Day 32 – The Last Day

On our last day I woke up early, my body used to getting up for early tours and flights. I watched the sun rise up over the hills outside and went upstairs to buy some water and ask what time we needed to check out.

I was completely distracted from my errands, however, when I turned a corner into the lobby and there was Mama Yves, standing by the check in desk. She yelled and gave me a huge hug and stroked my hair and spoke in rapid, excited Kinyarwanda. The woman at reception laughed and said, “She says she missed you!”

Mama grabbed my hand and led me to the kitchen, where she’s working now that she’s not at the house, and started doling out a huge plate of breakfast and I laughed and asked her to wait for a moment and then ran downstairs to gather the others. There was another happy reunion and then we all sat down to a delicious breakfast of ginger tea, fruit salad, toast, and crepes.


After breakfast we moto-ed to the house and picked up the bags we’d left there and gave Issa a few more hugs. Then we went back to the hostel to pack up our stuff and move it into a storage room for the rest of the day.


I broke off from the group and hopped on a moto to N.’s, as he’d asked me a few days ago if I’d be able to stop by. My driver took me a bumpy route to Gikondo, where N. met me on the side of the road and helped guide me through the maze of streets to his compound. I’d met one of his roommates on our last day in Kigali, but he told me that the other one wanted to meet me too and that he’d promised I’d come by.


I’m still amazed by how friendly and welcoming everybody in Rwanda is. N.’s first roommate, who I’d met before, gave me a huge hug and called out, “Muzungu!” when I arrived.

The other roommate shook my hand and ushered me inside. Him, N., and I sat on the floor and listened to music and looked at photos and joked around until, at about 11:30 a.m., I told N. that we’d better head back to the hostel to meet the others.

He stopped me, “Is it okay if we’re late?” He asked.

I felt myself furrow my brow. I wanted to be back in time to see J.P. and Julius, who were swinging by to say hi on their lunch breaks. “Well how late? You need to get ready? You don’t need to dress up for J.P.,” I joked.

“No, you must stay for dinner!” He insisted.

It turned out his roommates had teamed up to cook lunch and that I was a guest for the meal. I stopped teasing and started trying to express my gratitude.

N. set up a table mat on the ground and wiped it clean, and then his roommate brought in an impressive array of dishes: rice, a beef and tomato stew, beans, and ugali, a sort of dough made from cassava flour and water. I commented that it smelled good and for some reason everybody thought that was a very funny thing for me to say. Then we sat cross-legged on the floor and dipped into the steaming meal.

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Before I left, N. took my camera around the compound and took photos of his roommates and neighbours, and of me with his roommates and neighbours, and then got his roommates and neighbours to take photos of him and me. Then we loaded them onto his computer to immortalize the morning.

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N. and I moto-ed to the hostel and made it there just as J.P. was climbing out of his car. We sat on the porch of the hostel and talked with him until he had to run back to work for the afternoon. Then Julius came and we decided to go to a nearby burrito restaurant for lunch.

N. and Cedric, a friend who works as a manager at a Kigali TV station, met us there and we all sat around and ate our wraps, tomato juice dripping down our wrists. N. and I shared one, since it was technically our second lunch. I snapped a photo of the happy family, everybody smiling except A., whose mouth was full of rice and guacamole.

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Julius, D., and Cedric had to leave after lunch, and so the six of us remaining wandered slowly back to the hostel to sit around and hang out until our flight time. A. stopped at a little open air bar on the side of the road and challenged a man there to a game of pool and we all sat around and acted as his adoring cheerleaders. He won 2/3 games.


We spent the rest of the afternoon sitting at the hostel, chatting and waiting for our departure time. At 5:30 we transited to the airport and, after a round of hugs and promises to see each other again, us four Canadians disappeared into the airport. As we sat at the gate in Kigali, waiting to board our flight to Brussels via Nairobi, I asked Noah if he was sad. Sad to leave Kigali, he said, but now that we were officially on our way, he also felt like it was okay to start getting excited for home. I agreed.

