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.

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