Jill's Notes From the
September 10, 2007 — 'What do Cher and Kenny Rogers have in common?'
I may have agreed to go because I thought someone said ‘gin and tonic’. Turns out they actually said Gymtonic which is the craziest aerobics class I have ever taken part in…in my life.
Jennifer, one of the other teachers, and I set out for the 6:30pm class last Wednesday. Like most of the directions in Butare we were told to look for an alley next to a place and go to the end of the alley. We spot a guy wearing shorts and runners and follow him.
The room is large with a red concrete floor and a boom box in one corner suggesting we are in the right place. At one end there is a sauna where men draped in green towels saunter out to sit on a row of benches, apparently gearing up to watch the 6:30pm show.
Sweet. Aerobics in front of a half naked audience.
There are three other doors along a far wall. People come and go, seemingly from a totally different place. I wonder if C.S Lewis ever took this class and perhaps right in this spot is where he was inspired to write about Narnia.
A few minutes early the music starts and our instructor, who seems to just appear, starts telling us what to do, in French. Part of me instantly wishes he was telling me to head over to door number three and find out what is behind it, but no such luck. We are warming up.
I must admit, I hate aerobics classes. I once kicked that stupid little plastic bench thing across the room during a step class. Within the first five minutes of any class I normally find myself hating the entire world and looking for something to hit my head on so I can pass out and wake up at the end.
But as soon as the African music starts playing and people start waving their arms and kicking their feet I can help but smile. It turns into a permagrin. I jump and kick and throw my head around. Sure, I look like someone who has just found a cockroach in her shirt and then jumped into the bath with a toaster, but I don’t care. In the centre of the room there are middle aged men jumping and kicking and encouraging each other.
After the warm up I am drenched. Jennifer’s shirt has gone from a light gray to a charcoal colour. And then the music changes and suddenly we are kicking and clapping to Kenny Rogers. From Kenny we move onto Cher. There is some Shania in there as well along with something techno like that I vaguely remember from a few years ago. As soon as the second Cher number comes on the men in the middle pump up the energy with several high fives and cheers for each other. I think I even see one of the towel clad spectators tapping his toes.
After 45 minutes of cardio we move to the floor exercises. I’m happy to sit down.
We are stretching on the mats when Jen turns to me, “Ummm, I think this exercise was banned in Canada a few years ago.”
I nod, as I continue doing crunches and feeling each vertebrae shift slightly as I roll on the concrete floor. But even though I feel like I could sever a tendon at any minute, I am still smiling.
I find myself saying the phrase ‘you would never see this in Canada’ to myself a lot here. But not usually in a bad way. At this class no one is here to show off the latest lululemon purchase or to pose on the elliptical machine making sure not to smudge mascara. Gym wear here is shorts and a t-shirt…or whatever you happen to be wearing when the class starts. Shoes of any kind are optional.
The class lasts a good hour and twenty minutes. At the end we are drenched and tired but still full of energy. Like so many other things here it is amazing to watch people throw themselves into something wholeheartedly, men in the centre cheering each other along, others watching with encouragement, and us, the two visiting muzungus just trying to keep up while we sing along with what we know, and try our hardest to learn all that is brand new.
September 2, 2007 — It's true what they say about first impressions...
During my first week here my headspace was about as hazy as the early morning air that hangs heavy in the valleys of Butare, clinging to the banana trees, mixing effortlessly with smoke coming from the roofs of the one room homes scattered among the fields. At first I thought it was jet lag. But I don’t normally get jet lag.
It takes a while to find the groove that is this place. I’ve been here a month now and I am just starting to feel like I am getting it. Sadly, I will leave soon. But I hope to come back.
In a country filled with secrecy and extreme privacy, foreigners are bound to have misconceptions. I am no exception. I feel like I am slowly feeling my way through the dark and finding bits of light here and there. I’m having an ‘ah-huh’ moment daily. Sometimes I have more than one a day. Oprah would be proud
After the first week here I thought I had an amazing tan on my feet and lower legs. I assumed it was the equatorial sun giving me a shade of bronze I hadn’t been exposed to in Canada. It turns out I was just really dirty. The reddish brown dust here is everywhere. It soaks into the skin like wood stain on untreated pine. A good scrubbing in the tub and my feet were back to their normal translucent sheen of half boiled chicken. On the bright side, I now know my sunscreen is working.
