Kim Lochead's Blog
September 23, 2007 — 'I just want a piece of your hair'
A lazy Sunday. Katie and I spent most of the day on the terrace of Bourbon Café in the heart of downtown Kigali, typing away on our laptops. I call it the “African version of Starbucks, only ten times better.” Everything on the menu is about four or five dollars for coffee, African tea and iced coffee drinks. African tea is my favourite. It has a spicy/sweet taste because of the cloves and loads of sugar they put in it. It’s also a bit thicker because they use goat’s milk. The menu also has crepes, soup, club sandwiches and stuffed spinach croissants with a side of fries for $4. It’s a welcome treat to my usual rice and goat diet. The leather and wicker furniture seems to have walked out of a Bombay catalogue and generally you’ll find a group of muzungus there.
After a few hours, we’re approached by an employee who begins chatting with us about Canada and things we need to see in Rwanda. He tells me to take off my hat because he noticed my blonde pony tail peeping out underneath and really loves blonde hair. I’m reluctant to expose my rat’s nest but decide it’s not a big deal - I’ve given up on my appearance (especially my cut-up feet) here and settled on looking ‘decently showered.’ In fact, I was on facebook at work when one of the reporters noticed my profile picture and had a hard time realizing it was actually me. He said he wanted to see me next time looking like that but I told him unfortunately I didn’t bring my hair straightner and make-up with me to Africa.
After letting my hair down, the Bourbon server says: “I just want a piece of your hair and maybe see you riding on a horse with it flowing in the wind.”
I offer him a strand wrapped around my hair elastic. He laughs. And my mother told me to dye my hair darker before I left. Being blonde in this country has proven more beneficial to my ego than anything. Sure people on the street only call me beautiful because my hair and skin colour are rare (or they want you to marry them in hopes of attaining Canadian citizenship), but I’d settle for that any day. At home, I’d just be lost in another sea of blonde heads.
September 22, 2007 — Diarrohea, discrimination, and cell phone etiquette
Traveller’s diarrohea is an abrupt and unpleasant episode, but an inevitable fact you will have to deal with when travelling anywhere.
It is the most common disease among travellers and approximately 10 million people develop it each year. Most people do not experience it until the second week of their stay in a country and you can even have it once you return home. The primary cause is usually the bacteria called Enterotoxigenic Escherischii coli (ETEC) which is found in contaminated water and food. ETEC attaches itself to intestinal cells which cause them to produce water in the intestine which mix with passing feces…voila, diarrhoea.
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention describes the symptoms as “four to five loose or watery bowel movements each day…nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal cramping, bloating, fever, urgency, and malaise.”
Of course you can take all the necessary and obvious precautions to prevent it, by avoiding raw or uncooked meat, seafood, buying food and water from unhygienic street vendors, boiling water, and only eating raw fruits and vegetables that have to be peeled. But really, you can live on bread and still get diarrhoea because your body is simply trying to adjust to its new environment. You can take meds for worse cases, but generally you’ll feel back to your regular self in a week or two.
In extreme cases, it is called “dysentery” when there is evidence that the organisms are invading the intestinal wall, causing pus, mucus, and blood to appear in the stool. This word is derived from the Greek word meaning "bad intestine."
So, load up on the Purel and don’t let something like this deter you from trying the native food of the country because you’ll really be missing out.
So you receive blatant stares wherever you go, the kind of stares that linger as people look back over their shoulder after you’ve passed; school children run up to you in their blue uniforms clapping their hands directly infront of your face shouting: “Muzungu! Muzungu!” (white person)
It comes with the territory, and the only thing I find a bit difficult to deal with it because I still have the Western mentality that white people should be sympathizing with black people, as we’ve seen films like The Colour Purple and read about the Slave Trade in our history text books. Despite the fact that I am actually the visible minority, it still doesn’t bother me. I guess it’s because I can understand the preconceptions most have of white people – that they are rich and privileged and really don’t bring much good besides candy.
A co-worker told me if he was in Canada, he’s sure people would point at him on the street and yell “Black person!” I tried to explain to him how multicultural Canada is.
I also showed him pictures of Niagara Falls and he thought it was man-made. Another co-worker asked me how I felt about the discrimination and kept apologizing for it, but I told him it’s just something you have to deal with and I completely understand why people react the way they do. It still hasn’t deterred others from proposing marriage to me anyways (although they just want the Canadian citizenship).
Cell Phone Etiquette
In Rwanda, cell phones are mandatory and almost everyone owns one. They are relatively cheap and pay-as-you-go. I buy phone cards worth 2,500 RWF ($5) and they usually last me for a week. Everyone text messages instead of calling because it uses less credits and often at work, people will call me and then hang up because they want me to call them back and use my credit. In meetings, conferences, or interviews, it’s very common for people to answer their phones and talk right there in front of everyone. No one misses a call.
