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Laura Payton,
Carleton University Student


Laura Payton's Blog

May 28, 2006 — Updates

Thursday night (nine days ago) we hosted our colleagues for a party at our house. Allan had warned us to pick up some scotch at duty free (but not the good kind, since Rwandans prefer to mix it with Coke than to drink it straight). Unfortunately, we forgot how much journalists tend to drink, and within about half an hour we went through two bottles of scotch (un-watered down) and a case of beer. Half the party took off at that point, but lots of people stayed, we sent out for more drinks, and we got some actual speakers to hook up so that we had decent music for the rest of the party. It was a great way to get to know our colleagues outside of the office and we had a great time as they tried to teach us how to dance.

The next day we took the bus north to the Ruhengeri area. It's a beautiful two-hour drive, and only costs $2 US. We had met three Brits at the tourism bureau while they were booking their gorilla trekking passes, and we all went together, hoping to meet up the next day for our hike. The bus wound in and around the mountains, and it was amazing to see the plots of land that the locals farm on the moutainside. Seriously, that land is hard enough to walk up: I can't imagine planting, weeding or harvesting on that slant. But it's beautiful and lush with banana trees, and I strained my neck trying to stare out the side window the whole drive.

After we checked into our hotel we went for a walk through a nearby village, where we picked up our usual gaggle of followers. I met a 12-year-old named John who really drove home for me the poverty in the area. He was the sweetest kid: very well-spoken in english, so he clearly works hard at school, and very engaged in life around him. He wants to be an engineer and build hospitals when he grows up. John's parents run the souvenir shop at the hotel we stayed at, and he carves all of the gorilla key chains and statues that you buy there. But even though his parents have this business, he (and his friends) had shoes that didn't fit (or no shoes at all). The walk around the farm fields, between small, square shacks, reminded me that not everyone in Rwanda works in a Kigali office and can afford a house girl to take care of their menial labour. My conversation with John seemed like a good way to bookend the trip, given my first night in Kigali and our "bodyguards" from that night.

The next morning we had a bit of excitement a la "The Amazing Race". We had met a family of Americans at the hotel whose daughter worked in Butare. We figured that, knowing the country so well, she would want to do the same gorilla trek as us (there's a limit to how many people can go on each hike, and we wanted to do the hike to see the biggest group of gorillas). We had booked our driver to pick us up at 6:25 am so that we could be at the park gates nice and early. That morning, we all ate breakfast together, and then our driver showed up but theirs didn't. The family decided to walk the kilometre or so to the park, and knowing that it would be first come, first served, we leapt into the car and told our driver that we had to arrive before them. He didn't even say anything - just smiled and started the car. We beat them easily and ran into the office to talk to the park employees, only to find our British friends had already arrived and put us on the list for the hike we wanted.

Seeing the gorillas was amazing, and the hike was a nice physical challenge. It was 5km up the side of the mountain, and the guidebook describes it as only for the fittest of travellers. After the hour drive from the park gate to the start of the hike - along a pitted, rutted, rocky road - it was very nice to get out and stretch our legs. And, of course, the gorillas were well worth it. I'll leave it at that and let the others tell you about that part of the experience.

That afternoon we drove to Gisenyi, which is a resort town on Lake Kivu, just across from Congo. We met up once again with our Brit friends, went for dinner and hung out on the beach. A week ago tonight I was drinking $1.50 beer, sitting on the sand and watching an amazing lightning storm over Congo. Now THAT was surreal. Gisenyi was another part of the trip that drove home to me the poverty we had mostly missed in our time in Kigali: the kids who begged there seemed honestly hungry, their voices weak and with an edge when they asked for food. The rest of the town seemed alien too: there were more men than women around, and all of them postured more aggressively than the ones in Kigali. The market area smelled strongly of garbage, and the streets were full of rubbish.

That said, a weekend of gorilla trekking and beach time was the best possible way to finish off my trip. Monday night the New Times hosted us at Chez Lando, our second party in five days, and then Tuesday I got on the plane for my 30 hour trip home. I still can't believe that I'm back on Canadian soil, where I look around and see flat land rather than rolling hills packed with flat, rectangular houses. For now, I have a week until I start work - just enough time to figure out how I can wrangle another internship in Kigali out of Carleton for next year.


May 15, 2006 — Baboon bums

This weekend we took a trip to Akagera National Park, which sits on the eastern border of Rwanda next to Tanzania. The expensive part of the trip is hiring a driver, but after that it's only $US20 to get into the park and $10 to get a tour guide for however long you're there. We had a great guide who offered to go out with us again in the late afternoon to see if we could find more animals, and who was full of useful information, like how giraffes aren't native to Rwanda — they were brought in from Kenya in 1986 for the tourism.

