Always Rwanda

This started as my on-line journal while I was living, working, and conducting my master's field research in Rwanda in 2003. I returnedto Rwanda as an Assistant Director for an educational program and decided to pick it up again.

Monday, September 29, 2003

Before I start, I most first and foremost say congratulations to my big brother who was awarded a bronze medal for his beer in the Great American Beer Festival. I am quite proud and wish I could have been there!

I have had a very good couple of days. As I mentioned, I went to Akagera National Park on Thursday and then I spent the weekend in Kibuye. It turned out to be more eventful than I expected. On Saturday morning I took a minibus taxi up to Kibuye, which is situated on Lake Kivu in western Rwanda. The lake forms the border between Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo and is very beautiful. There are gorgeous huge hills that border on being small mountains.

I stayed at a very nice guesthouse right on the lake where many expatriates were also taking a little break. I did the hour or so hike around the circle that makes up the town of Kibuye. I stopped at one of the churches, which also serves as a memorial to the genocide victims of this area. Kibuye was one of the hardest hit during the genocide with an estimated 90% of the Tutsi population killed. Truly astonishing. When I went to visit this church I noticed a little crew of 4 people with a camera. I paid little attention and went on to pay my respects at the memorial and to look at the church. When I was going to leave one of the men introduced himself. He happened to be a film director and I had seen one of his films in DC called 100 Days. His film was remarkable in that he told some of the stories of the genocide through a scripted movie with actors – rather than your usual documentary. He asked if I knew that 100 Days was filmed at the church I was now leaving – which I didn’t. So anyway, we chat a little bit and the guy (his name is Eric) told me that he is now working on a documentary to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the genocide next year. They ask to do a little interview and filming with me. I was on the spot and did the best I could. So perhaps I will get to be a part of the project to remember the genocide.

So I return to my little hut that I am staying in to get cleaned up and then enjoy the sunset and evening sitting on the lake and enjoying some Mutzig beer with some tilapia fish. The film crew came to relax at the guesthouse later in the evening so I got the chance to talk more in-depth with them about their work and Africa in general (such as the silliness of African national borders, Southern Sudan, supposed terrorists in Kenya).

This morning I got up at reasonable time to ensure that I could get a ticket for the minibus back to Kigali. Of course this wasn’t to be my luck. All buses were sold out. Just as I was contemplating my options I noticed some people motioning to me from a Range Rover at the gas station next door. I recognized them from the guesthouse and they offered me a ride to Gitarama (they were on their way to Butare) so that I could try to catch a minibus there back to Kigali. They were very nice indeed and I am glad they saved me the money from staying another night. Along the way the guy driving pulled up to a non-assuming building that happens to be a cheese factory! Very good cheese I might add. So they get me safely to Gitarama and I catch my minibus back to Kigali.

This week I decided to pick up the Monitor, a newspaper from Uganda. I would like to share my favorite event listed under the milestones section:

LOST: 100 billion shillings by the Ministry of Defense in Uganda. The Ministry has not accounted for the money between 1998-2002.

Also noted under the milestones is the Ugandan Cabinet’s request that the third term limit of the Ugandan President (Museveni) be lifted – Museveni has already claimed that this will be his last term…

Friday, September 26, 2003

Yesterday (Sept. 25) I officially visited my first African wild game national park. I was invited along to Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda (on the border of Tanzania) with Joan (from USAID), her husband, and an NGO (translation for those not in this field, non-governmental organization) AIDS worker. I admit that I have never been huge on animals – I like to do the old trip to the zoo now and again – but even I could not help but get a total rush from driving through the wilderness knowing that any number of animals could be around the next corner. It is the end of dry season, thus much of the park was very dry and huge parts even burned. So I didn’t have much luck with some of the big game (elephants, lions, giraffes) but I got more than my fair share of other goodies: baboons, hippos, impalas, zebras, vervet monkey, warthogs, mongoose, crocodile, etc. I was also among avid bird watchers and we saw over 35 different species of birds. This may not seem so interesting but all of these birds are amazing in color and appearance – unlike those birds that like to crap on our cars in the US. I saw the African version of the bald eagle too.

