Helen Morris' Blog
June 18, 2006 — Speech?
Selline invited me to the anti-AIDS concert at her school. After a slight misunderstanding with Ernesto the taxi driver I ended up at the airport seeing Brian off rather than at the concert. I called Selline to apologise and explain that I would be a little late. I asked if I could just slip in the back. No problem Selline assured me. After a classic Kigali taxi ride — bumping along red dirt roads stopping every once in awhile to ask directions — we arrived at Kagarame Secondary School. One of the students helped me to find the hall. The low hanger like building usually used as the dining hall was packed to the rafters with over 600 students. Six hundred pairs of eyes followed me as I walked in. The head girl showed me to a seat at the front. As I sat down the MC stood up and said, “Now our special guest has arrived our concert can begin.”
The concert opened with traditional African dancing. At the end of the dance the MC turned to me, “So Helen, what did you think, did you enjoy the dancing?” Getting into my role now I smiled and nodded enthusiastically.
The students performed a play, songs, poems, and games. All with a clear message abstinence is the best and, the impression they gave, perhaps the only way to prevent HIV/AIDS. The onus seemed to be on the girls to abstain. I asked why the focus was on the consequences for girls. The anti-AIDS club secretary, a senior student called Monica, assured me it was because girls are easily tempted. In the play one girl becomes pregnant and another is infected with HIV. Other than chatting up the girls the guys didn’t really seem to have a role or to face any consequences.
During a break in the play, the inevitable speeches began. I settled back to chat to Monica. Each speaker delivered their lengthy and complex speeches. Suddenly the MC turned to our row, “Now we would like to hear from our guests, Helen you will say some words to the students.” There was nothing for it but to stand up in front of 600 kids, teachers, and guests and deliver a speech. I decided to come in somewhat short of the traditional Rwandan speech length.
June 15, 2006 — John Bosco
I met John Bosco today. He is 25. His parents were killed in the genocide. His grandparents died in the previous genocide in the 1950s. He grew up in an orphanage. He has a fairly slight build and has a scar on his arm but most of his face is taken up by a huge grin. He told me that he has seen such sadness but received much kindness in his life and that he wanted to give something back.
He had planned to perhaps help some HIV positive widows or maybe a few orphans…he told me that despite the best laid plans, things got a bit out of hand. He is now coordinating the opening of a girls school in Butare. He also runs a centre where street kids come and care for rabbits; the rabbits are then sold providing money for schooling for the kids. At the centre there is a workshop to teach women tailoring so that they can set up their own businesses. He runs a scheme for HIV positive widows who own farm animals. He provides school fees for kids who cannot afford them. He told me that a boy approached his centre saying that his parents were dead and he needed money for school. John Bosco later discovered that the boy’s mother was in prison and that his father was a perpetrator in the genocide. As he told me this story he held his hands over his heart and grimaced. He said he questioned himself about what he should do. Then he said that this boy was also a victim and should not be made to suffer. John Bosco gave him the money for school.
His projects aim to be self sustaining through micro-financing. He is keen that Rwanda does not depend on external aid but must help itself. He worries that aid could be cut off at any time leaving projects unable to provide assistance.
June 8, 2006 — The screening
The Butare students screened their TV show tonight. Kanina’s class had made a show which was a mixture of CJTV and 25th Hour. The news pieces were CJTV length but because the class does not have a studio the introduction and links were pre-recorded by presenters in the field.
Students from other classes also came to the showing. During the question session a lot of them were anxious to know what was going to happen next. There was concern that the Canadians had come to teach them but now that the profs were leaving the students wanted to know how they could continue to improve their television skills. Those students who had not been in the class also wanted to know whether they could access the TV equipment.
When I got back to the New Times a colleague was looking at my photos of the Butare students. She touched the computer screen and sighed, “Oh that is really great, they have cameras there and editing equipment. I took broadcast journalism at university but it was all theory, I have never touched a TV camera.”
June 6, 2006 — The elusive interview
I am trying to arrange interviews with teachers who are involved in HIV/AIDS education. I managed to interview one woman who is a leader of an after school anti-AIDS club. We had a good chat and she invited me to come to the club next week.
