Jul 31

 

thompson_blog1 Andrea Thompson, 2007

I think you can tell a lot about a person from the shoes they wear.

My rip-off birkenstock sandals are comfortable, loudly-patterned and dirty most of the time.

I like to think they’ve got character and hope they’ll return from Rwanda unscathed. But that’s not to say they haven’t had their share of close calls.

Last Wednesday after the left slipped from my foot on the way off a crowded downtown mini-bus I was pushed and pulled in every direction but back toward it. Luckily, as a stood half-barefoot and rather dejected watching the Toyota chug away, I heard a man call out “Muzungu!” and saw the shoe come hurtling at me through the air.

A couple of weeks back, on a walk through Nyamirambo, the toe-hold of the right broke free of the sole and I walked on without it, my foot immediately covered in red dust from the dirt road. I stopped, shocked for a second at my bad luck and turned to ask for directions to a cobbler.

A young guy who understood French, or whatever it was I was speaking, translated for me, calling out to his friend across the street that I’d broken my sandal. Quite serendipitously not more than twenty yards away a man sat behind a cart piled high with well-worn shoes, working away.

For 100 Rwandan Francs, about 20 cents, the street cobbler sewed right’s toe-hold back in, laughing all the while at my murakoze cyanes (Kinyarwanda for thank you very much).

That was weeks ago and that roadside repair is still holding strong. They don’t look perfect anymore, but they really never did.

********************************************

Yup, shoes can tell you a lot about a person. Take the guys I work with at Internews:

Jean-Leonard sports these slick, leather ankle boots in a buttery tan. Just like what’s on his feet JL is incredibly hip. Always equipped with the latest technology, a cellphone often to his ear, JL speaks three languages near fluently and is always dressed to the nines. He’s an awesome cameraman, nothing fazes him. Whatever I throw at him he handles with flair and when all is well responds with what I’m pretty sure is his favourite English word, “cool”.

Valentin’s shoes are like him: practical but certainly not lacking in style. With a smile that I sometimes expect to jump right off his face, Van is gracious, helpful and incredibly kind. Matte black, squared toes with neatly tied laces, Van’s shoes don’t draw too much attention and spend a lot of their time kicked off under the desk of his edit suite.

The shoes Sam wears are the big hint, they’re proof that lurking beneath his unassuming, bespectacled appearance is a big goof. Whenever we sit down with an interview subject who pulls nervously on her wrapper or who won’t meet our eyes, Sam speaks to her in a low voice in Kinyarwanda, a lightness in his tone. Moments later without fail the women raise their eyes, and every time, they laugh. Last week as we sat in a conference room full of young filmmakers, Sam addressed the room in rapid French. I missed almost all but the response; the entire room was laughing. Sam’s shoes are silver, patterned in snakeskin. He’s got others, but those are the ones he wears- almost everyday.


Jul 31

 

jill_blog Jill Bennett

From my window I am surprised to spot what I first think is a beaver (but am later told is a woodchuck) munching on some grass.

I’ve just gotten up after sleeping diagonally on a bed covered with a plastic pee sheet in a room with nothing on the walls and just a desk for furniture. I didn’t live in a University dorm after high school, which is what I think makes sleeping in one now, at age 34, feel even more odd. But I am only here four nights so I treat it as an adventure, throw open the curtains and try to get a better look at what I first thought was a national symbol, and wonder if he feels like a discarded half cousin.

I am at Carleton University learning how to be an effective worker overseas. In a few days I will be in Butare, Rwanda, teaching a third year course at the National University on presenting news for radio and television.

I’ve been to Africa before, sleeping in a tiny tent with a friend as we made ouy way across Kenya and Tanzania. I remember at the time being frustrated and elated within minutes on most days. There was an expression I learned then. T-I-A. This is Africa. It seemed a bit odd at the time and even a bit condescending. But it was used for everything including power outages, broken down vehicles, and the most amazing sunrise I have ever seen. Still, it was uttered in exasperation more than anything else. I fully intended to hear it again during my two months in Rwanda. But what I wasn’t expecting was to hear it several times before leaving North America.


Jul 31

 

jill_blog Jill Bennett

I wake up to the buzz of my travel clock alarm and wonder why the phone didn’t ring. I call the reception desk in the student building.

‘”Hi, you were supposed to give me a wake up call?”
“Uh-huh.”
“You didn’t.”
“Uh-huh.”
“Could you please call me a cab?”
“Uh-huh.”

I get out of bed hoping the student working the front desk isn’t a communications major. I am also hoping the first exchange of the day doesn’t set the tone for what is supposed to be a 24 hour travel day.

