Japan, the UK, or Australia. Countries in which one can understand why they would walk on the left, because the cars don’t drive on the right side of the road, but here it doesn’t make any sense.Another thing we see is Kigali’s reputation for being the cleanest city in Africa is well deserved. There is no trash anywhere, no black plastic bags, no empty sachet water plastics, no empty plastic bottles, nor mysterious unidentifiable trash. The roads and landscapes are perfectly clean, and so is the air. It is a spotlessness that we recognize over and over.
We also notice the elderly are few. I think the whole time we saw maybe one person who looked older than me (Steve). It feels like a very young country, and the people are tall, thin, and handsome. I keep thinking I am seeing one of our beloved Rwandan students because the similarities are striking, but catching their eyes I realize it is another.We meet Anna at the airport that evening and the next morning head out (via a driver arranged by another Rwandan student) for the Genocide Memorial (what can I say, we know how to show our daughter a good time). Three hours later we emerge emotionally fatigued with a better understanding of the events of 1994, and profound admiration of their challenging path of reconciliation. Part of that path was a switch ten years ago from French to English as the language of national instruction. The Guardian reported it was the “latest salvo against French influence” coming weeks after the Rwandan government had accused over 30 French politicians, officials and military officers of complicity in the genocide, including the late president, François Mitterrand. It leaves me wondering “how does a country just change its language?” Remarkable. It is good to be with Anna, and see Suzanne so happy to snuggle with her last born as they talk, talk, talk like sisters. I love seeing her doing so well, and so happy. Its been a difficult year for her too, but she is young and resilient. The last time I saw her, she had come to Iowa to be with me as Dad was dying. She was a God-send, helping me not hold it together as I watched the sun my planet had orbited for 58 years fade away.
These are much happier times as none of us have to-do lists or expectations much grander than a thorough cultural palate cleansing.We visit a few art galleries and then attend what we thought would be a Christmas program (again suggested by an Ashesi student), but it turns out to be a scare-them-into-believing collection of skits, how good people are welcomed into Heaven with the Hallelujah Chorus, and bad people are tormented and dragged screaming to Hell, seriously a lot of screaming. The production quality of the skits was outstanding, but what I’ll remember is their surprising focus on The Book of Life. Even the damned knew what that Book is, and why their name is not in it. Not exactly the Christmas message any of us was expecting, but fun and interesting to watch, from a cultural perspective. I say cultural perspective because in Ghana so much of the preaching doesn’t have this tight salvation (or fire insurance) focus. Its goal is more on providing a way to access the power of the gospel: a power of financial prosperity, protection from demons, or realized good health and many children. So it was is an interesting evening, culturally, just not one we were expecting, just the kind of thing a pallet cleansing culture is supposed to do. Now we are ready for Tanzania. Christmas is always difficult to experience far from home, but if, as they say, it is truly where the heart is, then with two of our now four kids joining us, maybe home and Christmas won’t feel so far away.