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.

Thursday, November 27, 2003

Happy Thanksgiving to all! I don’t exactly have the
opportunity to celebrate here but I will enjoy a good
old slab of tilapia fish and Mutzig beer.

Yesterday I woke up with a sore neck and quickly
remembered that my minibus had been in an accident the
other day and I got jolted. Bus accidents are almost
a daily occurrence so I forget to even take note. So
today’s update is just some insight about day-to-day
life here in Rwanda. I have recently come to the
realization that I no longer take notice of normal
Rwandan occurrences – like the woman walking down the
street with a huge tree trunk on her head, the man
with a bed on his bicycle, the barefoot children with
several yellow, plastic containers of water (on their
heads of course), traveling long distances. I have
also been pondering why I am still always drawing
attention to myself on the minibus or walking in the
streets. Aren’t they used to MZUNGOS yet?? But after
some thought I reason that most of the mzungos living
in Rwanda never take public transport, shop in the
market or stroll along the streets. They instead
cruise in their expensive SUVs and send their
domestics to do the shopping.

In our apartment we have a red bucket that has come to
serve so many important functions in my daily life.
My first exposure to red buckets was when I was living
with Rwandans for the first month and a half that I
was here. Many of you may recall me describing how I
would kindly request my bucket of amaze ushushe (hot
water) every morning so that I could crouch in the
bathtub and bathe from the little red bucket. When I
moved in with Anke and Laura (the Dutch interns) I got
a promotion to a running hot water shower, but the red
bucket has nonetheless played an integral part of my
days. The toilet does not flush, so the red bucket is
first and foremost used to flush the toilet. Our
shower tends to overflow, but this is actually a good
thing, as this water is convenient for scooping up in
the red bucket to flush the toilet. The red bucket is
also used for washing clothes (which we hang to dry on
some rope that is suspended between two chairs) and
mopping the floors (with the wooden stick that is used
to push water, not really mop) – which are dirtied
everyday by the great amount of dust and dirt. If a
person is doing laundry we may have to wait to flush
the toilet or use our teapot to poor water into the
toilet. With all the use the red bucket gets one
would think we might invest in two (for another $1)
but instead we are patient with the one.

On Friday I was presented with my first present from
Rwanda. The very first AIDS association that I
visited here in Rwanda invited me back to receive a
present. While this is of course an honor, it does
not come without responsibility. My white skin here
is a symbol to many Rwandans; a symbol that I can be a
window to some sort of financial support. So I return
to this AIDS association not far from my apartment
with my colleague, Claire. I am greeted in the
bombed-out looking brick building by 50+ smiling women
(many with small children hanging off their breasts),
a few men, and some children peeking in. This is a
very impoverished area and this particular AIDS
association lacks the means to do much of value for
its members. The president of the association tells
me of the hardships facing the association, among them
the continual death of its members (resulting in a
number of orphans) and their inability to adequately
care for the sick. In addition these people are
discriminated against in their communities, as there
still exists a great stigma in Rwanda towards those
infected by HIV/AIDS. Then I am presented with a
delicately wrapped present (remember that the manner
in which a present is wrapped is much more important
than the present itself in Rwanda) to which I ask the
members if I should open it right there. Of course!
The members had drawn, with crayon, a scene with two
traditional huts and a woman in traditional dress
extending a gift toward another woman (I think it is
supposed to be me). The inscription reads “Madam Cery
Let’s Jein Hands To Fight AIDS With Aco-peration.”
Many of the members are illiterate and none speak
French or English (to my knowledge). For some reason
I have come to accept that Kelly just doesn’t fly in
Rwanda and that I will have to be known as Kerry (even
Ethiopian Airlines couldn’t get Kelly right). I was
touched by the effort put into the gift, but also a
bit guilty because the association has the hopes that
I can bring them the funds that they need. I tried to
explain that I am currently a student and not attached
to one of the big donors. What is ironic is that the
Rwandan sitting next to me, Claire, is really the one
with the means to direct the association towards funds
(as she is a real staff member at the city’s AIDS
commission and a UNDP volunteer who is responsible for
granting funds to local AIDS associations). But I
still try to give them some direction, as there are
numerous American and international donors and
organizations based in Rwanda for such causes. I am
almost on my way out Rwanda and there really isn’t
sufficient time for me to guide them through proposal
writing and other necessary skills (especially since I
cannot speak Kinyarwanda). I could take this
association on as a special project but the problem is
that I am confronted with people asking for direction
and money on almost a daily basis. I don’t blame
people in the least – if I was living in such poverty
and dying of AIDS, wouldn’t I at least want to try to
take advantage of this mzungo? Yes! So what do I do?
When do you decide to dive in and when is it too much
and you must say no? I am unsure there really is an
answer though I assure you I think about everyday!

