Jenny Wagler's Blog
August 8, 2007 — On ex-patness
I am sitting at Café Bourbon, conscious that I am an ex-pat sellout. Bourbon has comfy chairs, chic décor, limitless Internet and scrumptious lattes; it is all about ex-pat sellouts.
I have resisted for a full month. I was determined not to follow, sheep-like, the sweet fragrance of espresso, self-indulgence, and home. I have principles, after all. I am against wimpy ex-pats and their wimpy ex-pat cocoons.
But…I am undone by good coffee.
So here I am, enjoying Internet and observing this particular subgroup. And I allow that perhaps I have been too harsh. The faces I see, earnestly trained on laptop screens, seem serious and grounded. These are not the disdainful, sleazy white men of China and Thailand’s “foreigner bars,” with their teenaged local girlfriends and their neo-colonialist disdain for all things oriental.
The ex-pats here—as fair I can figure it out—are mostly aid workers, consultants, consulate folk, missionaries, and our crew of journalists.
So far, the only conspicuously poor ex-pat behaviour I have witnessed here involved a couple of 30-something white guys grinding with local prostitutes in a night club.
And so I am crossing my fingers that the idealists here outnumber the neo-colonialists.
And that while I may not feel pride in my ex-pat status, perhaps there is not too much shame.
August 4, 2007 — A Glimpse of the rainy season
“It won’t rain,” I was told on my arrival. “You’ll see.”
So when the skies rumbled and the first drops fell I dashed for my camera. I am a Vancouverite, after all: a rain connoisseur. I was not going to miss my first African rainstorm.
I ran out the door into the wind and pelting rain. The sky glowed silver over Kimihurura and Kigali’s hills had all but disappeared into the mist. Large birds circled and swooped overhead, as if the wind had shaken them from their trees.
I made my way out the gate and onto the red-brown road, where water was already streaming down the hillside in a web of capillaries.
I squelched, in flip flops, through the warm mud. And if the locals did watch and laugh from the cover of their stores and porches, who was I to care?
August 2, 2007 - Animal vignettes
A monkey eating rosehips in our yard
The other day, I heard a sound and turned to see a monkey advancing on our screen door. He was tawny-coloured and stood about two feet tall. But what struck me, as he swung forward on long arms, was his serene, proprietal air. He stopped in the doorway and slipped a hand around the wedged-open screen.
I moved at that, lunged forward automatically—half to see him better, half to defend the household from pillage by primate. Should have got the bloody rabies shot, I thought.
But the monkey was already retracting his hand and swinging back towards the yard, the banana hunt deferred until another day.
I dashed for my camera and came back to see that the monkey had crossed the grass and settled himself up on the brick wall that encloses the yard. His tail—at least as long as his body—hung straight down, braced against the stonework.
I snapped a couple photos and then, hoping for a close-up, began to edge across the yard. One foot. The other. When I’d made it about five feet forward, he swung himself down and began arm-swinging towards me.
Oh Lordy, I thought, retreating doorward. Rabies.
But the monkey didn’t follow me; he made a beeline for the rosebush where I had been standing. And as I watched, he stretched up on hind legs, caught a branch of rosehips, and began to pluck the fruit and pop it in his mouth.
* * *
The gecko moved into the shower shortly after I arrived. I did not meet him in the shower, I am pleased to say. He had cleverly opted for the shower we don’t use, because of its slow water heater.
I think I startled him nonetheless.
Returning later that day, there was no more green squiggle on the shower’s white ceramic.
I was disappointed.
But as I glanced around, trying to find his escape route, I detected a little green shape glommed onto the blue garbage bag. Attempted camouflage. I smiled, pleased that he had not moved out.
The next day and the next he was on the shower bottom, first on one side, then on the other. I watched him and pondered his well-being. Were there enough low-flying bugs to catch? Did the un-used shower drip enough water to drink? Didn’t he feel isolated?
But he stayed on.
One day I didn’t see him and I stepped closer to see that he had curled up, his skin a nearly-invisible brown on the metal drain. At my approach, he slithered down through a drain hold, leaving only the tip of his tail exposed.
I let him be.
But yesterday there was no green squiggle on the ceramic, no tail in the drain, no critter in the garbage can. A faint smell of bleach wafted through the room.
And I noticed that the shower gleamed an antiseptic white, that the faucets shone like surgeons’ tools.
July 31, 2007 - Grappling with the Genocide
Broken window, Ntarama Genocide Memorial
Walking through the Genocide memorial at Gisozi, I feel nauseous and dizzy and have to sit on the floor. But as I wait for my stomach to calm and the spinning to settle, I feel a deep, secret relief.
I’m not numb.
As a stranger to this country, I am fighting to grapple with the 1994 genocide, and I am failing. I know history, names, dates. I know about colonial meddling and its divisive aftermath. I know of hate propaganda, of gang rape, of atrocities, of murder. I know about international negligence. I know the statistics of how many children saw death.
And still I cannot process it. I do not get it. I wasn’t there.
