Two of My Riskier Decisions
Going to Rwanda & Letting David Allan Coe Live in My Basement
I remember getting the call from an agent asking me if I might be interested in writing a book about the genocide in Rwanda and the difficult process of healing that the nation was going through. He already had a deal in place with an established Christian book publisher and they had tried two or three writers who regularly wrote books for the Christian market. The problem was that the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) writers did a fine job writing about the forgiveness seminars and healing programs created by Bishop John Rucyahana, but they kept skimming over the horror of the genocide itself. He said his agency heard that I was a Christian and they read my bio and saw that I’d written books on Jim Morrison and Oliver Stone and that I worked with teens in trouble and had tried to do a book with David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam. They figured I was their guy.
“I’m that guy?” I asked, somewhat surprised at who I’d become, I guess. “You’re that guy,” the agent said. “We’ll give you twenty grand and pay for your trip to Rwanda.” I thought about it for a day, but instinctively I knew that this was my kind of project.
So I went to Rwanda. It’s a thirteen hour flight and you have to change planes in Belgium, which is kind of fitting since it was the Belgians who planted the seeds of the Rwandan genocide in the first place. The Hutu and Tutsi tribal people make up about 99% of the population of Rwanda and, up until the Belgians conquered the country back in 1916, they had gotten along peacefully for over five hundred years. Then in 1926 the Belgians implemented their colonization policy. Using the standard European formula of divide and conquer, they forced the largest segment of the population, the Hutus (nearly 80%), to do the manual labor they required such as building roads and placed the much smaller group, the Tutsi (nearly 20%), over them as their taskmasters. Both groups were virtual slaves to the Belgians but it was the Tutsi who wielded the whips that cracked across the Hutus backs as they worked. Then, when the Belgians gave in to pressure from the United Nations and left the country in 1962, Rwanda held free elections. By this time the Hutus outnumbered the Tutsis by six to one and it was an all Hutu government that ruled the country from then on. The Hutus hatred of the Tutsis had built up for an entire generation and it wasn’t long before harsh discrimination became standard government policy. But not letting the Tutsi get a decent education or hold a decent job wasn’t enough to quell the Hutu anger and soon the government began planning what they called “the final solution” – the organized killing of every Tutsi man woman and child in the country.
During a hundred days from April to June in 1994 at least 1,117,000 Tutsis were brutally murdered. We know there were at least that many killed because that’s how many bodies were found. The complete story is in my book, The Bishop of Rwanda, cowritten with John Rucyahana who lived it and who, through his amazing programs, has proved that God will heal even the most horrific situations if we have the courage to let Him do so.
The genocide had long passed when I flew into Kigali, the capitol of Rwanda, but there were lingering effects. One of them was that there were virtually no white people there. The big corporations were not doing business with the country yet and the tourist trade – well let’s just say that even though Rwanda is a beautiful country with wondrous green hills – the overriding sense of death just kept folks from wanting to visit.
The airlines have only lost my bags twice – the first time was in Bangkok when I was working with Oliver Stone and he was filming in Thailand and the second time was in Rwanda. These are not the places you want to lose your bags, but both times I got them back within a few days. Filling out the necessary paperwork at the Kigali airport took some time however, and by the time I got to my hotel, there was a problem.
As soon as I steeped out of the mini bus that had picked me up at the airport, I realized that everyone was staring at me. I’m pretty white, classic Irish boy pale and then I’ve got snow white hair to boot. That means I glow under streetlights. People stopped and stared. Children pointed and parents tried to explain. Some people looked at me as though they knew what the white man had done to their country. As soon as I entered the lobby and gave my name the manager took me aside. “Let me explain about the roooom,” he said in what sounded to me like a Jamaican accent but I soon learned was the sound of the colonial English spoken by hotel, restaurant and store managers all across the continent. He held his hands out in the classic “nothing I can do” expression and continued. “The day man…he knew. But the night man…he did not know.” I soon figured out that he meant that, when I missed my reservation time, they had given the room away. I then proceed to two other hotels where I was stared at a great deal and told there was no room at the inn. Finally, I decided I would go to the Hotel des Mille Collines, the famous Hotel Rwanda, which I thought would be more than ironic. Unfortunately, they had no rooms available.
