Emilie Tobin's Blog
June 14, 2007 — He’s back and better than ever
I met my little street boy today. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. I really wish our encounter would have been better. He was begging in his usual spot today and when I saw him, I excitedly pulled out 200 francs and put them in his hand. The second I finished giving him the money, an older boy, in his early 20s, stopped in front of us and asked me for money. I said I didn’t have anymore. He then looked at the little boy, sitting on the sidewalk, barefoot and filthy, and tried to steal his money. I stopped him and told the older boy to basically get lost, but he wouldn’t. Although there was a language barrier as I still don’t speak Kinyarwanda, I’m pretty sure he understood what I was saying. So finally, I grabbed the little boy’s hand and told him we were going to eat together. We crossed the street together and headed for a little grocery store. The older boy continued to follow us. He finally left and when I felt comfortable he wouldn’t return, I went into the store to purchase some muffins and some juice for the little boy. As soon as we left the grocery story, the older boy came back with some of his buddies.
At this point, I felt ridiculous. Instead of helping the little boy, I drew unnecessary and unwanted attention to him. Still, I knew if I left, the older boys would steal his food and money. So the little boy and I sat on the side of the road together as he ate his food. We couldn’t really communicate as he doesn’t speak French or English but I used every single appropriate Kinyarwandan word I knew in an attempt to talk to him. In our brief conversation, he told me that the older boys often steal his money and he thanked me for the money and food. Right then and there I knew I had made the right decision by sticking around despite the ridiculous attention we were getting. While we sat there, another young street kid came by asking for money, and when I said no, the little boy offered to share his food and drink with him. How precious! Finally, I decided I should leave. More and more people were stopping and staring at us and as much as I knew he appreciated the food, I knew I should leave. As I left, I bumped into one of my coworkers. I asked him to please ask the older boys who were still hovering to leave the little boy alone. When he did, they said they were simply making sure I didn’t steal the little boy and bring him back to Canada!!! Because that would be so much worse than getting robbed and beaten on the streets of Kigali by your own peers. What a world.
June 12, 2007 — Termites and electricity
Remember when I said we had it easy here in Rwanda? Well, we do, but not always. I also said I was a bug killing machine, but everyone has their limits. A couple of weeks ago, I discovered a small sand pile on my bedroom floor, just below my window. When I looked up, I saw a small hole with a bunch of little bugs crawling through it! Upon further inspection, I noticed a whole slew of these same bugs crawling along the edge of my floor. I screamed a little and Cindy came in my room to explore a little with me. We grabbed a can of Raid and proceeded to empty the can onto the bugs. We stupidly did not grab any of my clothes or amenities prior to spraying the room and were left stuffing our mouths and noses into our sweaters while grabbing all my stuff.
The next morning, once the room was breathable again, we got some of Kyla’s duct tape (god bless duct tape) and covered the hole. Dad, I hope you’re proud! The next day, one of our guards did a thorough clean up the outside ledge of my window which was covered in bugs. So off I went on my merry way, thinking the problem was solved. Not so much. About three days later, I found another little pile of sand on my floor, this time from an inside wall. Once again, I found a hole in the wall with gross little bugs crawling out of it. Fresh off my first bug experience, I grabbed some clothes in preparation for another night outside my room and then proceeded to spray these bugs as well.
By this time, I was frustrated. My roommates and I had figured out it was termites and we were all pretty grossed out. I called our local fixer who promised to call the landlord. A lot of good that did. It has now been close to three weeks since the termites first entered my bedroom. I now have five beautiful pieces of duct tape adorned to my wall, creating a new type of wall art. By the end of my trip, duct tape may well become my wallpaper. I know that I am living in a third-world country and that bugs are a way of life, however, I do not believe that I should be living with termites. Cockroaches, grasshoppers, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, I can deal with. Termites, not so much. Enough said.
As for the electricity issue, it is far more amusing than the termites. First of all, there is a serious energy crisis happening in this country. Secondly, the ways of getting power are needlessly complicated. You don’t pay a monthly bill here. You must go to an Electrogaz office and buy a certain amount of power. Every household has its own code. Once you buy power, they give you a receipt which has a code which you punch into a machine situated on the outside of your home and then voila, power! Sounds pretty easy, right? However, if you lose power after 8 p.m., you are out of luck as Electrogaz offices close at that time. However, if you are unlucky enough to lose power before 8 p.m. and get to Electrogaz on time to buy power only to get home and realize they charged the wrong account, the situation becomes a little more dire. Why? Because Electrogaz has your money and you still have no power. When a mistake like this is made, it is quite an adventure getting it fixed.
