Days 9-10: Gisenyi

We are back in our Kigali-home after a busy weekend away exploring the country.
We left early Saturday and drove north, through Ruhengeri to Gisenyi, 20 students and two instructors packed cozily into a big white bus. It was an absolutely stunning drive through the countryside, full of terraced hills, houses made of brick and cement, laundry drying on the grass, and children running to the roadside to wave at our passing van. At one point, Paul Mbaraga, who accompanied us as a guide, gestured out the window and said, “Now if you look to your left, you will see why we are called the land of a thousand hills!”
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We arrived in Gisenyi in the early afternoon. It’s a coastal town, overshadowed by a gigantic volcano and bordering Lake Kivu and the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Allan spent time in the area in 1996, when a massive migration of refugees, who had left Rwanda after the civil war and genocide, were moving back to the country.
Gisenyi is split into an upper and lower part. During colonialism, the Rwandese workers would live in upper town, said Mbaraga. That’s where he lived. The Belgian colonialists lived in more comfortable houses in the lower part of the city, closer to the lake.
We had lunch at a hotel so close to the Democratic Republic of Congo border that my cell phone picked up Congolese service and I received a text message welcoming me to the country. We ate chicken and brochette and observed the contrast between the two sides of the border. Just past the divide, the DRC was teeming with people, crowded with buildings.
In the past few years, The Congolese government has struggled against rebels trying to control Goma. My travel insurance provider specifically instructed me that I wouldn’t be insured in border areas. But from our lunch-time vantage point, everything seemed bustling and normal.
We visited the beach after lunch, a small but very pretty stretch along the lakeside. Lake Kivu is one of those bodies of water that’s so big you can’t see the other shoreline, just some hazy mountains in the distance and a piece of the Congo jutting out into the water. The beach we visited is the only sand beach in the country. During colonialism, Mbaraga told us, native Rwandans were forbidden from swimming there.
Simon, a Canadian student, N., and I took a walk down the pier and I snapped some photos in the dying sunlight. Even though N. was born and raised in Rwanda, he’s never had the chance to see much of the country (or to leave the country, for that matter), and his reaction to the scenery might have been the best part of the whole experience.
“I didn’t know that places like this exist here,” he said.

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After the beach we returned to our hotel to lounge around a little on the front porch. The hotel was a funny little budget place with an amazing view. From what we could understand, the owner also owns another hotel closer to the city centre, and that’s where she mainly brings guests. This meant that the place where we stayed was eerily deserted.
There was a counter, but no concierge, an unlocked glass case of liquor, but no bartender. Bare, incandescent bulbs and dated Jacobean wallpaper gave the whole place a very twilight-zone feel.
Outside, though, the view of the city and lake was hard to beat. In the evening we watched two separate storms, one to the left and one to the right, take turns illuminating the sky with lightening.
We figured we had an hour to kill before dinner, so we went to the neighbouring hotel, a ritzy place called the Belvedere, and had a couple drinks at their bar. We went back after two hours…and dinner was still being cooked. We’re learning that food takes a long time to arrive in Rwanda. You can expect to wait at least an hour after ordering at a restaurant. The upside to this, however, is that there is nothing pre-made or preserved.
We finally had dinner after 10 p.m., an array of blackened chicken and tilapia with veggies, plantains, and potato.
I retreated to our dingy room at about 11:30 to get changed and get ready for bed. I grabbed my toothbrush and headed to the bathroom, opened the door, then gasped and stepped back, shutting the door again.
D., who was already lying in her bed, asked, “What is it?”
“Snake,” I replied.
She hopped up and peeked in. It was just a little thing, slim and black and probably only a foot in length, slithering along. I immediately began to feel silly for being such a fussy Canadian. D. used to live in the area and probably dealt with little snakes all the time. I apologized, “I’m sure it’s fine. It’s small. It’s probably harmless,” I backtracked, putting on a brave face.
She put on her shoes, “I’m going to get somebody to help get rid of it,” she said. She left and returned with some staff members. They opened the door but couldn’t find it. I felt even stupider.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” I said.
The staff started to leave but then the snake emerged again from its hiding spot along the wall. D. jumped, grabbed her shoe, and hit it. The snake coiled and the staff came running back in to finish it off with a broom and sweep the limp body outside.
When the commotion was all over, I said to D., “But it was harmless, right?”
“No,” she said. “It’s the small ones that are poison. If it turns around and stings you it’s dangerous. There are many here, because of the rocks. Even the children have to learn how to kill snakes, in case they’re home alone.”
I laughed. There was nothing else to do by that point, and it all made a very good story to tell at the breakfast table the next day.
I woke up at 6:00 a.m. Sunday morning to the distant sound of church-goers’ voices, singing their gospel. It was too cloudy and rainy for a return trip to the beach, so instead, after breakfast, we went for a drive around town. We stopped at the border and got out to take photos (after asking permission from some AK-47-weilding guards, of course). We had coffee and tea at the beautiful Serena hotel, then drove along the coast.
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The sun came out and we were treated to some amazing views of blue water and green hillsides. We drove past small homes and countless goats, families on bikes with babies slung in scarves behind the women’s backs, and the beer brewery where Rwandan Primus and Mutzig are concocted.
From the coastal road, we turned towards the volcanoes. We had lunch—goat brochette and fries—in Ruhengeri at the hotel where Dian Fossey used to stay. Then we drove up into the hills to see “The place where you can see two lakes.”

