David Kawai's Blog
July 9, 2007 — Orphanage
Yesterday Gary and I went with a Newsline reporter to an orphanage in the eastern village of Rwamagana. The bus ride was about an hour. Upon arrival, our reporter friend, George, called a contact of his—a former street kid who now runs a group of childcare centres for kids with nowhere else to go.
The two centres we visited had some great images and sad stories. The kids seem to be happy for the most part; however, some still say life on the street is almost as good, if not better, than life in the shelter. The meals are basic, bland and rationed.
The residences are…well…see for yourself:
July 8, 2007 — Friends
If it weren’t for these guys, I’d probably go insane here in Rwanda (either of boredom or homesickness). I think a new country is always best when you have friends you can rely on.
I will also miss this kind of chill-out spot: beside the road, plastic chairs, cold Guinness and Cokes, fresh samosas, great prices and no crowds.
July 7, 2007 — Macgregor
I’m sitting at Bourbon Coffee Shop to use the Internet on a Saturday morning when I turn to my left to see Obe Wan Kenobe himself doing an interview for a documentary. The basic premise is Macgregor and his “best mate” drive across Africa on BMW dirt bikes with a camera crew. The doc is sponsored by the BBC, BMW probably, UNICEF and a few other organizations. The trip is called Long Way Down. They have a website that is easily googled.
The guy seems friendly. He talks to everyone who approaches him. He sits with them and finds out what they are all about. Actually, I must say that he seemed to enjoy flirting with the ladies more than talking with dudes, but who am I to judge.
I felt I should grab a frame for the newspaper to I approached him to steal a few shots. We walked to an open area in the coffee shop, on the balcony, and spent a minute (probably exactly a minute) shooting. We spoke for a little bit but it was mostly business and boring chitchat.
In the last week I’ve photographed Natalie Portman and Ewen Macgregor. I feel like I’m in a Star Wars episode. I guess I should keep my eye out for Samuel L Jackson, eh.
July 6, 2007 — Incident
I love working with Gary Dimmock. For anyone who doesn’t know who he is, he’s an investigative reporter for the Ottawa Citizen. He’s all about controversy and exposing societal injustices. What better place for him to find this type of work than Rwanda.
Freedom of the press is a huge issue here. For example, even a photo of an important person or politician taken from the wrong angle (yes, I know the word “wrong” is subjective) has resulted in editors being canned. It’s a heck of a challenge to overcome when working in the media, especially coming from Canada.
Last evening, Gary and I needed to go get a shot of a one of the wealthiest (if not the wealthiest) person in Rwanda. He owns over 600 properties apparently, a palace of a house and some money making businesses in town. I’m staying vague to keep the story quiet for now.
We needed a shot of the guy’s house within the context of the poverty that surrounds it. Driving up to the house, we passed some ladies with baskets on their heads walking up the road. We parked up the road, waited for the ladies to walk our way, and then I started shooting with a long lens.
Security guards start sprinting up the road with their nightsticks. They rip my $7,000 camera out of my hands and run back into the compound with it. I tell the driver to watch the stuff in the car while Gary follows the dude with the camera. He gets tough with the guard, asking him to return the gear.
The camera is behind the brick wall of the property by the time I get down to the gate. Gary is trying to work out a deal with the guards but they only speak French. Therefore, Gary asks me to translate for him while I’m trying to have my own say. Meanwhile, the guards are yelling and getting upset about Gary’s seeming attempt to intimidate them, and about 30 Rwandan civilians have gathered at the end of the driveway to watch the whole ordeal.
It’s the good cop bad cop routine…guess who I was playing? The guards start getting really upset about Gary’s aggressiveness. On one hand, I’m on Gary’s side and I know that we have to stand up for our rights here. As Gary reminded me on many occasions, taking the camera was theft. I passed this message onto the guards, who weren’t exactly warming up to us yet.
They proceeded to tell us we needed permission to take photos of the house. We countered by saying we were taking photos of the women with baskets—not a lie by any stretch of the imagination. We also noted the fact that the house was not a government building and was therefore photographable. They responded to us with lies: “this is a government building…(the guards) are police.” This statement changed a few minutes later to, “this is private property…(the guards) are like police.”
Initially, they wanted to keep my camera. Then they wanted just to keep the memory card. Then they wanted to keep the camera and the memory card. Then it was just the memory card again. Also, initially, the patron of the house was said not to be home. But after asking many times and waiting for 45 minutes, the patron came to the door.
Gary managed to speak to him a bit (I love to watch this guy work) and I managed to reassure him that I could simply delete the images to solve both of our current dilemmas. To be continued…
At the end of the day, I got my camera back with memory card and we drove home with a ridiculous Rwanda story.
July 5, 2007 — Painters
Instead of wasting time thinking about how ridiculous, limiting and controlled the media are in Rwanda, I’ve decided to simply start shooting everywhere and anywhere all the time.
Now that I’m at Newsline, I have more room to do my own work and pitch my own ideas. We are not a government owned and controlled paper here, as opposed to New Times.
I went downtown yesterday in depressed mood. Instead of heading home after leaving the newsroom, I walked around downtown with camera in hand. It’s been two months now and I feel perfectly comfortable around town, even with gear on me.
I spoke to locals for a couple hours. Got some great ideas for photo features and managed to grab some great frames.
