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The above is a photograph of the plaque at the entrance to the Ntarama Genocide Memorial, formerly a church, in Bugesera, Rwanda. Nearly 5,000 people from surrounding towns tried to take refuge here during the massacres of April 1994. The adults and older children were murdered with clubs and machetes. The younger children were struck against the wall. All the skulls are stacked neatly on shelves at the back of the sanctuary; the weapons used here are lined up at the front. The clothes of the victims – men, women, children – hang from the rafters of the church now, making for quite possibly the eeriest place I’ve ever been.

Street signs from the former inner-city neighborhood in Cape Town, the infamous District Six. Most of the residents were non-whites (including Indians, Asians, indigenous Xhosa people, and those of blended racial ancestry, then called “coloreds” and living in their own special social category). In the 1970s, all 60,000+ of its inhabitants were forcibly relocated by the Apartheid regime and the neighborhood re-zoned “whites only.”



Exhibit about Apartheid arrests in the Nelson Mandela museum.

Sign posted inside the room where the mass grave of Red Terror martyrs is housed. We remember this one, right?

If you’re worried that I’m going to escalate the ghoulishness of the pictures, don’t. I think I’ve made my point without indulging the genuinely horrifying penchant for gore that seems to characterize the tastes of my generation. Or have I? Here’s the thing: I’m doing far more “touristy” things on this vacation than I did in over two years in Kenya. This mental break, giving myself permission to squeal and snap pictures like the obnoxious tourist that I have very much become, is nice. But not all of travel is fun and games. In my view, it’s pointless to visit a place unless you get under its skin a little bit, understand as best you can what the experience is like from the inside looking out rather than the other way around. This can take the form of sampling local foods or attending cultural museums, among many, many other options. This can also come in the form of studying up on a place’s history – both in peace and conflict. Understand the dynamics of the people who live and have lived there. Example: all the pictures above.

Even more than merely satisfying the compulsory curiosities about the place you’re visiting, it’s vital to visit these sites, digest them, acknowledge them, appreciate them. It’s a history-class cliche that those who fail to understand and learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, but the saying is so commonplace for a reason. When you study broad topics like “genocide,” for instance, or “tribal violence,” or “systematic oppression to political ends,” it’s obvious that while each situation has innumerable unique characteristics, imminently predictable patterns in the build-up begin to emerge. For example, master law blogger Popehat mentions that an upsurge in anti-Semitism can serve as the “canary in a coal mine” for the onset of impending tyranny. It’s important to see the past for what it is and honor our martyrs. It’s equally important to hold its lessons ever close.

If this entry sounds slightly more halting than usual, the fact that it’s snowing in Jo’burg right now (omgwtf) and therefore freezing my fingers is only partly to blame. It’s a tricky thing to write about. There is a fine balance to strike between the pureply pleasant (Wine! Sharks! YAY!) and the Things That Must Be Faced (Segregation! Refugees camps! Violence against women! BOO!). Too much of the former and you haven’t achieved the aforementioned “honor and learn” goals. Too much of the latter is really fucking exhausting. It can be especially difficult in places like South Africa and Rwanda, where they have no shortage of enjoyable diversions BUT their darker history is very new, very relevant, and forever lingering on the back of your tongue like the bitterness of burnt coffee.

This, I have (tongue-in-cheekily) decided is why massive memorial museums always seem to have the most splendid cafes at the end: yes, society is a horrid place sometimes. Through greed, malice, or soulless apathy, mankind is capable of some mind-bogglingly awful things. To stare it in the face up close will rip the guts out of the strongest person. But here it is pleasingly warm, and there’s local jazz on the speakers, and happy couples having awkward second dates, and dishy waiters anxious to bring you a foamy mochaccino. The world has some goodness left in it, even if you’re being asked to pay $6 for a cranberry scone.

At the end of the day, it’s necessary, if a bit maudlin, to remember that the history of virtually every nation is written in blood. We don’t always like to acknowledge it, but it’s always there. In the US, for example, how often do we mention the fact that we perpetuated one of the most successful genocides in human history, actively slaughtering or causing the disease-death of tens of millions of indigenous people to make way for our passenger trains and gaudy sky scrapers? These are not “African problems” or “Balkans problems.” There is no group in history that has gone totally untouched, totally free from experiencing or witnessing the extremes of what humans are capable of doing to each other.

Then again, maybe “history” is not the word I should be using; it implies a certain distance, as though we, as a species, have moved on from the perpetration of such atrocities and malevolent indifference. One would anticipate that we learn from our mistakes. Even a beagle will figure out that if it stands too close to a door and gets its tail slammed into it a few times, it should no longer stand there. But I’ve seen so many museum and memorials bearing taglines that are some variation of “Never again” that I find it to be almost a piece of bitter ironic humor: was there ever one that said “this once was terrible, but next time we’ll get it right?” Of course not. We always chant “NEVER AGAIN! NEVER AGAIN!” then turn aside when it does.

