Roxanne Stasyszyn's Blog
June 10, 2007 — Urabeho!
The expression for B.Y.O.B. in Rwanda is “bottle party,” and it was corrected in parenthesis on the poster in The New Times newsroom, right underneath the words “Roxy’s going away party.”
I won’t lie, I was sceptical. I had images of three people sitting in our living room, silently, until it was etiquette to leave. I explained to the girls that I am cursed. Planning parties or get-togethers always end up falling through. Either something else, much bigger, happens the same weekend or there is some other force majeure, but I have never had much luck. Back home my ‘curse’ is a well known fact.
Needless to say, by 2:30 am, when we were begging people to leave for the club so I could spend the last bit of my last night at the infamous “Cadillac” nightclub, I was quite pleasantly surprised. Almost the entire newsroom showed up and shook their butts on the porch to the massive sound system that someone brought. And while the bottles ran out before the people did, they were enough to make for an amazing house party and lead into the Cadillac!
The morning after, well the afternoon after, the girls and myself sat around a table at Bourbon Coffee, our home away from Kimihurura, where the staff knows us by first name and party with us regularly. We passed around each other’s cameras looking and laughing at the times forgotten (and those we wish would have been forgotten) while the cool Kigali air chilled our coffees and hot chocolates.
It felt like home.
Except, like every time I leave the Starbucks sister, I crash back into Rwanda. One of the toughest countries I have been to in Africa this past year. Which is a statement that always shocks people. Politically and economically it has become the ‘port’ of Africa. A place were western businesses find efficiency and security. Its history is one of the most violent, but many see it as an even brighter contrast to its booming future. It is safe enough to walk at night, it is coherent enough to get things done, and it still holds that remarkable beauty of Africa’s terraced hills.
To be fair, I still haven’t fully decided about Rwanda. Most other countries I was able to tell, almost instantly, whether I would like it or not. Rwanda’s first impression was not the greatest on me. Its people stared me down with either cold eyes or an upturned hand. But perhaps I am just tired. Perhaps a year of living out of a backpack and sleeping in a different bed every few nights was starting to really get to me by the time I crossed into Rwanda. But still, I find it hard to feel at ease with a society that boasts its secrecy. I find it unsettling to know that the travel visa process for Rwanda is almost as complicated and secure as that for the United States, all the while surrounded by central African countries that have nothing much more than one guard with a gun at each crossing. Still, I do listen when people tell me an iron fist will shape solid foundation. And I do hear the people that tell me Kagame is a good leader with good intentions. And I also realize that the international community’s support for Kagame and the Rwandan government is evidence of some things.
Further still, I was at my going away party. I received all the heartfelt wishes and I am the other half of the many, wonderful friendships made in these few months in this country. Rwanda’s last impression on me was pretty great.
June 7, 2007 —
It’s ALMOST like being a celebrity
During one, of many, nights drinking with the family of strangers the African backpacking network provides, I found myself in Nairobi, lifting my glass in unison to what we all miss of the western world. It is a very common practice and generally centers around food, sleeping conditions and hygiene.
This night, amid the calls of Cheetos cheezies, Oreo cookies and coil mattresses, one girl – an American peace corps – stands up, raises her Tusker and exclaims, “I miss my anonymity!”
After a second to let the non-food word fight through the many layers of beer in our minds, she was applauded with roars of agreement and laughter. The women all broke into stories of marriage proposals and children with ‘attack’ hugs, while the boys nodded along to stories of ‘mzungu!’ calls and pick-pocketing.
Being a minority is never easy. But being a very bright contrast in a single-race society has its celebrity status. Although it’s not necessarily a skin colour issue. My black friend in Dar, a Canadian, got called “muzungu” as well. So it’s not exactly racial but it is an every second reality.
Accepting this reality for a full year now, and being annoyed with it more than not, always makes me laugh. How many teenagers back home waste years and energy worrying about how ‘no one notices them’ and how they just wish they couldn’t be ‘invisible’. How many girls sit by the phone after giving out there number, stressing about ‘why he hasn’t called’. One week in most African countries; that’s my prescription.
I huffed out the Nairobi anonymity story to Emilie while stretching on the porch after our run this evening. We could still see the children’s’ feet under our driveway gate.
I don’t like exercising all that much, especially jogging. But I do it, all the while entertaining hopes that not too many people will see or recognize my red face gasping for air. We set out tonight just the same as every other day we have: up our road, to the right, up again and then round and round the traffic circle that shows off the prime minister’s office, the ministry of defence and a great garden in the centre. It’s nice, quiet, slightly secluded and not so small that we get dizzy. Plus, if nothing else, it is paved and relatively flat all the way around.
Reaching the circle we jog past a flock of school children still in their uniforms. They waved their hands and let out their mzungu calls and then we continued on past them. It was the third time around that they decided they would give us more.
