Sep 4


wanda_blog Wanda O’Brien

From the idea to the final story. Read about my adventure navigating Kigali with a link to the final article below.

It started, as all articles do, with a story idea and it ended with me not only learning more about a subject, but getting more geographically acquainted with Kigali as well.

Thursday morning – exactly one week into my internship. I have a few stories on the go, am waiting for contacts to call me back, and am setting up interviews for the following day and next week. But what about today? No one seems able to meet with me today thus far and I’m itching to get out and talk to people. One of the challenges of working in a new environment is being able to identify what is newsworthy in a place you’re just getting to know. Hence I’m sitting at my computer fishing for ideas. I have two press releases for different conferences open. I’ve called both and have yet to hear back. One meeting is taking place outside of Kigali, but the second one is at some hotel called the Sportsview…

One of the die-hard rules of j-school is that conference journalism is a huge negative. The event isn`t news, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find a good story. I call again. The Great Lakes Initiative on AIDS (GLIA) has organized the conference and representatives from six countries are meeting during the week in the last of a series of workshops spanning two years. During each conference one of the six countries hosts the delegates. Rwanda was the final stop.

Someone picks up. “Hi there, my name is Wanda and I’m working for the Rwanda News Agency.” The group is going on a field visit this afternoon to a truck stop. Sorry, a truck stop?

“Could I join?” No problem.

The field trip is in the afternoon and is leaving from a hotel in eastern Kigali. Around midday I get directions on which bus to take to the Remera area and then to tell a moto driver the hotel’s name, since I don’t know where it is.

I’m standing at the edge of a bus shelter. A woman who speaks limited English points at my face and the sun and gestures for me to come into the shade. “UV rays,” she tells me. I sit down beside her.

Shortly thereafter a bus pulls up and determining it’s going to Remera I clamber in, sans nice lady I was sitting beside.

I arrived in Remera without incident. There were several motos waiting at the bus stop. I walked straight past them. I can find this place myself, I reasoned, I’m tired of depending on moto drivers. I walk. I cross a street. I ask someone.

“Do you know where the Sportsview is? A hotel? Sportsview?”

I ask multiple someones. I cross another street. I cross back. “Sportsview?” I walk down a different street. “Hotel?”

A man hears my enquiry.

“Where are you going?”

“I want to go to the Sportview Hotel. Do you know which way?”

“I’ll get you a moto,” he says. At least I tried?

He kindly tells me to wait so he can fix the price with the moto driver as my presence entails an automatic barter session.

Price settled, the moto driver hands me my helmet and just before I put it on a group of giggling school girls pass behind me and one gently squeezes the bun at the back of my head. They giggle walking away. I laugh at their giggling and the fact that someone just honked my hair like a clown’s nose.

Seven moto minutes later I’m dropped off at the Sportsview. Thank my driver kindly. Made it. I walk in and go to the reception desk.

“Hi, I’m here for the GLIA conference, Great Lakes Initiative on Aids. Do you know where that is?”

A blank stare. Not the best sign. I explain who I’m looking to speak with and drop the name I was told.

“I’ll show you,” the receptionist tells me. We walk through a dining room, down stairs, past a pool. He points inside a room and leaves me. I enter.

Two men are sitting at a table. This does not look like a conference. I inquire if one of them is who I’m looking for. Both have no idea. But there’s some type of conference happening in the room on the other side of the pool. Did I try there?

Again, thank kindly, this time with apologizes for disturbing. Cross the courtyard. Enter said room. Many people. I see recorders. I see notepads. There are interviews going on all around me. Sigh of relief.

A man approaches me. “Can I help you?”

I tell the man who I’m looking for. Don’t I mean someone with the same last name, different first name? No, unless I’m mistaken. This is the Great Lakes Initiative conference, right?

No, no it’s not. Back to the drawing board, or rather diving board, as I pass the pool again, retracing my steps by the room with the two men. I peer in, now there are three. So sorry, I say, but that wasn’t the conference I was looking for. No idea where the GLIA one is?