Desperate and very tired now, I stopped at a slightly seedy place which featured a lively restaurant bar on its front patio. At least it was lively until I approached. Suddenly, the whole place quieted down and everyone stared at me. A white man in Rwanda. I nodded as politely as I could at the onlookers and made my way to the front desk. There I was told that they did in fact have a room available. I was very relieved. At least until we actually got inside the room and the manager turned to me and in the exact same accent as the manager at the first hotel said, “Let me explain about the roooom.” I stared at him dumbfounded and then he said, “I do not have the inside door key for this room.”
Oh, well, that didn’t seem too bad until I figured out what he meant. “Wait a minute,” I said. “You mean I can’t lock the door?” He nodded. “Yes, I’m afraid not.” I must have stared at him for the better part of a minute. “Let me get this straight,” I said. “I’m in a country where one million, one hundred and seventeen thousand people were murdered in horribly brutal ways, I’m the only white guy here and I can’t lock the door.” He looked at me and nodded sadly. “Yes.”
Now, I was pretty doggone tired by this point and I knew of no other prospects for a room for the night, so I took the room. I asked the hotel manager if I could borrow the tin sculpture of a native warrior that he had on the front desk and he agreed. After he left, I unscrewed the bulbs on the stairway leading up to the alcove where my room was and placed the tin sculpture on the steps, figuring that if anyone bumped into it there would be quite a clatter as it fell down the concrete steps. Then I went in my room and placed a chair against the knob, holding the door shut. Next, I stripped off the blanket and quilt from my bed figuring I wouldn’t need them since this was July in Africa. I rolled the covers into a ball and placed them on the other side of the chair so that if my attackers took a run at the door to pop the chair, they would trip over the rolled up blankets. Then all I would have to do is jump out of the mosquito netting surrounding my bed and wrestle the machetes out of their hands. Needless to say, I did not sleep well that night.
The next day I was able to get a room with a lock on the door. While in Kilgali I interviewed some men in prison who had been convicted of murders during the genocide. One of the men told me he still didn’t understand the bloodlust behind some of his actions. “I killed babies,” he said. “I am a father. I have babies. How could I kill babies?” I also interviewed victims including one woman whose entire family had been killed and whose house had been burned to the ground. She was now participating in one of the forgiveness programs where the men who had killed her family and burned her house had gone through a confession program and were now building her a new house as part of their retribution. She had forgiven them and would bring them water as they worked. John Rucyahana, an Anglican bishop, knew that there was so much pain and hatred in the country that only this kind of face to face repentance and forgiveness could save Rwanda. About the third day I was there I got a call from the Bishop whom I was to stay with in his mountain compound the last weeks of my trip.
“Jim,” he said in excellent English, “I understand you are leaving the hotel at night and talking to the people.”
“Yes,” I replied. “I have to get the feel of the man on the street if I am to write about the country. It can’t just be scheduled interviews.”
‘That is dangerous,” he continued, “but I understand. I will send you a body guard. His name is Apollos. He will watch over you.”
Well, Apollos was a very nice man. He wasn’t that big, but he seemed well versed in what was safe and what was not. One time we were sitting at an outdoor restaurant in a crowded square and I became concerned about some slightly nefarious characters who kept staring at me. I kept my passport in a wallet that was strapped to my shoulder so that there was no way it could be stolen. From a distance though, it looked a little like a shoulder holster which might contain a gun. When I was out at night with Oliver Stone in Thailand he once remarked, “Why do you wear that thing? It looks like a gun.” To which I replied, “Good!” But, in Rwanda, things were different. In Bangkok, a very dangerous city, the possibility that you were carrying a gun was something that would keep people at bay. In Kigali, where nearly every human being had witnessed the most horrendous violence possible, a handgun was more of an invitation than a deterrent. After all, how many could you kill? But when I mentioned the men staring at me to Apollos he just shrugged and jerked his head to the left saying, “We are safe here. There is army security nearby.” I looked in the direction he was indicating. “You mean that fifteen year old kid with the Uzi?” He nodded. I nodded too, but actually I was more afraid of the kid than I was the guys staring at me.