In the District Six museum, there is a collection of plain white muslin sheets hanging from a beam as part of their “Nameclothes” exhibit. It started in the 1980s as a way for families who had lived in District Six itself to make themselves heard and list their addresses before they were forcibly removed, but has evolved into something of a visitors’ Wailing Wall. People write messages of hope for their own nations’ struggles and share the pain of dreams delayed. In a dozen languages strangers pour out their hearts, and other strangers annotate with their support. For the most part, it’s very moving. Mostly. But in the low-center region of one of the sheets, someone had written “Is Apartheid really gone? Free Gaza – Pray for Peace in Palestine and Israel!” In bold strokes of black ink, someone had come after and violently attempted to scratch out “Gaza” and “Palestine,” first with scribbled lines, then with the word “NO.” Finally, they’d peppered the inscription with multiple repetitions of one word, much-underlined, in capital letters and trailed by an angry series of exclamation points, as if screaming with all the breath in their lungs:

TERRORISTS!!!!!!!!!!!

Perhaps we’re moving away from mindless racism and shameful injustice. Perhaps we’re ready to accept nuance, banish stereotypes, and look for the humanity in others rather than seeking out what divides us. Then again … perhaps not.

Perhaps this is the part that makes these museums so draining and exhausting – not merely our past, but the eternal question that perpetually hovers in the back of our minds: just how much have we learned and grown?

Will it ever be enough?

“Matatu.” (mah-TAH-too.) I use the word a lot in my posts, referring to the 12-seater vans routinely filled with 20+ people (and another half-dozen or so sitting on the roof) that are one of the only forms of transportation in my little corner of the world. (Pikipikis, or motorbike taxis, are off-limits. Bodabodas, or pedal-bikes where you can sit on a little foam pad behind the driver, are comparatively rare. Tuktuks, or motorized rickshaw-type things, are expensive to hire. Private cars … where do you think this is, America?) They break down constantly, store tied-up livestock under the seats, flout traffic laws, and are too often kept afloat with baling wire and bribe money in substitution for legitimate annual inspections. But the ways they’re decorated – particularly outside of Nairobi, where the rules are less stringent – are quite elaborate, and sometimes very beautiful. At the very least, they’re always memorable.

The following link is for everyone who’s ever skimmed through an entry and gone, “What the hell is that?” The BBC talks matatus, their driver, and the culture that’s sprung up around them.

“Pimp My Matatu”: One Artist’s Struggle

Kenya’s minibus taxis, known as matatus – the country’s main form of public transport – are renowned for their dangerous driving, blaring out music at deafening volumes and their elaborate, graffiti-style artwork, often based on leading footballers, singers or film stars.

Owners and designers compete to have the loudest sound system and the most eye-catching design, saying this attracts customers but the government is trying to clamp down on them and has banned loud music and ordered matatus to have simple colour schemes.

If you’re wondering, “Doesn’t the loud music hurt your ears? Don’t the elaborate paint jobs and 32-inch plasma screens across the windows completely obstruct the drivers’ views?” The answer to both of these questions is, “Yes. Kabisa.”

(I love how, periodically in this interview, you can hear matatu touts in the background yelling “BEBA HAPA!! BEBA HAPA!!”)

A link! Just for you! Presented without comment, because POLITICS.

Geographical context: Malindi is like 3 hours north of Mombasa, or about 10 miles/30 minutes north of me.

Officer injured as youth disrupt Malindi mock polls

The elections were cancelled after the mob attacked the officials with crude weapons and vandalised property belonging to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).

I know I’ve already done a lengthy post about witchcraft and the strength of its place in the cultural lexicon of Kenya. It never ceases to amaze, really. As a follow-up a colleague sent me, I’d like to direct your attention to the linked article, published several weeks ago in one of Kenya’s national newspapers. It’s short. Read it. (Points of reference: the KCPE is an exam taken by all Kenyan students in eighth grade to determine whether or not they will advance to secondary school. In my district, about 20% of students who take it do well enough to continue their education. The stakes are rather high, as you can imagine; in some districts parents have actually responded to low national ranks with violence against Class 8 teachers.)

Kwale Leaders Blame Witches For Poor Test Scores

At a mean of 134 out of the total 500 marks, Makamini InLands assistant minister Gonzi Rai’s semi-arid Kinango constituency shared the last position countrywide with Muhaka in Omar Zonga’s fertile sugar belt Msambweni constituency.

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The opinions expressed on this blog do not represent those of the Peace Corps, the United States government, or any other organization. The author is solely responsible for all content on this blog.
Yours truly