Marie-Jo Proulx's Blog
August 8, 2007 – Tomorrow’s Rwanda
Huge developmental challenges lie ahead for Rwanda. Government agencies, local businesses and international donors are all cooperating to help the country move up on the list of transitional economies. Some are busy combating diseases like malaria and AIDS, others dig wells so a slightly larger minority of people have access to clean water. There is work being done promoting education, and preserving the vanishing forest, and introducing alternative sources of energy, and assisting farming communities maximize their land’s yield. Consultants are redesigning the tax system. The task is endless.
Nevertheless, I go away hopeful for this small country with no exports aside from delicious coffee and tea. Hopeful that the people will continue to be safe as they walk to the market before dawn every day with freshly harvested produce piled high on their heads. Hopeful that the kids will keep their marvelous smiles as they grow into resourceful adults.
Hopeful that in spite of its recent history, Rwanda will remain peaceful. That is perhaps the biggest challenge. Some say the blood-soaked past is too heavy a burden for such a poor nation to carry into the future.
The United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is working very hard to investigate, indict, and prosecute former ministers, militia leaders, clergymen, and other authority figures responsible for the 1994 genocide. So far, 72 individuals have been arrested, 27 have been tried and convicted, and 29 trials are ongoing. A total of 55 suspects are currently being detained in Arusha, Tanzania.
But the ICTR’s mandate expires soon. No new cases will be opened beyond the end of 2008. Many more culprits remain at large after having fled either to African countries, Europe, or even Canada.
At a press briefing in July, the spokesperson for the ICTR’s Office of the Prosecutor fielded questions from Rwandan newsmen. And me. Most would like the wheels of justice to turn much faster. Some would like the tribunal to denounce former French president François Mitterrand and also go after former UN secretary general Kofi Annan for what they perceive as their implicit support of the genocide. They will not get their wish.
I asked about the seven unresolved appeals. The ICTR predicts it will be done with all cases, including those before the Appeals Chamber, by the end of 2010.
Six weeks in Rwanda have taught me a lot about the intricacies of a post-conflict community where almost everyone is either a victim or a perpetrator. A place where asking questions becomes a delicate and sometimes dangerous art, and decoding answers remains an imperfect science.
Today, we all have to get along and manage living together, Rwandans say. It is the graceful balance of the “together” I will remember. But I suspect it is the “living” they cherish.
August 1, 2007 – Finding
football in Kigali
I attended two football
matches while in Rwanda. I would
have loved to go more often.
The first time I tried to make my
way to a game, I was told that there was none on that Sunday.
It was unusual, but the three paper boys I had approached
for directions sounded so certain of their information
that I turned around and decided
to try again some other time. The next day, I heard a game
had indeed been played between army teams, some of the country’s
best. Oh well.
I asked around several times after
that but never got a straight answer that included a time
and place. I wasn’t
too particular about which league or level, I just wanted
to sit in the stands along with everybody else. But surprisingly,
this would involve multiple requests and a fair amount of
It was an interview on a completely
unrelated topic that eventually led to my first African
football experience. Looking into the intersection of family
planning services and HIV prevention, I went to meet Felicity
Rwomalika, the director of research programs at the Women’s
Equity Access Care Treatment (WE ACT). Felicity also happens
to be the executive director of the Association of Kigali
Women in Sports (AKWOS).
Now grown into a 30-team league
for young women playing in all of Rwanda’s provinces, AKWOS was hosting a visiting
squad from the Netherlands. Excellent! A few days later,
I was on the sidelines of a dirt pitch in the shadow of Amahoro
Stadium. No chalk lines to speak of and no nets on the goal
posts. It didn’t matter as the field was perfectly
delineated by hundreds of young boys, teenagers and moto
drivers crowded around to see the girls in action.
The Dutch team was roundly beaten
by a technically superior local side. Jetlag and Kigali’s higher altitude also
hindered the Europeans’ performance. But a good time
was had by all, including the kids on the sidelines who laughed
their little hearts out at the sight of muzungus playing
football right before their eyes.
The following week, I set out to
see a second game. The paper listed three match-ups for
that Wednesday afternoon, so I figured this would be my
lucky day. I took a moto to the main stadium anticipating
a festive sort of mayhem would greet me at the gate. When
I got there, it was disappointingly quiet. The guard said
there was no game. I asked if I could go inside just to
have a look. He said he didn’t mind
so I walked in. Before I could reach the playing area, I
came across another guard who seemed eager to help. I took
out the paper’s sports section, showed him the listings
and mumbled a few words in kinyarwanda, something agrammatical
like “where football today me watch?”
