Susannah Heath-Eves' Blog
June 21, 2006 – My New Job
Since Brian left and Sagal arrived, I’ve been appointed the household creepy-crawly killer. Last night I had to kill two cockroaches and a large moth as Sagal and Hadeel watched, squeeled and screamed.
I hate cockroaches so much that I almost gag every time I have to hit them with my sandal and scoop them up with an oversized wad of toilet paper. But it’s better to gag and know they’re dead than to wake up with one on your head or taking a shower with you!
I don’t know what Hadeel and Sagal will do when I’m gone. Maybe I should stay…
June 19, 2006 — African Hospital Part II
I was thinking last night that King Faisal Hospital is really quite Westernized. Oh, how wrong I was!
I waited for four long hours in the Emergency waiting room this morning, which is not unheard of in Canada. But it meant I could get my fill of my favourite pastime: people watching.
Two women sat in the emergency reception office, one at a computer in front of the glass counter, and one just sort of hanging out in the background. The one at the counter has a routine: Sit, type a few things into the computer slowly, sigh, look around, gaze at a clipboard or file that someone has delivered, sigh, hand a form to someone who’s been standing in front of her for the last five minutes.
The office next door was slightly busier. Nurses wandered in and out with files, sometimes taking patients with them. Patients occasionally walked into the office, said a few words, and went back to their seats.
Everyone was in slow motion. They looked disinterested and ready to go home. Everyone except for Ruth, the head nurse. She pretty much keeps that section of the hospital moving as she bustles around and tells people where to go, what to do and remind them that the patients have been waiting too long.
Parents came in with their sick children, a man walked in with a broken foot, and a family walked their fragile grandmother into the room. Two elderly men with canes, wearing old blazers and fedoras, hobbled in. One was blind. The other one had the kindest, most wrinkled eyes when he smiled.
A cab pulled up to the entrance and four people piled out except for one. The woman was screaming in the back seat, gripping the headrest in the front. The group, cab driver included, eventually peeled the woman out of the car and carried her by the limbs towards the entrance. The young woman was kicking and yelling and crying. I gestured to the head nurse, who immediately steered the group towards another entrance.
A nurse came over to me to let me know that my test results were lost. He had my file in his hand, but the results had evaporated. I don’t know if that means my blood went missing too, but after talking to two nurses and a doctor they concluded they should take my blood again.
I’m glad I’m not too queasy when I give blood. The nurse complemented my fat arm vein but had troubles drawing the blood because the vacuum apparently wasn’t good in the needle. I didn’t ask any questions.
Ruth apologized and said she couldn’t explain why my results were missing. She said, shaking her head, that she couldn’t explain half the things that happen at King Faisal.
Hopefully the results don’t go missing again. If they do, I’m launching an investigation. Look out for my CBC doc this fall, titled “Lost Blood: King Faisal’s Black Market.”
June 18, 2006 — African Hospital
I went to King Faisal Hospital today to see if I have malaria. I’ve been feeling a bit feverish and dizzy for the last three evenings, two of the symptoms of the disease. I feel fine most of the time, but I thought it would be best to make sure.
I filled out a form at Emergency that asked for my name, address and church.
Hadeel and I sat in the emergency waiting room for an hour. No ambulances rushed in, which was a good thing because everyone who arrived parked their cars in front of the entrance, blocking it completely.
I waited on a hospital bed for another hour. About 10 different male nurses came by to ask how I was doing. I’m sure they were just curious to see the two muzungus in the corner.
They told me the number of patients has exceeded the number of doctors, and there is a white man who is really sick who needs to be seen first.
The doctor came eventually, apologizing for taking so long. He asked if Hadeel was my mother or sister. I said not technically, but yes, she’s my Rwandan mum when I go to the hospital.
The doctor doesn’t think I have malaria. He explained that it might be a stress-induced illness. He said I could be uncomfortable if my purse is in the wrong corner of the room. That discomfort could be what’s causing the hot flashes and dizziness. Of course! My purse! Why hadn’t I thought of that? I’m always getting ulcers over accessories!
A friendly nurse took my blood. Hadeel had her syringe kit ready in case the needle looked suspect. The nurse laughed and showed me the needle which looked just like the sealed ones in Canada. He filled a small vile and I was on my way.