How I was chosen as the fixer for this problem is beyond me. But I was. So, I called in sick to work this morning and ventured off to fix our power with one of the guards who speaks Kinyarwanda. I will spare you all the details, but the abbreviated version of the story consists of three different Electrogaz stations, countless meetings with different employees who kept leading us in new directions, a four thousand dollar fee to switch the money from the wrong code to our code and finally, three and a half hours later, we have power!!!! I know this doesn`t sound that bad, but when it could have easily been taken care of by simply checking the power to make sure we had enough before losing it, it is an unnecessary burden in my life. Oh well, if this is roughing it, I guess I can handle it.
June 7, 2007 — There’s always next year...
The Senators got clobbered in the Stanley Cup Finals. They only made it to game five. I heard of our loss from a text message from Cynthia this morning. I was waiting for a bus with David. I was upset but I didn’t cry or swear like I would’ve back home. It is much easier to deal with a loss in Rwanda since there is absolutely no media coverage of hockey. In order to limit my pain, all I have to do is stay away from TSN.ca, which I am proud to say I have done. Now my only reminder of the painful loss is my Senators inspired room and the emails from back home. The day after the loss, I had 21 new emails in my inbox and every single one of them concerned the Senators! My mother even said that the reason they lost is because they couldn’t win it without their biggest fan in the stands (for those who still haven’t figured it out, I am the biggest fan) Thanks mom! As for my room, I still sleep with my Sens blanket and use my Sens towel and I try to remember what an awesome season we had and how there will be a Cup parade in Ottawa someday soon.
After receiving the awful news from Cynthia, I had to regroup quickly as David and I headed to a local NGO called Haguruka for an interview. This NGO specializes in women and children’s rights, particularly their judicial rights. The Haguruka entrance is located on a dirt back road. Upon entering the building, groups of women, children and some men are found in an outdoor waiting area. The women are solemn looking, while the children play as if nothing were wrong. While waiting to begin interviews, I met a beautiful little girl dressed in a purple Disney princess gown which was shredding at the seams and was covered red dirt.
When a member of the organization explained to all the people sitting in the makeshift lobby that we were journalists who wanted to interview them and asked for volunteers, everyone kind of awkwardly glanced at the floor and looked away. Finally, two women agreed to speak to me. David, myself and my translator headed into a tiny office to speak to the two women. Let’s just say I got over my Senators pain very quickly. Both women had gone through various types of abuse and were trying to take care of their children and grandchildren respectively. Their husbands and children had left and they were left to raise their loved ones without any financial means to do so. They had come to this organization because although they did not know their rights, they knew that what was being done to them was wrong. It was painful yet powerful to hear. Once I finished interviewing them, six more women and some children entered the office eager to tell their stories. Some even allowed David to photograph them. They said they hoped their pictures and stories in the paper would help their situation. I can only hope so.
Each woman had a different story. One shy looking young woman, with three of the most adorable looking children was trying to get her philandering husband to pay child support. He had left her for another woman and refused to pay a cent until she gave up her rights to their children and sent them to live with his new family. Another was trying to get a divorce from an abusive husband who had beaten her so badly that her body was covered in scars. He even beat her as she was carrying their youngest child on her back. Another was trying to get her children’s father’s name on their birth certificate so he could no longer deny them as he had for the last 11 years. She wanted to make sure her children would be taken care of by their father if anything were to happen to hear. One woman had been forced to live on the streets with her children after her husband left her and kicked them out of the house. She was attempting to get her house back as well as child support for her six children.
I was actually quite surprised at how similar their problems were to North American family issues. A lawyer at Haguruka informed me that the largest amount of cases they see is child support and paternity cases.
While each story was different, these women were all so similar. Each had at least one daughter and wanted to ensure that she stay in school and get an education so she wouldn’t wind up in the same situation, or if she did, she would know her rights and know to fight for them. It was actually quite powerful. Most of these women informed me that they were not educated and prior to coming to an organization such as Haguruka, they did not know how to defend themselves. As much as they wanted to win their case, they also wanted to get educated themselves so as to better understand exactly what they were entitled to. Honestly, the Senators were a distant memory after that morning and all that was on my mind was how to do justice to these women in my article. Let’s hope I succeed.