I soon realized the shoulder wallet was not a deterrent in Rwanda so I quit wearing it, but still people eyed me on the street. Often, when Apollos and I would enter a crowed area, I would hear the word mazuma being uttered through the crowd. I would also hear the words zuma or zum, zum, zum. Sometimes, on a dark street where the brightest thing was my hair, this was unnerving. I asked Apollos what the people were saying and he said, “White man.” Then I asked him what the other words were and he said, “Variations of white man.” I figured that was good enough. I also figured that maybe I was getting too old for this kind of adventure.
Another problem with Apollos was that he walked very fast and I couldn’t keep up with him. If I was attacked, there was an excellent chance that he would see who did it, but I’m not sure he would actually be able to stop it. But whether it was Apollos or God watching over me I got through my trip with no injuries whatsoever. What I learned in Rwanda was that God is not absent when great evil is unleashed. Whether that evil is man made or helped along by darker forces God is right there, saving those who respond to His urgings and trying to heal the rest. Sure He could stop the evil in its tracks. But where do you draw that line without ending free will and turning mankind into a bunch of zombies? When people ask me where God was in Rwanda, I say, right there on the streets amidst the dead and dying. Today Rwanda has not only recovered from the genocide politically and economically, but men like Bishop John are accomplishing the impossible — healing the hearts of the people. With God’s help.
Things didn’t quite work out so smoothly with David. Back in 1969, I was living in Nashville, Tennessee. trying to make it as a songwriter. From 1969 to 1971 I wrote about 300 sets of lyrics of which about 125 became songs, of which 32 were published by Nashville music publishing companies, of which 3 were recorded and released as records, of which none were hits. During that time I met lots of colorful characters. I met Jimmy Buffet who in those days, sounded more like James Taylor. Jimmy and I have an unusual connection. The first song he wrote that was released as a record was called Ellis Dee by an artist named Gary Miles. Mike Leppert and I wrote the B-side of that single, a song called Jennifer Sunshine. Gary Miles was actually a top Nashville publisher named Buzz Cason who was the first person to take a chance on both Jimmy and I. In Jimmy’s case, it eventually paid off handsomely. In my case, not so much.
Anyway, another friend of mine at that time was David Allan Coe. Back then David was a struggling songwriter like me. He used to drive a funeral hearse that he had painted white and decorated with steer horns welded to the hood. He had yellow concert posters with red writing on them taped to both sides of the car. It looked really nice. David was always an original and, despite what you may have heard, a pretty good guy. We had lots of good times together hanging out at the life size replica of the Greek Parthenon that they had built in Centennial Park. It was where all the hippies hung. Well, eventually we both got a little action and a little money. David moved back to Ohio for a while and I moved to a better neighborhood in another part of Nashville. I thought I was going to hit the big time just about any day. In fact I talked my 65 year old widowed mother into leaving a somewhat secure situation with my brother in Wichita, Kansas, and moving with me and three other songwriters into a big house in Nashville. My mother was a wonderful person with a great sense of humor as you may have already figured out.
Well, after we’d been in the house a few months I get this call from David telling me he’s got some gigs in Nashville and wants to bring this hard rock country band from Cleveland down to try to get a record deal. Can we stay with you? I don’t have room. What about the basement? Well, there is a basement, yeah. We won’t be any trouble. Now that was where I should have let some form of common sense enter in. But no. So David and the five members of Eli Raddish moved into my basement. They were all nice guys. The band had this version of poker that they played all the time where cheating was legal, but if you got caught you had to match the pot. So you can imagine that things often got out of hand. And along with the yelling and fighting were the extremely loud practice sessions. Of course, I pretty much knew all of that would happen and was willing to forgo it because of my friendship with David. Then the band brought one of the stripper/hookers that hung around the Pancake Man restaurant over to the house for the weekend. The next thing I knew Crystal – that really was her name – was upstairs borrowing my mom’s makeup and my mother was inquiring about her moral stature. Things had gotten out of hand. I told David that Crystal had to go and that maybe the band ought to leave pretty soon as well. We agreed that the band could stay another week until the last of their gigs and we all parted as friends. A few years later David wrote a couple of big country hits. And then he became somewhat of a star himself. I was happy for him. I still am.
So today, when my wife questions my decision making process once in a while, I try to recall questionable ventures that I’ve done in the past. Maybe I’m wiser. Maybe I’m just older.