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By K.D. Effrain

“In Rwanda, dogs are crazy. It is because they would eat the dead bodies when they were lying in the roads.”

My driver Immanuel said this as we spotted a stray dog off the roundabout that circles Lake Kivu. Immanuel was born in Burundi. He was lucky enough to flee during the civil war there and arrived in Rwanda in 1994. So many arrived in 1994. And though they smile when they describe their arrival, they seem to never disrespect the 800,000 people slaughtered that year or the fact that they were forced to witness it. Immanuel’s pause communicated this tacitly and elegantly. He then asked me if I also liked cats.

Our field team was composed of three representatives from national and international public health agencies, not including Immanuel or myself. Our charge was to collect data from rural health centers across Kibuye district, report them to the bigwigs in Kigali and use them to inform larger shifts in Rwandan healthcare management. Every day was defined by hours in the car as our Toyota 4 Runner navigated the shoddy village roads of Rwanda’s 1,000 hills, sing-alongs to the radio’s country music station and occasional stops for a glass-bottled soda. Like Immanuel, some had come to Rwanda shortly before the genocide, but they would all refer to it in the same perfunctory manner. Together, they would become silent, and then continue with their conversations. These sequences were neither odd nor expected. They simply were.

As a “muzungu” (white person) in East Africa, one realizes his visibility rather quickly. Skin color, history and privilege become spotlights that accompany one everywhere, and like any type of attention, exhume a self-consciousness that can herald internal struggle. Many foreigners wish to engage Rwandans with a scholastic knowledge of poverty coupled with empathy and designed to form bonds with the people around them. They may discuss the genocide with those who lived through it, and sigh heavily upon its mention. Yet while understanding is important, feigning to know pain is disrespectful.

Unfortunately, Western pop-psychology teaches us that this is the best way to understand the characters in our lives—that putting ourselves in the skins of others is the best way to understand them; that understanding others is the best way to relate to them; and that relating to people is the best way to engage with them. Western pop-psychology is bullshit.

I could never understand the genocide chapters lived by the colleagues buckled up next to me, and I would never dare suggest it. When I see a truck stopped in the road ahead, I want to think that its driver is lost, not halting my vehicle so it can be attacked by murderers hidden in the bushes adjacent to our car. I want to think of 1994 as the year that I began high school, not the year that I lost my family. And I want to fear a stray dog because it might be mean, not crazed from the taste of violated corpses.

Yet, despite its uniquely tragic past, Rwanda remains smiling—prudently—but smiling. My colleagues request no understanding of me and welcome the engagement that we create daily. It’s one that’s true. It’s full of stories, jokes at one another’s expense and in-transit Kinyarwanda tutorials. We discuss whether the fibers of sugarcane stalks can clean one’s teeth better than their sugar can rot them. We talk about Presidents Bush and Obama, about the staple foods of Rwanda and the dreams of some to one day visit New York City. These are the conversations that help me to understand Rwanda—their warm smiles and pregnant silences teach me about its culture, landscapes, history and future. They share with me the stories of those around me, their daily lives, family histories and reflections in the year 2010. They give me insight into the differences between us and, paradoxically, bring us closer together. These are the conversations of my Rwanda, and I am deeply thankful for each and every one of them.

As each individual uses experience to create his map of life’s terrains, these paragraphs translate some of mine. My perspectives may ring true for some and inaccurate for others, but they are sincere. I have worked in Rwanda over the course of years, spent time there and formed bonds with Rwandans whom I today call friends. Ironically, the desire to help rebuild a post-genocide world is what brought us together. Yet, at the risk of promoting a cliché, history has taught me that human experience is what connects us.

Immanuel and I laughed loudly and often throughout my trip to Kibuye. We smiled at the village children who waved and chased our truck. We became quiet as we passed genocide memorials and discussed his dream of one day becoming a lawyer.

We move on.

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