Archive for August, 2009

It’s the Same Thing

August 25, 2009

Murambi is the site of a former technical school of some local repute just outside the small town of Gikongoro, in Rwanda. It sits alone on a rural hillside, surrounded in every direction by slightly higher hills. Behind a main building of classrooms and administrative offices is a row of barracks, the former dormitories of the boarding students. The academic building is starkly empty; in the dormitory rooms are hundreds of preserved corpses, victims of genocide.

I visited on Liberation Day, fifteen years to the day after the genocide officially ended on July 4, 1994. A group of mourners, presumably relatives of the deceased, were exiting the main building as I arrived. The women were all wearing purple sashes, the common color of genocide remembrance throughout the country. One woman detached herself from the group, approached me, and said only “You wait.” I did as I was told, standing alone outside on a cool, breezy, sunny day, watching her say goodbye to the group. When she returned, she took my wrist, pulled me along after her, and said “Come.”

Holding on to my wrist, she gently but resolutely dragged me around the outside of the main building, toward the barracks in back. She let go of me as we reached the first room and without saying a word gestured for me to enter. The room was square, just big enough to fit four wooden palettes, each about the size and height of a king bed. Dead bodies, covered in a coarse white dust of powdered lime, lay on the palettes, their heads at the far end and their feet nearer to me. I counted more than twenty bodies on one palette, nearly a hundred in the room.

All the corpses had been exhumed from a common mass grave and preserved exactly as they had been found. They were not mere skeletons, but actual bodies, cold, hard, and gaunt, but at the same time fleshy. Most still had skin, though bone was visible in many places. A number had patches of hair, even pubic hair. They had fingernails, and at least a few teeth. Eyes were sunken, but not hollow. Scraps of clothing still hung from decayed limbs.

Expressions were plainly visible on the faces of the deceased. Many looked afraid, presumably those who died quickly, just after the fatal blow. Some were clearly in agony, probably those who lived a little longer, who had to feel the pain of their wounds before dying from them. A few looked peaceful, perhaps relieved to finally being dying. Wounds were obvious: skulls with gaping holes, shoulders cracked, ribs snapped, arms bent and broken, and feet missing. As instructed, I touched one of the bodies; it felt like a lightweight plaster, like a hollow bust.

A tarp which had been white but which was now yellow with age hung over a large window on the back wall, facing west. It was late afternoon and the setting sun filled the room with a golden glow. Dust danced in the light, bringing the sunshine to life, each ray visible and distinct, and each one ending on the cheek, or foot, or outstretched hand of one of the dead bodies. A bouquet of plastic flowers sat on one of the palettes, perhaps a permanent display or perhaps a memorial gift brought by one of the mourners. Outside, I could hear my guide praying in a low, driven voice, rapidly and intently repeating the same short phrase.

I exited, she took my wrist, and we walked just a few feet to the next room before stopping again. She let go and pointed for me to enter, never pausing her prayer. I stepped inside, immediately wondering what the minimum amount of time is that one has to spend in a room full of murder victims in order to seem polite, or at least not to seem disrespectful. The scene was the same, sunbeams blessing the dead.

She led me to the next room, and then to the next room, and always it was the same. Every time I stepped from a room, I noticed, I inhaled deeply and looked immediately for the furthest hill on the horizon, always seeking a clean, open space, always seeking an escape. After a fourth, or a fifth, or a sixth room, I asked her to stop.

She nodded, took my wrist, and pulled me forward, my guide through the inferno. When we reached the next room she did not make me enter, but as we passed she pointed and quietly commented.

“C’est le meme chose…”

… I looked, and of course it was the same thing: a hundred more dead bodies, a hundred frozen faces, a hundred silent screams, more death dancing in the sunlight. A few feet further and again she spoke…

“…c’est le meme chose…”

…my palms were sweating now, always my body’s first reaction to discomfort…

“…c’est le meme chose…”

…my throat was dry and tight; I felt a cold sweat across my forehead…

“…c’est le meme chose…”

…tears pooled in the corners of my eyes…

“…c’est le meme chose…”

…and my stomach started to turn. I felt sick, ready to vomit.

We had reached the end of one of the barracks, providing a natural and welcome pause to our march. We spoke in French, hers as broken as mine. She explained that her husband and her three daughters had been killed at the school. She had survived, but I could not understand when she tried to explain how. Like other survivors, she does not know which bodies are those of her family.

She did not insist upon visiting all of the remaining rooms, though she did lead me to one in particular. At first I could not see why she had selected this room for special attention. Then I noticed that there seemed to more of everything, more feet, more hands, more skulls. The palettes were no larger, but there were clearly more bodies on each one. They were not piled higher or packed tighter, but they were smaller. There had been the odd broken child in the other rooms I had entered, but this was the one room which contained only children, all of them murdered.

A man was in the room, kneeling and praying. He had a divot in the middle of his forehead the size of a quarter, another survivor, another guide. His children were also killed there, and though he does not know their bodies are among those in the room he has chosen to consider it their grave.

Though literally full of death, Murambi is very much a living monument. The guides, all of them survivors of the massacre there, have given themselves a unique mission. They do not seek to guide you, they want to force you to bear witness. You are meant to feel genocide in your gut. And I did.