5:30am
Ottawa airport

“Miss, you’ve been chosen for a random baggage search.”

“This really is my lucky day.”

7:45 am
Washington. I meet up with another teacher on the program in the duty free shop. Melissa and I check in for our flight to Addis Ababa and are told we will board at 9:45am.

10 am
The flight is delayed one hour. The good news…..we get breakfast vouchers!

11 am
We are told the flight is delayed because the plane is apparently broken. We ask a few questions and learn the black box recorder isn’t working. I consider offering up the tape deck in my bag I am taking to Rwanda to help train journalists but something tells me it won’t meet federal aviation codes. We wait.

Noon
More good news. The flight is now so delayed we get lunch vouchers! Who knew that to get a black box recorder to Washington someone from the airline actually has to fly to New york, pick it up, and then fly back with it?

1 pm
We are starting to form an alliance with the other people waiting at Gate 23. Alice is 16 and on her way home to Gabon after she was banished to stay with family in Montreal because she was ‘bad’. She won’t say what she did to deserve such treatment but she has no problem explaining at length how much she hates our airline and wishes she was traveling on Air France, which according to Alice, would never have a problem like this. Melissa tells her about our trip to Rwanda. She answers with a disgusted, ”Rwanda est merd.” Sweet girl.

2 pm
Most people have fallen asleep on top of their carry on luggage. There are long lines forming at the other gates. The only real difference between us and them…they are all actaully going somewhere.

3 pm
We are told the flight should leave around 8:30pm. We immediately think one thing. Dinner vouchers!!!

3:30 pm
Alice is freaking out and once again singing the praises of Air France, which apparently has non-stop flights with state of the art black boxes that do not break down. I try and reason with her the same way I reason with myself when I catch myself getting upset by the things in life we can’t control and really, aren’t that big of a deal. ”You know, it’s better they fix the plane before we fly rather than fly with it broken,” I say. ”And no matter how inconvienenced we are right now, I guarantee you no matter how bad of a day you are having right now, there is someone, somewhere, who would do anything to trade places with you.” Alice looks at me like I am a complete moron and turns away muttering words in french I have never seen on any language course cirriculum.

6 pm
A man from Rochester sits next to where Melissa and I have been perched since 8am. ”Where are you girls going?” We both start laughing, partly because we are sleep deprived and partly because the only answer we think of is, ”No where.” He is on his way to Vienna with a high school choir. His is called to his gate and promises to bring us a gift from Vienna when he returns in two weeks just in case we are still sitting there.

6:30 pm
Dinner

We try the only items left on the menu we haven’t already had. The group is starting to get closer. There is a group of Sudanese refugees who are returning home for the first time, a U-S coffee trader on his way to Burundi, and beside us is a family on the way to Tanzania to build an orphange. I look around wondering if somehow I was parachuted onto the set of the making of the sequal to The Life of Pi. Melissa takes a liking to 8-year old Josiah, an incredibly cute and shy boy with the group headed to Tanzania. She starts teaching him card tricks. I think I see him break from the group in an attempt to find a flight to Vegas instead.

7 pm
I’m beginning to understand how Tom Hanks’ character in Terminal Man felt. I start looking for luggage carts in case the food vouchers run out and I need to start returning them for loose change.

7:30 pm
I walk another round through the airport to stretch my legs. My new found friends at the duty free shop have all gone home after finishing their ten hours shifts.

9 pm
Good news! The plane is fixed! Bad news! No more food vouchers!

10:30 pm

Bleary eyed and in a state of disbelief, we board the plane. Malika has become close friends with the Sudanese refugees. They are laughing and snapping digital pictures of each other. Isaiah has obviosuly reconsidered his break to Vegas and rejoined his family to follow through with the original orphanage plans. We all joke with each other, stretch, and walk through the gate into the adventure waiting each one of us. TIA. This is Africa; unexpected, beautiful, and bewildering.


Jul 29

 

thompson_blog1 Andrea Thompson, 2007

We took a beautiful drive from Gisenyi today, all lush and green and death-defying.

The last I add because, despite the incredible beauty of the landscape, the road there was a series of sharp turns on steep cliffs.

The scarcely two-lane road meant the need for warning honks as we met each corner and even still we had a handful of oncoming almosts that left me gripping my armrest and grinding my teeth.

As we set off, I offered my fellow travelers a personal favourite Diana Hart-ism: “if you wonder if it’s been nice knowing you, it has.”

It all seems a tad over-the-top now since this blog stands as proof that I survived, even enjoyed, the journey but I do tend toward the dramatic.