He spoke a few English words, enough
to explain that the first game was being played outside
of Kigali and the second one was an evening fixture. I
asked how long it would take to get to the third one if
I took a moto right away. From his answer, I figured I
would make it in time for the second half. I got him to
write down the name of the stadium and the area of the
city where it is located on a piece of paper. Thanking
him profusely, I ran out onto the street, flagged down
a moto and showed the directions to the driver while repeating “football, yes?” with
a pressing smile. He got it. Onwards!
At the bottom of a long dirt road,
next to a plastic factory, surrounded by a tattered brick
wall, APR F.C.’s modest
home stadium was filled with excited supporters of all ages.
But probably less than 10 women in the entire place.
The beloved local team dominated
throughout, scoring four goals and regaling fans with skillful
passing plays and relentless offensive bursts. The crowd’s enthusiasm exploded into
frenzied jumping and chanting when a penalty kick reached
the back of the opponent’s net.
Even though some seats sell for
as little as $1, many can’t
afford a ticket and police strictly monitor entrances. Undeterred,
kids and adults alike scale the wall, without jumping over
it, for a view of the action. Some even climb into tall trees.
But when the game clock strikes 75 minutes, everyone is
let in through the gates at both ends of the field. People
seem to know they have to be on their best behaviour if they
want to keep being invited to watch the last 15 minutes of
home games for free. There is no pushing and nobody tries
to run onto the pitch.
After the final whistle, fans do
storm the field, but it isn’t long before the crowd
disperses, all the while shaking hands with strangers to
celebrate the victory.
Intrigued kids follow me out and
want to have their picture taken. Again and again and again.
I may have met Rwanda’s
next football star.
July 26, 2007 – The UN’s
National Development Report for Rwanda
This morning, I was sent to cover the release of the UN Development Program’s second report on Rwanda. Most of the country’s human and economic development figures have changed substantially since the first one was produced back in 1999.
The report, based on data collected by the statistical unit at the National University of Rwanda, outlines three main challenges for the Rwandan government: agriculture, population, and income distribution.
In presenting the results, the Minister of Finance and Economic Planning and the UNDP representative both stressed the need for Rwanda to streamline and optimize its use of the $500 million in assistance received annually from international donors. But the two men insisted that the much touted Millennium Development Goals remain attainable by the new target date of 2020.
However, some statistics continue to paint a dreadfully dire picture, making it extremely difficult to share such optimism.
Already Africa’s most densely populated country (350 inhabitants/km2), and with a growth rate of 3.5%, Rwanda appears ready for demographic complications on an exponential scale.
A few examples:
Poverty is a way of life for 56% of Rwandans and 28% of households are food insecure. Per capita milk consumption is equivalent to one litre a month. Chronic malnutrition affects 45% of children. More than 95% of households use firewood for cooking. The country lost 50% of its forest between 1990 and 2005.
Less than five per cent of development assistance is allocated to agriculture. Almost double that amount is spent on defence and public order.
While women make up 48% of Rwanda’s parliament, the country is 119th out of 177 on the Gender Development Index. Only 13% of married women use any kind of contraception. In Kigali, 8,6% of women live with HIV. Of girls who start elementary school, 49% do not reach Grade 5.
Less than 2% of the population have a land line or cellular phone. Less than 1% use the Internet. Rwanda ranks among the top 15% of all countries on the Income Disparity Index.
Although the above figures from the UNDP report offer little hope for the future, government officials say the situation is improving. Development requires long-term vision and commitment. It is probably just as well that opposition parties are virtually non-existent in Rwanda, even in the run-up to next year’s general election.
July 20, 2007 – Grands Lacs Hebdo: Where Real News Is Always News – No Matter When It Comes Out!
Our paper is on its way back from Kampala, Uganda. Yesterday, a flash drive with the final file was sent on a commuter bus to be printed there. We are eagerly awaiting the delivery of our total print run of 1,000 copies. GLH is definitely a refined product reserved for the lucky few!
We finished the editing and layout Wednesday night. Fred, Jean, André, Déo, Jenny and myself all worked together in our pocket-sized newsroom with the help of a single dial-up connection to check last minute details. The atmosphere was one of controlled urgency with everybody contributing.
The cast of characters at GLH makes the journalistic pursuit here a constant source of excitement and amazement.
Barely 24 hours before deadline, I was asked to write a front page story about Rwandan soldiers working as peacekeepers in Darfur. They are part of the African Union mission in Sudan (AMIS), which is funded by the European Commission. In the last week, the local papers have been having a field day debating allegations that the Rwanda Defence Force is withholding soldiers’ salaries. While the fact that they have not been paid for months is common knowledge, nobody agrees on who is responsible for the delay.
