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Cynthia Vukets,
Carleton journalism student

 

Cynthia Vukets' Blog

June 27, 2007 – T minus one week

Newsline has been so great, I can’t believe I have to leave in a week! Typical, I finally make some contacts and start doing some real work and coming across some good stories and I have to go.  I’m working on this thing right now about child trafficking and sexual tourism and it could be SO good if I had more time.  Sigh.

I’m getting gutsier too.  (No, mom, not in a dangerous way)  Journalistically speaking.  I’m working on a story about drinking and driving. (which is illegal here but everyone does anyway.  My colleague asked if it was a serious offence in Canada. When I said yes he asked, incredulously: “How do you get home from the bar, then?”)  I interviewed the police and I have a guy who had a bad experience with his moto driver drinking while driving, but I wanted one more interview to round it out.  So I thought, why not see what the moto drivers have to say about their buddy drinking with a customer on his bike. 

Normally here, you have to get official permission to interview people, so you have to talk to their boss or their local leader or whatever.  But, I don’t have a lot of time left for my stories, so I waded into the middle of a pool of drivers this morning and asked which of them spoke French.  Turns out most did, brokenly.  Two of them answered my questions and gave me their full names and phone numbers.  I felt like breaking out into a victory dance in the middle of the street!

On our way home from Gisenyi we started making a list of what we still want to do here.  We’ll never get through it.  I had a mission to buy fabric for people back home and I still haven’t set foot in a fabric shop.  It’s going to be one seriously busy weekend.

One of my favourite things to do here has been aerobics class.  It’s held in a small gym at the football stadium and it costs about $4.50 Canadian for an hour and a half.  The teacher is hilarious, he clucks and hisses and whoops throughout the entire class.  The music and moves are all straight from the 70’s, as are many of the outfits.  I burn twice as many calories, just from laughing my head off the whole time.  You really have to be there to understand, but it is so much fun.  There is, of course, no air conditioning and the place is packed to the rafters so everyone sweats as much as they would in a sauna.  Luckily, we always replace some of our lost electrolytes with beer and chips afterwards.  (Counterproductive?  I like to think of it more as balancing out)  I bumped into one of the girls from the class at the store this morning and she said “sore?” 

“Just a little,” I was forced to admit.  My brother will appreciate that halfway through the class, my energy soars because they always play “Wake me up before you gogo.”  And I think ‘orange mocha frappucinos’ and can’t help but start dancing.  My first class the teacher picked me to be his partner after that song.  I think he was impressed by my energy.  Hopefully I’ll be able to take in another class or two before we all have to gogo.

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June 25, 2007 – Thanks, we’ll be here ‘til Sunday

How many times have you been applauded when you got on a bus?  I’m happy to announce this Saturday morning was my first time.  We spent the weekend in Gisenyi – a beach town on Lake Kivu.  Our hotel was just outside the city, sort of in a little fishing village. It was great waking up to the sounds of fisherman singing as they rowed out into the lake in their big boats. 

Anyway, there weren’t too many other white people in the area, so we were pretty popular. Friday night, three of us went for a walk and ended up being followed by a pack of 25 kids for the better part of an hour.  They were all enamoured with our cameras.  They kept pointing and yelling “photo, photo!” then striking hilarious poses and crowding around to see themselves after the picture was taken. (The next day, I learned it probably wasn’t such a great idea to indulge them as my camera got swiped by a pack of kids on the beach.  Live and learn.  It was kind of a lousy camera anyway, so I’m not too heartbroken.  Had some nice photos on the card, though)

But on to the bus story.  On Saturday morning, we had a delicious breakfast at picnic tables beside the lake.  It was getting warm and the sun was starting to peek through the clouds so we decided to head into town to hit the beach.  The hotel was just far enough to make taking a cab too expensive, so we walked to the first village to hop on a minibus.

As we walked up to the bus, the driver saw us and starting saying something to the people crowded around.  The last word was “muzungu.”  About 14 heads snapped around and there were various gasps and laughs as people spotted us.  Then, they spontaneously broke out into applause as we got on the bus.  A few people started yelling stuff to the driver and patting him on the back.  I like to think they were saying “Yo, dude!  Way to go, you’re driving a pack of hot white girls all the way to town!”

