I had a friend in Africa.
Words and stories are like maps— ways of finding our way back to ourselves. Songs are useless if we don’t sing them and stories don’t mean a thing unless we have someone to tell them to.
This dispatch is a story. As it is being published, I am traveling back to Africa. My story, from half a lifetime away, will tell why.
One of my African friends was Louis, a thin man who drove me around the eastern borderlands of Zaire, Africa in the 1990s. He and I didn’t share a language, but we didn’t need words to communicate. He was as much a part of my personal landscape as the roads themselves, the shoreline of Lake Kivu, or the looming volcanoes that were always in our peripheral vision.
I had other friends: Doctor Wembo; Joseph, an elder in the local church; Blaise, an architect whose ambition was to construct a church building and orphanage; and Joe Templeton, an American missionary.
And there was Banywesize “Thomas” Maheshe. Sometimes a person can happen to you. Thomas happened to me.
The movie Grand Canyon explores some interesting themes and one of them is serendipity. The plot line includes several brief, seemingly chance, encounters that change everything for the characters. In one scene, Claire says to her husband, Mack, “Something has happened. You can’t go back and have it not happen. Some kind of connection has been made. It has to be played out.”
This dispatch is about that type of connection—how people get entangled with each other.
East Africa 1994-1996
Rwanda is a small country in Eastern Africa where the physical beauty of the landscape belies the turbulent history of its people. It has been called the “Switzerland of Africa” and is known by Rwandans as the “Land of a Thousand Hills.”
A thousand, at least. Verdant, undulating hillsides appear as green waves, one upon another, like an emerald ocean, their slopes swathed in terraces carved by hand into the fertile soil and draped with lush coffee and tea plantations. The valleys are cut by the rushing torrents that arise from the rainforests of higher elevations. Volcanos flank the country’s western perimeter as part of the Ruwenzori Range, the fabled “Mountains of the Moon.” That’s where the mountain gorillas live.
Most of the population survives on subsistence agriculture, so the Rwandan landscape is speckled with small farms where families live in thatched or mud-brick, chimniless shambas, with smoke from charcoal fires seeping out though the walls and roof. It’s easy to see why a constant dry cough is so prevalent— a person living in those quarters might as well be smoking a cigarette with a paper bag over his head. The shambas are connected by a lattice of footpaths, trod by women dressed in traditional garments consisting of wrap-around skirts made from cloth in iridescent colors. Viewed from across the valley, they create the effect of a terrestrial tableau of prisms refracting the sunlight— like little rainbows coursing through the green foliage.
My first visit to Rwanda was in 1992. My sister Laura and her husband Roger were there working with an organization that was continuing the work of Diane Fossey, the naturalist who was selected by the anthropologist Louis Leaky to do for mountain gorillas what Jane Goodall had done for chimpanzees. On that earlier visit, I saw gorillas and met some Rwandan people, and it left an indelible mark.
Two years later, in 1994, I watched the news reports of the genocide in Rwanda and was reawakened to the land and its people. I wanted to go back and help in some way but had no clear idea of how. As it turned out, through a series of circumstances, I found myself in the first wave of missionaries sent to East Africa to deal with the humanitarian crisis that was unfolding.
Historians and social scientists say there is no significant biological or historical distinction between the tribes of Rwanda. Unfortunately, humans are all too adept at drawing a distinction between themselves and others even when there is none—a trait that Sigmund Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.” So it seems with current events in this country, and it has long been true of the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda. Perceived differences between those groups of people have been exploited and exaggerated by previous ruling governments and have remained ingrained in the collective consciousness long after the end of colonialism. The Hutu refugees around Goma had been the majority group in Rwanda, but they had been replaced by Tutsis, who previously had themselves been exiled across the northern border with Uganda. The history of it was very cyclical and tragic.
The Rwandan genocide was followed by a massive influx of refugees into neighboring countries. The rest of the world watched from the sidelines until relief organizations eventually went into eastern Zaire, where much of the population of Rwanda fled as their country’s civil war raged behind them. Many of the relief organizations sent missionaries to Goma, where most of the refugee exodus was concentrated.
