I begin writing a few hours after our friend Marie will have arrived in Kigali, the capital city of Tanzania’s northern neighbor, Rwanda. She will visit her mother and sister, in whose home Marianne and I stayed for five days last summer. To say that an African home provided warm hospitality is redundant, but I say it nevertheless. In California, Marie had promised as much several months earlier when our son, hoping to do volunteer work in Africa, also looked for a place to stay there. Peter hadn’t known where to start, so Marie made it easy for him: “Go to Kigali and stay with my mother and my sister. They will treat you like a son.” Just as confidently, Marie promised Peter that a Kigali-based nonprofit on whose board she had once served, Les Enfants de Dieu—Children of God—would make the perfect volunteer opportunity for him: “You will work for Rafiki, which means ‘friend’ in Swahili. They call him that because he’s everybody’s friend.”
Les Enfants de Dieu shelters, feeds, and educates boys as young as four or five and as old as their late teens. The boys go there from off the streets, where they had ended up for all kinds of reasons. Their parents might have abused or neglected them or, of course, AIDS or some other deadly disease may have taken them. Or the 1994 genocide or the subsequent campaign to bring just punishment to the genocidaires could have left a boy without parents.
In his time teaching English to the boys of Les Enfants de Dieu, from February to June last year, Peter discovered that his boss, Rafiki, was indeed everybody’s friend. Yet Rafiki had not, as we assumed, earned his nickname as an adult. He earned “Rafiki” as his given name during the first few months after birth, which many Africans wait out before naming a new baby. Naming, as something that only human beings do, confers additional substance on a child, the weight of a social as well as of a physical existence. Why try to attach that extra social substance to a being whose physical existence, in Africa, is so insubstantial, so uncertain to survive. But by the time Rafiki convinced his mother and father that he probably had come to stay, they couldn’t overlook his friendly nature. Now, as an adult, Rafiki remained everybody’s friend. Marianne and I feel fortunate that our son worked for such a man.
He could make mistakes about who wanted to be his friend, however. One day in 1994, Rafiki, a Tutsi, having survived several weeks of the genocide, found himself standing, shovel in hand, at the edge of a pit he had just been commanded to dig so that he could die in it. Rafiki knew the man who sat nearby in the shade with a bow and a quiver full of arrows, staring without expression at everybody’s friend while he bent over in the sun with a shovel to dig his own grave. Maybe at one time the man sitting comfortably in the shade with his bow and arrows had been, like everybody else, Rafiki’s friend. But now the man had chosen a different identity, that of a Hutu committed to eradication of all Tutsis, as well as of those Hutus who had not embraced their country’s new reality and had instead resisted murdering the Tutsis. Still, Rafiki believed he had caught a lucky break to have as his executioner a man he knew and had liked, because this would mean a quick death. After many weeks of the genocide, Rafiki had finally accepted it, having no choice. Now the time had come to accept his own death and even, since it would go fast, welcome it.
Rafiki’s old friend surprised him, though. “I want you to suffer,” he said as he strolled out of the shade into the midday tropical sun in which Rafiki had labored. Then he shot two arrows into Rafiki, one above each knee. Rafiki fell forward, not backward into the pit, and the shooter complained bitterly about having to drag him to the edge in order to shove him in. Then Rafiki heard the man walk away, singing. Losing blood, unable to walk, and, as far as he knew, miles from any true friend, Rafiki waited for death.
And what arrived instead, after many hours in the pit, was rescue by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the insurgent army of Rwanda’s current President, Paul Kagame. Rafiki first knew that rescue—rather than abandonment or burial alive—had come when the men he heard marching toward him began speaking Swahili, the language which originated with the Arabs’ East African slave trade and which Rwandans view ambivalently. On one occasion a Rwandan parent may give a child a Swahili name, like Rafiki, while another time that same parent might curse someone as Swahili, meaning dishonest or deceptive. Rafiki felt no ambivalence when he heard the soldiers’ Swahili because that identified them as Kagame’s rebels, who had learned Swahili when training in Uganda and had also enlisted Swahili-speaking Ugandans.
