Camille Greer's Blog
July 16, 2007 — Ou est Erike?
Rwandans are football crazy. Everywhere you go, you will see posters of Beckham, Ronaldinho, Henry. Even the buses here are plastered in Arsenal or Manchester United colours and logos.
The children make tiny soccer balls out of banana leaves and twine so I decided to bring over as much soccer paraphernalia as possible. I was lucky to get donations from a local Ottawa soccer club of 26 uniforms and about a dozen soccer balls.
On arrival in Rwanda I met Gary Dimmock, a somewhat eccentric and talented investigative reporter from the Ottawa Citizen. He told me that while walking through a city slum he saw a young boy with a ripped up soccer ball who could play ‘keep it up’ with amazing agility.
Yesterday we set out to Nyamirambo to find this young man. Nyamirambo is just about ten minutes drive from downtown Kigali. Gary, Andrea and myself got off at a random stop and decided to walk around. We got to a place Gary said he recognized. I followed Gary through what I can only describe as the bottom of a river bed. It was rocky, it was narrow, there were steep up-hills and dangerous down-hills, there were tiny sand bag bridges to cross, there were leaps over pools of water to navigate. I could only imagine what the neighborhood was like during the rainy season.
We arrived at a small shop where Gary said he had seen the young boy. By this point, we had a following of about 25 children shouting MUZUNGU, MUZUNGU! They even made a song out of it. While Gary talked to the shop owner, Andrea and I took pictures of the swarm of children. They were at once intrigued and afraid of the camera. When I raised the camera they would run away but they would come back to see their image on the screen. They laughed and screamed at the sight of themselves.
Gary told me to tell this gentleman in French what we were doing here. Andrea’s French is way better than mine, but she was engulfed by little hands and faces as she tried photographing the children. So I said, “Je cherce le garcon avec le ballon” (I am looking for the boy with the ball). Gary said this would be sufficient since this young man was the only one in the neigborhood with a soccer ball. The man seemed to know immediately what I meant and lead us out of the shop, back the way we came. While walking I tried to ask him if he knew the name of the young boy I was looking for. I tried, “Comment t’appelle?” (What is your name?) This is when I realized his French was probably as bad as my Kinyarwanda. I tried again with “Witwande?” (‘What’s your name’ in Kinyarwanda). This of course he could reply to. Then I asked, “Le garcon avec le ballon, witwande?” He replied “Rafik”. Progress! Okay, so the young boy’s name was Rafik and this guy was going to take us to him. Along the way, a young school boy joined the parade, his French was very good and his English was not bad either. We kept walking and walking, and Gary looked increasingly doubtful as the houses got nicer and bigger. “This can’t be where he lives,” said Gary. We asked them again if they were taking us to the boy with the ball and they assured us it was not far away. We arrived on a hill and they both pointed to the left and said “Rafik ici”. We walked up to find a basketball court with a building behind it that said CLUB RAFIK. We both hung our heads. This was going be a long day. We still had a strong following of children behind us, but still no Rafik.
We walked back down to the main road and encountered a man dressed all in black who spoke very good English. The children seemed to be very afraid of him because when he waved them off and told them to leave us alone, they scattered. Gary said to him, “Where is the kid, the kid that I saw last week with the soccer ball? Don’t you remember, I took a picture of him?” The man in black said we should show the picture. This of course would have made things much easier, except Gary had loaned his digital camera to another young boy he met last week.
It was the young school boy, who had remained at my side the entire time that finally said in French, “Il y a un garcon Erike qui joue le soccer.” So the young man’s name was Erike? The man in black seemed to know who he was referring to and led us down another path. We had lost Andrea somewhere along the way to a throng of children, so now it was just Gary and I. As we followed the man in black and about ten children now, the road got narrower and more slippery. A man on the side of the road shouted something to our guide, to which he replied, “No these are my friends.” While the man in black made me nervous, I was suddenly very glad for his presence.
We arrived at a small house and had picked up even more children along the way. The man in black pointed out a young boy no more than nine, “This is the brother of Erike.” Both Gary and I were excited at the prospect of actually finding this young boy and we both said to him, “Ou est Erike?” The entire throng of children stared at the boy as he remained silent. The man in black spoke to him for a long time in kinyarwanda. The child looked paralyzed with fear. I started to wonder if he thought maybe his brother had done something wrong, why were these foreigners looking for him. I didn’t know what the man in black was saying to him and so Gary and I just kept repeating, Ou est Erike? to anyone who came by. We were desperate.
Finally the boy responded that Erike had gone to see his mother. The man in black suggested that we take him and also the school boy I told you about earlier in a bus and they would take us to Erike. I looked at Gary skeptically, but he said, “Let’s do it.” Andrea had rejoined us by this time so we walked to the top of the road to catch the bus. All of the kids wanted to come with us. Four of them clung to the young boy’s shirt in hopes of being able to follow him. They were grabbing him so much that he could barely walk straight. A bus pulled up and sure enough about ten boys tried to rush in. I felt bad as I peeled them off the little brother but there was no way we could take them all.
