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Kurtis Elsner ,
Carleton University Student

 

Kurtis Elsner's Blog

August 28, 2006 — Motos are over

The past week has been absolute transportation chaos for my colleagues and myself.  The fine balance of public transportation in Kigali was disrupted last week by a new law banning the use of motorcycle taxis (referred to locally as motos).  The official stance is that the law was put in place because the motos were too dangerous and caused numerous accidents.  However, others argue the law was actually put in place to boost business for Kigali’s new city buses, which were donated by Japan.

Dangerous or not, the motos provide an important form of transportation for many Rwandan’s, especially the reporters in the newsroom.  Because of the newspaper’s limited resources, most reporters are responsible for securing their own transportation to and from stories.  And since the majority of the reporters don’t have cars, they have to find a ride elsewhere. 

Until a week ago, the motos were by far the method of choice.  They were cheap and fast.  Minibuses were inexpensive, but slow, and taxicabs were fast, but costly for only one passenger.  With motos gone, reporters, like many other Rwandans, are stuck in a bind when it comes to transportation.  Ride economically, and hope you make it on time, or bite the bullet and pay for the taxi, knowing that it will take a sizable chunk out of your daily wages.

Thankfully, the government is looking to over-turn the law, and moto’s will be allowed back on the streets in a week or two.  But since the police have been confiscating many of the motos from drivers who were riding in opposition to the ban, it is unclear how it will all play out.

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August 13, 2006 — Football night in Kigali

Since I was assigned to the sports desk, I have spent the majority of my time with stories on basketball, volleyball, chess, and above all, soccer.  This past weekend I had the opportunity to go with the sports section to cover the under-20 national team's match against Kenya. The game was important, as it was a qualifier for the up-coming African championship tournament. 

I wasn't sure what to expect as we drove to the stadium.  I knew that football was huge here, and like everywhere else, international games are always exciting as they are a matter of national pride.  Also, the stadium was located in the heart of Nyamirambo, a district of Kigali known for its wild nightlife and exuberant population.

The crowd was a fair size, but definitely not a sell-out.  But what they lacked in numbers, they made up for in enthusiasm.  There was an especially loud group in a corner of the stadium with lower ticket prices.

Just over half way through the game, the gates to the stadium were opened and people were allowed to enter for free.  The result was a loud, and now large, crowd of fans.  Thankfully, the new fans arrived just in time for a penalty shot.  The Rwandan shooter booted a ball past the Kenyan keeper, and the crowd erupted. And since I was the newspaper's photographer at the game, I had one of the best views in the house.

After the game, which Rwanda won 2 - 0, many of the fans made their way onto the field.  A number of young children began playing with their own homemade soccer balls.  When they saw me with my camera, many ran up to pose for a photo.  Just like Canada, children idolize their sports heroes, and they too dream of one day representing their country in international competition.

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August 6, 2006 — Murambi Genocide Memorial

In 1955, Alan Resnais directed "Night and Fog", a chilling documentary on the Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. By splicing historical footage recovered from the Nazi archives with footage of the empty camps 10 years after liberation, Resnais creates both a powerful and disturbing image of the horrors that occurred at Auschwitz, Dachau, and others.  I have seen the film a number of times and each time is as disturbing as the last.  I can honestly say that Night and Fog affected me like no other movie I had seen before, or since. 

This week we went to Murambi, which is perhaps the most well-known of the many Genocide memorials in Rwanda.  Perched a top a hill in a landscape of stunning beauty, the former school was used as refuge by the fleeing Rwandans. The authorities promised the people that they would be protected and safe within the school walls.  Schools and churches had often been viewed as sanctuaries during times of civil strife, and were often left untouched by belligerents.  But just like everywhere else across the country, this sanctuary was not truly safe.  For the Interahamwe militias, the Murambi school offered an easy way to systematically butcher the 50 800 people who were trapped in the schools rooms. 

The memorial itself is simplistic.  The tour takes visitors through a series of rooms, each of which are filled with bodies preserved in lime.  The bodies belong to a small percentage of the men, women and children who were exhumed from a mass grave on the site.  Room after room, 24 in total, filled with mummified bodies laid to rest, for visitors to see.  To view the room at a glance, each one looks eerily similar.  It is when you enter and look closely at the nameless bodies that the true horror unfolds.  Each body is a separate person, a separate life, whose story is lost to time.  Some of the remains are so horribly disfigured that identifying a cause of death would prove impossible.  But others, whose wounds are more identifiable, paint an even more disturbing image.  A missing limb, or a smashed in skull makes it painfully easy to imagine how they might have met their end.