Really though, it was lovely. The terraced farmlands cultivated along the sides of rolling hills looked, from a distance, like giant green and brown quilts covering a sleeping earth.

I quickly realized that “Land of a Thousand Hills” is just a rough estimate, one that sounded better than “Land of a Hell of a Lot of Hills” or “Rwanda: Lots’o Hills, We Got ‘Em.”

A couple members of our crew ended up car sick and for once I was grateful for all the hours I spent in a car as kid, developing an iron-clad stomach and an appreciation for the road. There’s something really comforting to me about the cool rush from an open window, just sitting back and watching the world go by.

My favourite drives until this one have been the curving paths of Nova Scotia’s Cabot Trail, followed closely by the palm tree-lined streets of Key West. There was a little of both drives in this one. But the beach-bound highway of Rwanda wins out for one reason: the people.

Along the rocky shoulders I watched the locals carry on with their Sunday business: traveling by bicycle, moto and foot to visit friends, attend church and buy and sell the goods carried by basket atop their heads.

This last, which seems to come as second-nature to Rwandans remains a mystical balancing act to me- the princess of uncoordination (I can’t claim to be queen, a title that belongs to my mother, a woman who once attended an aerobics class and was told “maybe you shouldn’t come back”). Despite practice with books and sweaters, mostly for the entertainment of our cook Mary, who cannot believe my ineptness, I can’t seem to master the art of carrying stuff on my head.

Meanwhile, out the bus window today I saw kids as small as four or five balancing water jugs, baskets and bags almost twice their size.

I felt a lot like I do at skating rinks, ski slopes not to mention aerobics classes back home….

Impressed.


Jul 29

 

black_blog Debra Black, 2007

The HIV special project has finally been put to bed. And I’m happy about it finally being over, done. This week has been very stressful as we tried to finish stories, edit them, arrange pictures and finalize the layout. And as so often happens it all had to be thrown out of the window at the last minute because of other stories and concerns.

Still, I am happy about the fact that the project was completed (there were a couple of minutes when I actually doubted it would ever see the light of day) and that I was able to work with some of the journalists and editors at the New Times and show them how such a project can be done and what real value projects like that can have for the paper.

Everyone in the end really pulled together and I think did some of their best work – from the photographers to the reporters and editors. Everyone wanted it to be good. The New Times may be a pro government paper – or as some say actually owned by the President – but sometimes the sheer joy of journalism and telling a story can win out no matter what. Such was the case when the newsroom earlier this month covered the landslide in downtown Kigali, which killed three people at a construction site or today’s HIV/AIDS package. Sometimes a story is a story no matter what; no matter what paper it appears in. I hope the reporters and editors at the New Times have learned that if nothing else. I hope that my month here, talking to them about the basics of reporting and writing and even a little about freedom of the press will help them in the months to come.

They have a tough job here. They have few resources — no notebooks, often no pens. Ironically they do have computers and Internet access, but the computers are antiquated and the Internet connection slow. They don’t have tape recorders or a regular form of transportation to get to a story. Sometimes three or four reporters and a photographer have to pile into one jeep and a driver takes each from one story to the next. They all wait for each other or sometimes are forced to make their way back to the office alone.

They face all kinds of interference and roadblocks and suffer disdain from the general public and oft times those in power. They work within a culture of fear – a fear that is partially self-imposed and partially very real. And they suffer disdain and criticism from other media outlets, which if truth be told have their own ethical problems. Indeed, the entire journalistic world here is a kind of ethical cesspool to a Western journalist.

And yet despite everything, every day the reporters and editors at the New Times get a paper out. You may not like The New Times’ editorial position. You may think it’s a government rag or a propaganda vehicle controlled by the President. You may laugh at some of its stories and the odd turn of phrase in headlines and copy. But it’s doing something that few other outlets do here, publishing a daily paper. And for that it should be commended. I had a friend who used to say that “newspapering” was history on the run and a kind of daily miracle. That holds true be it here in Kigali or at home in Toronto. And for that and all the travails the reporters and editors face at the New Times on any given day –sometimes even something like getting to work becomes complicated because of “umagundu”, or national clean up day, when cars and buses don’t run until noon — they deserve to be praised for just their sheer tenacity and determination at trying to get a paper out.


Jul 27

 

black_blog Debra Black, 2007

Thirteen years after the Genocide the city of Kigali looks like a thriving, booming city – with apartment buildings and hotels being built all over town to accommodate a growing population. It is hard when you look around and see all the lush gardens and well-kept city streets to think that they once ran with blood. So when you meet and talk to someone like Simeon – a taxicab driver who took me into town one day – you are struck by how completely devastating life was before and during the Genocide.