Today Rafiki, who has lived into his thirties, speaks not only Kinyarwanda and Swahili but French and English. He speaks English fluently although he regrets his inability to absorb its ferment of colloquialisms—the envy, he says, of all Kinyarwanda-speakers. “You have this wonderful word in English,” he told me last July when I visited his office. His eyes gleamed, lighting up his handsome, very dark face. “You are very lucky because we have nothing like this in Kinyarwanda, which makes me sad. This word is”—he paused to savor it on his lips—“this word is ‘fuck.’ So expressive! Yes, English is a great language.” Rafiki had good reason, at this moment, to praise the virtues of the word “fuck” since he couldn’t find what he wanted to show me, the certificate he planned to give my son to honor his service to Les Enfants de Dieu. “Do you see what I mean about this wonderful word?” Having looked through all the drawers on the righthand side of his desk, he pulled open the lefthand drawers: still no certificate for Peter. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” He spun around and rifled through two rusting, ill-matched file cabinets, his energy rising as he repeated this wonderful word: “Fuck, fuck, fuck! Fuck!”
I’m not sure I understand how one lives through a genocide, and hours and hours of certainty about one’s own dragged-out murder, to reach a place where one can experience pure joy in both the sacred and the profane. Do saving the Children of God and exulting in the wonderful word that explains the greatness of English give deeper pleasure to someone who, through passive regard of himself as a murder victim, has experienced the granite insensibility of death? I believe we could find other people who went through what Rafiki did but who have responded by becoming granite, in order to feel nothing of either pleasure or pain.
I do understand that for Rwandans, whether they hold life at a distance or, like Rafiki, hug it close, the genocide remains inescapable background noise, ready to intrude upon every disturbing foreground silence. Our friend Marie, sleeping in her mother and sister’s house in Kigali as I write these words, joined us there a year ago to translate for us and to see her mother, who is very old. One day Rafiki lent Marie, his true friend, Les Enfants de Dieu’s four-by-four and driver, who took us from Kigali to the far north of this tiny country so that we could enjoy its tropical beauty and cross the width of Lake Kivu in a boat that gave plenty of shade. Marie’s mother warned us against the boat ride which, on a hot day, proved uneventful but refreshing. And I thought nothing of her warning until late in the afternoon when a minor car accident, which harmed nobody, let in the genocide’s background noise. Our driver misjudged the height of the arch over the gate into the yard of another of Marie’s sisters, striking it with enough force to fracture one of the supporting pillars. Marie’s sister and brother-in-law and grown son joined Marie and Marianne and me in the yard as we surveyed the damage and looked back and forth from the broken gate to the hapless driver. Almost the first thing out of his mouth was a quiet yet insistent demand that nobody should call the police. “He has a bad driving record and doesn’t want to lose his license,” I said knowingly to Marianne. I knew less than I thought. Marie, whose grave expression seemed to me unwarranted by the minor property damage, finally took us aside to offer the explanation that naturally suggested itself to a Rwandan: “He doesn’t want the police because maybe he had something to do with the genocide.”
I think it turned out that the driver had nothing to do with the genocide, after all. That doesn’t mean my supposition was more intelligent than Marie’s, though. In fact hers illuminated not only her country’s politics—deeply absorbed in the Kagame government’s vigilance against “genocide ideology”—but even her mother’s anxiety about our gentle boat ride on Lake Kivu. For in 1994, Marie’s mother saw death come, as swiftly and unexpectedly as the capsizing of a boat on a lake’s glassy surface, to children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and more. Those losses were Marie’s losses also and—no more than I can put together the Rafiki who dug and bled and experienced death in his own grave with the Rafiki who rejoices in a common English profanity’s multiple uses—I cannot put together the Marie who suffered, and still suffers, those losses with the Marie who drives her twin daughters to their soccer games in her minivan and who treats my son Peter like her own son. I think I cannot put together the two Rafikis or the two Maries because, having never suffered such losses, I think they could turn me into granite, impervious to both pleasure and pain. But whether or not that’s the case—and I never want to find out—I am happy that Marie has a couple of weeks in Rwanda ahead of her with other people who did not become granite. Rafiki, everybody’s friend, befriended my son, and Marie was right about her mother and sister who, as much as Marie herself does, loved Peter like their own son.–Don Stoll