Goma-town is nestled on the shore of Lake Kivu, one of the bodies of water created when the tectonic shifts of the Horn of Africa formed the Great Rift Valley. It was a beautiful setting, but no longer was Goma a resort destination.
We had to look past the crumbling hotels and shuttered storefronts to imagine better days, when there were tourists strolling the sidewalks rather than bands of teenagers brandishing hand-me-down assault rifles. Goma had gone from what was once a tropical resort to something more like a crime scene—from Bora Bora to Tora Bora. The roving gangs were “soldiers” only by way of being heavily armed, not because of any training or discipline; it was best to avoid encounters with them. It was like an African version of the Wild West, without the black and white cowboy hats or anyone assigned to keep the peace.
I happened to phone the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries on the day that they began to assemble a team, and before I knew it, I was thrust into the middle of the relief effort. I had never been a missionary and didn’t know what I was supposed to do when I got there, but when they offered to send me, I didn’t say no. Then the original leader of the mission team (who was an actual missionary) dropped out and they asked me to be the new leader—which only shows they had few other options.
I said yes to that, too.
I had some friends in Missouri who took a leap of faith in me and signed up to go along, so it was our small group that became the first team sent to Goma by the Methodist church. We were tasked with helping to staff a make-shift hospital and orphanage that was caring for children who had been displaced from their families in the flight from Rwanda. The hope was that most of them could eventually be reunited with their loved ones, although some of the children were the only ones in the family left alive. It was a lot for us who had never done anything like that before. With equal parts courage and naïveté, we dealt with it as best we could and tried to make it up as we went along —as if playing a musical instrumented while at the same time constructing it.
That was my first trip to eastern Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo, “DRC”). There were two more. In 1996 I was in Goma for the third time, and conditions had improved only a little. The refugee camps were still there, and when I walked down the muddy footpaths of the sprawling shantytowns on the outskirts of the city, it was among more than a million people sheltered in squalid huts made of plastic tarps, sticks, and grass. The humid air lay over the valley like a wet blanket. The soot from the numberless open fires refused to rise and dissipate, infecting everyone’s mood like a persistent toothache.
It seemed that nobody had gone home, and they all had a story and a reason why not. The refugees themselves were not all created equally; all of them were survivors; many of them were victims of circumstance; and a few of them had participated in the genocide that started it all. There was no way for us to tell the difference, and a United Nations official once warned me to…”never trust a survivor until you know what he has done to survive.”
This time I was living with Joe and Lydia Templeton, two career missionaries with the Methodist Church. Joe and I liked to take morning walks and typically started at first light, the most pleasant and safest time to be out of our walled compound. We passed under the mango tree in our front yard and noticed the aroma of baking bread wafting from a kitchen across the street. The outline of the volcanoes became visible, and the tranquil surface of the lake would shimmer with amber flecks of sunrise. It was the quietest period of day, when the streets were nearly empty and the only people out were a few merchants unloading their wares for market or an occasional “mamma” tending a charcoal fire or sweeping her front doorstep.
Goma was perfectly flat except for a strange promontory right in the center of town. Mount Goma (its actual name) seemed out of place in the natural landscape. It must have been formed by some long-ago geologic event and, over time, had eroded into an ugly mound of volcanic rock that created an obstacle to anyone who traveled across town. If we wanted a good view of the sunrise and a little more exercise, Joe and I would follow the narrow road that led up a steep climb to the summit, where we had a panoramic view of the city and the surrounding countryside.
One morning, while it was still dark, Joe and I started up the dirt path that spiraled around the hill. We were halfway up Mt. Goma when we passed a small military outpost consisting of a few tents, a fire pit, and a cannon— which seemed weird. A cannon? The makeshift uniforms on most of the soldiers were in tatters, so how did they manage artillery?
