Lynn Farrell 's Notes From the
June 6, 2007 — Epilogue: Notations in passing:
Kigali — Oxford — Highway 401 Montreal — Toronto — Montreal.
still with Rwanda red soil in the seams, the tuck where
the rubber meets the leather. Solange looked at them the day before I was to leave. "You will clean these before going
on the plane." Unsure if it was a question or an order. I
wasn't planning on it, not because I thought leaving with
some of this soil might be sentimental. A souvenir. Just
that it hadn't occured to me to polish them for the
trip back. Jeans, dusty boots, ca va. I forgot all about
I'm thankful for
that now, flying over Kenya, scanning the horizon for a
glimpse of Kilimanjaro, looking down absentmindedly at
my boots to find the dusty red there in the creases. I'm
caught off guard by them and smile: (Damascene and Abdul
washing the dirt off my boots because sometimes I'd forget
to take them off before entering the house. My negligence.
Clean floors. Dirt from the road sluicing freshly mopped
tiles, red veins on the white marble.)
All washed off
later in Oxford in a spring rain while watching crested
greaves and coots on the banks of the Thames with friends.
An old friend you hadn't seen in a long, long time.
at Christ Church Cathedral: "Bless the parts of the world where there is poverty; where
violence holds sway; where greed has taken hold of the hearts
I've heard more
than one person say that in a situation like that, like
in Rwanda where violence "held sway", under those
circumstances of propaganda and threat and certain death,
that they don't know what they'd do, meaning, I suppose,
that they don't know who'd they'd be in all of that. This
always strikes me as odd: odd because it had never occured
to me that I'd do anything other than what was right, be
anyone other than who I am, who I've been raised to be. Like
to think I'd count myself among those people who refused,
those Hutus, "moderates" who refused to kill and died early
on during the Genocide. I'd like to think I'd be in that
camp. Clearcut moral imperatives. I'd like to think that.
On the way back
to Canada the inflight movie is about a teacher who tries
to "connect" with students from gang-rife
America. They think they're nasty? She introduces them to
the nastiest gang of all, the Nazis. Germany. Then, a transformation.
They fundraise to bring over the woman who hid Anne Frank
during the Holocaust. One of the students says she is his
hero. She responds that she is no hero. She only did what
"What is the meaning and what is the experience?" Joan Didion
discovers this written in her husband's childhood pen in
a primer following his death. She's pulled it off the shelf
and found his homework assignment transcribed there. What
is the meaning? What is the experience? John, her husband,
is dead and she asks this over and over again.
I was told by a
few people, when I said I'd be going to Rwanda, that I'd be "changed." But after all of this, I'm completely
stuck. What is the meaning? What is the experience? I know
about experience but what does meaning even mean?
Is it all cut in
degrees, part misery and hope and wonder and caution and
faith and fear and danger? I left Canada
with no expectations. I leave Rwanda groping for answers.
I know what my
experience is, though: Hanging over the railing at Murambi,
wretching, stomach roiling after only four rooms. After
only the first room. After only not even the first room
that you've glimpsed while rounding the corner, the hair
on your neck standing up in sheer anxiety as you glimpse
the chalk-white bodies through the doorway and think: there
is no way I can go in there. But you force yourself to, again,
and again. To bear witness. Until you hear the person you
are here with telling the man who has the keys (and his wife
and entire family, murdered, somewhere in one of those rooms) who
is methodically and patiently unlocking the doors, to "please,
don't open up anymore rooms, please." To have the lime lynch
you hours later, attack out of no-where, hit the back
of your throat and coat your mouth, linger on the tips of
your fingers, gone only after you've lit the stove for tea,
you thanking the matches, the sulfur, now on your fingers
as you lift your hands to your face. Christ. I know what
the experience is. But tell me: what is the meaning?
Rwandans have "Christian names" but they have no surnames
like we do. Rwandans have that bestowed on them during
a naming ceremony which happens eight days after their
birth. Family and friends gather. There is much talk
and speculation as to what the baby should be called. Then
there is a queue whereby the youngest in the room approaches
the parents and offers a name for the newborn, followed by
the next in age until everyone in the room has had a chance
to observe the new arrival. Ponder. Offer a moniker. The
youngest often pledge their own names. Uncles offer goofy
names, comic relief. Most always, the parents have already
decided on the name. Names like Umuerwa: "Someone who needs
care" ; or Hakizimana: "saved by God"; or Abijuru: "People
of heaven." Names under the black and white passport photos hanging at
the University genocide memorial ( I thought it was just
a memorial, stunned, winded when I saw the photos of those
young students, like some ill-fated graduation class, not
graduating from academia but from shared horror.) The memorial
you have to pass every day on the way in. At night, the amber
hew of the light on the graves when you leave. Every day,
to your right. Every night, to your left as you leave. Ntihabose: "God
does not give to everyone..."