The exorbitant hospital bill came to a whopping 7,400 Rwandan francs, or about $15, plus 25 cents for painkillers. King Faisal is the “expensive” hospital in Kigali, and most people can’t afford to go there.
I get my results tomorrow. I’m not worried about malaria, but I am worried about where my purse is!
June 15, 2006 — Who’s the boy?
Hadeel and I returned from Butare to find a boy asleep on our couch. I thought maybe Delphine, our housekeeper, was babysitting a nephew. No problem. We asked who the boy was and she said she didn’t know. She told us to read the note Chaka left for us.
Chaka, the children’s section writer, said she found the boy wandering aimlessly on the street. The boy’s story is this:
11-year-old Gilles, an orphan, came from the nearby town of Byumba to look for his sister who works in the Remera district in Kigali. He doesn’t know where she lives, where she works, or how to get in touch with her. The good thing is he lives with his older brother in Byumba and he would know how to get home. He seems like a pretty street smart little kid.
Since Chaka was in the area, she dropped the boy off at our house so he could rest while she went to do some reporting.
Hadeel and I had no idea what to do with this boy, so of course I gave him a lollipop. Kids like candy, right? We called Chaka and she said to hold onto the boy for a few days so she could interview him, write a story about him and put an announcement on the radio.
We got Delphine to ask Gilles why he wanted to find his sister. He said so she could buy him new clothes. Well he didn’t look too poorly dressed so I’m convinced there’s more to the story than that. But who knows…
We weren’t about to keep this boy hostage for Chaka’s story, let alone let him sleep over at our house, so Delphine, Hadeel and I hopped in a cab and took him to the Remera police station.
We explained the situation to the officer sitting at an empty desk except for a few stray pieces of paper. He said he’d try to find the sister tomorrow, and would send him back to his hometown if they didn’t have any leads. He took down my name and number on a piece of scrap paper and said he’d call if he needed anything. We asked where Gilles would sleep and he said they had a special room at the station. Again, who knows.
I have no idea where he is or what became of him. I just hope he didn’t get lost in the shuffle. All this for new clothes!
June 13, 2006 — Marambi
I know I’ll never understand the genocide, but I think now I comprehend about as much as I’ll allow myself to.
We visited the Marambi genocide memorial today, near the sleepy southern town of Butare. About 50,000 bodies are buried underground in five large tombs next to what was supposed to be a school. The school hadn’t opened yet when all of the villagers in the surrounding countryside were called to the grounds by the provincial authorities for protection.
People were kept at the school grounds for a week and a half without food, waiting for the promised aid. The genocide was rampant in Rwanda by the third week in April 1994, so returning to their homes wasn’t an option. On the 21st, in the middle of the day, an estimated 15,000 Hutus wiped out the starving villagers with machetes and whatever else they could find. The bodies were stripped of clothing and dumped into a massive pit.
The corpses were buried in tombs that summer, under the direction of the new government. In September of 1995, or 17 months after the massacre, workers exhumed 1,800 bodies, choosing the most intact corpses, and spread them out across knee-high wooden platforms in the school classrooms. The bodies are on display in four of the school buildings, covered in lime to prevent them from further decomposition.
I never want to smell the pungent stench of lime and decomposing bodies again. It burnt my nose and made me gag. It was unbearable. I couldn’t get the smell out of my nose after I left, and I had to wash and sterilize my hands repeatedly to get the smell off.
Visitors are led to the open classroom doors and are encouraged to walk into the rooms to observe the bodies. Men, women, children and babies lie strewn on the wooden structures. They look like chalky corpses with all of the water sucked out, halfway to becoming skeletons. You can almost make out expressions on the white, powdery faces, and the occasional one still has a shirt on, or a tuft of dusty black hair intact.
One room is filled with skulls lined up in rows on a platform, from beheaded Tutsis, and long bones are piled on the platform behind.
Two beautiful little girls came up to the stunning hilltop and stood with us while a man told us the story about the massacre. The girls held my hands as I walked through the school grounds, and stayed with us as we walked through the museum. They smelled of lime, and I could feel it seeping into my palms as they held on tightly. The lime that crept into their clothes and pores, and then into mine, were like a stain. Something that wouldn’t let them forget their history.
The environment was such a contradiction to what happened 12 years ago. Surrounded by the most beautiful green hills in the world, you could never imagine that such a nightmare happened there.