All the signs in town are hand painted—the store signs, moto decals and billboards. I met some of the guys who paint for a living. The work on the tire flap (for the back of the moto) costs 2,000 Francs. For the huge NIDO billboard the artist made 150,000 Francs. On average, they make about 3,000 Francs/6 US dollars a day.
July 3, 2007 — Cynthia’s last story
Five hours later I got the shot. I woke up at 7:30 to get a photo with Cynthia for her story on prostitution in Kigali. We took a cab to a basket making shop where former prostitutes work for a decent wage. The baskets are then exported to the US for crazy high prices! Good on them.
Of course we couldn’t get a photo or interview with any of the girls there since the owner of the business had to leave quickly to see the president or something.
We decided to try Plan B: to visit an NGO that finds prostitutes real jobs. Many of them end up working on the farm (where my photos here were taken). Others find jobs as street cleaners…service level jobs, for the most part.
The portraits I took are of such workers, former sex workers who have been given new beginnings, and will tell heart wrenching stories of their past.
The biggest challenge in taking these was the time constraint and language barrier. It wasn’t exactly a rushed photo, but the location wasn’t as intimate as it could have been. In fact, the location was a bit random for the stories they told. Nonetheless, I tried make the photos revealing, but also somewhat abstract or ambiguous. As for the language barrier, the shoot felt like a game of charades (as to many of my shoots actually).
June 27, 2007 — TVR
Television Rwanda did a small news item on the Rwanda Initiative when Allan was visiting. He was interviewed and so were three of us at The New Times. Personally, I hate being on the other side of the lens, but I did my best.
I actually never watched the interview when it went to air. Oh well, I know what I said.
June 26, 2007 — Demobilization Camp
Emilie sniffs out the best stories in Rwanda. Lucky for me that she drags me along to shoot for her.
We went to a demobilization camp for Rwandans who fled to the DRC to escape punishment for genocide related crimes. The camp rehabilitates rebels from the DRC (Rwandans who participated in the 1994 Genocide) who wish to turn themselves in peacefully.
Interestingly enough, the program claims to rehabilitate these rebels in just two months. Put in another way, two months is all it takes before the government deems them to be fit to return to society.
Who knows, perhaps two months IS enough time. It’s really hard to think otherwise after seeing the genuine kindness of the people in this country.
Now many of them, most in their 20s, will wait to see if they get called to trial for Genocide crimes (Gacaca). On the day Emilie and I went, they were releasing about 50 former rebels. Some had family in attendance to meet them. Others will go back to their villages.
How will they be received in their villages, you might ask?
You’d think the community would look down on people suspected of killing their own people, but the simple fact is that the majority (84 per cent) of the population in Rwanda is still of the ethnic background that incited Genocide. As it was explained to me, there is much sympathy among and within this ethnic group.
"In the end, the story was canned. The reason for this is unclear to me, but I'm not surprised. It seems that anytime anyone tries to produce anything real here, they are/it is suppressed. Just a typical day working in the Rwandan media."
June 22, 2007 — Kampala
I’m not in much of a mood to write lately. Rwandan media and politics have got me very down about what I’m actually doing here. I digress. I’m also writing this blog two weeks after I went to Kampala. For these reasons, I’m hoping the photos make up what may end up being uninspired writing.
Kate, Melodie, Christine and I took a weekend trip to Kampala, Uganda. What a great city. Upon arrival, it’s overwhelming. My eyes were glued looking out the bus window. I was intimidated even. If Kigali was Ottawa, Kampala would be Toronto. It’s a big city and you can find anything you need for very cheap. A good car for 3000US, an apple computer, a handmade leather wallet, shoes, fake Rolex watches, awesome Indian food—the list goes on.
Perhaps if I’m lucky I will live there one day.
We stayed at a hostel with a bunch of backpackers, most of whom seemed to stay on the hostel property all day and night, ordering expensive beers and food (compared to stuff you find in the city) on their parents’ bank accounts.
I didn’t keep my camera on me for the entire trip, and I’m glad for it. Sometimes I like to experience a new city without 20 pounds of equipment in my bag totaling over 15 grand.
The streets were packed and very wide compared to Kigali. Rush hour is a horrible jam anywhere you drive near the city. We walked around at night and had no problems. We even had fun bargaining with street vendors downtown. Christine didn’t expect to pick up a handful of items on her first night, but like I said, the deals were THAT good. Kate warned us all about pickpockets and thieves in Kampala (her friend was recently there). They say to keep backpacks in front of you and your hands in your pockets as a precaution. I, however, found it to be quite safe as long as you keep your wits about you. I kept my wallet in my cargo pocket, my backpack on my back and my hands were rarely in my pockets and I was fine. Even the street kids weren’t as bad or persistent as advertised. As far as feeling safe in the city, I find that a smile goes a long way. People will smile back and give you the thumbs up.
We were typical tourists. We consumed, consumed and consumed. We went to two recommended clubs and danced till morning. We took a bus to the Lake Victoria source of the Nile river. Christine and I ate anything and everything we could purchase form street vendors. If you were wondering, no, I didn’t get sick because of it. However, Christine got very sick to the point of needing hospital treatment, but this was a few days later in Rwanda, and it’s unclear whether it was from Kigali or Kampala.
