Sep 27
jen_blog Jennifer Moroz

Rwanda is such a small country that, even if it does take more than two hours to go 125 km, pretty much everywhere is within a day’s journey. So I’ve managed, in my seven weeks here, to cover a bit of ground in between classes.

I’ve even fit in some reporting.

I headed west a few weeks back to work on a story about a Genocide survivor village on the outskirts of Gisenyi, which sits on scenic Lake Kivu and is one of Rwanda’s top tourist centers. A Philadelphia artist, Lily Yeh, learned about Rugerero, which the government built to house victims of the 1994 massacre, a few years back when she met the Rwanda Red Cross coordinator for the western province, Jean Bosco Rukirande. Not long afterward, she came to Rwanda and launched a project to beautify Rugerero’s run-down Genocide memorial. But what started as an art project to remember the dead turned into something much bigger as Yeh says she felt the need to help the living, too. The village’s basic brick and clay houses have been transformed by colorful drawings painted by the children. Every home now has a water tank. There’s a new program to teach female orphans how to sew – and make a living for themselves. And there are plans to begin producing sunflower seed oil to help the village population become more self-sufficient.

That is what brought me to Gisenyi, and what I saw first-hand was both heartening and eye-opening (read all about it in the Inquirer!). But I saw a lot more.

The drive to Gisenyi from Kigali is one of the most beautiful I have ever been on. You rise up into the hills, over ridges and down into the bucolic valleys you’d seen from above. Close up, the villages are filled with color – the prints the villagers are wearing, the vegetables and fruits they carry on their heads, the brightly painted buildings that somehow look like an old western movie set.

The splendor stopped suddenly, not far outside of Gisenyi. We came upon a low-lying refugee camp inhabited, my interpreter Freddy told me, by Rwandans chased out of nearby Congo. And not far beyond that, more evacuees.

It had rained hard for a few days in the western province, resulting in serious flooding. I’d read a bit about it, but had no idea what the extent of the damage was. Ahead, water filled the roadway. There was about a foot or two, not enough to stop us. But on either side, the low-lying farmland was inundated, and with it, dozens of homes. Just corrugated metal roofs were visible above the muddy water line. Their owners stood by the road, homeless, standing, waiting.

We rolled through, causing a great splash. Super, I thought. Just what these people need – to get doused again.

I found out the true extent of the damage later that night when Freddy and I met with Jean Bosco, the Red Cross coordinator, to set up our plan to tour the survivors village the next day. We met at a hotel, sitting in a terraced restaurant under umbrellas beside a pool overlooking Lake Kivu. Twenty kilometers away, life was hard to begin with, and getting harder. The destruction caused by the floods was worsening. Jean Bosco’s cell phone jumped alive every few minutes. Colleagues were calling with periodic updates from the field. Radio stations were calling to do live interviews, get the latest on the damage.

It was the worst disaster of its kind in the western province, Jean Bosco told reporters in pristine French. Erosion had made the flooding a lot worse. At the time, 10 people had died (the death toll rose over the next few days and the last I read, 17 people had perished). Five hundred homes in two nearby districts had been destroyed. More than 4,000 people had been evacuated and had to seek refuge with friends and relatives until the Red Cross had time to set up a tent city, get latrines and potable water in place. Long term, NGOs would look for land donations so these people could build new houses, start farming again. They certainly couldn’t go home, Jean Bosco said. The land was far too vulnerable.

Gisenyi itself was pretty much spared, with the exception of some pretty muddy streets and the water situation. The flooding had wiped out the system that filters water from a nearby river. For us, it meant drawing on water reserves built up in a backyard shed for such emergencies. For others, it meant turning to Lake Kivu. That night, as the sun disappeared, throngs of people made their way from the city down to its shores, carrying the big plastic yellow jerry cans that are the carryall for everything liquid in Rwanda. Watching the spectacle, Jean Bosco shook his head and clucked. The water was bad, he said, and people, he knew, would drink it without treating it or boiling it.

I was back at the lake the next day, this time to check out the infamously posh Serena Hotel. It didn’t disappoint. You can dine by the pool overlooking the hotel’s private beach, which is lined with umbrella-protected wooden recliners. If you get a hankering for a massage, you can get that on the beach, too, in a tent you’d expect to see in the islands somewhere.

As we made our way along the beach, Freddy and Romeo, the hotel’s swim instructor/tennis pro who we’d met out the evening before, pointed to one of the patrons lounging on a lawnchair in his bathing suit.

That’s our former president, they said, pretty nonchalantly. Not the reaction you’d get if Bill Clinton was lying on the beach.

It was Pasteur Bizimungu, Rwanda’s first post-Genocide leader. A moderate Hutu, he was installed as president after the military arm of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Army, under Kagame, swept through the country and ended the Hutu-led massacres. Kagame was Bizimungu’s vice president but is widely known to have held the reins of power even then. Bizimungu ended up resigning in 2000 amid differences with the RPF, and setting up his own political party that was immediately banned. Two years later, he was brought up on charges that included embezzlement and inciting ethnic hatred. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2004 and served just a few years before Kagame, as President, pardoned him earlier this year, ostensibly as part of the reconciliation effort.

A few months later, he was lounging lakeside at a resort in his home prefecture of Gisenyi. And nobody, it seems, was blinking an eye. Except for me.

Everything’s always a lot more exciting for a foreigner, I guess.

Take for example the mountain gorillas. I paid $500 to see them, and I’ve met exactly two Rwandans (who are charged a fraction of that — $20) who have made the trip.

There seems to be as much interest among Rwandans for Akagera National Park, the country’s version of a safari. I, meanwhile, have been dying to go. I couldn’t, after all, justify leaving Africa without seeing a lion or zebra. Or in Lee’s case, a giraffe. He REALLY wanted to see a giraffe.

So a bunch of us got together, called Alphonse, the driver who had taken Jill, Melissa and I to see the gorillas, and set off from Kigali last Saturday to get our wildlife fix. Six of us crammed into Alphonse’s SUV, which was a little more modern than the one we’d experienced before. This one had a CD player. And new music, including an inordinate amount of Phil Collins, especially Groovy Kind of Love, for which Alphonse seemed to have a particular fondness. It played on repeat for what seemed to be most of our trip. With some Chris de Burgh and Lionel Ritchie in between.