Who knows what they were actually saying, but we had a good laugh over it. Our afternoon at the beach was amazing (after we escaped from the marauding kids at the public beach.)  I felt a bit guilty having to acknowledge that I couldn’t hack it at the public beach.  Am I really the kind of girl who has to sip over-priced rum and cokes at the private beach of the swankiest hotel in town?  Apparently.  But the sun shone the entire afternoon and I walked away without a suntan.  Today, one of my colleagues at Newsline asked me if I was mixed race because my skin was darker than most muzungu. 

Weekend = huge success!

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June 20, 2007 – Jungle trekking

We went on a hike this weekend that, I swear to God, was nine kilometers uphill both ways.  Nyungwe National Park is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been, but I barely got out alive!

We spent Saturday night in Butare because Nyungwe is too far from Kigali for a day trip.  It was fun, we got to take in the museum and a cultural festival at the university with lots of singing and dancing.  We went to bed early to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for our day of outdoor adventure.

Sunday morning we hopped on the bus at 8 am.  Not your average cross-country bus, but a city bus that apparently had the guts to make it from Butare to Cyangugu 3+ hours away.  I was lucky enough to get the spot where the bench seat ends and there’s a little folding chair.  So I was squished between the person on the bench and the person on the folding chair and my left butt cheek was stuck in the crack between the two.  For two and a half hours.  Comfy.

The ride got better when we stopped to pick up a few people in one of the villages along the way. A rather hefty lady sat down beside me and immediately opened up her purse to start distributing religious pamphlets.  As they were entirely in kinyarwanda, I was able to politely decline.  She did strike up quite a heated discussion with the other passengers, which escalated until she whipped her Bible out of her purse and started quoting it.  A lady up front did the same, and things really started to get wild!  To make a long story short, Bible-thumper lady #1 leaned over me to point at one guy (atheist?) and yelled in my ear for the rest of the trip.

We were so thankful when the bus finally pulled over at the park entrance and we all toppled out.  We found our guide and insisted on starting down the “red trail” without listening to his lengthy explanation about the park.  We just wanted to walk!  Little did we know at the time that part of his explanation would include a warning that we were about to embark on the hike of death.

The forest was absolutely breathtaking.  Vines hanging down, crazy trees like the ones in the Lion King.  We only saw two monkeys, but there were enough hanging out by the side of the road to satisfy us.  The air was fresh and damp and filled with the smell of vegetation.  It was nice and cool and we passed a few cute waterfalls.  I was loving every minute.  Until we stopped zigzagging up and down and back and forth and just proceeded to climb for two hours.  I was still loving it, the view was spectacular.  But, my legs, lungs and butt were burning and I sort of felt like I was going to have a heart attack.  But we were sure proud when we finished!  It was definitely the most beautiful place I have visited here.

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June 13, 2007 – Have your people call my people and we won’t get back to you

So I’m pretty much ready to go on strike here.  Journalism is HARD in Rwanda!  I will never again complain when a Canadian government official takes more than one day to return my calls.  People here are absolutely impossible to get in touch with outside of press conferences.

For the past two weeks, I have been working on four separate stories.  On Saturday, one of them got published.  Two I have already scrapped.  One I still hold out hope to finish, but I only have a week left at The New Times, so I’m not overly optimistic.  I know you probably think I’m exaggerating or I’m lazy or something.  I assure you, I’m not.  Here’s a quick sampling:

At one NGO I was interested in, I called three different people who each passed me to someone else.  I finally reached the person it seemed I was supposed to talk to, and had to call her back three times before we could arrange to meet.  When I finally got to her office (about a week and a half after we had first been in touch) she looked at me and said “oh, this is an interview?  Well, you have to send your questions in writing to my boss and my boss’s boss first.”  I had already talked to her boss on the phone.  This all happened mid-last week and she still, of course, hasn’t gotten back to me.