Passing them again, we wave and say “bonjour.”
In flip-flops and school uniforms, with oil bottles (now used as their water bottles) and bags in hand, they start jogging with us. Not only with us but some would run ahead, others would try to talk the whole time. I was just trying to focus on breathing.
The further we went the more children joined. Emile and I would look down, around and behind and just laugh – what else could we do. At one point I found enough energy to tell Emilie that I felt like Forrest Gump running with such an entourage, except ours was small Rwandan children, who were kicking our asses and not even breaking a sweat.
After our token three laps, we turned to go back down the road and started saying goodbye to our running partners. While they said “au revoir” back, they kept up, running along with us to the laughs, smiles and confused and curious glances of those we passed along the way.
It was no use trying to communicate that we were heading home and that they should run back to where we found them. When we tried, I think their response was one of, “alright, we’ll come too!”
We got to the point in the road where a patch of evergreen trees appears on the left. For me it is the most beautiful patch of all of Rwanda because right after those trees is the big “LA FIESTA” restaurant sign and our road. It means in about thirty seconds I can stop torturing myself.
I always push myself to sprint this last little bit because even though I hate running and am quite unskilled at it, there are few things as exhilarating as running as fast as you possibly can. In fact, I wouldn’t really call it sprinting, for me it’s more like when you are a child and you just want to see how much wind your legs can make fly at your face.
When I saw the trees I looked around and behind to the kids, held up my hand and said, “MOJA” lifting my index finger. Then “MBILI,” lifting my middle finger. The kids caught on and before the ring finger was up we all yelled “TATO!”
Reaching the Fiesta sign I raised both arms up in triumph. (I know, beating 5 year old children isn’t cause for gloating) And then I turned to catch the kids running at me in big ‘up to the sky’ hugs.
They each got one before Emilie and I said goodbye and thank you and started down the broken dirt road to our house.
But the kids kept following. Our door man, Joshue, closed the white, steel gate to us still waving at each other from either side. Their feet were still shifting around when we started stretching, until finally we heard, “one, two, THREE” crashing into a bunch of laughter and then finally the feet disappeared.
It’s funny how the running experience where my red, gasping face was more on display than ever, turned into the best one I’ve had yet.
May 23, 2007 — You know you are stressed out when…
Swearing a little too loud at my computer, I pushed my chair back, grabbed my wallet and actually ran up the steep, dirt road of death-crevices to the booth that perches at the side of the main road selling phone cards and cigarettes.
I handed over Frw 25 (or about 4 cents) and the man sitting inside the booth, which is actually a yellow painted, round, steel bubble, handed me a single cigarette and a lighter. I lit up with every face within about 5 meters staring (women don’t tend to smoke in Rwanda) and walked slowly back down to the newsroom driveway.
Sitting on the cement ledge near the entrance, I rubbed my face into my free hand. It was only 10 am.
I had an interview at 7 am this morning, or at least I was supposed to. I woke up at the exact time I was supposed to meet a reporter I am working on the story with, before heading to the interview together. Jumping up and over Emilie, asleep on my floor after discovering a slight bug infestation in her room late last night, I was washed, dressed and ready to go in about 8 minutes. Of course there was not a moto insight until I had walked almost half way to the office and it was already ten to 7. When I got to the office, the reporter was no where to be found. I bought a phone card from that trusty yellow bubble and called the editor, David, to get her number. She interrupted me before I had even finished saying hello, “I have been waiting over an hour for a taxi. Get a car and come pick me, I am opposite the stadium.” By taxi, she means the minibuses that are always full and driving past you at this time of the day. I walked to the other side of the road and tried to hail a taxi cab, which were also all full and driving past me at this time of day. It was 7:15 am. I checked the balance on my phone, only Frw 531 left, it may just be enough to call the interviewee and explain the circumstance. It would have to be enough.
The man we were supposed to be meeting at his office 15 minutes ago, only speaks Kinyarwanda and French. My French is atrocious.
“Bonjour,” I breathed into my phone while trying to get the attention of cabs zooming past me, “C’est Roxy.”
“Uah,” he replied. (It’s not quite a fully confused ‘uuuhhhh’ or a fully sure ‘aaahhhhh’ but it is one of the most common expressions I have come to meet in Africa.) With that I knew it would take a lot more from me.
“Je parle avec toi dans ton bureau a sept heure aujord’hui,” I tried. It was enough. He knew who I was now and I explained in quick, broken French (worrying about my lack of phone credit) that I couldn’t find my colleague, am very sorry, and would still like to meet. He explained that by 8 o’clock he would be in meetings all day and can meet tomorrow. I thanked him, apologized again and looked at the driver of a cab that finally responded to my flailing arm.
I told the driver I needed to find my friend just opposite the stadium in the same, ridiculously bad, French.