June 5, 2006 — Speaking of accuracy…
… My name appeared at the top of a story that I didn’t write today.
June 4, 2006 — Quoting woes II
I was supposed to go interview the Dutch Ambassador with a colleague, but I chose to go to another appointment. After talking to the ambassador’s assistant, George, I really wish I’d gone.
My colleague’s retro tape recorder broke down five minutes into the interview. He continued asking questions, but didn’t take any notes. The ambassador and another Dutch representative got nervous about the lack of writing, and requested to see the story before it went to publication.
They spent a good part of their morning looking over the story, crossing out paragraph after paragraph of inaccurate facts and quotes. Even then, George said he’s nervous for the story to come out in the paper because it was just so bad. He also said he hoped I’d write the rest of the New Times stories about the Dutch to avoid further problems.
The New Times is digging themselves into some deep holes. The Dutch aren’t the only people who’ve complained about inaccurate reporting in the paper. It’s come mostly from the international community, but also from government representatives.
I have less than four weeks to go in this country. I hope it’s enough time to drill “accuracy” into my colleagues’ heads.
June 4, 2006 — Quoting woes I
I filed a story last week to find the next day that significant information was missing and quotation marks appeared where they shouldn’t have.
I went straight to the editorial department to point out what had happened. In my version of the story, I’d paraphrased some quotes from my sources. Julius, the editor, interpreted those sections as quotes. I told him that what I’d written wasn’t what my source said, word for word, and that’s why the quotation marks weren’t there. I got the impression he didn’t think his changes were problematic.
Am I making any progress? I’ll have to see what happens with my next story.
June 1, 2006 — The Canadian Initiative
Brian and I spoke with the New Times’ development editor, David, on Monday to talk about ways to improve the newspaper. I was pleasantly surprised that he’d noticed the same problems, but he didn’t appear to have a strategy for addressing them.
So David held a meeting for the reporters today to discuss some of the points we brought up. Accurate quotes and facts, balanced stories and finding the news were the most pressing issues.
The meeting was right after lunch, so it was hard to tell if people were engaged or just trying to stay awake.
Edwin and Dan, two reporters, spoke out about some of their frustrations – no recorders provided, editors holding stories for days, etc. I made a few suggestions – proper spelling of names, keeping a good rapport with sources, etc.
I try to drop hints about journalistic practise when I’m working with my colleagues, or I’ll just point out an error. For example, driving home the point that you can only quote exactly what was said by the source. I know that one will take some more convincing.
I also take advantage of any one-on-one time with my colleagues to suss out how they feel about the press in Rwanda. Most of them say free press doesn’t exist or there’s self-censorship, but a few people have told me we can write whatever we want. I’m quick to point out that the New Times’ editorial policy is to create a positive image of the country and the government.
I’m not sure if I made a difference today, but it’s a start. David’s planning to hold weekly meetings and workshops from now on. I wish I could stay longer to follow up on their progress.
Hopefully this is just the start of the Rwanda Initiative because we have a lot of work ahead of us.
May 30, 2006 —
Outsourcing is in
two men today who run a centre for people infected with HIV.
They help people who have been rejected from their
families and communities because of their illness. Dependent
on private donations, the small team is looking to the Christian
Relief Service, World Vision and other aid agencies for funding.
The centre gives members proper nutrition
to regain their strength after taking harsh HIV treatment
tablets. They also help pay student fees and plan to train
adults in business so they can become employable and make
a living for themselves.
The men said their funding applications
were taking far too long, and they didn’t know what
At the end of the interview, after one
of the men had left, the other one pleaded for me to visit
the centre. Fine for my story, but he wanted more. He wanted
me to speak with the victims and discuss ways to develop the
centre. Then he asked me to take the project to Canada, find
the appropriate funding, implement the infrastructure, and
make the centre a success.
He said that I’m an “international”
person, and so I’d know how to get decent funding and
manage a project.
I explained to him that I’m a journalist,
and not an aid specialist. I also said that I have to do my
job. I told him that by writing my story, people could learn
about his organization and maybe some of the readers might
help. That that was as far as I could go.
He was understanding, but still hopeful
that I would help. I thought it was ironic that these two
men were planning to help others help themselves, yet they
couldn’t figure out a way to help themselves.
