Saturday, December 5, 2009

That week with all the memorials

This wasn't the entry I was intending to write, but it just seemed to write itself:

It's the smell that gets you-- the lime they used to preserve the bodies. The windows are covered, and the doors kept tightly shut, locked, when visitors aren't around. So it just hangs in the air, in these rooms of death.

You're reminded of your seventh grade science class with Mrs. Busch, the day you walked into the classroom and gagged at the smell of formaldehyde used to preserve the frogs you and your classmates were about to dissect. But eventually you grew used to it, and wielded the scalpel with a steady hand when the other girls at your table found it too icky to manage.

Here though, you don't get used to it, not at all. Whereas you'd been stuck in that science classroom for nearly an hour, forced to breath the formaldehyde-permeated air the whole time, here you keep going in and out, in and out. You enter a room but then you leave it soon thereafter, walk out on alien legs, blinking at the brightness and beauty of the hills, of the countryside, gasping lungfuls of fresh air. Over and over you repeat this process, nearly three dozen times-- gagging as you enter a classroom and gasping as you come out. It's the only thing that makes this real, that makes you believe that what you see spread out on the platforms millimeters from you are the corpses of actual human beings, and not the elaborate decorations of the waiting line to the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, or the special effects and set decoration of a scifi film.

After, after you've gagged and gasped, gagged and gasped, you stand on a green, green hill, fertilized by the decomposing corpses that were unceremoniously dumped into mass graves and just breathe. In and out, in and out. You listen to the wind, watch as it moves the clouds, reshapes them into fanciful figures you concoct in your mind.

You don't really want to talk about it later, which is fine because nobody else wants to, either. And you definitely don't talk about how an unusually large percentage of you get drunk that night.

You've put the smell out of your mind by the next day. You're slated to visit the national university and you realize you're looking forward to being on a college campus again, even if it's not your own.

But then towards the end something shifts in your tour guide's face, and he tells you how, 15 years ago, 450 to 500 students and faculty were slaughtered here by their classmates and colleagues. And you walk down a lovely wooded path to a stone and wood shelter, with a purple banner that reads YOU ARE THE LOSS THAT SHALL NEVER BE REPLACED. And you find that it's harder to look at pictures behind glass than corpses at your fingertips because that's you, and your freshman roommate, and your advisor, and the annoying kid who sits front and center in class and always has something to add. This is your reality. And your brain just can't process this-- school is safe, school is sacred. That this madness, this blood lust, tainted it, desecrated it, makes you sick to your stomach.

You read Austen in a room of death. Pride and Prejudice is a highly coveted commodity among the girls in your program, and you'd managed to get your hands on a copy. You're at a church where 10,000 people were cut down in a single day. The bodies have been laid to rest in mass graves out back, but inside they've collected the clothes and spread them out over the dozens of rough wooden benches-- you can't see wood peeking through anywhere, though. They're piled so high.

There's a Virgin Mary figurine mounted to the wall, staring serenely down at the scene below. You wonder what she's seen. (There's a spot of red on the altar cloth). You pull up a spot of floor beside a friend, and read about Mrs. Bennet's poor nerves.

Outside are the mass graves, where you can descend into the tombs. It's deep in the ground, dark, with impossibly narrow paths leading off either side of the uneven concrete steps. There are eight? nine? shelves stretching high above your head, packed with coffins draped in white and purple cloth. Most contain more than one wearer of the clothes you just walked amongst.

The second grave is set up like the first, only its shelves don't just hold coffins, but rows of skulls, femurs, tibias, etc. They're grouped by type and crowded onto the shelves-- not enough room for all of them, so some of them protrude beyond the edge of the shelf and you look up to see someone's jaw hanging above your head.

You've never thought of yourself as clumsy before, always been possessed of pretty good balance, but when you step down to the short corridor of shelves your legs are shaky, and you nearly stumble coming off the last step when the lowest level of shelves on either side, just an inch or so off the ground, is thrown into the light and you think you're stepping down onto a floor of skulls.

When you return topside, you join the others sitting on the tile covering of the graves for lack of anywhere else to sit, and lose yourself in Mr. Bennet lamenting the lack of any sense in his household.

It's almost a relief to visit Gisozi. Because it's a museum, with exhibits and multimedia features and artifacts and you can do that. You did it fine at the Holocaust museum in D.C. when you were fourteen. With five minutes until it closes you head to the top floor and duck into an empty-looking entryway only to discover that it's an exhibit about children-- babies, really-- that were murdered in the genocide. And it makes you pause, but only for a moment. You give yourself a mental shake and dive in, quickly glancing through each display that offers the child's profile: their name (Innocent), their age (18 months), their favorite person (their older sister), their favorite toy (truck), how they died (bashed against a wall). Above the profiles on the wall are pictures to put faces to names, but you don't really pay much attention-- you're too busy looking at everyone's ages and causes of death. But at some point you look up, and stare straight into the face of who you first think must be Ruby, a little neighbor girl and friend of Tigger who touched your skin in wonder. How died: shot through the head. You can't get out of there fast enough.

But by the time you collect your bag and head out the door, you're more steady than shaky, and when you spy a fellow program-ite sitting alone on a bench and looking a little lost, you go over and sit down. You're not surprised when her breath hitches and eyes start to water. You tuck your hankerchief into her hand, throw your wrap over her back, settle your arm around her shoulders, and hold on.

All of you are more than ready for some R&R in Kibuye, and something in you grows calmer just by hitting the road. When you get to your hotel, you can't quite believe that this is actually where you'll be staying-- this paradise right on Lake Kivu.

You hit the water as soon as you possibly can. It's cool, but not cold and utterly, utterly perfect. You float on your back and stare at the clear blue sky overhead, your ears filled with aquatic nothingness, and drift.