It’s been about 20 hours of travel now and we still have another five to go, but it feels as though we’re in the final stretch. Since I started writing we’ve officially made it across the Atlantic, so if we had to make an emergency landing right now, we’d end up in the Martimes. There is something comforting about knowing that, 2,677 metres down from where we are now, there is Canadian soil.

Sitting here, in the in-between of flight, all I can think is how incredibly lucky I am to leave one beautiful place and head towards another; and for all the people who said “Goodbye” in Kigali, and the ones who greet me in Ottawa and say “Welcome home.”

Photo by Chelsea Giesel

Photo by Chelsea Giesel


Day 31: Kigali homecoming

By the time we landed in Kigali Monday night it was dark out and we were two hours behind schedule. We went through customs, found our bags, and lugged them out into the dark air. Outside the airport was the usual pack of drivers and loved ones, waiting to pick people up and drive them into the city. We trudged by wordlessly, eager to find a cab and get to our hostel.

In Tanzania, I learned to ignore the various tour operators, hotel advertisers, and taxi drivers that swarm you at entrance points to the city, so when a man called out to us, “Hey guys!” I decided not to turn around. But then I heard Kirsten and Chelsea screaming behind me.

I swung around as they broke into overjoyed laughter. There, dwarfed beneath cast-aside bags and bear hugs, were N. and A. I yelled and ran to join in the reunion frenzy.

N. and A. told us they’d been waiting for three hours, since 5 p.m. As we gathered our stuff and headed to find a taxi for all of us, I tilted my head up to the Kigali stars and laughed, not because anything was funny, just because there was too much excess happiness inside and I needed to let some out into the cool night air.

We arrived at the hostel together, a giddy tangle of young people. Noah, Chelsea, Kirsten and I checked in and got keys and then all six of us went down to our room. I fished out some Rwandan Francs that I’d been saving in my money purse and Noah went for a beer and Fanta run and we all found spots on the floor and bunk beds and talked and looked at photos from Tanzania and everything felt comfortable and easy and rose tinted.

At about midnight, our bottles drained, we decided on a late-night excursion to the house that had been our home for the course. It really speaks to how amazingly safe Kigali is that even after midnight we felt no hesitation going for a 40 minute walk. In all the cities we visited in Tanzania (and in some parts of Ottawa, for that matter) we never would have done that.

The air was beautiful and cool outside and the stars were bright. We walked down the Meridian, past the Umubano Hotel and to the sign for the Adventist Dentist (Noah and I laughed. It’s tradition.). Then we turned down a quieter cobblestone street and strolled past some NGO headquarters, across a street, and to our old driveway.

We knocked on the gate, even though it was late, just in case Issa, our old security guard was around. A new guard opened the door, and just as I began to apologize and back up, embarrassed, A. stepped up and started charming the new guard in Kinyarwanda, and then disappeared onto the other side of the gate.

He returned a few minutes later with a sleepy Issa, who looked surprised and delighted. We all exchanged big hugs and promised to come back the next day to pick up some items we’d left there.

When we left the compound, the new guard locked the gate behind us, a clattering reminder that we’d only belonged there temporarily.

But we weren’t quite ready to leave, so we sat on the cement driveway and talked a little about life and searched the sky for the orange glow of Mars. I felt a combination of nostalgia and peace, a quiet acceptance of the way time constantly moves forward.

As Noah put it, it felt like rereading a book that had once been a childhood favourite.

N. and A. hopped on motos home from there and after a group hug, Noah, Chelsea, Kirsten and I walked back to the hostel. The beds were comfortable and I fell instantly asleep.

Day 22: visiting N.’s home/closing ceremony

It was past 2 a.m. by the time I climbed up to my bunk last night. Despite this, I lay awake for a while, thinking, trying to soak in The Last Night. It’s difficult to leave a place and group of people when you’re not sure when (and if) you’ll be reunited again. And Rwanda is a truly amazing place with truly amazing people.

