All Grief is Relative

Rwanda countryside

Editor’s note: Living in another country, where miracles and atrocities go hand-in-hand, brings a unique blend of joys and sorrows and perspective when facing grief. ~ EC

The tropical fruit I eat for breakfast is so fresh from the market that the skin still feels alive, as warm and stretchable as my own as I cut it into pieces small enough to eat. The juice leaks as soon as my knife pierces the mango, passion fruit, papaya, pineapple. I eat the fruit as slowly as I can, savoring the flavor mingled with warm coffee from the nearby hills. 

Every morning I run through cobblestoned streets bordered by towering African lilies to a private language class. I shower with hot water—an unthinkable luxury–then teach shy, earnest students in jumpsuits at a technical university built into a hillside. Twice a week, I teach nuns that play volleyball in a convent tucked into a forest off the main road. Their favorite drink, they say, is sorghum beer. They are kind, even to those who need it. 

I shower with hot water—an unthinkable luxury…

I spend afternoons on the sun-drenched patio of Café Conexion, drinking cappuccino after cappuccino and slowly preparing lessons. Time feels different in a little city in a little country. The days pass slowly, the sky changes from rain to sun and sun to rain. The darkened hillsides of evening look just like the night sky, speckled with lights twinkling across the swells of land. They lull you to sleep.

It is paradise and it was hell. Every door in my house has a lock. Every room has a lock. Every drawer has a lock. Every house has a guard.

My neighbors are kind, but many don’t smile until the sixth, the seventh time they see you. Then, smiling shyly, one woman called me umuzungu wacu (a Western relative/sister). 

When I run on cobblestones that are still sharp in their newness, cutting my feet on a country that was rebuilt rock by rock in twenty-five years, laughing children with no memory of carnage will run after me. Sometimes they high five me, sometimes little ones hug me, often they ask for money. Once, a little girl followed me for a mile.

“Mama ni he? Mama ni he?” I asked. “Where is mom?”

She just smiled.

My students tell me they want to be engineers, veterinarians, farmers. They want to study for themselves and for the state, for their families and for fierce pride parce qu’ils viennent du loin. They speak two or three or four languages but when they laugh–and they often do–it is usually in Kiny. In English, most are serious. My students are five feet tall and seven feet tall and hold hands with one another. For them, some things go unsaid.

My students…speak two or three or four languages but when they laugh–and they often do–it is usually in Kiny.

My neat apartment, spacious in a compound shared with a family that takes in my laundry when it rains but uses my water tank instead of their own, is old enough to have been a home, then a butchery, then resting place, final until the mass graves were dug.

This neighborhood, a square mile of large houses and tall trees, was once full of a people murdered two years before my birth, people whose children might have lived in this house instead of me. 

People who might have sat in the corner of Café Conexion quietly planning lessons.

People who might have walked the hills of Huye Province on Friday afternoons in my hiking group, gazing out at their land of 1,000 hills and 1,000 years of history, both abruptly sliced open by machetes. Gazing out at the houses of their neighbors perched on emerald hillsides full of roaming, placid, sacred cows. Gazing out at their neighbors instead of the sprawling prison that houses their murderers.

People, babies, who would have been about my age, instead of forever rotting in Murambi School, if things had gone differently. Maybe we would have been friends, meeting at Upendi Pub for a beer on weekends. Maybe we wouldn’t have liked each other. But, either way, they would have been here.

I can’t comprehend tens of thousands of human beings murdered in a hundred days, all from the area surrounding a city that now holds 94,000 individuals. I never will.

But if this city, full of life on an umuganda Saturday as I sit in the sunshine, drinking coffee, can survive. If people can smile again—eventually–if they can study because they have dreams that await them, if they can dress in beautiful clothes just to go the market on a Monday, if they can fill the hillsides with music praising a God that saw the genocide and cried with them, so loudly that I hear it in my apartment with the doors and windows closed, if they can survive the dead of the massacres and the dead of a city stripped of a generation of doctors, then surely I can accept that my mom will likely die of cancer—a late stage mass of tumors discovered my second week in Rwanda.

 If Mom survives, it will be a miracle. 

If this city, full of life on an umuganda Saturday, … can survive … then surely I can accept that my mom will likely die of cancer …

 But miracles have happened before, and on a far greater scale than my family’s own tragedy.

Outside on my street, children are playing, umuganda fading into a lazy Saturday. Their voices, high pitched with play, mingle with birds. Down my block, people are singing in church. Even in my house, I hear them.

Katie Pedersen is a Boston-based chemistry teacher, freelance writer, and subpar standup comedian. She spends about half of her free time wandering around local neighborhoods and the other half hoarding her roommates’ books. Last year, she worked as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Rwanda.

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