Simeon told me that growing up in Kigali he was discriminated against and not allowed to continue his education even though he was at the top of his class. The reason he was a Tutsi. He protested, but there was no vehicle of appeal. It was as if he wasn’t a person, he said, to me as we drove along the main route into town.

Suddenly we slowed down and moved to the side of the road. It seems the Presidential motorcade was passing by. Simeon remarked on how much he loved President Kagame. I asked him why? The answer was quite simple as far as he was concerned. The President stopped the Genocide. That was enough for him. Now, his son will get the education Simeon never was able to get. And more importantly the people are one, he said. There are no more ethnic divisions. Now they are truly one people. His son sits by a Hutu in school and they study together and are treated equal. That is a truly great thing, he said.

Simeon’s story is not to be underestimated. It explains the depth of affection many in this country have for their president. It is enough for them that he stopped the Genocide. It is everything for them. And whatever Kagame’s flaws or the country’s problems for them it is better than before when many were living in exodus and those who remained in Rwanda were raped, mutilated and massacred.

Earlier this week I met Elijah and Celestine – two men who are the best of friends in the district of Bugesera, just outside of Kigali. Their friendship in many ways doesn’t seem all that extraordinary until you hear the way their lives are entwined. Thirteen years ago Elijah helped killed Celestine’s brother and his family and killed his sister and participated in the murder of her family during the Genocide. It is a moment he deeply regrets and has agonized over. He was taught to hate Tutsis as a young child and that he blames his parents for passing on their irrational hatred, he said. He has been in prison. Now some 13 years later he has returned to his village to live and work as a carpenter. How Elijah and Celestine reconciled is one of the most extraordinary stories I have ever heard. The two men as they talk hold hands and hug each other. They explain how at a three-day peace and reconciliation seminar, sponsored by the faith-based NGO World Vision, they found the strength to forgive each other. Celestine stood up for Elijah at his wedding last year. They have formed an association to promote peace between former enemies and want everyone to hear the story of their reconciliation. They are now like blood brothers – a bond formed on a pyre of hatred, which has grown into a remarkable well of love. As I listen to the details of their story – the injuries Celestine suffered during the genocide, the murder of his family, I am overcome. But I am even more surprised – if that is possible – at their friendship and love for each other now. I take a picture of them – their hands are tightly woven together. Two separate parts of one strong bond of love and forgiveness.

Nearby I also met two women – both of who have HIV, both of who have children but no husbands. They live in tiny concrete three room homes – with a metal roof and small well-tended gardens. Despite the stark surroundings to them the houses are like mansions. All were built with Canadian donations to World Vision. Their children are well scrubbed and cleanly dressed. And they wait expectantly for us to arrive.

Mwjuma Muteteri is 37 years old and has four children as well as an adopted child. She discovered she was HIV positive in 1999 while she was living in Kigali. Her husband died of HIV/AIDS in 2003 so that’s when she came to Nyamata. He had been unfaithful and she got HIV from him, she said showing little emotion.

One of her daughters shyly tells me she wants to be a journalist. She wants to work at Radio Rwanda – the state run radio station. I tell her to make sure she studies hard and goes to journalism school. Muteteri’s second child wants to be a doctor and medical researcher – and perhaps discover a cure for HIV/AIDS.

When Muteteri discovered she had HIV/AIDS she said that she wanted to kill herself. “I felt really bad,” she said through a translator. Then she joined a local association called the Power of Love — made up women in her area who are HIV positive. Their support along with counseling and antiretroviral medication has made it easier for her to not only continue to live but look after her children and earn a small living making baskets. “I no longer have anger and shame,” she tells me. Now she has hope. “When I try to look back and I know there is a big difference. I was about to die. I had no hope. My children were going to be orphaned. But now…I have my house. My children are growing up. I am hopeful tomorrow will be better.”

Twenty-two year old Priscilla Uwamahoro lives not far from Muteteri. She too has HIV/AIDS. She discovered she was HIV positive in 2004. She has four children – three are negative; one is positive. At first when she found out she was HIV positive she was desperate, she said in Kinyarwandan through a translator. Her husband, who was HIV negative, abandoned her as soon as he heard the news. “All I thought about was suicide — about killing myself. I was feeling meaningless.” But then she found comfort amongst other HIV positive women and counselors. She is taking a vocational training course in tailoring and hopes to support her family making clothes. She gets up and shows off some of her work – a top made with lime green batik material. It is distinctly African. She worries about her future — about the future of her son with HIV and the future of her other children should she die. She hopes to leave them a kind of legacy – by teaching them to sew as well. “I used to get worried, but I’m no longer worried,” she said. “Before I could spend the whole night without sleeping. And those sleepless nights could me make me loose weight and be weak physically. Now I’m very confident that tomorrow will be good.”

