Sept. 21, 2006 – Good
times at The New Times
Today will probably go down as
my most full-filling day on the Rwanda Initiative, both
as a journalist and as a traveller.
It starts in the newsroom when I
arrive at 9:00am. It’s
always a good day when someone compliments you on a story
you wrote, but I just happened to have three articles in
today’s paper. One “fun” article
on the safari we took to Akagera National Park, one eye opening
story (for me anyway) on expired aid food being burned and
one investigative reporting story that got me all the attention.
Mansur, the business editor at the
New Times, and I wrote an in-depth piece criticizing the
government's use of the Rwanda social security fund. The article was especially
satisfying to publish since the paper has a reputation for
blindly supporting the government and often just being a
propaganda rag. The truth is that the article isn't
exactly written very well - it has enough information for
at least three separate articles in it so it's a bit
hard to follow - but it was a really interesting and important
piece. In a nut shell, it talks about how everyone
pays into social security but can't access it until they're
65. This is normal, except the life expectancy in Rwanda
is about 45 and 80% of Rwanda's registered workforce was
wiped out during the genocide. So they still have
this nightmare on their hands of getting benefits to families
because child survivors who need it most have no way of getting
the money (a far too complicated process for any child, much
less homeless ones). No one is allowed to claim on
their behalf, they have to prove through costly DNA tests
that they are the children of the deseased if they don't
have the right documents and there's no system to help
them out. So social security is sitting on all this
money, no one is collecting it and they're investing it in
these luxury apartment complexes they expect foreigners to
rent out. Problem is they have been sitting basically
empty for almost two years with almost no clientele. We
actually went undercover, posing as a media consultation
firm looking to start shop in Kigali to get a bunch of the
info, walking around the buildings asking all sorts of questions
and it was like a ghost town there.
Needless to say, I had no less than
five people approach me in my first five minutes at work to tell me how much
they liked the story - including the managing editor of the
paper saying it’s the kind of story his reporters need
to read (and by extension write). Mansur even told
me he is already receiving a bunch of calls from the public
thanking him for the information.
The second half of the day satisfied
the “traveler” side
of me. In the afternoon, I checked out the Kigali Genocide
Memorial on my own, which is actually partly a "museum" (the
others had gone while I was on the burning food-aid story). It
was absolutely amazing and very well done, it reminded me
of the new war museum in Ottawa actually. I could go
into a ton of detail about that too, but I'm sure you can
imagine how powerful walking around there for a few hours
could be. Actual skulls and bones are on display, along
with videos, stories, and a very easy to follow history of
how the genocide happened in the first place. The site
also holds remains from over 250,000 Rwandans that were
killed, now buried in mass graves around the main building. School
tours go there daily and it's just incredibly impressive
how much the entire psyche of the country has turned around. In
our paper, you can't go a day - almost a page-
without stories about the genocide; how it still affects
people, people on trial for their crimes and wanted
genocide criminals still at large. The country
is still dealing with something on a scale that is impossible
to understand, but it really is amazing how they seem to
have moved on and created a whole generation of people committed
to fighting every ounce of the genocide ideology and practice
that happened just 12 years ago. I’d like to
think fostering free speech has a big part to do with that,
so hopefully this little drop in the bucket called the Rwanda
Initiative helps out.
2006 — Culture Day in Rwanda
Culture Day on September 8 is a public holiday in Rwanda that just happened to be my first day in the country. Funny, because even if I tried, I couldn't invent a better anecdote for my understanding of contemporary Rwandan culture than what I experienced that day. And it's nothing like the movies.
