October 28, 2009

Fourth Morning in Rwanda

I'm getting used to a pleasant routine. Five-year-old Gentil is counting teabags in English before he gets ready for school; Costa is bouncing baby Queen on his lap and humming to her while his wife Bernadette takes a well-deserved break; Grace the servant (who was rescued by Costa from post-genocide abuses a couple of years ago) hands him Queen's bottle. Queen returned from the hospital yesterday afternoon, a couple of days after we'd expected. It turned out she had an intestinal infection, possibly caused by eating something off the floor while crawling. She took antibiotics IV for a couple of days, then they released her with an oral form of the medicine, and now she's looking perfectly content, although she looks at me with a puzzled expression at times.

The floors have been mopped and the front and back patios dusted, as on every morning. Yesterday my clothes were not only wash by hand but ironed, an experience most of them had never had before. Breakfast will be fresh, thick, soft Senegalese-style chappatis, sweet rolls, and Rwandan coffee or tea. Today Costa, our German friend Christina, and I will be taking a bus to the southern region of the country, about an hour away, to meet Costa's mom, who wants to give Costa her expert instructions on how to take care of Queen's convalescence.

Over the past couple of days we've been to two different genocide memorials, one, on the outskirts of town, a very suitably gruesome setup in a church where 5,000 Tutsis were rounded up and killed in one day. On a platform, hundreds of skulls are displayed; on the platform below it, countless leg bones; across the room, a collection of rusted machetes and clubs.

The other memorial, in town, was erected by the Belgian government in honor of ten Belgian soldiers who were killed trying to protect the opposition party leader on the day the genocide began. Ten simple memorial columns in the yard; educational posters in the now-empty rooms where the soldiers took their stand; grenade fragments and bloodstains on the interior walls; fist-size bullet holes all over the exterior walls.

It's hard to imagine a nation that is more constructively aware of its problems or facing them more honestly and progressively. And not just the genocide: a nationwide anti-litter campaign has been very successful, HIV awareness is all over the media (there's one TV station, government-owned, and seven radio stations, some of them foreign), and Rwanda, with the highest population density in sub-Saharan Africa, has the second lowest malaria rate, largely due to educational programs such as the Bill and Melinda Gates' foundation's work in promulgating mosquito netting. In addition, Rwanda's parliament is 55% female, the electorate having recoiled from the violent governments that produced periodic genocides and massacres from 1959 to 1995. Rwanda has received a fair amount of international aid in the past fifteen years and has used it well. To me it appears that if the average American were as aware of our nation's problems, and as committed to solving them, as the average Rwandan is for Rwanda, in a decade and a half our inner-city schools would be graduating masses of literate, ambitious, responsible adolescents, the problems of gang violence and drugs would disappear, our health care system would care for all Americans equally, and our government would mobilize a nationwide environmental cleanup and infrastructural upgrade. In other words, we would be the nation we ought to be. A much, much poorer nation than ours is accomplishing equivalent goals. We could even do it without the need for genocide memorials.

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