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Amy Husser,
Carleton University Student

 

Amy's Blog

Sept. 5, 2006

Thinking about my time in Rwanda, I think my most memorable experiences (meaning the things I will never forget) have happened on a bus. 

At any given time, there are 20 people shoved in one very cramped space.  Interaction is inevitable, but the type of interaction I have experienced has been … strange. 

I have had an old man stroke my hair, an infant pull her hand out of her mouth to wipe her nose before deciding to grab my hand, and a man ask me to read his resume.  I have heard someone sing loudly along to the radio in an otherwise quiet bus, showing no signs of shyness or embarrassment.  I have listened to a joke travel from the front of the bus to the back (and the joke could very well have been at my expense, considering everyone turned to me, expecting me to somehow respond.)  I have seen a number of women think nothing about pulling down the tops of their dresses to breastfeed their babies.  I have ridden with my knees to my chest, my feet propped up on a large bag of bananas, and with children yelling “muzungu” at me as I pass, waiting for me to wave.

But despite the often awkward and uncomfortable trips, I think the bus rides say a lot about the characters of the people of Rwanda.

In Canada, the buses are designed to give you as much space as possible. Still, any person would rather sit by him or herself, just waiting to get from point A to point B.  People will put bags down on the seat next to them so as to avoid having anyone sit there.  If there are two people seated side by side, and an open pair opens up, one person will always move. 

The minibuses of Rwanda consist of five rows of seating, which each holds four people.  There is no such thing as personal space.  Instead of ignoring one another, the passengers often chat as they travel.  I have had numerous conversations during my bus rides with the person who is sitting next to me, or in front of me, or even a couple of rows back.  In fact, on more than one occasion, I have seen a conversation break out amidst everyone on the bus.  If two people are having a conversation, someone sitting next to them has no problem throwing in his or her two cents.  And this might spark a response from another passenger, and then the driver might laugh.  They aren’t all friends and many don’t know each other; at the end of trip, each person goes his or her own way, and probably thinks nothing of it.  But for me, as someone who can’t even participate in the discussion, these short conversations speak volumes about the friendly and forward nature of Rwanda’s people.

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August 28, 2006

The nights in Kigali tend to be a little bit boring.  Darkness falls around 6 pm and most evenings consist of eating cold food before watching reruns on a tiny computer screen, and an extremely early trip to bed.  When I get a chance to get out of the house, I take it.

So last night, I volunteered to return some mosquito nets to the previous landlady’s house after work, thinking it could give me something to do.  (The last set of interns had complications with payments and was asked to leave the first house that TNT arranged for us.  Two mosquito nets were taken in the jumble of the move.)  I started out a little bit later than I planned, leaving around 7, and when it was dark.  I have never really felt unsafe in Kigali, but no matter where I am, I am a little bit apprehensive about being in a strange place, by myself, after dark.  On most of the roads in Kigali, there are no streetlights, but plenty of bumps, not to mention the ditches that run along the side of the road.

Shortly after I set off, a man fell in step beside me.  I turned to look at him and smiled.  He said “Muraho” or hello in Kinyarwanda.  I said it back and we continued along.  I could tell he was friendly and I actually felt safer having him walk with me.  If I sped up a bit, so did he.  If I slowed down at all, he would too.  I stopped to adjust my shoe, and he waited. 

He then said something that went way beyond my understanding of the local language.  To me, the language is very complicated, mainly because it sounds nothing like English and isn’t structured in a way that I have learned.  I give him a puzzled look and tried to signify that I couldn’t speak the language.  He nodded his head and said something else unrecognizable.  I did catch the word “English” though and responded “Yes!” 

We went along in silence for a bit, and then he said another sentence is Kinyarwanda.  Not knowing what he was asking me, I told him my name in English.  For fifteen minutes, we walked along.  He would say something in Kinyarwanda and I would reply in English, hoping what I was saying related to what he was asking.  When I arrived at the landlady’s house, he waved good-bye and continued on his way.

It was a strange experience because we both knew we couldn’t understand each other but continued to talk anyway.  We may have been talking about two totally different things, and I will never know otherwise.  I kind of missed the company on my walk back.

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August 20, 2006

Today I decided to make my way to Gisenyi, a lakeside town by Lake Kivu in the Northwest corner of the country.  Despite the fact that I have been in the country for two weeks, I hadn’t left Kigali.  Even though I was warned that the ride was long and tiresome, I decided to chance it. 

I left the house as the sun was coming up, and made my way downtown.  Cross-country buses aren’t much different than the buses used in the city, so I bought my ticket and settled into a tiny corner, making sure I was beside the window.  Unfortunately, the bus was full, and I had to prepare myself for a cramped three-hour ride.  But I don’t think it was possible to prepare my stomach. 

The roads in Kigali are less than desirable, to say the least.  Most are unpaved and dusty, worn and washed-out.  Outside of the city is worse.  The roads were paved but there were more potholes than pavement.  Plus, due to Rwanda’s rolling landscape, the road snaked through the countryside.  The ride consisted of the driver going breakneck speeds around the curves while swerving to miss the potholes (which wasn’t possible so we hit one every few minutes).  I actually leaned over to check the speedometer at one point.  It was broken.

By the time I reached Gisenyi, I almost fell out of the bus in gratitude.  According to the Bradt travel guide on Rwanda (the only one available and thus the only reference material to which we have access), Gisenyi is a bit of a tourist town, and used to foreigners.  Not true. 

“Muzungu” is a word that I hear on a daily basis, a word used to make reference to a white person.  It’s not usually used malicious and people just seem to be curious about who I am and where I come from.  Children, with their uninhibited young voices, are the first to say it, shyly waving or approaching to shake my hand. 