No idea.

Right, thanks.

I hang around. Rock on my toes. Decide to explore the hotel. Up stairs. Down a hallway. A meeting room with voices. The door is open. I peer through the doorway. Is that creepy?

There are hand-written posters on the wall. A few dozen people are standing in a crowded circle and seem to be sorting out ideas. I hear what I think is Swahili, and Kinyirwanda, and English and French. I walk in. I stand, hands behind my back, backpack on, smiling awkwardly, looking for a person not involved in the circle. Ah, someone sees me.

“Is this the GLIA conference?”


I’m told what the discussion is about. I learn about what is happening that day, what’s been happening all week, and what’s been going on for the past two years.

And it’s “no problem” for me to join the field trip to the truck centre. Off to another sector of Kigali.

Countering HIV/Aids using those most at risk

Safe Stops are places where truck drivers can park their trucks and find some R & R, along with a testing facility for HIV

Safe Stops are places where truck drivers can park their trucks and find some R & R, along with a testing facility for HIV

By Wanda O’Brien
Friday, 17 July 2009
Kigali: A truck stop in Gikondo-MAGERWA, suburb of Kigali, was transformed into a discussion forum on HIV/AIDS this week. Truck drivers, sex workers, and members from the community exchanged ideas with HIV/AIDS representatives from across the great lakes region.


To read the rest of the story click on the headline above.

Representatives from the HIV community in six East African countries visited the Safe Stop to exchage ideas with people at the centre.

Representatives from the HIV community in six East African countries visited the Safe Stop to exchage ideas with people at the centre.

The centre oversees a truck yard where drivers can park. But not only drivers use the centre. Out of roughly 100 people filtering through daily, 40 are drivers.

The centre oversees a truck yard where drivers can park. But not only drivers use the centre. Out of roughly 100 people filtering through daily, 40 are drivers.

The truck stop is a centre that provides testing for sexual transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS, education on the subject, condoms, and shower facilities. It also provides recreational activities, such as a pool table and movies.

The truck stop is a centre that provides testing for sexual transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS, education on the subject, condoms, and shower facilities. It also provides recreational activities, such as a pool table and movies.

Jul 21


wanda_blog Wanda O’Brien

Laces double knotted, hair tied in a ponytail and calves stretched I set out on my first run in Kigali.

I guess “run” is rather an ambitious term to describe my trot/ walk over the hills that make up the Rwandan landscape and surround the Initiative’s house in Kimihurura (the name of the district I live in). I start running north/west out of the driveway, my white sneakers a stark contrast against the red dirt road. By the time I’ve gone 200 meters (steadily inclining) I’m out of breath and smiling broadly. There is a school at the first intersection I get to and a few of the students are outside. “Muraho,” I call out and they smile and say hello back. I’m travelling downhill now and increasing my pace as I pass Papyrus (the restaurant I had dinner on the first night), picking my way along the cobblestoned side-walked, weaving around people walking in front of me, calling out greetings constantly, each one becoming breathier and breathier.

The sun is shining on my face, beads of sweat are forming on my forehead, and I am embracing the wind rushing towards me as I fly down the hill, that much closer to an actual running pace. Then, halfway through my descent it dawns on me: just as what goes up must go down, what goes down must come up if she wants to have lunch today. I toss that thought to the sidewalk as I’m nearing an intersection and decide to veer to the right. Motos (motorcycle taxis), mini-van buses and cars zoom past as in a practised dance, veering around each other, calling out their location through beeps, then passing where there is room. I’m running on a paved sidewalk now, and there is a median in the road dividing the traffic. Up ahead there is a bus-stop and over a handful of people are waiting to board a mini-van bus. I always feel nervous when people watch me running, and I remain nervous in Rwanda. I’m nearing the people. I don’t look to see whether they’re looking at me or not. I’m looking at the view of houses lining the valley across the street. I’m about five paces away now. I look up, I smile, I make eye-contact with some people. I call out my greeting, “Muraho,” and those I make eye-contact with greet me back. Ok, I think to myself, these people are much friendlier to me than people in Toronto. I feel like I’m in cottage country where every person you pass acknowledges your presence with a wave or a smile. Thus far, I’m usually the first one to call out the greeting, but I’m staring at a person just as much as they’re staring at me.