The police station was also pretty fun. I got the number for their PR guy, but for an entire week I called him three or four times a day and he never picked up his phone.  So I thought I’d take matters into my own hands.  I needed to talk to the traffic division (for a hard-hitting investigative piece on how to go about getting one’s driver’s license . . . compelling) so I just picked up the phone and called their office.  The commander picked up and said I could come and talk to him.  I was so excited!  But of course it was too good to be true.  When I arrived for our meeting he had been abruptly called out on a top-secret traffic mission.  I tried to contact the woman in charge of licensing but she was busy. She agreed to meet me the next day.  Until the next day arrived and I called her.  Actually, I got my friend to call her so he could get the full scoop in kinyarwanda.  He talked for way too long than I was comfortable with, so I expected the worst.  She had backed out because she didn’t feel comfortable talking to me without the PR guy’s permission.  This was a Friday.  On Monday I started calling him again.  Luckily he was picking up this time and agreed to meet me on Wednesday.  I got there, explained the story I wanted to do and was reassured when he said “Oh yeah, that seems simple.  That should be no problem.”

Me: “Ok, so can you set up a meeting with the permit lady?”

Him: “Oh no, you have to write down your questions, I’ll ask her, then you come back and I’ll tell you what she said.”

No joke.  That’s how it happened.  And I wrote a story from it (with a few other interviews I obtained by miracle).

Ah, frustration.  And newfound appreciation for the fact that this newspaper has anything to publish.  These reporters are good!

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June 11, 2007 — Radio Salus

I finally had the chance to meet a guy I had been emailing for about a year.  Aldo Havugimana, the director of Radio Salus, and I had been in touch through Allan and Shelley about a possible partnership between Salus and the Carleton chapter of Journalists for Human Rights, which I head.  All the new interns headed down to Butare the first weekend we were here.  (I just forgot to write about it until I noticed David’s blog where he referred people to mine to find out about Salus!)  That Friday night we hosted a dinner of Rwandan beer and goat kebabs for some of the journalism students at the National University of Rwanda.  Aldo came, too.  When he arrived at the restaurant, he began introducing himself around the table, and when he got to me, someone said “Aldo, this is Cynthia,” and there was this sort of sigh all around the table.  We had waited so long to meet that everyone was so excited for us!

The trip to Butare was planned so that the interns could see the university and the campus radio station.  But I had ulterior motives for visiting Salus because I had brought a donation of digital voice recorders and mics from JHR.  The station has about 28 journalists working with only three or four minidisk recorders, so Aldo had told me he thought they could do a lot with some new equipment.  In Kigali, I packed my backpack full of everything – the mics were still in boxes because I thought it would be safer that way.  I managed to wedge my pack under the seat for the minibus ride down to Butare.  When we arrived I, somewhat apprehensively, stashed the pack in our motel room.  But on Saturday morning, we checked out.  We then walked ALL the way across town to the university, around the university and back across town to Radio Salus.  Africa is not exactly a chilly climate, so I was pretty pooped by the time we got to Salus.  Hopefully they end up getting a lot of use out of those recorders, because I definitely lost at least five pounds lugging them all over Butare!

The station is located down this dirt road on the way out of downtown.  The area is very pretty, very green.  The station itself is set up in a large house.  There’s very little furniture and only one or two studios.  As I said above, only 28 journalists, most of whom are also full-time students at the university.  All of them working with maybe four computers.  But, they manage to broadcast 24/7.  They even have a tower here in Kigali that broadcasts their station to the capital.  Salus is young, they just started in November of 2005.  They are an entirely privately owned, and supported with a grant from UNESCO.  Aldo is young too, only 29, but seems very hard-working and talented.  Kyla would be able to say more about their specific scheduling, as she worked there for a few weeks before things got off the ground for her with TVRwanda.

It is always surprising to me to find such young people doing so much here.  I look around the newsroom at the New Times and the vast majority of people are under the age of 30.  It is really amazing what young people have taken on here.  They are literally building their media system from the ground up.  Salus is an important part of the foundation, I think.  I have to agree with Roxy that if most of the journalists we meet (the majority of whom have never been to journalism school of any kind, remember) were to come to Canada, they would school us.  Hands down.  The work they could produce with our technology would be out of this world.  TVRwanda works with all their archives on beta.  I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a beta machine.

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June 5, 2007 — Giraffes and zebras and imapala, oh my!