Later, when your hair is dripping and your fingers are pruny you sit on the porch of the hotel's restaurant and order a kid's portion of mac 'n cheese with a beer to wash it down. (You've always had a fine appreciation for irony). And the mac 'n cheese doesn't taste like any you've had before, and you actually haven't ever been able to manage finishing a single bottle of beer on your own, but in that moment, filled with nothing but water and wind and sun and sky, it really doesn't matter.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Family Fun

Okay, I’m going to have to rehash the past month and a half bit by bit, so I present to you, the homestay:

My homestay consisted of a “businesswoman” mom and a “technician” dad and two younger homestay brothers, Yannick (17) and Chris (15). All of the families hosting students have at least one of their own at L’école Amis des Enfants, a middle-income secondary boarding school that SIT’s wound up partnering with. It works out pretty well—we get homestay “buddies” that are roughly our age to show us around and help us get acclimated and they get to improve their English by interacting with a native speaker (not sure if I mentioned this, but Rwanda’s going fully Anglophone in two years—they’ve officially applied to join the Commonwealth and English will replace French as the official second language).

My homestay father, Anthire, speaks more French than English, and my homestay mother, Joseé, speaks more Kinyarwanda than French, which always makes communication interesting. I have a little bit of Kinyarwanda under my belt following a six-lesson crash course we’d been given, but it doesn’t get me much further than greetings and basic requests. So our conversations consist of a mixture of French, American English, African English (very, very different things), and Kinyarwanda, plus a little bit of my high school Spanish I thought I’d forgotten making random appearances when I’m trying to dredge up some French word. Oh, and a lot of gesturing and exaggerated facial expressions. Never, ever discount how far what seems to be a demented-looking game of charades can get you.

Given that my homestay parents had two boys, they were very, *very* excited to have a daughter, which led them to be rather, erm, enthusiastic at first. I figured the constant “Ça va’s?” “Good night, my daughter’s,” hugging/ touchiness, and general hovering would calm down a bit after the first week, which it did, though not as much as I’d’ve liked, being rather attached to my personal bubble and all. Thankfully, the constant litany of “my daughter’s” dwindled significantly, which sounds ungrateful I know (it really was a sweet gesture), but it just left me feeling pretty damn uncomfortable. I like you, you’re nice people, but I’m not actually your daughter and I’m sorry, I’m not actually going to think of you as my parents. Welcome to the homestay experience.

Chris takes after his dad, both in looks and personality—they’re goofs, always teasing or joking or doing something ridiculous. Shortly before I moved out Chris came into the sitting room with an FPR hat sideways on his head and started throwing down in Kinyarwanda about Kagame. Yannick takes after his mom—kind, good sense of humor, but a bit quieter. Both boys are really very sweet, Yannick especially. From my measure of him, he works hard at his studies, and he’s said he wants to go to Harvard. I’m not quite sure if he’ll get there, but I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if he does end up studying in the States. But that won’t be for a few years yet.

As is common in most African families (yes, I’m generalizing, sue me), there is a constant cycle of “cousins,” “grandmothers,” “nieces,” “grandsons,” etc. that randomly come and go. One particularly memorable morning I emerged from my bedroom to encounter a little boy (6?) and probably his younger sister (4?), who I’d never seen before and never would again, watching an extremely violent Claude van Damme (sp?) film replete with civilian atrocities, torture, shot guns, pistols, daggers, electrocution, drug use, and graphic blood and gore. Mom didn’t even let me watch the Power Rangers when I was their age—not that I’m still bitter or anything. I did, however, manage to suss out two *actual* homestay aunts—Jocelyn, my homestay dad’s younger sister (late 30s maybe? It’s really very hard to tell with many people here) who seems to live with the family and keeps house (I still have no idea where she actually sleeps), and Fifi (no, I’m not making that up), who is my homestay mom’s older sister and a tailor who lives somewhere nearby. (Check out my “Bon anniversaire!” photo album on Facebook for pictures of everyone).

Transitioning into my Kigali homestay was a bit strange in light of my recent experiences in Gulu. First off, the house is much more on par with what we’re used to in the West—tile flooring, a refrigerator, a family room with couches and a TV, etc. I had my own room, and there was even a (non-functioning) desktop in it. And beyond the aesthetics, the family dynamics are really different. Unlike in Gulu where my family tended to stick close to home and to each other past dark and on the weekends, my homestay family here in Kigali operates much more independently of one another. The family has a “houseboy,” which is common among well-off families here, so my homestay mother isn’t tied to the home like many of the women in Gulu, who spend much of their day cooking and cleaning. She’s frequently out of the house, attending to the many businesses she has a hand in and visiting family and friends. My homestay father is frequently out of the house as well, not only working, but going to church on a near-daily basis. It was strange for me to come home in the evening, only to pass him on his way out the door for a meeting at “l’église.” In Gulu, appointments and the like really didn’t happen past dark, as travel between places was difficult and potentially dangerous. My homestay brothers don’t have to be home until eleven, which threw me for no small loop having just come from a place where I had to be home before dark. Additionally, my family in Gulu was usually sound asleep by eleven. But the urban setting of Kigali, with its public transportation system and decently-lit road- and walkways, make it easier and safer for them (and me) to get around, which helps to explain the later curfew.
Some homestay highlights:

- Hearing the entire neighborhood, not to mention my homestay family, erupt in cheers when Alpha, the Rwandan contestant on Tusker Fame Project, won. It’s basically East Africa’s version of American Idol, sponsored by the Tusker beer company. They even had their own pseudo-Simon Cowell, a man by the name of “Ian” who, after not much arm-pulling, himself performed the timeless hit “My Way.” It was, erm, entertaining?

- Watching the same news program every night, three times in a row with my homestay family. The state-run television station, Rwanda Television (which, incidentally, is many families’ only television station), broadcasts the nightly news first in Kinyarwanda, then in French and finally in English. It’s the exact same stories/footage, just with different voice-overs.

- Getting seriously creeped out every time my homestay father’s phone rings (which is often), as his ringtone sounds akin to a possessed Woody the Woodpecker

- Going to church with my homestay family…at a Pentecostal church, where the service was in Kinyarwanda. I was the only muzungu in a crowd of I’d guess at least a couple hundred. About a dozen people got saved, many, many more communed with Jesus through personal conversations/shouting/singing whilst on their knees with tears in their eyes, and the choir waved a Jesus flag and marched in Jesus’ praises. Kinda reminded me of the “One Day More” number in Les Mis.

- Coming home after aforementioned church service to watch Rwanda Television with the family, which was showing gospel music videos. For some reason, the routine that the back-up dancers were doing for one especially popular musician seemed really familiar. That’s because it was. They were doing the electric slide.

Next update: excursions to Butare and Kibuye

Also, be sure to check out the photos I've been posting to Facebook, here. You shouldn't need to have a Facebook account to view them. If there are any problems, let either Mom or me know and I'll try and fix it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Adventures in a minicult

Here’s a copy of my drop-off write-up, as promised. I’ve edited it slightly for clarity, but otherwise you’re getting a straight copy/paste.

For the drop-off, I was placed in a group with Beth (goes to Notre Dame, from Chicago area), Kim (goes to St. Norbert’s in WI, from a Minneapolis suburb) and Tonia (goes to Grand Valley State in Michigan, from Michigan) with the assignment of exploring sports and culture. We all found it a bit amusing that four relatively unsporty girls had been given that topic, but as Kim was supposed to be playing in the One Dollar Campaign benefit game against the parliamentarians that upcoming weekend and I am something of a soccer—excuse me, football—nut, at least half our group had a passing interest in the subject. I figured the drop-off would go something like my last drop-off experience had—wander around aimlessly for awhile until stumbling upon a group of guys in English Premier League jerseys who could be drawn into a conversation concerning the latest Arsenal/Chelsea/ManU/Liverpool/What have you match, which could then segue into a more general conversation about sports and popular bars or pitches from which to watch them. But then we were told that we were going to be dropped off at Amahoro Stadium, home to the Ministry of Sports and Culture, and that we should just pop our head in and see if some ministry official could spare a few minutes to chat.

I once spent a few weeks in Washington D.C. for a student leadership conference, and one of the days we were there was spent on Capitol Hill, visiting various congressional offices. If we wanted to speak to our congress critter, we had to have set up a five-minute appointment at least two weeks in advance—there is no dropping by on the Hill. The most you could get out of such an instance would be a smile from the receptionist as she hands you the business card of an assistant’s assistant. So I was a little daunted at the prospect of just sticking my head into a foreign government’s office and asking if someone of any importance had a few moments to spare for a curious muzungu.

Also daunting was just how far out of the way the stadium felt as we were driven to it. I, and as it turned out, everyone else in my group, have an absolutely terrible sense of direction, and I get nervous taking public transportation even in the States. Needing to make our way back to town without a sense of our point of origin or destination, not to mention having a severely limited knowledge of Kinyarwanda, was starting to seriously stress me out. I tried to remember landmarks on our way there, but things were moving too fast and there was too much going on and so nothing stuck. By the time we finally arrived at our destination, I was feeling a bit sick to my stomach. Surely, surely we were going to get horribly lost on the way back to town and end up somewhere sketchy with no way out of it because we wouldn’t know how we got there in the first place. So yeah, I may have been mildly freaking out when we arrived on the doorstep of the stadium.

As it happened though, I was hardly the only one. As the four of us approached the entrance to the ministry, we all related to one another how we had absolutely no clue what we were doing, and were we really supposed to just waltz into a government ministry and (politely) demand that someone answer our questions? We more or less came to the conclusion that we should treat the situation like we were removing a band-aid: just rip it off and get the pain over with fast.

Walking into the stadium/ministry was a bit eerie—no one seemed to be around, save for an enormous picture of Kagame staring down at us from the wall behind the staircase. I interpreted the expression on his face as one of disapproval—just what in the heck did we think we were doing here? We wandered around the main floor, finding a lot of closed doors and darkened offices. Weren’t government offices supposed to contain government employees? Where was everyone? It was at this point that I looked at my watch and the penny dropped: lunchtime. While we had all come to appreciate that Gulu and Kigali were very different from one another, the importance of mealtime seemed to have remained the same.

Just inside the main doorway, we spotted an open door with movement inside. Someone, I think it was Kim, worked up the nerve to knock on the door and stick her head in—Hi, we’re students from America seeking information about sports and culture in Rwanda. Could someone please direct us to the minister’s office where we might have our questions answered? A wary-looking woman indicated upstairs, second floor. We thanked her and made our way upstairs, passing two government employees who did a double-take as we passed them.

Upstairs appeared entirely deserted—a long and gloomy-looking corridor of closed doors and darkened windows. There was a sign indicating that the minister’s office was the troisième port, which my rudimentary French understood meant the third door down. This yielded a dark and locked office, which was incredibly frustrating. The four of us were starting to talk options when a woman happened onto the floor, listening to an MP3 device with her keys out to unlock an office door. When she noticed us she paused, obviously curious and a bit wary as to what four white girls were doing at the far end of an empty corridor. She was starting to pass through the doorway when Beth (I think) hailed her and asked her where we might be able to find someone to give us information about sports and culture in Rwanda. The word “information” seemed to put her on guard, so I stepped forward and explained that we were American students with the School for International Training, and for an assignment were investigating the sports and culture of the country we would be calling home for the next month. Upon hearing we were students her demeanor immediately changed, and she enthusiastically ushered us into the office, where the two employees we’d passed on the way up who had done the double-take were sitting on a couch. She introduced us to them, and the word “students” provoked a warm reception. Of course, all our questions would be answered by certain ministry official downstairs, all we had to do was knock on the door and introduce ourselves, though in a half-hour or so as everyone was currently out to lunch. But just come back in a bit and check-in downstairs and everything would be sorted out.

We thanked them for their help and took our leave, relieved to have made some headway after nearly an hour of aimless wandering. As we headed outside, we decided to grab a bite to eat to kill time. We nixed the two lunch spots pointed out to us on the ride over due to the heat and the distance, instead opting to try out a restaurant across the street from the stadium. I didn’t catch the name, but it was under a Primus advert that said “Guma Guma.” When we entered, we passed by a few people seated with what looked like a pretty decent plate of food. A woman came over to greet us, seeming to be excited by the presence of muzungus. Thankfully, she spoke English, and pretty much decided for us that we’d have what essentially constituted a sampler plate of banana, cassava, beans, rice, some sort of greens and a piece of meat. We inquired the price, and hearing it was 700 FRW (about a buck forty in USD) figured “why not?” It tasted pretty good, made better by the price.

Lunch also afforded us the opportunity to prepare some questions, which we were all glad of. Back in high school I used to write for my school’s newspaper, and my journalism teacher had drilled into us the importance of going into an interview prepared. My high school newspaper experience also taught me that interviews hardly ever go as planned, so it’s entirely likely that we’d end up using only a handful of said prepped questions. But nevertheless, having them on hand made me feel more professional and put together, and made it feel like this was something we could actually pull off.

After lunch we went back to the stadium and Kim poked her head into the office the lady with the MP3 player had indicated as where we’d find someone to talk to. Inside was a middle-aged man sporting more than a bit of a gut, who regarded us suspiciously upon hearing we were seeking information. Wanting to smooth things over, I stepped forward and pulled out my syllabus/student handbook and handed it to the gentleman, while at the same time explaining how we were American students with the School for International Training, newly-arrived in Kigali and divvied up into small subject groups for the purpose of finding out about the people, languages, culture, media, etc. of Rwanda, and we’re terribly sorry for barging in but could he perhaps spare a few minutes to talk to us about sports?

Throughout the course of my ramblings—which my group-mates interrupted partway through to gently remind me to slow down (I talk fast when I’m nervous)—the gentleman had been perusing the syllabus rather closely. But he must have been reassured by it or my introduction, because his demeanor visibly relaxed and he pulled up four chairs for us to sit and talk. As it happened, his name was Kayijuka Gaspard, a Sports Officer with the Ministry of Sports and Culture, and he was more than happy to tell us whatever we wanted to know. He talked with us for at least half an hour, telling us how football was the most popular sport in Rwanda, but that volleyball was also a favorite because it was so cheap to play. All you needed was a ball and two polls, and a net or length of rope to sting up between them. He talked about how some sports indicated socioeconomic strata—basketball courts, for example, were expensive to construct and maintain, so you’d only find them in more affluent areas and schools.

He was delighted to discover that Kim was planning on playing, and we were all planning on attending, the benefit game against the Parliamentarians that upcoming weekend, saying that he’d keep an eye out for us in the stadium. He also urged us to go take a closer look at the pitch, which gave us an opportunity to ask about its history and usage. He didn’t mention its role as a massacre site during the genocide, so we didn’t bring it up. He just gave us its date of construction, and explained that it was used for Rwandan national football matches and other track and field tournaments. The pitch is real grass, which is expensive to maintain, so only the national team and others granted special permission can use the field, but anyone can use the track.

After finding out about the breakdown of various sports’ popularity inside Rwanda, we asked about the set-up and structure of the ministry itself. I related how in the States we’re used to sports and culture not being administered or regulated by the government, so we were curious how it worked. He explained that after the genocide, many of sport federations, or the local divisions, had lost a significant amount of staff and wouldn’t have been able to function without state intervention. Since 1994, the government provides funding and logistical support to these federations, which operate under a policy of equality and inclusion. They help fund various initiatives and programs, such as those aimed at various social groups (e.g. youth and women) or peace-building efforts. The ministry is split between sports and culture, but the culture side of things operates in much the same way, funding fine arts federations, grassroots initiatives, and such national institutions as the ballet, etc., all of which are operating under ministry-articulated policy. The centralization of sports and culture has been greatly aided by the location of the ministry at the stadium, Gaspard added, as it was easier to administer and keep an eye on everything from a central location within the capital city, which facilitated communications and cooperation with other ministries and government offices.

We were all really impressed by the government stepping forward and funding these federations, as we recognize the importance of sports and fine arts education and the availability of creative outlets of expression. But I must admit that the very existence of the ministry gives me pause. This centralization and regulation illustrates the degree of social control that the government exerts over the population, and certainly contributes to the perpetuation of a single national narrative that is perhaps incorrectly assuming the existence of a single Rwandan nation. Anyway, after hearing about the Tour de Rwanda and how the national soccer tournament was coming up later that month (teams are apparently industry/occupation-oriented, as opposed to locality), we took our leave. Gaspard made sure to leave us with a business card, and said we were very welcome to the country and back to the ministry anytime.

We set out from the stadium with a vague idea of where we might catch a taxi, eventually finding a stop just beyond the main intersection…for the opposite direction. Glancing down the hill, we didn’t see any indication for a stop heading into town, and so decided to ask the nearby traffic policeman for directions. It was only when Beth, Tonia and Kim were approaching him that I remembered Apollo’s (our Assistant Academic Director, Rwandan though has worked (maybe educated?) in the UK, mid-thirties, kinda reminds me of Howard Keel in a weird way) warning that they might not speak English, so I scrambled in my bag for my Kiyarwanda syllabus (the lesson containing the phrase “How do I get to town?” was scheduled for the next day). As it happens, the syllabus was unnecessary, as he told us in English that we’d walked in the wrong direction and just needed to cross back over the street and ask for “mujyi” (town). Sure enough, we found the stop with a bunch of vans and buses, and came across a conductor that shepherded us towards a bus that he indicated was heading to mujyi. But then it occurred to me that the cost of a van and the cost of a bus may be different (which I’ve since learned it isn’t), so I said we should find out the price before we get on. Tonia inquired the price of the bus, adding “not the muzungu price,” much to the amusement of some pre-boarded passengers leaning out the window. Unfortunately, the conductor didn’t speak English, and it took a couple tries to get the message across. Finally, he pulled out a handful of change and pointed to the currency: 180 FRW (roughly 36 cents). We had transport.

Tonia, Beth and Kim sat in the very last row next to a young local woman, while I sat in the seat in front of her. My three group members stuck up a conversation with her, which I tried to participate in but had trouble hearing. Apparently, her name was Latisha, and she cashiered at Simba Supermarket, where we were welcome to visit her anytime. Also, it apparently had a Kiyarwanda/English dictionary, which we may find useful (I checked it out—it doesn’t have any pronunciations). She told us how to ask the price of things (ni angahe? Though it comes out sounding like nangahe), and gave us a basic run-down of getting around by public transport. Once we got to town, she actually walked us to UTC (Union Trade Center, akin to Kampala’s “Muzungu Mall”), wanting to make sure we wouldn’t end up horribly lost. But then she had to depart for work, and we spotted fellow SIT-ers at Bourbon Coffee (where I spend a good deal of time and money), and our drop-off adventure came to an end.