The simple things:
A neighbor on your
parent's street has placed a hanging bogonia
on her veranda and a mourning dove has laid two eggs there.
The neigbor's untethered cats - one who regularly shows up
with dead birds - will be a problem, she says. The
mother will turf them from the nest when she thinks they're
ready to fly. What is the gestation period for mourning dove
chicks? she asks. Those cats. Kibazo.
Back in Montreal
two days later, a pigeon has made a sloppy nest under my
barbeque while I've been away.
One moment chicks, the next, hunted.
protection, wonder, danger: A matter
I can't speak for the
cats but as for me, the barbeque season has been indefinately
Witness: a pixelated
version of the world daily on a screen on your desk. Inured,
you think, to the the daily
repast of death, bombings, brutality, destruction until you
realize you're not sleeping as well as you used to. And then
you're jarred out of this daily, mechanical news digest only
by something cataclysimic that happens closer to home. 9/11.
A shooting at a college close to where you live and work.
Whereby you lose
sleep for many nights and have nightnmares about family
and friends and picket fences and guns and the daily digest
of death and bombings and famine and brutality take on
a decidely different hue on your screen. Hermetic
safety of the office and covering news "inside" provides
frail psychological protection. There's been a breach. Too
many dead bodies. The building's barriers don't work anymore.
Besides, it's time you went to see all of this for yourself
you begin to think. Meaning you have to get up out
of your chair and go. Anywhere. Maybe where they are rebuilding.
Maybe where there is hope. Maybe Rwanda.
I'd noticed that
the newly constructed furniture in Rwanda, almost all of
it, is planed, smooth, varnished on the top. But take your
hand and brush the underside of your desk. The arm rests
of your chair. In Rwanda, they are rough-hewn. Unplaned.
Unfinished. The cynical part of me wonders if
this is because they don't see the point in completely
finishing anything. A subconsicous nod to impermanence. It
might all be over tomorrow. What would be the point?
There's talk in
Rwanda that all is not as it appears to be. Not as smooth
or as polished as some would have you believe. That beneath
the surface, people have a secret. They have complaints
that they can't speak. Things are still raw, still coarse.
Tutsis. Hutus. They say the Gacacas are working .They say
they are failing. That justice is indeed served, that it
isn't served at all or that justice is a perverted, vindictive
punishment. Everyone is Rwandan now. There are no differences
now. As if being different is somehow what caused this "devil's work". But I wonder: How do you
learn tolerance and acceptance if everyone is "made" the
I want to
see the furniture as metaphor. But in Rwanda symbolism
has been laid waste.
If you don't
believe me, just go to Murambi. See for yourself.
On the road leaving the Murambi memorial,
the first person I see is a pregnant woman. Life going on.
That is what my students in Butare say. That the responsibility
of the past will bring them into a different, new and better
future. That the burden of the past will make them stronger.
Meaning these are the first slow steps to something larger.
Something that will surely come later.
Slow, slow. Life goes on.
May 25, 2007 — Kibeho
We've been trying to get to Kibeho
for two weeks now. Today's
journey is shaping up to be another bust. We decide to go
by "public means" and our bus has a shattered windshield
and a threadbare interior. It's the last vehicle in the open-air
depot and we've been ushered back and farther back still
to this jalopy which is sitting rather dejectedly away from
the other transport. They say they'll take us to Kibeho and
they quote us a preposterous rate. One way. No way.
Margaret is getting a little testy now. This will be the
third aborted attempt to get to the site, famed for the purported
visitations by the Virgin Mary and then notorius for the
camps for internally displaced Rwandans during the Genocide.
It's Sunday and Margaret would like to go to mass. Me, I'm
pretty curious about the visitations and my interest is observer
status only. But my curiosity has a price cap and I'm ready
to concede that Kibeho and the possiblity of a visit by the
BVM might not be in the cards.
Margaret eyes the moto-taxis who are offering a better rate
and she's serious about hopping on one and heading out. Two
hours on the back of one of those and I'm pretty near ready
to join her, thinking if I survive the trip, I may just find
religion after all. I don't want to let Margaret down, Margaret
who - inspite of the fact that she's wearing a dress- is
game to go. But mostly I feel like I'm just chickening out.
After weighing the options and doing a quick cost/actuarial
assessment, we call our driver, Johnny who is willing to
schlep us the 2 hours there, wait for us, and then drive
The last 28 kms off the main road and toward Kibeho takes
an hour on a rough, meandering route through villages, up
hills, down valleys past breath-taking vistas. I wonder what
it must have been like here during the spring months of the
Genocide, all these people in their adobe houses, in the
villages, on the hillsides.