Just because people here are friendly doesn’t mean they like you. I had been told this before I came to Rwanda. We were advised to keep our religious beliefs to ourselves if those beliefs involved anything other than Jesus Christ being our saviour. But I was chatting with some people at the University the other day and when one asked me about religion I decided to be honest. “I don’t go to church,” I said. “And that’s quite common in Canada. I have beliefs,” I continued as I saw the blood drain from their faces. “But I also admire other religions such as Judaism and Buddhism and I think we can learn a lot from each other.”
“So you don’t go to church?”
I found myself wishing Jesus would make his comeback right then and there to take the pressure off me. “No, I don’t go to church,” I said.
I couldn’t quite tell if the heavy sign was one of disgust or disbelief.
“Are you married?”
“No,” I said, happy for the subject change but wary of what would be asked next.
Because I am a non-church going heathen, obviously. “I’m just not.”
This answer is never good enough in Rwanda. To be 34, childless and not married by choice makes about as much sense to people here as it would to start flapping one’s arms in hopes of instantaneously flying to the moon. I tried to explain it’s different in Canada and that there are so many other things to do such as travel and work and that women don’t always chose to have families. Again, the argument was met with a blank, slightly hostile stare. I considered flapping my arms as a way to change the conversation topic.
I was also warned before I came here that people who aren’t church going Christians are often lumped into a category of general debauchery. If you aren’t a devoted Christian than you must be an abortion supporting, puppy kicking, devil worshipping homosexual on the fast bus to hell. It’s just that simple. You gain titles not based on what you do but based on what you don’t do. Homosexuality apparently doesn’t exist in Rwanda. Ask anyone. My students were taking me on a campus tour one day when they brought the subject up.
“There are no homosexuals here,” one said, emphatically waving his hands. “There might be homosexuals in other places, but not here.”
I don’t even know how the subject came up. But I felt like he was looking for praise and admiration for his non-gay country. Having already reserved my seat on the hell bus I decided to ask about this more. “How do you know?”
“We just do. It’s illegal. It doesn’t exist.”
Other Canadians I have met here have also encountered the strong belief there are no gay people in Rwanda. Although when they pressed the issue they finally had someone here admit that maybe, just maybe, there are six gay people in Rwanda. It’s funny because in my short time here I am sure I have already met three of the six. I really should be getting their phone numbers so I can help them get in touch with each other.
I’m sure there are other things I misunderstand daily. I fully admit I am constantly learning while I am amazed by the cultural differences that become more and more apparent. I look forward to my daily walk along the street and all of the new knowledge that it brings. And of course, I am still looking for the three remaining gay people here. If nothing else, all six should meet and plan to sit together on the hell bus. I imagine it will be rather crowded.
August 26, 2007 — If they charge at you... just don’t panic
Those are the words of advice from Dee (which is short for his much longer Rwandan name) as we set out to see the mountain gorillas. The words are not as comforting as Dee seems to think they are as we look at each other with slightly worried looks on our faces. I glance around the group trying to gauge the athletic ability of the people I am with. I think I can outrun at least two of them. I tighten my shoelaces feeling a little bit better.
The day starts at 4am in Kigali where we are picked up by our driver, Alphonse, in his 4x4 truck. We set out along the dark city streets and head for the Virunga National Park, home to five volcanoes and the gorillas.
We try to sleep. Melissa is in the front seat with the broken air conditioner slowly forming icicles on her calves. Jennifer and I are in the back with the seats reclined. I try to wedge myself against the door but the roads are so filled with potholes it is impossible to stay in one place. Out the window, in the early morning darkness there are streams of people walking along the street with sacks of grains, large piles of firewood, and hundreds of green bananas balanced on their heads. Alphonse tells us they start walking around 1am every morning to make it to town by around 6am.
Just before 7am we arrive at the base camp where we choose the gorilla family we want to visit. There are dozens of people, who have paid 500 US dollars each for a gorilla permit. Alphonse gets us a spot to see the Susa group. It’s the most challenging hike but the reward is time spent with the gorillas made famous by Dian Fossey, a family with four silverback males.
We drive for another hour and twenty minutes to the start of the hike along a “road” that makes it clear why Alphonse needs a 4x4.