I said I would look into it.
Having no contacts at the African Union or the European Commission, I turned to Fred, our leader, the only one of the bunch with a journalism degree. Within minutes, he was on the phone with a source at the AU’s Addis-Ababa headquarters. In the afternoon, Fred and I walked over to interview the EC’s chief of delegation in Rwanda. He is conveniently located next door to us, but British Ambassador David MacRae’s air-conditioned office is decorated with Oriental rugs and has floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. For an hour, we stepped into a completely different world.
Mr. MacRae, a pleasant man with a subtle sense of humour, was forthcoming with information. We would have liked to get our hands on internal working papers containing the EC’s plans for AMIS when its funding mandate runs out later this month. But despite our investigative duo’s obvious charm and clever lines of questioning, we were not going to convince the good ambassador to part with the confidential documents.
Nevertheless, we returned to our modest digs with enough new details for me to put together a story. As I began to write, Fred reported what we had heard to the others. Everyone concluded that the AU is an incompetent administrator and, led by Déo, they insisted that the article’s final paragraph accuse the AU of being too African. I was not going to let that appear under my byline. I argued that it was preferable journalistically to let the facts we had gathered speak for themselves. We eventually agreed.
Deciding on a headline was a lot of fun. After everybody pitched in with their own anti-AU quip amidst roaring laughter, we settled on Jean’s simple but effective “Darfur: Where Is the Money?”
Jenny, Steven, me, Fred
From “Where Is the Money?” to “Where Is the Paper?”: It finally arrived Saturday morning, one day late but just in time for the paper boys to fan out into the early shopping crowd.
July 11, 2007 – On Being Positive
I wasn’t going to do stories on AIDS in Africa. I figured the topic had been amply covered in the mainstream media. People will be tired of white reporters harping about it, I thought.
That was foolish. You can’t walk anywhere in Kigali without coming across a local or international NGO that supports people living with HIV-AIDS. Every diagnosis is news to somebody – and especially bad news for women.
For wives and mothers, a positive test result can carry devastating consequences. Not because of a lack of medication; the government subsidizes treatment for all who can’t afford it. Premature death is no longer the threat it was before the development of effective drug cocktails. For many women, the real peril is rejection.
A reporter I work with is supporting his sister and her two children because her husband threw her out when he found out she was positive. She was infected by her first husband before he died. My colleague is now responsible for a household of three adults and five kids. He works two jobs, rarely eats lunch, and has the office’s most endearing smile.
His sister’s predicament is representative of Africa’s struggle with AIDS.
I spent the morning at the Rwanda chapter of the Society for Women and AIDS in Africa (SWAA), where they hold daily workshops for mothers and families infected with the virus. After a few minutes of relaxation exercises, participants are divided into four groups: adults, young ones, widows, new cases. Trained counselors then lead interactive sessions tailored to their group’s specific situation and needs.
Célestin, SWAA’s director of behaviour change and communication, reminds his group of the importance of following drug regimens in order to stave off opportunistic infections. When a woman points out that the medication is difficult to take without food, Célestin asks one of the few men, a veteran of the disease, to explain how, on minimal resources, he manages to keep feeding himself enough to be able to take the life-saving drugs. More questions and answers follow. The sense of community makes the sadness almost bearable.
In the afternoon, I tag along with Célestin and Shamsi, SWAA’s executive secretary, as they check in on the delivery of HIV-AIDS services in Nyamirambo, Kigali’s oldest neighbourhood.
As she drives the association’s pick-up over the mangled dirt roads, Shamsi, a spunky and independent Muslim Rwandan, generously answers my many questions about her work, prior training, and early years in the DRC. I estimate she is about 30. She says her family and friends are always on her case because she is not married yet. I want to ask why not, but I decide not to probe any further.
When we get to the large, one-room community centre, about 50 people (again, mostly women) are waiting for us. They applaud as we enter, which makes me rather uncomfortable.
Shamsi asks me to introduce myself and explain why I have come to visit. I tell them of my interest in global health issues and I mention that I used to cover the work of several AIDS organizations in my previous job at a paper in Chicago. I thank them for welcoming me and allowing me to learn from them.
An animated counseling session then begins. Jean-Claude, Nyamirambo’s director of social affairs, reviews how to avoid mother-to-child transmission and stresses the advantages of giving birth in a hospital. The use of condoms is discussed openly. The women understand the need to protect themselves against more virulent strains of HIV, but they complain that men are not very cooperative. When they are drunk, they say, there is no reasoning with their husbands. In Rwanda, as in other African countries, men make most decisions when it comes to sex.