Puppies, bats and elephants, oh my!

(ETA—that’s edited to add in this case, not estimated time of arrival—I just got my first marriage proposal…from a seventeen year old. He’s rather precocious).

Okay, so, I was planning on doing a single Rwanda update of everything I’ve been up to, kinda like my Uganda wrap-up, but the Uganda wrap-up covered a week and Rwanda needs to cover a I’ve opted for breaking it up into smaller chunks in order to save you eyestrain and me carpal tunnel. So this is just going to cover my arrival in Rwanda right up to moving into my homestay. Good? Good.

(FYI: If you’re crossing the border between Uganda and Rwanda, do it in a group, during the day, and, if you’re crossing from Rwanda into Uganda, be sure to have $50, in USD, on you for the reentry visa. Doing so will minimize the chances of you getting ripped off, which is pretty much guaranteed on the Uganda side and should not happen on the Rwanda side. If it does, go ahead and fight it.)

Crossing from Uganda into Rwanda is a strange experience. All of a sudden there’s *green* and *hills* and *irrigation* and *drainage* and, and, and… One thing that threw me was when I realized that we’d switched over to driving on the right hand side of the road—funny how I’d gotten used to right hand drive. Speaking of driving, I was amazed at how good the roads were. We were out in the paysage (hello, francophone Africa), but yet we were driving on good, solid tarmac with minimal potholes. I don’t think I’d ever seen roads in such good shape in Uganda, as it’s one of the top arenas of corruption. (Actually, I take that back—curiously, the roads seem to improve significantly the closer you get to Museveni’s hometown. Hmmmm). As we wended our way through the hills, we passed clumps of people with pickaxes and hoes digging a trench along the side of the road, hired by the government to clear a path for the extension of SEACOM from Kigali out to the surrounding provinces. Creating (admittedly temporary) employment opportunities through connecting a rural population to high speed internet…who’d’a thunk?

The drive from the border to Kigali took a lot longer than we’d anticipated, much to the chagrin of some of the girls on the program who have really small bladders. Unlike in Uganda, you can’t just pull over on the side of the road and pee in the bush, which had been their usual recourse on any of our Uganda excursions. Besides there being traffic police(!) along the roads keeping an eye out for anything unusual, pretty much every square inch of land in Rwanda is inhabited and cultivated, so there aren’t exactly patches of overgrown bush away from prying eyes that can function as an impromptu lavatory.

Eventually, we rounded one of Rwanda’s thousand hills (Rwanda’s known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, which explains Hôtel des Milles Collines…more on that later), and before us stood Kigali, the capital city. Students better traveled than I say it reminds them of northern Italy, others Marin County. Me, the best I can come up with is Berkeley, on account of how it’s really hilly. Stefanie (our AD for the Rwanda portion of the program, Dr. William had left us early that morning in Mbarara), took us straight to the SIT office in Kacyiru, a neighborhood of Kigali.

Walking into the SIT office really drove home for me how far away we were from Gulu. First of all, this building, this space, was ours. It wasn’t a rented out room in a hotel where you could hear the singing of bible circles through a flimsy partition. It’s open and airy, with window seats and cushions and curtains. It even has a “library,” which, okay, is only a couple dozen books and pamphlets right now (the office is brand new, this is the first time the program’s run with it, bearing in mind that this is only the second time the program’s run, period), but it’s proper scholarship that I can hold in my hands. There are tables and chairs to work at, and maps of Kigali and Rwanda on the walls. It’s just…absolutely and utterly wonderful.

And what’s even more wonderful is that the office comes with its own residential puppy, Sheila. Stefie (who lives behind the office) picked her up off the streets and took her home, gradually coaxing her from mangy, worm- and flea-infested to a healthy, boisterous puppy who has very itchy teeth and a bladder that’s difficult to control when she’s excited to see you. This, unfortunately, put most of my fellow program-ites off her, but worked for me as it’s meant I’ve become de facto dog-sitter. You’d think that for so many of them who claim to be dog people, they’d recognize that that’s just what puppies do. But whatever, more Sheila time for me!

We spent our first two nights in Kigali in a hostel within walking distance to the office, which, among other things, featured a room painted a hideous shade of green which clashed terrifically with the chartreuse and magenta mosquito nets (which didn’t do a damn thing) and some, erm, very enthusiastic individual’s rendition of the Last Supper. Clearly, we were living the high life.

Originally, we’d been scheduled to go into our homestay families right away, but somewhere along the way it was decided that it would be better to give us a couple days to get acclimated (ha!) before getting thrown into a Rwandan family, a decision for which I was grateful. Those couple days were spent getting cruelly abandoned at various points throughout Kigali, visiting secret voodoo rooms, and eating sub sandwiches near a plane crash.

…perhaps I should clarify.

Something that SIT is very proud of is the “drop-off,” which, to the best of my knowledge, is common to all of its programs. Shortly after arriving at your program location you’re divided up into small groups and dropped off at various points in the city/town/whatever with a mission of investigating a particular topic and getting back on your own to an appointed location by a certain time. It is, I must say, ingenious…if not slightly sadistic. You see, we’d be facing a much, much more formidable language barrier in Kigali than we did in Gulu. Not a whole heck of a lot of people speak English (although the country’s officially going Anglophone in two years…good luck with that), French is hit-or-miss, and if you really want to get anywhere or knock the price down on something, your only option really is Kinyarwanda…which none of us speak. (We were in the process of undergoing six days’ worth of Kinyarwanda lessons, but unfortunately the lesson for the next day was the one with such handy phrases like “Where’s the taxi stand?” and “How do I get to town?”).