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We turned off the main road and onto a bumpy, single-lane dirt and gravel path. Our bus grumbled along, lopsided and bouncing. This was fine while the road was flat, but soon we began to climb. Beyond the edge of the path was a steep drop. If any of that gravel gave way, we were going to become a CBC headline, “Canadian students tumble to death in Rwandan bus accident.”
On the other hand, the treacherous road made for amazing views. We crept through minuscule villages and children ran along beside the vehicle, calling and waving or dancing and clapping. On either side there were views of deep valleys, volcanoes and lakes, and land carved into fields of tea.
We hit the top of the hill and went for a walk, admiring the most amazing view of lakes and hills and a chorus of moaning cows. Every few feet we were arranged into three rows for yet another group photo, so that we’d have proof we visited this amazing place.

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I expected the ride back down to be even more terrifying than the way there, so I took the precautionary measure of texting my parents to let them know I love them. Contrary to my fears, however, the way back passed quickly and we were soon pulling onto ground-level, paved road. We all clapped for our skilled driver.
It was beginning to get dark as we continued down and out towards a “cultural village.” It was almost fully night by the time a man on a moto led us to a parking lot and we disembarked the bus to walk down a long dirt path.
In the village we were greeted by men in traditional dress, jumping and dancing and posing for photos. We watched a dance performance, saw a presentation from a medicine man who mixed up a vomit-inducing solution that would help rid your body of its contents if you’d been poisoned, and then went on a small tour to the blacksmith’s corner and king’s house. A guide told us that we were learning about traditional Pygmy (or Twa) culture, but that in today’s Rwanda, where ethnic titles and divisions no longer officially exist, “we are all Rwandans.”
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At the king’s house, the guide asked for two volunteers to play king and queen. A., one of the Rwandan students, immediately hopped up to play the role of king. He seemed quite satisfied with the role, nodding his head in agreement as the guide described the duties and powers that the king would have had.
A.’s pretend home was round and made of walls of bamboo strung together. It was divided into four rooms: one for receiving the public and listening to their problems, one for conferences with other leaders, a bedroom for sleep and procreation, and a ladies’ waiting room for the king’s mistresses. The queen would have lived in a separate home, we were told.
From the village it was a long drive home, serenaded by the driver’s chosen soundtrack of 90’s and early 2000’s R&B and ballads. We made a pit stop for dinner at a dimly lit buffet next to a gas station, and then drove on into the night.
In the rural areas, the blackness was amazing. Only our headlights and the stars penetrated the darkness. I dozed a little and sat quietly, listening to music or having scattered, couple-sentence-long, conversations with N. Eventually, Kigali appeared, a milky-way of city lights rising and falling along hillsides. We pulled up to the house and filed out, tired, but happy.
It kind of felt like coming home.