The women of Rwanda impress me with their strength — be it these two women who I met on a recent hot sweltering July afternoon; the women politicians who I met in Kigali over the past month or the women at the Village of Hope on the outskirts of Kigali – many of whom are widows and were raped during the Genocide, their husbands killed and they were left for dead only to survive with their children and find they were HIV positive. All of them are passionate and full of an inner fortitude that is impressive. Each and very one of them carry themselves with a dignity and grace that leaves its mark on you long after your visit with them is over.

At the Village of Hope I met Lourance Mukamuragwa. She has HIV and is a widow with six children. She was raped, her husband killed in the Genocide. Mukamuragwa it turns out was at the Grandmothers’ Gathering in Toronto – an event organized by the Stephen Lewis Foundation last summer just before the International AIDS Conference. She gets very excited – as do I – when I realize she is the same woman who scooped up and danced Angelique Kidjo around the room after Kidjo performed at the Grandmothers’ conference last summer. I tell her through an interpreter that I have a picture of her that the Toronto Star published and I will send it to her. She thanks me and sends a message to Stephen Lewis. Tell Stephen she said that Lourance says hello and that she loves him and sends him a big hug. Then she wraps both her arms around her immense body to show me just how much a hug she wants to send him.

Tonight as I sit in my house in Kimahurara and think on the events of the past week, I can’t help but think of Lourance and the other women at the Village of Hope.

I close my eyes and see the women from there dancing and singing for their own pleasure. They stand tall and proud; their arms spread out like eagles as they move to the African drums the orphans and other widows of the village play. Their bodies are loose, supple despite their age. Their dance is regal, a kind of prayer to the fact they have survived. One of the women tries to teach me to dance. I am awkward, self-conscious as I try to follow her lead. Then the music carries us away. No longer are we a poor African widow and a clumsy Western journalist. For a moment we are simply two women bound together in the joy of a summer’s afternoon and the beat of an African drum.


Jul 25

 

thompson_blog1 Andrea Thompson, 2007

They drift in the ocean, strangling animals. They lie dormant in landfills, failing to decompose for lack of air and sunlight. And according to the January issue of Bust magazine, in one year 500 billion to 1 trillion are handed out free in consumer venues around the world.

They are plastic bags.

And they’re illegal here in Rwanda.

Along with Sport Utility Vehicles, hairspray, drive-thrus and disposable diapers I’ve long considered plastic bags a scourge on the environment. But until I learned of Rwanda’s hard-line rule against the polyethylene I figured it was just something we ought to suck up and deal with. Scourge or no scourge you can’t go back right?

Wrong. That’s exactly what they did here. In 2005, the government realized that millions of plastic bags were polluting the country so they outlawed them entirely It’s such a great idea I can hardly stand it. So simple yet so incredibly good for the planet.

And you know what? It’s not a big deal. Paper bags still work as well as they used to. Even more efficient are the recyclable cloth and vinyl bags you see for sale all over the place which can actually hold a great deal more without breaking.

And this great idea is catching on quick, as other countries, including many of Rwanda’s neighbors such as Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, follow suit. And if you think only Africans can escape the scourge, think again. They’re working on it in Paris, France, San Francisco, California and a brave little place called Leaf Rapids, Manitoba where they banned petroleum-based plastic bags in 2006.

Next up?

SUVs.

Well a girl can dream, can’t she?


Jul 22

 

black_blog Debra Black, 2007

Okay I didn’t see any lions, tigers or bears, but I did see giraffes, hippos, zebras, warthogs, baboons, spider monkeys, antelopes and an amazing array of birds. Sadly the elephants were hiding as were the crocodiles, or said Deo, our sterling guide and expert in all things animal and geographic.

I went on a one-day safari on Saturday to Akagera National Park on the border of Rwanda and Tanzania. I left just before dawn, got there around nine am and was able to fit in a safari in both the morning and the afternoon. It was absolutely amazing – really one of the highlights of my month here.

The golden light made everything radiant and luminous. And the landscape was much more typical of what one thinks of when one thinks of Africa – brown, parched, with this incredible red dirt everywhere. It is very different from the green lush tea fields and banana plantations and the jungle of the area near Gisenyi and the Virungas Mountains which borders on the Congo. To me it was reminiscent of the Badlands of the prairies. But of course one would never see a giraffe, hippo or zebra there running wild and free.