The troops were still asleep in their tents, so Joe and I passed by silently and trekked to the top to watch the sunrise. By the time we came down, the sun was up and so were the soldiers. They were agitated to see us coming down instead of up the hill and immediately began to question and reproach us like we were a couple of wedding crashers. One guy in camo pants and a dirty t-shirt, rifle in hand, seemed especially perturbed, as if he had apprehended a pair of enemy commandos in their midst.
He pointed his gun and gestured for us to step off the road and into one of the tents. That didn’t seem like a good idea to us, so Joe and I put our arms in the air, showed the soldier our United Nations I.D. name badge, and started backing away.
Having a gun pointed at you quickly brings things into focus. Joe and I were lost in conversation just minutes before, then all my senses became suddenly on high alert. My perception of events unfolded as if everything had first slowed and then happened all at once.
Joe and I were more afraid of what might happen if we did as we were told than if we tried to call the guy’s bluff, so we kept moving away and hoped he wouldn’t shoot us. He really was just a kid, and it was anybody’s guess who was more nervous—him or us. Like any teenage boy, he could play the tough guy, but we hoped he might think he was in over his his head if he tried to do that with two Americans. We weren’t sure how seriously to take him, but the weapon he was brandishing said pretty seriously.
I asked Joe, “Do you think he’ll shoot us?”
Joe replied, “I don’t think so, do you?”
“I don’t know, probably not, do you?”
He didn’t shoot. Joe and I took a deep breath, turned our back on the gun-toting teen, and walked away. He kept shouting, but the sound of his voice faded as we rounded a bend. When we were out of his sight and range, we started to breathe again and scurried home.
I decided to stay in Africa longer than planned because we were making progress on the construction project and every day made a difference. That’s what I told myself at the time, but to be honest, I just wasn’t ready to leave yet. Blaise, the architect, gave me more credit than I deserved when it came to my part in the construction. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and it would all happen (or not happen) with or without me being there, yet still felt a part of things. Extending my stay was not a popular decision, and it involved a lot of explaining to the people who were expecting me to come home on time.
Joe and Lydia went home before I did. Before they left, we talked about my previous visit to Rwanda and my desire to go back. They were against it for several reasons. They argued that there was no reason for me to be there— no useful purpose —and it had nothing to do with my mission to Africa. When we parted, they left me with one last piece of advice—don’t go.
I went anyway. I could see Rwanda when I stood by the lake in Goma and I wanted to return. I had my reasons—it’s just that my reasons didn’t seem like very good ones to anyone else. Mostly, I wanted to see where this part of my story began. The idea came into my head and it never went out again. A whim can be a powerful thing.
The Americans in Goma told me that without a visa I shouldn’t even consider going to Rwanda. It was still technically a war zone and the U. S. had not reestablished diplomatic relations. With no presence there, the church said they couldn’t protect me. The Africans said “no problem,” but they said that about everything. Joe and Lydia were definitely against me going, but they weren’t there anymore.
I asked my closest friend, Thomas Maheshe. Thomas was a schoolteacher who worked as a translator and facilitator for the NGOs in the area. I met him the first day I was in Goma in 1994 and he became my constant companion. He thought I could go to Rwanda and even asked to come along.
I took Thomas’s advice with a grain of salt. I trusted him, but he wasn’t someone I would choose to go with me into battle. He was a good soldier in the mold of Radar O’Riley, not Rambo. When he asked if he could come with me, it wasn’t because he was looking for adventure. It was the schoolteacher in him who wanted to purchase school supplies in the market in Gisenyi, the Rwandan town across the border.
Thomas and I walked into the border station and were confronted by three grim officials wearing expressions like professional pallbearers. They took our passports and started asking questions. Why didn’t we speak French? (Thomas did). Why did my passport say I was born in Germany? (It was at a US military base). They seemed determined to find a reason to refuse us entry, and admittedly, they had good reason. We did not have visas for Rwanda; we had no contacts or in-country address; and there was no valid purpose in us going there in the first place. Thomas was doing his best to talk us through but getting nowhere, and it was starting to look like our journey would end before it began. Suddenly and inexplicably, the guards lost all interest in us and the tension dissipated. Before we knew it, we were walking into Rwanda.