Compounding the issue was the fact that to us, Kigali was huge. Kampala had at least looked a little bit familiar coming back from Gulu, but Kigali felt like this enormous, sprawling metropolis that would be impossible to get a handle on (Stefie assured us we would…she was right, damn her). Unlike Gulu, where the only way to get around really was on foot (or boda, but we weren’t allowed to take those, so of course we never did), we’d be taking public transportation, otherwise known as bucket of bolts minivans gaily adorned with the names and faces of American rap artists, popular footballers, RPF heroes and, oh yes, Spiderman. They don’t run on any set schedule—they wait to take off until they’re at full capacity, which means roughly twenty people packed elbow to knee inside a vehicle roughly the size of a Dodge Caravan—and they have somewhat loosely-defined routes. On the front of most vans above the headlights is painted the name of the neighborhood they go to, but it’s best to double-check. Also, just because it’s going to your desired neighborhood doesn’t necessarily mean it will be going by your stop, so it’s best to check that, too.

But at the point of the drop-off, we didn’t know about any of this, so it appeared like a bunch of clown cars masquerading as public transport careening about the city like deranged bats out of hell. Promising, that. I’m going to save you a detailed account of the actual drop-off itself here, and post that as a separate blog entry. We actually had to do a write-up of the drop-off and turn it in, so I’m just going to do a copy/paste job of my adventures at the Ministry of Sports and Culture. (Incidentally, its acronym is MINICULT. Just thought I’d share).

The day following the drop-off we took a tour of Habyarimana’s former residence, the late, sortakindamaybe-moderate Hutu president of Rwanda whose plane was shot down in April 1994, thereby catalyzing (not causing) the genocide. The entire place, save for precious Congolese (actually, at the time it would’ve been Zairian) wood gifted to Habyarimana by Mobutu, is white and very mod. It looks a bit ridiculous, actually (sorry, mod-lovers). The house itself is pretty bare—the place was looted during the genocide—but some of the original furniture remains. And boy, what it lacks in quantity more than makes up for it in character. Somebody, somewhere, managed to recover a table that used to reside in the master suite. It’s a very special table. A very, very special table, ‘cause it’s an elephant table. No, not a table in the shape of an elephant, or a table decorated with pictures of pachyderms, it’s a table made out of elephant. It’s glass-topped, so you can see the hide, which leads down into the legs of the table, which are two actual elephant hooves and a bit of leg. I’m afraid I’m not quite gifted enough in imagery to do the table justice, and unfortunately I won’t have a picture to show you as photography inside the residence was forbidden. But it seemed like something I should share.

After the master suite we were shown the family’s private chapel. Apparently, the pastor would be ushered in a side entrance right near it every Sunday, and then ushered back out. He wouldn’t have seen anything other than the chapel itself and the narrow hallway outside. We then found out why this was the case when we were taken into a somewhat-obscured back room. Apparently, while Habyarimana was an outwardly-devout Christian—which was the only acceptable thing to be really, at the time—he secretly consulted traditional faith practitioners, who would carry out traditional rituals, etc. in that room. It was, in all honesty, a bit hard to imagine, as the whitewashed room was bare, save for the hideous green carpeting. But I’ll take their word for it.

When the plane was shot down, it was just about over the residence (which is right near the airport)—Habyarimana’s body actually landed in his garden, along with some of the wreckage. Other parts of the plane landed just outside of the security wall, which you can see from a security lookout point inside the grounds. They’ve been left as they fell, excluding the ones which landed inside the grounds, which have been moved over the wall with the rest. It’s kind of weird, to see these twisted, ruined hunks of metal now, wondering what they were like then, knowing what happened after. Just beyond the wall is a small, pretty rough-looking homestead. Apparently a Tutsi family used to live there. They were killed within five minutes of the plane coming down.

We had lunch out in the front garden. It’s a really nice spot, actually—green and neatly landscaped. It was a nice place to take a breather, which we needed, as afterwards we were about to meet our homestay families for the next four weeks of our lives.

But that’s a blog entry for a later date. In the meantime, though, I’ll post that drop-off assignment, and I’ve also posted a couple albums of pictures from the trip to my Facebook page, which you should be able to view even without a Facebook account. Let me know (or let Mom know, who’ll then let me know), if that doesn’t work, and I’ll futz with the settings.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

I went all the way to Africa and all I got was this lousy parasite.

Yeah, so I apparently have an “amoeba” in my stomach (or did, before I took some drugs to kill the sucker). Doc didn’t get any much more specific than that, but by that point I was way too out of it to ask for clarification. All I know is that it makes you feel shitty (pun intended), exhausted, and nauseous. But hey, at least I know now that I can hold back my own hair when I’m throwing up at 5:30 in the morning. Yay for multitasking whilst puking!

(I’ll be fine, don’t worry).

Monday, October 26, 2009

Uganda wrap-up

So, long time no blog, eh? Let me catch you up:


Had a lovely send-off—just a “small” family dinner of a dozen (I think Mom may have circulated some photos already). I broke out my homestay gifts from Boston, which were a big hit. Jimmy (host brother, 23) immediately appropriated the New England Revolution (the local Major League Soccer team, for those of you unfamiliar) t-shirt, dodging Wilfred’s (host “brother,” 28) attempts to grab it from him. The Red Sox Pez dispenser was also met with much wonder…and confusion. Despite multiple demonstrations, more candy ended up on the floor than in the contraption, though Kadija and Tigger didn’t seem to mind. It was sad to say goodbye to everyone the next morning, but it was tempered by the fact that I knew I’d be seeing them again in a month when I go back to Gulu for my ISP.

The ride down from Gulu was fairly uneventful—we had our first baboon sighting, and reminisced about our first encounters with a pit latrine when we stopped at the same spot for lunch that we had on the ride up (the site of said encounter). Has to be my strangest “look how far we’ve come” moment yet.