It seems that Rwanda is so heavily dependent
on foreign aid that its people are only looking outside the
country for the answers to their problems. The tourism bureau
got South Africa to start up a luxury hotel in a national
park. They’ve also hired an American architect to design
an eco-lodge “so we really get it right.”
The four major soccer teams are filled
with non-Rwandan players.
The Netherlands is helping with the logistics
of building a new law school, and the Belgians have agreed
to develop the curriculum.
The development editor of the New Times
suggested going to the American embassy to request a professional
who can run a workshop to improve the journalistic standards
of the paper.
I looked at him thinking, “Brian
and I are two trained journalists who have just offered to
help run a workshop, and you’re looking to outsource?”
Outsourcing is in. The country is rebuilding
itself one development project at a time. They’re building
their profile on the international market. They’re moving
I just hope they give themselves enough
May 29, 2006 —
I’ve never seen kids
so insanely excited in my life.
I went for a run this afternoon, just
before sunset, knowing full well what I was up against: staring,
gawping, laughing, howling, whistling, imitating, …
and kids. Screaming kids.
As I ran along the mix of cobblestone
and bumpy dirt roads, it was the usual mish-mash of city folk.
Groups of men hanging out on the street, kids playing in the
road, women walking in twos and threes, people gathered around
little shop-shacks, and so on.
The neighbourhood where we live is a mix
of wealthy residents, ex-pats, and lower and middle class
citizens living in tiny concrete houses. Appropriately, a
range of vehicles pass by, from rattling motorbike taxis to
Mercedes SUV’s. A pick-up truck passed by, packed with
uniformed security guards sitting with their backs to each
other on benches in the flatbed, rifles by their sides. I
was a little nervous when the two men on the end stared at
me dimly as I caught up to their turtle-paced truck.
Not too many kids ran up to me today.
The last time I went for a run, a whole slew of them joined
me for at least half a kilometer. I had to pretend the race
was over, high-fived them, and said farewell so their mums
didn’t think the crazy umuzungu stole their children.
On my way back from the halfway point,
I passed a house made of brown concrete the same colour of
the front yard. All I heard was an absolutely fearful scream,
like someone had just seen the boogeyman from their nightmares.
I looked over at the dirt lawn and saw two tiny little kids.
One was jumping up and down screaming “Umuzungu! Umuzungu!”
The other, smaller one, was crouched down low, and just yelling.
Like I had awakened her inner demons. I squinted to get a
better look, and saw that she had a massive grin on her face,
and was in fact just so excited about the white girl running
by that she didn’t know what to do.
The pandemonium spread, and I saw kids
running through the community centre grounds across the street,
yelling in the same panicked state, “Umuzungu!”
Their voices echoed through the partly wooded area, and I
saw glimpses of children sprinting through the trees as they
screamed in the distance.
The screaming was drowned out by the sound
of drumming in the community centre.
I finished my run with giddy feeling in
my belly. I’m a freak here. Especially when I do crazy
things like run. But I wouldn’t change it. Every experience
here leaves me laughing, wondering and a little bit tired.
May 25, 2006 —
The walk of life
I’ve settled into a good daily routine in Kigali, and it starts with my walk to work. Stepping through the little gate cut out of the larger, car-sized gate to the house, I see people walking up and down the street past our house. Some of them are dressed in modern clothes like jeans and t-shirts, while others are draped in brightly coloured sheets and carrying baskets or other heavy loads on their heads. A lot of school children, the girls in bright blue dresses and the boys in brown, park ranger-type outfits, pass by the house. They all stare at the muzungus filing out through the gate every morning.
I head up the steep road to the main street and hang a left, towards the big yellow crumbling parliament building. It has massive mortar and bullet holes from when it was under attack during the genocide.
To my left is a stunning view of tiny houses blanketing the hazy rolling hills. To my right is the main street, an artery bustling with minibuses, motorbike taxis, Range Rovers, transport trucks and decrepit cars, all spewing out black fumes that are oh so refreshing first thing in the morning.
I’m surprised if I’m not accosted by at least one group of kids walking to school. They stare, chat and some ask for money. They're usually just curious so I'm happy to have the company.
I also pass street cleaners. Women crouch along the gutters and scrape dirt into piles along the edge of the road with pieces of cardboard. Then they transport it to a bigger piece of cardboard on the sidewalk, and throw the larger piles of dirt into the grassy ditch.
Young men walk by dangling high heels and sneakers off their fingertips, trying to make eye contact with potential customers customers.
Motorbike-taxis and regular cabs slow down next to me and honk to see if I need a lift. Minibus doormen hang out of the open doors, yelling the name of their bus’s destination as they pass.
A lot of people just stare at me like I’m a walking freak show. If I’m brave enough, I’ll risk a big smile. I get mixed results. The women are safer for a smile in return, and some of them say hi in any of three languages. But I never know what kind of reaction I’m going to get from a man, so I’ve taken up the “ignore the gawping” strategy.
From the big traffic circle I have three options: coffee and internet, a dip in the pool, or b-line it to work.
Straight through takes me to the Kigali Business Centre. KBC is a three-storey mall that’s built like a motel so all the doors are on the outside. I go to the Ugandan restaurant where they serve rich, mud-like coffee with loads of hot milk – just the way I like it!
The owner is sometimes there, sitting at one of the plastic patio tables, buttering his toast that sits in a silver rack. The big grey-haired man is happy when I order coffee because he’d originally wanted the place to be a coffee shop. Judging by how people take their coffee here (milk and sugar with a splash of coffee), I’m not surprised it didn’t fly!
Travel mug in hand, I head next door to the internet café for about an hour of e-mailing and research. I’ve given up trying to get online at work, so I try to get it all done in the morning.
Right at the traffic circle takes me down the hill to the New Times and the Novotel, one of Kigali’s luxury hotels. It’s right across the street from work, so I splurged on a swimming pass to go for morning dips. My colleagues think it’s crazy to swim in the morning because it’s an afternoon activity.
I might stop by the hotel bakery for a chocolate croissant, or I might pop by the washroom. We’ve been told not to use the office bathroom, and I took the advice without question. I’m pretty sure I know why though, judging by the stinging smell that lurks in the stairwell by late afternoon.
I settle into the bright basement newsroom
at around nine o’clock. Most people arrive at eight,
so several of them ask me if I was “in the field,”
meaning interviewing someone, or they playfully ask if I was
May 16, 2006 — Roach
I killed the biggest cockroach I’ve ever seen in my life today. It was about three inches long, and shaped like an elongated almond with thick legs and antennas. It was scuttling around the rim of the bathtub, making clickety-clack sounds as it moved. I got really nervous because the bathroom is kind of small, especially for such a large beast.
I took off my beefy sports sandal, and held it above my head as I waited for my prey to expose itself. It was hiding quietly behind the bar of soap – obviously it smelled its own death. It even managed to hide its long antennas. It peered around the soap and scuttled hurriedly towards Laura’s shampoo bottles. It hid behind the Dove conditioner. I knew I had to be patient.
It kept still, then faked a couple of swoops in its direction. It b-lined it back towards the bar of soap, but I herded it to the side of the tub by waving my shoe in its path. I waited for it to move into the targeted position for a clean hit. One slap against the tub and it fell to the ground. Two more hits and I knew he had gone to cockroach heaven.
Really, I like insects. Just not in my precious space.
May 15, 2006 — Foie de chevre
Dinner tonight was “foie de chevre.” Goat is quite nice here, but I wasn’t sure what “foie” means in English.
I soon found out that the “foie” was “liver,” when I saw the miniature reddish-brown organs sitting in a bowl of brown sauce. Laura confirmed the fact as she recounted stories about stealing liver from her dad’s plate as a toddler. I can still remember my mum making me eat liver when I was young. Luckily that only happened once, that I can remember.
Fifteen years after the horrible liver night, my tastes have changed and I pride myself on being an adventurous eater. I was so disappointed that, as much as I tried not to think about the shape, texture, distinct taste and anatomy class, and as much as I tried to tell myself I was eating fancy paté, I couldn’t stomach it. It was just as gag-inducing as it was 15 years ago.
Brian was nice enough to finish off my helping, despite feeling iffy about it too. Laura gobbled up the rest and reminisced some more about home.
May 14, 2006 — Akagera
Today we went to Akagera National Park, on the Tanzanian border in the eastern province. I had visions of petting lions, feeding elephants and tickling the underbellies of giraffes. Okay, maybe not realistic visions, but my day at Akagera was yet another signature Rwandan experience that left me thrilled, exhausted and in stitches.