But I have glimpses…
At the newspaper where I work, thirteen years after 1994, the bulk of stories still relate to the genocide. Reconciliation efforts between perpetrators and their victims’ families. The arrest and prosecution of génocidaires. France’s unwillingness to accept responsibility for the disastrous Opération Turquoise. People fleeing the country to avoid being tried by the gacaca courts. The Genocide has lost no currency; it remains immediate in 2007.
* * *
At the memorial at Ntarama, the guide shows us rows of skulls. He picks some up—casually, it seems—to show the cracks and holes that identify which weapons ended each life. We walk through the church where 5000 Tutsis died. Near the rafters, bundles of blood-soiled clothing are strung up along each side of the room. At the far end of the room, near the alter, there is pile of the victims’ cheap canvas shoes. There are a few personal possessions, hung along a piece of string; light from a broken window catches the coloured beads of rosaries, the dull plastic of cheap pens, the dirty faces of a couple watches. On the floor, there is a pile of pots and pans, and a large canvas sack of beans— the asylum-seekers’ provisions.
“J’étais là,” our guide tells us. I was there. He is in his mid-twenties, or perhaps a bit older. He would have been a teenager in 1994. We try, carefully, to ask how he escaped. But he does not answer us. Does he understand our French? Does he not want to speak? We let it drop.
* * *
At the memorial at Gisozi, Rwandans seek me out and explain things. They point to weapons in a glass case. “See the machete,” they say, pointing to the rusted weapon. “That’s what they killed with.” And I know that, but I listen. And I feel the insistence in their words, and their need for me to understand.
That’s what they killed with.
That’s what they killed with.
That’s what they killed with.
July 20, 2007 – Andante, Allegro
I am on hold with the Kenyan embassy, listening to an upbeat version of “Love me Tender.” It is looping. This, from my limited experience in the country, seems to be the tune of choice for large organizations that enjoy putting people on hold. It is an aggravating tune (particularly at double time) and a short loop. I’m sure it effectively screens out any non-urgent calls.
Journalistically, I spend quite a lot of time “on hold” here. Sometimes it is the phone. Sometimes it is waiting for a source to be available for an interview. Sometimes it is waiting for a response to emails, or trying to track down a direct phone number to bypass officious secretaries. Sometimes it is because of the standard long lunch break, or the early end to the work day.
And admittedly, in the heat of the African sun, it is easy to relax into this rhythm.
But then there are the crazy days. They come unexpectedly, sandwiched between slow days, and catch me off guard. These are the days when important, busy people grant me instant interviews and watch me with shrewd eyes. These are humbling days, as new areas of my ignorance about the country are brought to light. The challenge is to regroup, sit up taller, and keep asking questions nonetheless. While trying not to look like a teenager (which apparently, says my editor, I do).
But these are the stimulating, satisfying days. I am seeing what I hoped I would see: Rwanda beyond the charity case. I am speaking with nattily dressed jet-setting professionals from the private sector. I am meeting with bright, organized bureaucrats with lots of new development projects planned (funding permitting). I am seeing diplomats work out details of the new economic order under the East African Community. And I am struck with the dynamism and optimism of this country.
Until the next slow day.
I am curious which pace will win out down the road, for journalists and for the country at large. In ten or twenty years, will Rwanda mostly sway in gentle andante, or bound in energetic allegro?
July 11, 2007 – Enter the intrepid journalist
Tuesday morning I started work at a French paper called Grands Lacs Hébdo. Upon my arrival I was dispatched to a telecommunications conference down the road. Armed only with a notepad and pen, the words “telecommunications conference,” and the knowledge that I was already late, I set out.
I found the building and the room, and peered in to see a group of about a dozen people sitting in cushy executive chairs around an oval table. To one side, there were a few rows of chairs that formed a sort of gallery. I slipped in and hesitated—should I sit, presumptuously, at the table? I headed towards gallery chairs, when a couple people at the table motioned me over to an empty seat beside them. I sat down, feeling conspicuously white. Worse, I had a sinking suspicion they might expect a PowerPoint presentation out of me, on the state of the Rwandan Telecom Industry.
Two PowerPoint presentations (not by yours truly, I am pleased to say) kicked off the affair. And with each slide, I slipped further into incomprehension. In seemed that RITA was presenting a new project called IEC-2.07 which was one of many projects planned in a manual/plan called NICI II.
We were off to a good start.
With a comprehension rate of about 20%, I eventually decided that a government agency (RITA?) was trying to persuade the Media to cover more Information-Technology subjects in their articles, in order to help transform the whole country from an agrarian-based economy into an information-based economy.
At this point, the media (which, it turned out, made up half the table) began to point out some key problems in the project: that they themselves had little knowledge of anything high-tech and some didn’t even have access to computers.
Also, a cameraman began to film us generally, and (was I being paranoid?) me specifically.
Then we had tea.
At this point, I found another representative from my paper, clarified the acronyms, and confirmed that my skeleton understanding of the project was basically right. Next, I found (and this depressed me, but so be it) the other white person in the room: a middle-aged Irish IT consultant working with the government. He answered my questions and seemed delighted that I was a bit Irish. