The Finger Post Travel (August 20, 2017)
(Kigali, Rwanda, July 25-27, 2017)
“No! I don’t want to touch Mobutu’s painting!”
It had become a running joke, but unlike “Get ‘er done” or the original “yes guy”, it actually was funny with each telling. I was touring the Presidential Palace Museum in Kigali, the one time residence of former Rwandan dictator Juvenal Habyarimana. And with me were a Finnish guy, an elderly Rwandan woman, and four young men from Cameroon who made it quite clear that they wanted nothing to do with the numerous trinkets and gifts given to Habyarimana by the former dictator of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko. With each stop there would be some tacky painting or display that Habyarimana had received over the years (his reign lasted from 1973 to 1994). And it quickly became a running joke: the tackiest pieces in the museum seemed to always come from Mobutu. We discovered that Mobutu gave Habyarimana a pet python (because why the hell not) and Habyarimana went so far as to build a pond for Mobutu’s python in his back yard (I won’t lie, if I ever start a heavy metal band I may just call it Mobutu’s Python).
But with each joke I found myself appreciating the simple fact that, at least in some small way, there was justice in the world. I had to appreciate the fact that Mobutu Sese Seko’s legacy was firmly entrenched in the minds of Africans. Time was not going to rehabilitate his image. He would not be forgotten as one of a long line of corrupt post colonial dictators. No. He was so much more…and history wasn’t about the let him off the hook.
But maybe things were a little different in the Democratic Republic of Congo when you talked about Mobutu. I doubt anyone really misses him, although if the Republic of Georgia taught me anything it was that anything is possible. But I wondered if the memories of his brutal rule were a little more…raw to the Congolese. And from what I could tell Mobutu wasn’t exactly a subject of humor to Rwandans either. Sure we (and by we I mean the Finnish guy and the four guys from Cameroon) were laughing at the idea of a crackpot dictator giving another crackpot dictator a python as a gift. It was humorous to us: the most absurd gift ever given to an African leader. At least until this happened earlier this year:
But like so many things in Rwanda, laughter often masks the pain. The elderly Rwandan woman never once cracked a smile during the tour. Not once.
I suddenly felt guilty. Sure Mobutu may have been a joke to these folks from Cameroon. But he was just one more piece of the puzzle in Rwanda: a puzzle that ultimately made up a picture of pure carnage and genocide. I almost even started to feel bad for Mobutu’s python. After President Habyarimana was assassinated on April 6, 1994, an event that triggered the Rwandan Genocide, Mobutu’s python disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to it, although considering how bad things ended up being, one can imagine life was probably hard for an orphaned 300-pound python in Kigali. But our guide did mention that there were rumors that Mobutu had sent some men to recover the python and bring it home to Zaire. Oddly enough, that just made the story more depressing. Sure, I was sort of glad that maybe the python might have lived a life of relative luxury after being uprooted during the Rwandan Civil War…but didn’t anyone care about the rest of the country? It just added to the absurdity of the tragedy that was Rwanda. After the murder of ten Belgium peacekeepers the UN decided they didn’t want another Somalia on their hands and abandoned the nation. Soon Western nations sent soldiers to evacuate foreign nationals, all the while many Rwandan Tutsis begged for their lives. At a technical school in Kigali, some 2,000 Tutsis sought refuge. The school was guarded by Belgian peacekeepers and they knew that as long as the Belgians were there they were safe.
Strike that. They thought they were safe.
The murder of the ten Belgians prompted the Belgian government to withdraw the remaining peacekeepers. And as they fled those same 2,000 Tutsis tried desperately to prevent the Belgians from leaving. They knew once they left they would be massacred. But the Belgians fired into the air to disperse the desperate Tutsis (priorities, right?) and left the 2,000 Tutsis fend for themselves against a growing horde of genocidal monsters that began to congregating outside of the school grounds. The Tutsis decided to try and walk out of the school and reach RPF controlled territory, where they would be safe from the genocidal militia called the Interahamwe. But they never made it. The Interahamwe intercepted them and led them to a gravel pit, where they were butchered with machetes.
But don’t worry. Someone sent an elite team of soldiers to rescue that snake.
“This is like that movie,” one of the Cameroonians exclaimed as we were led into another bathroom, the seventh or eighth we had seen on the tour. “Coming to America!”
We all laughed as we pictured Juvenal Habyarimana walking on rose pedals towards the extravagant toilet, followed by a team of royal wipers.
Well, almost all of us. The elderly Rwandan woman only glared at the toilet.
It was a fascinating tour since we also saw Habyarimana’s paranoia on display. He had everything from his secret torture room, motion sensors on the stairs leading up to the master bedroom, hidden doors and escape routes, and not so hidden compartments with money and guns. In the master bathroom he kept a file cabinet full of American dollars open for everyone to see. The file cabinet was full of tens of thousands of U.S. dollars and was meant to distract an assassin who actually made it that far into the compound. The theory was that they would be distracted by the money, giving Habyarimana a chance to escape. It probably seemed to him like there was no way he could be assassinated at the Presidential Palace.
