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.

Friday, October 31, 2003

Lattes, Indian food, Nile River, bad knees, and all the rest:

Yet another great week for Kelly! I have increased my adventure level in the last few weeks, including a trip to Uganda last week.

Uganda is just north (east) of Rwanda and the countries have a very intertwined history. The current president of Uganda (Museveni) assumed power in 1986 with the help of President Kagame of Rwanda and then Museveni supported the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which invaded Rwanda in October of 1990 from the Ugandan border. Uganda’s most recent accomplishment is its promotion from the most corrupt government on earth to the third most corrupt.

I was initially weary of taking the bus to Kampala. 60 people perished on the very same bus not too long after I arrived in Rwanda. The bus (owned by the first lady of Rwanda) crashed head-on into a World Food Program truck carrying goods to Burundi. But Anke and I decided to give it a go and everything went smooth, even the border crossing – in sharp contrast to what I experienced at the Congo border.

I admit that going to Kampala from Kigali for the first time was a little shocking. Kampala is much more developed with high rises, shopping centers, and many western goods and services. I was relieved to have my first cafe latte fix since August and we also indulged in some incredible cuisine – Indian, Chinese, French pastries. My first impression of Kampala was relief because there were not crowds of children running up to ask for money or young boys trying to shove Q-tips in your face or shouts of MUZUNGO! Ugandans are much more easy-going and I dare say nicer. But at the same time, you have to take into consideration the challenges that are facing Rwanda. Although Uganda is still a very poor country, Rwanda is even more so and still facing the genocide legacy. Another contrast is the number of people. There are people EVERYWHERE in Rwanda and you can’t travel anywhere without noticing that every ounce of land is cultivated - nothing is left untouched. I was also ashamed of myself for being so overjoyed by some of the western luxuries, such as relaxing and enjoying café life. This is non-existent in Rwanda, as the majority of people are working to just get a meal on the table (or floor). Uganda is also much more mixed than Rwanda with different tribes mixing and a large Asian (largely Indian) population. This is not to say there is perfect harmony in Uganda (the 17 year civil war in the north of the country is evidence of this), but that people have a longer history of coexistence. I am so happy to have taken this trip as it provided me with a different perspective on life in Rwanda.

On Monday we went white water rafting at the source of the Nile in Jinja, Uganda. I had never rafted before and I was told that these rapids were some of the toughest in the world. My poor knees were already tender from the gorilla trek the previous week, but I did not anticipate any problems with rafting. The morning went wonderfully and we even conquered the first class 5 without a problem. Then came the second class 5 right before lunch. Jumo, our toothless Ugandan guide, instructed us to paddle through the whole of the rapid rather than holding on for dear life. After the first wave I realized we were in trouble as the raft began to turn and in a blur I twisted my knee and found myself underneath the raft in the strongest water I have ever experienced. I had to go through the instructor’s advice in my head and tell myself to relax because you feel so out of control. I managed to come to the surface for a few gasps of air before being sucked back down. I can’t believe how deep and powerful the water was. I had a flash of drowning in the Nile River as I seemed to be pulled deeper and deeper, but then suddenly I was back at the surface. I couldn’t swim well because I had just twisted my knee (thankfully not another dislocation), but eventually made it to the safety boat. It was a disappointment to get hurt half way through the day but I still got to finish the course in the “Chicken Raft” after lunch with the help of some multi-colored pills Jumo offered me.

So now I am gimpy back in Kigali and determined to make it back to DC without dealing with the Rwandan health care system. Ugandan mosquitoes seem to be particularly aggressive and I swear I came back with at least 50 itchy bites (hopefully no malaria). With time ticking I am also diving head on into my research (looking at women’s civil society structures) and trying to make sure I fit everything in. Lt. Col. Rose Kabuye, the one who brought me onto the AIDS Commission, was just promoted to the President’s Office – another first for a Rwandan woman.