Rwanda's population is mostly rural which means the slaughter
occured all over the place, including these tiny hamlets
that seem so remote, so inaccessible that you'd need divine
help just to find them. It's so remarkably beautiful I can't
fathom what went down here, it just doesn't make any sense
at all. And you can't take it all in, all
that amazing countryside without -or at least, often- thinking
about the Genocide: It resides there in the hills, in the
valleys, along the ubiquitous dusy red roads, with the people
that walk them as if it's hewn into the landscape, physically,
Strangely, Margaret is wondering
the same thing at precisely the same time I'm turning this
around in my head. She's as bereft as I am, putting it
down to "the devil's work." She
stares out the car window, shakes her head.
At Kibeho, mass has just started. Ten minutes into a Kinyarwandan
homily, I am inspired only to get up and leave. I hear singing
outside. Around the corner, there is a large gathering of
people who have made, I found out later, a bus trip from
the Congo to this site. They are wearing skirts and blouses
and kerchiefs festooned with images of the Virgin Mary. Some
penitents are ill and lying on blankets, others say the rosary,
feed their children. They sing and pray. Local kids hang
around looking for spare change. Congolese women hush them
when they're ranging about, too noisy for the occasion. There
is ecstasy in this crowd of devotees who have made the pilgrimage,
I can see it, hear it: How they fall on their knees; the
rapture when they sing.
I turn around and look out into the hills. If the Virgin
Mary did appear here, I can almost see why.
Nyungwe Forest National Park
Our utility grade
school bus snakes through the countryside to Nyungwe National
Forest. After a few days without rain
- a promise (tease?) that the season has come to an end -
some light showers today and mists that shroud the hilltops
segue seamlessly into the sky. Not altogether bad for a road
This outting is, ostensibly, for a class review of camera
techniques: composition, depth of field, focus, all in preparation
for the photo essays they are about to start work on later
this week. An opportunity to ask quesitons while on location.
But really, this is a fun excursion off campus where we can
get to know a part of the country and each other a little
At Nyungwe, our guides take us
on a 1.5 hour descent down a mountain and then back up
again, a two and a half hour climb that taxes me and a
few other stragglers in our group. One of the students,
Carine, shows up in a dress and a pair of taupe patent
leather mules, a downright kooky choice for this terrain,
the hike, the steep ascent. I ask her how she is making
out. "Nta Kibazo!" She was among the
first out of the park. I am left re-evaluating my fitness
level and sensible footwear.
The park is home to a number of primates, birds, tropical
flora. We see a couple of blue monkeys, and later, crazy
colobus swinging through the trees foraging for food. There's
a family of about 400 of these somewhere in the forest but
we are three hours away from them. These outcasts seem pretty
happy here, away from the herd.
A guide points to an invasive vine
and teels me it's killing many trees. This wasn't a problem
when there were mountain elephants here who ate the vines,
but the last one was poached in 1999 and the mammoth skull
of the beast hangs like a trophy in the reception hut.
Now the vine is threatening to overtake the forest. The
guide tells me it flowers only once every 15 years, white
blossoms that portend disaster, troubled times. I ask him
if it was flowering in 1994. "Yes" he
Later, back in Butare at the Patisserie
Iris, everyone tucks into mounds of food, giddy from exhaustion
and hunger. One of my students, Gilbert, juggles something
in his mouth and pops it marble-like onto the table. We
all look at each other. "A
tooth" he says, and we laugh. "His last one" deadpans
Maurice and we all crack up. "Today was sweet," says
Joseph, "but tonight, I think it became even more sweet."
May 18, 2007 — St. Gabriel's School
for the Deaf
Time is running out
for me now. It's not just that I turn
47 today and am suddenly mired in some existential crisis,
some imminent demise, Margaret's Ugandan curses notwithstanding.
It's just that I've got a week left in Rwanda, so many things
I want to see and it's become clear that I can't possibly
fit it all into the remaining time left. Things I should
see: Murambi. I've balked at this. I've read Gourevitch,
and I'm nearing the end of Murambi the Book of Bones and
as far as preparation goes, I'm steeled to visit this memorial
site, different from the others: rooms of bodies interred
there, crumpled and twisted on wooden slats, covered in lime
to preserve them in the split-second state of their violent
deaths. I've seen the photos...
I've also been warned off going there alone so part of
my stalling is practical. I'm waiting for someone who hasn't
been before, or someone who has and can stomach it again.
