Hadeel Al-Shalchi's Blog
July 10, 2006 — New canadians
New Canadians Kurtis, Natasha and Vanessa all arrived over the past couple of days, so we’re a full house right now. V and N have to share a bed while I’m here actually. We’re all very happy this morning. Kurt lost his luggage on the first day he got here – it apparently didn’t make it on the plane and he had to hand wash his clothes to wear the next day, poor guy. But when we went to pick up V and N, his bag was there! So he’s enjoying options in clothing and shoes. Sagal and I are extra happy today because for the first time since we got here, we smell and feel very clean. Another reason why we were ALL happy Kurt’s bag’s came in last night. His mom sent us some Dove shower gel, Dove body lotion and Calgon body spray, gum, AND Kurt’s sister sent us some trashy celebrity magazines. I took a very long shower last night in hot water. I scrubbed three times and moisturized twice. Kurt’s mom, Cathy, is our new best friend. Sagal and I are sitting here at home, blogging and working, and smelling ourselves. Today is a day of orientation for the newbies… and then tonight: FINAL WORLD CUP
Another heart attack
Goodbye cruel world Everyday Sagal and I stare death in the face. We wake up in the morning, shower in ice cold water, change, have a meager breakfast and tea while watching very old episodes of Family Guy on my computer, then haul ourselves up the steep hill we live at the bottom of, and then hail two motorcycle to take us to work. We really should walk or take the minibus, but we usually stay up so late the night before we end up sleeping in and the motos are so, so fast. But like I said, we risk our lives instead. We hail one of these parka-wearing, ripe-smelling, dusty-faced moto drivers with a robust hissing sound and agree to pay 200 francs (40 cents US) to take us to work. Helmet optional. The ride starts off with a jump into oncoming traffic of pick up trucks, Jeeps, 4x4’s and other motos and cars. All vehicles spew out thick, black exhaust that you can actually feel getting glued to your face, clothes, under your nails. And, oh ya, lungs. The actual ride becomes exhilarating as soon as the moto driver finds his way through the madness. The roads really aren’t that busy because there aren’t that many cars in Rwanda, but when a minibus driving at top speed almost brushes your thigh as you whiz between a taxi and the bus, you can taste your heart. There is a big roundabout that our road branches into. Going round this bend is heart wrenching. Sagal today said she felt she needed to balance the wheel alignment of the motorcycle by shifting her weight behind the driver. The scariest thing about taking a moto is anticipating the bumps and potholes in the road. At the speed we ride at, the potholes come racing towards you and you have to hang on to dear life as your eyes are forced shut because of the speed of the wind. Once you reach the destination, you feel like giving the driver more money than the ride was worth just to say thanks for not killing me. That’s one thing I’m going to miss the most about Kigali.
July 6, 2006 — On heart attacks
So I just rid the world of one of the largest roaches on the face of the planet. It was at least 5 lbs and 6 inches long (exaggerating just a little). We just got home from watching the France-Portugal match and Sagal and I were lounging in my room, she on my bed, me on the extra bed. Suddenly a big brown item started running across the wall behind Sagal. I just stopped talking, inhaled sharply and pointed behind her. Without thinking twice, Sagal flew off the bed and was out of the hallway screaming. She knew what was coming. We both ran outside screeching like schoolgirls. The next few minutes we just stood in the hall peering into the room hyperventilating as this massive creature explored the wall of MY ROOM. It was literally gigantic. After many minutes of freaking out, we decided the best solution was to spray it down with DEET. 30% DEET is serious stuff and if we’re not really supposed to inhale it, the roach will definitely die. I waited for it to crawl on over to my side of the room and then I let it have it. Screaming while pressing down on the DEET can the thing just wouldn’t die!! I kept spraying and spraying as the roach scuttled towards me as I ran backwards. Finally it reached close to my leg and I let out a massive scream, raised my leg and let it have it. It crunched, and I almost slipped on the trail of DEET I left on the ground during my spraying fest. You don’t understand: this was absolutely traumatizing. Sagal and I just ran into the living room and hyperventilated for five minutes. Make that ten. I was close to barfing and crying at the same time. It was absolutely disgusting. Then came the part we all love most – PICKING THE SUCKER UP AND INTO THE GARBAGE. I nearly wet myself. But with a lot of toilet paper scrunched up into a ball, I pinched the insect and trashed it. It was horrific, just horrific.