This weekend I am planning to visit two genocide memorials that are in rural areas south of Kigali. I thought coming to Rwanda would help me to understand the horrendous events that have transpired here, but I find that each day I only have more questions.

Until the next installment…

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Gorillas in the Mist

This is one of the best weekends I have had thus far in Rwanda. We were originally going to leave Friday for Ruhengeri to climb a volcano, but after learning it would cost another $50 after the $250 gorillas permit we had already purchased, we decided to can it. Friday did not start out particularly different than any other day but then I got the call from my old roommate that my package from my grandma and aunt had arrived. I excitedly grabbed the next minibus into town to pickup my package and what a package it was -it was huge! So I carry my package down to meet Laura and Anke for a late lunch and people kept offering to carry the box for me. I suppose it looked strange for the Umzungo to carry such a big package. We finish lunch and head to the market to get the week’s veggies and fruits. The market is always a bit of a crazy experience but even more so on that day. Laura agreed to run in to get what we needed as Anke and I would sit outside with our bags and my package. A guy suddenly brushed very close to Anke and she grabbed her backpack to realize that the guy had managed to open it – but not grab her wallet. Usually I always where my backpack on my front side to lessen my chances of getting robbed but with my package I had to wear it on my back. It was the first time in Rwanda that I felt that people were eyeing me to steal my backpack. They could see that my hands were full and several guys kept walking next to me staring at my bag. We were just laughing because these guys were not too sly.

But we made it safely back and decided to venture out and try some Rwandan aerobics at the national stadium by our apartment. I felt like I was in kindergarten gym class again. The room was packed and taught by one leader and another guy who was shouting out crazily in Kinyarwanda as he sweated buckets of sweat – literally. The floor around him was a puddle! We ran around doing different activities, such as running in circles holding hands with another participants. I thought it was hilarious and really enjoyed the experience. We also went for our first real night on the town in Kigali at a popular club and live band. I will save you the details…

Saturday was a lazy day of cleaning and getting ready to go trek the gorillas on Sunday. Anke and I met Deo and Julianna (two Rwandans) who were going to accompany us on our visit to the gorillas. We stayed in a lovely little hotel in Ruhengeri and to our amazement, the quickest restaurant in Rwanda! Typically one should expect that food service in Rwanda will take a good hour or more to be delivered after ordering and if you in any way deviate from the set menu to request something special or without sauce or anything like that, it will take much longer, yet still come exactly as you did not want it.

We met at the Ruhengeri tourist office at 6:30am sharp on Sunday morning to meet the guide and the other gorilla trekkers. Not surprisingly, our group was largely expats (5) but there were three Rwandans. We drove up to the park (Volcanoes National Park) and started the hike at 7:30. We have one main guide, several armed guards, and one man with a machete-like tool for clearing the path. We requested to see the Susa group, as it is the largest and most active. The Susa group is also the hardest to reach, but the guides told us it would be about a four-hour hike. After spending such a large sum for our permits, we agreed that we really wanted our money’s worth. So we begin the climb and after 15 minutes, Deo and Juliana turn around to go home. I don’t think that Juliana had ever hiked in her entire life and was complaining that it hurt her stomach. So Anke and I are stuck there now with our ride gone (Deo says he won’t wait) and our stuff sitting in their car. Deo says he will give our belongings to one of the soldiers at the park entrance and then a few of the fellow hikers speak up to offer us a ride back to Kigali after the hike. Ok, we say, and continue on, hoping that our belongings will show up at the end of the day.

From the get-go the ascent was steep. We reached the border of where the dense forest began and our guide gave us a briefing on the forest and what to do and not to do once we reach the gorillas. We enter the forest, which is REALLY forest: deep vegetation, trees, mud, stinging plants, etc. This is no Boulder Chautauqua Park with nicely groomed trails and signs. As we really begin to climb I realize that I have underestimated just how tough this would be. The guide with the machete-like knife seems to immediately decide that I will be the one he will assist and he hacks off a piece of bamboo and makes it into a nice hiking stick. Little did I realize that this man would become my savior. It was difficult during the first two hours, but I kept assuring myself it couldn’t get any tougher. And my friend with the machete told me it would be about another hour. Not so. At about 10:30 we gather the group together again, take a brief snack, and then the guides point to where we will be heading next: down a huge muddy cliff in which a little slip could mean a broken neck. We all say, no, this can’t be! But the guides insisted and we followed. By this time I had greatly regretted not bringing hiking boots as my tennis shoes were already soaked through with mud, and I essentially made it down the cliff on my rear-end. My short legs also proved physically challenging when it came to climbing a mud cliff on the opposite side of where we had just descended. Machete man came to my rescue, as these mud cliffs became a regular occurrence. I cannot even count the number of times when I was sliding down in mud about to drop to who knows where and the machete man would grab my arm and pull me up. Why am I here again?

We continue on and the hours continue to pass. An hour after Machete Man told me one more hour the main guide told us two more hours. We reached where the Susa group had been the day before, giving us some hope (gorillas don’t usually travel too far in a day), but we still had several hours to go. By noon we are growing increasingly irritated and wondering if we are even going to be able to find the gorillas. Finally before 1:00 we are told they are very close. We leave all of our bags in one spot and hike up another mountain with our cameras in hand, just as we hear thunder and the sky becomes darker. Suddenly we were just there with the gorillas. We were a few feet away from a silverback and some babies/toddlers. Typically you are able to see the Susa group together, but as we hiked much longer than anticipated, they were feeding and thus not all together. So for our one-hour of allotted time with the gorillas we follow our guide to try to get as close as possible and see as many as possible. The gorillas are not even phased by our presence and barely give us a look. The hour passed quickly and soon there was a downpour of rain. As hard as the hike was to get to the gorillas, the worst thought was going back the way we had come. I had bloody hands, mud in every imaginable place, and my legs were just jello and sloppy. Luckily there was a “short-cut” down to another side of the park where we could be picked up. Don’t know why we couldn’t take the short cut on the way there, but there is no time for questioning. We start the vertical descent and I am of course falling behind as my knees are screaming and I am slipping and falling in the mud and over branches. But I push forward, wishing again I had been bright enough to bring hiking boots and put on my knee braces, but hours pass again and we were trekking through a beautiful bamboo forest and at last we saw the clearing and a village not far in the distance. We descend through people’s gardens and soon hear the familiar shouts of UMZUNGO!! We met a little pickup truck and all of us piled into the bed of the truck to get back to the park entrance, just as the sun was going down, with perfect views of the volcanoes and the patchy green hills of Ruhengeri. And to our great pleasure, a heavily armed soldier came to hand us our belongings.

So we hopped into the car of our new friends and went to retrieve our certificates and grab dinner. So we were now a German claiming to be African, a Norwegian, a Rwandan, who just returned from many years in Uganda, Anke (Dutch) and me. We had a great dinner, got some fresh American jokes (I know I won’t do it justice to retell), and returned to Kigali, mud and all (I was also not bright enough to bring clean clothes to change into).

Uganda! Anke and I will leave bright and early on Friday for our bus to Kampala where we shall enjoy glorious Indian food (supposed to be the best on the continent), lounge on Lake Victoria, and go white water rafting at the source of the Nile! I have never rafted and it I am not sure if class 5 rapids are the way to start, but why not?

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Going Dutch:
Greetings again. It has been about a week now and much has changed. I moved out of my residence and into an apartment with Laura and Anke, two Dutch interns. I made the move to save money and to also have a little more space and freedom. The apartment isn’t too far from where I used to live, only closer to some shops and what not. I even have running hot water! And a stove and fridge! These are such luxuries and it is such a pleasure to take a shower everyday (no more bathing from a bucket for the time being). And in living with two young women from Holland I have learned what going Dutch really means – as in we share everything and divide everything evenly.