But today is my birthday and although I've taught long days
last week and this to make sure I can play hooky today, it
is the consensus among my mates here that Murambi is no place
to spend one's birthday.
A new friend, Antonia, who hails from England and has been
here for 2 years working at St. Gabriel's, a school for deaf
children, had offered to let one of my students photograph
the school for their photo essay requirement. But, as Shelley
had predicted, they all had ideas of their own and this turned
out to be lucky for me.
As a photo editor, I'd "hung up" my
cameras for a desk job 8 years ago. But today, old habits
die hard. I am up at 5:30 am, camera batteries charged,
disc space cleared, a quick coffee and some toast and then
the 30 minute walk to St. Gabriel's, beyond the bus depot,
past the stares: Rural Rwanda, that crazy pageant moving
into the town; Canada, that crazy, stubborn umuzungo with
the camera, rejecting the moto-taxis and kicking up dust
by foot again on the dirt road.
I find Antonia in her workroom and she introduces me to
a number of classes, students, teachers. I point to a room
past clothes on the line, mattresses hung out to air. It's
strangely rambunctious, even rowdy for a class of deaf and
mute students. We can hear them clear across the yard.
" Ah, Louis's class. He's great."
And he is. His students, everyone immediately wide-armed
open. I print my name on the board. They translate it: Line.
They introduce themselves to me, all nicknamed after physical
anomalies. Things we can see. A scar here, a dent there,
ears that stick out, protruding teeth. I am meet them one
They're shy, curious, but all those immense smiles... I
show them the photos on the back of my camera and they love
it, love to see themselves appear so instantaneously. It's
hard to settle them back down after that but they do, refocus
on the board, sounds spelled out there. Words that describe
sounds. Some more animated, others reserved, reticent. Sign
language as expressive as verbal language, nuanced, staccato,
This is the first time during my
stay in Rwanda that I've been "allowed" to photograph without rebuke. It's
not been easy. Folk here are circumspect, think I'm here
to make money off the images. I've been rejected at every
turn, with a stern "no" and then "amafaranga"-
money. If I want to photograph, then I must pay.
At first, this was a concern for me. Well, not so much for
me but if photojournalists were expected to pay to take photos,
I wondered what this would mean for journalism but especially
what it meant for my students. As it turned out this was
less a problem for them, more for their umuzungo teacher
which was fine. As long as they can cover assignments I'm
happy. But it also made St. Gabe's more welcoming. These
magnificent, happy kids. Crowding me and the camera with
the instamatic photos on the back. The magic black box.
Just like the darkroom, watching the latent image float
into my Dektol-induced consciousness. The smell. The magic
all over again. A birthday present to me.
May 12, 2007 — Even Cowgirls get Malaria
"Johnny 99" playing on the laptop. Margaret's in the throes of a malaria relapse, her medication sent by her mom from Kampala didn't arrive, swindled by some guy named Charles Amooti who's cellphone is no longer working. I left campus early to meet an emergency medicine delivery arranged by Solange in Kigali. "Robert" will be on the 2:30 Volcano arriving in Butare at 4:45. He will have Margaret's medicine. Which, against my better judgement, I moto-taxi for the sake of expediency to our house in Taba where Margaret will be waiting. And she's got doctor Rene here, too now, trying to figure out how to fix this "problem of malaria" because she's ready to hop on the next bus to Uganda tomorrow morning. This threat seems less hyperbole, less desperate when Margaret discovers the medicine I've brought is the same stuff she she swears she's resistant to and has landed her in this mess.
She's been agitated about her condition all day, and it's no wonder: She's already survived typhoid fever here and now she has malaria. But Dr. Rene is on the case, working away on his laptop. He's also copying Margaret's country and western compilation CD onto his flash card . "I can't live without music" says the doctor. And to emphasize the point he looks up, his hands in a prayer and shakes them at me. "I Can't!
"Doctor!" Margaret replies,, "you should be helping me! "Je suis ici pour toi" he insists, looking to me to translate. "He's here for you," I say.
They have been arguing about treatment options for the past hour. I've been sitting in an armchair, listening to them debate the diagnosis, the ailment, the treatment , the seesawing between languages and remedies, thinking what a circus this is: malaria, french, Methakelphim, Kinyarwanda, Coratem, english, Quinine , Swahili and a Dolly Parton chaser. I go rustle up some vittles. When I get back, another doctor friend of Margaret's, Eric, has appeared. More vittles.
And more debate. Everyone at the table is eating, diagnosing,discussing symptoms, the signs, the treatment, the cure. One litre of tea followed by one litre of water will flush the residual medicine out. Cortem, no, make that quinine , ok what about this malarone. Emmy Lou Harris plays on the laptop and I think of placing myself in her hands now. 2.28 minutes of that salvation might just do it for me. That and a stiff drink. I might go crazy but it won't be from malaria...