So off we went in search of Erike. Five minutes later we got off the bus and followed Erike’s little brother, the young school boy and the first guy who had mistakenly led us to CLUB RAFIK. The roads were even worse than the first area. Gary slipped twice and I twisted my ankle. We arrived at a gate, we knocked. Someone opened it and told us in French that yes this was the home of Erike. “Ou est Erike?” we chimed. He told us that Erike was at prayer. Erike’s father invited us to sit down. We walked through a curtain into a very dark room. I sat on a wooden stool. Outside we heard some shouting and decided to inquire. We could not understand anything they were saying but realized we had to get someone to go get Erike. Gary was saying this in English to no avail of course. Thankfully, Andrea managed to ask the man (who turned out to be Erike’s neighbour) where the church was and if someone could go and find him. He said the church was far. But Erike’s little brother suddenly ran off with some other children. We assumed he was going to find Erike. We sat with Erike’s father, his younger sibling, Erike’s neighbour and his family. We all just kind of stared at each other since our French was not very good and our kinyarwanda was even worse.
The sun beat down on my arms and face, it burned through my jeans, roasting my thighs. My lips were so dry, they were crumbling. Gary looked in worse shape and I tossed him my water bottle. Fifteen minutes passed, still no Erike. I tried to make small talk with the neighbour’s wife, amusing her with the few words I learned in kinyarwanda. They had a little daughter who I tried talking to, she was very shy. Andrea had a skipping rope and some stickers in her bag. She gave them to the little girl and we tried teaching her how to skip. She didn’t look excited or impressed at all. But she clutched the rope close to her chest when some other girls came around.
Thirty minutes passed, and still no sign of Erike. Gary said that he really didn’t think this was going to be the same young boy he saw last week, but we had come all this way so who ever the child turned out to be, we should just give him the ball and outfit. I agreed.
Erike’s father, who looked quite old, maybe 65 or 70 started speaking to me, and the young school boy came over and translated. “He says that he is very old and he is jobless, he asks if you can please find him a job.” I told him that I was only here for two more weeks, that I did not live in Rwanda, and I was just a student visiting.
After fourty-five minutes we heard several pairs of feet running down the hill. A young boy swiftly turned the corner and ran straight to Gary. “It’s you, it’s you!” shouted Gary with a laugh that filled the entire compound. “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe this is the same kid!” said Gary.
I shook the young boy’s hand and hugged him, I felt like I knew him, like he was a long lost relative or something. I unzipped my bag, pulled out the soccer ball and tossed it to him. “AH MERCI!!!!!” he yelled and started kicking the ball around. That moment, made it all worth it. His eyes were shining and he laughed and cheered. I gave him the uniform and a pair of socks. He pulled on the shirt over what he was wearing. I saw his little brother who had helped us get here, sitting in a far corner watching this entire scene. I motioned to him and pulled out another uniform from my bag. He said nothing and his face was void of expression but he carried the clothing carefully under his arm and handled it with such care. We said our goodbyes and made our way out. Gary discreetly slid some money into the shirt pocket of Erike’s father.
We were tired, we were hungry, as we faced he uphill trek back to the main road. All the while shaking our heads saying, “I can’t believe we actually found that kid.”
July 8 2007 — Genocide Memorial
Visiting the genocide memorial is like having a near death experience; it scares the wits out of you and renews your gratitude for life and your belief in a higher power.
As I walked through the multimedia museum, I was intrigued by the photos and videos of genocide survivors. I listened to people my own age describe how their families were murdered. They recalled good memories and pleasant character traits of their loved ones and thanked the people who helped them survive. They had one thing strikingly in common; they all knew the killers personally. They were neighbours, family friends or people their parents worked with.
Then I watched another video of one of the murderers confess his crimes to a panel of three officials in prison. It seemed as though the survivors or friends and family of those slaughtered were sitting in an audience listening to this confession. They were barely twenty feet away from the prisoner. They showed such constraint. To my left, a Rwandan woman was being comforted by her friend. The friend was hugging her and gently trying to make her look at the video but she kept covering her face and crying. She looked momentarily, said something in Kinyarwanda then tore her eyes away and ran off.
I continued along the path and came across what looked like a chapel. There were a few steps leading up to a stain glass altar with skulls laid at its front. I am not a religious person, but this image struck me so hard, I could not stop my tears. No one was around this section. I faced the altar and said the Our Father. I don’t think I’ve said this prayer since I was back in convent high school. I still knew all the words. I don’t know who or what I was praying for.