Toyotas are great, most of the time
Helen, Laura, Brian and I were picked up at 7am not by the driver, Panda, who we’d arranged to drive us because he drives a huge, cushy SUV; but by his friend, George, who drives a rinky-dink Rav4 with no shocks and a shattered side-rear window kept intact by strips of brown packing tape. No problem.
The upside of the situation was that Panda’s fare for the day was Peter Bregg, the chief photographer at Maclean’s, and his wife, Diane, so we had wonderful travelling companions for the day. Plus Helen opted for the empty seat in Panda’s truck, so we had a more spacious ride.
We drove for two hours through lush, rolling hills and small towns buzzing with farmers’ markets.
Crisp bills only past this point
After sorting out various fees for the Rav4, park passes and which American dollar bills they accepted and refused (“This one’s corner is bent, so of course we won’t accept it!”), we drove into the park, with a guide in the back seat of each truck. “Going on a Lion Hunt” was on repeat inside my head.
Within ten minutes we were leaning over each other in our seats to get a glimpse of a giraffe. The guide said something in Kinyarwanda to our driver, and the truck suddenly veered off-road and barrelled through the tall grass and shrubs. We pulled up about 50 metres from five giraffes!
They moved slowly and fluidly, almost alien-like. We lined up outside of the trucks with our cameras and snapped as many photos as possible. I had to remind myself to look at the creatures with my own eyes. I felt a bit silly with my palm-sized point-and-shoot, standing next to Peter Bregg and his two gigantic cameras slung over his shoulders.
Our tour moved on when the giraffes wandered away from us (Oh please let me climb on your back!), and we continued to bump and roll along the rutted dirt road, the Rav4’s underside hitting and grinding against rocks.
Cows with helmets
We came across a herd of buffalo standing in and around a clump of trees. Six-inch-thick horns jutted out of their dark heads, and the hard bone continued along the tops of their heads like concrete toupés.
A baboon sat in a grassy field next to Rwanda’s second biggest lake. I made clicking noises from the truck so he’d look up at me. This was the obvious tactic for getting good photos. Instead of looking up and maybe doing a couple of back flips, the baboon made every effort to be as boring as possible and look down or away from the truck. Then he had the nerve to scamper into the forest, flashing his pink, leathery bum at us.
Scabby men’s club
Next to the shoreline, there was a strange meeting going on. Huge storks, about three feet tall, stood in geometric shapes around each other on what looked like the foundation of an ancient stone building. Two of them stood perched on either end of a standing doorframe, while one stood inside the frame. Four stood in a perfect square, two stood further off in the distance, and one looked out over the water at the tip of a half-submersed canoe. Maybe they were playing a life-sized game of chess.
The “storks” (nice try – I’m not fooled by your name!) looked like vultures, or scabby old men with sparse, wiry hair. Clouds of flies floated around their heads. Huge pink sausages hung from their necks, which apparently store food so they can fly for weeks on end during migration.
I decided it was an old men’s club. A place to go to talk politics and the weather and gossip about the fishermen camped nearby in dirty concrete shacks.
They’ve been practising for months
We climbed back into our rattling tin box to see the hippos at a nearby lake. At first I thought they were rocks in the water, but then they’d disappear, and the only signs of them were the rings that their disappearing acts made in the still water.
We watched their cacophony of spraying, gurgling and snorting, as the group of hippos bobbed their heads in and out of the water. All we could see was their funny little ears and bulging eyelids poking out. The occasional snout would surface after spraying water into the air from its nose like a slow sneeze.
I still don’t know how big a hippo is, but I think they like to have fun with us!
At the lake-level of the park, which is the lowest section of the park in altitude, horseflies attacked our convoy, and our guide turned into a hunter. He taught us the skill of crushing the large beasts against the various surfaces of the car with the meat of our hands. I think he got a bit scared when Laura and I started overtaking his kill-rate.
We saw impalas and topi on our safari, which look like exotic deer. We came across a family of impalas sitting in a picture-perfect clearing in the forest just off the road. A couple of Bambis huddled next to their mothers, and a big male deer with thick horns stood robustly at one end of the group, protecting them from the perils of the forest.
Driving along a high plain, two antelopes with spiralling antlers galloped alongside our derelict truck with muscular grace. It was a thrill to look out the window and see the elegant creatures gliding along the landscape so close to us.