Days 7-8: hate media history/international reporting/Nyamata and Ntarama

Friday night in the AFRI 3100 house. It’s been a relaxed evening after a difficult day.
I’m lying in bed, a top bunk in a six person room, mosquito netting just above my head, headphones in my ears, trying to tune out the world. I’m finding that I need space and quiet to cope with the places we’ve been visiting and the stories we’ve been hearing. In a house of sixteen people, it’s sometimes difficult to find that solitude. Thus the headphones.
Yesterday we had a talk from a Paul Mbaraga, a professor of journalism here. Mbaraga has extensive experience working for the national radio station before the genocide, but he was in Germany, working as a journalist there, when the killings happened. He returned to his country in the early 2000s to teach.
Mbaraga spoke about domestic media leading up to the genocide. He explained how Rwanda used to only have state-run media, but this changed in the early 1990s. Private media emerged and newspapers and radio stations that broadcast Anti-Tutsi messaging became very popular. These stations would refer back to a biased version of history, describing a noble post-colonial Hutu revolution threatened by a Tutsi minority trying to reinstate monarchy in the country. This “hate media” encouraged the extermination of the Tutsi “cockroaches,” and urged genocide and killings.
The ICC has convicted three men for their roles in spreading this hateful propaganda. At least one more, Felicien Kabuga, is wanted by the ICC for funding the extremist radio station, RTLM. According to Mbaraga, Kabuga is uneducated, but inherited a fortune that left him rich enough to go into hiding and buy his safety.
Mbaraga also spoke to us about another side of Rwandan media pre-genocide: papers that spoke out against the hate media. He brought in copies of a pro-RPF paper called Kanguka. The editor of the paper was a personal friend of Mbaraga, and was killed in the early stages of the genocide. Other journalists were also targeted.
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After Mbaraga’s talk we had lunch and then sat around the house. I managed to get some internet and posted a blog, although I’m now days behind in posting. When the connection died, Kirsten, another Canadian student, and I moto-ed to a nearby hostel to steal their signal and apply for transit visas, since we’ll be travelling through Kigali again in three weeks, on our way home from Tanzania.
We had dinner and then sat and talked in the evening. A large group crowded in the living room to watch Sex and the City, one of the few sitcoms somebody had on their computer already, but I sat upstairs on the balcony and talked about Rwanda, politics, and journalism with Allan and a few other students.
After breakfast this morning we Skyped Lindsey Hilsum, one of two foreign correspondents who was on the ground reporting during the genocide. Hilsum ended up in the role accidentally. Though she was a journalist, she’d taken a break from working with BBC and was actually living in Rwanda and working for UNICEF when the president’s plane was shot down on April 6.
Recognizing the magnitude of the situation, she immediately began reporting. It was a huge challenge to fully understand the situation, she said. She had colleagues and friends calling her, desperate for help, as Hutu militia advanced and attacked them. She experienced grenade fire as the RPF advanced. Her editors and audiences at home misinterpreted the situation. It took three weeks for her to finally use the word genocide.
It was a fascinating conversation. I kept trying to picture myself in her position. It’s one thing to discuss ethics and news values in a Carleton classroom, but in the middle of a genocide, how does that theory apply?
After lunch we drove out of the city to visit two memorials: Nyatmata and Ntarama. Both were Catholic churches where thousands of people sought sanctuary during the genocide, only to be brutally massacred 15 days into the killings. Forces killed most people with guns and grenades, shot from outside the buildings, then the militia entered the chapels to kill any survivors with machetes and clubs. Because the 20th anniversary of the genocide was this last month, there were grey and purple ribbons strung up around the memorials and bundles of flowers on the graves.
An estimated 11,000 people died at Nyatmata, a small brick building. Now, the pews are laden with the clothing of the dead, stacked in ragged piles. At the front of the space is a figurine of the Virgin Mary, her hands clasped in prayer, her lips subtly smiling, her eyes downcast, glancing towards the heaps of clothing that were once heaps of mutilated bodies.
There is a crypt underground displaying fractured skulls and a coffin containing the body of a rape victim, symbolizing all the women who suffered from sexual violence. Bulled holes have cut stars into the tin roof. There are mass graves behind the building, containing rows of skulls, dusted in red dirt.
My chest hurts even writing about it.
Ntarama is a small church, about the size of the Seventh Day Adventist church next door. There were more than 5,000 victims at Ntarama. Their bones and personal items still fill the main building. There are countless skulls, coffins filled with multiple remains, and shirts and pants hanging off the rafters. The guide showed us a yellowed identity card stamped Tutsi.
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There are also three smaller buildings around Ntarama, “small houses,” the guide called them. People died there too. In the building that was the church kitchen, people were burned alive. In the space where Sunday school used to be held, there is a stain on the brick wall.
“They threw the small children against the wall,” our guide told us, “it is a blood stain. A blood stain. From the children. They threw the children against the wall and that is the blood stain.”
I struggled to breathe.
Even now, writing, it’s too much to comprehend. It’s too horrible for me to produce the meaningful commentary I’d like to be able to write. I have no thoughts beyond the deep sadness, horror, and incomprehension I feel thinking of that dark patch on the wall. No matter how much I read about the events and social climate leading up to the genocide, I don’t think I’ll ever wrap my head around how somebody could have created that stain.
On the way home we stopped at a hotel for a drink and view of the city. I sipped a lemon Fanta and chatted with two Canadians, Emma and Meag, and a Rwandan student, N., about culture.
N. told me his favourite food is traditional Rwandan food. I told him I grew up often eating my own culture’s “traditional food:” Chinese food. He seemed excited, and asked “Do you know how to eat with the sticks?” I laughed and demonstrated with two pens and then taught him how.
The four of us also talked about dating and marriage, about travel and more about food. It was a nice way to ease the tension of the day.
This evening we all relaxed and hung out. Some people put on Sex and the City again and this time I stayed. It was my first time watching the show, and it seemed an odd distraction, a world completely foreign to my life both at home and abroad. Eventually I snuck away to bed, to write and spend some time alone.
Tomorrow we are departing for a weekend out of the city. We’ll be spending the night in Gisenyi, which is supposed to be quite beautiful. There’s a beach there, where we can swim and relax. No skulls for a while.
Life goes on. It seems like it should be impossible, but somehow, we’ll get on a bus tomorrow and laugh and see more of this place and wonder at the beauty that, against all odds, does exist here.

Day 6: figuring out Kigali/sharing lives/hunting for wifi

Today I think I finally began to get a sense of Kigali.
Due to my horrible sense of direction, it’s taken me a while to begin to understand the pace and layout of the city, but after a day of exploration by foot and moto, I’m starting to settle into the geography of this place.
Our scheduled lecturer for the day had to cancel last minute and head out of the country, leaving us with an extra day of wandering. We met as a class in the morning and checked in with everybody about our living situation and how we’re all doing so far (no complaints, except the fact that the internet connection we were promised only works for about ten minutes a day). Then we pretty much had the rest of the day to ourselves.
I sat around with one of the local students, N., and showed him photos of home: a little apartment in Centretown, Ottawa, complete with a cat named after an art nouveau painter, parents and sister posing in front of the ocean, a bearded boyfriend cradling his guitar, and poutine. N. showed me photos of his campus and classmates, of him with headphones on, sitting in a radio newsroom, his family gathered together, shoulder to shoulder in front of a landscape of huge, green leaves. He was impressed by the “development” of the Vancouver skyline and confused by the allure of fries with gravy and cheese curds. It was a wonderful (and often hilarious) exchange of culture.
After looking at photos, N. and I went for a long walk with another Canadian student, Meag, and a Rwandan student, D. Meag and I brought cameras and the four of us traded them around, photographing the area and each other. The conversation as we strolled is some of the best and most comfortable I’ve had since getting here.