N. called me yesterday and asked if I’d like to meet up with him at his home and see his neighbourhood before the graduation party. I agreed, curious and honoured to be given such an intimate glance into his life.

Instead of telling me where to direct the moto, N. asked me to hand my cell phone over to the driver and they exchanged rapid Kinyarwanda with each other. I hopped on the bike and the driver buzzed to the Gikondo neighbourhood of the city. Then he turned off the main road, onto a bumpy dirt one. The streets narrowed and the people increased.

Eventually we pulled up to a corner where N. was standing and waiting with a plastic bag with two cold lemon Fantas. He walked me up to his housing compound, through a gate with two chickens perched on top of it.

The compound is large enough to host about 12 people, N. told me, including a couple of families. When we walked in the door I was greeted by a boy who shook my hand, one of N’s roommates, a woman cooking in the communal cooking space, and a baby sitting in a saucer. They were all friendly, but a little shy, giggling as I shook their hands.

Noel led me to his section of the building and said, “They are surprised to see a white.”

“Not too many visitors here look like me?” I asked.

“You’re the first.”

He pulled aside a curtain and led me into an entrance way. Behind another curtained door was the bedroom. The walls were teal cement and lit by a bare bulb in each room. The space was small, the entire bedroom filled by a couple of mattresses, but everything was clean and impeccably organized. A large stereo system was hooked up to N.’s laptop, playing French and American songs. A toddler kept peeking his head inside, then giggling and disappearing again whenever I made eye contact.

I gave N. some photos I’d printed for him a few days ago and he went and grabbed an album of old photos from a suitcase in his room. We sat and sipped Fanta and I flipped through faded family photos and N. told me about his life, his childhood, and the three girls in his life who have told him they love him.

I’d thought that I already knew him well, but over the course of the afternoon, I learned so much more about the quiet boy with whom I’ve become such good friends.

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At about 4 p.m. we hurried out and hailed a couple motos to take us back to the house. The lawn was arranged with 40 white chairs and Allan had purchased flowers to decorate the porch. A table was converted to a bar, its plastic frame practically bowing under the weight of all the bottles. A. had designated himself as the DJ for the night, and was sitting beside the speakers and scrolling on a laptop.

As the sun set we gathered on the lawn and Allan presented us with certificates and we all thanked everybody profusely. The rest of the evening had dancing and conversations and many hugs. There were some tears, but for the most part, I was composed.

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It’s not that I wasn’t sad to be leaving and it’s not that I won’t miss these people. In a way, I felt bad, as if everybody else was feeling the evening more than I was. But I think the truth was that I was just feeling it differently, not less.

At one point I found myself sitting on the lawn with another Canadian student. He was crying. I put an arm around him and he said, “I just hate goodbyes. I hate losing experiences and people.”

“But we haven’t lost them,” I said. “We’ve been lucky enough to gain them.”

And that’s really how I felt last night and feel this morning. I have a flight out this afternoon, and while I’ll miss this place, I also feel this immense sense of gratitude for what I’ve gained. And I have a feeling that, for many of the friendships I’ve formed this trip, last night wasn’t “goodbye” in a permanent sense.

It’s been a beautiful experience.

Days 20-21: quiet Kigali days/phantom AFRI-3100 limbs

It’s our second to last morning as a group and we’re all lounging around the living room, trying to catch up on some course work before breakfast.

It’s been a quiet past two days. Most of the group members were scattered around the country on various organized tours, but I opted to stay in Kigali to enjoy the city a few more days, run some errands, and save some money.

I printed photos, visited an internet café, and met with D., N., and A. I had breakfast alone yesterday, which felt bizarre and quiet, and I wrote my final paper for the course as I ate.

I also hung out lots with Eleanor, the only other person who stuck around Kigali.