Melodie fell into an open sewer on the way to a club Friday night. Well, to be fair, she only fell halfway into it. I passed it a few metres ahead of her, thinking it was easy enough to see and avoid. All of a sudden, I heard Melodie grunt and Christine yell “MELODIE!” I was in shock and confused about what was happening, as it was quite dark. The dude walking with us, a local guy showing us the way to the club, sprints back to her yelling “SORRY, SORRY, SORRY!!!” and attempts to pull Melodie out. Melodie yells back at him insisting she is ok and doesn’t need help, despite being stuck in the push-up position over a sewer. The guy doesn’t seem to understand and wraps his arms around her and attempts to lift her up. She screams back at him, asking him to stop. They look like two turtles inventing the most awkward dance I’ve ever seen. For me, it’s extremely difficult not to find the entire ordeal hilarious, even as it was happening in front of me.
The following gets a bit graphic and is a depressing change of pace, be warned.
On the way to Jinja, the Lake Victoria source of the Nile, our bus (like the little Toyota van buses in Kigali) drove past a crime scene. We looked out the window where a man lay dead and uncovered on the road, blood pooling out of his head. A few metres up the road from cars were smashed up and blocking traffic. George, a friend from New Times, later informed us of what happened, as he had seen the story on BBC. Basically, he said the man stole a moto, was chased by police, caused an accident and was shot in the head by police when they caught up to him. I’m starting to notice a lack of tolerance for challenges to authority in African cities.
Anyhow, I’ll just let the photos pick up where I left off.
June 19, 2007 — Presidential Press Conference
I don’t have much experience taking photos of presidents, but I think many will agree that there was something a little odd about the presidential event I was at today. Let me tell you all about it:
His Excellency was holding a meeting with two American ambassadors at the President’s office. I got the call from the New Times’ editor in chief saying I was to be picked up and dropped off at this event.
I expected to be fighting through a crowd of journalists, scrapping for the best shots and scrumming like there was no tomorrow. Turns out only The New Times, TV Rwanda and Radio Rwanda were allowed to attend. I was surprised indeed to find only the TVR camera man waiting near the stairs of the Presidential meeting room (not its technical term I’m sure).
I asked him what was going on. He knew very little but told me we could expect to wait in the sun for another two hours or so. Just then, a lady pokes her head out the door at the top of the stairs. This sparks TVR cameraman to grab his gear and sprint up the stairs, through to door and out of sight. I followed his lead. Before I knew it, I was in a nice carpeted room with very regal furniture and expensive looking Rwandan art on the wall. Also, I found myself about three metres away from President Paul Kagame, who was speaking with two U.S. ambassadors and two Rwandan ministers.
I did not expect this to happen so fast, but I had my cameras ready to shoot nonetheless. I took two photos in the span of 10 seconds (a horrible venue for photos by the way—this room with five chairs set up in a sort-of U pattern and spaced far apart from each other). I was then, to my surprise, ushered out of the room. Same went for the TVR cameraman. We were reassured that we would be able to take more photos when they came out of the meeting.
An hour later, after the reporters for the New Times, TVR and Radio Rwanda were allowed to join us, the meeting was over and we were able to shoot more. I took the standard “five people in soldier-like poses with His Excellency in the middle” shot because I knew that it was the one my paper was looking for. I also shot some other more interesting photos during the interviews with the Ambassadors, but none of Kagame. You see, he hosted the meeting and took part in the photo-op, but he left immediately after those photos were taken. I don’t know if this happens all the time, but for this event, journalists were not allowed to ask the President any questions.
Anyhow, that’s how my story ends. Maybe it’s not very exciting to a lot of my readers, but it was my first time shooting that close to the President, and at such an exclusive event. I’ve attached the photo the paper will probably use on the front page tomorrow. What you see in this image is the product of a PR lady arranging these people in such a way. What do you think? Is it a boring photo or not? Up to you to decide I guess. All I can say is that I’m starting to understand some of the reasons why the photos in the New Times aren’t the most interesting photos in existence.
Oh, and after all was said and done, my reporter Felly and I decided that public transport was the best way to get back to the newsroom quickly. We started to walk towards the closest bus station. Anyway, what I found interesting about the area just next to the President’s office was how un-kept it was. There was a giant rusted metal tube-like structure rusting on the grass, litter all over the ground and a basketball court with broken rims/backboards.
Quite simply, I found it interesting. That’s all I feel I need to say.
June 18, 2007 — The Moon and Venus
On Monday night, the Moon and Venus were closer together than i'd ever seen them. Here it is, as seen from our backyard in Kigali, Rwanda.
June 13, 2007 — Aerobics
Before last night, I’d never been to an aerobics class.
Julius and George from the New Times took Cynthia and I to the Amahoro Stadium last night for an aerobics class I will not soon forget. I didn’t think it would be so physically demanding. Boy was I wrong (I’m getting used to being wrong in my assumptions about this country).
After paying the entrance fee of 2000 Francs, Cyndi and I walked into a surprisingly spacious room, with a small area for weight lifting at the far end. For the most part, the room was empty and clear for the running, dancing and chanting we would soon find ourselves doing during the course of the hour and a half aerobics session.
Because I’ve never done aerobics before, I have nothing to compare the experience with. I can only describe what happened.
Our enthusiastic and energetic instructor stayed, for the most, part in the middle of a circular formation of about 40 participants and barked out instructions over loud music. The exercises and music would not have been out of place at a 50s or 60s dance party. We did the twist more than I’ve ever done the twist before.