I thought the drive to the gorillas was a bumpy ride. Akagera was worse, particularly for those who got stuck in the rear of the SUV, where shock absorption was non-existent. We bounced for a long time, hitting our heads against the roof and window, before making our first wildlife sighting – a moving blotch of brown in the tall grass.

Turns out it was steer. We proclaimed it a wild cow to make ourselves feel better.

As we drove, our guide, Aime, burst another bubble. There would be no African elephant sightings. And Melissa read in our guidebook that chances of seeing a lion were next to nil, too. The population had been all but decimated, killed first to protect the presidential herd then poisoned by local farmers also intent on guarding their cattle from feline attack.

I was beginning to wonder whether we’d see anything exotic at all. So when Aime finally pointed out some impala, I felt a surge of hope. They were no lions. But at least they were something we don’t have at home.

It only got better from there.

All of a sudden, Aime pointed into the distance. Giraffes, he said.

Giraffes? Really?

I felt like Lee. Who was beside himself with joy.

Sure enough, as we approached, a real, live giraffe took shape. Tall, calm and awkward, it looked like something from a different age. It loped along like Jar Jar Binks, blinking in the hot sun and stopping to munch from the tall branches of the acacia trees.

I watched it, transfixed, as it joined another one, which appeared from the other side of a hill. Two giraffes! They stood beside a tree, eating, necks wrapped around one another. The statues I’d seen of giraffes in that same pose, those ones that looked so, well, posed, were for real.

Surreal.

Even more surreal with Lady in Red blaring in the background.

The wildlife came fast and furious after that. Baboons. Metallic blue birds whose names escape me right now. Hippos. Or at least their heads, peeping above a lake surface before submerging again with a great harrumph. And zebras. Zebras! I felt like a little kid in a zoo for the first time, except this was no zoo. This was the real thing.

It was all enough to make me forget about the lions and elephants. Who needed them, anyway?

I have just one more road trip left before I go – my class field trip to Kigali. And it will, as anticipated, leave a little late. Five days late, to be exact.

We were supposed to go today, but two days ago, the university informed me that there was no bus available to take us. So at the last minute, Lee and I had to reschedule the whole thing – three visits to newsrooms and a panel discussion on media ethics and the law. Good thing people here are generally pretty flexible.

We’d never have been able to rearrange something like that in the eleventh hour at home.

Having said that, here’s hoping that a bus does — as promised — materialize on Tuesday and that no more rearranging has to be done.

I am, quite frankly, all rearranged out.


Sep 21
jen_blog Jennifer Moroz

There is no escaping the memory of the Genocide here.

The Gacaca courts are still processing thousands of suspected killers and accomplices cramming the jails, and those prisoners can be seen almost daily in their pink jumpsuits, riding in the back of pickup trucks or working the fields around town. Newspapers and newscasts are filled with stories of others who fled the country and who authorities are now trying to track down to bring to justice. And as you drive through towns, it’s hard to miss the memorials, large and small, to the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives.

At the same time, you get the distinct sense that the country is moving on. While the rest of the world remains fixated on the massacre that took place here, the country is, it seems, trying to get past its past.

The government is trying to replace the image of a country racked by civil war with that of a safe haven for tourists. It’s trying to expand the economy and to cement Rwanda’s reputation as a major force on the world’s specialty coffee market.

And it’s trying to overcome the ethnic divisions that just 13 years ago pitted neighbor against neighbor and tore the country apart. Officially at least, there are no Hutus or Tutsis here anymore, just Rwandans. So-called divisionism is a major crime. Even talk of ethnicity is taboo. When it is mentioned, it’s often in hushed tones, whispers of H’s and T’s.
Everyone here still knows who is who. But an outsider can only guess what group someone belongs to by listening carefully to their personal stories. And those are not often readily shared. Typically, you just get pieces of a puzzle: a student who reveals in a class assignment, for example, that she lost several family members during the genocide, witnessed rapes and murders and lived in a refugee camp. Or people who tell you they grew up or lived in Uganda. In both cases, it’s a pretty good chance they and their families were the victims of Hutu oppression.

Some of those people sit in my classes every day, beside fellow students whose families partook in the killings. There may be some underlying tension, but you would never know it from my vantage point at the front of the class. They work together day in and day out. They gossip. They debate each other intellectually. They help each other with assignments.

They laugh.

There was a lot of that on the first day of my second-year Journalism Ethics class. As I’d done with my first-year class, I had them introduce themselves and share something with the class that nobody else would know about.

I’ve come to learn that Rwandan society is fairly secretive. People are pretty guarded, especially at first. It is, for example, almost impossible to know who is dating whom.

So when one student offered up, as his little tidbit, the name and faculty of his girlfriend (in addition to the fact that he is very much in love with her), the class roared.

Then launched into a series of similar romantic revelations.

Not to be outdone, the girl after him shared that all last year, she’d had a crush on a guy in class. (though kept everyone hanging by not revealing his identity). Two other guys offered up they were “naifs” – the term given to singles on campus – but were on the prowl. Another openly admitted his love for a female classmate who happened to not be in class that day. He added that she doesn’t know of his secret crush.

I’m guessing she will now.

I also learned a lot of nicknames that day. (Rwanda is, I have discovered, the land of nicknames.) There’s Jean Damascene, aka “Makoun” – named for a soccer player. He’s not to be confused with the other Jean Damascene, who goes by JDK. Then there’s Maurice — “the Governor,” because he was president of his high school. Theoneste is “Texas” and Thierry, who does a sports show with him on Radio Salus, “Tigos.” Jean Paul is Masware, which means “questions” in Kiswahili. He asks a lot of them. The class president, Oswald, is Oswalki. The “ki” being short for “kiwi” – as in black kiwi leather polish, which is about the same color as his skin. Shami, meanwhile, is “old white man” because, his classmates told me, he’s like an old white man. Very civilized.

Not exactly nicknames that would go over too well in our race-sensitive society.

The class is, in general, a lot less shy than my first-year class was when we first began. They attribute that to Melissa, who taught them radio production. As one student put it: Melissa broke them in, got them used to having a muzungu at the front of the class.