September 18, 2007 — Wading through muddy trenches
Lines of glowing faces trim the winding roadside, carrying large bundles of bananas on top their heads, pale yellow plastic water cans, and gardening hoes, straddling the paved edge with bare feet. The headlights from our land cruiser flash on children in tattered shorts, women in vibrant wraps and men with broad shoulders. The sky is coal-black and I can’t even make out the faint outline of the volcanoes ahead. It’s 4:30 am and the locals are beginning their daily chores; off to the field to harvest potatoes, to the market to sell fruit, or to pump water. I’m not sure how they maneuver before dawn when there are no streetlamps to guide their way.
And here I sit, in an expensive SUV, an unemployed recent graduate to Westerners, a rich white girl on vacation to them.
I doze in and out of sleep, not wanting to miss the scenery, but knowing I have to rest-up for my trek ahead. Two hours later, after driving over small volcanic boulders and through flooded towns as families stand outside their drowned homes, we arrive at the volcanoes national park. I sling my backpack on and walk over to a crowd of muzungus, mostly middle-aged Europeans sipping Rwandan coffee, dressed in nylon and fleece. My driver consults the guides on the different gorilla groups, some further up the volcano than others. I tell him I want to see the Susa group, the largest clan of gorillas with members who once were studied by Diane Fossey. He tells me it should be an easy trek surprisingly because the group is not far up the volcano. The trek will only be an hour – the first of many misjudged estimates over the course of the hike.
I’m shuffled into a group of eight including three young Brits, two middle-aged French women, an American woman from Arizona, and a Dane who started chatting with me for awhile. He was in Rwanda with the EU, negotiating free trade. The guides briefed us on the day’s events, specs on the gorillas and how to behave. Then we are carted off into our SUVs and driven to the base sight where we will begin our adventure. I climb out and my driver hands me a walking stick with a gorilla carved into the handle. Water bottles are passed around and zipped into backpacks.
Then, the rain starts.
At first, a drizzle, then a cold shower following us as we wade through ditches and fields to the rock wall separating the forest from the rural countryside. My jacket is not waterproof, so I pull on an emergency poncho I bought from the dollar store. The guides laugh at me and ask why I’m wearing a plastic garbage bag. I tell them it will at least keep my camera equipment dry in my backpack, knowing I do look like a silly ghost with my pale face and white bag that keeps getting snagged on fresh machete-cute bamboo sticks. As we head into the forest, the terrain is flat and a canopy of green bamboo stalks stretch high over us. We come to a river with rushing muddy water a few feet wide. Two of our guides stand in it with their rubber boots and help us pole-vault over. After 45 minutes we come to a more dense part of the forest, with lush green vegetation, muddy slopes and steep cliffs. I stopped caring about keeping my feet dry as the rain flowed down the slopes we were climbing. Then I fell face-first into a nettle bush which has small prickly needles that dig into your skin. A guide checked my eye for damage and wiped away most of the needles with his wet glove. My cheek stayed red and puffy for awhile and the raindrops stung every time I lifted my face to see up the volcano.
Once in awhile we would stop and wait for everyone to catch up, but I found this brief rest more of an annoyance than a benefit because I was completely soaked and getting colder if I wasn’t moving. The guides talked on their radios to the trackers who had still not located the gorillas. My stomach was grumbling because I had nothing to eat yet that day and forgot to pack a snack. My breathing grew heavier as we climbed higher and the cold wind went straight through my clothes.
We had been hiking for three and a half hours to 3,200 ft and finally the guides told us to ditch our packs and hiking sticks, taking only our cameras.
The Brits pulled out a loaf of white bread and shared it with everyone while the French ladies passed around ginger cookies. I was so thankful to get my blood sugar high again. My lips were blue and purple and I couldn’t feel the buttons underneath my fingertips on my camera, but once we entered a misty clearing, large black mounds of fur greeted us.
We saw about 17 gorillas, although there were probably 30 in total in the group. They sat pulling apart wild celery stalks, chomping on the watery internal bits, occasionally looking at us with annoyed expressions. A few babies clung to their mother’s fur, swinging back and forth as she ripped stalks from the soil. Other babies were covered protectively by their mother’s large arms, kept dry from the cold rain. A silverback, the dominant male with light gray fur on this back caused from age, bared his large teeth as he yawned, warning us to keep our distance. We turned off our flashes and I alternated between my small digital Kodak and its video function, to my SLR.
At one point, a young male was a foot away from me!