The room was absolutely packed. You could not even put your arms out without smacking another person. To boot, the place was basically a sauna after the first 20 minutes, and so the sweat just poured out of us.
Cynthia attracted the attention of the instructor, who called her into the middle of the circle to demonstrate an exercise that required everyone to pair up and clap hands in ever changing and increasingly complicated patterns.
At the end of the intensely hard session, we grabbed mats and did a serious abs workout. Half the people in the room gave up before the end. I barely made it.
In celebration of a successful aerobics session, we all proceeded to undo any fitness we may have gained by heading to a nearby prostitute saturated bar for one, then two, then three beers and some goat brochette with fried bananas. We toasted to “super Kawaii’s” (thank you Gwen Stefani for my newest nickname) first aerobics lesson.
It was just another awesome night, among many recent great nights, in Kigali.
June 9, 2007 — Lake Kivu Serena
Don’t even ask how I ended up staying at this luxury lakeside hotel for free (twice, one weekend with 3 of my Canadian colleagues). The food and drinks included, thank goodness. Champagne with breakfast. Poolside service. Free wireless Internet. Amazing shower water pressure and consistent temperature.
I could go on and on, but it’s really not that important when compared to the Rwanda Initiative and the things I do on this project.
I think it’s fairly obvious, however, that I’m leveraging my skill as a photographer to earn some much needed rest and relaxation (and American movie television in air-conditioned rooms).
Oh, and I’m also bringing my friends along for the ride when possible.
I’m still waiting for His Excellency to ask me to be his personal photog for a year.
Soon. I can feel it.
June 6, 2007 — Another interesting week of photos
As a photographer, I get asked to do a lot of very cool things with The New Times. The fact is that there are only a couple of photographers, but many reporters. Therefore, the odds are in my favour.
However, in the end, even as a reporter, the best way to get assigned interesting work in the field is to pursue your editor and fellow reporters incessantly and beg them to send you somewhere or take you with them. Most of the time, this works. If it doesn’t work, just do things your own way – to a certain degree of course. This has always worked in my favour.
(I suggest this as an alternative to being stuck in the newsroom all day checking hotmail on a slow Internet connection along with the other reporters and subediting work for grammatical clarity—don’t get me wrong, it’s noble work, but probably dull if you do it every day for two months).
For example, Sunday this week I was eating dinner at La Fiesta with the usual Canadian suspects. Christine got a text message saying His Excellency was opening the Environmental Week Conference the next day. At the prospect of seeing the President in person and covering the story for The New Times, I told Christine I would come along. Emilie also joined in on the fun.
We left early the next morning for the Serena Hotel, where the conference would be. We arrived to find nobody there at the supposed 8 a.m. starting time. We walked outside to the parking lot where other journalists were waiting—not for a conference though. It turned out His Excellency was not speaking that day, but the next.
These journalists were waiting for a bus that would go on a tour with a bunch of volunteers and foreign journalists from 16 African nations to a school and farmlands around Kigali for Environment Week photo ops. There was even an Al Jazeera crew and BBC journalist there.
They were invited by a group representing environmental journalists across Africa to see the many environmental sustainability initiatives the country is currently undergoing.
The first location was beautiful. People were digging trenches into steep terrain to control erosion on future farmable land. Journalists were encouraged—I’d say intimidated—into taking part in the dig. Christine was a good sport for a few minutes, as you can see from one of the photos I snapped.
The second event was at a school. There was traditional Rwandan dancing and very long speeches in Kinyarwanda. They also demonstrated how bio-fuel is made just a short walk away from the schoolyard.
The last location was the most picturesque. Terraces cut into brown earth climbed all the way up steep hills. We stood somewhere near the top, where we paused to take in the view and ask some questions to the minister.
We got back from the tour around 4:30 p.m., not having eaten, but it was worth it. We saw Rwanda how we might never have seen it otherwise. Also, we managed to speak to the organizer of the week’s events and obtain proper press passes for His Excellency’s opening remarks the following morning.
Photographing the President was an experience. I snapped a few decent shots, but for the most part, photographers cannot move around the room very much once the President starts speaking. We couldn’t go anywhere near the middle of the room (understandable with TV cameras pointing in that area) and could not get within about 5 metres in any direction from him (save who I suspected to be his personal photographer, who was shooting with a Nikon D2Xs I believe, for anyone who is interested).
Even at the ceremonial handshake photo op following His Excellency’s speech, men in black suits and 24-esque communication earpieces observed journalists very carefully. I almost stepped into a “no-go zone” while scrumming for photos in the reception and one of the security guards gave me a very firm grab on the arm. Scared the @#$% out of me!
So that’s the end of my two day adventure, following my own leads and catching some decent images along the way. The only negative part about it was that I had to spend my own money taking motos getting to and from the Serena Hotel. Some days, I will gladly pay a few US bucks for a productive and fulfilling day.
Oh yes, and two days later, I worked out a deal with Emilie whereby I would take a photo for the paper she’s working at, Grands Lacs Hebdo. Another job I worked out on the side—but of course it’s all for the benefit of the Rwandan media, lets not forget. The photo I took was a portrait of one of many women seeking legal counsel for cases of marital neglect and abuse. There are some great stories to dig up here and I feel lucky to have a part in their telling.