I was particularly taken with the majesty of the giraffes as they stop to graze on leaves from the treetops. They are beautiful to watch and exude a quiet elegance and peace, content with their place on the African plains. I have to say I fell madly in love with the giraffes and zebras. I’m actually not a big wild animal fan – but this was magical. To see these animals in their natural terrain as the morning light came up over the hills was an absolute joy. There was hardly a sound except for the occasional bird, the odd sound of a hippo, which kind of sounds like a cow mooing and a pig grunting, and the conversation of our guide Deo and driver Zacky.

As I looked out over the arid parched land, the thorn bushes, cactuses and trees I saw immense beauty, grace and a kind of spirituality. It seemed to me anyway that the land was indeed touched by God. But the safari was not without its lighter moments, including watching two hippos having “hippo” sex at dusk. Much of the journey was around Lake Ihema, which roughly translates in Kinyarwandan as “tent”, or so says Deo. The story goes that when the African explorer Stanley came to Rwanda, he pitched a big white tent there and all the natives came to see the “minzungu” explorer living in the tent. Eventually they called the lake – Ihema Lake – in his honour.

I was traveling with Scott Hannant, News Director of CTV Ottawa, a media trainer working at TV Rwanda, and we returned to the Akagera Game Lodge to spend the night. As soon as we arrived back we jumped into the pool to refresh ourselves. We were literally covered in a layer of red dust. After a good night’s sleep we returned early today to Kigali where I spent the day preparing for my last week at the paper.

I have one week left before the HIV/AIDS special project is to be published and I’m getting anxious about it. Much remains to be done. Three out of the five stories are almost ready. I went over the stories with each of the reporters, looking at the structure, suggesting they go back and try different ledes and work on making it easier to read and understandable. But the main story remains the challenge. Still outstanding are a graphic with stats on HIV and Rwanda, an editorial and an op-ed piece and one other feature. The interviews for the main story are in hand. It will be a kind of umbrella piece on the state of HIV in Rwanda today and where the country is going in its battle against the disease. Two reporters went out to interview the head of the AIDS Treatment and Research Agency, the head of the National AIDS Commission and a third compiled data from a World Bank study on HIV in Rwanda. My challenge is to merge all those components into one story.

After that’s done the Sunday editor and I will edit the stories to length, talk about pictures and just make sure everything comes together for Saturday when it is all put to bed. It has been quite a project – literally a first for the New Times. They have never attempted a comprehensive project like this before. And while I can’t say it’s absolutely incredible –it’s not bad given the limited resources and limited skills of some of the reporters.
As for my work last week was quite hectic. I began to do some of my interviews for the stories I’m going to be doing for the Toronto Star, including one on women parliamentarians and politicians here. Compared to Canada the number of women actively participating in government is extraordinary. It comes out of political expediency and the political experience of most of the women pre and post-Genocide. And it is fascinating to talk to these women.

I interviewed one of the MPs in the Parliament Buildings, which still are in dire need of disrepair. A lot of damage was done to the buildings during the battle for Kigali and the Genocide. One women parliamentarian told me awful stories about some of the women she worked with – the widows of the Genocide who were severely traumatized and remain so even today. She recounted how one woman not only was raped and witnessed the murder of her husband but was also forced to put her husband’s penis in her mouth just before he was castrated.

This just one of the stories I heard last week about the cruelty and evil that reigned during the Genocide. On Friday night, I had dinner with Eugene Nkurunziza, from Plan Rwanda, a local branch of Plan International which used to be known as Foster Parents Plan. It has recently started an operation here in Rwanda. A former colleague at the Star had arranged that I meet him. Eugene brought with him – Deo, a Plan member from Tanzania who is here working in Rwanda for three months and a U.S. intern from Princeton, Amnity. We shared a wonderful meal at the Novetel – which has a lush outdoor garden and buffet dinner.

During the dinner Eugene waxed poetically about his wife and how much he loved her and what a stir they caused when they married because she is more than 6 feet tall while he is about my height – on a good day that’s about 5 feet 4 and a half inches. Oh la la, he said. People couldn’t believe it when they decided to marry, he said. But he didn’t mind. He knew she was the one for him. But at the wedding, he did admit, it was hard for him to lift her veil away from her face so he could kiss her.
Later after dinner, the conversation turned to more serious affairs and we talked about Plan’s initiative to build a brand new health center in the Eastern province of Rwanda where there was virtually nothing. His hope was the center would be ready by January, 2008 and it would begin offering a wide array of health services, from HIV/AIDS counseling and treatment to dealing with malaria and tuberculosis – all three major killers here. The focus for the centre: the health of the local children and their families.