I head into town to use an internet cafe. Have a chat at The Ibis. The walk back a couple of hours later sublime, the pitch black of the Butare night punched by high beams, crickets, the smell of cedar, the chance of rain.
At Taba, Margaret, tuckered out from it all has fallen asleep with her clothes on underneath her mosquito netting. She's got her laptop -still playing the country and western compilation CD - underneath there, too. Back out in the armchair, the rain finally comes. I sit and isten to Blue Bayou coming down the hallway from her bedroom until it is drowned out by rain.
May 5-6, 2007 — Meeting the familly of Athanasie Mukarwego
The rain has finally stopped. A clap of thunder and I was up at 5:30am, another tympanic tirade on the roof so loud you can't hear the cocks crow never mind yourself think. Alright, I've had my fill now, mopping up after a storm two nights ago so severe that the power was out for 12 hours and I spent that evening monitoring puddles in the house by the light of my head lamp. I was almost afraid of what I'd find this morning. No water, thankfully and no power outtage.
Yesterday, I was finally able to deliver a suitcase of clothing to the family of Athanasie Mukarwego, a woman Sue Montgomery had written about for The Gazette and who had asked if I might bring some stuff over for her children in Rwanda. She has a son and three daughters. Her eldest, Grace, is married with kids of her own and has decided to stay in Rwanda but Laetitia, Diana and Theogene have plans to join their mother in Canada.
Grace was to meet us in downtown Kigali but the rain was so fierce we drove out to her house, about 20 minutes away. Our car made it part way up a hill and I could see her higher up still in the distance, waving shyly to us, her red dress and a yellow umbrella out of place against the blank sky. We made the rest of the trek up the mud-slicked hill to her place where we met her friend and her three children. I had hoped to photograph Grace, her husband Steve (who was at work) and her kids, ask her about life here now without her mother and how she felt about her sisters' and brother's imminent immigration to Montreal. But the babies were crying and the small windows in the house - ideal for the heat of the tropics - don't let in much light. I put the camera down and she put the suitcase of clothing for her babies in another room. When she returned, I suggested it was alright if she didn't want to make the trip to where the rest of her family had gathered, what with the rain and her children and all. She said, no, we should go, they were waiting for us and they wanted to meet me. Christine, a newly arrived R.I intern from Saskatoon had brought some home-made dolls from Canada to give the girls. Instantly, they stop crying. And so we leave.
A half-hour later, the rain finally let up and we we were climbing up another hill to their ancestral home in another suburb of Kigali. "This is where her father died" Solange, our fixer translates for me, as we pass a house along a path off the sideroad. "And this is where I was born" Grace says as we approach a neat, little house atop one of Kigali's many hills that overlook the city. Inside, I meet Laetitia and Diana, Athanase's other daughters, her sister, Immacul� and her sister's granddaughter. We talk about Canada, and the impending move there while we wait for Theogene to join us. They are beautiful, all of them and very happy to meet someone who has some connection to Canada, to their mother. I take a few shots of them outside in the garden to bring back to Athanase and then I ask if they would like to record a message for their mother. I expect awkwardness, maybe even wariness but instead they were keen at the chance and so I showed them how to use the digital recorder so that they could talk inside alone and in peace.
As Solange, Christine and I tour the garden,
we can hear laughter and singing through the window. And
after a while, Immaculée comes to sit with me on the ledge
outside the house. She tells me she and her sister look a
lot alike, that I'll notice that right off when I meet Athanase
back in Canada. She says having me visit them here is comforting
to her, like having her sister here again. That she longs
for her Anthanase is evident in her face: it is tight and
drawn and while she tries to smile, her eyes are permanent,
glassy pools. She looks directly at you when she speaks.
When she stops, her lips tremble and she looks away.
I'm not sure what to say, except that I am happy to be here, be a messanger for her sister and honoured to meet her, meet them all. And sitting there, with this woman who's story I can only guess from something I read back in Montreal, her sister's story, one of utter horror and courage that assaults the senses and the imagination, I begin to realize that I'd been unconciously avoiding inevitable things since I'd arrived in Rwanda. Avoided asking questions. You read, you look, you listen, you imagine. But none of this prepares you for a time you might find yourself sitting in a garden with a woman whose life has been mangled beyond hell and who tells you, softly, that having you come here brings her comfort. It's way past your ability to understand and presses your heart in a particular way, a deep and dull ache that you willl always link to a few moments you spent once with a woman in her garden atop a hill in Kigali.