I think they also just happen to be a pretty talkative bunch. Thoughtful, too.

I had them read and critique the Rwanda Press Law for class this week and the discussion it generated was intense. I’d asked them to pull out what they thought was good and bad about the law.

They started with the negative.

Namely, the amount of control the government has over the media.
They saw a lot of contradictions in the law. It guarantees press freedom and prohibits censorship, they noted, yet contains a number of clauses that limit that limit journalistic freedom. For example, “contempt” of the President is forbidden, as are “verbal assaults” on any head of state or foreign diplomatic officials, and “defamation and abuse” of public authorities and forces there to ensure law and order.

Students noted that the definitions of those terms, as well as many others in the law, were open to interpretation, and could be easily used to punish the authors of unflattering reports.

The law guarantees access to information, but limits that access “where necessary” when it comes to legislative, judicial and executive documents. Some limiting considerations: national security and integrity and confidential government and judicial deliberations.

Also problematic in the eyes of the students and many journalists here: the role of the High Council of Press, which was created by the law to ensure press freedom and adherence to journalistic ethics, to license media outlets and recommend their suspension or closure. The council is supposed to be autonomous, but how can it be, students remarked, when it is attached to the President’s office.

Another article of the law guarantees that all journalists’ sources and notes are confidential, except when a court demands that they be released. And who do you think controls the courts? one student asked.
Some students argued that the government needed to have some control in a post-genocide era, to prevent abuses of the past – namely the use of the media by Hutu extremists to incite killings.

The law, passed in 2002, directly addresses such abuses, containing, for example, a provision making it an offence, punishable under the penal code, for the press to incite a crime. Everyone seemed to agree that was a good thing.

Other positives they pulled out: that authors must sign their names to articles, and that personal privacy of individuals is guaranteed except in cases where the information affects their public lives.

The class will get another chance to discuss the law and media ethics in general next week, when we head to Kigali, along with my first-year class, for a field trip to the High Council on the Press. I’ve organized a panel discussion there for them to ask questions of the council’s executive secretary as well as the editors of the pro-government New Times, an English language daily, and Umuseso, an independent Kinyarwanda paper known for riling authorities – and getting into some serious trouble.

It should be an eye-opening discussion – for both the students and me. Several Umuseso editors have been jailed or fled the country after publishing controversial stories. The current editor, Charles Kabonero, has had his share of problems, too. He was brought up on divisionism and defamation charges after the paper ran a story accusing the parliamentary vice president of abusing his influence – and plotting to seize power from President Kagame. Prosecutors were seeking a four-year prison sentence and hefty fine, but the courts ultimately acquitted Kabonero of the divisionism charge. He ended up escaping prison and paying a fine on the defamation charge.

The other panelist is David Gusongoirye of the New Times, who visited the campus this week to speak to students about working at the paper. He got some tough questions, especially about press freedom. He openly acknowledged the paper was pro-government, but said there was always room for independent journalism. He pointed to recent stories staff had done about suspicious government contracts and spending irregularities in several different ministries.

“Does that suggest we’re so muzzled?” he asked.

But when it comes to Kagame, he acknowledged, the paper had to be careful.

Running the wrong photo of the President, for example, can cause problems.

The discussion immediately brought to mind a recent incident in which the Sunday Times editor was fired after an unflattering picture of Kagame appeared on the front page.

Gusongoirye spent a lot of time addressing the paper’s leanings, but he really came to woo students into writing for him. The paper is expanding, he said. Not many of his staff are professionally trained, he added, and many can’t translate well from Kinyarwanda to English. He needs good people, good stories.

And he can pay.

Freelancers get a retainer plus 3,500 Rwf ($7) for articles under 400 words, 8,000 Rwf ($16) for articles of 800 words, and 15,000 Rwf ($30) for full-page features.

Staff writers get 250,000 Rwf ($500) a month, while editors can make 350,000 ($700) a month. Many of the people who are filling those editor jobs – jobs that should go to you, Gusongoirye told the students — right now are from Uganda, Kenya and the U.S.

I’ve told my first year class that I’ll work with them to get their final stories for the class published, so I was happy to hear Gusongoirye was actively seeking submissions. I’m meeting next week with a handful of students whose stories really stood out to fill in any reporting gaps and polish the English. I’m hoping they can present them in person to editors when we go to Kigali.

They’ll get their chance when we visit the New Times and Umuseso newsrooms, which we’re scheduled to do before the panel discussion on media law and ethics. The second year students, meanwhile, will go with Lee, a CBC reporter from Newfoundland who is now teaching them television production, to tour the state-run TV Rwanda.

The trip will mark the end of my teaching stint at the National University of Rwanda. It’s been seven weeks, which seemed like an eternity before I got here.

Now, I just wish I had more time.

Still, I couldn’t ask for a better or more fitting ending.

We’ll probably leave several hours late, because the bus doesn’t have fuel, the driver hasn’t shown or some authorization hasn’t been signed.
But when the bus starts rolling, as it invariably does, I’ll be surrounded by all my students, probably listening to them singing songs in Kinyarwanda at the top of their lungs. Maybe even recognizing a few lyrics myself.

Really, I can think of a lot worse goodbyes.


Sep 10

 

bourgault_blog Marc Bourgault, 2007

To my great pleasure, after a week in Butare, I am starting to ease into the project and the requirements of University teaching.

I am very pleased with the respect shown between colleagues of Rwanda Initiative, of different age, professional backgounds, language, etc., as it is not easy for people who were complete strangers the day before to start living in the same house, sharing meals, bathrooms… stories, etc.

All of them : Shelley, Margaret, Jill and Jennifer, have helped me at some point with some important aspect, as I am new here. Even simple things, I had to learn. How to use the phone, texting in particular, the directions to the house and the University, the way to our office there, to the class in a different building, etc. They introduced me to important people in the school of Journalism : Chantal, Jean-Bosco, Dominique. Everything is new to me, as well as the wonderfull scenery around the city and the people that inhabit the hills or come to the market to sell their produce.