The other person I wanted to interview proved to be somewhat more elusive. I had a number for her husband. He only speaks Kinyarwanda so we had to ask someone in the office to call and set up the appointment. The husband promised he would tell his wife, she would confirm the time with him, he would call back our Kinyarwanda speaker who would call my contact, who would then call me.
At six thirty in the morning the woman called to tell me she would call at 3pm. She duly called and told me she was on her way to meet me and did I know ‘the place’. At this point the street phone she was using cut out. Six phone calls later we were no nearer to understanding each other or working out where or when she wanted to meet. Maybe next week …
June 1, 2006 — Shopping in Kigali
Our local supermarket reminds me of the Spar shop in Kilchoan, Ardnamurchan in the western Highlands of Scotland. The shelves are stacked with a wide variety of items but not always anything you actually want: Lucozade, tomato paste, and rice, but no salt; a selection of randomly sized and mismatched underwear, Doom to kill all the bugs but no bathroom cleaner, probably because ours is amongst a small minority of houses which have indoor ceramic bathrooms.
Commercial Street in Kigali is lined with smaller shops. Once you’ve navigated the large chasms that crisscross the pavements you can buy mobile phones, generators, multicoloured clothes pegs, and every conceivable colour and shape of plastic bag. If you need stationery, pharmaceuticals, or paint then Kigali is the place for you.
Across the street is a tall building painted bright green and pink with a row of large flower pots balanced along the edge of the roof. On the other side of the road, next door to the City Shop, are three or four material shops. Bales and bales of printed and plain cloth are stacked from floor to ceiling. White mannequins stand on either side of the shop door dressed in African prints.
On the opposite side of the road one metal door opens into a corridor which is lined with half a dozen material shops. In the shop at the end of the corridor some women are asleep on the bales of cloth.
Once you have chosen your material a side alley takes you to the tailors. Around a dozen sewing machines are packed into the room. Half a dozen seamstresses are sitting along the wall by the window chatting, and sewing a pinstriped suit, a printed dress, and what looks a bit like a pair of curtains but it is quite hard to tell under the pile of material. The machines are similar to one my Great Aunt used to own, black and gold mounted on a wooden table with a metal pedal and wheel below. Clothing samples hang around the walls.
Back on the street and every few steps usually a man, but occasionally a woman, steps out and says ‘Hey Sister’, or ‘Eh Umuzungo’ and holds up a variety of wares. My favourite was a guy who tried to sell me a paper bag. The bags were new and folded flat. Anxious to impress upon me the full value of the bag, he opened it up, pushed out the corners and demonstrated the superior capacity of the bag. Unfortunately for him I just wasn’t in a paper bag purchasing mood.
Nearly back at the New Times office I was almost tempted by a kid who tried to sell me a fluorescent light tube. I wondered if this was a one off sale or whether light bulbs were his speciality.
May 28, 2006 — The village
I visited a village forty five minutes north of Kigali today to help a friend who was moving house. Most of the village is in the valley beside the road. We got off the bus and headed up what felt like a near vertical track into a forest. To the left of the track the ground falls away even more steeply and, as in much of Rwanda, the view of mountain after mountain stretches into the distance. On a clear day you can see all the way to the volcanoes.
At the top of the track the land plateaus. On the plateau are a brick church, a seminary, nunnery, school, orphanage, and teachers’ housing. We were greeted enthusiastically by a group of elderly women. The few other adults who were around stood and stared. My Umuzungo friend has been living there for almost six months. The church and school were empty and the surrounding area was very quiet. On Sundays as many as a thousand parishioners crowd into the church, many more have to stand outside. After the service they make their way down the steep track back to the valley.
The teachers’ accommodation is three rooms with a shower and toilet outside in two huts. Behind the huts the ground falls steeply away to reveal yet more cultivated terraces. A few of the orphans were running around outside in the red dirt.