On the bus ride back to Butare, I run into one of my students, Eugene. I ask if he would listen to the recording to make sure it turned out alright.
I look over at him a few times while he 's listening. "They're sending kisses." he smiles. Then, " they're singing, now". Nine minutes later, when the recording is over, Eugene pulls out the earphones and says "She will love it. When she hears it, she will cry."
May 3, 4, 2007 — And then there are the Moto-taxis ...
Off to an afternoon class and after two days of instruction and review, this time I will lecture. Johnny, our driver, is a no-show and I have a laptop, a projector, my camera and lenses all jammed into my knapsack. There are, strangely, no cabs or moto-taxis at the foot of our road right now so I haul into town and wave down a moto-taxi there, pointing to my bag, stressing "fragile, lentement svp". I forgo the helmet. They look like surplus from a 1978 high school football team and after trying one on, I can see where some enterprising guy thought "hey, bobblehead, dude!" No protection there, I assess. So, wind in my hair, we're weaving through Butare and I am summarily dumped outside the gate of the NUR campus. Later, not that I was really expecting to see him for the return trip home, I was sort of hoping driver Johnny would be there but no such luck, and so once again, I hop on the first moto-taxi I find. This scooter stalls, sputters on the uptake and with an almost embarrassing gaseous emission, stalls again.
I apologize and reject the scooter in search of a more hardy machine to get me back. I take my time, now and scan the phalanx of 125 cc beasts for a newer model and a driver with a stern face who means business. No joy-riding mavericks me, I just want to get home safe , equipment and body intact. I spot my man and two minutes into the trip, the serious one pulls into the oncoming lane. Cars blink their lights at us and I lean in tight and say "whoaaaa". Seconds later, he pulls over and while I'm in the middle of protesting, telling him we're not quite home yet, he tosses back a helmet. Clearly, I'm a back seat driver, and to add insult to injury, I'm a chastened, bobbleheaded one now, too. A note: I'm used to being the one steering these things. I've got my license and a bike back home and I've been trying to rent one from the day I set foot on Butare soil. After this morning's ride in, only five minutes and a comparatively uneventfull journey, I got off the back of the bike, my thighs pounding from stress. Because of all tjhis, and then later: the unbearably beautiful two hour trip through the countryside from Butare to Kigali on roads that coil through small towns cradled by graceful swells of eucaluptus and pine and banana treed hills and terraced valleys and that magnificant tufted sky, I know I really do have to get my own motorcycle.
May Day, Labour Day and a statuatory holiday here but I've called class anyway (an opportunity to get them out "on assignment " and introduce them to the fact that journalists work holidays).Yesterday's camera initiation and elements of composition lesson brought mixed results. I was curious to see how they "saw" naturally before screening a show of current photography I culled from the wires before I left. A quick lecture on the difference between covering news events as opposed to yesterday's portrait assignment, where they were allowed to direct the subject, and some more on composition and use of natural light and they were off.
I've taken an allergic reaction to something and look like a pummeled Jake Lamotta after a comeback bid. Margaret's concerned people will think she did this to me in Shelley's absence. I tell Margaret I'd sleep with one eye open if I could pry the lids apart...
Rene, a doctor friend of hers dropped by last night and said it was probably an allergy and not a "Nairobi fly bite' as Margaret had diagnosed, so I've been popping Benadryl like crazy and with luck, this thing will clear up. I could barely see yesterday, my eyes were so puffy and irritated, a visually impaired photo instructor for the first day of class. Need a photo for this blog so it will definately be with the shades on.
No internet today which is a drag because I'm tripped up by the Nikon D1s refusal to accept some of the flash cards I've brought over. For the life of me, I can't figure out how to re-format the cards in the Nikon. A quick email to my Nikon pals in Canada would clear this up but I can't get online. "Kibazo", a problem as they say here.
I meet Shelley at the Patisserie Iris for lunch on the fly,the only way you get to see Shelley these days. Talk about your full dance card: she's teaching, trying to find and rent another house in Kigali, meet with news agencies there to set up skeds for the interns, welcome the interns, oversee production of the 7am Saturday show for Radio Salus, the list goes on. She hopped on the 1:30 pm bus back to Kigali after teaching this morning and scarfing back a meal with me followed by a quick meeting with her radio crew. Frankly, none of us knows how she does it, that and wonder what we'd do if she wasn't around.
I've figured out how to reformat the cards and I've ferretted out the camera that isn't working. Solving these technical issues is a boon to my confidence. They seem minor once you get into the swing of it. A few students pop into the office this aft and then split again to take more photos. I'll upload the news assignment tonight to see how MayDay coverage went. Surprisingly and happily, some of the students hang back with me while I wait to get the cameras back into the storage lock-up for the night. One picks up a camera and before you know it , they all wanted their flashcards back. We spend the last half-hour goofing around and photographing each other.