I have also come to face some of the limitations of teaching in a developping country : for now, the internet is not very fast ; there are frequent interruptions as well as power outages. But there are also some advantages. First : all students have cell phones and are constantly in touch with one another, and with me if necessary. A meeting can always be set up very fast. The other thing is the institution of “Chef de classe”, a student chosen by consensus, not by election, by the students to represent them.

I am pleasantly surprised by the students in my class. The first day, they were supposed to be 11of them, but one is in Canada and is not expected to return. I already tought two classes, each with 80% attendance.

We already have agreed on a class project : two programs, one audio, one video, on the problems and opportunities presented by Lake Kivu. The lake is situated right next to a volcano and there is a huge amount of gas popping up from the bottom, dissolved in water as if it was in a bottle of champagne. This situation is similar to that of Lake Nyos, in Cameroon. When the gas suddenly escaped from the lake, some years ago, more than a thousand people died.

What is there to do to avoid such a fate for the two million people living around lake Kivu ? Already, people have died because they swam in some areas of the lake. The gas also presents great opportunities, if it could be harnessed. Some say it could satisfy the energy needs of the country for a long time.

We have already agreed that, this week, students will do interviews on various aspects of living near Lake Kivu, a living time bomb. Students will research the issue from scientific, economic, social and environmental perspectives and their material will be used to put together a 30 minutes radio program in French as well as serving for research for the TV program we will be shooting next week.

Joseph, the chef of the class I am teaching is already learning important skills. Together, we prepared a budget for the field trip next week, and had to modify it several times. Not only that, but money is scarce and we do not have sufficient funds for our projects. So, after eliminating all we could from our draft, we still had to get additionnal funding from various sources. It’s not much if we consider our standards in Canada, but it’s a significant amount of money here. But, with the help of Allan, we will get there…

I had this idea of doing radio and TV documents on Lake Kivu, while preparing myself to teach my first course. This sounded appealing for various reasons. First, I don’t think there are programs comprehensive enough to deal with what is a very complicated issue and serious problem. So there is a need here to explain the whole issue to the population, exposing the risks and opportunities presented by Lake Kivu and the choices they have. Secondly, I didn’t want to give the students the same course as the excellent one they received from Andy Clarke, last year when they were in second year. Talking with students on my first day of teaching, I told them about that idea I had, insisting there might be better ideas, and that we should not jump immediately on this one.

So we investigated different possibilities, including the coffee industry, tourism, the ending of the tribunal in Arusha, etc. Finally, on our second meeting, there was a consensus in the class to settle for the project on Lake Kivu. Immediately, I gave assignments to all the students, according to their interests, even the two that were not there that day, and everybody is now out there working, knowing exactly what is expected from them, and the timetable.

During the course of this week, I will meet individually with them to help them get moving in the right direction. Friday, we will listen to the audio material they will have gathered. We also have to make a detailed plan for the field trip, next week, to Lake Kivu, where we will be shooting footage to illustrate our findings for the 30 minutes TV program we are putting together.

Before we left, I tried to emphasize the importance of good research and planning in any TV or radio journalistic enterprise. One student asked : “What do we do if, say, the mayor of Gisenyi does not want to give us an interview ?” That was an excellent point but I made clear that this could not in any way be an excuse to stop there and do nothing. There are other officials knowledgeble on the subject. There are other mayors along the lake and people in other positions. I tried to show them that there are all sorts of ways around that kind of problem and that a journalist must never feel trapped, because he then feels paralysed. When a problem of this kind occurs, and it often does, one has to let his imagination kick in to find alternatives. In this instance, the mayor of Gisenyi is one of many possible interview subjects.

I think that our discussion gave them confidence in the future of the course. I hope this spirit will endure till the end, with good attendance and participation.

I have noticed though that some students arrive late for the course and that others disappear after a while, i.e. after I have verified attendance. I think that from now on, I will take presence only at the end of the course period.

One problem area: I had wished we could add an international aspect to the reporting, as Lake Kivu sits at the border with Congo. But, the situation there is too dangerous for us to go there. As for a phone interview with people there that could be recorded for radio, which would be a cinch to organize in Canada, it is deemed too expensive here.

Shelley came up with a suggestion : Couldn’t we use Skype for the radio interview which would cost almost nothing ? Unfortunately, after checking it out, I found there was not enough bandwith.

So we still have to deal with the international implications, but there are ways around that, aren’t there?


Sep 10
jen_blog Jennifer Moroz

It’s taken almost a full week to write this blog entry. Maybe it’s taken that long to absorb what I saw. It’s quite possible I never will.

They say that 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed during the genocide. Up to 50,000 of those people died on Murambi Hill, 30 km from Butare. They assembled at the school, cramming into its classrooms, thinking they would be safe there, amid the rolling hills.

Instead, they became a perfect target for mass slaughter. Hutu extremists attacked, lobbing grenades through windows and slicing machetes through limbs.

More than a thousand of the bodies that were later exhumed from mass graves have been preserved in lime and crammed back into the classrooms as a chilling reminder of what happened there.

It was, I was told, a memorial unlike any I’d ever visited.

One friend warned me it was so disturbing, I shouldn’t go alone.

I did, anyway.

I’d seen pictures. I really thought I’d seen the worst of it.

And the others at the house had either already been or were busy.

So I set out solo with Ephraim, my driver for the afternoon.

A heavy mist filled the air as we headed out on the road to Murambi, where hills rise up on both sides, their slopes covered with farmland that create a patchwork of red dirt and green, punctuated by tufts of trees. From a distance, it looks like a landscape out of a Dr. Seuss book. We passed by coffee plantations and tilapia ponds, potato crops and rice fields tended by prisoners in their hallmark faded pink jump suits. Genocide suspects and convicts paying their debt to society.

It was snapping a picture of prisoners on this very road a few weeks before that Melissa and Jill had run into trouble. After taking a shot, they – and Ephraim, their driver that day, too – were mobbed by members of the local defense force and scared senseless before finally allowed to go. Few people here, unless you know them really well, like to be caught on film and snapping a shot even of a crowd scene is likely to cause a major ruckus. But turning your lens on a prisoner or an official of any type is strictly off limits.

So we avoided the prisoners this time. But I did get plenty of other shots of the landscape because every once in a while, Ephraim, who dutifully tried to acquaint me with my surroundings using a combination of broken French and English, would slow down and ask: “Photo?”