But in the end it didn’t matter.
Habyarimana would in fact die just a few hundred feet from his motion sensors, gun cabinet, secret witchcraft room (yeah, he had one of those also) and the open file cabinet full of Benjamins in his master bathroom. In the end his assassin would never even see the file cabinet or need to worry about his motion sensors.
The assassin would just wait until President Habyarimana’s plane was landing.
The airport was just a few miles from the Presidential Palace, and on April 6, 1994, an unknown assassin would wait until the President’s plane was in its final decent. Moments before reaching the airport Habyrimana’s plane was shot down from the sky with two surface-to-air missiles and crashed in the garden of the Presidential Palace. The crash ended up killing twelve people, including both Habyarimana and the President of Burundi who had the misfortune of being in the wrong plane at the wrong time.
After twenty three years most of the wreckage is still there. We were told that we couldn’t take photos of the plane from inside the gardens, but I was able to get a wide shot of part of the tail from his BBQ pit, which was located next to his swimming pool and tennis courts.
By the end of the tour you can’t help but feel depressed. Not just because almost everything in there was probably at one point touched by Mobutu. No, it was because this place, this shrine to opulence, was where so much suffering would be born. Not just in Rwanda, where 800,000 were killed during the genocide. But even in Zaire where the country would be destabilized by the presence of hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees who fled to Eastern Zaire after the end of the Rwandan Civil War. These refugees would in turn trigger a chain reaction that would lead to two brutal wars in Zaire/Congo: two wars that would lead to the death of over 5,000,000 people. I can’t help but wonder if the unknown person who fired that SAM at Habyarimana’s presidential plane knew how much suffering would follow as a result of that act. The Rwandan government, the U.S. State Department, Mi6, and a majority of neutral observers felt that the evidence strongly pointed to Hutu extremists opposed to the proposed peace deal with the RPF as the perpetrators. A French anti-terrorist magistrate claims that the evidence points to Paul Kagame and the RPF, although to be fair the French have about as much credibility when it come to Rwanda as the guy you sort of knew in high school who is always posting links and rants on Facebook about chemtrails and FEMA camps. Ultimately we will probably never know; it will go down as one of history’s great mysteries.
Right alongside the question of what ever happened to Mobutu’s python.
By the time the tour ends the day is coming to a close and I need to head back to the hotel. Alex picks me up from the Presidential Museum and takes me to a place I really wasn’t expecting to find in Rwanda: the Inema Arts Gallery. I’ve been to a lot of art galleries over the years, and although I consider myself a fan of good art, I also realize I am in no way an art coinsure. But I like to think that I’m savvy enough to spot good art from bad art…and this was damn good. But more than just being good, it had a vibe to it that I wouldn’t have expected to find in Rwanda. This art gallery reminded me of visiting an art show with my aunt and uncle, both art professors in Geneva, New York. This place was legit, and it had the vibe to go with it. Numerous Westerners wandered around with glasses of wine, looking over the paintings carefully. It was a scene right out of New York or San Francisco. But as I was to discover, there was a thriving art scene in Kigali and the city was quickly emerging as the most cosmopolitan city in Africa. After meeting with one of the artists, Emmanuel Nkuranga, who also was a co-founder of the Inema Art Center, I discovered that this gallery was not alone in Kigali. Although I enjoyed the gallery, I decided it was time to go and Alex and I soon left. I wanted to stay but I was hungry and this place only was serving alcohol.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel this trip was feeling more like a trip to Napa Valley or Bar Harbor then Africa. This was the second spot of the day that I felt had been transplanted from a nice neighborhood in the States, the first being the coffee shop Shokola, where we stopped for lunch. Shokola billed itself as a “storyteller’s café” and had the location to go with the the theme. It was located on the top floor of the Kigali Library, right across the street from the U.S. Embassy. It actually was a really cool little place, and would have felt right at home in Seattle.
I didn’t know how many more locations would make me think of American college towns, but Alex had another surprise in store. We then went to another location that almost seemed like it had been transplanted from a posh suburb of Seattle: Heaven Restaurant and Boutique Hotel. The restaurant was founded by an American couple, who documented their relocation to Rwanda in the book A Thousand Hills to Heaven. Alex swore it was one of the best places to eat in Rwanda, but I wasn’t convinced at first. It seemed too americanized; burgers and pasta seemed to make up the foundation of the menu. Nonetheless I found something that sounded traditional. I ordered the kuku paka: Swahili spiced chicken curry. I wasn’t disappointed. The curry was excellent, although I couldn’t help but wonder if this really was an authentic Swahili dish or just an awesome bowl of curry that was given a back-story.
But by now it was after 10 PM. I had hired Alex for the day and felt bad that I had keep him over well past the hour he expected to be done. I had to fly back tomorrow, part of a comically long journey back to the United States that involved five stops and two layovers in excess of ten hours. But the fight out of Kigali wasn’t until after midnight. I had all of Friday to spend touring Kigali. I still had one more day in Rwanda.
And I was going to take advantage of every minute of it.
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