I titled this post "Baboon bums" because when I looked at my photos, a lot of what I had were the backsides of animals as they sauntered away from us. The giraffes were pretty good and modelled quite nicely for us, but the baboons really didn't like sitting pretty for our cameras. We all have tonnes of photos of these ugly storks (that look more like vultures and even scavenge dead things) because they were so placid and just stood still for so long.

Rwanda is amazing because it's got similar geographic diversity to Canada's (minus the oceanfronts) but it's tiny — we drove through grassland savannah and high up in the mountain in the same weekend. It was about 30 degrees in the sun at 9am in the savannah, and less brutally hot but more brutally buggy during the drive through the hillier parts of the park. Our driver didn't have air conditioning so the horse flies were free to try to feast on our bare arms. Fortunately, on top of his endless knowledge of animals, our guide Eric was also a superb bug killer.

Next weekend — finally — will be the gorillas, and then in a week from tomorrow I'll be heading home. I have no idea yet how to sum up this trip, but it'll definitely be tough.


May 14, 2006 — Genocide Memorial

Last Wednesday, I went with a colleague to the Kigali Memorial Centre, which is a genocide memorial in Gisozi. It's in a pretty unassuming place: built into a hill on one side, with fields on the other side in a valley and then slums on the hillside facing it. The building itself doesn't even really look like a museum in the way people from Ottawa would picture the War Museum or the National Art Gallery - it's just kind of like a series of houses, but with a flame outside that my friend tells me burns for 100 days at a time (the length of the genocide).

It's a fairly simple idea on the inside too: a series of winding hallways in dim, sombre lighting with a stone wall to your right and display walls about eight-feet high to your left. They start with the history of the Rwandan people, then tells how the Belgians colonized the country and divided up the ethnic groups into different classes - no matter your actual ethnicity, Hutus were anyone with fewer than 10 cattle. The Belgians liked the Tutsis' slender noses and long legs better so they decided that they were the elite of the country.

Everyone knows about the 1994 genocide, but there were other periods of civil unrest, including one in the late 50s into 1960 when a wave of Tutsis left for Uganda. A lot of our colleagues at the New Times are the children or grandchildren of people who left then and returned as recently as two years ago. Some of the Rwandans in Uganda organized into the Rwandan Patriotic Front and they invaded in 1990, increasing the tension in the country.

The genocide itself was sparked in 1994 when President Habyrimana's plane was shot down as it landed at the airport. Within an hour, roadblocks were up across Kigali and the Interahamwe, a civilian militia made up of Hutu extremists, were searching houses and working their way down a kill list that targeted prominent Tutsis.

All this might be familiar to you, or at least be filling in details of a vague idea you have of the history of this country. But when you're here, despite the constant references to the genocide and the daily updates on progress at the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda, life seems so normal and the people so friendly that it's hard to imagine neighbours turning against each other and using machetes or blunt instruments to torture each other to death. At least 500,000 women were raped between the genocide and the refugee camps. 300,000 children became orphans. And almost one million people died.

Think about that. The population of Quebec City raped. The population of Victoria orphaned. The entire province of Manitoba wiped off the planet. All that, and Rwanda is geographically just slightly smaller than Lake Erie. And Dallaire estimated that 5,000 UN troops could have stopped the slaughter.

In a way, it's always around us. The Parliament buildings that we walk past every day on the way to work are riddled with bullet holes and what we assume are mortar shell holes. There are still churches with piles of bones waiting to be collected and buried. A popular ex-pat hangout called Chez Lando still bears that name even though Lando and his family were slaughtered that spring. People wear purple Never Again bracelets - like the yellow Live Strong bracelets - to remember.

There were some chilling parts of the museum, like a chain on display that once wrapped together two people who were buried alive together. I could almost hear it clinking and wondered if the clinking scared them, or if it was the least frightening part of the torture they endured. I wondered at what point they realized they were about to be buried alive or whether they were even conscious at that point.

Seeing the museum's video footage of the massacre makes me wonder about the people who ended up piled facedown on the street, hacked or beaten. Did the people who lived in my house die? Did their neighbours? How did the man on crutches lose his leg? How did my colleague get that scar on his hand? When Dallaire talks about a stadium with bodies piled high, was it the one where we did the Labour Day march? Was it the one where the city now goes to watch football matches? Somebody Brian interviewed yesterday came back in July of 1994, days after the genocide ended. He told Brian there were still bodies piled in the streets.