Eleanor is the member of our class with the most life experience. She’s been all around the world and has children and children-in-law and even grandchildren.

Yesterday I accompanied her to an elementary school to deliver some books she’d brought from Canada to donate. It was a big, beautiful school with manicured gardens and bright classrooms with huge windows.


We also had tea with Eleanor’s friend, Y. Y. is the perfect example of how unbelievably kind the people we’ve met here are.

At the beginning of the trip, Eleanor was out on a walk alone, fell, and broke her arm. Y. was walking along the street and stopped to help. After one person called an ambulance and another ran and found Allan, Y. went with Eleanor and Allan to the hospital to translate and help. Ever since she’s been taking Eleanor for regular check ups and stopping by to say hi.


In the evening, after tea at Bourbon, Eleanor and I went for dinner at a place called Heaven. Eleanor had read a book about the restaurant before coming to Rwanda. We both had Nile perch and non-alcoholic cocktails and a lovely conversation about the world.

We arrived home just as the final members of the class were piling out of their tour vehicle. With all fifteen of us there, the house was brought back to life.

Tomorrow night is our final night here and our course-graduation party. We’re all feeling a mixture of excitement and nostalgia.

The idea of more breakfasts alone at my table in Ottawa seems very strange. I don’t think I’ll adjust immediately to leaving the group. I’ll feel them missing for a while: phantom-AFRI-3100-limbs.

Day 19 pt. two: staff appreciation night/staring at Mars

I started this trip with many questions about how to travel responsibly and meaningfully—how to be a tourist without being a voyeur, how to travel lightly and respectfully but still fully engage in everything around me and take away as much as possible. In the words of a pre-departure hand-out Allan gave us, I wanted to know “How Not to be a Foreign Douchebag.”

I’m still working on figuring out the best way to interact with the world, but I think at least part of the answer might be simple: listen, be open to learning far more than you could ever teach, and make friends. Real friends. Not just a kid who you photograph but whose name you never learn.

Last night we had our staff appreciation night. Allan barbequed a feast and we all sat around the table and after we’d gorged ourselves on summer food, somebody tapped their glass with a fork and a round of thank-yous began. Allan thanked the staff for being so amazingly caring and hard working. The staff thanked us and Mama Yves, our cook, said that we’re all like children to her. We traded words of love and gratitude with JP, who has been both guide and friend, and, of course, with the Rwandan students. Tim thanked our field-trip bus driver for helping us survive the treacherous dirt roads that led us up a volcano on the way back from Gisenyi.

There was a chorus of Murakoze Cyane’s—thank you so much’s.


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Once our bellies were full, somebody turned up the music and everybody began dancing around the living room. The Rwandan students, especially D., proved far more rhythmically inclined than any of us Canadians. Still, we all clapped along to our favourite Nigerian duo, P-Square, laughing at each other’s’ flailing limbs and shaking hips.

Eventually, breathless and red faced, people scattered outside into small circles of conversation on the grass, balcony, and lawn chairs. I ended up on the steps with N. We sat and talked for a long while. I asked him how his night was going. He said he was having fun, but then his face turned serious.

“I think you can’t even imagine how much I will miss you,” he told me.

“Sure I can. Because we’ll all miss you just as much. But we’ll be in touch, we’ll see you again.”

He nodded and said, “I promise I’ll stay in touch.”

“Me too,” I agreed.

We both peered up at the sky, quiet for a moment. Then Noah came along and pointed out the orange glow of Mars. “That little spark is our closest neighbour,” he said.

The three of us sat, our faces upturned, and felt the humanness of being both insignificant and infinite.


(…Travelling around the world and stumbling upon a little bit of common humanity.

Seems meaningful to me.)

Days 18-19: journalism today/newsroom visits

Tonight is staff appreciation night at Thompson (as in Allan Thompson) Manor. We’ve managed to wrangle a barbeque and a massive amount of food and Allan and the boys are outside nudging the charcoal to life. Some girls are in the kitchen chopping vegetables.