June 5, 2007 — Putting a smile on my face
Prior to coming to Rwanda, we were advised to not give handouts to the poor because if we started doing so we would be hassled all the time and it would never stop. Having been in this country for a month, I realize that no matter whether you give or not, if you are white, you will be hassled for money by street children. There is nothing wrong with this. It happens in North America just as often as it does here. However, there are much more children begging here and that is completely disheartening.
On my walk to work, I bump into the same little boy on the streets every day. He wears the same filthy blue shorts and red long-sleeved t-shirt every day. He does not ever wear shoes on his feet. His dark skin is covered in white and gray dirt. His hands and feet are blistered and swollen. He cannot be any older than seven years old. Every day of the week, he sits on the sidewalk begging for money and every morning, afternoon and evening I refuse to give him any. I know this sounds mean, but I don’t have the funds to give every day and I don’t want him to expect it. And I believed he would come to expect it.
Last Thursday, I was having a really horrible day. I was tired, frustrated and simply not in a good mood. On my walk home for lunch, I met the same little boy as well as a new little companion of his I had never met before. I had 400 rwandan francs on me and I gave them each 200. It wasn’t much and I didn’t know what they could possibly purchase with so little funds, but it was all I had. On my way back to work after lunch, both boys were sitting in under a tree next to the sidewalk. They were devouring bread and fruit. As I walked by them, they lifted their heads, looked at me, put their hands together in prayer and with huge smiles said “merci.” My heart just dropped to the ground. I no longer felt so terrible anymore. All of my problems and attitude disappeared as I realized how lucky I am to have a roof over my head, food in the fridge, clean clothes and money in my pocket. I was simply touched by their gratitude and their smiles.
The very next day, I made sure to bring a little money and food with me for the two boys. However, they were nowhere to be found. It has now been two weeks since I last saw my young companions. I don’t know where they are or if they are ok, but I hope to see their smiles again. I now always try and remember to keep a little something for them in my purse because I believe that their genuine gratitude did more for me than the money did for them.
May 27, 2007 — Rwandan meal
In many ways, we have it really good here. (Pardon my English) We have a beautiful home, a house cleaner who not only washes floors and windows but also does the laundry, security guards and a cook. We really don’t have to fend for ourselves that much. Sunday is our cook’s day off and that pretty much spells restaurant day for us. This Sunday, however, we had the privilege of eating a huge Rwandan feast prepared for us by a few of our new friends. One thing to note about cooking and eating a Rwandan meal: if you want to eat before 11 p.m., make sure the cooking begins around noon. We were not this fortunate, but the wait was well worth it.
The kitchen was covered in an array of fish, vegetables, meats and potatoes. Julius, a New Times co-worker, prepared the most wonderful French fries (or chips as they are called here). I don’t know if it’s the quality of the potato or the cooking oil, but the chips here are amazing and I think it will be very difficult to adapt to home chips once I get back. Our dear friend Magnus was the head chef of the night and he was busy making all sorts of succulent meals. It was actually hard to help out since there was so much on the go. We had the oven, the stove and a charcoal fire going all at once. We helped as much as we could. We chopped veggies and peeled tomatoes (which doesn’t sound disgusting but truly is). While Kyla and Cindy took pictures, Christine and I had the wonderful task of removing fish heads off a hundred little smelly fish. It was disgusting and I hate to say it, they didn’t taste all that good either. However, the rest of the meal was amazing.
Once everything had been fried, baked, boiled and cooked over a coal-fired grill outdoors, we sat down to eat around 11 p.m. Better late than never! The meal was worth the wait. We feasted on a variety of Rwandan delicacies and there was so much food that we couldn’t finish it all despite the hunger pains that had been eating away at us since 8 p.m. All in all, it was a wonderful night, filled with good food and new friends. It beat the restaurant hands down.
May 22, 2007 — Connectivity
Imagine a world with no internet? You can’t, can you? If you can, then you are a better person than me. In many countries across the globe, the internet is a way of life: it’s how we keep in touch with others, it’s how we learn of world events, and it’s even how we talk to each other through online messaging services. In Rwanda, however, the internet is a luxury that is not commonly found. Many places of business have an internet connection but it runs at a snail’s pace and is most often not reliable. When you are lucky to get a connection, it is incredibly slow and it may disappear at anytime.