Last weekend Laura, Anke, and I journeyed to Gisenyi in the northwest region of the country. Like Kibuye, it sits on Lake Kivu only the beaches in Gisenyi were much nicer and more conducive to soaking up the sun (although in my case I suppose I don’t exactly soak up the sun). We spent two days just enjoying the gorgeous weather and eating some stomach-upsetting food. You are supposed to be able to see the big volcano there but it was enshrouded in clouds.

On Sunday we tried repeatedly to get across the border into Democratic Republic of Congo to visit Goma, where the volcano erupted a few years ago and completely annihilated the city. Goma is also the entry point where millions of Rwandans fled during and after the genocide (many of whom were perpetrators of the genocide, who were fed and housed care of the West). To get into Congo is quite complicated and the rules seem to vary daily and depend upon who is manning the gate. We were told the best method was to hire a taxi driver to scope out the situation, costs, and then have him come back to get us and escort us across. On our first attempt we were told that we would have to pay $60 to get across and then $120 to return to Rwanda. Mind you this is for a little day trip to a town less than a few kilometers away. So we turn that down and we call this interesting British guy we had met the night before who sent his “people” to assist us. This time we went with the cab driver to the border. Many people were crossing the border in both directions without stopping or a care in the world. It is yet another arbitrary African border that divides families into different countries. In fact one could barely even tell there was a border as there was just a small gate on the road (no fence on the side of the road). We three Umuzungo girls sat in the back seat of this cab as two gentlemen were negotiating the terms. To our dismay there was a woman in charge who wouldn’t let us pass without a hefty sum. We asked to just get a picture but we were sternly turned down. It just wasn’t to be. We just had the wrong color of skin I suppose, but it was frustrating to be so close and yet not make it!

In Rwanda it appears that everything expensive including the nicest clubs, gyms, etc. are owned by umuzungos. In Gisenyi it seemed as though the whole town came out to watch for hours as a few westerners attempted to water ski and wakeboard on the lake. There was an older couple and a young boy, and we were even offered an outing. But we just couldn’t or didn’t want to do it because it is so frustrating to see that Rwandans are never offered the opportunity. I know that if they had offered one of the Rwandan children a ride on the boat it would have made their month or their life, as they would probably never again have an opportunity. It is evident to me that there is still this divide between the expats doing development work and the people they are attempting to assist. It is a divide that I often contemplate and wonder if it can really be overcome. The average Rwandan has never visited any of the national parks in their own country.

Research here can be a bit of a challenge at times. So many westerners have trail blazed through Rwanda to get their research but many leave nothing behind. Yesterday I had a meeting with a women’s organization and the man that I met with was pretty standoffish towards me and my work. He commented on how a number of people have come through his office seeking information and then he never hears from them again or sees how the information is used. I assured him that he would hear from me again and that I would be more than happy to pass along my research once I was completed. I also assured him that the information would be put to use beyond my graduation requirements. I can certainly understand this man’s concerns as I myself have seen how people can come to Rwanda, interview people or take what they need, but then Rwandans never benefit from the work or information. Hopefully I can avoid this path.

On Friday we will journey to Ruhengeri to stay for two nights. On Saturday we will hike a volcano and then on Sunday we will trek the famous mountain gorillas (think Gorillas in the Mist). I already paid my hefty $250 permit fee, so we hope to make the very most of it. And then a week from Friday Anke and I will journey to Uganda!

Sunday, October 05, 2003

This week I thought I would share a little cultural experience with you all. Yesterday I attended my first Rwandan wedding. The wedding was for the brother of my work colleague, Appolinaire and Appolinaire's wife took good care of me all day, translating some of the events from Kinyarwanda.

This is quite an exhaustive event. First thing in the morning, we went to the home of the bride's family. This is where the groom's family offers gifts to the bride's family to show their love and to give a sort of dowry. The most prized of all gifts is the cow. This event is not without comedy, in that the bride's father presented many girls to the groom's father before finally bringing out the bride. Also of great importance is the drinking of banana juice from a traditional vessel sort of thing.

