In the course of our journey to Rwanda, designer Laurel Hechanova of Findery stopped to capture some of her thoughts and feelings. This piece was originally published on the Findery site here.
1. Impostor Syndrome on Malarone
The group of us sat around a long row of tables on the back patio. We’d each finished a beer or two at this point—the first since getting off several consecutive planes for some of us and the first with the full group for all of us. We talked about how perfect the weather was that night and what malaria meds everyone was on.
Jeff welcomed and briefed us, then asked John to say something. John stood and started by thanking us for being there and for coming to do what we were about to do. He thanked us for our time and attention. He told us how important this work was to his organization and how privileged they felt to have us.
It wasn’t “thank you all for coming” as a perfunctory intro to something else. It was genuine and profuse.
I started feeling uncomfortable being on the receiving end of so much gratitude from someone who works to promote genocide awareness and prevention year-round. I thought about how my last week’s highlight was finally finishing Orange Is the New Black and how my biggest concern had been how my cats would fare when my fiancée and I were away in Palm Springs for the holiday weekend. Who did he assume I was? How did I end up here? Maybe they should’ve gotten someone else. Jeff had literally just said we might feel that way and that we were all meant to be here, but now I was concerned he’d been referring to the rest of the group.
At the end of the tour through the memorial this morning, we gathered ourselves in the center’s meeting room. As we settled, John introduced Freddy, Aegis Trust’s country director in Rwanda.
The young man sitting before us in a light gray suit and blue button-down shirt had survived the genocide as an orphan head-of-household.
Please take a moment to consider that phrase.
He’d been a teenager when all of this happened. As he spoke, I couldn’t shake the fact that I was looking at someone my age.
Freddy stood up to address us and started by thanking us for helping them, telling us how much it meant to him and the center. He was warm and sincere.
My stomach clenched. Everyone everywhere should be thanking you, I thought. I’d just spent the day trying to process the multitude of horrors he’d survived. I’d been demolished over and again by photos, video testimonies and remnants from its victims.
I stared at the floor in the middle of the room.
3. A Familiar Beat
Tonight, dinner was in an open area on the grounds of a youth hostel. We got out of our vans, ducked through a gate, passed three unattended conga drums in the middle of a wide walkway and picked seats and tables from a row of 30 beneath a large tree.
Stacey and I sat near the middle and watched someone start a fire in an oil barrel. We talked about the day. Today—everything—was a lot, maybe too much to digest. It was only the first full day, but we already wished we had more time. We couldn’t do enough research before we came no matter how much we’d read. What were we going to ask when we interviewed survivors tomorrow? How much are we even ultimately able to do?
In the middle of this, without introduction, three men in wrapped skirts and beaded straps across their chests began to hit the drums. The beat resonated across the concrete floor and walls, through our feet and against our chests and backs.
It reminded me of Guam. I fanlalai’an. It was too much. Everything in my small universe was too good. I leaned forward and tried to smile—to be visibly appreciative of the performance, but I was crying. I forced myself not to sob and shake so no one would ask me if I was all right because I couldn’t possibly absorb any more human warmth in that moment. There was too much of my home in a strange place. A shadow of unbelievable violence in a beautiful land. Too many smiles from strangers. Improbable warmth and kindness near mass graves of loved ones, lovers and friends. Bird chatter in the morning and large, atrocity-defying construction on the hills.
Soon others, women and men, filled out the group to sing and dance. For the last song, they pulled us out of our chairs to join them.