We stood on the outskirts of Gisenyi, and it was eerily quiet. As the epicenter of the mass migration of refugees, the whole area appeared plundered, still in shock, as if a place, instead of a person, could have PTSD. The only person in sight was a man who looked beset by strife, like a character out of a Grahme Green novel. He was standing next to a world-weary Suzuki hatchback that, after a brief negotiation, became our taxi for the day.
The lush Rwandan landscape was what I remembered. I had returned to the Africa that I yearned to see again— Africa as it was meant to be. This was not the scarred and deforested terrain of Eastern Zaire. In this part of Rwanda, vegetation carpeted the hillsides and extended to Lake Kivu’s shoreline. The rain forest’s green mansions were laced with mist that was truly mist, arising from moisture rather than the smoke of a hundred trash fires. The streets of Gisenyi were clean and calm, not like the confused and aimless tangle of traffic in Goma. The hotels were vacant but could have welcomed tourists if there had been any but Thomas and me. Pedestrians were mostly women and children walking along the roadside, cooking over an open fire or tending their gardens. Absent were the huddled masses of refugees or the marauding gangs of young men riding in the back of pickup trucks.
Departure and Return
“Water has a perfect memory, and is forever trying to get back to where it came from.” Toni Morrison
Departure and return is something that inevitably creates an emotional response in us. Longing is one of the strongest human emotions. Poems are written about leaving home and not being able to find our way back, and the best songs are not about being in love but about love lost. Great music happens when something gets broken. As Mary Oliver wrote in her poem A Dream of Trees, ……”No one makes music of a mild day.”
We sense that the ending of every story is when it returns to the beginning. The great epics of literature tell it that way—the hero leaves home on a quest but longs to return. Some of our favorite songs tell a similar story; Simon and Garfunkel are “Homeward Bound,” and John Denver is “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane.” Even without the lyrics, a song’s melody alone can create a subliminal tension as it starts with a note in its key signature, explores variations on a theme, and then returns to the note that it started with. We sense, subconsciously, that the song will not end until it gets back to the place where it started. We all just long to go home.
I felt drawn back to Rwanda and have been told that, on some level, Africa has that effect on every human. I was in the part of the African continent—the Great Rift Valley—where humankind began. More than once, when I have met a native African in Africa, they have said, “Welcome home!”
Somewhere deep inside all creatures there is an innate connection, a genetic memory, that draws us back. The salmon swim upstream; the swallows go back to Capistrano; and Man returns to Africa.
We stopped at the Gisenyi central market. While Thomas shopped, I wandered among the stalls. I tried to recede into the shadows and remain inconspicuous, but that was difficult since I didn’t look like anyone else. I didn’t exactly blend in with the crowd, like the time I went to an Indigo Girls concert.
I noticed how few people were out and figured they must all be next door in Zaire. I tried to avoid making eye contact with the numerous Rwandan soldiers who patrolled the market and streets. They looked different than the makeshift militia I was used to in Zaire. They had clean uniforms and guns that looked like they came from somewhere other than a pawn shop.
We left the market and drove into the town center. I had visited Gisenyi from the Rwandan side the first time I was in Africa and I remembered the location of a souvenir shop overlooking Lake Kivu well enough to find it again. When we got there it was closed so we asked around and learned where the owner lived. When we drove there, she was gone. We decided to go look for her until I asked the obvious question of whether any of us knew what she looked like and would recognize her if we saw her. We recruited the shopkeeper’s teenage son to go with us and drove off to find her, but never did.
Our driver reluctantly told us about another shop on the top of the hill above town. That didn’t work out either. Our vehicle was as likely to drive us back to Missouri as to the top of that steep incline in Rwanda. We made it halfway up before the car sputtered and died. Thomas and I got out and walked to the top of the hill where the shop was located but, when we got there, it was closed, too. Nobody answered the door when we knocked but it was open so we went in and looked around before we left to walk back to the car. We jump-started it several times by rolling it backwards down the hill until our disgruntled driver, a man seemingly exhausted by the human condition, used my Swiss Army knife to make enough repairs to get us back to town.