“Stadium,” I repeated. He looked at his steering wheel and said, “une mille, cinq cent,” before looking back up at me. I almost cried. I had Frw1100 left in my wallet and knew that he just gave me one of the worst ‘mzungu prices’ I’ve heard yet. I didn’t know exactly where the stadium was from here, but I knew it was a lot closer than FRw1500. We finally agreed on Frw1000 and I jumped in the back asking him to go quickly. I called the reporter again, quickly saying: “tell the driver where you are,” the second I heard her receiver pick up, and then I placed my phone against the unsuspecting driver’s ear. They talked in Kinyarwanda for a second before the driver pulled a quick U-turn and started talking to me in French just as broken as my own.
Only a minute later, he pulled to the side and I saw her across the street. She and another lady came running over and jumped in the front and back seat with me. She began explaining that it was her roommate, it was okay, and let’s go to the office and then straight to the interview. I stopped her by raising my hand up between our faces, frustrated. I told her I had called the interviewee already, there was no use in meeting him now, we can talk to him tomorrow, and that I had no more money left. She explained to me that it was not her fault that she wasn’t at the office yet, pointing to the crowd outside still waiting for a minibus to stop so they could push and shove to try and get the single empty seat. I said I understood, I do, but that we needed to think of something else. I was unable to pay for the cab unless she and her friend could help. Her friend was opening the door before she had fully translated, and then followed suit. I handed over my last Frw1000 to the driver, said “merci” and did the same.
We stood waiting for a minibus for countless minutes. Finally one slowed right in front of us (just our luck) and elbows out, like every mosh-pit I have ever been in, I secured a seat inside. The minibus was only Frw100; it was all I had left.
Back at the newsroom, she and I discussed our next moves and then parted to separate computers. There was nothing we could do right this second: there was no money on the only phone in the whole newsroom and neither of us had money in our phones or in our pockets to try and head out for a different interview. We would wait for the editor, she explained, to get money for the phone and a form to request travel money for the story.
It was only after I had tried to send a single e-mail, three times on failing internet and then had the whole computer arbitrarily shut down, deleting everything, that I finally lost my cool and drooled out the string of profanities that sent me running for a cigarette at 10 am.
Once I was sitting outside, forehead in my hands, wind on my bare arms and nicotine in my lungs, the security guard manning the gate felt it necessary to inform me that smoking was a sin. I tried to tell him that, yes it is not good for you, but I do not believe it should be considered a sin. But even that was hard to exhale and he wasn’t listening anyways, so I gave up and let him cast his eyes down to me, the doomed. After doing so, he decided it was the perfect opportunity to ask me if I could help him make a phone call.
“You have a phone,” he asked. I nodded.
“Maybe you could help me,” he started.
“I have a phone but there is no money on the phone,” I interrupted.
“Well when you have money then, you tell me and you help me,” he said turning away. I was frustrated, but I had enough, I wasn’t going to give up again.
“You can go buy a card and use my phone if you like,” I said in Swahili, sternly.
“But even me, I have no money,” he said with that grin and expression I have cringed at too many times. “And I need to call to Goma,” he followed with. Goma is in Congo. A completely different country with long-distance rates applied.
“Pole,” was all I said, looking down at my shoe. [Sorry]
“Pole,” he laughed into his shoulder as he turned around.
James, the news section editor, came walking past and asked me if anything was wrong. I looked up from the palm of my hand and took a last drag on my cigarette. Standing up and slapping his hand I said, “Man, it is hard being mzungu.”
His friendly laughter followed me back into the newsroom.
May, 22 2007 — The wonders of my African diet
Some people prefer cafes, some libraries, others the privacy of their own room, but I have an uncle who says: “your best thinkin’ is done on the can!”
And while I cringe slightly at the small town Ontario ‘hick’ images of dirty white tank tops, Budweiser beer bottles and the all Canadian mullet that come to mind with this sentient, I have never disagreed with the innocent wisdom behind it.
With the amount of bacterial infections, uncontrollable bowel movements and the overall lack of communication between my stomach and the rest of me, I have had much time to put this blunt confession to trial this past year. And it has been especially true here, in Rwanda, where our home bathroom facilities are more than just a broken cement hole in the floor or an illogical ‘western’ toilet that has no water, never works and breaks my quad muscles by forcing the old ‘hovering’ act.
It is almost as if my bodily reaction to African food and bacteria isn’t as much a sadistic, humiliating joke, as it is an attempt to structure my education.
With so much to think about I’ve ALMOST become thankful for the street barbeques that I should probably walk right past instead of buying two of each kind, or the deep fried dough balls (andazi) that have become my favourite snack.
Needless to say, stomach ‘issues’ are a reality for most wazungu in Africa, but I figure, instead of being upset with the fact that I have seriously considered if my mom can send “Depends” through the mail, I should just be thankful for the time I am forced to sit, and think.