“I wonder how many shock absorbers these trucks go through?” asks Melissa.
“Just one pair,” I answer while hanging on to the door handle. “The ones that are still in the truck.”
On the hike we are joined by guards armed with machine guns. When Dee is asked why he tells us there is a problem with poachers and in the past some tourists were killed. He says this as if he is telling us what he had for breakfast.
And we start the hike. At first we are moving so fast I begin to wonder if I missed the part where we were told we were all competing on The Amazing Race “Virunga Park” version. Apparently we are not; we just need to hurry.
The hike is an amazing walk through a bamboo forest with sunlight filtering in through the stalks that seem to reach the sun itself. We stop to take pictures and I check on the state of the group. I am still confident I could outrun at least two of them if need be.
Then the real hiking begins. Dee seems to know where the path is although I have no idea how. He is careful not to destroy the forest as he walks with the ease of an Olympic sprinter on a warm up lap around the track. The rest of us get caught up in branches, stung constantly by nettles, and lose our footing as we try to limbo under fallen bamboo shoots.
We are told it will take about two hours to reach our cousins. But the guides ahead radio to Dee telling him the gorillas are closer today. We soon see the evidence on the path, and careful not to step in it, start to realize just how close we are.
We stop and leave our knapsacks and walking sticks in a small clearing. We are allowed to take cameras only when we go in. We are told it’s okay to make eye contact but not to point. And once again we are reminded, if they charge, don’t panic.
We walk a few more feet and there they are. The first one I see is the alpha male silverback resting with his head forward cupped in his incredibly human hand. He looks at us and I wonder if he can sense how frightened and mesmerized I am all at once. He looks mildly interested in us, but more annoyed that we have crashed his afternoon nap. There is a commotion a few feet away as a much younger gorilla falls out of a tree and into the group.
Dee decides this is a good time for Jennifer to stand near the silverback to have a photo. He gets up and all four hundred plus pounds of him lumbers towards her as the rest of us stare. I can hear the words ‘don’t panic’ in my mind but I have forgotten what they mean. I prepare to record Jennifer’s last words so I can be sure to convey them to her parents when they ask. But then the silverback simply walks away.
We follow the group into a clearing. Aside from the constant clicking of cameras I can hear little else from the human group. From the gorillas I hear the hollow popping as the silverback pounds his chest. The grass moves as other gorillas tumble over each other, as if playing out a scene for the humans. And there is a munching sound as the others pick wild celery and crunch away at their snack, completely uninterested in us.
A mother gorilla nurses her baby just a couple of metres from where I am standing. The similarity to human beings is amazing especially in the hands and feet. But while this should be an incredibly solid point in the argument for evolution, I can’t help but wonder what greater being is responsible for creating such a beautiful and perfect creature.
Dee tells us we can only spend an hour with our cousins. If we stay longer they will start to go crazy. I completely understand as it’s the same in my family when relatives unexpectedly stop by.
And then, as if they too know the hour is up, the gorillas disappear. All that is left of our encounter is a patch of matted vegetation and hundreds of digital photos. For a moment I wonder if I imagined the entire thing.
We hike back to the truck where Alphonse is waiting for us and I can’t help but feel that I have seen something so many people never will. While Rwanda depends on the tourism money generated by these amazing creatures, I wonder how long we will be allowed to venture into our cousin’s homes. Tourists are told to stay away if they have a cold or the flu or any illness because the gorillas have no immunity to human disease but I wonder how often they are put at risk because of us.
There are only 700 gorillas left in the world and about 380 of them live in the Virunga Park. They are threatened by poachers in Rwanda, the Congo and Uganda. Already this year seven gorillas have been killed. The forest is being cleared for charcoal production which is also putting them at risk.
The armed guards stay with them all day until they go to bed for the night. It’s little comfort as we drive back down the mountain saying good bye to these amazing primates, hoping they will be here for generations to come.
August 25, 2007 — Yes, I’m White…thank you for noticing…
The word is constantly thrown at me as I walk the 45 minutes each way to and from the University campus. It means “white person” and even though there are many “muzungu” people in Butare, there is always someone on the street who feels the need to remind me of the obvious; I am not from here. I blend in here about as well as a flamingo at a duck convention.
