Jan 30

I think I love this country. I’ve always loved the idea of coming here and now that I’m here, I’m confident Rwanda will be one of my favorite places. People make places, and Rwandese are a special people. There is a gentleness and warmth about them, which is palpable. Sure they stare, and will even mutter “umuzungu” (white man) as you pass, but it’s more a term of recognition or curiosity than any intended slight. If you take the time to learn a few phrases in Kinya-Rwanda, a poignant one being “munyA g’wanda” (basically means, Rwandese as an answer to “umuzungu”) they will chuckle and smile at the mere fact you understood them AND answered back in their language.

My fascination with Rwanda was borne from the events in 1994 when 100 days of genocide plagued this small central/east African nation. In 1995, Rwanda Initiative founder Allan Thompson was a reporter in the Toronto Star’s Ottawa bureau. I was the freelance photographer working with bureau staff. If I recall correctly, we were the first to interview Senator Romeo Dallaire, former Major General of the Canadian Forces. Dallaire was head of the ill-fated UN mission in Rwanda and was witness to the atrocities, which occurred. He went to great lengths to warn the powers that be of the impending explosion of fratricide. No one listened, or at least, they listened and still refused to do nothing to bump up the Forces he requested. His ability to stem the blood flow was facilitated by the geopolitical nature of the UN body based in New York and the result was a massive loss of life drawn along tribal lineage. Rwanda was left in tatters, Dallier himself was left shattered and the world in shock when the reality of the situation was finally known.

During the interview the affects of bearing witness to such utter carnage was visible. A Major General of an army lost his composure, and the pain of his helplessness was in his voice. Dallaire was altered. During the interview, Dallaire, when speaking of his frustration on the ground in Kigali, drew his hands downward on his face to hide, or confront, his pain, I felt bad about taking the picture. It’s a picture he and I both recall and talked about just a few months ago. It was on that day, Rwanda became important to me.

A soldier’s soldier who could no longer perform. It would be his last foreign posting – depression and a suicide attempt would follow years laterI have always felt the UN sacrificed a nation of poor, black people, because they were poor and black.

Today, it is remarkable to be here and see a country, which continues to deal with the past horrors, but is well on its way to rebuilding itself. Kigali, the capital, is thriving. The very streets, which flowed with blood, are newly paved and remarkably good. There is commerce and the economy is growing. And most importantly, people are no longer identified by a tribal affiliation and the citizens are merely Rwandans.

In fact, Kigali is one of the very few large African cities (and I believe just about the only capital) it is safe to walk at night. The same is true in Butare – Rwanda’s 2nd largest city and home to the National University of Rwanda.

Yes, there are problems here of poverty and reconstruction, but considering the fact the genocide was only 14 years ago, the progress is remarkable.

Where once there was absolutely no Law and Order, today, there are a great deal of rules. One of the more peculiar is the fact pedestrians are not allowed to walk under an open gate across a roadway. Instead, people walking along the road as it enters the NUR must filter thru a narrow area even if no automobiles are present. If one walks across a grass median in the middle of a large boulevard, they are likely to be fined for walking on the grass. Plastic bags are banned in the country (although, considering the environmental hazard they cause, this one is hard to complain about). Moto drivers (motorcycle taxis) are licensed and must carry a helmut for passengers – something unheard of in both the developing and 3rd world countries around the globe.

At the same time, there is a tenderness that can be seen. When two men who are close friends greet each other (at least as I have witnessed in Butare) after not having seen each other for sometime, they put their foreheads upon one another in pure sign of affection and friendship. Kids are anxious to speak French to “umuzungu” as you walk along the street. People are generally friendly and welcoming.

I’ve only been here a week, and have only conducted two classes, but I know my stay here will be something I value very greatly. Even if I get in trouble for not crossing at the crosswalk, or I inadvertently walk under the open road gate, to be here and see a country dealing with the trauma of the recent past is a worthy experience.


Jan 28

 

zandbergen-t Rebecca Zandbergen, 2008

I think Rwanda is a place my mom would like. Girls walk to school in crisp white blouses and blue skirts. Grown men hold hands just because they’re friends. They talk about their faith in God. Worn dirt paths cut through lush, green hillsides. Vested motorcycle drivers hand passengers helmets before leaving the curb. Everyone buckles up the straps. Cars stop at crosswalks to let people saunter across. Plastic bags are illegal.

I spent a few days at a hostel in Johannesburg before I flew to Kigali a couple of weeks ago. Luckily I was away when the lodge was robbed at gunpoint. The owner though, was kicked in the ribs, hit over the head with the butt of a gun and threatened with a long jagged, sharpened piece of steel. The owner then watched the men open my suitcase, and make off with my laptop.

So far, I like Rwanda. In the mornings I walk down Butare’s busy main street and say good morning to people passing by. There are lots of people. Men who struggle to push bicycles loaded with heavy white sacks up the road. University students dressed in shiny shoes and belts. An old man with a hat and a cross around his neck. Women with tubs of sweet bananas balanced on their heads. I don’t know what they think about as they plod along the undulating road. Sometimes I think about what to eat for lunch.

On my first day in Rwanda, a new friend took me to some lovely gardens in Kigali. They’re right outside the Genocide Memorial Centre; so are the mass graves of 250 thousand Rwandans.

Rwanda is new to me. I’ve seen very little of the country and have much to explore and to learn. Even so, I’m here, teaching radio journalism to a class of 22 at the National University of Rwanda. How very lucky I am.