At first I was shocked when our guide enthusiastically announced that taking photographs was allowed, and encouraged.  As a journalist, I understand that the gruesome is often photographed in order to convey the horror and reality of war.  In class we have discussed the ethics involved with, and what affect such images can have.  But we were not visiting the site as journalists, we were merely three tourists taking in the sites.  I thought at first that for us to photograph would be diminishing what the memorial meant.  But as I continued through the tour, I was reminded of Night and Fog, and what affect it had on me.  I have never been to Auschwitz, but because of Resnais' film I, along with countless others, have seen the story of the Holocaust.  While I am under no illusion that I can grasp the full horror Auschwitz by simply watching a movie, I am much more aware of the situation because of that film.  I had seen photographs of Murambi before I visited the site, and quite honestly, they pale in comparison to seeing it in person.  But still, I am among very few who have seen Murambi, and with that comes responsibility.  If "never again" is to ever become a reality, the brutality of Murambi must be passed on.  While photographs may not really capture the entire story, they can still move people more than stories alone. 

In the end, I did not photograph the bodies.  Instead, I opted for a few photos of the surroundings - less graphic, but for me chilling in their own right.  No matter where I am in my future, and what I am doing, I feel that those photographs will bring me back to that hilltop in southern Rwanda.  An eerily peaceful and silent place surrounded by dark green hills and a vista of overwhelming beauty.  A place haunted by the souls of 50 800 people who were slaughtered while the rest of world decided not to care.

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July 29, 2006 — Did my bus driver actually go to a country music concert?

There are many people in Rwanda who are very well dressed, and take great pride and care in their appearance.  That being said, the reality of the situation here means that not everyone can afford to dress the way they might like to.  Many rely on aid clothing.  For a foreign visitor, this can result in some strange surprises.  The last thing I expected to see in Rwanda was a hockey jersey, yet I have seen two of them already - a Philadelphia Flyers and a Montreal Canadiens jersey. 

Another surprise came from the bus driver who drove us to Kibuye, a town on the shores of Lake Kivu.  When he got out of the bus I noticed his t-shirt.  It was a Vince Gill concert t-shirt.  For those who don't know, Vince Gill is a country singer from the early-90s, known for his whiney voice.  I was pretty surprised to see it, considering I doubt that the driver was in Nashville in 1996. 

But one must be careful about assumptions.  Many Rwandan's have lived in Canada, the U.S. and Europe for long periods of time.  Sometimes those surprises can be more so than the sight of country music t-shirts.  Canadians listening to African English will notice a distinct accent.  A few people here have surprised me considerably by switching back-and-forth from an African English accent, to a Canadian or American accent, depending entirely on who they are speaking with. 

For me the lesson was simple.  You cannot make assumptions as to who you meet, because you just never know their past.  It is possible that those hockey jerseys made their way to Rwanda through the way of donation.  It is also possible that those jerseys came to Rwanda on the backs of their current owners, perhaps after taking in a game at the old Maple Leaf Gardens.

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July 23, 2006 — Business opportunities, story ideas

Because there is a shortage of digital cameras in the newsroom, any reporter who has their own camera can give their story an added boost.  If they can get a photo with their story, they can offer their editor a better product.  Because I also have a camera, a couple reporters have recruited me to go with them on stories. I get to see how the Rwandan reporters work, and it lets us both collaborate on the stories as they develop.

One of the reporters who I have accompanied a couple times is a business reporter, Mansur.  I can say that business reporting in Rwanda is quite interesting.  Because the economy, along with the country, is rebuilding itself, there are a number of business opportunities for potential investors.  And where there are business opportunities, there are also business stories.

Recently I went with Mansur to cover a story on Rwandan leasing.  A local transportation company had borrowed money to purchase new buses to transport people on rural routes.  While such agreements are common in Canada, banks are just beginning to offer this service in Rwanda.  The loan, which is negotiated through the bank, the business, as well as in this case the car dealership where the buses were purchased, allows the companies to buy better equipment and pay for it later, ideally with the revenues they have generated from the initial loan.  For the business, this means a new way to expand and grow.  For the customers, it means better service (in this case, a safer, more comfortable ride).  For reporters, it means a whole new section of business to report on.

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July 19, 2006 — Rwanda needs driver's ed.