Before all this drama, we went to this mall called the MTN centre to watch the France-Portugal game. That was some intense stuff. Football is such theatre in this country. When someone scores (especially when it was an African team) you can hear the entire city roar with cheering. If you’re sitting at home, the sounds travel into your home notifying you of a goal. If you’re actally at a restaurant watching the game, people start to scream and roar and cheer loudly in support of their respective teams. When Italy beat Germany, guys took their shirts off and started running around the mall like banshees. When France won last night (it’s surprising how many people support France here – it’s mainly because of the team made almost completely of Africans) people hugged and kissed and pumped their arms in the air thanking the lord Jesus Christ. It was such a fabulous atmosphere. Sagal and I are hugely addicted to soccer now. We plan our days around where we’re going to watch the game and with whom. Last night was a disappointing night; I was supporting Portugal who lost. Sagal and I pick our teams based on the politics of the country and not on any merit or playing skills.
Who gets a cold in Africa?
Me, that’s who. For those who follow this blog, you may know that I am always sick. I’ve had a cold every other month since January. So, of course it’s only appropriate that I get a cold in the middle of my adventures in Rwanda. It crept on me during lunch on Wednesday, and by the time we took Susannah to the airport (she’s back at home! We really miss her out here actually) it was a full blown cold. I couldn’t go in to work on Thursday or Friday and I’m feeling sorry for myself. Oh, and I’M WEARING A FLEECE IN AFRICA. Can you believe it? WHO WEARS A FLEECE IN AFRICA? Still my adventures refused to stop just because I have a cold. Oh no. On the first day of my cold, Thursday, the gas tank decides to die and run out. That’s the gas tank to boil water on the stove – the same tank that will boil water so I can have a hot drink to soothe my burning throat and pounding head and aching limbs. Yes. So, Hadeel has to find a way to get this gas tank filled. I promptly try to use the assistance of our house girl, Delphine, she calls her friend who knows someone who knows someone who can help us out but it’ll cost us FORTY THOUSAND RWANDAN FRANCS. That’s 80 bucks – American. Did I mention we’re really poor and becoming increasingly broke as our stay in Rwanda goes forward? Ya – very much so. Anyway, after haggling and having Sagal go into work and inquire a bit more, we realize this is the only way we’re getting any gas in this house to cook with. So after hours of our poor house girl gallivanting downtown to find this friend who can help us, he ends up coming to our house to PICK UP THE TANK to fill it up with gas. And we’re 80 bucks short. But at least I got a hot drink. I am so sick. And now so is Sagal. So we’re the saddest foreigners on this continent at the moment. Ok, not saddest, saddest but pretty pathetic.
In our ill state, Sagal and I have been pathetically reminiscing on some of the comforts of our lives back at home. What we’d do for a cold glass of milk that doesn’t smell like the plastic it came in, some green Trident, and high speed internet that doesn’t take 5 minutes for a page to load up. But in our pathetic state, I have come to a very important realization – I love my life and honestly have nothing to complain about. I feel like it will be necessary to come back to Rwanda every six months just to remember not to take things I have at home for granted. And I’m not talking about conveniences like chocolate, drive thru coffee, or a cell phone plan – I’m talking about basics: hot showers, electricity. I have such an easy life – deciding to go to school or not, a clean house with no roaches, consistent power, air conditioning, a car, a family. This trip has been like a fantasy life for me.
But I need a mall. Oh my God, I can’t believe I just said that, but yes – I need a mall.
On body image
I think I’m officially moving to Africa very soon. Not because of the impeccable weather, or the friendly people, or the food (definitely not for the food). Instead I have decided this is the best place on earth to live because it is excellent for a woman’s self-image. People in Africa totally have it right – they think the Western ideal of a scrawny woman is horrific and that the chubbier the woman the more beautiful she is. My self-esteem has never been better! I have literally gone from feeling crappy about my weight every day of my life to actually thinking that it may be alright to accept my self the way I am. I haven’t fretted about being overweight or unattractive or embarrassing because people here see nothing wrong with being a little chubby. They don’t make fat people social outcasts and they don’t make fun of them. They don’t have the social pressures that we live under in the West of equating beauty with being thin. The women here are so liberated from this issue that they talk about weight and being fat like it’s the most casual topic on earth. And coming from a society where every girl in the office is counting calories or points and watching the scale, IT IS SO LIBERATING.
And what a revelation. To think that women back home walk around feeling ugly because they have a few extra pounds, they count calories, points and God knows what else and even the men have started to prefer thinner girls. What a cage we live in...
i think it's time to move here...
I am sometimes afraid my memories of Rwanda will fade away quickly. That’s why I sometimes gaze at the view for longer than usual, trying to make sure I memorize the setting and the feelings.