While snapping a shot of Mount Huye (Butare recently had its name changed to Huye though everyone still seems to calls it Butare), two gap-toothed women wrapped in brightly patterned cloth approached Ephraim on the side of the road. It had started raining and they had a long way to walk home, they told him in Kinyarwanda. Could they, they wondered, get a lift?

I said I didn’t mind if Ephraim didn’t, and he didn’t, so they eased into the back seat. As we drove, Ephraim filled me in on their story. Their husbands were among the prisoners we’d seen working in the fields, and they had walked there to meet them for lunch. They weren’t kidding when they said they had a long walk home. One got out after about 4 miles. The other stayed with us for about 6 miles. After that, she still had far to go – high into the hills, she showed us with an outstretched arm.

We, meanwhile, were relatively close to our destination. We turned off onto a dirt road that led us through a small village and onto a one-lane road hugging a hill. Across the valley, in the distance, you could see Murambi hill and the low-lying buildings of the school through the mist.

It looked so peaceful. A far cry from the image that kept popping into my mind: smoking buildings teeming with screaming people. Blood everywhere.

Up close, the place is literally deserted, the quiet surrounding it broken only by the occasional farm animal. Ephraim had to call the guide/caretaker, Francis, who had gone into town and came rushing back on a moto with a set of keys to let us in.

Francis led us behind a newly renovated building that is supposed to one day soon become a full-fledged visitot-cum-genocide research and education center/conference facility. For now it sits relatively empty. Some days, nobody comes through here. Others, 20, Francis said. While I was there, a few locals were using the lobby space to keep dry while playing a game of igisoro, a wooden board game played with pebbles of sorts.

We went straight back to the school buildings, which, Francis said, were under construction when the masses assembled and the killings took place. Another man quietly joined us as Francis guided me and Ephraim past a small farm, smoke wafting up from a slow burn in the adjoining field, to a block of classrooms. The newcomer was tall and skinny and didn’t say much, with the exception his name, which I already knew because I’d read about him. His name was Emmanuel and he had a bullet hole in his temple that was hard to miss.

Like Francis, he lost much of his family here, too.

I asked Francis if it was hard, ushering people through the place where his relatives were killed, seeing these bodies day in and day out.

We must remember what happened, he said simply, so that it never happens again.

As it started to rain, Francis pushed open the first door and ushered me in. The room was mostly dark, its back windows sealed with some red semi-translucent material that gave off an eery glow. A small open window above the door provides the only source of fresh air. The stench was stomach-churning. A mixture of death and lime left to fester in a bottle.

You can take photos, Francis offered. And even though it seemed wrong, I pulled out my camera to document my visit. Like others I’d seen before, though, the photos I took couldn’t capture the scene.

Half-skeleton, half-body, the dead lay jumbled together on raised wooden slats, limbs intertwined as if they were clinging to each other. Some still had clothes, worn and crusted, hanging off them. Many were flattened – crushed, Francis said, by others layered overtop them in mass graves.

He closed the door and unlocked the one next door. More petrified bodies, petrified looks plastered on their faces.

The next room was the same.

As Francis swung open the door after that, he said simply: “the children.”

Then he started pointing: a slash mark on a small skull (“Ma-chette”), a cut to the heel to prevent its owner from running away (“ma-chette”), a hole blasted in a tiny rib cage (“grenade.”)

After five rooms, I’d seen enough.

It was pouring outside by the time we left the classroom block and made our way to the last stop: what might have been built as a cafeteria or assembly room but now has become a warehouse for the clothes of the dead. Pants and shirts are heaped over a line hanging in the middle of the room and stacked on shelves against the wall.

I couldn’t feel anything, except the stench from the classrooms still lingering in my lungs. I just wanted to go.

We ran through the downpour to the empty visitor center where Francis pulled out the guest book for me to sign.

I looked at what the person ahead of me had written.

“Sorry.”

It sounded so trite. So inappropriate.

But then I realized there really were no right words for this.

Which is what I wrote, next to: “I’m numb.”

The numbness stayed with me as we ran out into the rain again, as Emmanuel and Francis ran behind the car, pushing it because it wouldn’t start, as I sat in the front seat trying to take notes about what I had seen. I finally dropped my pen and stared out the window in silence at the rain.

I fell asleep staring, and slept the rest of the way home.


Sep 10

 

jill_blog Jill Bennett

I may have agreed to go because I thought someone said ‘gin and tonic’. Turns out they actually said Gymtonic which is the craziest aerobics class I have ever taken part in…in my life.

Jennifer, one of the other teachers, and I set out for the 6:30pm class last Wednesday. Like most of the directions in Butare we were told to look for an alley next to a place and go to the end of the alley. We spot a guy wearing shorts and runners and follow him.

The room is large with a red concrete floor and a boom box in one corner suggesting we are in the right place. At one end there is a sauna where men draped in green towels saunter out to sit on a row of benches, apparently gearing up to watch the 6:30pm show.

Sweet. Aerobics in front of a half naked audience.

There are three other doors along a far wall. People come and go, seemingly from a totally different place. I wonder if C.S Lewis ever took this class and perhaps right in this spot is where he was inspired to write about Narnia.

A few minutes early the music starts and our instructor, who seems to just appear, starts telling us what to do, in French. Part of me instantly wishes he was telling me to head over to door number three and find out what is behind it, but no such luck. We are warming up.

I must admit, I hate aerobics classes. I once kicked that stupid little plastic bench thing across the room during a step class. Within the first five minutes of any class I normally find myself hating the entire world and looking for something to hit my head on so I can pass out and wake up at the end.

But as soon as the African music starts playing and people start waving their arms and kicking their feet I can help but smile. It turns into a permagrin. I jump and kick and throw my head around. Sure, I look like someone who has just found a cockroach in her shirt and then jumped into the bath with a toaster, but I don’t care. In the centre of the room there are middle aged men jumping and kicking and encouraging each other.

After the warm up I am drenched. Jennifer’s shirt has gone from a light gray to a charcoal colour. And then the music changes and suddenly we are kicking and clapping to Kenny Rogers. From Kenny we move onto Cher. There is some Shania in there as well along with something techno like that I vaguely remember from a few years ago. As soon as the second Cher number comes on the men in the middle pump up the energy with several high fives and cheers for each other. I think I even see one of the towel clad spectators tapping his toes.