Unexpectedly, Shamsi and Jean-Claude urge me to ask the women about any health issue I may be interested in. I seize the opportunity and inquire about children. I want to know how many they each have. They use fingers to show me and enthusiastically pose for photos.
A finger for every child
I am curious to hear what they think of family planning. When I ask if they remember the first time they were ever told about contraception, I hear “two years ago” from a mother of seven, and “back in school” from a gregarious woman who has recently delivered her ninth child.
The government is currently considering a bill that would limit children to three per couple. Too late for these proud women.
I tell them I admire their resilience and can’t imagine myself caring for so many kids. They laugh heartily and make a few comments in Kinyarwanda. They look at me with warm smiles, but I wonder if they think I am a privileged whimp.
Although testing positive for HIV-AIDS has changed their destiny forever, the women I have met remain surprisingly, well, positive. Before I leave, they ask me to talk and write about them when I go home. I don’t tell them about my obtuse original plan not to tell their story.
July 4, 2007 - Liberation Day
Today was Rwanda’s Liberation Day, the 13th anniversary of the end of the Genocide.
The main event was held at Amahoro, the city’s largest outdoor stadium. I got there at 7:15 am, armed with a letter from my editor, who had also put my name on the official media list.
But getting inside would be a challenge.
I was initially sent to queue up at gate #2, then taken by the wrist to # 17, where I was asked to inquire at #18, from where I was led to #1. After being shuffled through security and metal detectors in two different locations, photographed with my own camera by two soldiers (to make sure it wasn’t a weapon), and directed to duck under a military rope by a determined police officer, I was finally granted access.
But they sat me in the VIP section with the men in designer suits and women in gorgeous traditional clothing, not with my fellow journalists on the field. Since I had an aerial perspective of the proceedings, which they didn’t, I decided to stay among the dignitaries. I must have looked out of place with the “press” tag around my neck.
The Celebration began at 9:40 with the arrival of President Kagame, who briefly waved to the cheering crowd of 25,000. He went to stand on a podium for the playing of the national anthem before making his way to his seat a few feet away from me.
Then, the announcer said something about Rwanda’s economic development and the need for the country to take charge of its destiny. True liberation, the message went, begins with self-sufficiency.
After a poet spoke for about ten minutes, the real show began.
A military band entered the stadium, followed by eight army regiments in locked step. Once they were in position, a parade filed past the VIP and presidential boxes. Leading the way were groups representing the country’s ministries and various civil society and religious organizations. But the delegations that received the loudest welcome were five private security firms. They also had the most professionally made signs. They were followed by the national police, also highly acclaimed, and special military units, which the President rose to salute. Interestingly, the military flags looked rather amateurish as they were printed only on one side.
The band and military units then performed a long series of choreographed exercises under the command of the master of arms who was wired to the P.A. system.
The soldiers eventually exited to make way for the amazingly gracious Intore dancers of the National Ballet School.
While the energetic dancers were setting up in front of the presidential box, the police suddenly began to let in hundreds more people in the stadium and directed them to sit along the far wall, well away from the action. We, on the other hand, had a great view.
Only 15 minutes into the Intore performance, their traditional music was interrupted. It was drowned out by the military band announcing the return of the infantry.
Then followed a disturbing display of one-on-one combat demos. Teams of men in fatigues took turns play-fighting and mock-attacking each other with hand-guns and other weapons. This illustration of gorilla warfare was meant to showcase the Rwandan soldier’s ability to defend his neighbour even when ambushed and outnumbered. But to the uninitiated observer, the simulated violence looked like gymnastics in camouflage.
A group of 200 soldiers then entered the stadium in column formation and did tricks involving knives and a lot of yelling.
Just before noon, the President awarded medals to retired generals who played a role in stopping the genocide. Approximately 25 civilians were also presented with medals of honour.
A charming young girl told a story that made everybody laugh and sigh. I have no idea what she was talking about, but she had so much charisma, she should be booked on Oprah.
The President finally went to the microphone and delivered a 30-minute speech. I am told it was about economic prosperity, work ethics, and post-genocide recovery.
The Intore dancers came back for an encore before the entire military crew marched in for a final stomping of the grounds.
The whole affaire came to a close four hours after it began.
It was quite an experience. I am glad I attended and witnessed the pageantry in person instead of watching the live broadcast on TV Rwanda. But I found the heavy focus on military might offered a disappointingly narrow expression of the rich Rwandan identity. And the Celebration’s paucity of role models for girls was deeply disheartening.