Today I had lunch with Rose KABUYE (they always alphabetize family names in Rwanda). She sent her car, with a soldier and personal assistant, to pick me up and deliver me to where she was having her hair done. Then we proceeded to her lovely house to have a nice meeting and lunch. I must interject that she pays half of what I pay a month for a beautiful house for her family. Next time I will have to get my own set-up. Back to Rose - I was very pleased to see her after a long hiatus. I was most appreciative because she gave me some clarity with regard to the work I am doing with the AIDS commission and I now have a plan of action for the remainder of the time. Now I am actually going to be useful! National AIDS day is December 1st and so the commission is trying to rally a large campaign targeted at youths. I will take some of the proposed projects and turn them into proposals for various funders (UNDP, UNIFEM, USAID, etc). This way I can actually see results from the work I am doing. Up until now I have felt a bit like a decorative touch with the Commission rather than a contributing member.

I still feel a bit in awe of Rose, I admit. I mean a over a decade ago this woman left her family in Uganda to go out into the bush to fight with the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Now she is one of the most important women in the entire country, still working in the military but volunteering to be the president of the AIDS commission and also working on women’s issues (training them, encouraging participation). She also has a family with three children. Her husband is also in the army and spends the weekdays up in Ruhengeri (in the north).

My research is still slow in coming. I am devising an aggressive plan of action for myself to try to ensure that all interviews/data collection is completed early in November so I can spend the last month writing.

Next week the parliamentary elections will be held. The new parliament will be bi-cameral with an upper (26 members) and lower house (80 members, 24 of which are automatically set aside for women). What is interesting about these elections is that people vote for a party, not a candidate. I can see the merit and the fault in this, but it will be interesting to see what the results are. The dominating party of Rwanda, the RPF (which liberated Rwanda after the genocide and the current president is a member of) is reported to be harassing and suppressing much of the opposition, so the RPF will most likely grab most of the seats. I will let you know next week!

So tomorrow I am going to set off on a mini-holiday to Kibuye on Lake Kivu (the border between Rwanda and DR Congo). It was one of the most devastated areas during the genocide (about 90% of the Tutsi population were murdered) and there are a few memorials dedicated to this. It is also supposed to be gorgeous on the lakeshore and I am told you can even swim (further up the lake it is dangerous to swim due to the gases from the volcanoes).

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

I have been attempting to start my blog for several days now. I began writing briefly on my laptop, intending to transfer it at the internet café. However none of the computers that I have tried day after day have accepted my disk. Today I decided to re-format my disk, not remembering that I didn’t save the updated copy to my hard drive. So of course I lost much of what I originally wrote. But here goes!

I have been in Kigali for over three weeks now, working for the Kigali Urban Commission to Combat Against AIDS and attempting to conduct my own research in the realm of women’s civil society organization.

I am currently living in a suburb of Kigali called Remera. I ended up here through a friend of a friend sort of situation. Eric, who is my host, works for Rwandans and Americans in Partnership (RAP) doing AIDS work and also aiming to do some alternative tourism. Eric is renting me a room on a weekly basis. Downtown is an easy 25-minute minibus ride from Remera and the stop is just 10-15 minutes walking distance from the home I am staying in. The house itself has three bedrooms, living and dinning room, and kitchen. Cement walls and a metal gate enclose the house. In addition, the walls are lined with shards of glass from empty coke and fanta bottles, so as to deter those thinking of climbing the walls. There is a little house in the backyard where Jean and Felix reside. Felix is responsible for household duties and was hired by Eric. Felix does the cooking, cleaning, laundry and some security. Jean primarily does security for the house. There is always somebody at the house keeping an eye on things.

§ Divorce – doesn’t understand Americans and the high occurrence of divorce
§ Boyfriend/Girlfriends should not live together - the boyfriend will grow less interested and will have women on the side (women more attracted to the man living with a girl and try lure him away)
§ Father has two wives – very happily according to Eric. The women are not jealous because they have the equal amount of belongings and their own homes (but what about equal attention?)
§ Family resides in the villages south of Kigali
§ Lost grandparents at Nytarama during the genocide and countless cousins. His brother was a soldier who died the day before the RPF liberated Kigali.
§ Was a child soldier during the civil war. Was living in Burundi prior to the war but then traveled through Tanzania to join the RPF in Uganda.

Felix: Cook, laundry, security; Very amusing little guy; Tries to help me with my Kinyarwanda everyday; From Gisenyi

Lt. Col. Rose Kabuye is the one who invited me to come work with the Kigali AIDS Commission (she is the president), but as she is the highest-ranking woman in the Rwandan military and has an assortment of other responsibilities, I rarely see her. I work primarily with three people: Appolinaire, Jean-Marie, and Claire.