At first I would wave back to the children screeching at me thinking it was cute. But as more and more people greeted me based on the colour of my skin I started to get annoyed. I realize there are different ways of doing things in different countries and I now know there are huge differences between Vancouver and Butare, but still, I would never yell a word at someone based on his or her race, so why is it okay for people to look at me and scream, “Whitey!”?
People here say other things too, after the word Muzungu, but they speak in Kinyarwanda and while I am just guessing, based on the facial expressions while they are speaking, I can only imagine they aren’t complimenting me on my choice of clothing.
During the days after I first arrived here I found myself feeling intimidated while I walked down the street.
People stare. And while I thought I might be imagining it, many of the stares felt slightly hostile and unwelcoming to say the least. I don’t blame them though. White people haven’t exactly treated people here very well during the last several decades. The country was under colonial rule and it was Germany that first started splitting the people in Rwanda into classes. It was further divided into ethnic groups of Hutu and Tutsi under Belgium’s rule all before it gained independence in 1962. And during the years leading up to the 1994 genocide, France helped those who planned and carried out the killing. The rest of the western world, including Canada, turned a blind eye while as many as one million people were raped, tortured, and slaughtered. The Catholic Church was also a key player, running schools and further separating the classes, favouring one over the other. Even today, the Catholic Church is paying the defence bills of at least one of the men accused of incredible atrocities during the genocide.
Walking along the street in Butare, I found myself thinking if I was Rwandan I would probably have a hostile look or two saved up for a muzungu. How could you not? I know that sounds like a ridiculous argument and if that is truly how the world works then, based on history alone, there would be very few people who didn’t despise each other today. But still, the genocide took place only thirteen years ago. There are fresh reminders of it everywhere here.
I am here to teach Radio and Television Presentation at the University. But at times I can’t help but feel like I am trespassing. I know there is a need for lecturers in the department and I know I have knowledge that is helping my students.
But I wonder how people can truly welcome someone who is from a country that knew about the genocide while it was happening but did nothing to stop it.
Yesterday, I received an impromptu lesson on forgiveness from some of my students. I am paraphrasing here. But this is the conversation I had with three students who took me on a campus tour. We were in one of the dorm rooms, where they sleep two people to a single bed. It would be unheard of at a Canadian University but it’s completely normal here. The tiny room is decorated with pictures of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Jesus, side by side taped to the walls.
They saw me looking at the pictures with what I can only imagine was a facial expression of slight disbelief and humour.
“They are the two men we look up to the most,” said one student.
“You put your president and Jesus on the same level?” I asked, finding it impossible not to laugh as I imagined someone making the same point while looking at a campaign poster of Stephen Harper next to a photocopy of Jesus.
“No, not the same level, but Kagame has done great things for our country. And Jesus, well Jesus is Jesus.”
I couldn’t help but notice the pictures of Paul Kagame were black and white copies from when he was a soldier with the RPF. The reporter in me wanted to question this. But the smile on my student’s face made me reconsider the harsh tone ready to come out. Instead I asked, “So why is Paul Kagame so great?”
“He can do no wrong. He’s a celebrity.”
Without any segue the conversation shifted to talk about the genocide. The students started talking about how the country has changed since 1994.
“Many of us were only nine years old when the genocide happened. We go to school with students whose parents might have raped or killed by the parents of the student sitting next to them. We have to know it’s not our fault. We didn’t do anything wrong. Now we have to move on together and live together and not blame. We have to make sure it never happens again.”
I was amazed by this and somewhat sceptical. “But how can you possibly forget and then study next to someone whose family killed your family?”
“It’s not about forgetting. It’s about not blaming. The people who did it (the genocide) are on trial. They are being dealt with. We are at school now. We are moving on.”
I stood there still amazed and still slightly sceptical.
But looking at my class it appears they are doing just that. There are things people are not allowed to talk about openly here. Ethnicity is one of them. But it’s still easy to simply look at people and to know exactly where the lines were drawn during the genocide. But it’s also easy to see where the lines have been erased as the students walk together, sit together, and laugh and learn together, and sleep two to a single bed together as one giant family.
And it’s watching that ease and that forgiveness that makes me feel welcome here and make me feel like I am part of something amazing. If they can forgive each other and move on then surely they can welcome me here to help teach them and learn from them.