In Gisenyi, it was much more blatant.  I felt as if I were on parade.  As I made my way towards the beach, everyone I passed stopped to stare.  At one point, I had a group of children jumping around me and screaming.  (I felt like I should have been throwing candy.)  One little boy was screaming “Muzungu! Muzungu! Muzungu!” at the top of his lungs, over and over.  I honestly expected him to pass out.

When I reached the water, I relaxed a bit, ate some lunch and walked along the water, taking photos (something else to draw attention to myself).  As I was walking along, a young boy on crutches sitting by the side of the road came up to me.  He was missing a leg.  My stomach dropped, thinking that he would ask me for money.  At the start of the trip I decided to give a decent amount of money to one street kid instead of 100 FRW to many (the equivalent of 20 cents).  I already had someone in mind, a little girl and her mother who sit at the top of the hill near where we live.  It would be hard to say no to this boy. 

But he just wanted me to take a picture of him.  He stood perfectly still, with a small smile on his face.  He didn’t move until I said okay.  And then asked if he could try to take one.  I let him, and showed him the pictures on the camera.  He smiled, waved goodbye and left.  Ending the afternoon on a positive note, I actually started to look forward to the long journey back to Kigali.

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August 17, 2006

Today I waited 45 minutes before catching a minibus home – I could have walked it in 30. 

The bus system in Kigali is crazy.  It took me a couple of weeks to understand the layout of the town and how to get around.  Minibuses, which are really just vans, pull to the side of the road.  Young guys slam open the door, leaping out, yelling, while pointing the direction that the bus is going. 

People crowd the side door to the van, pushing in hopes of getting a seat.  This doesn’t work for me, since I might be one of the most passive people you will ever meet. 

There was a family of four waiting to get on one of the buses – a mother with a teenage daughter and two younger boys.  I watched as they all tried to get on the same bus.  The mother and daughter would often make it to the front of the crowd, but would step aside once they realize the boys were still standing on the curb.  Eventually, they gave up and went in pairs.

Me, being my passive self, sat waiting as patiently as I could, hoping that the busy period would pass – it only worsened.  A couple of times, I stood up, near the curb, hoping to get lucky.  I was always beat by people running at full tilt to get there first.  Eventually, I noticed that the passenger’s seat was empty and slipped around the side as everyone else clamored to get in the back.  I could have been there forever.

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August 8, 2006

My first few days in Rwanda have been a whirlwind – as cliché as it sounds, you never realize the differences until you experience it first hand.  But the thing that struck me most was not cultural differences, but the physical ones. 

I have always thought Canada’s landscape was gorgeous: the open spaces, the trees and the numerous small bodies of water.  Coming from a small town, our cities have never really appealed to me.  But living in Kigali, despite the fact that it is roughly the same size of Ottawa, is unlike Canadian city living.  There is the housing, buildings, traffic and people, but this doesn’t detract from the breathtaking landscape. 

Rwanda is the country of a thousand hills, and Kigali is no exception.  Driving from the airport to our house in Remera, a short distance, I was blown away by everything I could see in all directions.  The road from the airport to the house is on the crest of a hill, and the sides of the hills sloping down to the valleys are all covered in housing.  In Canada, each person has their own house with their own distinguishable yard.  From my vantage point, Kigali just seemed to be a mish-mash of clustered houses.  And the colours elevate the country’s beauty to another level.  Rwanda seems to be covered in red dust (as the stained soles of my feet will attest) but is spotted with leafy green vegetation.  The contrast is pretty amazing.      

The newsroom came as a bit of a surprise too.  I first entered the New Times newsroom on a Sunday, so it was calmer than normal.  But calm is an exaggeration; compared to the newsrooms in Canada, it was beyond dead.  It is basically one large room cut into smaller spaces using dividers.  It actually kind of looked like something out of the movie Office Space (although on a much smaller scale.)     

On Monday, I returned and sat down at a computer to try and send off an email to my friends and family (with little success, the internet is temperamental) when George Kalisa, the social desk editor, came up to me. 

“I want you to write a letter to the editor.”
“Me?”
“Yes.”
“A letter to the editor?”
“About what?”
“Some observation you have made about Rwanda.”
“But …”
“Anything you have seen, or experienced … can you write it today?”

I had been in the country for about 48 hours and I had observed a lot.  But write a letter to the editor?  This is usually reserved for people who READ the paper, and not write for it.  I haven’t done either.  I’m not the most argumentative person and was still getting adjusted.  Plus, it seemed like a bit of a conflict of interest.  I think the staff was just looking for a way to fill a hole in the content and I presented an opportunity to do just that. 

I am kind of ashamed to admit that I did write one, though, despite the obvious moral issues.  I guess I just wrote a bit of a mini-column; a little observation on patience, actually.

I am a pretty impatient person … I’m terrible at staying still and I’m not a big fan of waiting.  Here is Rwanda, I was quickly informed of what my fellow Canadians call “African Time.”  Basically, everything slows to a snail’s pace.  Sunday night, at a local restaurant, I waited for more than an hour for a grilled cheese sandwich.  At the newsroom, if a press conference is held, it might be a couple of days before the story comes out.  But the walking pace takes the cake.  I’m 5”2, and in Canada, I usually have to run to keep up with my friends.  Here, I always seem to be miles ahead of anyone I walk with.  I guess I should take it as a welcome change from the hectic everyday of North America, but it’s definitely going to take some getting used to.

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Postings

Sept. 5, 2006

August 28, 2006

August 20, 2006

August 17, 2006

August 8, 2006

 

 

 
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