A harrowing ride back with pinch-hit driver Frank. He slides in a country and western cassette - inspired by my denim shirt, I'm guessing- while passing a truck on a crest. I close my eyes and try to focus on the lyrics, imagine a young cowboy falling for a Mexican girl on a dusty, windy road. I feel the car sway to the right and I open my eyes. We're back in our lane. Frank looks at me and sees that, contrary to what he might have hoped, I am not shouting yee haw. I look hard back at at him and he laughs, slows down a bit and in a couple of minutes we are home. Nta Kibazo.
April 26, 2007 — The rain, the roads
11:45pm...The rain is beating a tattoo on the roof. This is the fourth storm today, it comes in torrents, fast, furious and it drowned out the last bit of audio for those of us watching - and some addicted to- Prison Break. The Epson multi-media is a pretty good makeshift large screen t.v. but without speakers, we're straining to hear the audio or huddling closer to the laptop, a desperate but ultimately useless manoeuvre in a downpour like this. Speakers when next in Kigali.
I hung back from NUR this aft to get caught up on some multi-media presentations for class. The campus internet connection was spotty, 2 hours to get online this morning so I wasn't going to waste an afternoon watching Firefox connect. Instead, milk, nescafe some cheese and bread and the house to myself to work, nosh, check out the billowing grey clouds that loom daily before the sky lets loose. I left the house and started to shoot when they moved in, massive, menacing wasp's nests hovering overhead and then boom, a curtain of grey pounding the red dirt road into rusty clay. I'll never complain about potholes - maybe even snow- in Montreal again.The main roads are paved but the sideroads are rutted, huge wounds riven in the brick-red soil. Any person unfamiliar with Rwanda and lost on one of these side tributaries would be hard-pressed to say if vehicular traffic belonged on the left or the right side of the road. Cars, motorcyles and velos drive or ride with the sole purpose of avoiding a crater and preserving struts, chassis and suspension. Which means they're all over the place, left, right, middle, a pelle melle mess of pedestrians, bikes, motorcyles, cars all negotiating cauldron-sized puddles. Once on the paved main thoroughfare - the right side of it- their purpose changes: it's the destination and getting there with cool, quick efficiency- read: like mad men - as fast as possible. This means, I found out tonight, clipping pedestrians who are unfortunately in the way, mere inconveniences who really ought to know better. It also means a white knuckler for those of us riding shotgun. Alll to say Montreal has prepared me well for Butare.
I'd planned to head back to campus on one of the motorcycle taxis but when the rains came, well...Not the best place to be, soaking wet with a camera and a laptop dependant on dry electronics. I'll try it some other time . Meantime, got the media stuff done, more lecture notes, and met a fellow Canadian, Kim Wilson who is here doing work for her Masters degree. She was returning - wait for it- Prison Break, Season II. Shelley has everyone hooked on this, she must be receiving royalties. I asked Kim for suggestions for photo essay ideas. With everyone's help, I've got a pretty good list now so if the students are short of ideas - not likely- I've got a few in the bag to help out. If there's time and any left in the job jar, I might get a chance to try one myself. Alright, it's after midnight and the rain has let up- for now. Perhaps we can all get some sleep.
April 25, 2007— Butari and NUR
4 am, stomach cramps and my head is soaking wet. I lie in bed, listening to dogs barking at each other somewhere off in the distance, wondering if the riot in my stomach is due to something I ate, a reaction to a bite, who knows. Shelley will be up at 5 am, knocking on my door at 6 for us to head out to Kigali. Each Wednesday they have Gacaca, the local tribunals for crimes committed during the 1994 Genocide and pretty much everything shuts down for the morning so if we are to get to Kigali, it's a 7 am bus or nothing. Waves of nausea punctuated by the barking dogs, I'm praying that things settle down. I squeeze in at least an hour more sleep. 6 am and two hours later, no change and I know there is no way I can stand a 2 hour plus bus ride into Kigali. I'd never make it.
11 am, I'm up, feeling weak but better. The house is empty save for Jean, our cook. I take a photo of him and his new Henkel knife. He's patient with my french, throws Kinyarwanda into the mix to shake things up a bit: Amazi, water.
