The old guy with the wizened face, his eyes shaded by his baseball cap, has a high voice. He is singing background on Ti’amo in the pool-&-BBQ band that plays for the lunchtime buffet and through the afternoon in the Umubano Hotel in Kigali, Ruanda. Behind the little band stand is a giant frangipani tree, its yellow and white blooms catching the sunlight: Beauty without a fragrance. It doesn’t offer shade either, a tree only for the eye.


The guitarist is well past the national average, as here life expectancy just edges past 40. He must have been 30 or so back then, when the world suddenly came to a stop and turned upside down. And he survived. To his right, up the hill, is the National Stadium where this summer there were the international celebrations with all the international politicians celebrating themselves and reconciliation 20 years after, after the genocide. Which also partly took place just down the road here. An event when the world watched on TV or listened to music, while the Hutu hunted, and 75 percent of the guitar player’s tribe were murdered.

Back then, this place was the Novotel, and only it and Hotel Ruanda, then called the Hotel Mille Collines existed. Today, there are many international hotels in the city; the boom can possibly be explained by the large number of foreign consultants who come here to administer the average of US $ 200 million in foreign development aid that are injected into the national economy each year. I wonder which government officials own the hotels.


The old guy plays a mean guitar. It’s a white Fender, metal strings strangely. Maybe they last longer. He’s poor, his neatly pressed trousers are shiny on the thighs and when he turns to adjust his amp, I see they are stained. Just as his cap saw better days a while back. But he survived. And now he’s gazing out into space while his hands enjoy a life of their own. Teee-a-moh, the far younger Hutu singer cajoles, more ramazotti than eros. Sounds a bit like tea and ammo, the way he pronounces it. He’s got a cowboy belt buckle, boots and Foster Grant style shade. His coolness. Maybe he stands out all the more because his guitarist is so the opposite.

The old guy’s mind is elsewhere, he’s drifting, just letting his hands earn the money. When it’s time for his lick, he plays his riffs, never moving, not altering his gaze, head looking slightly sideways, eyes invisible. He survived. And he can (still) play music. Maybe it banishes the demons. Maybe it is exactly what is needed. Playing guitar after Nyamata is not barbaric at all. Perhaps it’s the best way to live on with the memories. Tozzi had a hit with the song as long ago as 1977. That was 17 years before the genocide.

Can you ever forget?

A great poet once wrote that “Death is a Master from Germany”. He was right in the sense that no two acts of genocide are comparable, and that the Third Reich mastered its killing method. But he was wrong in that Prussian military discipline and efficiency were brought to bear elsewhere, exist in other militaries. There is a clear line linking the church in Oradour and that in Nyamata, in the former women and children were killed, in the latter the death toll was some 10,000. The methodology was no different in either case to that applied in the Kravica warehouses outside Sbrenica. Lock people in a church (where they think they are safe out of a superstitious faith in everyone’s respect for religion) or in another edifice, and then throw in the grenades. This requires no mastery, just evil. It is systems of command efficiency that when coupled to the right ideology evidently allow the inchoate and primordial instincts kept in check within humans to rise up like some sort of anthropological horror constant, bubbling and seething on the surface, unleashed by some de-civilized bloodlust, be it in a battle for resources, land, or private property. And then such evil gets perpetrated. Here in Ruanda in a frenzied burst of post-anti-colonial revenging. There are ghosts of Pol Pot in the lineage.

Since 2002, Ruanda’s population has increased by almost 50%. It is now the most densely populated country in Africa. The $200 million the international donor community has thrown at it this will have to go a long way, as there are scant resources to be exploited here in this little landlocked nation, GDP is only US $ 7 billion, and the more foreign aid has poured in, the more the Gini coefficient marking wealth inequality has risen. At the table next to me a groups of indigenes are drinking beer, their golden Rolexes glinting in the sun. If one thing is for sure, I never liked the sing-a-long “Ti Amo”. I watch the guitarist’s face and still discern no emotion. If one thing is for sure, I certainly hate it now, for how bleak must life be if it is so bleak that you escape it through that saccharine song? I try and focus on the frangipani to keep my own balance. Maybe come night-time and the Southern Cross, it will bring some fragrance wafting my way.