Rick Bass took his wife and teenage daughter to Rwanda in 2011; they went with their friend Terry Tempest Williams. Bass and Williams taught a two-day writing seminar at Rwanda’s last remaining national university, in Butare. Following that, the group traveled north to Virunga National Park, home to the world’s dwindling population of mountain gorillas. This slim volume recounts their trip chronologically and simply, yet its small size belies its impact; it is likely to stick with you long after the last page is read.
Among the first things Bass notices is Rwanda’s abundant natural beauty — its soft light, its rich landscape — but he quickly points out that his goal is not to write a travelogue, “an irresponsible saunter through great beauty.” For of course Rwanda is also the site of enduring tragedy: not just the 1994 genocide in which as many as a million people were murdered, but also the series of ethnic massacres that took place in the preceding decades, and before that, colonization by the Belgians, whose preference for one ethnic group over another helped spark all that violence. Bass is alert to the role played by white outsiders here, and conscious of his own whiteness, his membership in a nation of the fortunate, the forgetful.
Bass ponders his sense of culpability without wallowing in useless guilt. Even as he questions the efficacy of the genocide memorial sites they tour, he feels duty-bound to bear witness. Visiting rooms holding the bones of the dead, he writes, “[w]e are swimming through a sea of skulls, and we are as speechless as the skulls themselves.” When touring the memorial, Bass and Williams invite a young woman guide, an aspiring writer, to their workshop. This moment, Bass writes, is “the first time we’ve felt good and clean about being here.”
The workshop scenes with young Rwandan writers are the book’s richest, and the small sample of work included at the end of the book is wonderful. Asking people who have survived genocide (and often refugee camps) to write of their homes, Bass and Williams find students speaking of their families first, including younger siblings they had to raise in the absence of slain parents.
The teachers promise to help the Rwandan writers find editors, see their work published, nurture a local literary establishment. In a place like this, where the people are so poor and so much of the physical infrastructure remains in ruins after the civil war, the drive to tell stories, to make art, feels movingly heroic.
When the group leaves the school and travels to the gorilla sanctuary, the book takes a turn toward the beautiful, sensitive nature writing for which Bass is known, but it seems much less complex and interesting. Encounters with another species — especially one as close to us as these gorillas — are thrilling and powerful, but there’s nothing here like the challenge of meeting fellow human beings whose lives are so different from ours. One wishes Bass had been able to stay longer at the university, learn more about the personal histories of his students there.
Still, this is a lovely and valuable book. For the most part, Bass avoids the dangers of non-Africans writing about Africa (though a good editor might have stopped him using variations on the word “inscrutable” four times in under 100 pages). His admiration of the Rwandans — for facing their national tragedy with such honesty and grace, for somehow moving on in optimism and love — is impossible not to share.