After 45 minutes of cardio we move to the floor exercises. I’m happy to sit down.

We are stretching on the mats when Jen turns to me, “Ummm, I think this exercise was banned in Canada a few years ago.”

I nod, as I continue doing crunches and feeling each vertebrae shift slightly as I roll on the concrete floor. But even though I feel like I could sever a tendon at any minute, I am still smiling.

I find myself saying the phrase ‘you would never see this in Canada’ to myself a lot here. But not usually in a bad way. At this class no one is here to show off the latest lululemon purchase or to pose on the elliptical machine making sure not to smudge mascara. Gym wear here is shorts and a t-shirt…or whatever you happen to be wearing when the class starts. Shoes of any kind are optional.

The class lasts a good hour and twenty minutes. At the end we are drenched and tired but still full of energy. Like so many other things here it is amazing to watch people throw themselves into something wholeheartedly, men in the centre cheering each other along, others watching with encouragement, and us, the two visiting muzungus just trying to keep up while we sing along with what we know, and try our hardest to learn all that is brand new.


Sep 7

 

bourgault_blog Marc Bourgault, 2007

Hier soir, j’ai envoyé mon premier topo à Radio-Canada. Il porte sur une recrudescence des combats entre factions rivales au Congo. Pour l’écrire, il m’a fallu retrouver mes réflexes, le ton approprié. Après dix ans, ce qui n’est pas évident. J’ai envoyé un mail avec le texte à l’affectation nationale radio, à Montréal, leur demandant si un topo les intéresserait. Quelques heures plus tard, quand je suis retourné vérifier dans un café internet s’il y avait une réponse à mon mai, j’ai été surpris de voir qu’il y avait, non pas une, mais trois réponses. On était très anxieux d’avoir mon papier le plus vite possible, d’autant qu’un cessez-le-feu venait tout juste d’intervenir.

J’ai eu tout juste le temps de finir d’envoyer avant la fermeture du café. Puis, il a fallu trouver une moto-taxi pour rentrer. Alors qu’il y en a une multitude pendant le jour, ils sont plutôt rares, le soir. Finalement, j’en ai trouvé un qui a accepté de me prendre. On était à la moitié du chemin quand la pluie nous a surpris, se mettant à tomber d’un coup, sans avertissement, une pluie tropicale, très drue, qui vous laisse trempé jusqu’aux os en quelques secondes à peine. La saison des pluies est un peu en avance, m’a-t-on dit.

Je lui ai promis un bon pourboire s’il m’amenait à bon port. Il m’a laissé devant la porte. Aussitôt qu’il a été reparti, de me voir tout mouillé, j’ai éclaté de rire. Je suis entré, puis une fois séché, je suis allé au lit.


Sep 7
jen_blog Jennifer Moroz

Ever since Shelley told us there was an aerobics class in town, Jill and I have been dying to check it out.

You see plenty of people exercising here, walking and carrying heavy loads. But you don’t see much exercising for the sake of athleticism or vanity — a few men out running at dusk from time to time, but that’s about it — and I, for one, was curious to see what was happening out of plain view. Plus, who couldn’t use a good workout?

So after weeks after talking about it, Jill and I got off our tushes and went.

I can’t believe we waited this long.

It was, we decided afterward, one of the best experiences we’ve had here. Even though it has left parts of my body screaming that I didn’t even know had a voice.

Shelley had told us it would be tough (that and that we’d probably be the only muzungus in sight) but I don’t think Jill or I knew exactly what lay ahead as we set out Monday night with instructions to look for the place between Iris bakery and Aux Delices Eternelles restaurant on Butare’s main street. When we got there, there was no sign, just an alley that we decided to give a shot because, while it didn’t really seem like there could be a gym back there, there was really no other direction to go.

A man in shorts ahead gave us hope that we were on the right path.

“Gymtonic?” Jill ventured.

He nodded, and led the way into a non-descript building at the end of the alley that opened into a large, dimly lit room with a painted cement floor and a smell strongly reminiscent of Tiger Balm. Overhead, a fluorescent light on its last legs flickered from the peaked ceiling. Around us, paint curled away from walls that might once have been white. Directly across from us was a man, his bottom half draped in a green cloth and top half glistening with sweat, lounging on what looked like bleachers on the far wall. He sat beside a cabin of sorts with a door fashioned out of similar green material and a sign, laser-printed on a piece of white 8 ½ by 11, that read: “Massage.”

On the wall to his left, four other closed doors lead to who knows what. Somewhere in between them sat a large ghetto blaster next to a TV silently broadcasting a motorbike race.

Hmmmm. This could be very interesting, indeed.

Jill and I coughed up our $2 and waited for class to begin as more people – men, mostly –trickled in.

Shania Twain’s voice on the boombox finally signaled it was time to start. As the only two muzungus (Shelley was right) and a full quarter of the women in the crowd of about 30, we stuck out, but we did our best to blend in. And keep up.

It wasn’t easy.

After walking, then skipping and hopping in a circle, we broke into two groups and lined up against opposite walls. Then everybody started marching, hard, toward the opposite wall – and each other.

There wasn’t room for this, I realized. It was a collision waiting to happen.

Several collisions did happen, most of them involving me (I don’t know about Jill because I pretty much lost sight of her in the chaos that ensued). It turns out the exercise involved marching back and forth across the room endlessly, and that involves a lot of oncoming traffic. There was cross traffic, too, as several other glistening bodies, green cloth hanging precariously low from the waist, emerged from Door Number One (a sauna!) and sauntered through the marching masses to the bleachers on the other side of the room. There, they could cool off. And watch the show.

Everyone else seemed to navigate each other quite nicely, expertly weaving at the last minute to avoid an accident. I felt like a deer caught in the headlights. A very sweaty deer.

The steam from the sauna probably didn’t help.

We were only 10 minutes in.

80 more to go.

I checked the clock on the wall compulsively as we jumped our way through some techno, African beats, more country and a little bit of Cher, who drew great whoops from the crowd. A few men spontaneously entered into a high-powered game of pattycakes with each other, slapping hands high in the air as they kicked their legs to the music.