After all that Rwanda has gone through, the extreme focus on military might is understandable. But to foreign eyes, this seemed like a show designed to impress the masses rather than empower the people.
Final Thought: The day began with the announcement that BBC journalist Alan Johnston had been released by his captors in Gaza. Fitting for Liberation Day. He deserves a celebration.
July 1, 2007 – Mediya
She said “Bonjour” and started walking next to me. She didn’t ask for anything or even look at me with any real intensity. She seemed content for us to walk side by side along the dirt road. She is Mediya, a ten-year old girl with big, bright eyes.
We soon realized that language would be an obstacle. Medyia had used up her only French word, and my “morikoze” or “thank you” was quickly losing its charm.
But then I had an idea.
When we got to our gate, I gestured in all sorts of silly manners to ask her to wait while I went inside. I ran in, grabbed my notebook and some pens, filled a couple of cups with water and went back out. She was still standing there with her wide smile.
We sat down and I tried to explain that we could take turns drawing images and writing down the words for them in our respective languages. So I sketched out a house. Then she drew a flower and a tiny pair of pants and a sandal the size of a pebble. In her shy voice, she corrected my awful Kinyarwandan pronunciation.
After a little while, Billy, an 18-year old boy who will be taking his high school exams this week, stopped by and joined our conversation. He proved a patient and lively interpreter, drilling me on common greetings and road directions. Medyia laughed when I looked at her for help.
All I know about her is that she lives with her dad somewhere in the area, that her older sisters are away at school and that she is in second grade.
I think our paths will cross again during the few weeks I am here. In the meantime, I am making her a little bracelet with colourful, shiny beads. This is not what she needs, I know.
June 27, 2007 – The Walk to Work
It is a beautifully paved road overlooking lush and bustling hills that takes me to Grands Lacs Hebdo, directly opposite the Novotel. The30-minute walk (or 80-cent moto ride) offers a striking illustration of thecontrasts on display in Kigali.
On the right, the modern Defence Ministry towers over the valley.
On the left, cramped houses made of mud bricks and other such materials climb on top of each other.
But the real culture shock lies in the middle: along the thin median, women cut – or rather pull – the grass with their fingers. They crouch in the sun and breathe in car exhaust so that Rwanda’s roads can maintain amanicured look for the myriad international development workers and visitingbusiness people.
Those old-fashioned, environmentally-friendly, manual mowers with rotating blades could do a whole lot of good here. I can just see it: they would be called “Mowandas” and even have little holders for water bottles. Imagine the luxury…
June 25, 2007 — Observations
It takes a little while, but eventually you realize that Rwanda is missing a few things. The most obvious is plastic bags. They are actually illegal, which is very progressive. Then you notice the absence of people rushing around toting take-out coffee cups. And no moms with annoying baby strollers built for moon missions. No pigeons, because food isn’t thrown out. No obese teenagers because there isn’t that much food. No chain stores because no rote greeting could ever rival with the locals’ naturally welcoming smiles.
But the combination of no emission regulations for cars and trucks and no wind are not ideal.
And finally, no backpacks, perhaps because they would be too hot. Although I am told that they are all the rage in Congo-DRC. But of course, not everything fits into a day-pack.
June 22, 2007 – My Rwandan Birthday
I turned 39 today. Waking up inside a mosquito net in a big house on a hill in Kigali was kind of neat.
I spent part of the afternoon at the breezy Bourbon Coffee, the city’s new and already very popular wireless café. The delicious fair-trade brew attracts a fair number of fair skinned people, which gives the place the slightly odd feel of a certain American chain…
Then I tagged along with Allan and Shelley who had a meeting at the New Times. On the way back, we stopped by the Ikirezi bookstore, which carries a very extensive selection of international magazines and books in English and French.
Tonight, we had dinner on the patio at O Sole Luna, an Italian restaurant with a gorgeous view across the valley. We were joined by Charles Kabonero, the young editor of Newsline, one of Rwanda’s few independent newspapers, and Collin Haba, who will be starting an MJ at Carleton in September. Charles told us of his arrest for articles he wrote that were critical of Paul Kagame’s government. He was found guilty of defaming an official and received a one-year suspended sentence. But he remains under close watch. I start my internship at Newsline in a few weeks. I can’t wait to see the energetic Charles at work. If a dinner conversation is any indication, I could be in for a wild ride.
As the mosquito net falls on my first ever African birthday, I am filled with anticipation for the many experiences that lie ahead. This has been a wonderful day.
Allan,me, Collin, Shelley, Charles