May 14, 2007 — Murambi
I woke up early and was strolling down the main street in Butare by 8 am. I stopped at “La Source” to buy water and an apple for breakfast but I had to wait a moment, after reaching the front door at the same time as the shop keep, so that the store could be opened. After double thinking my scribbled directions and walking a circle in the dirt road way, where many motos and minibuses loiter (a true mzungu move), I found an empty minibus to Gikongoro. I was expecting a longer drive because of what others I had talked to said, but the roads were all paved and the stops few and quick. Before I was fully awake, we were pulling into a proper town with brick office buildings.
“Is this Gikongoro,” I asked the woman in front of me, whom I had also double checked the fare with. I was finding it hard to concentrate. A few stops before, an elderly woman with two younger ladies and a baby girl slowly got on the filling minibus. The elderly woman was basically picked up and squeezed into the seat. The baby sat on the lap of one of the younger ladies beside me. Once the bus took off, she grabbed either side of the babies face and jerked it around to look at me. The two younger ladies laughed and continued to talk in Kinyrwanda, “mzungu” being the only word I recognized. I put my headphones on shortly after.
It was when the three generations of females got off at the stop before Gikongoro that my brain went busy. I had seen how skinny the elderly woman was as they were picking her up and putting her into the minibus, but childhood echoes of my mother saying “Roxy, it is not nice to stare,” stopped me from doing anything but randomly glancing at her tiny wrist and hand clutching the steel bar across the window beside her. But once the bus had stopped, the two younger women got off to deal with the bags and baby. The space between the elderly woman and I, sitting on either end of the back seat, was now empty and I saw she was awkwardly stuck, with her head resting on the top of the back of the seat. I guess her mother never told her it was impolite to stare because her eyes were burning holes in me. I tried to look away but those eyes looked as paralyzed as the rest of her body, and they stayed, exhausted looking, resting on me.
It was as though someone had taken a vacuum to all the air and insides her body could hold, leaving nothing but depressed flesh. I have never seen anyone so thin. They carried her off the bus, her upper arm– thinner than my wrist – jutted out from under her wrapped khanga to dangle around the neck of one of the younger ladies. The bus drove off, leaving them there with nothing in either direction, the old woman’s bare feet barely denting the grass. Her bone framed eyes, staring at me with silent sickness, were still occupying my thoughts as I bent in half to fall out of the minibus at Gikongoro.
Getting a moto from where the bus stopped was a simple matter of saying “Murambi” in the direction of a line of waiting drivers. “I knew it!” laughs started filling my ears until I heard a “cinq cent” call and I jumped at the opportunity. It was cheaper than I was told to expect and so I slung my leg behind the driver and put on the green helmet he passed back to me over his shoulder.
The landscape from the view of the moto was even more beautiful than the minibus window. I was stuck between enjoying the quick wind against my face, and wanting the driver to slow down so I could breathe it all in and maybe snap a picture. Soon the road turned to dirt and walls of leafy palms and banana trees came up on either side. Like so many times this past year, my eyes were just not big enough to fit it all in.
I could see the sunburnt arch of evergreen leaves ahead. Something, that was always a warm reminder of Christmas left up too long, now reminds me of the genocide memorials that they mark all throughout Rwanda. There were two on the road to Murambi, along with strings of purple, triangle flags.
After crossing under this brown arch, the walls fell away. We were instantly on a massive, orange-brown, gravel mountain floor with parallel mountain ranges on either side. Up ahead was once a school on a hilltop until it became one of the most gruesome slaughter scenes of 1994: Murambi Genocide Memorial.
I got off the moto, handed the driver a Frw500 note, brown and silky enough to blow your nose with, and then had no idea what to do with myself. I extended my hand to a lawn worker and he brought me to a very short man wearing big black rubber boots and who had one foggy, white-grey eye. The lawn worker said this man would take me around but that he spoke no French, English or Swahili. I was almost relieved to not have to worry about small-talk.
Within seconds, however, I was wishing we could communicate somehow. In confusion, I followed him around the brick and window, two-storey building – which was quite impressive and empty - and headed out back to more humble, brown-bricked, long-house school rooms. We walked over a grass field that doubled as a playground for archaic, immobile lawn tractors. In a moment of apprehension, I realized the last time I was at a funeral was my childhood friend’s father’s, over five years ago. I looked down at myself: a red V-neck T-shirt, a brown zip-up hoodie and brown, high-top, Converse sneakers poking out from under the tattered bottoms of my jeans - hardly the attire for a funeral of 50, 000. I looked up to the green terraced mountains surrounding us on this quiet, seemingly isolated peak, and I forgot about my clothes.
