The little boy in baggy shorts, a yellow T-shirt and flipflops waved enthusiastically as our SUV rumbled by on a rural Rwandan road. When we waved back, his face lit up with joy.
He was just one of hundreds of youngsters who wanted this small group of white Americans to wave back. Those children are why our short visit in Rwanda was so surprising and had such a profound affect on us.
Our wrists were getting tired of waving, and the happiness it generated with the kids was almost addicting. But it also brought sadness, because the young boy reminded us of our visit the previous day to the Rwandan Genocide Memorial Centre. The museum display included enlarged portraits of young children, with biographical sketches and the means by which they were murdered during the genocide. The children depicted in the museum were a small sampling of the tens of thousands of children who died 19 years ago.
Like many Americans, what we knew about Rwanda was summed up in the movie "Hotel Rwanda." We had come here despite the genocide and violent reputation of the country because we wanted to see the famed mountain gorillas.
The airport where we landed in Kigali had been the scene of an event on April 6, 1994, that sparked one of the 20th century's greatest human tragedies. An airplane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira, both ethnic Hutus, was blown from the sky, apparently by radical members of Habyarimana's own military. The resulting violence by Hutus against Tutsis left more than 800,000 men, women and children dead over the next 100 days. Before the end of fighting, about 400,000 more people on both sides had died.
As we left the airport, our tour guide, Alex, gave us a quick tour of the capital city. Having just left the pollution, poverty and traffic jams of Nairobi, we were struck by the orderliness and cleanliness of Kigali. Alex explained it was part of the effort to rebuild the country that had been devastated by the genocide. Even Rwandan President Paul Kagame participates in designated once-a-month cleanup days.
It is one thing to clean up physically, but quite another to tidy up the emotional detritus left by a genocide. Part of that endeavor was the opening of the Genocide Memorial Centre on the genocide's 10th anniversary. We visited the museum on our first afternoon in Kigali. Viewing the photographs inside was almost more than we could bear. A mass grave on the museum property contains the remains of more than 250,000 people.
What we experienced on our journey throughout Rwanda was irreconcilable with this genocidal history.
On our inbound flight, we met an American who works as a cycling coach for Team Rwanda. The cycling organization is helping to heal the emotional wounds by involving youngsters in a sport they can do together. The coach assured us we would find the people of Rwanda to be very friendly and the countryside to be beautiful. He was right.
The Rwandan countryside — its French name means "country of a thousand hills" — is striking. It is a small country, about 10,000 square miles, close to the size of Maryland. However it is home to almost 12 million people, making it one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. Almost every field, hillside and mountain has been cultivated. The terracing and neat, orderly planting beds reflect incredible amounts of human labor.
Pedestrians thronged the rural roads between settlements. Many carried huge containers on their backs or heads, or pushed bicycles loaded with fuel for cooking fires or produce to be traded.
We had no way of determining who was Hutu and who was Tutsi, but the Rwandans were some of the friendliest people we have encountered anywhere. Adults and children gathered about us when we were outside our vehicle, wanting to know all about us and where we came from. As far as we could see, mass murderers and the survivors of those murdered live and work side by side in apparently peaceful accommodation.
Our guide, Alex, admitted it was difficult at first to go to a market and wonder if the man selling you bananas was the same person who had killed your aunt and uncle. However, the government has forbidden the use of ethnic labels. Alex says now you don't ask. Basically the government is trying to legislate forgiveness and goodwill.
Alex assured us that Rwanda is now a very peaceful country. In our four days there, we never felt endangered, which is important for the country's recovery, because tourism is quickly becoming a key part of the economy.
The mountain gorillas we came to see could play an important role in preserving Rwanda's peace, because most of the tourists come for a mountain gorilla encounter. The permits are expensive, but the park guides work hard to ensure a successful visit.
Gorilla visitors are expected to hire a porter to carry day packs and to tip the trackers who go out each morning to find the gorilla family groups designated for the hour-long tourist visits. These dollars all help bolster the economy and provide stable protection for the gorillas.
In promoting a documentary about the cycling program, the website for Team Rwanda says, "It's not about the bike. It's about second chances, how our past doesn't have to define our future, and the impossible triumph of the human spirit over one of the world's most devastating genocides."
Remembering the smiling, innocent faces of the small children as they energetically waved to us, we want very much to believe in that future.
Joy readers Gayle Mitchell Stokes and Skip Stokes live in Jacksonville.