The most disturbing part of the memorial was the section devoted to children. Genocide is about wiping out an entire ethnic group, which is why women and children and the elderly aren't immune. The memorial centre has photos of children next to innocuous facts like what they liked to eat and their ages. Then it will tell you how they died - hacked to death; bludgeoned to death after seeing his mother murdered - and what their last words were - "Mum, where shall I run to?"; "UNAMIR [United Nations Mission for Rwanda] will come for us!" There were shots in the videos of surviving toddlers with gaping head wounds, four-inch long wedges of scalp cut out cleanly just above their faces, right where you imagine an adult swinging a machete would hit a cowering child.

Part of Kigali's charm is how clean and well-manicured it is. This morning, we saw men with machetes out whipping at the grass by the side of the road to cut it. Just this morning, our guard Calistas was outside mowing our lawn the same way.

Over and over again in the memorial is the idea that we remember so that it never happens again. I think the hardest part for me was thinking about Sudan and wondering if one day I'll be visiting a similar memorial in Khartoum. That's going on right now. It's all the same, all over again.


May 11, 2006 — Down to routine

I haven't been blogging in a few days, but it's mostly because nothing really seems out of the ordinary any more. We're pretty settled in, which according to our pre-trip orientation leader means we're in the honeymoon period of our trip. There isn't much time for homesickness when you're only here for a month (like I am) so it likely won't hit at all.

We've established a routine in the past few days since Brian arrived: Helen goes swimming in the mornings, and we meet her at work around 8am. Susannah and I are trying to find places where we can get real coffee (as opposed to milk and sugar with coffee) so we'll stop at the Novotel or at the Kigali Business Centre, where this morning we met the owner. He said that he loves seeing people order coffee because that's what he intended his restaurant to be - a coffee shop! He also offered us milk, since most people here just use powdered milk.

We work at the paper all day, and leave around 5pm for our walk home. Some days we leave earlier so that we can stop at the internet cafe, but we're always home by 7pm since it's pitch black at that point. It hasn't left a lot of time for exploring the city but we've all been lucky enough to get out on assignment to see parts of Kigali we would never have otherwise seen.

This weekend we're going to hire a driver and go to Akagera National Park, which is savannah and has animals like hippos, giraffes and lions. I heard that Peter has photos up on - you should all check those out. And I will, of course, keep you posted on what we see this weekend.


May 6, 2006 — Touchy-feely

There are a lot of things we've had to get used to in Rwanda —
or, at least, things that I have found very different from Canada.

First, labour is so cheap. We're going to hire someone to cook and clean for us, and we asked a friend at the paper how much would be fair to pay. She thought about it for a moment, and said, "Well, you need someone who is very good [because we're Westerners so we have higher standards], and you need someone who speaks English [which means someone very educated] . . . you should be paying 20,000 francs a month."

That's about $40. For a month.

We also see little machinery — building, street-cleaning, lawncare
. . . everything is done by people with machetes or brooms made out of bundles of straw. Despite all the people-powered work, the pollution here is heavy. The city itself is extremely clean — we see women sweeping the streets and sidewalks all the time — but at night a heavy smog settles around us and it smells like northern Saskatchewan during forest fire season (like campfire all around you). I wake up coughing every night, but it's something I've gotten used to.

I think the biggest shock is how men interact with each other and with women. Everywhere is very touchy-feely here. We see male co-workers sharing chairs at work, touching each other's hands and thighs . . . I even saw one male soldier lead another by holding his hand. Things you wouldn't see in Canada!

Last week at work my friend Linda came to me and said that one of the guys told her that he had a lot of cattle. "For my parents? As in a dowry?" I said. She giggled. "Yes."

I thought for a minute. "How many cattle?" She went over to him and spoke to him in Kinyarwanda.

"100 cattle."

That actually sounds like a good deal. My partner took the liberty of turning it down on behalf of my parents though. Probably a good idea — I'm sure my co-worker was kidding anyway.


May 3, 2006 — Motorbike taxi

My colleague Linda and I set out today from the New Times to go interview a single mother for the upcoming UN Family Day section. After taking the bus to a slum called Giknodo, she announced that we would be taking motor bikes the rest of the way.

Now, transportation in Kigali is unlike anything in Canada. I thought I was having a bit of an adventure just by cramming into one of the many minibus taxis that roam the streets — basically, a van with five rows of seating where 20 people cram into a vehicle the size of a Dodge Caravan. The guy who opens the door at each destination and takes the money has to lean over the middle row of passengers, butt pressed against the side door window (if the door is closed at all).

The taxis are a whole other issue — they whiz around cars with helmet-less passengers and I always wonder how they don't crash. But I didn't see any way around taking the motorbike taxi today: we had no other way of getting to where we were going and I wasn't about to wait around for Linda in the slum.