As I’m *sure* you all were wondering, my soundtrack for the ride down consisted mainly of Peter, Paul and Mary (RIP), “Around the Campfire.” I have to say, there is something rather fitting if incongruous about listening to “We Shall Overcome” whilst driving past Acholi homesteads that are only recently being rebuilt and re-inhabited following over twenty years of war. I was also thrown upon hearing “The Toy” come on over my earbuds (“It went zip when it moved and bop when it stopped. Whirrrr when it stood still…”)—close to fifteen years ago I was doing a routine to that song for Sunshine Generation’s winter/holiday season. (Family members reading this may have some vague recollection of the group to which I’m referring. Friends reading this are probably scratching their heads, which is how it’s going to remain). It just…made me think on all the twists and turns my life’s taken in those fifteen years, on what’s gone into getting me to the point where I’m sitting in a bus speeding through the Acholi countryside and trying not to let my teeth rattle out of my skull from all the potholes in the road.

We also took a slight detour to visit a mass grave in the Luwero Triangle, the site of Museveni’s bush war against the Obote II regime from 1979-1986. The war was characterized by heavy civilian casualties, targeted by the government forces as possible rebels or rebel collaborators. This may sound strange to hear, but it was kind of an underwhelming experience. The grave was covered in a steeped, polished slab of stone, set in a platform of white tiles. The grave itself extended deep into the ground, needing to hold some 10,000-15,000 (mostly, probably) civilian skulls and other remains. You could view a fraction of them through a small hatch door in the front, but the thick grate in front of them made getting a decent look difficult. Really, what affected me the most about the whole thing was the plaque next to the hatch, its inscription dedicated in memory of the “freedom fighters” buried beneath. Such terminology, to be blunt, really pissed me off, because it was essentially legitimizing the justification used to massacre them in the first place. No, most of those skulls did *not* belong to “freedom fighters.” They belonged to *civilians* who were killed for no other reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They’re not martyrs of some movement, they’re victims of atrocity. To call them anything else is to trivialize a serious violation of international humanitarian law.


Returning to Kampala was profoundly strange. Here we were, one month of life-changing experiences later, and yet it felt like we were right back where we started. We were in the same hotel we’d been in for orientation, in a city we hadn’t had the time to get to know whose population spoke a language we hadn’t learned. We’d spent a month learning the quirks and rhythms of rural, Acholi-speaking Gulu, and now we were being confronted with urban, Luganda-speaking Kampala. It was rather unsettling, like the carpet had been pulled out from beneath our feet.

My footing became a bit more solid, however, when I got the chance to hang out with Orna, a good friend of mine from Mac studying on SIT’s Uganda Development program. (Incidentally, we’ll be studying together in Maastricht next semester. While our personalities are different, our academic interests are virtually identical). My time with Orna was, in a word, wonderful. For the better part of a glorious day I got to escape SIT-world and inhabit Mac-world, a happy place full of references to people that my fellow program-members don’t know and inside jokes they don’t understand. In addition to this lovely respite, I was extremely appreciative of Orna’s knowledge of Kampala (her program’s mainly based there), as she knew where to go for lunch and took me to a nearby market where she bargained down the price of two (pretty!) scarves for me in Luganda. Unfortunately, she won’t be making it up to Gulu, so I can’t return the favor in Acholi. Hmph.

We wrapped up the Uganda-portion of our classes in the hotel’s only conference room. The remaining handful of lectures were rather unmemorable, with the exception of the one given by a guy named Nelson, the Chief Legal Officer of Uganda’s Amnesty Commission (UAC), which was created under the blanket Amnesty Act (2000) for LRA rebels. It was one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever witnessed. He brought a nervous-looking young woman by the name of Katy along with him, who as he almost gleefully told us, was a former LRA rebel who had sought and received amnesty with the UAC. He made her stand up in front of us, saying “She went through *everything*...I don’t know if she’ll be able to tell you,” and then told us that her English wasn’t good so any questions should be directed to him and not to her. He proceeded to practically order her to tell us her story, which she did in a quiet and halting manner (her English, by the way, was fine). She started telling us how she had been abducted from her village at fourteen by the LRA along with her sister, and then they were tied up and forced to march a great distance. Nelson cut her off more than a few times, reminding her to add in this or that detail, and then none-too-gently telling her to continue. When she got to the point in her story in which a young merchant boy they happened upon was summarily executed by her abductors for refusing to hand over all of his merchandise, she broke down crying. Nelson started pressing her, asking her what happened next, what happened after they shot him, which only made her curl further into herself. He then addressed us and said “It’s okay, she’s just traumatized. That’s why I brought her.”

He tried again to make her continue, but Dr. William thankfully, finally, interceded, suggesting that maybe we could give her some time to collect herself and meanwhile continue on with the lecture. Nelson just kind of shrugged and waved at Katy to sit down, as if he were dismissing his pet monkey that had failed to dance for the crowd. He said we’d come back to her, but we never did. He never once acknowledged her presence for the remaining hour we were in lecture, despite her sitting a scant few inches away from him.

We were all in a sort of shock after that lecture, utterly appalled at the way he had treated Katy, at the way he had talked about her but never to her, at the way she was used as a tool and not treated as a person. We felt angry and ashamed at what we’d witnessed, at having seem her break down, seen her retraumatized. We felt complicit in it, knowing that she had essentially been used as an exhibition piece for us Westerners. Nancy (redhead from Austin, goes to GW) and Tomomi (Japanese national, goes to Williams) related to us a similar experience they had in Gulu, when Tomomi’s host father had taken them to a rehabilitation school for former child soldiers he was acquainted with. They walked into a room full of kids, most of whom were sitting watching a movie, when one of the staff members made the kids turn the film off and assemble in front of the girls. The staff member then ordered one of the kids to tell his story, about his abduction and what he’d done in the bush, and told the girls that they could ask the kids whatever they wanted, demand to know their stories. Nancy and Tomomi were horrified—all they wanted to do was observe, and maybe talk to any child who talked to them first, and certainly not about such a sensitive topic. They tried to explain that they were in no way qualified or equipped to essentially interrogate these children, but the message just didn’t get through. They were white—therefore, they had to be experts and entitled to unrestricted access to whomever or whatever they wanted.