Then we began talking about his family and his background. His parents had left Rwanda in 1959 and he had grown up in Uganda. They returned after the Genocide and his parents ended up adopting his cousins and raising them as his own. It seems his aunt – his mother’s sister – had been killed in the Genocide. Her death organized by her own husband – a Hutu. After she had been killed – she had been cut in two – the soldiers had told her children that they had killed a fat pig and they should dispose of the body. Her own children went with a sheet and picked up their mothers’ remains and buried her. Then he told me about how his brother had recently been killed in a motorcycle accident. He just shook his hand as he recounted the tale. We were so close, he said. My brother really loved me.

His tale reminded me of what a colleague at the New Times had said earlier in the day. George Kagame said that in all likelihood I would outlive him even though I was more than double his age. Africa takes people very young, he said. He spoke from a recent experience. Earlier in the week he had come to me and said he had to leave immediately for Uganda and couldn’t do a story I had assigned him. When I asked what was up, I was shocked by his response. His best friend friend’s brother had stabbed his best friend in Kampala, he said. It was a financial dispute. And so this too is Africa.

On Friday, I gave a seminar for the reporters – this one seemed well attended and everyone was full of questions. In fact, I had a hard time wrapping it up. One of the topics being rigorously debated was a story that ran the day before in the New Times about a man who admitted to killing his brother. He had been charged with murder. The paper ran the story and his confession on its front page. I tried to explain to the reporters here the Canadian legal concepts of innocent until proven guilty and the danger of prejudicing a court case but the reporters seemed puzzled by these ideas, suggesting that they run stories like that all the time, including confessions of Genocide criminals.
Afterwards one of the reporters interviewed me for a story for the New Times. She said she wanted to do a feature about me to show readers that you don’t have to be young to be a reporter. With age comes experience, she said. (I didn’t know whether to be complimented or insulted about her reference to my age.) She hoped readers would realize how important a reporter is to society, she said. So I agreed to do it. I thought it would be a good way to see how she performed in an interview situation. And I must say she wasn’t bad. But I won’t judge her performance until I see the article.

Earlier in the morning I was supposed to do an interview with some officials at USAID about its role in funding HIV/AIDS projects here in Rwanda. When I got to its offices, I was told I could not take in either my camera or tape recorder because neither had been authorized. It seems the communication officer hadn’t arranged for permission for me to bring these tools into the mission.

I said that I wouldn’t do the interview without my tape recorder and pointed out the irony of not being allowed to enter the USAID compound with my tape recorder. After all, here I was in Rwanda trying to teach good journalistic practices and trying to encourage freedom of the press and I wasn’t being allowed to bring a tape recorder into an interview with American officials. This is the same country where democracy is held very close to its citizens’ hearts and where freedom of the press is considered a pillar in a democratic society. The interview – with a tape recorder I hope –has been rescheduled to this Tuesday.

Freedom of the press is a lively topic of debate here in Kigali. When I was talking to Rwandan artist Epa Binamungu – whose last name means son of God – he spoke at length about the artistic freedom that he has here. Artists are truly free here, he said. Artists are free to say what they want because no one understands what they say. They say it with their brushes, he said. Journalists need to speak, but politicians don’t like them to speak. For a journalist a pen should be a tool just like a painter’s art brush.


Jul 21

 

thompson_blog1 Andrea Thompson, 2007

Kids are people too. It sounds silly to remind you but I watch grown-ups forget it all the time. All too often kids get treated like pets, like problems or like projects instead of the very important people they are.

Today however, I met a group of grown-ups who understood very clearly what children are capable of and that all they need to achieve it is a little bit of help (and a lot of encouragement.)

About an hour outside of Kigali lies the village of Rwamagana, home to the Streets Ahead Children’s Centre Association. Along with his support staff of social workers and educators Douglas Kakooza runs SACCA helping to rehabilitate kids who’ve been living on the streets.

Some come from troubled homes, others poverty, a number of the older kids were orphaned during the genocide. One way or another all of them ended up on the street, mostly in Kigali, either working in menial jobs or begging for money. A lot of the girls were forced into prostitution and some found themselves pregnant. SACCA has opened its doors to them and to their babies.

The kids get food, which they cook themselves. Just the basics: beans, rice, potatoes. These are not luxury accommodations by any stretch. Some will admit they consider returning to their work in the city. After all, there were days when the money was good, and they ate a lot better than they do here. There are no French fries at SACCA.

But there is shelter (although some of the rooms are shared by as many as 6 or 8 children) and here unlike out on the streets it’s a chance to go to school, a chance to be safe and a chance to have a home.

