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Forgotten Africa This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category.

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     As my plane swept low, I could see the red Virginia clay, mammoth vinyl-clad houses, and the sheen of moist haze that makes Loudoun County hellish in the summer. During the night, the plane had barreled through the thin atmosphere high above Sudan. Illuminated in the dark was a small red light upon the wing tip, a sentinel between my window and the night. The monitor showed our location: a mere mile beneath my feet the ethnic turmoil of Darfur was concealed by distance and night. Months later, watching a television special on the Darfur genocide from my couch, I recalled that night flying above that land. Everything looked peaceful from a distance. When we step back from a crisis, its reality goes away.

Now that I am re-accustomed to my life as a typical teenager, I begin to forget my trip to Rwanda. I forget women wrapping scarves around their heads, tying the cloth in complex knots to support water jugs, mounds of green bananas, or piles of tables and chairs. I forget the cracked dirt streets, the eternal spring, the subtle, fruity taste of plantains and how the mountains look when clad in mud-daubed houses and lush pineapple fields. I forget white-toothed smiles, the red dust that coated the delicate bare chests of children by the road. I forget barbed wire and genocide, the pain and the joy, the sexism and disease, the small, silver-colored fish that you can eat whole. I forget that I was there, and worst of all, I forget that Rwanda exists.

The Western world makes a grave mistake when addressing the topic of Africa. We see it as one huge country of similar cultures and beliefs. We cannot comprehend the diversity that spans this continent. It is impossible to make a general statement about any place. Rwanda may be impoverished, but its fields are lush and its people sing with deep-seated joy. We cannot assess the value of lakes in mists, the sound of cool water pouring into the mouths of yellow water jugs and the red clay drought of Akagara. Africa cannot be summarized in one word, one page or one visit. The most we can hope for is a fleeting idea of a world that will always be beyond our grasp.

A family member once asked me if Rwanda was bad, if I was frightened there. I thought for a moment. Rwandans fear black dogs and large birds that roost, vulture-like, in the trees. In 1994, bodies were stacked as roadblocks and the starving animals ate the dead for sustenance. The circling birds and howling dogs are more than bad omens: they are reminders of mass murder. I thought of a wide river tucked beneath a mountain’s lip. The gentle currents once carried the slaughtered bodies of Tutsis all the way to Ethiopia.

I once drank a soda at the Hotel Mille Col-lines, the location of the real “Hotel Rwanda.” The people wading in the clear, clean water of the swimming pool - which served as a rare water source during the genocide - made me uncomfortable. I was surprised that the hotel was not a memorial until I realized the contentment surrounding it was a healed wound. The Rwandans do not need another reminder of what happened 12 years ago. They have only just learned to live again. I thought of how my palm was often gripped in a handshake, how my pale skin was touched with amusement and wonder. Children would gather by the roadside to wave, not only because I was white, but also because they viewed my world as I viewed theirs: as something they would never understand or experience. There were bad things, yes; Rwanda’s recent history is immeasurably worse than ours. However, it is hard to define anything as being purely bad, purely evil. These things, I have discovered, live mostly in fiction.

We must all learn that the world is not a large place. What occurs in one part has the power to affect us all. The things I once perceived as distant now strike very near to me. It hurts to see pictures of the starving bodies of Darfur refugees on news reports and in magazines, but I make a point to watch even more diligently, to read every article that comes my way. We must all open our ears. When I hear of ambitious American students traveling to distant corners of the world, I smile. They cannot possibly be prepared for what they will experience. No guidebooks, television shows, or news reports can summarize what it means to be there firsthand. The very experience of feeling insignificant against the dark places in the world is humbling beyond words. One person cannot change the world. Every visionary must be backed by a community, a nation - even a world - of people.

I have been home for three months, and this is the first time I have really thought about Rwanda. I miss the food, the people, and the feeling of overwhelming gratitude that seemed to follow me, pouring from the mountains and rusty spigots of bare hostel rooms. I’m working harder to remember Rwanda now, working harder to be thankful for my relatively safe life. Above all else I am working harder to love everything about this world, and to help change what I do not like. Every place, every person, is

far too important to ever be

forgotten.


This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category. This piece won the September 2007 Teen Ink Travel Contest.





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