I didn’t think I relied on the internet so much until I got to Kigali. I even sometimes hated the internet. When I am not in school, I cannot often be found online. I usually absolutely loathe the computer. Now I see that it is the be all and end all of my day.
Firstly, email is one of my only connections to home. Phone rates are through the roof here and I communicate with my family and friends via email. When I can’t find a connection, it stresses me out beyond belief. Also, as a journalist, most of my research is conducted using the internet. I was asked to do some research on four stories today but the internet wasn’t working at work. I headed down to an internet cafe and managed to get an hour of research done until the connection disappeared. I’m finding this very stressful. I haven’t completed half my research and I have a meeting tomorrow. How do people communicate without the internet?
The answer is the phone. People in Rwanda love their phones. Everyone has a cell phone and sometimes it sounds like everyone in town is talking on their cell phones at the same time. The people here have not succumbed to the terrible disease of emailing the person next to them instead of having a conversation - a disease that has ravaged the workplaces and schools of North America. However, they have contracted the same disease of impoliteness with regards to cell phone use as North Americans. Have you ever sat in a meeting with your boss when they receive a blackberry message and all of a sudden they get up and leave, even though your meeting has been scheduled for three weeks? Well, the same phenomenon happens here all the time. I had an interview with someone today and he fully took two phone calls that lasted a good 15 minutes each during the interview. I was left sitting there trying to look busy. I guess no matter where you are in the world technology will always decrease live face to face human interaction. Even in Rwanda.
May 21, 2007 — Bug killer
I am what you would call a wuss. I like to whine and complain and one of my favourite words is ‘ouch.’ So it has come as quite a surprise to me that I have become the designated bug killer in the house. I don’t like bugs. They’re creepy and crawly and just plain gross. Also, the bugs here are nothing like in Canada. They are bigger, faster and a whole lot creepier. Still, I have found myself in a house full of people who are more scared and disgusted by bugs than I am. I don’t know how I inherited this role. I believe that sometime during our first week here someone found a dead cockroach in their room and not one would remove it, so I did. Since then, it hasn’t stopped.
Last night was the best example of my bug killing skills. We were all sitting in the living room watching a movie when one of my roommates came running in asking for someone to remove a bug from her washroom. I assumed the bug was dead as all the previous ones had been, however, when I reached the washroom, I saw the biggest cockroach I have ever seen in my life crawling in the bathtub. I must admit that I was repulsed. I did not want to touch it but I knew I had to. I went back to the main room, grabbed my running shoe and headed back to the washroom. Cockroaches are quick bugs. The first time I tried whacking the huge bug, it moved away before I could hit it. This just made me mad as I was missing out on the movie and wanted to get this over and done with. Finally, after a few tries, I managed to hit it once, twice, three times and the final blow came on the fourth try which pretty much flattened the bug. In all honesty, it wasn’t that gross. This represents quite a change for me. Back home, I am the girl who hides under her covers and screams for her dad to come kill the bug. One time, I found a dead bat in my toilet and I couldn’t even flush it. I ran out of the bathroom and asked my sister’s boyfriend to do it since I was so grossed out. After going one-on-one with the world’s biggest cockroach, the bat seems like a piece of cake. Now, I am a world-class bug killer, ready to take on anything Rwanda has to throw at me...I think.
May 20, 2007 — We’re going to the finals!!!!!
GO SENS GO!!!!!!!! The Senators are off to the Stanley Cup Finals!!!! I have no on to share my excitement with here so I’m sharing it with my blogging friends!!!!! The Sens are going all the way!!!!! GO SENS GO!!!!!!!!
May 17, 2007 — Motherly instincts
One of the first things parents teach their children in Canada is not to talk to strangers. After spending a week in Rwanda, I’ve come to the early conclusion that this rule does not apply to Rwandan children. Since our arrival in Kigali my roommates and I have been followed quite regularly by parentless children who seem fascinated by our pale skin. Most of the time, the children simply walk behind us or next to us, giggling and sharing secrets while staring at us. They are armed with huge smiles and immense eyes. It’s hard not to fall in love with them in an instant. However, it is very different from back home. At home, you may find the odd child who will walk up to you in a restaurant or in the park, but its parents are always nearby. Rwandan children, on the other hand, are very independent and don’t seem to have the fear of strangers instilled in them as we have in North American and the West.