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I find I’m learning so much from the local students. They’re smart and they know their city and culture well. And they’re interested in journalism and the world, in history and reconciliation and the future, which makes them fascinating to speak with. They’re also young and funny. They like sports, pop culture, and are interested in the foreign practices that surround dating in and marriage in Canada. In short: they’re great to talk with.
Family is a common topic of discussion. My journalist partner, C., told me that she is one of ten children. Yesterday, N. showed me photos of his mother. A woman I met told me bluntly, “My parents are dead. Genocide.”
I have been asked often by both Canadians and Rwandans about the composition of my own family. My brother died about a year ago and since then I’ve been struggling to navigate the best way to answer the question, “Do you have siblings?” Here, though, so many lives have been lost. So many brothers taken.
It lends some perspective to my own life, and though it does nothing to ease the pain I will always feel about my personal loss (nor does it do anything to give me insight into what it is like to experience genocide), it does take some of the awkwardness out of the question. I feel more comfortable answering honestly, knowing (for tragic reasons) that the person with whom I’m speaking won’t feel surprised and uncomfortable at the honest answer: “Three. My younger sister, an older brother, and my oldest brother died about a year ago.” Nobody asks how. They just nod and say they’re sorry.
After an hour of walking and conversation, N., D., Meag, and I returned to the house just in time for lunch.
After lunch, Meg and I set out to find internet with another Canadian, Simon. We took motos downtown and tried a coffee shop, the Rwandan Starbucks, called Bourbon. No luck with wifi, but we did get “iced African coffee”—espresso with milk, ginger, and a dollop of real whipped cream.
From there, we moto-ed to a local hostel we’d heard had good wifi. Moto-ing is a great way to buzz through the city. It’s cheap and much less terrifying than you’d expect. The breeze is pleasant and it gives you a chance to peek into the little shops you zip by, or look out across valleys and onto the neighbouring hills, crowded with red rooftops.
There is a surplus of hair salons here (though the signs seem to often spell it “saloon”). Many of them have photos of American rappers painted or posted by the doors. Ludacris is a popular hair model.
Unfortunately the power was completely out at the hostel, but we sat and read for a while anyway before going back to the house. The class regrouped at home and we all got dressed to go out for dinner to the Hôtel des Mille Collines, the setting for the famous film Hotel Rwanda.
During the genocide, the Mille Collines was a safe haven for those fleeing violence, a small pocket of relative safety in the centre of the city. The hotel’s manager, a Hutu himself, has been praised far beyond Hollywood for his heroism, but in recent years, he has fallen out of favour with Kagame government. He lives in exile now.
Instead of hiring taxis, Allen somehow managed to rally fifteen motos to take us to the historic hotel. We opened the gate to our compound and were faced with a hilarious row of drivers, waiting for us all to hop on. They seemed to find the situation just as funny as we did. In an impressively coordinated effort, they waited until we were all mounted before taking off into the night in unison, dodging around each other and laughing with us at the spectacle we were all making: fifteen muzungus on motos, riding through the heart of Kigali.
We sat outside by the pool at the Mille Collines and ordered drinks and food to celebrate the birthday of one of our students, Melissa. The conversation grew in volume and hilarity over the course of the meal, so that by the end my eyes were watering from laughter.
Before leaving, Simon and I took a walk around the famous pool, which is shown in both Hotel Rwanda and Sometimes in April. As I’ve felt so many other times about this city, I found it difficult to understand how this ritzy resort, complete with a turquoise swimming pool, would have looked during the spring of 1994, when so many people sought refuge there.
We returned home and sat around for a while, laughing and joking around, teasing the one classmate whose moto took a wrong turn and delivered him to the wrong neighbourhood (he made it home eventually).
As everybody else filed out and headed to bed, I called Ottawa for the first time since getting here. I spoke briefly to my boyfriend for the first time in a week, trying to explain everything I’ve been seeing and doing here but failing to capture it all. It was really nice to hear the voice of a loved one and share some of the thoughts I’ve had since getting here.
I did the math and figured that my parents are still at work, so I’ll call them in the morning and treat myself to the sound of their voices too, and try to explain this place and these people and how I feel like I’m finally beginning to understand my coordinates in this city of hills, friendly people, motos, and hair saloons.