Appolonaire: Kind, helpful, Second in charge behind Rose, Married with children, Invited me to the marriage of his brother next month
Jean-Marie: Four children, lives in Remera
Marie-Claire: Lost three older sisters during the genocide – she was fortunate with a good hiding place, Is a UNDP volunteer with the Kigali AIDS Commission, Family resides in Gitarama

Thus far I have been in learning mode, attending several conferences, reading up on the literature and visiting with various AIDS associations around Kigali. My first such visit to an association took place in an area of Remera that has a high concentration of AIDS and sex workers. The meeting took place in what appeared to be a bombed out brick building with a chalk drawing on the wall of a soldier with a rather large gun and pretty girl at his side. The members of the association gathered in orderly position along several wooden, not-too-stable, benches and warmly received myself, a colleague, and the heads of the association. The entire meeting was of course carried out in Kinyarwanda, but I read off of my colleague’s notes (who composes them in French). After the meeting we went to the side of the building so I could take a picture. One woman was too eager to wait for the group to gather and insisted I take her picture. She got instant gratification as I have a digital camera and she was laughing at herself. After several minutes we managed to organize everybody and get a photo. Afterwards they formed a mob around me to get a look at the photo.

The inauguration of Kagame was on September 12, 2003. Of course the night before I managed to get sick (bacteria from food). So I missed the whole showdown. I was even invited to an inauguration party late on the 12th, but I was already sick in bed, practically comatose. I did not fully appreciate what I had turned down until I rolled over the next morning moaning at myself for missing such an opportunity. But Rose Kabuye presented the flag to Kagame during the ceremony, which I later got to view on the evening news.

Rose KABUYE: Powerful woman, running place to place; Presented flag to Kagame at his inauguration; Everybody knows who she is; I rarely see her, but a few times have seen her in the news; The person I call if I ever have a problem

Rwanda is an exciting place to be right now. The country is opening a new chapter in its history as the transition period outlined in the Arusha Accords comes to an end. Kagame was elected last month. The presidential elections were met with outside scrutiny, as there were clampdowns on some human rights organizations (LIPRODHOR) and political opposition to the RPF (party of Kagame) found it difficult to campaign. Parliamentary elections will be held at the end of this month and for the first time in Rwandan history, there will be elections for a senate (the new constitution calls for a bi-cameral legislature). The elections are the very first multi-party elections held ever in the country.

There are gradual changes that have been underway since 1994, including changing of the national flag, the national anthem, and the name of the international airport from Kayibanda to Kanombe (Kayibanda was the first president of Rwanda who promoted ethnic division and Hutu Power). However, under the surface, many tensions have not been altogether alleviated. The country is still very much impoverished and is facing new challenges with the dramatic increase in HIV/AIDS rates since the genocide.

But aside from all the socio-political goings on in Rwanda, I am doing very well. Although of course it would be nice to have running hot water, I am doing just fine in my new lifestyle. I bathe from a bucket of hot water that is heated over charcoals in the yard. I say to Felix, “Dyshaka amaz ushushe,” and he fetches the water for me. That is another thing - I am not used to having people do tasks for me. Felix fixes meals when I am here and he also does laundry and light cleaning.

Everyday I cram into the minibuses with 20 Rwandans to get to and from town (at just $.20). Taxis are not too expensive, but when compared with the minibuses, a $4 taxi to town seems too big of a splurge. When I am walking in my neighborhood or pretty much anywhere for that matter, I hear, Umuzungu! Umuzungo! Which basically means white person. Although I have been told repeatedly that it is not a derogatory term, I sometimes wish I could go just one trip outside without hearing it. There are many adorable children on my street that I pass everyday. When one of them spots me, they yell to their siblings or friends that the Umuzungu is coming. Some of the small children come out to shake my hand and sometimes to pass along a hug. They seem thrilled with the few Kinyarwanda words that I have acquired.

Internet is less than a dollar an hour, though of course it is often quite slow and Kigali is prone to power outages. So that is my primary source of entertainment and method for keeping in touch with the western world and East Timor. I purchased a cell phone – in fact the exact one I have in the States. It is expensive for me to call out, but free to receive calls. So I make Imanuel and whoever else call me.

Food is pretty good though beans and rice can get monotonous. I swear I eat about a half dozen little bananas everyday since they are so plentiful. I also get my fix of avocado. I admit that there isn’t the variety of fruits and foods that I was expecting, but nonetheless I am eating much healthier than I would with my take-out routine in DC. I did try one of the gyms out but I am afraid I feel I am hurting myself more than helping (the machines are pretty ghetto).