June 3, 2007 — Akagera Safari
It may not be Kenya, but Rwanda is still in Africa. Therefore, the safari excursions still have some “street cred” in my books.
Eight of us spent a wild afternoon in Akagera on safari. We paid two drivers to take us all to the protected reserve, about two hours northeast of Kigali.
Our biggest collective disappointment was that we didn’t see elephants. We also didn’t see lions or alligators. What do you expect? Despite being able to drive in the park for seven hours without looping back at any point, Akagera is one of the smallest game parks in Africa.
My biggest regret was the way I spent the night before leaving. In a way, however, I had so much fun that I can’t say I’d have done things any differently given a second chance.
The night began with Kyla, Shelley and I having drinks at La Fiesta (Mexican restaurant across the street) with some Rwandan friends before heading to a house party down the road. We continued to celebrate late into the night, before proceeding to the MTN bar (about 10 minutes away by car) for a few more drinks, until we finally arrived back at our respective beds around 3 a.m.
We left for Akagera at 5 a.m., all of us. Needless to say, I napped in the car.
And, I really can’t complain about the safari itself. The giraffes were majestic, the hippos were great (but shy), the impalas were beautiful and the zebras were a treat to see in the wild.
June 2, 2007 — Staring
If there’s one thing that fascinates me every single day I’m in Africa, it’s how people constantly stare at white people. It’s one of the biggest photographic challenges I’ve come across.
To capture a natural moment without attracting too much attention by my camera, or even to get a natural moment under the circumstances without posing it, can be difficult.
I photographed a child carrying a Tide box (who knows what was inside) up the road near our house. What is interesting about the photo is that the kid is looking right at me, and yet, it represents a very common and natural moment between the Rwandan boy and I.
The look he is giving me in this photo is the look any white person will get, even in busy downtown areas, camera or no camera. I shot this with the camera at waist level in front of me, pointing to the left as I kept my eyes looking forward.
In any Westernized country, the kind of staring you get here would be rude and indicate aggression. While in some cases it may be the same here, the looks are usually just inspired by curiosity. You know this because as soon as you say Mwiriwe (good afternoon/evening) to a staring individual, they will break into a smile and greet you happily.
Cynthia was talking about this phenomenon as it relates to school children and their inclination to hug white people on the street. I’ve been hugged around the knees more than once, and Cynthia many more times, as she seems to encourage the practice with her sympathetic eyes and big smile.
Her theory is that white people must have the same effect on Rwandan school children as a Tony the Tiger or Mickey Mouse mascot might have on any child in the first world, or elsewhere.
I think it’s a pretty good theory.
June 1, 2007 — Benign Girl and Cornflakes
On assignment, we often have enough time to browse in a local shop or grocery store. It is not only just because we’ve finished taking our photos and doing interviews early…most times it’s because we end up going somewhere for a story only to find that we’re in the wrong place altogether.
For some reason, the drivers at the New Times sometimes don’t have cellphones. So, last week, for example, we went to the Serena Hotel expecting to report on the last day of an international business conference, and we found that only the promotional booths and gift shops were open. We had to call the New Times and let them know to inform the driver, who’d just left, to come back as soon as he got there. We had about an hour of browsing African art in the shops.
This brings me to my story about yesterday. Kate, Gertrude and I went to a hotel to write a story on waitresses being trained in a new hotel (a business story indeed). At first we ended up at the wrong hotel. I wasn’t surprised somehow. Luckily the driver didn’t get too far and had a cellphone this time.
We made it to the real location, having missed the opening ceremony. We got our photos and interviews. Then we had time to kill. A nearby store was the perfect time killer. I bought cookies and a chocolate bar that had sugar and hydrogenated vegetable oil as its first two ingredients.
The best part of the trip was finding the choicely worded Benign Girl toy cellphone (do we know in Rwanda that cellphones give you brain tumors?) and the scary as hell Cornflakes box.
The store clerk asked me for money for taking photos of both. I explained that we were journalists with the New Times and that we should be allowed to take photos. She wasn’t buying my reasoning (neither was I in this situation!), so I quickly switched to bargain mode: “Maybe I just won’t buy these cookies and chocolate bar in my hands. Do you want me to buy these?” I stayed smiling and friendly the whole time. It seems to be the best technique.
In the end, I paid no money for the photos, and ended up with a horrible chocolate bar and strawberry icing cookies.
May 27, 2007 — Gorillas of Rwanda
As I woke up at 3:30 a.m. on Sunday for my gorilla adventure, I was still having serious doubts about whether spending the US$375 had been a good idea. I don’t have very much money to spend in Africa and that amount was nearly a quarter of my total funds.
Before I came to Rwanda, Chris Redmond, a friend from last year’s journalism class, tried to convince me that the experience was well worth the price. I’m glad I took his word for it.
Kyla, Melodie, Emilie and I were the four interns taking part in the adventure. We made it to the gate around 7 a.m. and were put into a group together. We were just as promptly split up to accommodate the maximum limit of people for specific gorilla groups – Melodie and I in one, Kyla and Emilie in another.
While I can’t speak for Kyla and Emilie’s experience, I can say that they were finished and back at the gate by around 12 p.m. At that time, my and Melodie’s group had only just found our Gorillas.
Our hike can be split up into three distinct sections. For the first hour, we made our way through mist, fog, rain and mud. The second hour was an epic of negotiating a large field of “sting nettles” —quite aptly named plants, by the way. The third hour (and a half) involved fewer nettles and a lot of path making by way of a machete-wielding guide.
And yet, despite our slightly longer than expected quest into the jungle (made easier by trackers who radio the gorillas’ position to the guides), it was completely worth it. I could hardly believe it: wild gorillas were mere feet away from me, feasting on plants and caring for their young.
One female gorilla walked by our group. I was standing at the end of the line. As she moved past me, she swatted and grabbed my right leg. Luckily, she let go quickly and continued toward the silverback. It was all very surreal, to be there and witness such things.
The brush was thick and the steepness of the location made it hard to stand, let alone take photos. My best photos were taken with a 70-200mm telephoto lens, which I kept on my camera, in my hands for the entire hike.
The hike back to the 4 by 4 was just as long as the hike in. Seven hours of hiking, we were told, was quite a long time for one of these trips. It was certainly the most challenging hike I’d ever done in my life.
I think the attached photos tell the story in a way that words alone cannot.
When we finally got back to the gate at 4 p.m., we drove to a nearby village to pick up Kyla and Emilie from an internet café. We were back in Kigali by 6:30 p.m., ate dinner, and then went dancing at Cadillac for Christine’s 24th birthday.
We danced until 3:30 a.m.
May 25, 2007 — Kigali Harvest School
Every weekday I walk from the house to work. It takes about 30 minutes and the view along one portion of the walk is pricelessly beautiful. Looking to the left you can see much of Kigali, houses climbing up the hills and curving into the valley.
Also to the left, just metres down the hill, is a kindergarten and primary school run by the Evangelical Restoration Church. It’s a private school and therefore relies on funding from parents of attending children.
The teachers make a salary of about US$100 per month, in a country where rent for a three-room house costs around US$70 per month. There is a school director and a pastor as well, who were both very accommodating and friendly.
The children are so cute and well behaved. Grades range from junior, middle and senior nursery school (ages 3 to 5) all the way up to grade 5 (age 11). The lessons are in French, but English and Kinyarwanda are also taught, as well as science, religion, math, geography, physical education and culture.
The school day runs from 7:45 a.m. until 1:15 p.m., with two recess breaks.
The original purpose of shooting in the school was to get a shot for a post-genocide recovery story for the New Times. In the end, I managed to spend all morning there and get so much more out of it.
See for yourself:
May 24, 2007 — Journalist training session
On Thursday morning, all journalists took part in a journalism training session designed to reinforce some basic journalistic know-how. Courtroom terminology, basic word definitions and writing style were among issues emphasized, and many questions were asked and answered.
I’m glad to say that it seemed to address some issues that badly needed attention and most reporters and editors found it quite useful.
On the other hand, I also know with some certainty that a few journalists saw it as the “white man” presuming to know better than the Africans. Can you blame them?
The Rwanda Initiative has so far been a very rewarding experience, but with every reward comes new setbacks.
Who said this work would be easy, anyway?
May 23, 2007 — The slums of Kigali
There are many safe and beautiful things to do and see in Rwanda. Such things rarely fascinate me.
Magnus from The New Times lead Christine and I down dark crowded roads. Vendors selling cheap shoes, clothes, popcorn, candy, fruits, veggies and pirated movies lined the main street. People stare at Christine and I, the only two Muzungus (white people) in this area tonight.
This is the slum of Kigali.
Though safer than many African slums, Magnus warned us to stay close. He lives mere steps away from here and knows the area, the people and the dangers all too well.
In the darkness, the lady to my left suddenly falls hard into a two-metre deep pit. She disappears for a moment, causes a small scene, but emerges with some help and no seems not to have sustained any serious physical injury.
We turn down a dirt road parallel to the main street—the prostitution strip. Here, girls as young as 15 earn a living doing sex work. We walk past small children playing on the road, none older than 10. “All children of prostitutes,” Magnus explains.
We are led into a small restaurant with wobbly tables and plastic chairs. We order ugali, a local root that is pounded into a dough-like blob. You grab pieces with your fingers; dip it in a liver or meat sauce; then chew and swallow. We also had porridge, a house specialty. For the three of us, the bill came to 1,900 Rwandan Francs, or about $3.75US. In other areas of Kigali, meals usually cost more than that per person. Now I can only hope that I don’t have some kind of amoeba from poorly handled food. A risk I probably won’t take again.
One photo I managed to take was of a butcher shop. I loved the sign and had to take it. Despite Magnus telling me there was no problem taking a photo, about five people protested and yelled at me. Although they were yelling in Kinyarwanda, there was no misscomunication: the butcher held up a clever, looked at me, and made a chopping motion.
We then caught a bus back to our house. Best night in Kigali so far.
May 18, 2007 — Gorillas
Two days ago, Emilie, Melodie, Kyla and I made the choice to front the US$375 to see the Gorillas in the wild. We went to the office of tourism and booked for the morning of Saturday, May 26th.
Other than the fact that it will probably be the most awesome experience ever, we decided to book early because the price goes up to $500US on June 1. Yikes. And again, we were faced with problems when trying to pay with money printed earlier than 2001. It’s a very annoying thing to discover after arriving.
In addition to paying for the tickets, you must hire a driver to take you to and back from the park, which is about two hours away. That will be another US$150 – a good deal actually. We plan on leaving around 4 a.m. to get there on time. Yes, 4 a.m.