The capital city of Kigali leaves a burning impression in your mind from the moment you lay eyes on it. At the heart of "the land of a thousand hills," you are given a great overview of the rolling cityscape and layout of the land. Shanty homes surround sporadic modern buildings, breaking up the otherwise uniform colour scheme of blue skies, green hills and red earth. The people are incredibly friendly, from the first Rwandans in the airport checking passports to the abundance of kids who will run up to any "mzungu" (well-off, very often white person) they see and ask in French for "cent francs" – the equivalent of 20 cents US and the smallest paper denomination in Rwandan francs. Compared to the only other African country I've visited, Morroco, the country somehow feels much safer for the casual tourist (or in my case, interim journalist). And up until the 1990s, most North American's main association with Rwanda was probably Dian Fossey, or in my case "that Sigourney Weaver movie, Gorillas in the Mist," and the natural beauty of the forests and endangered animals. But there's a new movie – a few actually – that now inform everyone's opinion about Rwanda that I've ever met back home, namely Hotel Rwanda (2004).
The Rwanda Genocide that took place in 1994 is about the only thing you talk about before coming here, and all of a sudden the last thing you want to talk about when you arrive. From an outsider's point of view, it might as well be ancient history or even a myth since you can't connect such an atrocity with anything you are experiencing. Talking about the "G-word" seems like it could unleash something awful and ruin everything positive you're seeing. See no evil, hear no evil, right? – after all, they've had enough for all of our life times.
Still, Brett, Corina, Alyssa, and I (my friends and collegues on the Rwanda Initiative) made our way to the Hotel des Milles Collines. The English translation should be Hotel of the Thousand Hills, but the Hollywood translation will forever label it as Hotel Rwanda. The film itself was shot mostly in South Africa, so there was nothing iconic about the building itself, and based on our limited wanderings we still saw no evidence of this genocide that happened only 12 years ago (although I'm sure evidence exists). We even literally spent A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali the following day (for those of you who have read Gil Courtemanche's novel or seen the recent Quebec film), but the genocide still felt like a story from another world. I've been to Dachau, a Jewish concentration camp in Germany, and though it was over 60 years later, films like Schindlers List (1994) or the book The Diary of Anne Frank filled in enough blanks to make the structural remains of that genocide absolutely chilling. And while it may seem unfair, for example, to compare a concentration camp with a luxury hotel that acted as a safe haven (and is still in full operation), they both stand as symbols for a conflict we can't understand, how ever hard we may try, and occupy a space in our collective consciousness that interprets such events through story telling. The difference is that the Rwanda Genocide didn't happen 60 years ago, and everyone here my age and older has their own story to tell from it – I just had to listen.
In the evening we went out to a bar called the Passadena. Linda, a journalist at The New Times paper we are working for, said it's a regular hang out for her and her friends, and that she knew the owner, Virgile, quite well. The club is two floors tall with an open ceiling looking out to the city and up to the stars. However, the round log walls, upbeat dance music and flashing lights all centered around a dance floor and Linda insisted we move from our upstairs view of the city to where we could see the dance floor better. We got a table close enough that as the night went on, we were pulled onto it regularly by everyone who wanted to laugh at how uncoordinated mzungu's really are.
But between all this, in the middle of our drinks and plates of food, Linda leaned over and casually mentioned that Virgile's brother had been murdered on the floor right in front of us during the genocide. It was the first time we had heard the word out-loud, and no coincidence, I would later realize, that it came from the first real local we met (on the first day). Our ears perked up immediately and we clung to every word she said underneath the music of Shakira and Michael Jackson. The club is built over what used to be Virgile's brothers house (in fact, the name Passadena translates to "My Brother's Home"), but the cement floor now used for dancing is still the same. The club was made in his brothers honour, but rather than a bleak plaque, people are dancing on the spot his brother was slaughtered. In the middle of the story we were pulled out on the dance floor again by locals, and so we danced again, then eagerly asked to hear more about the story as we sat back down. She continued to tell it in a casual but very emotionally attached way. It was no secret, the genocide happened and it happened everywhere, and life in Rwanda just has to go on around it. Everyone still feels it and everyone is trying to build their lives up from it, just maybe not always in as literal ways as Virgile.