Blurred Memories


It was on an express bus from Kenya to Uganda, and I can't remember which country we were in. I was in the front row. The bus slowed as we approached a village, and we saw crowds up ahead. I remember colours: women wearing colourful vitenge and buildings wearing colourful cell-phone advertisements. I can't remember which colours or which cell-phone companies.

A small crowd was looking at a red motorcycle lying on the ground. (I think it was red.) Then, one bus-length later, the main crowd formed a silent and stationary half-circle around a body sprawled on the road, fresh blood around its head.

I winced involuntarily. The body was a full bus-length away from its vehicle, and its arms weren't at the angles they should have been.

And here's the part I want to remember: the two passengers across the aisle laughing at my reaction.

But I won't remember it properly. I never do.

This summer I visited Rwanda's genocide memorial again. I discovered I'd forgotten something I'd sworn not to.

The memorial is a hall of videos, pictures, and texts. Its layout and style are similar to Shakespeare's Globe in London, except for the bits in the core of the circular floor plan: skulls, bones, and t-shirts.

The t-shirts stand out: they're empty. At some point in the past each t-shirt represented a person; now, each t-shirt is a hole in the fabric of reality where that person ought to be.

Three years ago, one t-shirt burned a permanent place in my memory. It's centred in the display as you enter the room: a big, white t-shirt with a picture of Parliament and, in bold red, "Ottawa". What was that second-hand t-shirt's life like? When did it leave Canada? Why was it forced to experience such trauma? What did it see? In some sense it's easier for me to relate to a Canadian t-shirt than to a Rwandan genocide victim.

This summer I returned to the memorial. I watched the videos and read the narratives more critically than last time (because of my three years of reading about the topic), but I was terrified that the Ottawa t-shirt would get past my cynicism. A Canadian companion ahead of me entered the room of t-shirts; she backtracked and told me in a subdued voice: "come see this."

I knew it was the white t-shirt. I braced myself; and when I saw it, the shock wasn't what I expected.

The t-shirt wasn't white.

It didn't even have a picture of parliament on it.

Sure, it said "Ottawa". But my memory, which was so vivid, was wrong.

There are moments in life that, once experienced, I want to preserve intact. Some inspire smiles and laughs out of nowhere; others, pangs of regret; and some, like the Ottawa t-shirt ... well, I'm not quite sure. That's why I never wanted to forget.

But I did.

(As for my first kiss: I don't remember what colour the couch was.)