One of my best friends in the entire world is a Rwandan genocide survivor. If you would take a look at Angelique, you wouldn’t guess that she had experienced such unthinkable brutality in her life. Always dressed to fashionable perfection with coifed hair and carefully-applied makeup, the first thing that you will notice about her (beside her breathtaking beauty) is her broad smile.
We became fast friends during our first year of college and quickly began referring to ourselves as “sisters.” I loved sharing with her my culture. (I will never forget her surprise when she discovered that more ice cream flavors than “chocolate” and “vanilla” existed.) And in turn, I loved learning about Rwanda. (Likewise, I will never forget when she facetiously shared with me the number of cows her dowry would grow after having studied in the US.) She bought me beautiful Rwandan clothes and attempted to teach me how to dance in the traditional style, as well as speak some of her native language of Kinyarwanda. She ate Thanksgiving turkey at my house, attended an opera with me, and went kayaking in the North Carolina lakes with my family.
I never asked about the genocide. It is an extremely sensitive topic and I figured that she would share that with me if she wanted to. Months after we first met, she opened up and shared with me some her story. Just four years of age when the violence broke out in April 1994, she remembered everything – the massacres, the death, and her family’s escape. Her story is not mine to tell, and so I won’t share it. I will just share how I felt when she finally told me her story as we were driving along in the car. I was awestruck and felt completely numb. I didn’t cry (neither did she), but it took every ounce of effort to keep my thoughts on the road.
For those of you who need a refresher course in Rwandan history, Rwanda is a tiny landlocked country in East Africa. Rwanda found itself under the colonial control of Belgium from World War I until it gained its independence in 1962. In order to administer the country, the Belgians magnified the existing differences between the two ethnic groups, Hutu and Tutsi, in order to divide them and better ensure the country under their control. Interestingly, both of the ethnic tribes spoke the same Kinyarwanda language, practiced the same religious beliefs, and shared the same culture. In fact, several anthropologists have suggested that the original differences between Hutu and Tutsi were largely socioeconomic – with Hutus farming the land and Tutsis owning cattle.
In April 1994, the Rwandan genocide began in full force, with the Hutu majority massacring Tutsis mercilessly (often with machetes) in locally-organized death campaigns supported by the government. Within three months, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. The current President, Paul Kagame, and his rebel army gained control of the country, but found themselves in possession of a broken state. According to Stephen Kinzer in his book, A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It: “99.9 percent of Rwandan children witnessed violence during the spring of 1994. Ninety percent believed they would die. Eighty-seven percent saw dead bodies, 80 percent lost at least one relative, 58 percent saw people being hacked with pangas, and 31% percent witnessed rapes or other sexual assaults.”
As Angelique shared with me her story, I felt so inadequate. After hearing about the unspeakable hardships she had overcome, I had no reason – nor any right – to complain about the so-called “hardships” of my life. It was then that I recognized myself as a United States American, blessed beyond belief: I had never seen someone killed, I had never experienced a single day of hunger, I had electricity (and cable) every day of my life, and I lived in the superpower of the world. I looked over at Angelique and was amazed by her strength of character. It was then that she broke out into song. Looking straight ahead, she started to sing in French a beautiful melody which I recognized as a hymn. It was one of the most beautiful sounds I had ever heard in my life.