The priests live inside a compound. In their accommodation there is a satellite dish, mobile phone mast, DVDs, and high-speed Internet. The row of businesses in the village were started with capital from the church, and the school and orphanage are financed by the church. While we were visiting a young woman with a baby on her back came to see the priests. She was crying and explained that her husband had just died. The priests provided money for the funeral and for a trip to Kigali.
Yesterday, the bus I was travelling on was overtaken by a pickup truck carrying a coffin. Today another open truck carried a body shrouded in cloth along the road to the hospital. A young man sat alongside the body.
May 20, 2006 — Gorilla bound
We visited the Susa group of mountain gorillas. The group’s twins celebrated their second birthday today. We climbed up a fairly steep hill but it only took an hour to reach the edge of the trees. Of course the Brits had made it…persuading the guides to give them a lift in the morning and cramming into the back of our vehicle for the hour long drive to the national park. Perhaps there is a possibility of independent travel in Rwanda? The size and fragility of the national parks mean that ORTPN is keen to promote elite tourism for small numbers of visitors.
We saw our first gorillas within ten minutes of entering the jungle. Further into the trees we came across a mother and the two year old twins. One twin leapt up and started to swing from some nearby branches. I felt so privileged to be in their presence. They looked wise and gentle…except when one of the silverbacks was trying to persuade one of the females to mate with him…She was having none of it. Chest beating, hollering…the lady remained unimpressed!
May 19, 2006 — Digging for discounts
We bumped into some Brits at the ORTPN (Rwanda Tourism Office). They were valiantly haggling with the Gorilla booking lady to try and get a discount…to no avail. If you are an independent traveller and on a budget it is fairly tricky to see the Gorillas.
We all caught the bus to Ruhengeri. It is a two hour drive through the most spectacular countryside. The bus climbs out of Kigali and then clings to a steep winding road. The land to the side of the road either rises up steeply or plummets to the depths of the valley. We passed small villages or groups of houses, banana trees, and cultivation terraces running along the hillsides.
In Ruhengeri we were picked up by a driver in a 4x4 and taken along a fairground ride…sorry I mean road….to the guest house. Apparently the road is due for reconstruction and like many other roads it is to be built by the Chinese.
We took a walk around the village which is dwarfed by several volcanoes. We were accompanied by our usual 20 or so children. I had a very earnest discussion with John a dedicated Arsenal fan who is in primary six at the local school. He explained at length why things had gone so disastrously wrong during last night’s match with Barcelona.
May 17, 2006 — No Admittance to the prison
Some days or should that be everyday, reporting in Rwanda can be a bit different.
Today I tried to gain access to the Gikondo Detention Centre in Kigali. Human Rights Watch released a report yesterday (http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/05/12/rwanda13369.htm) saying that street children were being held in a warehouse in a suburb of Kigali before being put onboard lorries and taken back to where they came from. The report says that the conditions are poor and overcrowded and that some children have suffered maltreatment. The report also says that the centre does not have any legal status and that the detainees do not have access to legal representation.
The Centre is down a muddy track off a side street in Gikondo. There is a mud sentry box at the gate. The entrance is blocked by two rusty metal posts tied together with pieces of dirty ribbon which form a knotted line. The policewoman on duty lowers the ribbons to let police 4x4s through the entrance. To the right of the sentry box the wall of the compound has collapsed. The gap is filled with rolls of barbed wire.
A couple of other journalists and I asked if we could have access to the Centre so that we could see the children who were being held. We were told that there were no children in the Centre and that they had all been released the week before.
The policewoman at the gate told us that children were brought to the centre everyday but she later said that this was not the case.
As I was standing at the gate a man came up behind me, put his arms around me and threw rubbish over me. He ran off laughing only to come back with some plants and start hitting me with them. The guard told me that he had mental health problems.
Back to trying to get entry to the Detention Centre or as the vice-Mayor of the city informed me Transit Centre…. We could see into the compound. There was one warehouse to the left. The door was guarded by two policemen. In the compound around 25-30 people were sitting on the ground or standing leaning against the wall. There were five 4x4 vehicles parked in the yard.
