Monday, 26 March 2018


“The President has been assassinated.”

My mum’s anxious words cut through the blur of warm recollection and bright anticipation that made up the atmosphere of a typical holiday morning. It was immediately clear from my parents’ subdued attitude: something had changed; the President’s death meant war.

Most of my memories of Rwanda belong in the haze of heady nostalgia: I remember lining up for birthday party photos on the veranda steps, racing around the garden with slopping buckets mid water fight, scouring the depths of the dressing up box for just the perfect wig. I remember clambering over the hot corrugated roof, scaling the heights of frangipani trees, then avocado trees, then kapok trees, adventuring on my bike down red-mud roads. Rwanda days were days of tea parties in the bushes, of hide and seek in the wilds of the mango patch, of wheelbarrow rides and banana tree planting with our gardener-friend Manueli until we were all helpless with laughter, of splashing around in the lake at the bottom of the hill until the sun sunk low in the sky.

The weight of tension that characterised those months fell almost immediately. The eerie quiet hung heavily, its suffocation always descending oppressively after any skirmishes disturbed it. The morning was warm, but the village was empty.

After that, my memories come in glimpses and looking at them is like trying to grasp shards of a broken image, a breaking image.

We saw houses burning ominously on the opposite hillside; the sight made my sister sick.  There were odd- and increasing- snapshots of desperate fear. A frenzied man pelted through our garden, his reckless urgency unfamiliar and disturbing. Another morning I found a man cowering in the darkness of our spare room- trembling, humiliated by fear, eyes brimming with a plea for mercy.

There were nights sleeping away from home for safety; anxious discussions with other families; gunshots; tangible, severe tension. Brutal nights were followed by hollow, haunting mornings. Guttural wails of mourning echoed around the valley; there were reports of incomprehensible violence, there were death threats, there were deaths. And then there were clear instructions from the Embassy: Brits must leave.  

We had half an hour to pack our things.

I couldn’t decide which of my Sylvanian Families I should pack. I remember looking at the villagers- hedgehogs and ducks and bears laid out on my bedroom floor, little lives frozen in the unremarkable ordinariness of their being. The decision of which to bring with me was impossible. The pressure, the urgency, the fear made the very act of deciding futile. I left them all behind.

Once we left, there was the tension of the journey: we drove through multiplied checkpoints, the Union Jack taped to our windscreen as our refuge, we hoped, from the surrounding fray. Members of our convoy were threatened by soldiers and the sudden blast of a puncture added to our strain. We feared for our lives and those of who remained; wretchedness permeated our exit: how were we able to leave when so many we loved had no choice but to stay?

In the July after the war broke in April, our family had come back to the UK for a few months. Someone had lent us a house in Virginia Water and my abiding memory of that time was the heat of the summer’s drought, the palpable tension of uncertainty, and countless letters scattered across the breakfast table: one envelope might contain words of relief; another letter might turn to slate on reading, an unbearable burden of devastating news.

The radio emanated reports of mass exodus, of countless deaths, of callous atrocities, a low drone of statistics and generalisations. But each bulletin brought to mind particular faces we had known and loved and trusted.

We longed most for news of Manueli and his family. But letter after letter came, and none of them gave us hope that our closest friends had survived.

This is just a prologue. I stood on the shore of these events; the experiences were memories for me before the real storm broke over most people in this conflict. My age and my parents sheltered me from many of the horrors, and the privilege of my position protected me from many more.
More than a year after we left Rwanda, we set out on another tense journey.

Since the war, my parents had been working in a large refugee camp to the East of Rwanda. Reports had come that another camp was opening up on the border with Zaire, and with them came a minute by-line of optimism; could Manueli and his family still be alive? After some investigation my mum discovered: they were.

We travelled across miles of rugged terrain, our Landrover churning red dust in to the humid air, leaving us in a ruddy cloud of uncertainty. We were accompanied by an armed guard, there to protect us from notorious bandits that occupied the intervening miles. Our stomachs lurched with the turbulence of the rough track and with the restless anticipation of being reunited with our friends.

My first sighting of the refugee camp was overwhelming. Suddenly, the vast East African horizon was punctuated with endless blotches of unnatural blue. The rolling green hills suddenly became a sprawling sea of UNHCR sheeting, tarpaulin patchwork city as a refuge for thousands and thousands of families, united by their obligation to escape. Each tent contained its own stories of fearful desperation. 

It had rained that day, and all the moisture of an equatorial storm hung in the air. As soon as we clambered down from the vehicle, the smell of earth filled the dense air. Immediately we were surrounded by a throng of children, who milled around us and one another, bubbling over with energy and life. We set out to find the family, weaving through the rows of tents, accompanied by this lively new entourage.

When we got there they welcomed us in; there were embraces, smiles, laughter, warmth: praise to God that we’d been reunited. Manueli’s eyes shone with laughter, as they always had, as he made space for us on the floor of his makeshift home that was comprised of nothing more than sheeting and straw.

We had not been there long when it became evident that they were preparing a meal for us. In the camps they had daily rations. Once my mum had calculated that from the quota, each refugee would have been assigned five kidney beans a day.

We were a family of five who had had breakfast and no doubt would have another meal later on that day. My parents were desperate not to, but at Manueli’s absolute and delighted insistence, crouching in his refugee tent, we ate the meal he had prepared for us.

Manueli’s family had not been able to leave quickly; they had not been able to swiftly find safety elsewhere. They had walked for fearful miles, in constant danger- bewildered, horrified, surrounded by incomprehensible brutality. They'd experienced betrayal and many who survived slaughter died of starvation on the road. They'd finally got to safety in a vast refugee camp of plastic sheeting and rationed handouts and yet when a wealthy Western family came to visit, they shared them with us.

They had even gone to their neighbours and collected spoons, so that there'd be enough for us all to eat their food in the way Europeans did. They welcomed us with warmth and love and overflowing kindness. Whether or not I knew it at the time, as I crouched on the floor of that tent eating someone else’s rations of potatoes and beans, I was taught that generosity is not about how much you give, but about how much is left over once the giving is finished.

We stayed for a while, and then, again, we left.

We travelled back to our roofed home, had warm showers, probably ate again and then went to sleep in our secure beds.

Sometimes when I look back to this afternoon, I find anxiety begins to eat away at the memory. Did I turn my nose up at the food? Did I scrunch my nose up at strange smells? Did I ask for more? After I’d eaten did I get bored and moan that I wanted to go home? I worry that somehow my childishness or my selfishness trampled over the beauty of a moment that taught me more about hospitality than I have learnt in the twenty years since.  

As time has gone by, I’ve found that the abundance of Manueli’s robust generosity has made it impossible for me to pity him. His generosity and love have made an even deeper impression on me than the wretched injustices of war and the world. Although insecurities about my thoughtlessness or my privilege lurk in the shadows of that memory, I can’t dwell on them for long without the rays of Manueli’s kindness scattering them away.

Manueli gave like all who are truly generous do- with delight, with hope, without any expectation of repayment other than the enjoyment of the gift. Had I been so foolish as to ask for more, he would have been thrilled that I’d found the meal so tasty. That afternoon remains a good memory, one of the best of my life.

On the noticeboard of our computer room at home, we have pinned a photograph that we took of Manueli and his family in the camp that afternoon. The image is faded now, specks of the colours have peeled off, there are creases towards its edges. But the photo tells a story of humanity. It has become for me a litmus test of what really matters in life. Light pierces the holes between the straw and the sheeting and the majority of their possessions are visible- a pot, a plastic bag, the mattress they are sitting on, the clothes they are wearing, and one another.

And Manueli is smiling- his broad, generous, radiant smile.

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