Walking home along the main road I was once again peppered by people yelling “muzungu”as they saw me. Yes, I thought to myself, I am one big muzungu, all the way from Canada and a little bit lost. Thank you for having me.
August 20, 2007 — I'm from Vancouver. I should be used to a little rain ...
Along the main road in Butare (now technically called Huye but still referred to as Butare by many people) there is a constant stream of people walking. They walk in both directions on both sides of the roads. Some push rusty old bikes piled high with bags of grain or potatoes. Others have huge yellow plastic containers perched on their heads, or my favourite, knapsacks filled full, and balanced perfectly on their heads with the arm straps fully functional but hanging uselessly to the side. It doesn't matter what time of day it is, the pace is always the same and the number of people walking along the road never really seems to change.
There is a difference in how time is measured here. At home people hurry to make appointments; rush to catch the bus or a movie, or walk fast simply because there is no reason not to. I know because I am one of those people who walk at a clip just under a light jog, missing almost everything that is happening around me. At least I was until I started walking here. I didn't really understand the differences between linear time and cyclical time before I got here. But now I am starting to get it. People walk here with obvious places to be but no apparent arrival time. Appointments are made and sometimes missed but it doesn't matter because there will always be time to make another appointment. Tomorrow will always arrive after today and the day after that will also come with the same opportunities as the day before. It is like a constant wheel turning and spinning and while it threw my Canadian clock into a tizzy when I arrived, I see now that it's just a different way of scheduling life.
I was walking to the University campus the other day, still slightly faster than most of the other people on the road but slightly slower than my Canadian pace, when the clouds came. In Vancouver a few drops of rain is nothing. People sit on patios eating lunch and continue putting ketchup on their fried even as the drops of water hit their plates. At least, people born and raised in Vancouver will do that.
I knew something important was happening when all of the people walking along the Butare road started running. Suddenly they all had somewhere to be. At first, I thought I would weather the storm and keep walking the ten minutes I had until I reached the University. I was sure being from Vancouver meant I could handle a few raindrops. Two minutes later I was soaked to the skin.
So I joined the crowd and ran to take refuge under the overhang of a building under construction. There was laughter as people dove to get out of the rain. In seconds, the skies had opened up and unleashed even more.
There were rivers running alongside the road and pouring into the drains built for the rainy season. And we waited. I stood with the group which included a child asking me for money, a man trying to sell me candy and a woman wringing out her bright coloured headscarf. No one was upset they were missing appointments or going to be late getting to where they were going. It didn't matter. Rainy season had come early for a couple of days in August and that meant unexpectedly spending some time taking shelter at any given moment. At home it would be a huge inconvenience but here it's just part of a normal day.
I have always suffered with a lack of patience. I get fidgety at red lights. I skip to the end of short stories. I leave half the kernels intact because I can't wait for the microwave popcorn to finish popping. Here, people have no choice but to be patient. It's an amazing change of pace; walking down a dusty road with a place to be at a certain time, but no real control over when you get there or if you will be making any stops along the way.
Oddly, there is a feeling of freedom to it. No one is bound to a clock or a daytimer, but everyone gets to where they are going eventually. And if you are lucky, you still have dry clothes on your back when you arrive, and a great story about the interesting person randomly met while waiting out the storm.
July 31, 2007 — This is Africa...almost
From my window I am surprised to spot what I first think is a beaver (but am later told is a woodchuck) munching on some grass. I've just gotten up after sleeping diagonally on a bed covered with a plastic pee sheet in a room with nothing on the walls and just a desk for furniture. I didn't live in a University dorm after high school, which is what I think makes sleeping in one now, at age 34, feel even more odd. But I am only here four nights so I treat it as an adventure, throw open the curtains and try to get a better look at what I first thought was a national symbol, and wonder if he feels like a discarded half cousin.
I am at Carleton University learning how to be an effective worker overseas. In a few days I will be in Butare, Rwanda, teaching a third year course at the National University on presenting news for radio and television.
I've been to Africa before, sleeping in a tiny tent with a friend as we made ouy way across Kenya and Tanzania. I remember at the time being frustrated and elated within minutes on most days. There was an expression I learned then. T-I-A. This is Africa. It seemed a bit odd at the time and even a bit condescending. But it was used for everything including power outages, broken down vehicles, and the most amazing sunrise I have ever seen. Still, it was uttered in exasperation more than anything else. I fully intended to hear it again during my two months in Rwanda. But what I wasn't expecting was to hear it several times before leaving North America.
