Jul 30

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A 50-year-old, Rwandan man learns to read and write for the first time. A multimedia piece by Phil Carpenter’s students: Theodore, Claver and Rubens at the Great Lakes Media Center in Kigali.


Jul 29

 

jen_blog Jennifer Moroz

Butare, Rwanda
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Being here always reminds me how quickly life moves at home. In Toronto, everyone is always in a hurry. On a schedule. And everything is built around that. We’re all about convenience. Stores are open late. Often 24/7. Life slows down for nothing – not even Christmas, anymore.

Here, life is put on hold for plenty of things.

Umuganda, for one.

For those of you who don’t speak Kinyarwanda (shame on you), umuganda basically means community service. And the last Saturday of every month, people are required to do it.

They pick up garbage. Build houses for the poor. Generally work to make the country better.

And while they’re doing it, everything else comes to a standstill. Nothing is open until 2 pm. Few people are out on the streets. And if they are, they need to have an official letter excusing them from community service – in case they’re stopped.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone participates. Abazungu (foreigners) like me get a pass. And quite a few people, I’ve learned in my three years here, simply hide at home, especially in the cities.

But the point is, even if you’re not participating, you can’t do anything else for AN ENTIRE MORNING.

No shopping. No Internet (because here, getting the Internet involves a trip to the Internet Cafe). No banks. No sports. Nothing.

It’s such a foreign concept to a North American.

I mean, imagine trying to shut down all of Toronto so everyone could do (mandatory) community service?

Forget picking up litter. People would be rioting in the streets.

Saturday morning wasn’t the only time everything shut down this week.

Sunday morning, I headed into town to hit the Cyber Café, and once again, found everything shuttered.

Asking around, I discovered the reason for the shutdown: there was a funeral. A mass one. And officials had ordered everything closed so everyone could pay their respects.

Fifteen years after the genocide, the remains of the slaughtered are still turning up all over the place. Unearthed by farmers. Dug up by construction workers. Uncovered by the rain.

Recently, the bones of 335 people were discovered here in Butare. And much of the town crammed into the stadium for the funeral mass. Then the 335 dead were, 15 years later, finally given a proper burial.

Only then did the town reopen.

Only then, could anyone hit the stores. Or check their e-mail.

If it weren’t for the power outages, that is.

There have been a ton of them this week.

I’ve never experienced anything like it in the three years I’ve been coming here. Three nights in a row, the power has gone out for at least three hours. Twice, it cut out just as we sat down to dinner. A third night, I was at Gymtonic when the sauna went black.

What a relief. I really wasn’t in the mood for aerobics that night.

But what do you know … Gymtonic apparently is one of the few places in town with a backup generator. And within a couple of minutes, Wham was up and playing again.

Getting home afterward was a different matter … At home, summer might be the season of long days, but here, sunset comes at 6 pm all year round. Which means that by 7, it’s pitch black out unless the moon is out. Which it wasn’t, this particular night.

Walking home without some sort of light source was out of the question. So I headed to one of the only other places in town with a generator – the store across the street from Gymtonic – to find a flashlight. I was in luck.

They had one.

They just didn’t have any batteries to go with it.

I was saved in the end by Dominique, the chair of the journalism department, whom I met in the aisle while scrounging around for batteries that didn’t exist. He.took pity on me and drove me home even though he lives at the other end of town.

The rest of the evening, like the other blackout nights, was spent talking with my housemates: Denise, Jim Handman, exec. Producer of Quirks and Quarks, and his partner/fellow CBCer Renee Pellerin. (Margaret has been away visiting her mom in Kampala)

We’ve developed a bit of a blackout tradition. After dinner, we sit around in a living room semi-lit by the fluorescence of lamps Jim and Renee bought for reading. (Even when there IS electricity, the lights are pretty dim). The house ends up looking a bit like a shady meth lab. And we sit around talking in our meth lab. Or listening to African tunes or CCR on Jim’s iPod.

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Or marking assignments by headlamp. Yeah, I’m talking about those geeky lights you strap around your forehead that make you look bloody ridiculous unless you’re in a mine shaft.