Returning to the life of an average kid isn’t always easy. These just aren’t your average kids. They’re used to working, not playing and rather than expecting them to change their ways SACCA has created some amazing programming that harnesses the power of these entrepreneurs.

The girls use old magazines to make beaded necklaces along with banana leaf greeting cards and traditional Rwandese artwork. The boys take custom orders for T-shirts that they design and print themselves. The staff help them find markets to sell their merchandise and after turning a profit they’re required to pay back a portion of the cost of supplies. With the rest they learn to set up savings, the older kids preparing to pay rent once they leave SACCA.

Camille and I were shown all four of the facilities, amazed by the stuff the kids had created and the programs in place here to help them succeed. But when we arrived at the last stop most of the hallways were empty, a few boys washed their clothes in the yard and a small gaggle followed us from room to room on our tour. I’d heard this was home to 40 plus kids but didn’t see the numbers to substantiate it.

When we asked, we were piled into Douglas’ beat up pickup truck, the back of which quickly filled up with all the boys we’d met on the tour. After a bumpy 10 or so minute drive we came upon the neighborhood football (we Canadians call it soccer) field where a big game was set to commence.

There were enough boys there from SACCA to make up 2, maybe even 3, football teams.

In front of me were kids who had been abused, impoverished, mistreated and until they came to SACCA totally written off. But, and I can’t stress this enough, these are not the kids you see on World Vision commercials. They don’t feel sorry for themselves and you shouldn’t feel sorry for them either. These are amazing little people with beaming smiles and impeccable manners. Even the shyest of the bunch offered me his right hand in greeting, the left one clasping his elbow— a Rwandese way of showing respect for your elders.

I shook a ton of hands and took a bunch of pictures, but was soon ushered politely but urgently off the field.

On other days there’s school to attend, T-shirts to paint, dishes to wash.

But today is Saturday.

And for these kids, these very important people, Saturday is for soccer.
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If you’re interested in learning more about SACCA. Contact them at:

Streets Ahead Children’s Centre Association
BP72
Rwamagana, Rwanda
Email: [email protected]
Website: www.sacca.org.uk

Oh, and in case like us you’re wondering, Camille asked Douglas what it costs him per month, per child. Food, shelter, primary school fees all add up to around 7000 Rwandan Francs, about 14 dollars US.


Jul 21

 

ali_blog Melodie Cardin

I have been feeling really frustrated lately about my general clumsiness, which in Africa seems to be far worse than at home. Not to say that I’m not clumsy at home, but other than the occasional shoe turning over and a quick glance around hoping no one saw, it never gives me any more trouble than that. But I feel like since I came here, all I do is fall down. The combination of deep potholes and lack of street illumination seems to be lethal to me.

This weekend I reached the epitome of this in Kampala. It was pitch black, we rounded a bend, and by the time I heard Christine yell “Melodie, watch out!” I was already half inside a gigantic hole. I had my arms on the edge of the hole, straddling it, and one leg out on the other side, and my right leg had scraped down the side of the concrete and was reaching probably 4 feet down into that hole. I nearly lost my shoe in the process, and then I realized that I was okay, balanced on the side of the hole, not terribly hurt but really scared. As I was trying to hoist myself back up, this guy named Steve who had been walking with us to the club turned around and made a beeline for me. He’d had more than a little to drink and I was petrified that he’d wind up pushing me in the hole in his attempts to “save me” – plus by this point I just didn’t like him at all, and so he was not the person I wanted helping me up.

I started yelling, “Get off of me, I’m not falling in!”, over and over, and finally the guy figured it out and let go of me, at which point I picked up my shaken, humiliated self and sat down on a curb near the hole to calm down. Steve sat down next to me and put his hand on my arm at which point I fully snapped, “Don’t touch me!” at him, to which David interjected something along the lines of “Don’t take it personally, man, it’s just a cultural thing.”

Singapore, Rwanda?

After a long hot day on a bus where even I, with my short legs, was getting sore knees, we finally get to the border. I was groggy because David and I had stayed up most of the night before so we’d been sleeping very uncomfortably and intermittently on the bus. We got off the bus, did the hour and a half border crossing experience. As we were getting back on the bus, the border crossing people took out all the luggage and went through every bag. When we got back into Kigali, the guy sitting next to me (who I’d had to shove off a couple times when he fell asleep on my shoulder) started grabbing at me and fondling my butt. I flipped a bit and went, “What are you doing?”

Turned out he was reaching between the seats for the plastic bags he had stashed there to smuggle past the bag search.

Market in Kampala

Market in Kampala

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