I went into a room called ‘Personal Belongings’. These were all pieces of clothing found in mass graves during the genocide. The first thing I saw was a sweater with Cornell University written across the front. I walked along and stopped in my tracks when I spotted a child size t-shirt with a tiny maple leaf on it. It had Ottawa, Canada printed on the front. The irony of a little child being slaughtered to death by machete while wearing a t-shirt with Ottawa, Canada or Cornell University on it, just hit me like a ton of bricks. We were there to donate our cast offs but not there to help keep them alive.
As I was staring at the sweater I was distracted by some very loud talking. I turned around to see a Rwandan priest and two of his friends. He was dressed in a long red robe with a large wooden cross around his neck. He was gesturing and speaking very emotionally in Kinyarwanda. I caught only a few words he said in English, “revenge”, “forgiveness’, “god”.
Later on, I heard someone say that he is the bishop of Rwanda.
Upstairs held the children’s section. There were larger than life photos of toddlers with their names and other relevant information about them. Most striking was ‘cause of death’. My eyes flitted from “machete while in mother’s arms”, “burned to death in church”, to “stabbed in eyes and head”, and “tortured to death”. I could hear women gasping, clutching their scarves to their faces, exhaling, sighing, men swallowing deeply, clearing their throats and blinking away tears.
Outside held the mass graves. Simple concrete slabs laid out in a beautiful garden setting. I wondered how many people laid there. Laid there with no names, no head stone to identify them. On one of them, someone had laid a row of small red single flowers. Another had laid a few bouquets. I felt sad for them that this is all they had to honor their family; a concrete slab. They probably don’t even know if their loved one is actually down there. I felt angry for them. Angry that their brothers, sisters and parents had been robbed from them and a decent way to remember and honor them also was robbed.
As we all left the memorial, walking down the road to find a taxi, I felt so sad and angry. I know it’s been thirteen years since the end of the genocide but it amazes me how people here are so happy. Each person I passed on the road, they smiled, they giggled, their eyes were bright.
I see no trace of anger, no trace of pain on their faces.
It must be buried as deep as the graves.
July 4, 2007 — And so it begins…
The soil is so red, that’s what hit me first. It’s a bit unsettling, many of the buildings are made with this color brick and so it makes everything seem as though you’re looking at it through tinted glasses.
Our driver for the day, Innocent, was a man of few words. Andrea, myself and Leon our local contact all piled into the small Toyota car and drove away from the airport towards the town. As my eyes grew accustomed to the redness of everything, the enormity of this trip started to sink in.
Walking on the way to the money exchange office was interesting. There were young boys on the sidewalks trying to grab our attention to buy everything from a pair of jeans to a bathroom scale. It was most hilarious!
I was glad I didn’t bring that iPod, I was glad I wasn’t wearing sunglasses. I wanted to see as much as I could, smell and hear everything as much as I could. As I was enjoying all of the ‘newness’ and chatting away to Leon, I noticed Andrea was not looking her usual peppy self. I inquired and she said “I want to paint myself”. But she will explain more of that later.
I must tell you about our driver for the day, Innocent. He is a man of few words. He drives as though he alone owns the road and more than once I noticed Andrea gripping on to her door for dear life as he swerved from oncoming cars. When he dropped us downtown, he decided to pull up onto the sidewalk to park. Without even beeping the horn. There were two young men standing with their backs to us talking. Innocent simply drove the car onto the sidewalk, consequently bumping the young man out of the way, with the front of the car! The man looked shocked but then turned around, laughed and walked away. Andrea and I simultaneously gasped, looked at each other and burst out laughing!
On our first night, there was a dinner party for the interns who were leaving the next day. One of their friends offered to cook. His name is Magnus. He took five hours to complete the meal, I was so hungry and tired but both Andrea and I thought we MUST stay to eat this food, seeing how much effort he made. But, I just could NOT bring myself to eat the cow intestines and cow liver. But he did make some delicious sweet potato, salad, fries, fried plantain and even mango slices. Mmm mmm that was more like it.
There are two houses, one for the interns and one that mainly houses the adults who are participating in the initiative. There was no room at the intern house when we arrived so Andrea and I had to stay one night at the other house. The next day, we realized that Innocent was not OUR driver and he would not be coming back to transport our luggage up the monstrous hill, where the other house is located. Andrea somehow convinced me that we could carry it ourselves. We made two trips. It is about a 10 minute walk, but I was gasping for air when we got there. This road is the bumpiest, most uneven road I have ever walked. Not even the deepest country road in St. Lucia can compare!
On the second trip I carried my suitcase. At first I was just lifting it off the ground, then I thought ok I’ll put it on my shoulder, then an old lady said in French jokingly, you should put it on your head. And of course, I thought why not. I put the huge suitcase on my head and held it steady with my hands, it was way more comfortable! The guys on the side of the road were dying with laughter at this scene; high entertainment value. I try, I try.
More tales of my adventures are on the way. Will keep you posted!