The second segment of the day was the actual wedding ceremony. IN this case it took place at a pentecostal church, with two full choirs and bands. The event is more lively than any wedding I have ever attended in the states, though the couple sat through the ceremony with blank stares and only spoke when they read the vows and exchanged the rings. In fact throughout much of the ceremony, the only people doing much talking are the fathers of the couple. After the ceremony they went to take pictures on one of the roundabouts. They were exclaiming how beautiful the roundabout was with a statue and "gardens." To me it was just some sparse grass on cement in the middle of the city with hundreds of cars, but what can I say?

Next we went on to a reception downtown, in what looked like a warehouse (and the bathrooms were the most horrendous that I have seen yet - for those of you have seen Trainspotting, think of the scene of the worst bathroom in Scotland). The reception was dry, but there was plenty of Fanta. At the reception there was the traditional Rwandan dances and also the choirs sang it up again. The fathers also did a skit in which the bride's father promised that the girl was well educated and that she would behave and the groom's father promised that they would take good care of her and thank you for giving him such a beautiful daughter. This is quite traditional and to me it objectified the daughter, but I will save you my gender analysis of the events. At the end of the reception everybody lines up to give their gifts and to greet the bride and groom. I must note that the appearance of the present is much more important than the gift. It your gift is not properly wrapped, with ribbons and all, then you may as not bring a gift at all! And the packaging and wrapping typically costs more than the gift itself.

Then we were off again!

After the reception everybody escorts the wife and groom to their home where they will live together. I was overly exhausted by this point and my work colleague sent me home. But overall very enjoyable day. I especially enjoyed Appolinaire's wife, who I was surprised to find was my own age.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Ok. Now I have attempted two days in a row to download my blog entries from a disk. I have finally decided to give in and attempt to write on the spot.

So this week has been filled with holidays. Tuesday was a holiday for the parliamentary elections and yesterday was Heroes Day/Patriot Day. Heroes Day marks the day in 1990 when the RPF invaded from Uganda. Although I am told there are Rwandan heroes aside from the RPF, they day seems to me a dedication to that invasion.

I have been a serious election monitor this week. On Monday I went to watch the youth vote. There are two seats set aside for representation of the youth, one set aside for the disabled, and 24 set aside for women (in addition to the seats they may win in the regular elections). So a ton of us (monitors, press, candidates, interested people) gathered in the Kigali International School (built with the care of funds from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) and watched as each ballot cast by the youth council was read. The names of the candidates were all listed on the chalk board and a tick was put after the name as ballots were called out. Pretty old school, but exciting. Two young men won the seats and afterwards there was a ceremony where the old representatives passed on their wisdom to the new reps.

A side note: The transitional government decided that the youth should be represented in parliament due to their neglected status in previous years. It is recognized that the youth suffered horribly during the genocide and that also many of them were complicit in atrocious crimes during the war (rape, murder, etc.). Seats were also designated to women and the disabled due to the fact that they are traditionally marginalized.

On Tuesday I went to observe the regular parliamentary elections. It wasn't too remarkable, in that it mirrored what we do in the States, but I did notice a pretty low voter turnout at the station I visited. Today are the women elections.

So far I hear that RPF won about 73% of the seats. A little too high if you ask me, and there are reports of intimidation - not to mention the fact that three parties joined up with RPF to dominate the votes.

Aside from all that, I am doing well. Funny that Kerri should write about a wedding in East Timor because I am supposed to attend one myself this weekend.

I lead a pretty clean life here. I wake up at about 6 every morning and I am exhausted by 9pm. When I travel I will treat myself to a beer, which usually puts me to sleep.

Some side notes...I had to break down and tell my roommate yesterday that he should be careful not to discuss a woman's weight with her should he visit the US. Over the last month he will say something like, you eat very little but you are not thin. It doesn't bother me but I had to break it to him that women in the US don't want a man to tell them they are fat. He also told me that people ask if I got my freckles due to the hot Rwandan sun. Nope! I borught them with me!