Angeline wasn’t the only family member to move back. I met new transplants from Boston and New Orleans, as well as Annabelle Uwera, who may be the pioneer of the bunch. She’s about to celebrate a decade back, after 10 years in London, and is now a super-plugged-in trade officer for the British High Commission.
I felt the sense of safety that Angeline had mentioned. I took walks alone at night and even hopped on a few motorcycle taxis to get around. (They’re 10 times cheaper than regular taxis, and thrilling to ride.) As M.A. explained, the government changed the constitution to ensure women feel less vulnerable, after the horrific rapes of 1994. “Women can have the power to do anything they want. They can say ‘no’. And men know they can’t beat you. They know if they do something wrong, they will go to jail.”
There is a dark side to the sense of opportunity. Adult men over the age of 35 are largely dead and gone; two generations were wiped out in three months. “One of the consequences of genocide is we have a lot of young people and a lot of women,” said Serge Kamuhinda, another family member, and a Volkswagen executive, who grew up in Germany after fleeing Rwanda at age 12. He remembers his village in flames and people running at him with machetes.
Then there are the critics of the government who have left the country for fear of political persecution, or who fled during the genocide and still feel unsafe coming home. Certain topics — politics, ethnic identity — are rarely discussed.
The people I met in Kigali do talk about the genocide, though, and often. It comes up in the fabric of everyday conversation as something that changed their country so distinctly that there is only a before and after. Almost everyone you meet has suffered loss and trauma. M.A. and Angeline lost their grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.
Annabelle, from London, encouraged me to go to the city’s powerful Kigali Genocide Memorial to better understand the history. When I later told her I had cried in the Children’s Room, which features portraits of kids as young as 15 months who were burned alive or had their skulls bashed in, she told me that she cannot go into that room. She has relatives in there.
Still, for every one of my new friends that night at Pili Pili, the rewards of being together with their remaining loved ones in the country that is their home seemed to far outweigh the possibility of being re-traumatized, or the fact that they all had to take massive pay cuts to move back from overseas.