We went to Akagera National Park this weekend, for a one-day safari.  I had the opportunity to bust out the multi-pocketed, zip-off, ultra-lightweight tan safari pants my mother bought for me before leaving.  Pretty hard core.  I wanted to bring my sun hat too, but forgot it on the kitchen table in the hubbub of leaving the house at 5 am.

We arrived at the park around 8 and signed ourselves up for the longest “game drive” available – a marathon of 7 hours.  I don’t know how many of you have spent 7 hours bouncing around in a Land Cruiser from the 80’s, but let me tell you, the suspension was not exactly high tech.  At one point, I flew halfway across the back of the truck after our driver barreled through a huge rut.  Everyone was amazed that I landed on my feet.  Everyone also laughed hysterically, of course.  I tried to follow suit, although I had actually hurt my bum pretty badly and felt a bit more like crying.  So, the driving part was beyond interesting.  I’m amazed we didn’t get stuck more than we did.  The road was really just a track, so full of rocks and holes and muddy ruts we might as well have been driving on Mars.

But the animals!  So cute!!  We saw baby giraffes and zebras.  This little zebra family posed for photos.  We got to get out of the truck a few times, including at the lake where the hippos were swimming.  I’d never seen a hippo in real life before.  They were big.

The giraffe were big too.  At one point, one of them was walking along and a bird landed on its neck.  It was so totally National Geographic.  Our whole truck spontaneously burst out into Lion King songs.  Pathetic.  We also saw a warthog dash through the grass beside our car, which is apparently pretty special as I guess they are shy little buggers most of the time.

The park was very beautiful.  Six or seven little lakes nestled amongst hills.  Tons of awesome trees: big ones with vines hanging off, the flat ones you always see in movies about Africa, palm trees and these crazy ones whose leaves looked like cacti.  Plus a tree whose leaves you can rub on your forehead to get rid of headaches (according to our guide, Jared)  Being a bit of a nature girl, I really wished we could have gotten out of the truck and walked around a bit more, instead of trying to see and smell everything by leaning out of the windows.  But, I understand it could be dangerous to walk around a park where lions, leopards, elephants and black mamba snakes roam totally free.  We didn’t see any lions or leopards.  Or elephants, so that was a bit disappointing.  But just getting out of the city for a while was awesome.  And you’d be surprised what becomes amusing after your 6th hour in a car with the same people!

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June 1, 2007 — Our neighbours

I’ve become the honorary grasshopper-catcher (or are they praying mantises?  They’re pretty big, whatever they are) in our house.  They’re usually very slow to react, so you can either grab their tail or cup them in both hands.  Each method has its particular challenges.  If you grab their butt, they start clawing at you with their little hands, and they actually have claws or something that can kind of hurt.  But if you decide to go for the cup, they can often escape because they’re just about the exact size of your hands.  I started keeping a tally the other night and I was up to about eight in an hour or two.  They’re harmless, but really noisy at night.

In the morning, the crows are the noisy ones.  The first time I heard them, I actually thought it was kids screaming, or at least a couple of stray cats.  But no, it was a flock of gigantic birds – black with white collars – cackling away in the yard.  They pretty much wake me up every morning.  Who ever decided the crow was a songbird, anyway?

On the whole, there are far less bugs here than I had anticipated.  Welcome relief.  There are cockroaches, I think we’ve had two in the house, but you really don’t see them too often.  Luckily for me, Emilie has taken on the role of cockroach-killer.  Grasshoppers are one thing, but there is just something so disgusting about cockroaches.  I think pop culture has given them a bad rap.

The last of the critters cohabitating with us is the gecko.  They are soo cute!  The babies are about an inch long and they scamper along the walls if you even move.  The adults are about six inches and they’re almost white.  We’re always happy to see them because we know they’re catching bugs.  They’re doing an excellent job, evidently, because there are far fewer mosquitoes here than there are in most parts of Canada.  Some of the girls have gotten some bad bites, but I could count the number of mosquitoes I’ve seen on both hands.  So much for bed nets and DEET, for a Winnipegger, Rwanda is a walk in the park!

