Rwanderings

“We hope. We despair. We hope. We despair. That is what governs us. We have a bipolar system.”

Maira Kalman

In 1994, I was fourteen years old. That age of both innocence and arrogance where I thought I knew everything but I was too insecure to admit that I knew nothing at all.

In eighth grade, even though the narrow scope through which I viewed the world was widening, it was still limited to what I was taught in school and although there was gravity in words like Holocaust and genocide, I had yet to feel their weight.

 As an American teenager I was content to be distracted by sports, school plays, and friendships both old and new and content in knowing that whatever I was to learn about the world still had yet to come.

 How little I knew or even thought that about Africa became apparent in the spring of 1994. In the middle of lacrosse season another season began on another continent. Before 1994, Rwandans refer to this time of year as Gicurasi, a time of illness and sadness.[1] After 1994, French author Jean Hatzfield referred to it as machete season.

 In this tiny heart of Africa, over the course of one hundred days, almost one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered at a rate of three times faster than that of the Holocaust. This was a genocide that was carefully planned and recklessly carried out in less than four months. And yet, seven thousand miles away, I remained unaware of the their fate.

 In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag states, “No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia.”[2] At fourteen, I suppose that I had not yet reached that age.

 Whatever imaginings I had of Africa in 1994 derived from watching the The Lion King, which was released in June of that year. So, as a child, it was easy for me to believe that the whole of Africa lived by the motto of Hakuna Matata. 

 It was not until over a decade later, in 2005, that I learned about the details of the Rwandan Genocide from watching Sometimes in April. By then I had surpassed the age of innocence that might have previously excused my ignorance of the Rwandan Genocide and yet, after everything that I learned about the humanity and inhumanity of the world, it was not the phrase “Never Again” that haunted me; it was that no matter how many lives were lost, it never seemed to be enough.  

 Afterwards, I wept. I wept for Tutsis. I wept for Hutus. I wept for Rwanda. I did not weep because I was unaware of the genocides that occurred over the course of the twentieth century, I wept in the sweeping realization that the mass extermination of people based on their ethnicity, race, or religion continued to take place during my lifetime.

 I do not know what it is that draws me toward the macabre. Perhaps it is the historian in me that hopes there are lessons to be learned from the past and perhaps it is the artist in me that seeks an explanation for why these acts of violence continue to occur long past our ability to deny that we do not know any better. At thirty-three, it is still difficult for me to make sense of the madness that descends upon men.

 

******

 For the past few months many of my friends and family have been “Rwondering” why I was going to Rwanda and sometimes I question my own motives for such a journey.[3]

 Maybe it is the childish innocence with which I listened to Paul Simon’s Graceland, as I made the sign of the wave out the window of my parent’s station wagon under not so African skies. Maybe I have read too many books by Kuki Gallman, Isik Denisen, Bryce Courtney, and Chinua Achebe. For I too dream of Africa.

 My dreams of Africa were accelerated in the autumn of 2012. That fall, I fell in love with photography. I did not mean to. It was an accident. When I applied for graduate school I did not want anything to do with modernity and yet, in my last two quarters at the Savannah College of Art and Design, I found myself escaping from the Old Masters and embracing photography, especially the photography of war. But it was not the tornado-like path of war that fascinates me, although there is poetry in its ruins, what captivates me is our ability to continue to survive in a world intent on our own destruction because somehow we find a way to go on.

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