smiles from a somber people
Nearly two decades later, Rwanda is still haunted by the genocide and its aftermath. The gacaca courts may have finished their business, but the memories remain raw for the people who are old enough to remember. Our friends, who have been serving in Kigali for about as long as we have been in Nairobi, said that it’s rare to see Rwandans smiling. The only exception, our friends noted, is when they are dancing.
S spent three months in Kigali a few years ago and was also struck by how reserved Rwandans are. After studying and traveling in West Africa, where people tend to be quite vociferous and life is at once vibrant and unruly, Rwanda was a stark contrast of clean streets and quiet people. She does not recall noticing the dearth of smiles, but remembers clearly how challenging it was to conduct research. Not just during interviews, but even in everyday conversations, she found that people spoke so softly that they were practically whispering, and they never completely opened up, rarely offering a glimpse into their personal life or history.
In addition to doing research, S spent some time learning Rwanda’s traditional dances. A typical performance will combine ingoma drum and song with intore, the dance of heroes, which is performed by spear-wielding warriors. While the men pay homage to Rwanda’s ancient warrior culture, the women’s dancing is meant to symbolize the grace of cows, which are venerated in this country. Rwanda’s cattle are long-horned, so the women raise their hands and push their palms outwards while they dance, beaming smiles all the while.
Although she loved Rwanda, S was at first reluctant to go back, urging D instead to explore other countries in the region that would have been new to both of us. A regional ultimate frisbee tournament, conveniently falling on a three-day weekend, helped tip the scales, convincing S to shelve her yearning to tour Ethiopia, among other places, in favor of a return to the land of a thousand hills.