Even then, I think it’s debatable.

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But whenever I wear it, Jim seems to get a huge kick out of it. So at least I’m providing some entertainment.

I tell you … there’s nothing like a good blackout to bring the family together.

In fact, whether it’s because of umuganda, a funeral or a power outage, the sense of community here really is much stronger than at home.

There is no brushing people aside here, saying “I’m in a hurry, can’t stop to chat.” No matter what you’re on the way to, there’s always time for a proper greeting.

Case in point: As I was walking back to the house the other day with a guy from Gymtonic, we were stopped about every 100 yards by someone wanting to say hi.

After the third person, Eagle (yes, his name is Eagle) turned to me and said: “Sorry. I know you don’t do this at home. But here, we have to stop to greet each other. It’s part of our culture.”

No apology necessary, I told him. It’s kind of nice that people make time for each other here.

Even if it means that they’re consistently at least a half hour late to everything … Including meetings with me.


Jul 29

 

jim_blog Jim Handman

In the past two days, I have had the pleasure of experiencing two of Rwanda’s great past times: watching football and drinking beer. Now, you might say that nothing is more Canadian than watching football and drinking beer. But in this case, the football is actually soccer, and the beer is actually banana beer – made by nuns.

First the football. On Monday, we began to notice the signs of a big football match early in the day. Our house is next-door to a small motel with a Chinese restaurant (go figure) – and at noon, a very large bus pulled up outside and dislodged dozens of athletic-looking young men. We thought is might be a sports team. Then later in the day, as I was sitting in the internet café on the main street, with the door open to the outside, I could see and hear several mini-buses roaring down the street, horns honking loudly, and filled with people in Halloween-like masks leaning out the windows screaming in Kinyarwanda (reminiscent of Toronto louts screaming “Arrr-gohhhhhs” out of cars on Yonge Street in Toronto).

Then suddenly a young blonde muzungu woman came running into the café and yelled at another young muzungu beside me, “Come on – the game begins at 3.” It was five minutes before 3pm. I now realized that something big was happening at the stadium that lies mid-way between our home and the town.

So we quickly left the café and headed up the road to towards the stadium. The first thing we noticed were all the young men in the trees that line the road. These are very high trees – and they were filled with people – all the way to the top. They obviously hoped to get a free view of the stadium from the treetops. Some trees contained up to a dozen young men – as high as 50 feet in the air. Many had climbed up wearing only flip-flops on their feet. They cheered and waved when I took their pictures.

Then we arrived to a scene of total chaos and confusion at the stadium entrance. Barbed wire lined a path that led to the entrance, and hundreds of very young boys gathered along the outside of the fence. On the inside, people with tickets were being roughly pushed though a narrow doorway, that clanged shut every few minutes. The bouncers at the door would suddenly strike at someone in the line for no apparent reason, and then let several others in. On the outside of the wire fence, a woman in uniform kept threatening the kids who were trying to sneak in. Inside the wire, the bouncers would occasionally allow a bunch of young ruffians through the door – while beating them on the legs with his baton. The stadium was surrounded by a brick wall, about 3 metres high, with guards standing on top, armed with wooden sticks. Every few minutes, someone would try to scale the wall and be beaten back by the sentries.

We decided to try our chances at going in. But we couldn’t see anywhere to buy a ticket – and frankly, the gates of hell that loomed ahead were just a bit intimidating. Just then, we spotted one of our journalism students, Adolphe, who was covering the match for Radio Salus. He explained that this was a crucial match for the local Premier League team, Mukura, which was playing APR, the Rwandan Army team. The winner would go to Kigali for the season Cup final. He helped us buy tickets from a man standing amid the crowd, and ushered us towards the door to the stadium. There was a chaotic crush of humanity pressed against the door – and the bouncers seemed to arbitrarily allow a couple of people in at a time, while harshly shoving away others. We feared that the claustrophobic crush would continue on the other side of the door, and briefly considered giving up and turning back. But the bouncers spotted us and ushered us quickly through the door and into the open grassy field at one end of the stadium. The game was well underway, with the home team behind 1-0. The limited stands were full, so we stood on the backfield and enjoyed the action.

We stayed for a while – the only visible muzungu among many hundreds of Rwandans. But we left before the game ended. When we returned to our house, we continued to hear loud cheers from the not so distant stadium for more than an hour. It ended, apparently, in a 1-1 tie – but Mukura will go to the final, based on a complicated scoring formula. Yay, Butare.

Then the beer. On Tuesday evening, another student, named Oswald, invited us for “nuns banana beer.” We had heard of this exotic and mythical brew – but didn’t know where to find it. We now discover that in Butare town lies a small convent where the nuns brew beer made from bananas. We had read about this kind of beer while visiting the National Museum of Rwanda in Butare, which had a display that explained how farmers ferment and brew a powerful beer from bananas. They make it in pits dug in the ground. We were fairly sure that the nuns used a more hygienic and modern method – but we couldn’t be sure. Our students had told us that the government wanted to crack down on farmers making banana beer, because many people had become sick from it. But we took our chances and headed off in the early evening for the convent.

The convent is a non-descript low brick building, surrounded by the ubiquitous brick wall, not far off the main street. There is an unmarked narrow black door in the wall. We enter and are immediately ushered into a tiny, dark, shabby, rundown room, with benches or old torn couches on 3 sides, and the door on the fourth side. We catch a glimpse of an older nun outside in the courtyard – but she scurries away. The walls of the room are bare and streaked with age and dirt, the lighting is dim, the couch is well worn. A young man comes in with a tray containing 3 glasses and an uncorked bottle the size of a wine bottle. It contains a thick, opaque, yellowish-brown liquid, which Oswald pours into our glasses. It tastes both sweet and sour – with a very strong alcohol flavour. A bit like unfiltered apple juice combined with a healthy dose of vodka. We drink quietly, as the room fills up suddenly with many more people – four on either side of us. We are now 11 people in this tiny warm box of a room – with everyone quietly and somberly consuming their beer and saying little. It’s not exactly a party atmosphere. A friend of Oswald’s comes in and squeezes onto our 3-seat couch, which already contains 3 of us. We strike up a conversation with the 4 young men to our left. They are all computer science students at the university, and want to talk about the global recession. We are impressed with their knowledge and curiosity.

We finish the bottle among 3 of us, and I can feel the effect already. We walk out into the darkness that has quickly descended while we were inside, and head home – satisfied that we have experienced a unique Rwandan ritual.


Jul 28

 

amy_blog Amy Dempsey

Urunana is a popular Kinyarwanda radio soap opera that has been entertaining Rwandans and educating them about sexual and reproductive health for more than a decade.

It is also a development organization that does community outreach. About once a month the actors and staff get on a bus and bring their show to a chosen village for the day.

I spent last Saturday with the Urunana team in Nyabitare, a village in Rwanda’s eastern province. These are some of the photos I took, followed by a radio piece I produced for Contact FM.

Urunana actors perform their first skit, to the delight of hundreds of Nyabitare citizens.

Urunana actors perform their first skit, to the delight of hundreds of Nyabitare citizens.

In this skit, a child cuts her hand on a dirty needle and is taken to the hospital.

In this skit, a child cuts her hand on a dirty needle and is taken to the hospital.

All eyes are on the wooden stage, but some children are distracted by cameras.

All eyes are on the wooden stage, but children tend to get distracted by cameras.

Claudine Mujawimana, 27, learned about family planning from Urunana.

Claudine Mujawimana, 27, learned about family planning from listening to Urunana's radio program.

Sandra Mukantwari, 17, says the lessons she learned from Urunana helped her stay in school.

Sandra Mukantwari, 17, is studying to be a teacher. She says Urunana taught her that health and school should be her top priorities.


Jul 27

 

andreanne_blog Andréanne Baribeau

Rwanda is currently in the midst of its hottest and driest season of the year. For the population of this landlocked country, accessing clean, drinkable water can be a daily struggle. I visited the district of Rubavu, in the Western Province, to study the water situation in rural areas. I prepared this audio slideshow (in French).


Jul 25

 

mariah_blog Mariah Griffin-Angus

I wrote this post during my first week here but due to technical troubles, I have not been able to post until now. Hopefully my future posts will be more current.

It has been over a week now since I’ve arrived in Rwanda. Much like my previous trips, it has been a week full of unexpected challenges and surprises. I suspect this trip is quite different for me than it is for other interns of the Rwanda Initiative. For one, I have a profound hearing loss. The usual language barriers become magnified in the face of accents and foreign languages. It has not been a serious problem before but Rwanda poses a unique challenge in that more people seem to speak French than English. I speak only limited French- learning a secondary language has been a distant priority for me as keeping up in English is hard enough! Regardless, with the help of my dad who sends little French tutorial lessons by email, I am attempting to learn some French.

So far, it has been met with limited success. My conversations with moto drivers have been filled with confusion (on both sides), shakes of the head and furrowed brows. Luckily though, I have not gotten lost yet (knock on wood!), so I must be doing something right.

With my some-what limited ability to speak French and understand accents, I’ve often resorted to watching the conversations around me to figure out what is happening. I think people find it strange that I’m so quiet but for me, it’s how I keep up. By watching for body language and visual cues, I find I can pick up cues that tell me what people are talking about, how they are approaching the issue, and often how they feel. I always wonder if I’m coming off as rude or aloof in my silence but I also wonder how to explain my deafness. Deafness is not easily explainable- I can hear but not everything. Some people are easier to understand than others. Background noise makes conversation more difficult. Blasting blues music in a bar in Nyamata makes conversation impossible!

So maybe it’s ironic that I ended up on a communications project, but I am excited by the challenge. I start work on Monday with a social communications organization that focuses on HIV/AIDS and related issues. Despite being a policy student, I will be largely working on communications/journalism projects. My bosses, Alison and Assoumani, were delighted to hear that I possessed a laptop with magazine layout software so I will be designing and editing a magazine aimed at youth. We will be venturing out to the countryside to conduct interviews and take photos for the magazine. It will be interesting to see how this will pan out with the language differences. The sounds of Kinyarwanda and French, the red, red soil beneath my feet and the zipping sounds of the motos all remind me of how far from home I am. At the same time, the Rwanda Initiative is about communicating despite these differences- maybe even because of these differences- and so I begin my journey of learning with my ear to the ground.


Jul 24

 

jen_blog Jennifer Moroz

Butare, Rwanda
Friday, July 24, 2009

It’s no secret that Rwanda has high hopes for its future. President Kagame’s Vision 2020 plan is an ambitious one, laying out a slew of improvements he wants put in place over the next decade.

I don’t know whether it’s all a result of that vision, but change here is happening fast.

I’ve already talked about the switch to English-language instruction.

But there’s a lot of other big changes afoot.

Rwanda recently joined the East African Community, linking it with Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya.

Next up: Linking Rwanda with the rest of the world.

See, Kagame is bent on making Rwanda an African leader in IT. And to that end, the government has launched what it calls the National Backbone project — a massive initiative to wire the entire country. It involves laying more than 2,000 km of high-speed fiber optic cable.

In a country where many rural areas don’t even have electricity.

But I digress …

This week, the backbone project came to Butare.

All along the main street, workers toiled in a line, digging trenches a metre deep to drop the cable into. It really was amazing to watch. Here they were laying the high-tech future of the country using the most low-tech means available, tearing away at the ground with pickaxes. I cringed more than once at the thought of a pickaxe landing in the wrong place. Namely, on someone’s bare foot. Because not one of the workers had shoes on – never mind workboots.

In fact, all kinds of construction projects have cropped up all over the place. In Kigali, the old supermarket in the Union Trade Centre downtown has been completely revamped and now sells everything you could possibly imagine, from Jack Daniels to tricycles. And the slums that last year clung to a hillside just outside Kigali’s downtown core have been razed – and their inhabitants forcibly moved to the outskirts of town – to make way for a major new commercial development.

Yup, gentrification has come to Rwanda.

Meanwhile, Safari has gone.

Safari was the only nightclub in town my first year here. But last year, a new club – the catchily-named Melo-Twist – opened, and started siphoning business away in a big way. This year, market stalls now occupy the space where sweaty bodies once pressed up against each other on Safari’s dingy dancefloor.

Sad, in a way.

But there have been some good changes in town, too.

Like the fact there’s a whole lot more red wine around.

My first year here, if you wanted a glass of red, some plonk called Regina was basically your only choice. These days, the stores are stocking at least five varieties.

And that’s not all.

Coke Zero has come to Butare!

I never thought I’d see the day.

But it doesn’t end there, my friends.

Matar, the Lebanese-owned supermarket, now has a little restaurant. That does take-out.

Takeout!

The menu includes salads, quesadillas, burgers, pizza.

And Philly cheesesteaks.

I couldn’t help teasing Tariq, Matar’s owner, about that one.

Philly cheesesteaks? I asked. In Butare?

Are they authentic? I prodded.

Yup, Tariq assured me. Totally authentic.

You’re talking to someone who lived in Philly for seven years, I told him. Are you sure that’s your final answer?

Yup, he said. They’re the real thing.

Hmmm. We’ll see about that. I don’t think I have to tell you I’m more than a little skeptical …


Jul 22

 

jim_blog Jim Handman

As you drive the highways of Rwanda, either by bus or car, the most prominent feature you notice are the people walking on the roads. The highways (which are among the best in Africa) are absolutely thronged with people – men, women, children – all of them walking to somewhere.

In a country where very, very few can afford to own a car, or even take a bus, people must walk … to work, to get water, to do their laundry, to get food. And that often means carrying a lot with you. So the highways are not only lined with people on the move, but many of them are carrying huge loads – on their heads.

The women – and it is primarily women – walk tall and straight, balancing extraordinary bundles on their heads: huge pottery urns, large plastic pales overflowing with vegetables, yellow plastic cans containing water, bundles of firewood, piles of clothing, enormous bags of rice or potatoes. And the men balance long sticks of wood, sticking out several feet in front and behind. And there are no shoulders on these highways – the people are on the highway itself. As your car or bus approaches, the driver will honk the horn – not to threaten the walkers, but rather to warn them not to stray into the path of the vehicle. Often you can see the women with their heavy loads heading up a rough, uneven, rocky path that leads off the highway to an unseen village – all the while, balancing these awkward bundles on their heads. It is an amazing feat of agility and grace.

In addition to the hordes of walkers on the highway are the bicycles. But very few of them carry just a cyclist. They also carry furniture, bags of food, giant metal milk cans, building materials, pipes, and even a couch. On the steeper slopes, the bicycles and their lopsided loads are pushed uphill.

The yellow plastic water can is ubiquitous. And more often than not, it is carried by children. Most families must walk long distances every day to get their drinking water from a communal tap or stream. In the old days, women would carry large, heavy clay pots on their heads to get the water. But the introduction of the light and portable plastic can revolutionized their lives. Now children – even young children – could go fetch the water, freeing up the women to take care of the other many chores in their lives.

The situation is not unique to Rwanda. Ryszard Kapuscinski, the late, great Polish foreign correspondent and writer, has called Africa a continent on the move. Refugees from wars, people seeking work, people seeking food, people seeking a mate, people walking hundreds of kilometers to attend a funeral or wedding – everywhere you look, people walking, walking, walking.


Jul 21

 

kristen_postshot Kristen Shane

I wrote this on my last full day in Rwanda, the end of almost two months of interning with the Rwanda Initiative. That was at the end of June. I am back in Canada now…wishing I was still in Kigali.

As I sit on a wicker chair on the large covered porch at the Rwanda Initiative house and look out over Kigali’s hills, I feel a pang of sadness. I don’t want to leave. There are so many things I love about this country:

-The sun. It’s a month into the dry season, which will last until October. I assumed it just meant the days would be more sunny than rainy. It turns out it means it never rains. That’s perfect for me. I’ve slashed my morning prep time by 10 minutes because I don’t have to worry about what to wear – the weather is always the same.