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De Nile

August 12, 2009

The Rive Nile, currently being stretched inch by inch by its advocates in a competition with the Amazon and its advocates for the title of the longest river in the world, is famously comprised of two principal tributaries, the While Nile and the Blue Nile, which converge in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.

De NileThe White Nile is the better known of the two, largely because when it comes to rivers it is the longest which has always captured our imaginations.  It pours north out of Lake Victoria, which itself is fed by smaller rivers and streams from all over the region.  It is one of these, emanating from a spring in Burundi, which is currently considered to be the source of the Nile, the most distant source of the water which flows into the Mediterranean north of Alexandria, Egypt.

Though shorter, the Blue Nile actually contributes far more water to the river’s annual flow.  It crashes down from the highlands of Ethiopia in a gigantic flush of rich, organic silt once every year.  When the Bible speaks of the annual flood that nourishes Egypt, it is describing the waters of the Blue Nile.  When it speaks of drought, it is because the rains failed that year in Ethiopia.

In the case of the River Nile, it is wrong to think of the most distant point as the source.  From the perspective of anyone downstream of Khartoum, the source of all that water and the river’s true genesis, is the Blue Nile of Ethiopia.

Graph taken from The Africa Report.

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A Good Guide Is Hard to Find

August 10, 2009

I am an amateur birder, very amateur. When I came to East Africa from Kentucky, I could not distinguish a robin from a sparrow. The only birds I could identify were cardinals and blue jays, largely because their names suggest their colors and because they are commonly used as mascots for sports teams. Hawk, eagle, and falcon were synonyms, all referring to any big bird of prey. I knew nothing at all.

BustardBut I bought a pair of binoculars and a bird book – Birds of Kenya by Dale Zimmerman – and I started paying attention. Now, more than three years later, I’m not bad, even pretty good. On the days that I keep track, I can usually tally a couple dozen different species, from the small to the large and the bland to the colorful. I know to look to the ground for finches and to the trees for weavers. Naturally, my memory for sounds is weak, but I can identify the calls of the more gregarious birds in the neighborhood, like the common bulbul and the woodland kingfisher; I know a sunbird when I hear one. Most of the birds that I know are pretty common, but I have learned to keep my eyes open for the relative rarities in the area. It is a good day when I find a great blue turaco, black-headed gonolek, black-and-white-casqued hornbill, or saddle-billed stork. Like nearly everyone, I have a fondness for the beautiful paradise flycatcher. Hawks, eagles, and falcons, it turns out, are three distinct types of raptors.

The fun of birding is in the learning process. It is a puzzle to identify an unknown species and a game to keep track of how many you have identified. It does not take long before you learn whether the bird you are looking at is more likely to be found among the shrikes or the fiscals, the weavers or the canaries, the mannikins or the waxbills. But then the puzzling becomes more refined. Is that Mackinnon’s fiscal or the grey-backed fiscal? A black-headed weaver or a Vitelline masked weaver? The black-crowned-waxbill or black-headed waxbill? The more novice you are, the more challenging the puzzle. The more expert you become, the more rewarding the game. My record to date is 48 species in a day, on a day when I did not intend to be looking for birds. It’s nothing compared to a true ornithologist, who, in the right location, might identify a hundred birds in an hour.

Crested Crane

Like many puzzles and games, the enjoyment is personal. Sometimes we have to ask for help, of course, but most often only grudgingly. Uninvited assistance is so resented that it ruins the fun. Children instinctively know this. When playing a game of Clue, no one wants mom or dad to explain what weapon to guess. As adults, we do not want our smarter friend with the bigger vocabulary to tell us the word we’re missing in the crossword. We prefer to figure these things out on our own; it’s more fun that way, and more fulfilling.

HornbillThis is why it is so difficult to find a good birding guide – the very nature of guiding sucks the fun out of birding. There is no puzzle to it if someone else is feeding you the answers, and there is no game in it if you’re only tallying someone else’s achievements. It is nothing but detached boredom to be told, “That is a broad-billed roller.” It is exciting and rewarding, on the hand, to wonder – “What is that big purple one?” – and then after some sleuthing – “Does it have bright blue wings? Is there a blue patch on its throat?” – to exclaim – “Oh, cool, it’s the broad-billed roller.”

This is not to say that birding guides do not have their place or their purpose. They can be very useful in dense forests, where birds are more often heard before they are seen and where, consequently, you have to have a trained ear to find any bird at all. Similarly, they can be helpful trackers when you’re hoping to see that one elusive species that only an insider knows how to find. Secretary BirdIn wetlands and savannahs, open spaces where there are often countless species, guides are less valuable. In such places, common throughout much of East Africa, an enthusiastic amateur can spend hours identifying and observing new species. You might miss that one rarity that you did not know to look for, but you will have found dozens of others all on your own.

In any location, a good guide does not simply “bag” a species and move on to the next one. An amateur can do that, identifying, recording, and leaving. A guide should be a teacher, able to explain something about the ecology of the birds that are found. The best guides do not identify birds at all. They do not point and name but give clues so that the amateur can play the game, solve the puzzle, and find the bird.

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