Horizontal stripes are so unflattering
Brian used his eagle eyes to spot some zebras on a hill more than a kilometre away. The trucks veered off-road again to find our stripy friends. We got within 50 meters of them and decided they looked more like donkeys than horses. They’re stout and the horizontal stripes on their back ends fall short of being slimming. We gazed and snapped our cameras until they wandered off over the hill in the distance. Suddenly I was looking at a scene from a brochure for an African safari.
Dreaming of lunch
The trip back to the park gate felt long, and by that time I felt like my brain was rattling against my skull. Every jarring bump was an opportunity for my head to knock into the side of the window. My teeth were gritty from the clouds of red dust billowing inside the car. Looking at the shattered side-rear window, I could see bits of glass flying off of the packing tape that was keeping the window intact. Our packs bounced around in the trunk, bumping into the two cabbages that were rolling around with the glass shards. I was drowsy, and kept falling in and out of sleep, dreaming, about impalas, lunch and bumpy car rides.
Take my picture
After a restorative meal at the fancy South African hotel in the park, we headed home along the smooth paved roads. We waved at the kids who noticed us driving by, who waved back with wild enthusiasm.
A tire blew as we were driving through a small village. A crowd slowly formed to watch George changing the tire. That, or they came to watch the strange white people milling about. A woman carrying a newborn baby walked up to me and handed me her baby. It couldn’t hold its head up as it drifted in and out of sleep in my arms. It has little whitish bumps all over its skin, like goose bumps. I wondered if he or she was healthy. I was a little nervous the woman wanted me to keep her baby to offer him or her a bright future (I’d heard of this happening), but was relieved after the mother happily took it back from Laura’s arms. Laura’s comment was that it smelled “fresh.”
Panda, who’d driven far ahead of us, doubled back on the back of a motorbike to help George. I guess it takes three men to change a tire in Rwanda. Or maybe it’s just that Rwandans are always willing to go out of their way to help.
We arrived home, safe and sound and totally wiped from our exciting day. We ate leftovers from the night before (rice and beans), and did our best to wash off the thick layers of red dirt that covered our bodies.
May 12, 2006 — Dance
I had a feeling something good was about to happen when I noticed some dancers warming up outside the cultural centre in downtown Kigali today. Women dressed in vibrant sheets draped around their bodies, and men dressed in animal skins and beaded headbands, littered the courtyard.
Laura and I wove through the dancers towards the sound of drumming and singing. Audio recorder in one hand and camera in the other, I tried to keep my composure as the music and dancing grabbed my emotions and twisted them in a knot.
Singers and drummers lined one side of the stage, and danced on the spot as they sang, yelped, whistled, clapped, stomped and drummed for the dancers. The audience hollered, cheered, chanted, and jumped up and down in their seats, some getting up to dance at the more exciting parts of the performances.
It was a national competition, and the 13 dance groups of about 25 performers each came from all four provinces. The finals are on Sunday, and the winners get to feature in the opening ceremonies of a pan-African dance festival that Rwanda is hosting in August.
When I first walked into the auditorium, about 12 dancers were in two rows on stage, jumping up and stomping their feet down so the bells tied around their ankles clamoured in one heavy, jangling beat. Their bare arms and hands extended so the light reflecting off their smooth, sweaty arms revealed every muscle.
A woman opened a straw basket she was dancing with and a dove flew out and up into the rafters. The crowd screamed and cheered. I wanted to do the same but felt too goofy with my huge daypack and assortment of digital equipment dangling from my body.
The women were beautiful, draped in rich fabrics, gracefully shaking and bouncing their hips in ways that put Beyoncé to shame. The men burst with energy and virility with every move. They were even a bit scary at times, looking possessed by the music. They shuffled their feet intensely, rolled their heads in rhythmic circles, their arms carving spirals through the air, and teased the audience with inviting facial expressions.
One of my favourite dances was performed by men wearing what can only be described as waist-long blonde wigs, made of fine straw or maybe wiry animal hair. They had bare chests with red and white beaded slings criss-crossed over their chests. They wore long skirts made of bright blue sheets, with leopard skins (claws intact), tassels and beaded strands tied to their waists. Their hair swished through the air as they swooped their heads down and around and jumped across the stage, wooden spears and shields in hand.
The best experiences are the ones you’re not anticipating. Today was the highlight of my trip so far.