Day 5: Kigali strolls/archives/motos/meeting my journalist

It’s about 5 p.m. and, already, the sun is low in the sky. Because Rwanda is so close to the equator, the sun rises and sets fairly regularly throughout the year, and there is almost equal amount of daylight and nighttime.
I’m buzzing with adrenaline right now, a sharp contrast to the last time I sat down to write. The more I explore this city and meet these people, the more I realize how complicated it all is. It’s not black and white or good and bad. Yesterday I wrote feeling sobered by this place’s history. Today I’m writing feeling elated about the way it feels to be experiencing Kigali’s present.
After blogging time yesterday I went on a walk with another student, Meagan. We walked out to the dirt path that can be seen from the house’s front porch. Everybody we passed seemed to smile and wave, to offer a hand for shaking, or call out to us in English. We meet a man who told us, excitedly, that his cousin is in Edmonton.
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We turned back towards the house and picked another dirt road, this one lined with houses. Everybody seemed to be out, enjoying the evening. The further down the road we walked the smaller and shabbier the houses grew. Corrugated tin suddenly became the dominant construction material.
At one point we paused and looked up the hill. In the distance was a huge mansion, home to an NGO or official, most likely. In the foreground was a small shack. I snapped a photo that doesn’t do the contrast justice.
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We returned from the walk dusty and happy. Walking around in pairs is easier that travelling in a pack of foreigners. The interactions are smaller and more personal when there isn’t an army of cameras to capture every moment.
After dinner most of the group sat downstairs to watch a movie, but Meagan, me, and a student named Noah snuck up to the upstairs balcony to look out at the city lights and talk. We discussed our morning at Gisozi and our favourite books and movies and struggled to find a way to put our lives and thoughts into words. It was a quiet and beautiful conversation. We laughed, but also discussed some of the difficult material with which we’ve been faced here. I needed that.
This morning we went back to Gisozi to have a tour of their extensive archive collection. They led us into a back room which is temperature and humidity controlled, and we shivered as a woman drew our attention to documents, photos, and items from the genocide. She pulled out an object packaged in tissue paper and unwrapped it with slender fingers tipped with bright red nails.
“It’s a machete,” she said matter-of-factly. “Used to kill people.”
Sixteen pairs of eyes fixated on the rusted blade.
After viewing the archives we had lunch at the museum café. I left early though, because I had a meeting with my journalist partner, C. To get there, I did something that would have sparked my mother’s disapproval: I rode a moto.
It was my first time hopping on one and I admit, I was nervous. The tension soon eased, however, as we took off around the city, a beautiful breeze beating against the lower half of my face, the upper half and my head encased in a helmet. The driver called the helmet a “bucket.” I tried to ignore the cracks and scratches on it.
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I met C. at a hotel. It looked like any tropical resort: palm trees, bright flowers, wait staff wandering around in blue polo shirts. The turquoise pool was drained and roped off, but the grounds were lush and populated with old white business people and young Rwandan entrepreneurs,
There was a British man with white hair, dressed in white pants, a white turtleneck, and brown shoes, looking like caricature of a Victorian explorer with his blazer slung over his shoulders. He made eye contact with me as he spoke to his local partners, “I want to make you rich, and you rich, and even her rich!”
C. arrived precisely on time and led me to a quiet table on the grass on the other side of the pool. It was cool and quiet and pleasant. When I commented on how nice the atmosphere was she said, “Yes! I wanted to show you this place because I sometimes come here to write my stories so I knew we would find a nice spot.” I felt privileged to be welcomed to her secret writer’s spot.
I spoke to C. for about half an hour about journalism here. She had many positive things to say about the opportunities she’s had since moving to Rwanda from her native Zambia. She raved about the safety here, and the people she’s met and places she’s had the chance to visit while writing features about lifestyle, cooking, and Kigali restaurants and hotels.
She also spoke about what it’s like being a woman in a male-dominated field. She told me that she had a strong mother who raised ten kids single-handedly, and that it was that inspiration that helps give her confidence when she’s the only woman in the scrum.
Eventually, I shut off the recorder, and we talked freely about life, wandering in and out of journalism and discussing culture and the world. She was interested to hear about the state of journalism in Canada and how I like Kigali. She told me that when she moved here she was amazed by how friendly the people here are, how welcoming they’ve been, how orderly and safe everything is. I agreed.
I took a moto most of the way home but had the driver stop early so I could walk part way. I passed some men sitting outside a shop playing a variation of checkers on a slab of wood, the board drawn in with permanent marker, using Fanta and Coca Cola bottle caps as playing pieces. I stopped and ask to take a photo and they laughed and agreed.
Then they urged me to sit and began explaining the rules. The next thing I knew I was losing at Rwandan checkers (although in all fairness, the rules are slightly different: you can jump backwards and forwards right from the beginning, and once you’re a king you can slide across the board on diagonals).
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After the game everybody wanted an address, phone number, facebook contact or email, “because we are such good friends now,” said one man. I wrote my first name and email down on a piece of paper and explained in a cobbled dialect somewhere between English and very-bad French that I don’t have my Rwandan phone number memorized but that they could email me if they wanted copies of the photos I’d taken. They laughed at my poor language skills and accepted the paper. I skipped home.
Issa, our security guard, let me in the gate. He was listening to music on his phone, so I asked him his favourite song. He switched on “I want it that way” by The Backstreet Boys. I laughed and sang a few lines, then hurried inside, catching the rest of the crew just as they set out for a walk.
I decided to stay in though, and curl up on the couch and pound out some thoughts on my keyboard and enjoy the dying sunlight. Only 12 hours of dark before we begin another day in Kigali.

Day 4: coursework/Gisozi/reflections

It’s raining right now–thick, pounding rain. They say this wet weather reminds people here of the genocide, of tears and sodden bodies. The killings started in the rainy season twenty years ago.

I’m sitting outside, alone, listening to the droplets strike the red earth. Everybody else is in the living room, but I needed some alone time to gather my thoughts.

I’ve seen so many images of bodies in the last 24 hours. I’m trying to figure out how to cope with and what to think of the lifeless limbs behind my eyelids–and trying to prepare myself for the next three weeks of class.

Last night we officially began our course with a powerpoint presentation from Allan and a movie screening of the film Sometimes In April. The three Rwandan students we met last night joined us for the lesson.

Allan told the story behind some of the only available footage of the genocide. The clip, which was captured by a BBC videographer, shows a group of young men milling about a street, casually gripping machetes, lounging on one side of the road. On the other side there are bodies, heaps of clothing for every driveway on the winding block.

In the foreground, two indistinct figures wave their arms in prayer, begging for life. A small child crosses the street, casually. A truck, loaded with bodies, heaves down the road. Eventually, a man walks over to the begging figures. He raises his arm, slashes downwards. The body collapses. Another pile of rags.

For years, the identities of the people in the video were unknown, but Allan returned to the street and found witnesses and survivors, who identified the two as a father and daughter. He met the remaining family and saw photos of the victims.

Allan wrote an article about the family. When it was published, he said, the response was tremendous. He thinks people reacted because they finally had a face, a life, to pair with the death toll numbers that have emerged from the Rwandan genocide. He donated the earnings from the article to the remaining family members.

The movie was an emotional story of how the genocide destroyed one family. When the lights came up, we sniffled and wiped our eyes in silence for a few minutes. I didn’t want to make eye contact with anybody. I picked a spot on the floor and stared, until somebody else broke the silence, suggesting some chocolate and card games to lighten the mood.

I went to bed and dreamt of shooting guns and the way fresh blood blossoms on white cotton.