A man dressed in civvies came out to the gate to tell us that he would ask permission for us to enter the compound. We waited for about an hour as this man, and eventually a second man, shuttled backwards and forwards giving us various reasons as to why we could not come in. Eventually both men came out together to tell us that we had to apply to the man in charge to gain access. We asked for his number so that we could call…only to be told that he was on holiday!
One of the journalists got very annoyed with me. Telling me I had wasted time and money by coming to the detention centre. She asked was this the way I conducted journalism? The other journalist weighed in to say that yes this was exactly what you had to do to be a journalist and that making appointments and accepting the official line may not be the best way to find the real story.
I went back into town to speak to the human rights monitor who had given me the initial contact. He put me in touch with another journalist who was covering the story. As we were chatting a woman called her to say that she had a boy on her doorstep who had been released from the Centre today. She said that he was very ill and would we help.
We collected the human rights monitor en route and made our way to a suburb of Kigali. We drove around in circles as the woman tried to direct us to her house. We ended up at the wrong end of a one-way street before finally finding what was left of a road. A lot of it had been washed away. The journalist drove her Toyota as if it was a 4x4. Cigarette in one hand, mobile phone in the other she occasionally put her hand on the steering wheel so we didn’t actually end up in the ditch. As the fuel-empty light flashed she assured me that the car never broke down, but sometimes she did run out of petrol. However, she told me that the ‘lovely policemen’ always pushed her to the garage.
A child of about 8 was standing outside the entrance to a house. He led us down a slope and between two brush fences. On the front porch a lady was sitting in a wheelchair. She was wearing a bright yellow and orange dress with a white plaster cast on her right leg. Everyone shook hands solemnly. From where we were sitting we could see a pair of feet sticking out from behind the door. The boy she had called us about was lying on a rush mat on the other side of the porch.
He got up and came over to sit at the woman’s feet on a low stool with a cowhide seat. She explained in Kinyarwanda who we were and why we had come. He was wearing an old green anorak with short beige trousers. His cheek bones jutted out of his face and there did not appear to be a single ounce of fat on his body. The woman said that he had not eaten all day, just taken lemon juice and sugar and slept.
The human rights monitor asked him a lot of questions to establish whether he had really been held at the centre. The answers he gave all tallied with information received from other detainees.
The boy then answered questions with the woman translating into French. He explained that he had been stopped by the police in December and having no identification documents was taken to the centre. He said that they were held in warehouses with other children and also people who had police dossiers. He said that the police had told him the reason he was released yesterday was that NGOs were coming to visit the following day. We sat for about an hour recording his testimony before heading back to town. The human rights monitor said that what the boy had told him was consistent with other stories he had heard from other detainees and people who had visited detainees.
I called the vice mayor for social affairs today. She said that she refuted what was said in the Human Rights Watch report and that it was a Transit Centre not a Detention Centre.
The New Times ran the following piece:
Gov’t rejects HRW illegal detention claims
May 9, 2006 — And
the walls came tumbling down…
Gertrude and I went to the Hotel
des Mille Collines to interview some people from the Nile
Basin Initiative (NBI). The event organiser told
me he hopes that the NBI will be like the European Union and
that cooperation over the division of water resources will
evolve into wider political cooperation in the region.
The workshop had the usual series of introductions
where each participant, including the journalists, had to
stand up and say who they were and where they were from. The
NBI organisers however took it a step further. We all had
to divide a piece of paper into four. We then had to write
what we wanted to achieve before we died; in five years time;
if we had six months to live; and finally if we had 24 hours
to live! Ice breaker or ice maker . . . not sure which.
We arrived back in the office to find men
in green boiler suits knocking down the partition walls with
hammers and saws. As a piece of splintered wood then some
glass flew towards us we decided to decamp and set up office
in the lobby of the nearby Novotel. Now all the walls have
gone and amongst the piles of rubble is an open plan office.
All the wires and lights are dangling in mid air having lost
contact with their walls. One of my colleagues asked the MD
what this rather unexpected building project would be like
when it was finished. His reply, ‘Good’.
