My return to Rwanda
I’m sitting in a hotel in Johannesburg waiting to return for the third time to Rwanda. This update is long overdue, and I apologize—all I can say is that I have been working on Rwanda in the meantime, and this work has begun to bear some marvelous fruit.
Since leaving UNHCR, I joined a new organization. This organization, serendipitously, was contemplating reestablishing operations in Rwanda, and decided to send me on the mission to assess this possibility in July of last year. It was wonderful—the team I was with decided quickly that the question was not if to go into Rwanda; it was how to do so. It was certainly time. We had left in April of 1994.
During this visit, we had the chance to meet one of the three or four genocide survivors from our original staff of 40. She is now a parliamentarian, which is interesting, given that Rwanda has the highest proportion of females in their parliament in the world. This woman is an astonishing pillar of strength.
We met with ministers, and I had the chance to find out more about the National Commission for Unity and Reconciliation, the Rwandan government body responsible for encouraging healing and dialogue. This commission is implementing incredible initiatives, including mandatory summer camps for students to discuss unity (I have a friend who did this, and was lamenting that he had to live in a cabin for a while!) and manages a volunteer corps that works throughout the country, leading initiatives for dialogue and healing. It’s a very interesting approach.
I stayed at the Kigali Serena, formerly the Intercontinental. I must admit that it felt very strange to stay at a hotel that was so wildly out of my price range when I was volunteering in Rwanda—I could only occasionally manage to afford a pizza at the poolside café. My friend Aime had been the deputy general manager there, but had left after the Serena hotel group purchased the hotel, and moved to Dubai, where he’s now managing a chain of Western hotels. So I didn’t know anyone there, except Faycal, the singer from Gisenyi who became my best friend.
I checked into my beautiful room and was sorting through my things when there was a knock on the door. It was the turndown service. Opening the door, the woman stared at me, and I stared back. “I know you!” I said. “And I know you!” she responded. She had worked at the Kivu Sun (now the Serena Kivu) in Gisenyi, and had been transferred to Kigali.
“I’m so glad that you didn’t lose any weight!” was the next thing she said. Sigh. I had almost forgotten that in Rwanda, it’s good to have meat on your bones. I laughed and told her that I had been working to lose some of the beans-and-rice weight I had put on, but she shook her head and smiled. Before she left, she gave me the phone number for my friend Fabrice, who had begun to teach me kung fu in Gisenyi, before he tried to steal millions of Rwandan francs from the Kivu Sun and was sent to jail. I decided it was probably best not to contact him.
After the assessment was complete, I took some personal time for vacation. I wanted to surprise Faycal, who I knew was singing at the Serena Kigali every weekend evening. He didn’t know I was in town, and I wanted to just appear one night when he was singing.
He beat me to the surprise. Faycal was in the lobby of the hotel one day when I walked in. Covering his mouth, he just looked at me in disbelief, laughed and we hugged for the first time in a year. Just before he ran off, he said, “You’re going to be an Auntie!”
In the end, he had surprised me.
Faycal reconnected with an ex-girlfriend, a beautiful girl who was a genocide orphan. After losing both her parents, she was taken in by an aunt and uncle in Belgium, and over time, acquired Belgian citizenship. She recently returned to Rwanda, where she met Faycal again and they fell in love. At the time I met her last July, she was visibly pregnant and the two were beautiful together. They were engaged to be married in November. I am delighted for them—while both are young, they are both orphans, and are ready to start their own family. Faycal told me that he is ready to be a real father to his child, the father that he never had.
He is doing very well financially, though I chastised him for putting a hold on law school. He decided it was more important to make money right now, with the baby coming, which I can definitely understand—but I warned him that he was going to have to finish school someday. Faycal now has two singing contracts, at the Kigali Serena and the Mille Collines (the “Hotel Rwanda” hotel) for basically every night of the week. His songs are also played on the radio. He is finally famous! And he’s enjoying every moment of it. He’s an incredible extrovert, and is appreciating the fame.
I also managed to see Boniface and spend some time with the Munyamashara family. Boniface is doing as well as ever, chipper and optimistic. We shared a couple of beers for old times’ sake at the Seminari, the little shop where we used to have drinks and talk for hours. He would teach me Kinyarwanda, and I would teach him English. We also had brochettes with pili-pili. He ordered them just the way I like them—without tendon, just the soft parts, grilled with onions and brushed with sauce. It was wonderfully mundane to spend time with him. It was what I longed for: a little reminder of what was a daily experience for me when I lived there.
I took some time to walk through the Gisenyi market. As I wove my way through the clothing section, a little boy came up, took my hand, and started chatting. I looked down at him, and he looked up at me, still talking. It was Abubakr, the charming little street child I had befriended a year ago. “Morgani, where have you been?” he asked me in Kinyarwanda. “Where is mom?” My mother had come to visit, and had fallen in love with this boy. Then he told me where all of his friends were. One was at the mosque. Another was at church. Abubakr didn’t ask for money. He hadn’t asked me for money since the first time I met him. It wasn’t about that. It was about fondness and friendship. I was profoundly touched.
Later, I was with Boniface again, and we were driving (slowly) through the center of town. As we passed a line of prisoners dressed in pink shirts and shorts, I caught the eye of one of them, whose face transformed with a bright smile, and who jogged over to the car.
“Morgan!” he said. “Good to see you!” It was Jean-Michel, the head of the Boy and Girl Scouts, with whom I had worked to start a Scout troop at the refugee camp. He had been jailed last year for failing to pay his debts. “I’ll be out soon, and will try to start up with the Scouts again!” he managed to tell me before the heavily armed gendarme came over to investigate the situation. He jogged back to the line and waved. Boniface, meanwhile, was astonished that I knew someone in prison.
“You really do know everyone here,” Boniface laughed.