Their energy was boundless, mine plummeting by the minute.

I was sopping wet and dogging it by the time we hit the mats, which, it turns out, do not provide much cushion against concrete.

They do, however, provide a good vantage point from which to see the crowd of spectators that you hadn’t noticed gathering outside the window.

We finished the class watched from both sides (the bleachers were, by the end, half filled with half-clothed bodies).

By the end, we were drenched and exhausted and our tailbones were in for a rude awakening the next day.

But we left Gymtonic feeling exhilarated. We hadn’t had so much fun exercising in long time.

By the time we’d hit the door, we had already decided we’re going back Monday.


Sep 5

 

bourgault_blog Marc Bourgault, 2007

Premier cours avec les étudiants. Ça s’est passé aussi bien que possible. Huit sur les onze inscrits étaient présents. Deux étaient absents, la dernière, Providence, est au Canada et ne sera pas là du tout.

On a discuté de sujets possibles, entre autre les craintes et les espoirs que suscitent la présence de gaz méthane au lac Kivu. Les étudiants aimeraient beaucoup y aller dans le cadre du traditionnel projet de classe. Les coûts les effraient un peu. Ils se demandent si l’université va accepter de payer. Consultée, Shelley se montre d’avis qu’on devrait aller de l’avant, quitte à demander à Initiative Rwanda d’allonger une partie de ce qui manque. C’est quelque chose que je devrai régler demain, la responsable des questions administratives étant absente aujourd’hui. Elle est juge d’une Gacaca, sorte de tribunal populaire pour juger les coupables du génocide et en même temps les réintégrer dans la communauté. Comme tous les mercredi, ce tribunal siège et toute activité s’arrête dans le pays.

Une étudiante m’a demandé si le groupe pouvait travailler pour une diffusion en kinyarwanda. En Haïti, j’ai beaucoup travaillé avec des journalistes qui écrivent en créole. Même si je ne comprenais pas tout, j’arrivais facilement à comprendre si la structure était correcte. Mais le kinyarwanda, c’est autre chose. Alors on va fonctionner en français.


Sep 4

 

bourgault_blog Marc Bourgault, 2007

Je venais à peine de commencer ma première promenade dans les rues de Butare, quand j’ai été surpris par une forte pluie. Attablé à la terrasse heureusement couverte du Petit prince, le restaurant d’un hôtel du quartier de Taba, j’ai bu mon café tranquillement en attendant que la pluie cesse. Presque tout de suite, un homme longiligne m’a apostrophé, presque un vieillard.

Anglophone d’allure plutôt distinguée, très droit, la tête presque renversée en arrière, il portait un foulard de laine enturbanné autour du cou malgré la relative chaleur. Rwandais d’origine, il a longtemps vécu au Kenya. Il m’a raconté travailler pour une organisation internationale dans le domaine de la santé.

Rapidement, la conversation a bifurqué sur un sujet qui semblait l’intéresser fortement : la campagne électorale américaine. Il voulait savoir si Barak Obama avait quelque chance de devenir président ? Je lui ai répondu que, selon moi, madame Clinton allait l’emporter, mais que si elle a du courage, elle le choisira comme candidat à la vice-présidence. Il a pris un air un peu déçu, comme si la vice-présidence était une sorte de prix de consolation. La pluie cessant, il a pris congé.

J’ai repris ma promenade. Les maisons du quartier de Taba à Butare sont toutes entourées de murs épais. La plupart ne dépareraient pas un quartier de classe moyenne de Miami ou des environs de Nice ou Cannes, en France. Des feuilles de bananiers pendent au dessus de leurs enceintes et on ne perd jamais de vue la campagne proche. Aucune rue n’est pavée et la poussière rouge se soulève à tous les passages de voitures. Dans quelques rues plus large, des ouvriers creusent un fossé sur un côté de la route. À la veille de la saison des pluies qui va bientôt commencer, c’est une bonne nouvelle. La terre enlevée est posée sur le côté de la route et filtrée à travers un sas par des enfants, dont le plus vieux doit avoir à peu près douze ans. Rien n’est perdu, le sable récupéré servira ailleurs, le gravier aussi.

Un peu plus loin, d’autres enfants, plus chanceux, reviennent de l’école. Un uniforme d’un bleu appuyé les distingue. Plusieurs me saluent en français. Venant d’une maison, j’entends une chanson québécoise entonnée par une interprète dont je ne connais pas le nom et la suite de la même chanson quelques maisons plus loin. J’en conclus que ce n’est pas un disque et que ces gens écoutent Radio-Salus, où plusieurs de mes futurs étudiants travaillent pour arrondir leurs fins de mois.

Évidemment, je me suis perdu et j’ai été très en retard pour l’excellent dîner préparé par Jean. Notre cuisinier a un faible pour la cuisine française, bien que lui-même soit végétarien, ce qui est quand même un curieux paradoxe !

L’après-midi, j’ai accompagné Shelley à l’université pour une première visite. Toutes les classes ont des fenêtres et je peux apercevoir des professeurs écrivant au tableau des formules mathématiques compliquées auxquelles je n’ai jamais rien compris. Sur les babillards des murs extérieurs, des affiches proposent des bourses et des stages post-doctoraux. C’est ma première visite dans cette institution fondée par un Québécois, le père Lévesque.

Un jour, il y a bien des années, au Café Cherrier, j’ai été présenté brièvement au père Lévesque par un collègue journaliste rwandais travaillant à Montréal. Le père était déjà vieux et se déplaçait difficilement. C’était son anniversaire et Léo l’avait invité à déjeuner. Qui aurait dit qu’un jour, j’enseignerais pour un mois dans ce lieu qu’il a fondé, où se trouvait auparavant une école primaire où Léo a appris l’alphabet dans les années cinquante !

Aujourd’hui, un auditorium porte son nom à l’Université nationale du Rwanda.

C’est un très beau campus avec un édifice principal carré qui entoure une cour aménagée avec un soin maniaque. Les Rwandais sont un peuple avec de bonnes manières.