We’re going to have a huge meal and feed all the wonderful staff who have been taking such good care of us here: our cook, Mama Yves, our security guard Issa, and our cleaning lady, Bernadette. Allan even managed to procure some red wine for us.

We officially finished our classes today and we’re feeling celebratory. Pop music is blasting through the speakers and people are singing and dancing. I can hear laughter from the porch outside.

The last two days were occupied with newsroom tours and presentations on our journalist partners. We were lucky enough to have a variety of candid conversations with journalists who presented a diverse range of opinions about the media landscape here.


Some said that there are restrictions to press freedom here, and that they have received mysterious phone calls from government officials asking them to change their content or cut a story. This fits with the narratives of oppression we hear in documents from Western NGOs and watchdogs.

The majority journalists, however, seemed to feel that even if the media here is not completely unrestricted, things are changing. In the last year or two Rwanda has introduced an Access to Information law, an independent Media Commissioner, and declared that the Rwanda Broadcasting Agency will be shifting their role from “state broadcaster” to a more BBC-style “public broadcaster.”

Whether these measures will prove effective has yet to be seen, and skeptics might view it all as an illusion, some nice words to placate the critics, but many journalists here seem really hopeful that change is coming. They also seem quite understanding of why change may take time. In a country that was once lured to genocide through hate media, most journalists here seem to feel it is their personal duty to promote peace and development and avoid any story that may create “division.”

A journalist at one location asked Allan, “In a country with a history like Rwanda’s, how long do you think it will take for us to have a free press?” Allan said he thought it was a generational thing, that the media—and country as a whole—needs to get to a point where the journalists and people in power have grown up in peace. I looked to D., N., and A. and thought, “these are the people that are going to make that happen.”

Beyond political troubles, the studios faced a number of other challenges: a world that is transitioning to digital (but a population that remains largely offline), the public/private divide in funding, balancing hard news with money-making entertainment programs, trying to keep up with technology while operating on a low budget, and operating in a country where English is the official language of education, French used to be, and almost everybody speaks Kinyarwanda.

In total, we visited six different outlets in two days, including multiple radio and TV studios, a couple online/new media publications, and a traditional print media house. Along with conversations with our journalists and guest speakers throughout the week, we’ve been given an amazing amount of insight into just how complicated Rwanda’s journalism world is.

After our party tonight we have some days off before wrapping up the course and leaving the country on Saturday. Most of the crew is off on various tours tomorrow and Thursday, but I’m going to stay in Kigali and hang out with the Rwandan students instead. It’s starting to feel like everything is coming to a close. It makes me realize how much I’ve learned, and how much I’ll miss this place and these people.

Days 16-17: Kibuye

We had the most beautiful weekend: sunshine, lake water, big dreams and happy tears.

It all took place in Kibuye, an amazing little town on a bay of Lake Kivu. We stayed in a hotel overlooking a view of green hills rising up and out of brilliant blue water to form islands. Somebody said it looked like the type of location Dr. Seuss would have dreamt up. Personally, I thought there was something kind of other-worldly about it all—like we’d arrived on some idealized planet far away.


We arrived early in the afternoon Saturday, after driving through terraced hills, along a road lined with people lining on their way to the market. We made a pit stop to scramble over a creek and admire a roadside waterfall. I felt full of energy and happy and young.

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Allan arranged for us to rent a couple motor boats and guides who took us out into the water, dodging around the many islands and eventually bringing us to one that they told us was a “bird sanctuary.” We wobbled out of the boat and our guides led us upwards, along a poorly defined path with grass and branches nipping at our ankles.

They took us deep into the foliage and then we emerged on the other side of the island, looking out through a small gap in the trees. The guides began loudly clapping and what had looked like low-hanging fruit stirred and scattered, clouding the sky with beating black wings.