We came to the first long-house. Five steel, red-painted doors with brass handles stood in a row. The man unlocked the first one, gave it a gentle push and walked to the next. I leaned forward to look in, unsure if I was supposed to. The smell of lime grabbed my nose before my eyes could adjust to the lighting and be grabbed by the rows of skeletons. I couldn’t really make my feet walk closer. I wasn’t scared or extremely shocked – I was told what to expect – but when I stepped over the doorway, my feet numbly fumbled the way. I stood there with my jaw gently hanging. The door bounced off my shoulder, shaking my stare, and I turned to look at the man. His expression was one of, “go ahead” and so I took another step. After long, joined minutes I turned and stepped back out, taking a second to breathe. In the second to fifteenth room, I would venture in further.
Skeletons of all sizes lay beside and on top of each other atop white painted stages of thin, spaced, lines of wood. There were twenty-five rooms all together – I did fifteen, or three long-house strips.
The second room the man motioned for me to enter with one of his few English words: “children.”
Stepping outside this room, I took another second to lean against the stone ledge opposite the doors. A group of kids playing just near started calling out “Mzungu! Mzungu!” After a short conversation of waves, smiles and “mzungu, bonjour” calls, they all rushed over to stand below the elevated school house. I offered them my hand and they each took turns holding it. I greeted them in the only Kinyarwanda words I know and they giggled and laughed. I couldn’t help but smile back, and laugh with them. I looked at the man and he was smiling too. But I felt like it was disrespectful to laugh as twenty-five rooms filled with murdered bones sat behind me, but at the same time, it felt rude to ignore the kids and leave their smiles unreciprocated.
I eventually turned away from them and into the third room. Looking around I found myself repeating how much it all looked like papier-mâché. The lime had turned everything chalky and white. Papier-mâché people who had been vacuumed from the inside until just bones and some sags of what was once skin and muscle lay in a chalky pile.
Many postures lay there, frozen. Some were flat with their legs bent slightly, arms crossing at the wrists, shielding their pelvic bones. One, the size of a young teenager, was curved in a foetal position. For the most part, arms were arbitrary; sticking out in every which way, to the sides, draping across others, as if trying to protect them, one woman’s stood up straight in the air and bent at the elbow. Some had their hands up near their faces, looking as if they were trying to hide like babies playing hide-and-seek; “if I can’t see you, you can’t see me.” Almost all the skulls were cracked or crushed. Rib cages were the easiest way to count and I tended to start at them then follow the connections to find the whole body.
The children were tiny, foetal clumps of dusty white papier-mâché. Papier-mâché, papier-mâché…I just kept repeating it. The resemblance was eerie and the dehumanizing, much easier. Papier-mâché, papier-mâché…
But then I would see feet – still so human, thanks to built up callous from barefooted lives. Toes were clenched and flexed in all different ways. Tufts of hair appeared every so often around holes in skulls or on pelvic bones. Teeth stuck out too – yellowing ivory against greying white. Broken bones looked like they just snapped easily without the clutter of skin and muscle. On one leg I noticed dried out muscle sinew that resembled baking drift-wood.
Every so often there was one still wearing a shirt, or a pair of underwear – bleached and now not much more than seams framing what they once were. One, on its side, had his arm and leg flopped over another who was cradled into him. But nothing was more difficult than the faces. Some were still screaming. One – a child – stared at me. It was calm but severe. Its eyelids left only tiny holes looking almost in sleep, and its mouth was closed, perfectly. It stared at me. The back of my throat tightened and my eyes stung. I turned my head viciously and stepped back outside.
The papier-mâché resemblance made it bearable for a while, until one of the very last rooms. One woman was almost sitting up, against the wall. Her face was yelling at me – not screaming, but yelling like a sibling fighting call. Another woman was wearing a rosary. On the edge of the last table on the right was a woman who had her hand raised, her forefinger in a scolding point with the other three tucked neatly down. I could picture her waging it at her murderer just before the machete or bludgeon came down to make the crumbling hole I saw on the right side of her skull.
I turned to leave, wanting to stop the stinging in my eyes that had come back at the sight of this reprimanding skeleton. But just before the door I was stopped by a hand that had flopped out from the top of the platform and lay in the aisle way between me and the door. A silver band hung from the ring finger, held tightly in place by the fused bones. The space between the bone and the tarnishing circle gaped, no flesh and skin to fill it up. I swung my hips around it and nearly jumped out of the door frame.
Leaving the long-house, school rooms, we started to walk up a grassy hill to a large building holding windowless, square holes that yawned into the fresh air. “Clothes,” the man said; the second of his three English words. He pointed to the building, in response to my unsure eyes. At the back of what looked like an empty and abandoned concrete room, were shelving units of folded clothes and three or four blue rope lines, sagging with clumps of dirty and torn material. I walked up and down each line, trying to see every article, hoping – like I did with the bodies – that if I could see each and every piece it would be like giving it respect, I didn’t want to miss a single one.