-Life, slow motion. Things run at a relaxed pace. Maybe it’s because of the constant heat, but people don’t walk as fast. They take their time.

I’ve heard both locals and expatriates speak of “African time,” a euphemism for lateness. Concerts start hours after they were scheduled, restaurant food may take an hour or more to be served.

It can be frustrating, but at the same time it is a nice change of pace from the manic motion of Canadian cities, where people are always rushing from Point A to Point B.

-The closeness of people. The climate is warm and dry so people tend to spend a lot more time with each other outdoors.

I walk by a slum on my way home from work and see residents lined up at a communal water station, filling their jerry cans.

I very often see neighbours gathered outside stores, just sitting and talking. Few people keep a television or computer at home, so they pass the time by keeping each other company.

It’s not just the sense of community here that is stronger; people seem to be more physically close as well.

Step onto a Toronto subway and you will see people spread out, deliberately keeping their distance.

Minibuses here are packed to capacity. Personal space is not an option. Arms, hips and bums squish together.

People aren’t afraid to touch each other. They shake hands every time they meet. Even two men sometimes hold hands. It’s accepted as a sign of friendship without the homosexual overtones Canadians might read into it.

-Non-verbal communication. Rwandans hiss at each other. It shocked me, at first. I thought it was rude.

But I learned hissing is a simple, effective and wordless way to catch someone’s attention, especially if you don’t know their name. The only drawback is that if you hear someone hiss in a crowded street, it’s hard to know who they mean to contact.

I’m also convinced that Rwandans have perfected the art of a wordless conversation. While Canadians might occasionally say “Mmhmm,” instead of “Yes,” Rwandans have a multitude of mouth sounds to mean “Yes,” “No,” “I understand,” “Pardon,” and other simple messages. I have overheard people on their phones have whole conversations without saying much more than four words – the rest are grunts and sounds. Some might say it seems ‘primitive,’ but I think it’s smart. Who needs words when you can communicate with the universal language of sound?

-The landscape. I was left awestruck two weeks ago as I rode a minibus back to Kigali after a daytrip to a village. The bus was driving through a swampy valley as the sun set over the hills in the distance. The sky was streaked with gold, pink and orange, as mist settled in the valley. It was breathtaking.

I marvel at the amazing use of land here. The undulating earth is no match for people-power. Even the steepest hills are terraced for cultivation. As I hiked up an ancient volcano a few weeks ago, I noticed rows of Irish potatoes planted along the way. Every hill is a unique patchwork of varied terraced crops – a sight to behold.

Perhaps one day, I will come back to see this land again.


Jul 21

 

chloe_blog Chloé Fedio

Kimihurura.
That’s where I live.
One of Kigali’s many K neighbourhoods.

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I only know very basic Kinyarwanda.
Muraho (Hello), Amakuru (How are you?), Murakoze (Thank you).
But if there were a Rwandan version of Scrabble, I am sure there would be more than one K.

This morning I set off to the Rwanda Women’s Network in Kicukiro.
I see a motto sitting idle a few feet away from my driveway.
“I’m going to Kicukiro. Near the World Food Programme and Contact FM.”
He nods.
“500.”
He nods again.

And we’re off.
In the direction of Kacyiru.
A different route?
He would know better than me.
Right?

I sit silently on the back of the motto watching as we drive further and further away from my destination.
Finally, I lean forward, my bulky green helmet almost bumping into his.
“Contact FM. Tu connais Contact FM? Près du World Food Programme?”

We’re approaching a traffic circle.
As we round the bend he turns his head.
“World Food Programme,” he says, this time with a flash of recognition in his eyes, “Kicukiro.”

Did I pronounce it differently this time?
We change course — down a hill then up another.
The wind blows gently as we drive from a paved road onto one of Kigali’s many dirt roads.
Almost there.

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Today’s blog post has been brought to you by the letter K.

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