Hundreds—maybe thousands—of bats. Not birds.

It was all pretty spectacular though: the sun, the water, the islands in the distance, and the countless bats, their bodies heavy and round beneath wide, almost-translucent wings.

We half-climbed, half-slid back down the hill, past a group of cows and their herder. Probably the only inhabitants of the island besides the bats.

As a reward for making it down the hill, N. and his classmate A. picked us small yellow fruits from a tree. Guava, they said.

N. bit into the thick, lemon-like skin to reveal the inside, packed full of seeds resembling the inside of passion fruit. He handed it over to me and I bit in. It was sweet and delicious. Even the skin was tender and edible.

From that island we took a boat to a couple of ridges the guides called “Peace Island.” A few brave would jumped into the water, but the sun was beginning to get low and the air was cooling. We soon headed back to the hotel.

Everybody was feeling celebratory as we headed for dinner, and almost all of us ordered gigantic beers or mixed drinks to go with our meals. People were beginning to look rosy-cheeked by the time we finished eating and Allan suggested we move to a lounge beside our rooms. We ordered tonic waters at the bar and Allan retrieved the bottle of gin he’d snuck onto the premises.

We gathered, cozily into one room and sat in a circle and talked. We were all giddy with sun and alcohol and friendship and new places. We sat leaning into each other, comfortable as family, all of us sharing the same love-filled moment.

We spent today, Sunday, sun bathing and swimming. We rented canoes and ate cheeseburgers and fries from the hotel restaurant. Everybody except for N., D., and A., had sun burnt skin by the end of the day. I felt like a kid, playing in the sun, exhilarated by life.

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The bus ride back was quiet, all of us completely relaxed and content after our weekend getaway. N. and I sat together and alternated between napping and short bursts of conversation, discussing his beautiful country and all the other beautiful places in the world that maybe, if we’re lucky, we might one day see.

Day 15: Murambi/Butare/Inzozi Nziza


The classrooms at Murambi Technical School smell of preservatives and decaying bodies.

Nobody ever studied there. The genocide began before construction of the school was completed. Political leaders rounded up Tutsis who were fleeing the violence and encouraged them to go to the huge school and seek refuge there. Once the victims were gathered, leaders shut off the water, cut off access to food, and weakened people for a few days.

Then, on April 21st at about 3 a.m., genocidaires slaughtered an estimated 50,000 people.

After the genocide, the mass graves surrounding the school were exhumed. Intact bodies were coated in limestone and now lie scattered across tables in the never-used classrooms. The remains are white, mangled and mummified. You can still see curly black hair on many heads.

We visited the school this morning. It was an intense experience. Overwhelming. I couldn’t go into every classroom.

I have conflicting feelings about it all. There’s no denying how powerful and emotional the experience was. Out of all the memorials we’ve seen, this one hit all of us the hardest. We all cried. My stomach twisted. I had to take deep breaths to try and stay composed. For the most part, we were quiet after.

There was something so striking about it all though, that it denied comprehension. Maybe, as one of our group members, Noah, said, “You’re supposed to leave feeling like shit.” But I also wonder where the line is and what the purpose of a memorial should be.

Murambi is controversial here for the way bodies have been displayed, rather than traditionally lain to rest. I wonder how it all fits into this country’s struggle to offer irrefutable evidence that a genocide happened (deniers still exist inside and outside the country), but also to foster peace and reconciliation and move beyond the violent past. There are no easy answers.

To balance our difficult morning, we had a very pleasant afternoon. In some ways, it felt wrong to hop on our bus and rumble into the nearby town of Butare for lunch and tourism. My instinct after visiting the memorials seems to be to isolate myself and be quiet and inactive for a while. In hindsight, though, it’s probably much healthier to get outside and be reminded of life.

We had lunch at a little motel, then drove to the National University’s Butare campus to take a look around. The University of Victoria, where my little sister studies, has a rabbit infestation. The campus in Butare has monkeys.