Je dois donner mon premier cours demain. Ce sera une expérience toute neuve qui me donne quelques appréhensions. En attendant de rencontrer la responsable de l’attribution des locaux de l’université, Shelley m’a installé dans le bureau plutôt confortable que je vais partager avec elle et Margaret Jjuuko, professeure d’origine ougandaise.

À la fin de la journée, nous sommes revenus à pied, Shelley et moi, une promenade d’une demi-heure à travers la fumée relâchée par le diesel des voitures et des camions et aussi par les innombrables feux de charbon de bois, qui est le combustible universel de toutes les cuisines ici.

Ma valise perdue est finalement arrivée hier soir, grâce à Solange, notre fixer à Kigali, et aussi grâce à Melissa, qui était en ville pour la journée avec ses étudiants et qui me l’a rapportée au retour dans l’autobus de l’université.

À table, la conversation porte sur les travaux des étudiants, sur la difficulté qu’il y a à transmettre une connaissance élaborée dans un tout autre contexte, quand les moyens techniques ne sont pas toujours pas là.

Ce fut une bonne journée.


Sep 3
jen_blog Jennifer Moroz

I’m taking a break from marking right now. We’re into the final week of class, and will be spending most of it working on the final assignment, an original news story. Meanwhile, I have 24 tests to correct, plus another 23 assignments that came in on Friday, not to mention more prep work to do for my next course, which starts right after this one finishes.

What better time to document some random thoughts on life in Rwanda?

First up: my Kinyarwanda is progressing nicely. My repertoire now includes “crazy” and “you’re drunk” and “I speak Kinyarwanda badly.” And in what can only be considered a major breakthrough, I have had my first actual interaction in the language. By interaction, I mean someone saying “how are you?” and me replying, with less than two minutes of lag time: “I’m fine.” I got a lot of practice the other day at the market, where it seemed like the vendors got a real kick out of testing the muzungu’s newly acquired language skilal. After overhearing one “how are you?”-“I’m fine” conversation, the vendor at the next stall down would inevitably ask “how are you?” and chuckle when I replied: “I’m fine.” Repeat about 40 times – and add the purchase of a nice piece of fabric and one stolen cell phone (snatched, probably, while someone distracted me by asking me how I was) – and you’ve got my afternoon at the market.

Another fun conversation is the one I typically have when I introduce myself.

“Jennifa?” they’ll say.

“Like Jennifa Lopez?”

I wish, I think, before saying “yes, just like Jennifer Lopez.”

I was one of five Jennifers in my graduating class of 50. It was a popular name in Canada in 1974.

Here, it’s rare. One student told me you just don’t find Jennifers in Rwanda who are under the age of 15. But if the apparent popularity of Ms. Lopez is any indication, I think a whole new generation of Jennifers could be on its way.

(By that same logic, there could soon be a whole lot of Kennys running around here soon, too … we have discovered that Kenny Rogers, for whatever reason, has a pretty big fan base here. Go figure)

A few other things I’ve learned in the past few weeks:

1) when dismounting from a moto, swing your leg wide or risk getting a tumourous burn on your calf from the exhaust. That, or just get off on the left side, as Shelly pointed after several clumsy descents that involved leaning heavily on my poor moto driver.

2) if you want a beer, don’t head for a saloon, because that’s where you get your hair cut.

3) if you want to make the name of your business sound better, just add “new” to the beginning of it. (ex: “New Sombrero Club,” or more to the point, “New Restaurant.”)

Another rule: no street eating. It’s amazing how much less snacking I do here as a result. You rarely even see food outside. If it’s not on a restaurant patio, it’s typically covered up. In bags that are not plastic.

That’s because plastic shopping bags are banned here. True fact. They’re bad for the environment so they’re out. You’ll see some smaller plastic bags here and there (think sandwich baggies) but when you’re taking something out of a store, paper is your only option. It’s pretty serious business. If you’re carrying plastic bags when you arrive at the airport, you won’t have them when you leave it.

There are, happily, plenty of other ways to carry things here. Dead chickens can be dangled from the racks on the back of bikes, which are also sometimes fitted with padded seats for those on the lookout for a much slower-moving version of a moto. And I’ve realized that most anything can fit on a head: jumbles of canary yellow plastic containers reminiscent of large vegetable oil dispensers, tied together and filled with liquids of all types; giant bunches of green bananas and sacks of rice and baskets of potatoes; cloth sacks and backpacks (a ridiculous number of which carry L.A. Kings logos) whose straps get little use here. One guy we passed on the way to work the other day was precariously balancing a pyramid of chairs on his head, maybe a dozen of them, probably more. He even had a smile on his face. Impressive stuff.

Children are also part of the balancing act. It’s not uncommon to see women, heads full, also toting infants and toddlers on their backs, expertly swaddled with a blanket or piece of material tied at the front. It’s amazing to me that the tykes don’t ever fall. If the tying were left to me, I’m fairly certain there would be a lot of crying kids on the ground.

Also a common sight as you walk down the street: men holding hands or draping their arms easily around each others’ shoulders in conversation. There is never a thought that any of them might be gay because depending on who you ask, homosexuality either doesn’t exist or Rwanda isn’t ready for it to exist.

Then there are the phone people, whose numbers increase exponentially at bus and moto stops. There are the ones who hawk phone cards, for those who prefer to use their own phones. Then there are the people who walk around with what look like multi-line office phones, only with no office wall to plug into. You place your call right there on the street, as the attendant stands by, and pay for the time you use. Rwanda’s version of a telephone booth – without the privacy of a booth.

The phone culture, in general, is pretty fascinating. Text messaging isn’t just for teens here, and you soon find out why. Actually talking means burning through those phone cards pretty quickly. So you:

A) Text (much cheaper).

B) Talk very quickly (I marvel at how fast my students can get through a conversation). OR

C) ‘Beep’ the person you need to talk to. For those who are not in the know, that means calling and hanging up immediately, then expecting the beepee to call back and pick up the tab.

The cost of talking makes reporting, particularly on deadline, a bit of a challenge. This is especially true for students who are chronically short on cash and phone credits. If an interview can’t be done in person, it probably won’t get done, period. Which turns writing a story about anything having to do with government (120 km away in Kigali) a very tricky proposition.

If only you could beep the Ministry of Education ….

« Previous Entries