“You Are Welcome”: First days in Kigali
I heard the housekeeper singing in the kitchen, leapt out of my seat and sprinted down the hall. He stopped as soon as I passed through the doorway. “No!” I nearly shouted. Then, more calmly – “Please. Don‘t stop singing. Please sing the song. I would like to hear it.” Eddie, the 21-year-old caretaker who washes our shoes, prepares our meals, and makes our beds, just stared at me. Then he smiled. “Yes?” he said, with obvious confusion. But I already knew Eddie did not speak any English and that my pleas were lost on him. Eddie was orphaned as a baby in 1994 and attended little school. He does not speak English or French. I rushed to find the house’s Kinyarwanda dictionary and tried, painstakingly, to repeat my request in the local language. “Please, music, can you make it?” is what I managed to compile. I couldn’t pronounce the words, but I pointed at them until I thought he understood. “Music?” he repeated. I nodded frantically and Eddie proudly sang “la la la la la!”. “No,” I insisted- “From Rwanda! Music from Rwanda?” “Oh no,” he answered me in English. “We do not have.”
I could have cried.
This is the same answer I have gotten from every Rwandan I have asked about music in Rwanda. In all three languages, I’ve been shut down. Whether I am asking where I can go in the city to see live music, or am asking someone if they personally know any popular or traditional Rwandan songs, I am turned away. “We don’t really have music in Rwanda, not really,” they all tell me. “You should go to Congo.”
Yet this is clearly not the case. The Rwandans are not the only people in human history to develop an entire culture and build a lasting civilization that includes no melodies or rhythms. And in pieces, in the madding moments where I am teased by a hum or a whisper that I cannot isolate or identify, I hear it. Eddie singing in the kitchen. The lilting voice of the teacher asking her students to stand in a line. In a pulsing coming from a house down the hill. In the wistful humming of a woman sitting in from of me on the bus. I have been chasing these leads, grasping hauntings and puffs of air. Nothing! I’ve got nothing. I’ve only been at it for 3 days, but already I’m worn.
I doubt I can articulate how consuming of experience it is to know that you cannot reach the information that is hiding right before your eyes until you figure out how to ask the right question. Knowing that your own alien and ignorant nature is preventing you from making a vitally human connection, and everything you reach for is withdrawn, at the moment of encounter, behind a veil of mist.
The hills in Kigali are misty in the mornings. The sun rises almost instantly. The night comes early. The moon has been full and bright since I arrived. There is a ring of blue light, around.