The guides made sure we kept back, especially from the mothers but suddenly a large male started walking directly towards our guide who shrunk into the fetal position as it crawled over him. We didn’t know exactly what we were standing on because the vegetation was very dense, but with the wrong step, your foot could sink through the plants up to your knee. It was very slippery from the rain but no one fell. My yoga pants vacuum-sealed to my legs, creating a cold wetsuit and nettles still pierced through with their sting.
After an hour snapping photos, we hiked back to our packs bursting to talk about our experience from being reduced to soft whispers while in the presence of the gorillas. We began our descent back, skiing down the muddy hills, sometimes on our backs as we failed to grab a bamboo stalk for support.
Once we went through the stone wall, into the open green fields the rain ceased and we threw down our backpacks to stretch. I pulled out a micofibre towel and tried off my face. We had one hour to get back to the dry comfort of our SUVs before dark. The Dane and I continued talking about the different malaria medications because I was on the strongest – Lariam which can make you depressed and crazy. No symptoms yet. He asked me if I had a change of dry clothes and I said ‘no’ so he offered me an extra pair of his pants which I greatly accepted, knowing the two hour drive back to Kigali would not be fun in wet clothes.
Getting into town, our circle of SUVs was surrounded by a welcoming committee of locals. It looked like the whole town had come out to greet us, about 200 people, or really, hoping to get money or clothes from the rich white people. I snapped a few pictures of runny-nosed kids as I waited for my certificate stating I had completed the trek. I shook hands with my group members, bid them well, and jumped across a puddle to my SUV. I left the door open, pulling off my drenched socks and squeezing out the muddy water as eager eyes stared at me, still hoping for a handout. I examined my cut legs and pruned feet as we pulled away. I had paid $650 US to trek seven and a half hours through rain and cold wind to see the animal most genetically close to humans, in the wild heart of Africa. Definitely worth every penny, but next time, I’m bringing hot chocolate.
September 7, 2007 — Donnez-moi riches!
Today I have conquered the 30 minute trek to the New Times office. Although I have no geographical sense, and Kigali has no street signs, it’s the simplest route by far. I start out by turning left up the hill from my house past a hair salon and La Fiesta Mexican restaurant, then left on a paved road with painted checkerboard curbs and follow it as it winds up the hill to KBC where I cross the round-about and up another slope to the office. The New Times is situated in the basement, with one large newsroom filled with computers and other small offices adjoining. Then I ventured upstairs to the tourism office to book my gorilla adventure at a cost of $650 US ($500 for the park permit + $150 for a 4X4 and driver for the day). I cringed as I gave almost half my budget away, but I know it is going to truly be worth it. I am also going by myself because all the other interns have already done it or are not interested. I leave on the 18th! So excited!
Everyday, wherever you walk, there are always kids and sometimes adults who will ask you for money and chocolate in French. I have brought some candy, pencils, and other gifts for the kids, but I’m not giving them away until the end of my trip – otherwise I would constantly be hounded because they would think I have an endless supply to give away.
This weekend we took the Volcano, a two hour mini-bus ride, to Butare for a student party held by the Canadian teachers with the Initiative. Everyone was pretty drunk off Mutzig, a beer from Holland but brewed here and I drank banana liquor with Coke, which is very sweet. The students of course are fantastic dancers and played an interesting array of music from Rhianna and Venga Boys, to Kenny Rogers. They really love country music.
In the morning, I visited the national museum, which is a bit disappointing. You are not permitted to take pictures, and most of the exhibit explanations are in ten different African languages, barely any French, let alone English. The best display was an imitation of a traditional village showcasing the King’s woven grass hut. Inside, there was one bedroom and a stove. The King (or any husband) would sleep on the outside of the bed, by a bundle of spears, in order to protect the woman. She also had a separate entrance to the bedroom so she wouldn’t have to crawl over her husband and become vulnerable to attacks. Also, the man always followed the woman upstairs/uphill and preceded her when going downstairs/downhill – simply to always protect her, even if she fell. Ugh, what happened to this kind of chivalrous attitude in the West?
Next, I visited the Murambi Genocide Memorial which holds thousands of bodies in unfinished brick school houses that became shelter for refugees during the war. They were later discovered hiding and murdered. Every room revealed chalk-white mummified bodies laying in a tangled mess on wooden crates. Some still had bits of black hair attached to the scalp and even tattered clothing. Babies were laid on top of their mothers…there were so many babies. What is most haunting are the faces, which features are still distinct because the bodies are preserved with lime. You can also identify how the person was killed by gun or stab wounds still prominent. The smell of the deceased mixed with daily aromas of B.O. and diesel is a bit overwhelming. I only spent half an hour there before signing the guest book and giving a donation. There is nothing more to say about this.
To end on a lighter note, here are some of the words I have learned (phonetically spelt):
Mata-mut-say: Good Morning
Ama-kou-rou: How are you?
