Tuesday, November 10, 2009

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 month...so 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.


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