Today, we saw many more faces and heard more stories. We left the house at about 9:30 a.m. to visit the Kigali National Genocide Memorial Centre (also called the Gisozi memorial). The memorial is the largest and most prominent in the country, and serves both as a mass grave site and a genocide museum.

We were joined again by our three Rwandan students. I’ve made friends with one of the boys, N., who is also a third year student. We talked for a long time at our party, and today he walked beside me as our tour guide, Serge, led us around the graves.

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There are some 250,000 people buried at the memorial, though the number continues to grow as new graves are discovered. The bodies, reduced to bones, by now, are packed into coffins, multiple people per casket, and stacked in graves that extend six or seven feet underground. The tombs are sealed with stone, and people place white flowers on top in remembrance. The official colour of mourning is grey, Serge said. Grey like ashes.

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Adjacent to the graves is a garden, for reflecting.

Inside, we toured the museum part of the grounds. The top floor contains an exhibit about genocide, explaining the origins of the term (it was coined by Raphael Lemkin to describe Nazi actions, and has since been enshrined in UN Convention, which defines the term as “the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”), and giving examples of genocides throughout history, including The Holocaust and Cambodia.

Also on the top floor is an exhibit about children who died during the Rwandan Genocide. For me, this was the most difficult part of the experience. The exhibit featured blown-up photos of small faces, and plaques with details such as the child’s favourite food, last words, or best friend (often a sibling). Each plaque also included a cause of death.

There was a two year old who was crushed against a wall.

I couldn’t comprehend. How could somebody do that? Why would they? Can they live with themselves now?

I paused at a window to the garden and wiped my eyes. Outside, the sun was strong and bright. It seemed impossible that the garden outside could exist in the same world a two year old was murdered simply for being a certain ethnicity, for a social construction. That’s how this country’s history and present seem to be: both tragic and beautiful in an impossible way.

Downstairs, Serge led us through a history of Rwanda from precolonial times until now. Before European contact, Hutus and Tutsis lived peacefully. The labels referred not to rigid racial distinctions, but to fluid class differences. The country shared one monotheistic religion and one culture.

The Germans were the first to colonize the country, but lost control after WWI, when the League of Nations gave Rwanda to the Belgians. It was under Belgian colonialism that Hutu and Tutsi labels became racialized and institutionalized. The Belgians granted favour to the Tutsi minority, whom they saw as more European, taller and with fairer skin. The Hutus were discriminated against. Everybody had to have an identity card.

After WWII, as colonialism diminished around the world and independence movements grew, the Belgians switched their favour to the Hutu majority. When they withdrew, they left the Hutus in power. Independence was achieved in 1962. Revenge killings against the formerly-privileged Tutsis began.

Many Tutsis fled the country and grew up in surrounding regions. In the early 1990s, some of these refugees formed a rebel group called the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Led by Paul Kagame (the current Rwandan president), the RPF marched on Rwanda. Civil war broke out and lasted for years.

Throughout this time, Rwandan media broadcasted hateful propaganda against the Tutsis, calling them cockroaches and demanding their extermination. The radio broadcasts, in particular, were wildly popular.

The Arusha Accords between the rebel RPF and Rwandan government were supposed to bring peace to the country, but the peace process was abandoned when, on April 6, 1994, the president’s plane was shot down by still-unknown assassins. Within an hour, extremists had set up roadblocks around the city. Killings began.

The extremists targeted Tutsis and Hutu moderates from the previous government. Radio programs directed killers by broadcasting names and addresses of victims. Some 8,000 people died on the first day. Nearly 1,000,000 were killed in three months.

The genocide ended when the RPF took over Kigali. They have been in power ever since.

The final section of the memorial was a selection of family photographs, skulls, and wrinkled clothing. The remains of so many lives.

There was one blue shirt that said “Ottawa…from/du Canada.”

We emerged from the darkness of the exhibits into the sunlight and walked to the memorial café to drink some tea and relax. I sat with N. I imagine my facial expression looked much like his: a vacant stare, mouth drawn. He told me that though he’d been to the memorial twice before, he’d never quite felt that way. He was only four when the genocide happened.

We went back to the house for lunch and some quiet blogging and reading time. I sat beside a student named D., a tall, beautiful, and quiet girl who likes basketball. We sat in amicable silence, until she suddenly offered her phone screen towards me, wanting to share her latest text with somebody.

There was a photo of a woman, lying down, only her shoulders and head visible, a knife plunged into her neck. The blood was still bright red.

I tried to hide my surprise. We’d spent a morning reading about death, but I wasn’t prepared for that image. “Who is she?” I asked.

D. told me that she was a local woman, murdered by her husband “for refusing to have sex with him.” I asked how D. got the photo, and she told me that her “colleague,” a journalist she knew, was reporting on the story and had sent her the photo and an explanation. Then she shook her head, clearly as affected as I was. “It’s too sad,” she said.

I nodded. “Is violence against women a problem here?”

She paused, searching for the words in English. “It is…too easy here. People kill too easily.”

“Ahh,” I said. I didn’t know how else to reply. Despite my horror at the photo, I didn’t feel qualified to comment on crime rates in a country where I am only a visitor. Husbands murder their wives in Canada too. Evil is difficult to quantify.

D. and I changed the topic. She showed me her personal blog and I showed her mine. We laughed a little.

I felt closer to this quiet girl. I understood her need to talk about the horrible things in the world. I think I have that too: a need to discuss it all, to try and find some common human opposition to violence, some comfort in the fact that somebody else also hurts when they see mass graves and hear the stories of murdered children and are suddenly confronted with the photo of a woman whose husband drove a knife through her throat.