Security was suspicious about why a busload of tourists would want to see the university, so they wouldn’t let us get out of the car, but we did take a quick drive around campus to snap photos out our window and see where some of our Rwandan counterparts study. It was a quick glance, but the campus seemed very nice—full of green space and beautiful new residence buildings.

We made a stop at what is apparently Rwanda’s first and only ice cream shop, a place called Inzozi Nzina—Sweet Dreams, in English. N., D. and I each ordered a medium bowl of vanilla ice cream with a sugar cookie stuck in the side. It was heavenly.

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We stopped in a craft store on the way back, and while we waited for people to pick out some souvenirs, our guide got a text message from a contact who said he knew where we should go to pick up some banana beer. We cobbled together 7000RWF (about $10.00), drove down a narrow dirt road, and picked up a jerry can of thick, yellow-orange liquid. Noah filled his water bottle and passed it around so we could each have a sip. It tasted more like wine than beer, wasn’t as strong as I would have expected moonshine to be, and had a distinct banana after taste. Still, I stopped after my one sip. Ever cautious, N. opened the window so he wouldn’t inhale too many alcoholic fumes.

We drove back to Kigali in the darkness of Rwandan countryside night. As we drove, N. asked me what I thought about the “development” of Rwanda, and, as somebody from a developed country, what I thought Rwanda needed to get better.

I answered honestly, telling him that I think it’s amazing how far the country has come in 20 years, and that while there is still a gap in infrastructure between here and the West, they’re working against a huge disadvantage of circumstances. “I think what it needs is just some time,” I said. He seemed to like that answer.

“You only have one week left,” he said, changing the topic.

“I know! Don’t say that. We’ll all miss you,” I replied.

“Maybe we’ll see each other again,” He said.

I nodded. “Maybe.”

“Maybe I’ll come to Canada.”

I smiled. “Yes, maybe.”

He laughed.

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.


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.

Day 11: hate media/rebuilding journalism/trivia

I’m sitting in our Kigali-living room, trying to catch up on my blogging as everybody else crowds around the breakfast table, chatting and laughing and drinking their tea and coffee.
I’m feeling a little groggy after staying up late last night. Tim, one of the other students, spent yesterday afternoon digging us a fire pit in the backyard and last night most of us stayed up around the campfire, drinking massive Rwandan beers and talking about life and dreams.
We had two lectures in the morning, one from a senator who is also an academic expert in linguistics and how media before the genocide used hate language to incite violence, and one from the founder of the Rwandan News Agency, one of the first news organizations to emerge after the genocide. They both offered interesting insight into how a country’s media can descend into the worst type of hate propaganda, implode in genocide, and then be forced to rebuild (or start anew) and serve a new role in a recovering society.
In the afternoon a group of us set out to find internet to do some research for our class projects. As has become the trend here, however, we had difficulty finding a solid signal at either the Kigali library or the Discovery Youth Hostel. Still, it was a pleasant afternoon, filled with conversation as we sat and waited for webpages to fail to load. Noah, N., and I walked home right as the sun was getting low in the sky and everything was bathed in fading light.

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We went out for dinner to an Italian restaurant full of ex pats. It was trivia night and our table of six struggled through about 100 questions, as we gobbled up pizza and pasta. In the end, against all odds, team L’Enfant Terrible and The Howlin’ Commanders came in third place against a restaurant full of competitive (often overly-so) North Americans and Europeans who attend trivia night on a weekly basis. Our table cried of laughter as the ex-pats rolled their eyes.
We returned to our fire pit and set up around the crackling flames.
This weekend was Victoria Day weekend at home—May 2-4, all the Ontario kids call it—so we celebrated with beers and life talks. It was one of the nicest evenings of the trip so far, I think, gathered around the warmth of the flames and talking, talking, talking, underneath Kigali stars.