That lecture left all of us feeling rather unsettled, so we were very glad to be released for the day. We were looking forward to celebrating Mark’s and Danielle’s birthdays that night—both of whom were turning twenty. (This means that I am now the only teenager on the program. Even Mark, who’s a sophomore at the University of Virginia, is older than me). We had cake (Uganda is not, shall we say, known for its pastries) and sang “Happy Birthday” in a loud and obnoxious fashion, and then some of the group went to one of the casinos in town for a night out. I elected to stay at the hotel, and had a lovely Girls’ Night In with my roommate, Laura K. (from outside D.C., goes to Johns Hopkins). Sometimes, a little nail polish, French braiding, and girl talk does the soul good.

Mbarara (so much fun to say, ask me when I’m home)

We stayed in Mbarara, a small city in the southwest of Uganda, for two nights as we were heading down to Kigali. (Normally, it takes about 13 hours, give or take however long it takes to get through the border, to get from Kampala to Kigali). During our layover in Mbarara, we visited the somewhat-nearby, UNHCR-administered Nakivale Refugee Camp, which holds Somali, Kenyan, Sudanese, Congolese, Eritrean and Rwandan refugees, as well as other regional refugee populations.

Given our previous experiences in the Koch Goma IDP camp, we were all rather apprehensive about visiting Nakivale. Going into it, though, our concerns were slightly allayed when we were told that we would be split up into two smaller groups to go through the camp, so we wouldn’t be one huge mass of white people tromping through. However, when we got there, our concerns once again started to mount. The camp itself is huge, and it took awhile for us to find the exact place we were supposed to meet with our contact. For awhile our bus was parked in the middle of a compound of what I think contained camp offices surrounded by an enormous mixture of refugees. The only ones that were easy to figure out were the Somalis, because of their dress. Both William and Stefanie (who had rejoined us in Kampala to take us into Rwanda--William would be leaving us at the border) left the bus to inquire about the Mr. Whosamagooch we were supposed to meet, leaving just us and the bus driver surrounded by this mass of curious people that were coming up to our open windows to talk, stare, touch, and just generally leave me feeling slightly disconcerted.

The camp is broken up by nationality--half the group went to talk with the Congolese refugees, while the other (the one I was in) went to talk with Rwandan Hutu refugees. There was a group of about 20 or so that met with us, crammed into a Right to Play office on a horseshoe of uneven wooden benches. Most of them were men, some young enough that they had probably been born and raised in the camps, others older. As we sat and listened to many of them talk about the "war," the over-exaggeration of the death toll, and how they feared to go back (to Rwanda) because of the vindictive and illiterate "Tutsi peasants" that had been elected as gacaca judges, it dawned on us that it was entirely possible that we were sitting elbow to knee on these rickety benches with people that, 15 years ago, were wielding machetes against their neighbors. It was...slightly disturbing. But what got me the most was the young men in the room, the ones who have grown up hearing this sort of rhetoric and only this sort of rhetoric. It's profoundly saddening realizing that there will be yet another generation indoctrinated in this senseless hatred.

There's really a lot more I could say, and probably should say, about my time in the refugee camp, but this entry is already long enough and my thoughts just aren't quite together enough to articulate them satisfactorily. So if you're still curious when I'm back Stateside, ask me then, okay?

We left Mbarara the next day, heading for the border. On the way there we crossed the Equator which, I have to say, was pretty damn cool. There's a picture of me straddling it already up on Facebook (thanks, Mom), so now I can officially say that I was in two hemispheres at once!

Fun facts:
- For a happening time in Kampala, head to Bubbles O’Leary Irish Pub—I hear trivia night’s a good time to hit it up

- Slow traffic signals left and passing traffic signals right—signaling hardly ever indicates an intention to turn

- Don’t breathe in Kampala if you can help it.

- Sam’s Indian Restaurant features food with actual flavor…amazing, I know

- Be aware as you’re passing matatus on the street—the conductors leaning out the window may try and grab you to get you onboard

- A “major intersection” in Kampala means there’s a traffic light

- It’s apparently possible to fit an easy chair on the back of a bicycle

Well, that wraps up the Uganda portion of the program (or as Porky would say, That’s all, folks!  and yes, I’m aware that he’s not exactly kosher). Stay tuned for the next, Rwanda-based installment, featuring:

- communing with Jesus in Kinyarwanda

- mosh pits masquerading as rush hour commuters

- Mr. Bean Takes a Holiday dubbed in French

- Kinyrwanda versions of Simon and Garfunkel songs

- a table supported by elephant feet

- East Africa’s version of Simon Cowell belting out “My Way”

…oh, you only think I’m kidding.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Just the facts, ma'am if my previous blog post wasn't long enough already, I realized I'd forgotten to add the fun facts.

But first, some not-so-fun ones:

- around Gulu, it's not uncommon to still see outdated signs warning "Gwok ki owic," or "Beware of landmines"

- it's not out of the ordinary to see signs saying "Say no to gifts for sex" out front of schools located near/in IDP camps

Now, actual fun facts:

- The most popular bicycles I've seen around Gulu are Uganda's own Roadmasters, and Chinese Phoenix(es)

- For cars, however, Toyota's pretty much cornered the market. Almost every NGO vehicle (which make up most vehicles driving around here) are a Land Cruiser or Hilux, and you can tell which ones belong to a UN agency by the massive antennae they have attached to the front.

- You can get your hair braided (I didn't, but Kat did) at the Blood of Jesus Christ Hair Saloon (yes, two "o"s), just down the way from the Shalom Hair Saloon (and no, no one around here seems to be familiar with Judaism).

- Supermarkets run by Indians are your best bet for finding familiar-sounding/looking imported goods, though be prepared to pay for it.

- Whatever style kitenge you order from the tailor will not actually be the style you get, though if you're lucky (like me), it'll turn out looking great anyway.

- It is a lot easier to communicate if you try to use African English. Get used to telling boda drivers no thanks (pe apwoyo), you're "footing it," and tell your host mother that yes, you'll be home in time to "take tea"

- "A planned generation is," apparently, "a happy generation," according to a popular birth control ad campaign around here. Uganda's got a really high (and unsustainable) population growth rate, which has prompted the government to really promote family planning. (For those wondering, abortion is illegal).