Funny, how confronting the worst of humanity spawns such desperation for those small, human connections, but also drives me out into the rain alone, trying to escape it all.

Day 3: Kimironko/Caplaki/quiet time

We had a lazy Sunday: slept in and hung out until the morning rains had subsided. We had lunch, then set off for a return trip to Kimironko, the market we visited yesterday.

I didn’t feel like I needed to do much shopping, since we’d already been there just yesterday, so a group of us walked down a dusty road to a little store that was no more than the unlit front room of a house, containing a counter, a fridge, and a woman who had to laugh and mime the drink prices to get past our language barrier. We bought a couple of Fanta, then sat on the front steps, talking about our trip and tracing our fingers through the condensation on the outside of the glass bottles.

After an hour we joined the group and drove to the craft market, Caplaki. The rows of green shacks were quiet. Store owners sat on chairs outside, calling out to us, “Sister, sister, come look!” but it was a slow Sunday afternoon and they didn’t seem to have the energy to really harass us into looking at and purchasing their goods.

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Then it was back to the house for some quiet and dinner. Tonight we start our course material. I’ve enjoyed being a tourist for the last couple of days, but I feel as though we’ve just been trying to ignore a history that is everywhere here, putting it off until a previously agreed upon time. In a way, I will be relieved to finally begin digging into the issues that are at the centre of this course and central to Rwanda’s history.

Day 2: market/museum/party

I woke up this morning to the sounds of singing coming from the blue-roofed Seventh Day Adventist Church next door—a chorus of voices leaking through the holes in walls.

Breakfast was underpopulated. People trickled into the dining room slowly, groggy from the night before. I had the chance to write a little before gathering a bag for our day out.

Our first stop of the day was the market, a huge and busy indoor complex bursting with colour. I went shutter-happy, snapping photos of fruit and fabric, both equally vibrant.

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I found that my camera acted both as an ice-breaker and an enemy maker. I made eye contact and asked before taking any portraits, and found that many of the women were shy or irritated by the lens. Many men, on the other hand, called out to me, wanting their photos taken, then asking my name and where I’m from. One even asked me to stop so that he could take a photo of me on his phone.

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After the market we went for lunch on an outdoor patio. We feasted on brochette—goat kabobs—fries, and plantains, then went for a short walk down the street, admiring the view from that hill.

We spent the afternoon at the museum of natural history, a funny little white building that was once owned by a German explorer who determined that the source of the Nile is in Rwanda. An enthusiastic guide spoke to us about the regions of Rwanda before going through a brief overview of geology, volcanic formations, and evolution “according to science” (but if you believe in God, you believe in creation, he noted).

He led us outside to a small shack housing cages with locally-found, fatality-capable, snakes, then out onto a terrace with an amazing view of the mountain after which the city was named. Kigali means “big” or “huge,” he said.

Tired from our day out, we huddled back into our Muzungu-mobile and headed back to the house to relax and set up for a party at the house. Allan dragged a couple tables and chairs out onto the lawn and lit candles. People lugged gigantic crates of Fanta, Coca Cola, and Mutzig beer into our entrance. In the kitchen, our wonderful cook, Mumma Eva, prepared a feast.

Our guests for the night arrived just after darkness did—a few local journalism students from the University of Rwanda, teachers and staff from the university, and enough journalists to assign each student a partner.

I spent the evening talking and learning and trying to soak it all up. The first half of the evening I spoke with a third year journalism student from here about school, family and politics. He said he wanted to be a journalist so that he could talk to people who were struggling, but he was having his doubts now about whether or not he could really help them. Maybe he will go into PR instead, he said.

My journalist-partner is a stylish lady named C. who works for an online publication. She’s a busy woman: a journalist, a student, and the mother of a three year old little girl. We found lots to laugh about and I’m looking forward to seeing her again later in the trip.

As the evening wound down and our final guests exited I found a place on the couch with a couple other journalism students and Allan came over and we talked about jschool for a while. It’s funny living with a professor, eating breakfast and hanging out together, but Allan is friendly and at ease in every situation. You can tell how comfortable he is in this country, how well he knows the culture and people and history of this place.

I finally showered and crawled into bed just before 2 a.m. We miraculously had internet and so I posted my blog from the day before and talked for a few minutes with people from home, letting them know that I’m safe and happy and fascinated by this beautiful and complex place.

Day 1: wandering/errands/Kigali nightlife

We’ve had an eventful first full 24 hours in Rwanda.

I woke up early—half jetlag and half desire to blog—and sat on our porch and took advantage of the fact the wifi was working. Breakfast was a fruit salad of pineapple, banana and passion fruit, and dark Rwandan tea.

We were itching to see the neighbourhood by daylight, so a group of us set out for a walk after breakfast, wandering down the dusty red road.

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After lunch we had a short orientation with a couple of the in-country staff members. We discussed appropriate dress (cover up during the day, but at night clubs almost anything goes), and manners (thumbs up and the middle finger mean the same thing here as they do at home). Then it was lunch, more steaming plates of rice and potato and stew.

In the afternoon we ventured into the city to go to the UTC mall and run some errands. Kigali is divided into neighbourhoods perched on the various hills. Almost every place we go seems to have an incredible view of another area of the city, all red roofs and green grass and dirt roads.

At the mall we walked through an airport-style security scanner in the entrance before being allowed in to exchange money and buy cheap cell phones and sim cards to use in the country. Then we popped into Bourbon, the Rwandan version of Starbucks, for iced coffees and a chance to sit and trade new +250 phone numbers.

We had dinner back at the house, then I showered and changed before our first night in the city.