One memory that I’m not worried about losing happened after Susannah and I left after the church service last Sunday. The church was close to the heart of Kigali, surrounded by clusters of poor neighborhoods. Dilapidated as they were, the homes stacked on top of each other formed a sort of cone as they grew up a hill. We decided to walk home after the church service and discover some of these neighborhoods. We came across a broken minibus that was balanced on a rock. It was rusty, an eyesore in the middle of the road. To its right was a thin path that led into a neighborhood. Adults and children walked down this path to the main road we were walking on. We realized that if we followed the path we’d eventually reach another main road which could lead us home. So we did it – walked right up the path. At the beginning of this path was this broken minibus plus other car parts: a broken truck, the face of a car. And in between these vehicle pieces was a clothes line… people… children… a family was obviously using these cars as shelter. To the right of this scene was a large garbage dump. A putrid smell met our nostrils as plastic bags, bottles, and other refuse swam in a pool of dirty water. A thin, filthy stream of brown water was running through this dump. Amidst the garbage, a woman was bent over cleaning her children’s clothes in this stream. Wearing a white T-shirt and wrapped in a red African cloth around her waist, she would stand straight from time to time to wipe her brow or perhaps relax her back muscles. Then she would deftly bend over and scrub away at the clothes. Past this dump was the beginning of the actual neighborhood. Susannah and I had to jump over some rocks, and broken bits of path to get by. It seemed to have had rivulets of water run through it because it seemed eaten away. As soon as we walked by the houses, a gaggle of children spotted the foreigners and ran to greet us. Muzugu! Muzungu! they all shouted and we had to shake all their hands. They followed us up the pathway into their neighbourhood and wanted to get their photos taken. Some were shy and hid behind their siblings or poles holding up the buildings. All were either barefoot or wearing ripped flip-flops with torn, dirty T-shirts and dusty shorts. Their legs, arms, faces were dusted with the red dirt on the ground, some mixed with snot, some visibly hungry. They all smiled and laughed and pranced expertly up the broken path as our guides. They screamed with glee when we turned around and played with them and a group of girls nursing their (white) doll wanted to show her off to us. The homes on either side were broken, dark, damp and putrid. Many had a simple sheet of cloth as a door, others had holes for windows and none had electricity (or probably any running water). Most were made with clay, some were just propped up by pieces of corrugated sheet metal. Some of the adults emerged from these homes to stare at the foreigners walking through their street (one man who was passing through hurriedly snapped a photo of us with his cell phone in disbelief). The kids just kept following us and playing with us until we got to the main road. I am ashamed to admit that the smell - poverty, dirty laundry and body odour - made me feel sick to my stomach all day. It's something I never experienced and something I can't forget.
June 24, 2006 — Some headway
I think we made some headway with the newspaper yesterday. The Canadians held a workshop that was supposed to focus on leads and writing intros, but ended up being a frank debate about what makes a story a story and how to focus a story. The journalists were so intensely concentrating on what we were telling them (especially when I went on a rant about how YOU CANNNOT MAKE UP QUOTES or misspell people's names! yes this happens ALL THE TIME). We talked about reputation, journalism and ethics and the credibility of the paper. We also had a debate when talking about journalism in Africa versus the West. It came up when we were doing a lead exercise about a story where a minister gave all this money to genocide widows. I suggested at the end of the discussion that the more fascinating story would be to focus on the widows and what they could now actually do with all this money - obviously mentioning the minister and his quotes. But everyone started talking about how "we're in Africa here;" "widows don't read so why would we write about them;" and "here our focus is on the glorificatin of the leader..." All three of us Canadians sort of just stared and didn't know what else to say. They were kind of saying "sorry, your way doesn't work here..." and all of a sudden I felt a little powerless. But quickly the conversation was saved by an editor who made a mini speech about it being in their power to change things and that it was in their hands as a)Africans, and b) responsible journalists to change the way they write stories and to shape journalism. Phew. So we started just talking about how "we" would do things in Canada and how we could merge them with the African traditions.
Otherwise things are going very smoothly. It's funny because I almost forget what everyday life is like in Ottawa. I'm getting very used to the way things work here - taking the motorbikes to plcaes, eating matokay (plantain), and shaking hands with everyone a million times upong arrival and departure. The weather is also AMAZING. It's so cool all the time, with a beautiful real sunshine.
June 18, 2006 — Orphan boy
I feel like my life is an adventure every single day in this country. I don’t even know where to start... with the lost child we found on our couch when we arrived from Butare, or the fact we hadn’t showered in three days, or maybe how there has been no electricity in our neighbourhood for a week, or how an old Muslim lady called up the Mufti of Rwanda and made me chat with him in her living room. Let’s start with coming back from Butare on Thursday afternoon….