May 9, 2006 — Kindergarten
I visited a private primary school in the small town of Kabuga today. Chaka and I met with the students to have them contribute to the children’s section of the newspaper. They were all very charming, but the kindergarten class had me at hello.
The school looks across a field and onto vibrant vegetable plantations at the base of dark rolling hills.
At the lower end of the field, the kindergarten classroom sits in a small, two-room white building, next to the office. I walked across the field towards the open door and was greeted by 20 beaming faces and kids screaming “Umuzungu!” (“White person!”)
I stood in the doorway and a three-year-old boy walked up to me, looking mildly confused. He wrapped his baby arms around my thighs, and went back to his wooden stool. Then another boy got up, hugged me around my legs, and suddenly each of the two to five-year-olds were lining up for a hug. It became a series of group hugs, and by the end I was ready to scoop them up and bring them home.
They showed off the benefits of their private education by singing “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes” in French and English, and practised reciting greetings and the parts of the body at the teacher’s command. Some of them would say nose as they smacked their mouth, or point to their head timidly as they said “back”.
Every now and then a little one would walk over to me and look up at me, just staring and smiling. One kid noticed my sporty watch and suddenly ten hands were glued to my wrist, pushing on the buttons and every bit of plastic. I put out my other hand and ten more hands reached out to hold it. They touched my skin, giggled, patted it and pulled on it.
I had to make a quick exit to the office next door to interview some teachers. Halfway through an interview, one of the kids wandered in, stopped in front of me, and stared at me excitedly. He was smiling, touching his knees and rocking back and forth. The teacher I was speaking with smiled and let it go on for awhile before gently telling him to go back to his class.
May 8, 2006 — 'Solly'
Canadians have been described, on occasion, as polite, friendly and over-apologetic. "Oh sorry, did you bump into me?" If this is the case, Rwandans are more Canadian than Canadians are.
I drop my pen on the newsroom floor today, and Jane, the woman sitting next to me, says "Solly, solly," as she bends over her chair to look for the pen.
I step on the back of Gertrude's two-inch heel as we're walking down a muddy road to get lunch.
"Solly, solly, … solly," she says, shaking her head ruefully.
I look at her muddied heel and notice how immaculately clean the rest of her is.
I close the browser window on my computer by mistake, and let out a loud sigh. I've been waiting for 10 minutes for the page to open. "Solly."
I bump into someone in the crowded newsroom. "Solly."
Sorry for what? That I'm such a complete klutz? That you're so darn nice?
Rwandans also like to shake hands every time they meet, whether it's been a week, a day or an hour since they've last met. When I see someone in the newsroom first thing in the morning, the conversation goes something like this:
"Hello Susan!" Hands meet for a shake.
"Hello!" I might not have remembered his or her name. Still shaking hands.
"How is your morning?" Still shaking.
"My morning is great, thank you. How is your morning so far?" Still holding on.
"Oh, it's good. It's good. Thank you." Holding.
"Have a good day." Holding.
"Thank you, Susan. You have a good day too." Holding.
"Thank you." And release… until we meet after lunch.
May 1, 2006 — A time to celebrate . . .
It’s day 4 in Rwanda. It’s also Labour Day, a national holiday. Contrary to the steadfast Canadian tradition of sleeping in and vegging in front of the TV, Rwandans get up early and pile into Kigali’s stadium parking lot to get organized for the Labour Day parade. It’s a disorganized, vibrant, dance- and speech-filled event that’s set in front of the breathtaking blue-green skyline of forested hills.
Two hours were spent mingling, shuffling and racing up the parking lot with the New Times staff to get as far up the line as possible. Our group marched around the red gravel outdoor stadium to marching band music – “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and the like – geared up in matching white New Times t-shirts, and suspending two long banners advertising the “Now Daily!” national newspaper.
Other groups marched with their respective paraphenalia – woven baskets, traditional Tutsi dancing spears, a matress – you know, the usual marching kitsch.
My co-worker and volunteer translator, Richard, told me Labour Day is a time to celebrate how far Rwandans have come since the genocide, and how far they still have to go to build their country and succeed as a nation.
Richard is one of our roughly forty colleagues who have welcomed us so warmly to their country and workplace. I’ve spent four days in Rwanda, and today I fear that I won’t want to leave this country after a mere eight weeks!