We walked up to the bike stand and all the drivers spun around to circle their bikes around us, like some scene in a 50s teen movie. They all wanted our business but Linda chose the drivers she wanted, so I climbed onto the bike as she told him to go slowly for me. The other drivers and the gathering crowd started cheering and yelling "uMuzungu!" as I climbed onto the bike (seriously).

Thank God for Linda — the drivers putt-putted down the hill and around the potholes in the dirt road, rather than whizzing along like they normally do. The only traffic we encountered along the way was either people or goats, so there was no need for any crazy lane-changing, where drivers use their horns more than their signal lights to tell the others where they're going.

Since motorbikes for hire are so common here, Linda was shocked to hear when we got off the bikes that it had been my first ride. Probably as shocked as (and far less concerned than) my mom and dad will be when they hear about this.


May 1, 2006 — Labour Day march

Today was Labour Day in Rwanda, making it a national holiday just like in Canada. Unlike Canada, Rwandans don't party the night before and sleep in the next day. Rwandans go to work, meet up with their colleagues, and drive to a local stadium to march in honour of workers' rights.

I'm writing this right now from the New Times newsroom, a bright yellow basement in a building across the street from the Novotel hotel in Kigali. But this morning we were queued up on a long red dirt road outside the stadium, and pushing our way to as close as we could get to the front of the line. This mainly polite Canadian had a very hard time not getting separated from the rest of the group, but fortunately Linda, one of the New Times staffers, grabbed my hand and didn't let go so that I wouldn't be separated from the only people I know in the country. It took us over an hour to actually get into the stadium and marching past the other workers to the sound of the military band. We got right behind the TV station group and in front of a magazine staff. The fight to the front was worth it too — it meant that we were able to get seats, post-march, under the roof of the stadium and out of the noon-hour sun.

The march was crazy — there must have been 10,000 people there. The parade started with school children and the marching band, and then followed by sector — I didn't see them all but there was a media section, health, industry (including people carrying sheet metal, mattresses, and beautiful woven crafts) and security (Kigali has several levels of protection, from military to police to private security, all of whom have a heavy street presence).

There were several hours of speeches, but we also got to see traditional Rwandan dance by their national dance troupe, who recently won an international competition for indigenous dance. I can't even begin to describe the dance. Suffice it to say that it was pretty clear with traditional dance like that why black people have rhythm and I most certainly do not.

Tomorrow will be our first full day at work . . . I'm hopeful it will lend itself to more Internet access. I'm going through such withdrawal, but the people we met today more than made up for my missing contact with family and friends back home.


April 29, 2006 — Arrival in Kigali

After 31 hours of travel and airports, Susannah and I finally made it to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. And we were greeted in fine African style, with incredibly friendly and helpful people. Also, a three-hour wait for our hotel vouchers and bus, and a power failure as soon as we set foot out of the airport. Fortunately, our bus driver came to find the stragglers, since in the darkness we'd been separated from the rest of the group.

We drove along the streets of Addis, too tired to talk but very willing to watch the scenery go by. At the hotel, we checked in and hit the teeny elevator (the size of a closet) to go up to our rooms. As it started to move, we saw the front wall moving: there was no door on the elevator. We both shrieked and grabbed onto each other, I think convinced we were about to plummet to our deaths. The staff in the lobby must have been killing themselves laughing at the Canadian "sisters" (they thought we looked like twins...a funny thought for people who know us).

Yesterday we climbed back onto another airplane and finally landed in Kigali. It was bright and sunny, perfect for seeing the country as we circled and touched down. The city's set into the hills and it means that even once we're on the ground we can see it stretching out in front of us.

Running errands yesterday with Helen (who met us at the airport —- a beautiful friendly face!), we attracted a lot of stares, and even a crowd of followers. A couple of young boys started walking with us, which even after only a few hours here we were starting to get used to. The group leader told me that they would walk with us and act as our bodyguards (he was all of 11 years old).

I insisted that we were fine, but he grabbed my hand and kept going, and his friend grabbed onto Susannah's. They chatted about where we were from ("Americans?") and I think he was disappointed to hear that we were Canadian, because he and his friend started talking about 50 Cent and Michael Jackson. When he said Usher, I started singing "Yeah" and he sang along with me.

By this point we had at least six boys following us, but they finally broke away when they found a more interesting crowd to join. They said good bye and dashed across the busy street, confident that they wouldn't get any money out of us.



May 28 , 2006 — Updates

May 15 , 2006 — Baboon bums

May 14 , 2006 — Genocide Memorial

May 11 , 2006 — Down to routine

May 6 , 2006 — Touchy-feely

May 3 , 2006 — Motorbike taxi

May 1 , 2006 — Labour Day march

April 29, 2006 — Arrival in Kigali


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