Days 12-14: summer colds/presidential palace/Kigali’s only poutine

We’re getting to that point in the trip when nobody can believe what the date is or where the time has gone. We have just over a week left, still one third of the trip, but our schedule is packed every day and we’re starting to have to decide which activities will fit in and which won’t. We also have class assignments to begin considering.

I visited the archives two days ago to try and get some work done but I wasn’t feeling very well (just a cold, but my energy was drained) so I left early and came back to the house to sleep.

In the evening, we had a talk about community radio in Rwanda. Community stations play a unique role in giving normal people a voice here, and demystifying the media. They rely largely on outside funding and volunteers.

I went to bed early that day, trying to sleep off my sickness.

Yesterday I was up and feeling better by 8 a.m. I called my parents to check in and tell them about my week, and then had breakfast. Our speakers for the day were four staff representatives from the school of journalism here.

As a journalism student myself, I found it very interesting to hear how their program is structured, what it aims to teach the students, and about the types of challenges they face. I think that my own program faces many similar obstacles, such as growing class sizes, the need to keep up with changing technology and equipment, and high tuition costs that act as barriers to students. However, as Allan noted, we face these on a much smaller scale than they do here in Rwanda. It was good insight into how people around the world are trying to pursue the same ideal of writing important truths.

In the afternoon, three Canadian students, Noah, Meagan, and Kaylee, joined D. and me on an outing to the Presidential Palace Museum. Two Rwandan presidents have lived there: the last president before the genocide and the first one after.

The compound is huge. It used to be home for military members, but when President Habyarimana seized power in a military coup, he decided to transform his military home into a presidential palace.

Today, two of the multiple gardens are rented out for wedding ceremonies, but behind the house, the pool, bar, banana grove, tennis court, and another garden are all part of the museum.

The house was an impressive mansion. On the first floor were the offices that belonged to the president and first lady. Our guide explained that the first lady and her brother were actually more extremist than Habyarimana. It was in the first lady’s meeting room, he said, that “the genocide was planned.” I got goosebumps standing on the plush green carpet, among now-tattered couches.

We went up a winding set of steps to see the bedrooms on the second floor. Each step had an alarm built in. The president was paranoid about being assassinated, so he installed a different toned alarm to go off each step to warn him that an intruder was approaching, and also to notify him of which step they were on.

The master bedroom was very large. It used to be quite decadent, our guide said, but many furniture items and pieces of artwork were looted during the genocide. A table with real taxidermy elephant legs remained.

The bathroom was huge, but was only used by the first lady, the guide said. A small door in the back led to a tiny water closet with a toilet. The president would use the hidden room, the guide told us, so that he wouldn’t be found and killed in the bathroom.

There was also a safe near the door. Apparently Habyarimana would leave a couple of drawers open and full of money. That way, if an assassin entered, they would be tempted by the money and would pause, giving time for the president or his guards to react.

The president’s three daughters shared a room and bathroom, and four of his five boys did as well. The fifth boy lived in a small separate house on the compound. Today, the children and the first lady are all still alive, sheltered by France. They were able to escape the country at the beginning of the genocide.

The guide led us to a wood-panelled T.V. room, and then pushed on a panel to reveal a secret compartment. We ducked in and walked up a narrow set of stairs to a hidden third floor with multiple exits in case the president was fleeing enemies.

On one side of the top floor was a room for exercising, one for the barber to come trim the president’s hair, and a shrine where the president’s personal witch doctor could come perform ceremonies.

The witch doctor shrine was supposed to be a secret, but many of the former staff members are still alive today, including the barber, and helped share stories to make the museum accurate, the guide said. That’s how they knew about the Habyarimana’s superstitious side.

On the opposite side of the top floor was the Catholic chapel, strategically placed so that the priest and witch doctor would never cross paths. The pope at the time once visited the green-carpeted room, said our guide.

The heavy wooden door is engraved with a cross at the top, representing God, then two circles right below that, representing the president and his wife. Below them are five interlocked circles representing the president’s sons, who will always be family. Then at the bottom are three circles, separate from each other, representing daughters who will one day marry out and join other families.

The final room we saw was the small secret room, where the president or his men would interrogate and torture suspects, or give assassins assignments, our guide said. The handles of the sink in the bathroom next door were red.

Red for blood, said the guide, raising his eyebrows.

We left the main part of the house and walked through the president’s sauna and his personal bar and night club, paid for by public money, of course. Then it was through the grounds and to a wall on the far side of the compound. We climbed a stepladder to the top of the wall to overlook the neighbouring field.

Scattered across the grass, ironically, were the remains of the plane crash that killed Habyarimana. Still-unknown shooters shot down his plane on April 6, 1994, sparking the genocide and causing him to crash and die on his own property.

As we walked back to the house, our tour wrapping up, we passed the sanctuary and pool that had been constructed specifically for the president’s massive pet snake. The snake went missing the night the president died, our guide said.

It hasn’t been seen since.

We returned to the house to relax and write and chat excitedly about our tour.

The next day we had two officials come to speak to us about media regulation in Rwanda. It was a revealing conversation. Both had much to say about Rwanda’s reputation for cracking down on free speech and journalism.

The man from the government was adamant that much of the criticism we read spawns from journalists lying and trying to get sympathy and refugee status abroad. The non-government official, who works for a group that addresses complaints about the media both from the public and from journalists themselves, thought differently. He said Rwandese journalists have faced unfair arrests or police harassment in the past, and that his organization works to address that.

We questioned both men up until lunch. It was a challenging but enlightening conversation.

After lunch I headed out to the archives briefly, but didn’t get much work done before I had to head out again to meet C. at a new hotel and restaurant where she was interviewing the owner.

As it turned out, the owner was had been born in Tanzania but lived in Ottawa most of his life. He was a funny, candid little man who was eager to talk with me about Ottawa and to brag that he’s the only person in Kigali who serves poutine. He gave me his business card and encouraged me to call his wife in Ottawa and visit their coffee shop in Tunney’s Pasture.

I felt a little guilty for being a distraction, but C. soon took over the conversation and I sat back and tried to be invisible as she asked for details on the food, the prices, and, most importantly, what makes that place different from the rest.

She wrote down the ingredients for poutine. It might be her hook, she said.

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I moto-ed home after the interview to send her the photos and sit around and socialize with the group. We are off to the city of Butare tomorrow, and to tour the memorial at Murambi. Allan has warned us that it will be an intense experience, and I’ve read a number of articles that say the same thing. I’m feeling a little nervous, but I also know that I want to go.

After tomorrow we have a weekend away and then only two more classes before some free days and, unbelievably, the end of our stay here. Time is flying.

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