The salt drops are dancing around my pores and my sweatpants, frizzy hair and constant panting make me feel like an anomaly beside Rwandans going about their business on a Monday morning. The sidewalk I’m running on is uphill once again and my calves and thighs are really feeling the burn. I wonder if Richard Simmons ever went running in Rwanda. My trot has become a jog/walk and within minutes I succumb to the appeal of my body and give in: I walk, to what would be the shame of my high school cross country coach.

I soon cross to the other side of the street and turn back. I think it will be midday shortly (my watch broke in London where I transferred) and the Rwanda sun is quite powerful in the afternoon. On my descent towards the traffic intersection I pass two young boys playing in grass beside the road. I’ve started jogging again. “Chocolat?” the younger (or shorter) of the two asks.
“Oya,” (no) I reply as I approach, “sorry.” A pause. “Ça va?” I ask, calling up my most basic French. They both break out into smiles.
“Ça va,” the one who asked for the chocolate replied. “Et tu?”
“Bien,” I answer as I’m passing, “Bonne journée.”
“Bonne journée!” he exclaims as he gives me the thumbs up.
“Bonne journée!” I repeat, turning my head around to smile and giving my own thumbs up.

I continue running, and smiling, and turn my head once again to see that the boys have resumed their game in the grass. I feel energized and think I can tackle the upcoming hill and run the whole way home.

But then I’m actually on the hill that leads to my name-less street. I’m pumping my arms. Left foot, right food, left foot, right foot. I pass a group of teenage boys in school uniforms. “Muraho,” I pant out, confident in my greeting ability. They burst into laughter. I draw comfort in the fact that teenage boys are teenage boys regardless of country, and their laughter has spurred me to quicken my pace. I round the corner. I see Papyrus. Just reach Papyrus, I tell myself. You’re almost there. So close. Why is this hill so difficult? Just keep moving. But really, I think my legs are going to collapse. Fifteen more feet. Ten more feet. Final stretch…

I stop. I walk. I pass the restaurant’s sign. I’m gasping and utterly unattractive. But I’m smiling from the endorphins.

Rwandan hills: 1
Wanda: 0

Jul 8


wanda_blog Wanda O’Brien

A conversation un-had
A question left lingering on my lips as I stumbled through my answer because
because I don’t know the rules of engagement
And I’m so used to following the rules.

“Weren’t you afraid?”
To come here. To Rwanda. This is what I was asked. But this time
  By a Rwandan.

My first thought the same as when I was first asked that question back in Canada – Why would I be afraid?
But in this moment, if I answered with that question, would that be insulting?

Was she referring to the genocide? She must be referring to the genocide. Do I refer without referring?

I responded with a short “no” and a rambling explanation (with the brackets left unsaid)
  I’ve always wanted to come here (since I researched the genocide for a grade 11 law project)
   I’m more excited to see what people do and how they live (how do survivors and perpetrators and ex-refugees rebound)
    I want to experience what life is like here because I want to know what life is like for people in different regions around the world (full stop)

I’m not afraid because the fact that genocide occurred here frightens my humanity but not my want to be in this country.


Was she referring to Africa in general? Because Africa is foreign to a Canadian? Thus, reasoning I could feel scared to visit an unknown culture. And did I place the question in the context of a post-genocide country because the only reason why Rwanda has stood out for me over other small African countries is because of what happened in the spring of 1994?

She smiles and nods at my answer – a polite listener as I respond in repetitious sentences and confuse my words trying to say something that is honest and also an explanation. And I’m speaking in my native tongue.

I am curious as to why she asked me if I was afraid, but I did not want to ask. Maybe in the future I will find out what she meant. If anything at all.