Also of interest this week - I visited a solidarity
camp for prostitutes that was established on the
outskirts of the city. International AIDS Day in on
Monday so the country is doing all sorts of activities
to sensitize the population and one of the activities
is this program for prostitutes. They transport these
prostitutes from all over the city to what looks like
a refugee camp. They and their children receive hot
meals and receive trainings and education about
HIV/AIDS and alternatives to prostitution - like
microfinance projects to generate a little income. I
can't imagine such a scene in the US! I am not sure
if this camp will change any behavior but at least
these women and children are well taken care of for a

I think that's enough! Happy eating!

Friday, November 14, 2003

Are you talking about the re-start up of gacaca trials (the "traditional" system that was resurrected to deal with the genocide)?

People are not putting all their faith into gacaca, but at the same time, there really isn't another alternative. There are still over 100,000 people in jail who are suspected of genocide. They have been there for nearly 10 years, most without a file and many who are actually innocent. Mind you these prisons are at least 10 times their capacity and the most abominable conditions you can imagine. There was a big prisoner release earlier this year that was met with mixed reviews - survivors groups were outraged, communities had to figure out how to accept these people back into their communities, and many think that many more should have been released. But there is no doubt that the planners and leaders of the genocide should be brought to trial and justice rendered.

It is hard to believe that it is already the middle of
November. I have been a bit under the weather with
one of them African parasites. I subsist on a strict
diet and hope to feel better before I leave (it can
last a few weeks).

The weekend before last we went to visit two genocide
memorials at churches in a rural province south of
Kigali. We hired a private taxi (my friend Kassim) to
drive three Dutch friends and myself. Before
embarking on this journey we debated on if it was
really right for us to even visit such a memorial, as
Rwandans themselves never do. Was it just a morbid
tourist attraction? Do these memorials really serve
as reminders of “Never Again”? We discussed this with
Kassim, who is himself a survivor who lost many family
members. Regardless, upon driving up to the first
cathedral I got a wave of anxiety in my chest as we
slowly approached the entrance of the cathedral. It
is important to note that during the genocide people
consistently fled to their churches, thinking they
were safe havens. Churches actually meant certain
death, especially as many Catholic priests and members
of other churches were complicit in providing
information to the genocidaires and turning over
people to be killed.

I do not wish to describe what I saw in the church,
though remains and belongings have been left largely
as they lay in 1994, but merely to try to convey the
overwhelming feelings of entering such a place. I can
state without doubt that this is the worst testament
to man’s brutality that I have ever witnessed and I
was beside myself with emotion. It almost seemed
appropriate that while we were at the church a huge
storm blew in – almost some sort of strange sign (of
what, I do not know). We tried to wait out the storm,
but I was suffocating in the church so we made a run
for the car. Trees were down all over the place and
we encountered them on the small dirt (now mud) road
as we tried to make our way out of the village.
Kassim blazed underneath one tree, which stripped the
car of its roof rack. We stopped to retrieve it and
tried to temporarily attach it to the car to make it
back to Kigali. We thought we were on our way again
when we came upon a huge tree that covered the entire
road. I could not foresee us being able to get around
this tree (the sides of the roads were covered in
people’s agriculture, so of course we couldn’t drive
through that – it could of meant that loss of a
person’s livelihood for the next year). Kassim
approached one of the huts to try to find some tools
and two women came out with an axe and machete. It is
still disturbing for me to see these tools as they
were the primary weapons of the genocide, but they are
important for agriculture. So these two women came
out to help us, explaining that their husbands were at
the church we had just left (killed in the genocide).
We took turns hacking at the various branches of the
tree and it seemed we were making no progress as the
rain continued to poor and we were covered in mud.
But before we knew it, we had the whole village out
there helping us with their axes, machetes, and huge
smiles on their faces. Every time somebody cut
through a branch we all cheered. I couldn’t believe
it, but they succeeded in cutting up the huge tree and
clearing the road. We passed around the few snacks we
had and gave them money to buy drinks for themselves.
I wish there was a way that we could better thank
them, but at the very least they provided me with
proof that life can go on.

Although we had originally planned to visit another
memorial site, we agreed that we had experienced
enough for the day and attempted to make our way back
to Kigali.

On Saturday I returned to Akagera Park and got to get
my fill of elephants and giraffes (which I didn’t get
to see before). The park was just beautiful, as it is
now one of the rainy seasons. Our friend drove a bit
too fast throughout the day and lost his exhaust pipe
– don’t know why it is that we keep losing car parts
on these trips.

All else is going well, I continue to learn so much
from my colleagues and experiences everyday. Next
week I will travel with Claire, my Rwandan colleague,
to some other provinces to visit a few women’s AIDS
associations. Everybody knows how rampant AIDS in
Africa is, but it is another story to be here and see
that 14% of the Rwandan population is suffering from
the disease. It impacts every aspect of society, from
the economy to the household structures. As if
genocide and the loss of over 800,000 people was not
enough for this tiny country.

I know this is not the most uplifting update, but it
is certainly a part of everyday life here. Until next

Thursday, November 06, 2003

How is the general population acting towards or reacting towards the trials that have begun?