I looked again to the man who was now squinting out to the lush green mountains, greying clouds and fresh air. “How does he do this each day,” I thought. “Maybe he’s come to see papier-mâché too.”
We walked back to, and around the other side of, the two-storey, impressive building and his third English word came out. “People,” he said, pointing down to a ditch dug about 8 feet into the ground, surrounded with white steel fencing.
When we got to the front I asked the man if it was okay for me to just walk around, on my own. I tried in Swahili and the group of people loitering nodded with him. I headed back the same way we took across the grassy tractor lot. I snapped a picture of an acacia tree standing in between two rows of the long-house, school rooms. Across the field, a group of female lawn workers called me over.
I took a round-about route but eventually answered their Kinyarwanda and “mzungu” calls. The cluster of women expanded as they mentioned my camera and asked for photos. I had shaken all of their hands, heard everyone tell me their name and then handed my camera over, showing them how to use the digital screen and press the shutter. I have done this almost every chance I have had this past year. The crowd got larger. Women and children came running over from behind mountain crests. At one point a hush shot through the group as, who I assume to be their supervisor, poked his head from around the building. But after looking as if they were going to head back to work – swinging scythes to cut the lawn - they came running back for more photos. Many eventually asked me to take some of just them, or them with their child, or them all together swinging the curved blades at the green ground. The short man, who led me around appeared within the crowd at one point and became the photographer. He turned the camera on me, to the women’s laughing applause, and then asked me to take one of him.
After some time the excitement wore down, my memory card became more full and the supervisor more impatient. I said thank you to all of them and started walking. After a few steps I turned back to see them all watching me. I waved back to them – their laughter kept the smile on my face. At the top of the slight hill I turned again, their faces still watching, hands waving at hyper-speeds.
I shook hands with everyone in the front yard, saying thank you, and started walking to the red-dirt road.
It started spitting rain but nothing could put a damper on my mood. I said hello (in Kinyarwanda) to everyone I passed, sometimes offering my hand. Now, it felt awkward NOT to smile.
May 9, 2007 — Luckily, kids are short
It’s getting close. Going home is getting close. My mind won’t stop playing with hundreds of thoughts like: what’s it going to be like, will people still remember me and will it go back to being the same as before I left? Did I accomplish enough – or anything at all? Do I really want to leave, or maybe do I just not want to go home?
All the old ghosts are running back in with their armfuls of threats and insecurities. The invincibility of travelling Africa alone is starting to come under attack.
Luckily, kids are short. As I walked home for lunch, school kids were doing the same. Except they were running and kicking plastic bottles back and forth while I was dragging my chin along the sidewalk with my headphones planted firmly in my ears.
But one, very small boy, whose head and uniform were at least two sizes too big for his body, pulled my eyes to his unavoidable and contagious smile as he walked past. And just as our necks couldn’t turn any further, he waved at me and his smile widened. Mine did too.
There was something about the sincerity behind his gesture that slammed my chin back up in the air. He didn’t seem to be replicating the kids who usually greet me (and all other wazungu) and continued to for the rest of my walk. It didn’t seem like a cheap intro to ask for money. It wasn’t like a mischievous ploy to get the ‘side-show-freak-mzungu’ to talk. It was a warm smile that spread between innocence and pleasant naivety. It was hesitant but earnest.
It was a small gesture, and similar to the hundreds I’ve gotten everyday since I have been a white person walking around Africa, but it calmed me. It reassured me, somehow, that: yes, you have and are doing something extraordinary, just by walking down this street of a different world. It patched my confidence and repaired my thick outer skin with stitches instead of coarse layers of bandages and scars.
It was perfectly cued. The old ghosts and new worries disappeared. Simon and Garfunkel stared singing through my headphones, and I waved and said “bonjour” to everyone I passed the rest of the way.
May 2, 2007 — Insomnia
12:15 am. Sitting on my bed looking like an asylum passenger through my big bedroom window. Not blinking, I watch the early hours of the next days’ morning float around the white walls, played with by a single mosquito - like Peter Pan’s rebellious shadow. I jolt every so often from his kamikaze dives into my face or ears that forbid any intermissions of sleep, his buzzing a taunting call to battle.
Today was my first day at work. The power cut out to up-flying hands and voluminous groans of reporters, editors and sub-editors who just lost whatever (s)he was working on. Life is tough here. This past year I have met so many Africans who do what they do despite, and while I wince at their hardships, I can’t help the admiring grin inside that knows, “if they were back home, they would kick all our asses!”
After the power came back, I edited a story that was instigated by the Labour Day ceremonies yesterday. The writer was analyzing many Rwandans’ right to celebrate, criticizing the late to start, early to end, lazy work days that have many Rwandan industries lagging behind others of East Africa. Near the end he mentioned, “Some people attributed this problem to the effect of the 1994 Genocide.” He summarized that the loss of everyone you’ve ever loved and everything you’ve spent your lifetime acquiring could lead to a loss of work ethic.