Nee-may-za: Fine. Now-way: And you?
Mor-ra-ko-zae chy-na: Thank you so much.
Ba-ba-ri-ya: Forgive me (sorry, excuse me).
Na-chi-bazo: No problem! (my favourite)
September 4, 2007 — I am so white
After a total of 27 hours of flying time, many failed attempts to sleep more than one hour outside of Burberry boutique during a 15-hour layover in Heathrow, and three days of travel, I have finally landed in Kigali, Rwanda. It wasn’t that dreadful of a trip, but I do suggest to always, always, always avoid the aisle seat at all possible costs because you are sitting duck for many unfortunate events to happen. Not only are you prone to beverage carts banging your elbows (a la Drew Barrymore in the Wedding Singer) along with your head dangling aimlessly for other passengers to hit as they whiz by, but you are also at high risk for drinks and food spilled in your lap, or as in my case, an entire bottle of Coke Cola exploding all over you. Luckily, I was wearing black. Enough with the dramatic flair, I’m actually well-travelled and fly usually once every two months. I have to point out that the Ethiopian airline really puts Air Canada to shame. Classical music, delicious food (which they wake you up for, AC lets you sleep and miss the meal): chicken curry, strawberry cheesecake and all the flight attendants look Iman-esque – so gorgeous. I sat next to a woman who had been living in Buffalo, NY (where my mother’s side of the family is from) and was returning home to Rwanda. What a small world after all! She was very friendly and explained some cultural values and how people would not be willing to talk about the genocide because they had no therapists or psychologists to help them cope. They internalized their experiences, thinking their emotions would disappear if no one talked about it. I was told this already and in my opinion, I hope people learn to associate Rwanda with more than just the genocide.
Once in the Kigali airport, I was be-friended by a medical student named Jean-Claude who already knew of the Canadian students here and had helped Andrea with her documentary on the Family Plan. He stayed with me until there was no hope in hell my luggage would come and handed me off to Solange, my amazing go-to-girl for everything. We arrived at the house after noon, which has nine bedrooms and a huge porch overlooking a deep valley that is dotted with clay and brick homes and small businesses. A guard and a huge brick wall topped with pieces of broken glass and barbed wire protect us from intruders; although I can hardly imagine anything happening because most people are simply just curious at muzungu. Our neighbourhood is called Kimihurra and there is a spa house called Kim Medical Spa. These two places have proven perfect for explaining to people how to say my name, because they understand “Kimberly” better than “Kim.” I learned a few words: the bus to take home is Kychuri and downtown is “mamougee.” (not actually how they are spelt) “eechee” means “what?” and “heyhey” is “where?” Most people speak English, but everyone knows French and are very eager to teach you kyrirwandan. I slept shortly after meeting everyone and woke up to a dinner of rice, liver, green beans, and potatoes. It was actually really good.
In the morning, I went to a craft market, and couldn’t resist the urge to already buy something. I love bartering, and ended up with a few paintings, an ebony jaguar carving, a gorilla carving, and carved ebony fruit bowl. There are many more things I have my eye on, but I am trying my best to wait. Afterwards, I was shown around downtown, buying phone cards and getting my Rwandan cell number, and of course hitting up Bourbon Café, the African version of Starbucks, but ten times better! They have free wireless internet and a beautiful terrace with wicker furniture. I had African tea which tastes like warm milk with cloves, but is very delicious. Downtown is not the typical skyscraper landscape. The tallest buildings have about 5 floors, the UTC (Union Trade Center) and KBC (Kigali Business Center). From banks, to groceries, to clothing and even the bars, you can find it all at these two places.
The only thing the western images of Africa have failed to convey and capture, are the good-hearted spirit and genuine happiness these people exude. Of course I have seen the mud and stick shacks, with rusted tin roof shingles held down with rocks and heavy garbage to keep from blowing away in storms, children in mismatched shoes or no shoes at all; you cannot turn a blind eye to the poverty here, but I truly believe most is overshadowed by smiles and laughter seen and heard everywhere (and not just because I’m the only white blonde girl in a few kilometres radius). I see it in our cook, a thin Rwandanese woman with weathered skin and so frail I’m afraid she’ll break. She greets me everyday with “Bonjour Kim, comme ca va?” and warns me not to sweep up the food she has placed around the floor of the fridge which has been doused with poison to lure the rat that calls our kitchen home. And I have seen it in the blatant stares from locals who if you simply smile at them as I did with an elderly woman, they will come over to you and shake your hand, walk with you and admire someone completely out-of-the-ordinary. And of course how can you not mention the kids, chasing wooden hoops down the red dirt roads with sticks, completely innocent and oblivious to the fact that they are living in a third-world country.