During my half hour walk to work today, I experienced my first solo encounter with Rwandese children. The walk began with a few uniformed children following me to the main road. This number soon ballooned to about a dozen children, clad in matching school uniforms of either navy blue bottoms and white button-down shirts or green bottoms and chequered white and green tops. Their heads are all shaven as is the custom for all school children, even the girls. All the children greeted me with an enthusiastic “Bonjour!” They stared, laughed and giggled at me while whispering little secrets to each other in Kinyarwanda. I believe they were exchanging words about me, but I won’t assume. One little girl, dressed in a green school uniform, walked up beside me, flashed me a huge smile and grabbed my hand. We walked hand in hand for about five minutes while exchanging a series of “Bonjour’s” since neither one of us could communicate in the other’s language. We reached a long red dirt hill that led to her school and she tried to lead me down with her. I told her I couldn’t go and she let go of my hand and off she went to join her friends who were standing not too far away. I arrived at work with a huge grin on my face and questioning my motherly instincts which prior to this experience were non-existent.
May 15, 2007 — Bedtime
Getting ready for bed is a serious sport here. At home, all I have to do is get into my pyjamas and roll into bed. In Rwanda, it is much more complicated. It is a process that requires much patience and timing. After completing regular toiletries like brushing my teeth and washing my face, the real fun begins. For starters, I sleep under a mosquito net. This is a must to prevent being bitten by a malaria-carrying mosquito in the middle of the night. The net is also useful in preventing me from waking up in the morning to find a huge cockroach on my face.
My mosquito net is a little too short for my bed. It doesn’t fall all the way over my mattress and therefore leaves a large amount of open space, perfect for insects to entre my bed and ravage me in my sleep. To make the net useful, I must pull it tightly and tuck it under my mattress. So, before entering my bed for the night, I tuck all but one little area of my mosquito net under the mattress, leaving a small opening for me to get into bed.
The work doesn’t stop here though. It is impossible to get into bed with the lights off because I would never be able to find the small opening and would probably end up ripping the net out from under the mattress; therefore, I arm myself with a flashlight, turn off the light, find my little entrance and crawl into bed. Once I’ve tucked in the remainder of the net, it honestly looks like I am sitting in the middle of a mosquito net hut or tipi.
While this doesn’t sound so difficult, it is. Once inside my bed or hut, there is no way out. I can physically leave my bed quite easily, however, if I try to make a little opening to leave, I inevitably pull out more of the net than I wanted and basically have to start the whole process over from the beginning. Needless to say, with all the work that goes into going to bed, falling asleep isn’t a problem.
May 11, 2007 — I love Africa, but...
The first thing that entered my mind when I found out I was coming to Kigali was, “But I’m going to miss the Stanley Cup playoffs!” Sad but true, I was extremely concerned about missing the Ottawa Senators playoff run since I am completely confident that there will be a Cup parade in Ottawa come June and I did not want to miss it. Not once did I think about turning down this opportunity, but missing the playoffs concerned me more than it would most individuals. What can I say: I love hockey. I love dressing up in the Sens red, gold and black colours. I love screaming and cheering at the top of my lungs. I love high-fiving complete strangers in the stands after we’ve scored a goal. I love it all.
So as to not feel too left out of playoff fever, I came to Kigali armed with all sorts of Senators paraphernalia so I could celebrate Sens glory all the way from Africa. My room in Kigali is decorated with a Senators blanket, towel, ball cap and a bright red pom-pom I received during Round One of the playoffs. I thought it best to bring some playoff fever to Kigali, even if I am the only person participating in this activity.
I am lucky to have parents who understand and even share in this obsession. On our second day in Kigali, my roommates and I, armed with our laptops, headed to a coffee shop with free internet access. It is kind of sad to see our reliance on technology. After two days without checking our emails, we were all itching to get in touch with the people back home. While most people received long and detailed emails from their parents concerned about how we were adapting to this new country, the first email I received from my parents read something like this, “We’re glad you made it safely to Kigali, the game starts soon. We’ll email you the score later.” While some people may have been offended by the lack of “how are you?” or “what’s happening?” it was the perfect email for me. Actually, the perfect email came about three hours later when I learned the Sens won. While I know it sounds ludicrous to even think about hockey while on my first ever trip to Africa, finding out the score gave me a comfort from home and helped me feel like I was still a part of the Stanley Cup excitement. I guarantee that Kigali will experience its first ever Stanley Cup parade when the Sens take it all the way. I will lead the way and begin my teaching of the real greatest game in the world.