And religion. How could I forget? This is something that people like to ask me about. They want to know if I am a Christian. I go into the big story of how my family is Catholic but that I don’t practice…that I think all religions have equal merit…and I learned early on to not attempt to explain agnosticism. People seem a little worried about my lack of religion. There is a huge influx of evangelical churches since the genocide. So this means that many people are walking around “saved.” Prior to the genocide, Rwanda was a Catholic country. However the Catholic Church was highly complicit in the genocide and thus many people turned away from the Church following 1994. See below for me on the religion issue with Pastor Placide.

So work is good, research is developing, and I am gradually seeing Kigali and the country. This weekend I began to feel overwhelmed thinking about what I need to accomplish between now and December. I have to do two 50+ page SRPs (they are both well underway), a report for the Kigali AIDS Commission (in French), mini-projects and commitments I made (like to Survivors' Rights International). But I will make sure I have time to view the mountain gorillas and I will hopefully do a trip to Uganda at the end of October.

Actually just a few days ago there was a horrible bus crash in Uganda and the very bus line that runs from Kigali to Kampala that I was intending to take next month. Over 60 people died, apparently the fault of the bus driver (collided with a World Food Program truck en route to Burundi, killing the driver). I may have to consider taking an airplane to Kampala.

Yesterday I spent most of the afternoon and evening with this very nice woman from New York, Claire, who has been in Rwanda for three months with Esther’s Aid. They do a bunch of projects for orphan children (as in taking them directly from the dumpsters, dressing, feeding, educating and housing them). They also work a lot on HIV and issues of prostitution. The organization works with one of the zillion churches in Rwanda and Claire works closely with Pastor Placide, who is a raging bible-beater. The Pastor is very kind but narrow in his views (and I dare to say not so respectful of a woman’s point of view). Last night, as there is a monsoon of rain, the Pastor is driving Claire and I to her hotel for dinner. He is ranting and raving about how sometimes the world needs a George Bush (don’t even get me started on how I pummeled him on this one) and the problems facing America are things such as lesbians and Muslims. Oh, I was getting so hot and bothered and just as I was wishing he would concentrate more on his driving than on his closed views, he ran into a minibus. It wasn’t a major accident by any means, but in Rwanda the minor becomes major (waiting for the police, etc).

Before when I was working on this entry I included an op-ed from the local English edition of the paper. I found it amusing and troubling at the same time, and even though I hate to type it out again, here it goes:

“Please Ladies Dress Decently”
Allow me to throw out a point of two to our lovely sisters. Yes ladies if you could take care of how your really dress it would be so wonderful for you could be so beautiful. In the Rwandan culture, a lady was not supposed to show off her secret body parts, but today they are moving almost half necked in town and they are really “comfortable”. It’s really very nice when you ladies put on those long skirts and nice blouses remembering to cover your tummies. Some ladies say that they feel very comfortable when they dress in jeans or other trousers, which to me I think is good as long as they are not bothering other people. But now you ladies who go almost necked in town its better to let us know how you really enjoy that and what gain is in dressing that way. Well ladies its upon you to think what will give you value as a lady of noble character that is to be smart [make sure you cover yourself and feel comfortable] wear a smile and be of importance to our society not forgetting our brothers, dear parents that would wish to see you as a woman of noble character. Concerned Citizen (word for word, including “necked”)

But then a few pages later:
“Be proud, woman, enjoy your sweat”
This one states that “a woman can live up to 29 years, single and successful, with marriage being the furthest from her mind and still be comfortable without being the object of distaste from her fellow people.” What happens after 30 years?

Another blurb that I enjoyed from this week’s paper was about Rockefeller’s son’s visit to Rwanda. He is quoted as saying that he is here to enjoy the guerrillas.
(Note: not gorilla, the animal)

So tomorrow I am heading to Akagera National Park in the east (it is Republic Day – whatever that means). I suppose you could call it going on safari, but it isn’t supposed to be as action packed as the bigger parks in Eastern Africa. I was invited to go along with a USAID friend and some others. I am just happy for a free ride! Depending on my work load I may make it to Kibuye this weekend to relax on Lake Kivu – but Women Waging Peace just contacted me to do some work before the parliamentary elections next week.

This maybe my only entry for a while, though I will try to keep up!