1:53 am. He hasn’t shown his face in a while, but every so often I can hear the mosquito yell its insults at me. I drift away from my train of thought to wonder if mosquitoes are nocturnal. I think they are, or perhaps I have just been targeted by an extremely cheeky one.
The story that kept me squinting at the computer screen until 6:30 pm today was a “book review” from the president’s office. Its over 3000 words were not so much a review, as a retelling of the book’s content: the Rwandan Genocide(s). I read and trimmed the words liberally. While I appreciated the opportunity to soak up the history, it was hard to concentrate as the bells of - what many people I have spoken to in Rwanda fear could be - a ticking bomb rang, in my head. But when I handed the jump drive with the, now less than 1500 word review to my editor, I knew it would be published, I knew people would read it, and bells started ringing for a different bomb. This was the last of about 5 stories I edited today, it was also the 5th one that talked about the Genocide. The newspaper I work at, The New Times, is the biggest English paper in Rwanda, and the only daily. And on any given day, at least half of all its Rwandan stories mention the Genocide in one way or another. If it isn’t the main issue, it is usually a justification, excuse, litigation or factor.
2:28 am. I’m procrastinating now. I read somewhere once that eating bananas reduced your attractiveness to mosquitoes…something to do with potassium. This mosquito definitely hadn’t read that memo because I ate quite a few bananas today. I took this last, embarrassing failure of a hand-swing-and cup attempt to catch him as an excuse to leave the fighting ring for a washroom break.
I sat in the editor’s chair while its rightful tenant perched on the edge of the desk, conducting the morning newsroom meeting today. His ‘coach before the big game’ speech, however, ended with one main theme: our writers can’t write, so editors own your pages! Starting work as an editor, I took note. Thinking as a writer, all I could wonder was: can discouragement really be encouraging?
Jumping on a motorcycle taxi or “moto” at the end of the day, I still heard the morning’s “so editors own your pages” remark echoing. But now it was in a screaming match with the bells of ticking bombs. The dark streets started to zip past and, slowly, they took the bells and echoes with them. What remained was: it’s been 13 years.
The streets here are better than those in Dar es Salaam, the water and electricity more reliable. Safety isn’t nearly as big a problem as in all other African countries I have been to. Why then, do all the paper’s Rwandan stories still centre so heavily on the Genocide? The writing may be rough at the paper but it is also the only daily newspaper in Rwanda. English is also many of the workers’ second or third language. And if you have faith in your editors, why not have them work together instead of putting the one down? The silencing of the bells and echoes irked me into wanting to scream out: look at the good, why focus on the bad? I have come to realize that so many African nations live with the past in attempts to learn from it.
I bit my tongue and enjoyed the rest of the moto ride instead. A tactic I’ve engraved into my personality this past year. I had to do a presentation for a sociology class I took in Tanzania and for it I allowed my teeth to unclench and pumped my arms to African empowerment; throwing off the chains of memories 45 and even 55 years old. My classmates all congratulated me on a job well done but every nodding head cradled angry eyes. These are sensitive issues – ones that, I know, a stupid little mzungu girl cannot even fathom – that have effects reaching far past 45 years, not to mention 13.
Still, as I handed over my Frw300 to the green-helmeted moto driver and crunched my feet on the gravel to our house, I decided not to let go of my beliefs that revisiting the past everyday keeps it alive; that discouragement is not encouraging.
3:37 am. He’s tricking me, I know it, but I am bigger than him. I hit the light switch, drop my pen and notebook to the floor and pull my top sheet all the way over my head. It’s what my Tanzanian roommate always did, while I inelegantly slept tangled up in my mosquito net. Under the blanket I couldn’t hear him buzzing anymore. I smiled and thought that I guess I believe in some solutions I’ve met in Africa.
April 22, 2007 — Into Rwanda
“It really does look like they say it does,” kept pounding through my head, in synch with the pulses of my headache. Whether the headache was from eight hours on a bus, while my knee knocked the metal frame of the seat ahead of me the whole way, or the bend in my neck that let me fit in between sacks of grain on the minivan’s seats and ceiling, I’m not sure, but it took nothing from my fixed stare out the TV screen, window frame.
I had taken a 4:30 am ‘chicken’ bus from Mwanza, Tanzania to a town called Nyakanazi – the closest I could get to the Rwandan border with public transport. It was in Nyakanazi that I hitched a ride with a minivan, packed with others heading to the border, two Burundians heading to theirs and these huge sacks of what I assumed to be grain simply because the contents shifted like sand under my butt bones. The one I crouched on, knees to my chest, had “Baby” written on it in black, permanent marker.