Susannah and I paid $3 to ride a bus called the Volcano Bus from Butare into Kigali on Thursday afternoon. The ride was smooth and not as dangerous as our taxi ride into Butare four days earlier. The only rule to driving in this country is don’t hit anything. Otherwise, the road is yours to conquer. Kinyarwanda music blared from the radio and lulled Susannah and I in and out of sleep for the two hours back home. The bus pulled into the alleyway of a station in town and we were immediately mobbed by taxi drivers offering us a ride for Frw3000 ($6) to Frw2000 ($4) – an outrageous sum obviously imposed because of our skin colour. Even though we had a long and tiring trip we were stubborn enough not to pay that much – we wanted a ride for Frw1500 ($3) and nothing more. So, lugging our massive backpacks and shopping in hand, we called our friend the taxi driver who took 20 minutes to arrive at the side of the dusty town streets, attracting the glares and stares of bewildered locals.
After another twenty minutes to our house from town (and after paying the $3) we dragged our reeking, sweaty bodies into an electricity-less home to find a lanky child laying face down on our couch in the living room… at first Susannah and I thought this was perhaps our housekeeper’s nephew or brother. Nope —- Delphine explained one of our coworkers at the newspaper found this child loitering outside our home and brought him. The boy could only speak Kinyarwanda and had never been to school. Working through translation, Delphine deciphered the boy was an orphan who lived in Byumba with his brothers, and had walked all the way into Kigali to look for his older sister who he wanted to buy him some new clothes…. Ummmm, and how did he get in OUR house? We called our coworker who found him and she explained that we should keep him in our house for “a few days” and that she wanted to write a story about him to hopefully find his family. A few days! A lost child in our house! Um, no. We called back our taxi driver and promptly drove to the neighbouring cop shop. After a bit of back and forth the police said we could keep him in our house for however long we wanted and they’d give us a call if they found his family. The poor boy (his name is Gilles) just stood there sucking on a lollipop we gave him. We eventually left him at the police station hoping they’d be able to locate his family…
At this point we were ready to give up our passports for a shower. But of course there was no hot water since the power was out in our area for a week. Cold showers were the order of the day. No matter – we slept clean and fed that night in a very dark home. Showering is such an adventure here also. Here are some steps to do so:
Turn tap on in bathtub and allow water to gain momentum. If hot water is available, then extend waiting time by at least another 5 minutes. Please remember you are in Kigali and gushing, running, balanced temperature, and other things you would assume come with a shower. If it close to scalding, trickling, or dripping quickly that’s your cue to start get in the tub.
Strip and get your feet a bit wet.
Showers are not installed over head, you must hold it in your hand.
Squat because pressure decreases once the telephone shower reaches above knee height.
Turn knob to allow telephone shower to start. Again, do not expectgushing or a consistent stream of water. Trickling, dripping, temperature changes and sputtering is normal.
If showering in cold water, hold telephone shower in your hand while squatting, and mentally prepare for what’s coming. You may want to say a mantra or pep talk yourself. Thoughts of giving up, weeping like a baby, or calling for your mother will cross your mind. Ignore them. This is just your spoilt Canadian brain playing tricks on you. You can do it.
Slowly adapt your body to the water by running water on your self. If showering in cold water, screaming is acceptable.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
On Friday went to pray in the big mosque in Nyamirambo again on myown. On my way home, I got a bit lost on my way back in town. I walked into another mosque in town and asked for directions, and of course gathered some curiosity as to who I was. Someone eventually brought me the imam of the mosque and I expressed an interest in knowing more about the community here and what they did. He told me to wait for a moment, introduced me to a bunch of people, then after a lot of phone calling and Kinyarwanda chatter, a taxi pulled up and I was being told to get in. I was to be taken to the grand lady of the Muslim community herself – Maman Ibrahim. You can imagine my perplexity at this time… I tried to make my excuses but everyone got confused it was just easier for me to go where they wanted to take me. The car drove me all the way BACK into Nyamirambo and to a small house in front of the mosque I had just returned from. I was ushered into this large, clean, obviously poor home where a lady in hijab welcomed me so heartily. Maman Ibrahim turned out to be the president of many Muslim organizations in Rwanda, but especially active in women’s issues. Speaking through her son as translator, she told me how excited she was to see a Muslim from <outside>, that not many Muslim women from outside came to visit Rwanda. I was introduced to the whole household and was invited to a wedding on June 25 at the mosque! She was so eager to introduce me to the mufti of Rwanda that she called him on her little cell phone and made me chat with him for a few minutes. It was too surreal!