May 7, 2006 — Henriette
We travelled to Gasabo, around
15 kilometres outside Kigali, to visit Henriette. She
is the mother of Laura’s friend Vestine who now lives
in Ottawa. The mother and daughter have not seen each other
for eight years. When we arrived Henriette was out so her
son Manuel was dispatched to find her. The village was at
the end of a steep, winding, dirt track. Henriette’s
house was set back a little from the road with a dirt yard
in the front and two wood and mud huts in the back. One for
the toilet and the other for the kitchen. Behind the fence
were rows and rows of banana trees, and a very vocal cow.
When Henriette arrived she clasped her
hands together and rushed from one of us to the other hugging
and welcoming us to her home. She was a tall elegant lady
who carried herself like a ballerina. Laura had photos of
Vestine which Henriette poured over, a few tears trickling
down her cheeks. Vestine called on Laura’s mobile phone
and the whole family took turns to talk to their daughter
and sister in Canada. Vestine was anxious to know if her family
needed medicine or help of any kind. Offers of medicine were
refused, what the family really needed were mosquito nets.
We took photos, recorded messages, and
shot some video for Laura to take back to Canada. We then
headed back down the hilly track before the sun went down.
May 6, 2006 — At
One of our colleagues invited us
home to meet his ‘mother’. It turned
out she was his Aunt. She and her family have been taking
care of him since he moved from Uganda a couple of years ago.
The house was a single storey building painted cream with
the odd panel of red brick. It is next door to the SOS Children’s
village which Susannah has visited. Standing on the porch
you look down into a valley to a golf course and a lake which
we were told will be the site for the Kigali zoo.
The garden was full of mangoes, oranges,
tomatoes, papaya, beans…some of which we ate for lunch.
We went for a walk in the valley and picked
up our usual tail of around ten kids. The younger children
normally only have one or two phrases in French or English.
My favourites this week were ‘missing you’ and
‘I love you so much’. More direct ones were ‘give
me dollars now’ and ‘eh, where you go Muzungu?’.
Our host offered to drive us to the market
to buy fruit and vegetables. She drives a Toyota Starlet with
the enthusiasm of David Coultard. Why zigzag across the road
to avoid potholes and crevasses when you can simply rev the
engine, drive faster, and skim across the top of them?
On the way to the market we passed the
Amahoro Stadium where crowds of men waited to get into the
Inside the market building there were scores
of vendors selling everything from mobile phones to multicoloured
mattresses. The mattresses were piled ten high. The vendor
was wearing bright green plastic sandals.
The fruit and vegetables were sold
in a covered area in the centre of the market. One section
was piled high with ‘Irish’ potatoes, many of
them were cascading onto the floor. I wasn’t able to
get a straight answer as to why they were Irish. We made slow
progress through the market. Most of the time we were completely
surrounded by vendors pressing their goods onto us. One simply
tipped a kilo of tomatoes into our shopping bag . . . direct
May 2, 2006 — A
cow for every poor family
Richard from the business desk and I took a minibus taxi to Remera. This is a bus station crossed with a market. You reach it by travelling along the road which leads to the airport, then turning onto a dirt road, or should that be river road. The pouring rain made the ruts on the road even deeper and the red mud was racing down the channels. At Remera we jumped out of one bus and found another. This time we were headed out of Kigali to Rubirizi and the National Veterinary Laboratory. You can pack at least 21 people into a minibus taxi.
When the minibuses leave the paved road and go onto the dirt tracks they don’t really reduce their speed. Most of the time you don’t move around much as you are packed in so tightly but on the odd occasion when, despite weaving back and forth across the track, the minibus hits a really deep pothole, you fly out of your seat.
We got off the minibus at the terminus . . . a small courtyard in front of a low rusty building. We walked through the village to the Veterinary Centre. The area had a number of new buildings with high brick walls. These stood opposite some older shops and houses. Under an awning beside one of the shops people were playing pool. In a vacant building lot there was what looked like a large orange waterbed. This is filled up with water when there is a plentiful supply and can be emptied when water is scarce.