“No hurry in Africa” is what they say and, like most everything else, we arrived late. Crossing the border was less arduous when leaving Rwanda than it was in coming (nobody really seemed to care who came into Zaire). It helped when a little money changed hands (made me wish I had thought to do that on the way in).
Louis was still standing just where we left him. He was a thin man—like a stick drawing of a person-and wore the oversized t-shirt with a Memorial Community Hospital logo that I had given him. A small man with a big heart, Louis could have passed for the brother of Sammy Davis Jr.. He was worried, and wore an expression of a parent waiting up late for his teenager to return home from a night out. Louis never took his eyes off me, as if the power of his gaze could draw me back to him.
A few other church members waited with Louis, and we all drove back to the guest house together. I watched some women taking an English lesson until their class broke up and they started to cook beans and rice for supper. One of the women’s first name was Perseverence.
After we ate I rode with Thomas and Blaise, the architect, in a pickup truck with the women riding in the back. We took them home, then the three of us stopped by the church construction site. Blaise wanted me to see what they had accomplished on the day that I was away. Many bricks had been laid and the walls were noticeably higher. Lake Kivu stretched out before us and Mt Nyiragongo loomed above, steam rising from its smoldering caldron as an ominous threat that it might explode at any time (two years later it did erupt for real). A volcanic eruption was all they needed in Goma- lava on top of everything else that had been heaped on that sorry city.
And yet, volcanic eruptions were taken in stride, like thunderstorms in the American Midwest. Blaise and I were sitting on volcanic ash that was commonplace in Goma. It was the “topsoil” that was mixed by the masons into mortar that, when packed between bricks, dried harder than woodpecker lips.
We looked out at the water as the sun set over Lake Kivu, one of the pearls in the necklace of “great lakes” that lie along the cleft in the continent of Africa. Tangential sunbeams shimmered on the windswept surface of the water, creating more twinkles than a Christmas tree. For some reason that is the image I remember most vividly. There were so many sparkles that we could have been characters in a fairy tale instead of a true-life human dystopia.
The sun descended and the day folded over itself. The shades of night closed in, and a soft breeze caressed my sunburned face. The sound the wind made as it sifted though the leaves was as soothing as someone singing a French lullaby. Silence enveloped us and we savored it together. After awhile Blaise spoke softly, almost a whisper, and said, “You are my savior!”
That is what he said, but I knew it wasn’t true, I was not his savior. I had been away too long. It was time for me to go home. I told Blaise that I would miss him and he replied, “Can you stay another week?”
Many people told me it might not be safe to go to Rwanda. My friends could see that, despite my reservations, I was determined to go. Joseph, who wrote my name Njef (the beginning “N” is silent in Swahili) said, “Njef, don’t you know? We are watching you and won’t let anything bad happen to you.”
I thought that I was supposed to be helping them. In their minds, however, they were watching over me.
Outwardly, I had little in common with my African friends, and I have lost contact with all of them except Thomas. Yet, even now, so many years later, they seem close; they still feel like friends.
I am on my way to meet my sister in the mountains of Uganda, the same range and just north of the Rwandan mountains where I was before. Laura is an educator, and her specialty is teaching teachers. She will be working with children in the rural western part of the country, and she recruited my brother-in-law and me to help her.
I am going to Africa for Laura—and also for myself. Thomas Maheshe left Goma with his family years ago —they are the refugees now—and they live in a settlement outside Kampala, the capital of Uganda. My plan is to find him.
Sometimes a person happens to you, and Thomas happened to me. We have managed to communicate over the past twenty-five years, and when I sent him an email to tell him I was coming to Uganda he wrote back, “…it will be a joyous day when I see you again after so long.”
Yes it will.