Months ago, when we were preparing for this trip, our professor, Allan, told us that he wanted to show us that there is more to Africa than war and starvation. This was proved at a trio of three bars (complete with lip-synching and dance performances, live reggae music, and light-strobed dance floors), gigantic Rwandan beers (twice the size and less than half the cost of their Canadian counterparts, but you have to specify when you order if you want it served cold), and some stereotypically embarrassing Canadian dancing. Our inter-bar transportation came in the form of a white van Allan affectionately dubbed the Muzungu-mobile.

We arrived home tipsy and tired. The group gathered in the kitchen to devour dinner leftovers, but I slunk away, grateful to crawl into bed, put in headphones, and enjoy some quiet time before falling into a dreamless sleep.

First impresssions

It’s about 7:30 a.m. Kigali time (1:30 a.m. in Ottawa, 10:30 p.m. in Vancouver, if my math is correct).

While all the people I love most in the world are preparing for bed, I’m living in a different (but beautiful) reality, perched on a bar stool on the front porch of our Kigali home and watching morning commuters cutting through fields by way of dirt road. Just beyond the walkers, cars and motos are zipping down a highway, honking furiously at each other as they too begin their days. Apparently before these fields there was a slum here, but it’s since been bulldozed in the name of development.

The air is cool but humid.

 

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We landed at dusk last night, after a blur of airport food and layovers. The last bit of light clung to the horizon just long enough to reveal a patchwork of green hills, cut through with red dirt roads, lakes somewhere beyond the city and scattered homes. By the time we touched down in Kigali the sun had set, and we drove into the city in darkness.

“It’s unfortunate you landed at night,” said our driver, JP.

“Yes,” I agreed. “But I’ll see it tomorrow.”

Most of our classmates were already at the house by the time my travel group arrived, and we spent the evening fighting jet lag, settling into our bunk beds, and eating a delicious meal of chicken stew, rice, french fries and banana bread. We were all exhausted but giddy with excitement.

Today the plan is to explore the city a little and run some errands. Wifi has been on and off and so I’m hoping to hunt for a cheap cell phone and some international minutes so that I can reassure my parents that I’m here and safe. Mostly, I’m looking forward to seeing more of the city and trying to understand a little more of today’s Rwanda.

Buzzing down the streets last night, I found, already, that this is a place that is difficult to separate from its past. In 1994, almost a million people were murdered here in the span of three months. I can’t help but wonder about what these hills have seen and heard, and how the commuters’ find a way to begin their day every morning after witnessing a genocide.

It’s so difficult to wrap my head around how this beautiful morning can exist alongside the history of this place.

Pre-departure

I’m going to be in Rwanda in less than 24 hours.

I’ll be there for three weeks, studying journalism and the media before, during and after the 1994 genocide. I’ll live  in a house with fifteen Carleton students, taking day trips to massacre sites and newsrooms, and pouring over the archives at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre.

It’s been a dream months in the making (years, if I really want to get nostalgic about my childhood and the formation of my interests), but now that I’m finally at the edge of it all, I admit, I’m feeling a tug of hesitation.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel more than your average 20 year old, logging almost 15 countries and blogging from multiple continents. I’ve never felt nervous or stressed out before another trip like I have before this one.

It’s a combination of pressures. I’ve invested a significant amount of time and money into making it to Kigali and I’ve never been to the continent before, but my worries extend beyond practicalities.

Mostly, I’ve been preoccupied with the course’s subject matter,  and my uncertainty about how to interact with the world in a meaningful way. Genocide is no easy topic. Nor are freedom of expression or the politics surrounding it all.

Years of studying journalism and human rights has made me wary about treating people and a country as merely sources of quotes or subjects of photos. Three years ago I travelled to India on a volunteer service trip, but since then, my perspectives on the world and travel have changed. I want to see the world in a way that will maximize learning and growth but minimize harm.

I don’t want to be a tourist caricature: the North American girl who goes to Africa to save orphaned babies and get a new adorable profile picture; the judgemental Westerner, imposing my values and expectations on a society that I will know only briefly, and probably never fully, understand.

All these thoughts and doubts have led to a dizzying past 24 hours. I packed in a frenzy, convinced I was forgetting something. When my boyfriend and I took a break to go for dinner, he had to convince me that I hadn’t misread my departure time and tell me to calm down and enjoy my noodles.

This morning I just had one more task on my to-do list: pick up a universal power adapter. My boyfriend drove me to an electronic store in downtown Ottawa in search of this final item.

The employee that helped me was tall and friendly, with a wide smile. I’d popped by the store on Monday to pick up some other supplies and he was the first person I’d seen. I’d told him I was going to Kigali and he told me that he’d been to the city in 2010…back when he was working as a journalist in Africa. We didn’t have much time to chat, but I said I’d be back.

Today, I found him again, standing by the wall of power adapters. He helped me find what I needed and as I stood at the cash register, paying, I asked him about Kigali, his former career, and how he ended up working at at electronics store in Ottawa.

He told me that he’d travelled all over Africa and met many people.

“Many heads of state,” he said, “Zuma, Gaddafi…”

“Kagame?” I asked, naming the Rwandan president.

“Oh yes, Kagame two times.”

He told me that he’s studying at Carleton now. I asked if he’s also in the journalism program. No, he told me, being a journalist is too dangerous, at least where he’s from. He wants to get out of it now, do something different.

His words were a wake up call, a face to pair with the issues listed in our course outline, and to put 24 hours of worry into perspective. I scribbled my email down on a page in my notebook, ripped it out and handed it to him, encouraging him to keep in touch.

He accepted the paper and smiled. “You’re going to love it,” he told me.

I think he’s right.