Our interview was with Dr. Théogène Rutagwenda. This man is championing a scheme to give every poor Rwandan family a cow. The idea is that the government buys 15,000 cows probably from Uganda and Kenya. These cows are given to households which have no animals but have at least half a hectare of land. The cows will have been inseminated with Friesian semen from Europe or Canada. When the resulting calves are a year old they will be given to another family. The idea is that eventually there will be over 600,000 cows and Rwanda will no longer be dependent on milk imports. The traditional Rwandan Ankole cow produces an average of two litres of milk a day whereas the Friesian provides an average of 22 litres per day.
The government has approved the scheme and is expected to sanction the budget for this in June. The main challenges are of course funding and human resources to train these first time cow owners in animal husbandry so that the cows and calves survive.
On the way back to Kigali, the rain grew heavier and the minibus kept stalling. Not far along the road we rather gracefully sank into a ditch and the engine spluttered and died.
A competitor raced up behind eager for the business. All the passengers including the elderly gentleman with the brand new toilet seat piled into the slightly less ancient minibus. The interior décor consisted of vinyl plastic paisley pattern with off white tassels. A guy tried to sell me a ‘teach yourself English’ book.
April 29, 2006 — Musical beds
We don’t have quite enough beds for everyone in the house. Over the last couple of days, four different men and a truck have come and gone with two extra beds. The main problem seems to be a rather large but pretty inoffensive desk which takes up most of the room where the men are trying to put one of the beds.
At 7.30 this morning I had a fairly lengthy discussion with the older of the two men about the possibility of moving the large desk through the door. The desk was oh ever so slightly wider than the doorframe. I suggested we just leave the desk in the room and squeeze the bed in beside it. But the solemn man told me that the desk had to be moved. He then left to return two hours later with a saw. He chopped the legs off the desk and triumphantly moved it into our sitting room. The beds are now where they should be and so is the desk. The solemn man is happy.
Oh and the power has just gone out again.
April 27, 2006 — South African Freedom Day
Today was South African Freedom Day. Twelve years to the day when the first post-apartheid multiracial election was held in South Africa.
We went to the residence of the South African Ambassador to Rwanda to cover the reception. As we approached the reception a journalist from the paper told me that in many of these houses entire families were killed during the genocide. He said seeing the rich and prosperous area it was hard to imagine such horrors happening just twelve years ago. The Rwanda Police Band were gallantly making their way through all the verses of the South African National Anthem.
Then the speeches began. I had been asked to take lots of photos for a feature in the paper so was able to walk around during the fairly lengthy addresses from South African officials and the reply from the Rwandan Foreign Minister. Throughout the speeches, the assembled local and international guests stood to attention inside the marquee.
Outside the tent people were chatting. The man standing next to me said he was very moved by the speeches. Each speaker talked about the fact that at the exact same time that South Africans were going to the polls, the Rwandan genocide was underway.
We made it back down the track from the residence to the main road. Some of the houses in the area had their own power but the roads were completely dark. The guys from the paper drove me home. As we neared our house I saw light! The power was back.
April 26, 2006 — Home Alone in the dark
My first night in Kigali, there was electricity…since then no power. When it gets dark here it is does it in style. The road leading to our house was pitch black. It is a fairly steep road with a sheer drop to two drainage channels on either side. I came home from working at the paper and took a shower by candlelight. As I was getting out of the shower I heard someone calling ‘bonjour, bonjour’. Our neighbour and the owner of the house had come to give me a hurricane lamp and offer me some candles.
In one of the kitchen cupboards there is a Calor gas can which connects to the cooker. Hooray! Hot food by torchlight. I sat in our living room with the house cat and ate my pasta and tomato sauce. The cat seemed to be rather unimpressed that the sole resident of his house was a vegetarian.
My next visitor was a guy who works for our landlady. He came offering more candles. Finally Justus from the paper came by and asked if I was scared to be alone in this country ‘with our history’. A few of the people at the paper have been very shocked that I came here alone and that I did not know anybody in Rwanda. I haven’t really felt worried at all. When I told my 87-year-old Irish granny that I was coming she said, ‘Have a lovely time darling and tell me all about it when you come back.’