Next time… a Rwandan confirmation party and more news!
June 15, 2006 — On religion
Second week in Rwanda and it feels like I’ve been here at least a month. So many new experiences and meeting new people and learning new things have crammed my days that I even sleep better at night than I did in Ottawa. I am in Butare at the moment which is the second largest city in Rwanda but perhaps ¼ the size of Kanata. It is basically one long strip of road with houses and shops on either side. Very quaint, but I think the other students I came with and I prefer the business of Kigali and it’s pace of life.
I went to the local market on my own a couple of days ago here in Butare and that was an experience and a half. I bargained for some gorgeous African fabrics (8 bucks for pieces enough to make a skirt or a shirt). The market is basically made up of many tired looking vendors reselling what look like aide package clothing and other items. The fabric vendors have the most beautiful display of material with colourful, crazy patterns that sometimes looks like someone must have been high while designing them. I bought a material to make a skirt that has maybe 4 massive bright yellow rattles on a dark brown background - yes rattles! It’s amazing. While walking through the fabric aisles, the vendors were rushing to get their wares out for the Muzungu walking by. I chose a few materials, paid for them, then browsed some more to the chatter of the women peppered with the term Muzungu Muslimaine! One Muslim vendor lady clapped my arm and wanted to know what I was doing here and who I was. All the other white people with me are finding it interesting being Muzungus in this country, but being a Muslim muzungu is such a novelty! Last week in Kigali, a friend brought us shopping in Nyamarambo. That’s the Muslim quarter in the city and has to be one of the poorest. It has some large mosques, usually funded by Arab countries like the Emirates or Libya and people are visibly Muslim there – women wear hijab and sometimes a khimaar which is a larger, more covering type of headscarf. Men are sometimes in the Arab white robes and kufis on their heads. But the most obvious way you know they’re Muslim is by the shouts of salam! (Muslim greeting of peace) when I walk by. In Nyamarambo, many people would vocalize it to me with enthusiasm, little kids wave, and one old woman grabbed my hand and started pumping it energetically, saying salam and kissing me on both cheeks chattering away in Kinyarawanda! It’s such an experience. There are quite a few number of Muslim, Arab men in the country, but I have yet to see another Muzungu Muslimaine as they like to call me; maybe that’s the novelty. One of the journalists from the newspaper took me to a jumua’ (Muslim congregational prayer) last Friday. The mosque was an impressive building of white and green obviously funded by the Emirates (their flag was flying outside). It was called the Islamic Cultural Centre and had a large school attached to it also. All the students were walking out of the mosque when we arrived – dressed in navy tunics and white shirts and hijab for the girls, and the boys in navy pants and white shirts. I was an object of curiosity as I walked into the prayer hall being the only fair female wearing hijab on the grounds. The service was in Kinyarawanda peppered with some Arabic, but it was very nice to just sit there and pray with these Muslims from a totally different continent.
Keeping up with the religious fervour, Susannah and I went to a Pentecostal/charismatic church service in Kigali last Sunday. I really wanted to go because missionaries and Pentecostal church life is so much part of the African culture today. They pop up everywhere and everything is funded by some sort of Christian group. Since we had our own “views” about the way they do things here, I felt I needed to go and see it for myself. The service we went to is in a church called Christian Life Assembly and the congregation meets under this massive circus tent in the middle of some slums in the heart of Kigali. It’s run by a Canadian pastor to boot. We took a cab into the grounds of the church and were greeted by a couple of ushers, swaying to the music blaring from inside. Once inside there was a stage up front with a “choir” and musicians and there must have been at least 600 people in the congregation. They swayed their arms in the air, closed their eyes and sang their hearts out to the music. There were many, many white people – from their accents sounded Canadian or American. At one point there was so much fervour that Susannah and I just gawped with eyes wide open. Some of the congregation ran up to the front on a carpeted area, flicked off their shoes and started shaking their bodies, dancing, or crying, and one women just collapsed on the floor with emotion. Noone was stopped us from staring or taking pictures, so we stayed until midway through the sermon then walked out. At one point we were surrounded by small African children on the peripheral of the congregation. But something happened to me when I was listening to the sermon that I won’t be able to forget - I felt something on my hand and when I looked over it was a young girl with very short hair tracing the veins on my hand with her finger. She didn’t look like she wanted my attention or wanted to talk; she just seemed mesmerized that she could see the veins through my skin.