When we were about a half an hour away, the mountains started. Looking just like they say they do.
Out of the minivan, the immigration officers on the Tanzanian side kept cultivating the queue while we chatted with big smiles and shaking hands. And then, with my pack on my back, I walked into Rwanda. On my right stood a mountain face, its rough edges glinting in the late afternoon sun. On my left sprayed brown waterfalls. In front of me stood a big white sign declaring the Rwandan side of this, Rusumu Falls border crossing.
Stealing my wide eyes from the falls were two smiling kids, running from my extended hand and shyly covering their giggles at my greetings – in Kiswahili first, and then French. They came running back, smiles still big, to ask for “pi-pi” (“sweet” - as in candy), a scene I had become more than used to first in Tanzania, where I had studied for five months, and then while traveling through most of central, south and east Africa.
At the immigration office, a stout, serious man who sat behind a square wooden desk didn’t warm to any of my rusty French greetings, but I was unfazed. I had made it to Rwanda, the final two month leg of almost a year in Africa.
With another stamp in my passport, I stepped outside and looked up to see a dark blue cloud on my right rushing into the sun above me. A second later, it was pouring rain.
I took a public minibus for the two hour drive into Kigali. It left me standing alone with my pack in a mud square, fenced with tall, steel corrugated sheets, which I was told was the bus station. It was pitch black and I was quickly approached by a mob of young men.
I had no energy left but for some reason, my gut wasn’t clenched with the feeling of impeding doom. By all standards I was in trouble, and of course the sky started to spit at me in archetypal finale. The boys started at me with their taxi offerings and chin-lifted “sexy lady” calls. But as I hurried past them, stumbling in the stew of mud and broken concrete that is most African streets, one boy approached me speaking near to perfect English.
My exhaustion and pounding head bit the bait and I turned to him with sagging eyes. “I need to find this hotel,” I began, pulling out my guidebook to point to a map of the city. My guts had proven themselves once again. All the boys that had gathered started using their phones, talking to taxi drivers and huddled around my half-page map to try and find me a place to go and a way to get there, all at the ridiculously low budget I admitted I had.
Other countries I have been in Africa all come with their hoards of ‘helpful’ men as well, but for some reason these boys seemed sincere. A feeling of safety cushioned my tired legs and frustrated brain that I couldn’t explain, except for my gut’s congruence.
Unfortunately, the boys could speak more English then they could understand and their helpful hands were slowly leading me in circles of annoyed misinterpretation. A taxi that could hardly hold on its wheels eventually brought me to an overpriced motel that smelt like mothballs and had a decrepit TV playing Spanish soccer, which I watched while eating scoops of peanut butter from my Swiss army knife blade - a regular dinner of mine while traveling.
The next morning my headache was evaporating, the hotel room unexpectedly included breakfast, and I found out the man at the front desk spoke Swahili. So, with one of the worst travel days I’ve had in Africa behind me, I set out to town: Kigali
It’s rainy season, and the vertical landscape is stacked in strict colours: wet brown from about your ankles down, lush green from knee to nose height and a mischievous blue-tinted grey takes your eye all the way up to the mountain tops and over. Kigali is a mosaic of rusting, corrugated iron rooftops in the laps and cradles of mountains. The headache was finally gone but still, my open lips, dripping in awe, continued to whisper, “gahhhh…it looks just like they say it does.”
I had a head full of Swahili, instinctually saying “mambo” instead of “bonjour,” so I decided to stick to the universal smile and nod greeting. But I became quieter with each straight face that brushed past me. I have been living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and while it is usually fueled by a sales gimmick or a begging hand, everyone on the streets smiles and calls out greetings to you, in whatever languages they can muster.
My discouragement let my mind wander away from the faces in front of me and almost instantly my brain started choking on all the stories, essays, novels and articles that my double major of journalism and human rights have forced in front of me – about Rwanda; about the genocide. But now, the photocopied text faded away and the soft, grainy newspaper was gone from my fingertips. All these unsmiling faces, the cool shoulders, became essay subjects, characters in novels, names in articles.
So I hid in a curio shop — the one place that guarantees a warm welcome to a ‘Mzungu’ (white person, and synonym for rich person in most African countries.) Taking a deep breath, the musky smell of the grass-braided souvenirs filled my nostrils. The clutter of my brain started to clear and only one text-filled page came into focus: the last page of the Rwanda section to my Lonely Planet guide – my text book to the region these past nine months.
I usually skip its “responsible travel” blurb, scoffing at the ignorant audacity of tourists that must instigate such obvious requests for respect to culture. But its first sentence echoed the thesis of all those essays, novels and articles:
“Many Rwandans experienced hell on earth in the genocide of 1994 and its aftermath.”
I left the curio shop with my head down, feeling the sun break through the rain clouds on the back of my neck. “It’s just like they say it is,” I whispered to myself.