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May 29, 2007 – It will be a struggle to leave Rwanda without adopting a child

For some reason, the kids here are obsessed with white people.  There are three primary schools between The New Times and our house, so every morning, afternoon and evening when we walk back and forth we pass dozens upon dozens of children in school uniforms.  They all have shaved heads, too, so it’s like a wave coming towards you.  They all kind of blend into one another, partly because they jostle each other to be closest to the muzungu.  A lot will reach out their hands for a handshake or a high five as we walk by.  Many chirp “bonjour” in adorable accepts.  They are so curious, and will often crane their heads around to stare if they’re walking ahead of us.

I met a very cute boy on Friday.  His name is Jean Claude and he is ten years old.  His primary school is right across the street from the newspaper.  He was very confident, just walked right up to me and started walking beside me.  He was pretty big for his age, and was sporting a mesh wifebeater under his open school shirt.  Obviously the big man on campus!

(As I am writing this, one of the girls in the newsroom is standing beside her desk dancing to the music she’s playing on her computer.  hahaha, TIA)

We’re even more popular with the street kids here.  There aren’t too too many in Kigali, so we’ve gotten to know most already.  I bought two little girls a box of cookies on Saturday, it was the weekend and the store didn’t have anything healthy.  Kyla warned me that know they’ll think I’m a bleeding heart that they can scam for all I’m worth.  I never give to panhandlers in Ottawa, but there is something about a kid running around the streets downtown with no shoes that just touches my muzungu heart.  We’ve been warned that we’ll be accosted a lot in the street because people assume we’re rich.  But, relatively speaking, we are.  The street kids are pretty hard-core, though. They’ll wait for us if we go into a store, and they insist on holding our hands as we walk.  Hopefully I didn’t doom myself with those cookies.  We’ll see.

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May 24, 2007 — Don't inhale next to the street

Traffic here is definitely an eye-opener.  There aren’t really that many cars, but they all seem to be in the same place at the same time.  Taxis are very popular.  They’re white with orange stripes, usually some kind of decal in the back windshield (our favorite so far is a nearly life-size Sean Paul), cracked seats and no seatbelts in the back.  The drivers go crazy, though, if whoever’s sitting in the passenger side doesn’t buckle up!  The traffic laws seem to be largely conventions. 

There are traffic lights, they just don’t work because the city decided the amount of electricity they would need would just end up costing too much.  Instead, police occasionally direct the intersections, but more frequently, right of way is decided through some system of signaling, waving, honking, yelling and sheer guts.

Drivers do tend to be pretty bold, especially the motos – motorcycle taxis that belch exhaust but get you where you want to go for about $1.  Of course safety is always a risk on the back of a motorcycle, especially through the winding streets of Kigali, but I’d say the bigger problem is the communal-usage helmets the drivers keep.  Eeech.  So far, I haven’t tempted fate, seeing as a cab is only $4.

Another fun part of traffic here is the suffocating exhaust.  Most of the vehicles are pretty old, so not the cleanest burning.  Plus I think a large part of them run on diesel.  This makes for a really delicious ride to town.  You have to keep the windows open or you’ll die of heat stroke, but if you open the windows, you’re breathing in pure exhaust all the way.  We decided to walk downtown from our place in the suburbs the other day and I think we may now have lung cancer from walking beside the traffic for an hour.  Our skin was certainly lovely by the time we got to where we were going – covered in a fine film of car emissions and dirt mixed with sunscreen.  Gorgeous.

But definitely the best part of traffic here is the drivers’ complete disregard for pedestrians.  Taxis, land rovers and motos all drive alarmingly close to the people that are constantly walking on the side of the street.  And they don’t slow down, either.  Emilie has already been hit on the arm with a moto’s rear-view mirror.  I will be surprised if that’s the worst that arrives to this group.  We’re not as savvy as the locals.  Kate especially.  She’s always the closest to the road for some reason.  Adrenaline junkie?  Anyway, the cars usually honk at people who are trying to cross the street and then just speed up.  Don’t they know pedestrians always have the right of way?!

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May 21, 2007 — Embracing physical affection

In Canada, if your boss walked up to you while you were working and patted you on the back then held your hand for while, chances are you’d sue him for sexual harassment.  Here in Rwanda, though, working in a newsroom with 40 other people means you are being touched at least once every few minutes.  Hugs, handshakes, pats on the shoulder or back, high fives, holding hands – it’s all up for grabs here, even for a Muzungu chick like me.  On my second day of work, several of the girls were already holding my hand and patting me as we talked about stories.  The guys are the same, with girls and with each other.