The majority of Rwandans don’t own cars, but those who do better be good drivers.  After only a couple of weeks in Kigali, I have come to the decision that by Canadian standards, driving in Rwanda is organized chaos.  It works only because each driver is as crazy as the other.  The painted lines are little more than decoration, and it isn't strange for a car to straddle the white line for most of the trip.  On a recent bus trip to Kibuye, our driver was quite fond of cutting every corner he could.  He attacked hairpin turns with the tenacity of a Rwandan Michael Schumacher.  As for passing, any time is a good time.  As long as you think you can make it safely, you give it a shot.  It makes no difference it if is a curvy mountain pass, or a straightaway in the middle of the city.  If on-coming traffic is going to get in the way, you just push your way back into your own lane, or hope the other car slows down enough to let you pass. 

But for this chaos to work, some rules have to be enforced.  Honking your horn is not just an act of frustration, but instead a means of multi-purpose communication.  You honk as you’re passing, or when you approach other vehicles or people on the side of the road.  The idea is to let everyone know where you are.  This is especially true for motorcycles, which are small and can quickly pop up in your rearview mirror.  Turn signals also get their share of use, although not in the same way as Canada.  Blinkers can mean many different things.  They could mean you are turning, but it could also mean just about anything else the driver intends.  Pretty much, it seems that people in Rwanda use whatever means is at their disposal to communicate - something that is very important if traffic is to avoid coming to a crashing halt.

Just the other day I saw a field full of cars and pylons.  As it turns out, it was a driving school.  What they are learning, I'm not quite sure, but it clearly works.  Despite all that I have listed above, as well as the fact that there are no working traffic lights, I have seen only two traffic accidents, both only involving single cars and street poles. Perhaps Canadian drivers, including myself, can learn a thing or two from drivers in Rwanda.  You better keep your eyes open and pay attention.

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July 10, 2006 — A warm welcome

Perhaps it is cliché for travellers to comment that the people in their host country are exceptionally friendly.  If that is the case, call me guilty of cliché, a journalism no-no.  The first four Rwandans I met after going through customs in Kigali immediately warmed my heart to the country, and my mood as well.

When I arrived in Addis on Thursday night, myself and a number of other passengers received the news every traveller fears - our bags were not here.  They were left in Washington, D.C. because there was no room on the airplane. In all, about 150 bags were scheduled to arrive at 8:00 am the next morning.  My flight to Kigali was scheduled to leave at anywhere between 9:30 am and 10:40 am, depending on who you asked. The plan was to pick up my bags in the morning and carry on my way.

All of the passengers connecting to Kigali in the morning were put in the same hotel.  Among the 20 or so, there were some others without their luggage.  The prospect of being in Africa without our clothes and personal belongings united us.  One woman, who was in Kigali for a friend's wedding, was particularly worried, because her dress was in her luggage.  In the morning, we quickly checked the baggage turnstiles for our luggage - they were not there.  The flight had been delayed and would not land in time to make the flight to Kigali.  We filed our lost baggage report, and boarded our flight.

Upon arrival in Kigali, we decided to go talk to an airline representative, just to confirm that our baggage would indeed make it to Kigali.  But before then, we were greeted by the bride-to-be who was meeting my fellow traveller at the airport.  She had brought along two of her sisters.  All three were open and warm from the get go.  One offered to hold my bags.  I was somewhat taken back by this gesture, offered towards a complete stranger.

Back to the luggage - it just so happens that the groom also happened to be at the airport - he works for a different airline.  We watched him as he fluidly navigated his way around the airport.  It seemed he was friends with everyone there, greeting each with a friendly smile.  With his help, we quickly got in touch with a representative from our airline.  It turned out that in the confusion at Addis, our luggage was being sent to Luanda, Angola, not Rwanda.  Neither the future groom nor the airline official said anything, but facial expressions told me all I needed to know.  We did not want our luggage sent to Angola.  The groom kindly pressured the other airline official into action.  He said he would do all he could and said that bags normally show up in couple of days.  I was not confident.

Although I left the airport unsure when I would see my luggage again, I still found it a positive experience.  The friendliness that my fellow traveller's friends showed me was heart-warming, and did a lot to calm my frustration over the luggage.  Their sympathy and compassion towards a complete stranger was the ultimate welcome any traveller could ask for.  I am also quite sure the work and tact of the future groom was the reason my luggage showed up in Kigali the next day.

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Postings

August 28, 2006 — Motos are over

August 13, 2006 — Football night in Kigali

August 6, 2006 — Murambi Genocide Memorial

July 29, 2006 — Did my bus driver actually go to a country music concert?

July 23, 2006 — Business opportunities, story ideas

July 19, 2006 — Rwanda needs driver's ed.

July 10, 2006 — A warm welcome

 

 
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