Terry Tempest Williams undoubtedly will one day write eloquently about how she became Louis Gakumba's American mom. But on a recent evening Utah's famous writer sat in the front row of a Salt Lake auditorium and just listened, as her 24-year-old Rwandan son held his audience spellbound.
"Every night I go to bed, I have to make sure I don't sleep with my legs crossed," Gakumba said. "Why? Because I often dream of people who kill me with machetes." In the dreams, 13 years after the genocide that has defined his country, he must get up quickly and run. Away from Hutus who will slash his throat, away from dogs sent into the bushes to find him.
Rwanda has become shorthand for genocide, so we think we already know what happened there. But a fresh voice can make us lean closer to know more. Like Williams, Gakumba knows the power of a dramatic pause, a quiet voice, a story.
Earlier this spring, on his third day in America, Gakumba asked Williams how he could come to know his new country. Williams took him to PETsMART.
"There I saw many surprising things," he told his audience. "I saw beds for dogs. I saw clothes for dogs. I saw toys for dogs. I saw toothbrushes for dogs." But in Rwanda, he says, dogs were trained to hunt Tutsis in the bush. "Dogs were trained to smell footsteps like mine." During the 100 days in the spring of 1994 when 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered by rampaging Hutus, the dogs were everywhere, sniffing, tearing at flesh.
"They were eating the dead bodies of those we loved and still love," he says.
Gakumba met Williams in 2005 when she first went to Rwanda as part of a project called Barefoot Artists. Williams, who shares her time now between Castle Valley, Utah, and Moose, Wyo., is an environmental activist and the author of books that include "Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place" and "The Open Space of Democracy."
The Barefoot Artists project includes the construction of a Genocide Memorial Park that, as Williams puts it, will "house the bones of the dead." Her job was to document the building of the site and to "listen to people's stories." During her stay there, Gakumba was her interpreter. Later, after Gakumba tried unsuccessfully to get a student visa to come to America, Williams and her husband, Brooke, promised immigration officials that they would be responsible for his financial and emotional needs.
He moved to Salt Lake City two months ago and is now a freshman at Salt Lake Community College, where he plans to study social work. His hopes to then get a master's degree in conflict resolution and to return to Rwanda, where history has proved these skills can be put to good use.
Gakumba spoke Wednesday night at the Rose Wagner Center for the Performing Arts, following the showing of "Beyond the Gates," a British movie about the first harrowing week of the genocide in Rwanda. "Beyond the Gates," part of the SLC Film Center's New Faces of Africa Film Series, is based on the true story of a Catholic-run school where 2,500 Tutsis sought refuge and were eventually hacked to death.
The audio at the screening on Wednesday night was a bit garbled, so it was sometimes difficult to understand the film's dialogue. But in a way it didn't matter, since the horror went beyond words as U.N. peacekeepers, French soldiers and other non-Africans abandoned the Tutsis to certain slaughter.
The original title of the film is "Shooting Dogs," Gakumba explained. That's because of a pivotal scene in which the head of the U.N. peacekeeping forces protecting the school argued that he didn't have a mandate to shoot the marauding Hutus but he might kill the neighborhood dogs "for health reasons." The filmmakers, Gakumba said, decided the title "Shooting Dogs" would be too offensive for American audiences.
"I have some questions," Gakumba said, pausing and then launching into a series of uncomfortable points: Why is "Shooting Dogs" more offensive than America waiting so long to call the killings "genocide"? Why is it more offensive than then U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan's refusal to act? Why is it more offensive than France's complicity with the Hutu extremists?
"These are my questions. Can you help me? And one more thing: Why is there genocide in Sudan?"
"Oil," shouted out someone in the audience.
"There is always a reason behind the reason," Gakumba answered quietly. "That's why we have all this war."
Like his new mom, Gakumba knows how a story can change us. It is important to forgive but not to forget, he says. In Rwanda now there are tribunals helping to bring justice and forgiveness. He tells the story of a woman whose children and husband were butchered; the woman has chosen not only to forgive the killer but to take him in as a son.
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