It will be a long day.
May 17, 2007 — The rewards of work
I was sipping my tea on the morning of my first day of work at The New Times when David, the Editor in Chief, gets my attention.
“Dump this, and go,” he pointed to my cup of tea. The tea was damn good, so I opted to gulp it instead, grabbed my gear and went out the door with George (Kagame, the reporter) and John (the photog).
The Minister of Finance was helping announce the “One UN System in Rwanda” program during a meeting with the Swedish ambassador. I snapped a few photos and observed how John shot.
The two main photographers use Nikon D70s with a standard short zoom lens. They use the small built-in camera flash and typically take photos from a boring standing position. There is definitely a lot of room for creative improvement.
However, the other photographer George has some decent shots in the paper. There is evidence of creative thinking in most of his photos and he uses his limited gear well. He seems to be very proud of his job too, as many successful photographers anywhere in the world tend to be.
After the meeting, I got back to the newsroom and filed my photos. John loved them. When Rwandans like something, they get VERY excited. He analyzed and complimented my technique and even asked me to show him a few things.
It was a rewarding first day.
May 16, 2007 — Radio Rwanda
We visited a few media outlets in Kigali today — among them, Radio Rwanda. They use digital recorders to get their stories and convert the audio to analogue before broadcasting. Wow.
May 15, 2007 — Genocide Memorial
While waiting for pizza late last night, we had the privilege of speaking with a backpacker from California. He pegged us for Americans initially. We cleared that up immediately. While it was surprisingly comforting to speak with someone from North America, I had to stop paying attention to him after he described the Genocide Memorial site as “dope.”
We saw the Memorial this morning, before the big tour vans got there in the afternoon. It was a sobering experience and I was more affected than I imagined I would be. It was the best memorial/museum I’ve ever seen, and very eye opening. I was very sad to know that I was alive during the genocide and never heard a thing about it in Canada at the time. Over a million people killed. Unbelievable.
Skulls and bones were on display behind glass and photos of Tutsi victims were on display in some of the rooms. Children victims were the main focus of one part of the exhibit. Large pictures of individual kids were accompanied with plaques telling of their respective favorite foods, favorite sports and last known spoken words.
It was hard to take.
In Rwanda, Genocide always takes a capital G. Enough said.
May 15, 2007 — Off to Butare
The bus ride to Butare takes about 2.5 hours by direct bus (It’s only about 115 km I think, but the roads curve sharply up and around the many beautiful green hills of this country). I was lucky to have the window seat on the way there and back to Kigali. The countryside is beautiful. Crops are harvested on stair-like graduations in the hills, palm trees grow everywhere, houses and markets line the road and the people are either walking with a purpose or standing and starring at passing traffic.
We arrived and checked into our motel around 6 p.m., then walked over the Shelley’s house, and finally ended up a at the restaurant next door. Sam, Emanuel, Leon, Leopold and Providence were among the Rwandan students and friends invited to join us that evening. After two large beers and some delicious goat and fish brochette, we all knew each other quite well. I had at least three new phone numbers in my cellphone by the end of the night.
I learned many things from our Rwandan friends that night. Some things were said in confidence, but one important lesson I can share is this: If you eat goat, you will grow a beard or moustache. I’m currently testing this theory. Apologies to my girlfriend and those who have to look at my poor excuse for facial hair.
On Monday we walked to the University to see the journalism school. I sat in on Lynn’s photojournalism class in a classroom no bigger than a small office in Canada. About eight students sat in chairs against the walls and a desk took up much of the middle of the room. The students’ photos were projected onto the wall and Lynn would constructively criticize them one by one. By the end of the class, all the students understood the difference and the relationship between THE focus and IN focus. A successful lesson.
Our next stop was Radio Salus on the other side of town. Cynthia brought a big bag full of new radio equipment from Canada, and was able to deliver it all on this day. Probably see Cynthia’s blog for better detail about this visit, as she will likely have much more to share. In the meantime, see some of my accompanying photos below.
Upon our return to Kigali that night, Cynthia, Kyla, Melodie, Roxy and Emilie’s house didn’t have any food prepared! My and Kate’s house had very little. It was getting late and we were getting tired. Cynthia phoned me at the cyber café, where a few of us stayed to check emails, and asked us to pick up a late dinner anywhere we could find hot food. Thank goodness for UTC Mumuji and their open-late pizza place. Yes pizza. Yes an expensive only option to be fed. Yes, totally worth it.
May 14, 2007
Today in Butare I gave a street child a photojournalism magazine I was finished with. Not 20 seconds later a man had stolen it.
May 13, 2007 — Club Cadillac
Play before work is the name of the game. Thursday is the first day of work for the six of us here. Until then, it seems like we are set to get a taste of as many aspects of Rwandan life as possible, including the clubbing scene.
After showering, changing clothes and “30 seconds” of the girls putting on makeup, we set down the long winding dirt and cobble stone roads for a 20-minute walk to one of the biggest Kigali nightclubs, Cadillac.
At 1500 Francs (3 bucks) to get in and 1000 Francs for each bee (or water), the outing was a bargain compared with the cost of going to most Canadian clubs. The atmosphere—Kyla and I agreed—was closer to that of a stripclub—black lights, glowing patterned carpeting surrounding the dance floor and mirrors on the walls/columns/ceilings. A front projection TV was tuned to sports highlights, big fans oscillated at every corner of the room and the music was a steady mix of African something, reggae, hip-hop and American popular.