July 31, 2007 — 3:30 am
I wake up to the buzz of my travel clock alarm and wonder why the phone didn't ring. I call the reception desk in the student building.
'"Hi, you were supposed to give me a wake up call?"
"Could you please call me a cab?"
I get out of bed hoping the student working the front desk isn't a communications major. I am also hoping the first exchange of the day doesn't set the tone for what is supposed to be a 24 hour travel day.
"Miss, you've been chosen for a random baggage search."
"This really is my lucky day."
Washington. I meet up with another teacher on the program in the duty free shop. Melissa and I check in for our flight to Addis Ababa and are told we will board at 9:45am.
The flight is delayed one hour. The good news.....we get breakfast vouchers!
We are told the flight is delayed because the plane is apparently broken. We ask a few questions and learn the black box recorder isn't working. I consider offering up the tape deck in my bag I am taking to Rwanda to help train journalists but something tells me it won't meet federal aviation codes. We wait.
More good news. The flight is now so delayed we get lunch vouchers! Who knew that to get a black box recorder to Washington someone from the airline actually has to fly to New york, pick it up, and then fly back with it?
We are starting to form an alliance with the other people waiting at Gate 23. Alice is 16 and on her way home to Gabon after she was banished to stay with family in Montreal because she was 'bad'. She won't say what she did to deserve such treatment but she has no problem explaining at length how much she hates our airline and wishes she was traveling on Air France, which according to Alice, would never have a problem like this. Melissa tells her about our trip to Rwanda. She answers with a disgusted, ''Rwanda est merd.'' Sweet girl.
Most people have fallen asleep on top of their carry on luggage. There are long lines forming at the other gates. The only real difference between us and them...they are all actaully going somewhere.
We are told the flight should leave around 8:30pm. We immediately think one thing. Dinner vouchers!!!
Alice is freaking out and once again singing the praises of Air France, which apparently has non-stop flights with state of the art black boxes that do not break down. I try and reason with her the same way I reason with myself when I catch myself getting upset by the things in life we can't control and really, aren't that big of a deal. ''You know, it's better they fix the plane before we fly rather than fly with it broken,'' I say. ''And no matter how inconvienenced we are right now, I guarantee you no matter how bad of a day you are having right now, there is someone, somewhere, who would do anything to trade places with you." Alice looks at me like I am a complete moron and turns away muttering words in french I have never seen on any language course cirriculum.
A man from Rochester sits next to where Melissa and I have been perched since 8am. ''Where are you girls going?'' We both start laughing, partly because we are sleep deprived and partly because the only answer we think of is, ''No where.'' He is on his way to Vienna with a high school choir. His is called to his gate and promises to bring us a gift from Vienna when he returns in two weeks just in case we are still sitting there.
We try the only items left on the menu we haven't already had. The group is starting to get closer. There is a group of Sudanese refugees who are returning home for the first time, a U-S coffee trader on his way to Burundi, and beside us is a family on the way to Tanzania to build an orphange. I look around wondering if somehow I was parachuted onto the set of the making of the sequal to The Life of Pi. Melissa takes a liking to 8-year old Josiah, an incredibly cute and shy boy with the group headed to Tanzania. She starts teaching him card tricks. I think I see him break from the group in an attempt to find a flight to Vegas instead.
I'm beginning to understand how Tom Hanks' character in Terminal Man felt. I start looking for luggage carts in case the food vouchers run out and I need to start returning them for loose change.
I walk another round through the airport to stretch my legs. My new found friends at the duty free shop have all gone home after finishing their ten hours shifts.
Good news! The plane is fixed! Bad news! No more food vouchers!
Bleary eyed and in a state of disbelief, we board the plane. Malika has become close friends with the Sudanese refugees. They are laughing and snapping digital pictures of each other. Isaiah has obviosuly reconsidered his break to Vegas and rejoined his family to follow through with the original orphanage plans. We all joke with each other, stretch, and walk through the gate into the adventure waiting each one of us. TIA. This is Africa; unexpected, beautiful, and bewildering.