The first night I met my friends Sam and Prudent, Sam spent the entire evening sitting halfway onto my chair and Prudent walked me the half-hour home with his arm tightly around me.  I find this level of physical contact absolutely endearing and comforting.  There is so much love in this culture.  When someone asks you how you are doing, they genuinely want to know!  The Rwandese are so friendly that even a total outsider like me feels immediately at home.

In a country where homosexuality is illegal, the amount of same-sex touching is truly stunning.  I can imagine a lot of uptight middle-aged muzungu  men must be pretty shocked.  It is very common to see two grown men walking down the street holding hands.  I remember a scene from the documentary The Lost Boys of Sudan: the boys were chatting about American culture and one piped up “We can’t hold hands here because people will think we’re homos.”  The rest of the group was heartbroken!  It makes me think about Canadians and body contact.  Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa.  Are people touchy because they have to be?  Are we in Canada obsessed with having a bubble of personal space just because we have the luxury of space?  One of the interns started out her time here shaking hands by extending her arm fully and angling her upper body to keep as far from people as possible.  Now she’s high-fiving and shaking hands like an African.  Body contact is infectious.

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May 18, 2007 — Heads up!

On the bus ride to Butare, we passed two men walking on the side of the road.  They were each carrying five mattresses on their heads.

I think it would be a great photo essay to capture what people can transport on their heads here – it defies physics!  Huge bunches of bananas, ten pillows all tied together with string, a large rolling suitcase, even tiny children carry jugs of water half their size.  The only thing I haven’t seen so far is a live goat – those are all tied perilously close to traffic on the highway, grazing happily away.

Hard to believe we’ve been here for (only) a week.  Kigali is bigger than I had expected.  And more beautiful.  The city is in sort of three parts, all rising up above a ravine.  We live in Kimihurura – guess how long it took us to learn to pronounce that!  In a Bazungu community with lots of NGO’s.  What is Bazungu, you ask?  White.  Or at least rich.  Usually both.  It’s a word (singular form – Muzungu) used in many African countries to describe people from “the West”.  It’s not so much of a racial slur, from what I understand, as just a nickname for odd, different people.  Coming from Canada, where hundreds of races and languages are all mashed up together, it’s hard to wrap my head around a country where almost everyone has the same skin colour.  The kids find us so bizarre!  They (and some bolder adults) will follow us in the street or point and smile, calling “Muzungu, Muzungu.”  It’s cute, and they’ll usually stop if you greet them in Kinyarwanda.  Then they just crack grins and giggle behind their hands. You know they’re thinking “hahaha, this white person speaks our language? That’s crazy!” 

 The children are definitely an important part of what makes this country so beautiful.  Liquid eyes, round faces, big smiles.  The babies get carried around in slings on their mothers’ backs.  Their fat little faces get squashed up against their mothers and their feet and arms stick out of the wrap. I’ll post a photo, because it is definitely too cute to describe.  Usually the wraps match the women’s dresses, too, which is fabulous. 

And the colours here . . .  Rwanda is GREEN!!!  But the dirt is a bright orange-red that makes for a great contrast.  A lot of the houses are either pink or bright white.  And the women are dressed in every colour of the rainbow.  Even the Fanta here comes in five different colours.  The sun is so bright, too, that I think maybe everything just looks more brilliant than is does back home.  So far no bright red skin for any of us, which is pretty remarkable this close to the equator!

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Postings

June 27, 2007 — T minus one week

June 25, 2007 — Thanks, we'll be here 'til Sunday

June 20, 2007 — Jungle trekking

June 13, 2007 — Have your people call my people and we won't get back to you

June 11, 2007 — Radio Salus

June 5, 2007 — Giraffes and zebras and imapala, oh my!

June 1, 2007 — Our neighbours

May 29, 2007 — It will be a struggle to leave Rwanda without adopting a child

May 24, 2007 — Don't inhale next to the street

May 21, 2007 — Embracing physical affection

May 18, 2007 — Heads up!

 

 
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