Approximately 90 per cent of the club was male, interestingly enough, perhaps less so towards the end of the night—we left at 3:30 a.m. or so, but it was open until 6 a.m.
Now, I won’t go into any more detail than I have to here…but lets just say local men challenged me to more than one dance off. Clearly, I won them all.
Great fun, friendly people, good times. I think I may have gained some new respect among the locals, having been seen dancing with six Muzungu (a ubiquitous Kinyarwandan word for white) girls at a time. Many suggested that I was obligated to share them. To this I would simply smile.
May 11, 2007 — Settling in
As I sat in the front seat of a modest but comfortable taxi car on the way to downtown Kigali, I couldn’t help but wonder if my (comparatively) white arm hanging out the window was getting us more attention from locals than we needed. I eventually retired my hand back to my knee for a different reason: traffic flow is pretty much improvised here.
Sure, there are traffic lights. They look very similar to the ones in Canada, save the fact that they don’t light up. It’s surprising how well traffic seems to move through intersections. Comparatively, Vietnam is much worse for traffic. There is also lots of human traffic, many people carrying/balancing large objects or containers on their heads, no help from their hands. It’s impressive to see this in person.
The two taxis drove us into an area where we could exchange some American dollars for Rwandan Francs. One dollar got us 548 Francs. Most of use exchanged about $200, and plan on stretching that for two weeks at least.
The biggest problem we’ve run into concerning money is that exchange shops suddenly don’t accept American bills printed earlier than 1999. “A bad year,” they say—alluding to counterfeiting, I assume. Too bad half the bills we have are printed before this date. They also give you less for your buck if you’re exchanging anything below a $50 ($1=500, in these cases. Things I wish we knew before coming here. Sigh.)
With fresh local currency in hand, we walked to the UTC Mumuji building—the closest thing to a Canadian mall in Kigali. It’s where white people seem to go to feel at home. I must admit, a wave of western comfort comes over me in this building. There is a coffee place called Bourbon where foreigners account for more than half the customers. They brew Rwandan coffee, which any local will tell you is the best coffee in the world. There is also free WiFi with any purchase, and so three of us brought laptops and shared them to send emails to our parents.
Bien sure, ça devient plus facile à parler français ici, même ci ma grammaire n’est pas parfaite. La plupart des Rwandans savent comment parler français, beaucoup savent l’Anglais, et seulement aux occasions rares, nous rencontrons les gens qui parlent seulement Kinyarwandan. En tout cas, ce n’est pas trop difficile à communiquer.
Eating is also made quite easy for us. There is a cook at the house I’m staying at called Maria who takes two buses just to get here every day. She is fabulous and makes great sponge cakes, cookies, fresh passion fruit juice and a variety of hot meals. Today she made mini pizzas, potatoes, rice, beans, beef stew and steamed veggies. There’s always fresh fruit on the table and there’s always beer in the fridge. Mutzig beer is the best I’ve tasted here so far, and at about a buck fifty a bottle, it’s a good deal—cheaper than Fanta in most places.
Saturday we are checking out a place called Cadillac, Kigali’s largest and most popular nightclub. I will probably go just to see what it’s like…less so to dance, in other words.
On Sunday we head off to Butare to see the Journalism School. It’s a two-hour bus ride to the south of the country and we stay there overnight. I’m told there is very little to see, but somehow I don’t believe it. Leaving the big city for the African countryside will be an adventure in itself, especially for someone seeing Africa for the first time.
May 10, 2007 — Rwanda bound
We left on Tuesday, May 8 and arrived in Rwanda two days later via overnight flights separated by a full day in London, England. The good news is that we arrived safe in Kigali with all our bags. As for the bad news…well, there’s really no bad news, except that we’re very tired.
I would also consider it bad news that Solange (our wonderful liaison here in Rwanda) has informed us that we can’t take photos in the city without permission from the national authority. We are told that basically not even tourists can snap photos without facing risk of being detained by local authorities. Whether this is true or not is still hazy at this point. Solange seems to think it won’t be a problem when I am shooting for the New Times and Newsline, but I have my doubts now.
There is always the possibility to apply for government permission to shoot. Such permission, however, is supposed to cost mucho dineros. I’ll find out soon enough what option is ideal for a foreigner in my position. In the meantime, sadly, I will be leaving my camera in the house.
Speaking of which, the house is quite nice. It is nothing as I expected. In fact, it is much more than I expected: nice yard, huge sitting areas, several washrooms, great food prepared every day and even my own room. The property is surrounded by brick walls rimmed with razor wire and broken glass shards. Security guards are always at the gate.
We are staying in two houses, just minutes walk away from each other. Cynthia, Melodie, Emilie and Kyla are in the other house. Kate and I are in the other house with John, Solange and Sally. A few more interns and journalists will arrive in both houses as the summer goes by.
There is no really easy access to internet, and therefore, I have little choice but to write these blogs, transfer them to my jump drive, and post them the following day from an internet café (or possibly the newsroom, when I start my work).
We all start our internships next Thursday, a full week from our arrival. The reason for this is to leave time for an orientation program whereby we see the Journalism School in Butare, visit the main news outlets in Kigali and see one of the larger genocide memorials (the name escapes me at the moment) in the city. I can’t wait.