Later on campus, Claude sends me to check out the number of students crammed into a tiny classroom, students his class displaced because the larger room had a television they needed to screen the footage for the documentary they are working on. I grab a plastic lawn chair from the corridor and perch myself precariously in the doorway to photograph the students huddled in the room. If they are uncomfortable, you'd never guess it. Sacrifice all in the name broadcast television. Jean-Bosco Rushingabigwi, the Deputy Director of the Journalism and Communications Dept, holds out a photo in a paper, one they'd been discussing that morning. It's a pic of a pile of wood, three or four people in the photo and the joke in the class was that they couldn't make out how many people were actually in the photograph. Jean Bosco said they'd discussed what the focus of the photo was that morning and I say, "gee, it 's pretty hard to tell". I count the people in the frame out loud, my face screwed up in a squint, and the class breaks out in laughter. "One, two, three, is that a person there? It's hard to say..." Ultimately, they'd hit on a good subject for discussion, a photo with more than one flaw . Plenty more where that came from and they seem eager to talk about it. They're on the right track, which was great to hear because the journalism stream in this combined class of 3rd year ommunications/journalism students will be with me next week.
One came into the screening room later when Jean Bosco's class had ended. I asked her about that, about choosing between journalsim and communications. She smiled wryly and replied that the communication students were" the ones who don't want to end up in prison". Her sense of humour and the fact that she has a natural ability with a camera judging by what I'd seen of her informal work immediately won me over. She'll be good at this.
Parsing and critiquing the newspapers is a rigourous course element in the department. Since reporters are typically "two-way" journalists here and expected to take photos as well as write, gathering nuance and colour for stories rather than relying solely on straight delivery of the facts has been a challenge from what some instructors say. Getting the students to seek out interesting photo opportunities will work in tandem with getting that colour into their copy.
Later back at the house, Margaret Jjuuko thinks umuzungu, white people like me, age well. I can't believe it, I take off my glasses and point out all the wrinkles around my eyes. "You", I say " have beautiful skin, no wrinkles at all." Her skin is flawless, no lines and this after four kids, teaching, supervising theses and smack in the middle of writing her own thesis for her PHD. No wrinkles, not a line, not a one. I'm thinking being a photo editor maybe wasn't such a smart move ...
Margaret threatens that if I post the photo of her in her shower cap to this site, the last entry on my blog will be my obituary. Penned by her. She tells me tales of Ugandan voodoo -lightening striking dead a woman, her grand-daughter and her goat due to simple, petty theft -all to warn me off. I hedge my bet and save the jpeg to my desktop.
April 21, 2007 — Montreal's PET airport
A new page in this notebook, one that doesn't start with the heading: "LIST " followed by an inky enumeration of things "STILL TO GET", the scratched off "DONE". Preparing for a five week photojournalism teaching gig in Rwanda means a reconciliation with equipment, and lots of it. Cables, flash cards, cameras, lenses, projectors. I feel part animal, part machine. Just when I think I've got it together, I scrounge around for backup cables, power adaptors, more flash cards, anticipating the inevitable. All of this stuff, packed carefully to protect the fragility of lenses, lamps, circuit-dependant gear, must make two transfers over three days: London, Addis Ababa and finally, Kigali. I watch the Air Canada agent print and attach the tags for each piece of luggage and check the three destinations carefully: I landed in Nain, Labrador for a shoot, once with half of my gear shipped to Calgary. I'm not budging until I see the destination tags on the luggage.
Gazette reporter Sue Montgomery, who's taught at the NUR as part of the Rwanda Initiative, tells me Jean, the excellent cook at the house in Butare prepares mostly vegetarian fare so I settle into a plate of steak frites and a glass of wine at the airport and, because I'm a little nervous about the gear, go over the list of cables and cards and external drives once again, a completely pointless exercise because my plane leaves in 2 hours. Enough. Time to stop this and relax.
The Lebanese cabbie who dropped me off here was the accountant for the Nuits d'Afrique festival in Montreal for 10 years so when he asks me where I'm headed, he says he has friends from Rwanda and he keeps tabs on the political climate there. We talk about Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan and of course Lebanon. He's not going back there just yet, it's not safe, he says, especially with upcoming elections this autumn. He''s putting off the visit, "just to be sure. It feels like people just can't find peace in this world."
The departure route is packed with cars and my driver can't find a place to park so he pulls over in the pedestrian lane. I deak out, struggling with my bags and while he's helping me hoist my luggage onto the trolly he's nabbed for me, he's badgered by an airport traffic cop who is wagging his finger reprovingly at him for stopping in the pedestrian zone. My cabbie shrugs at the cop, gestures to the mess of cars and lack of space and the testy exchange of words and gesticulations continue until he reaches his car. Just as he's about to get in he looks up at me. He's not grimmacing now. "Bon Voyage" he smiles as I wave back. He pulls away. I'm off.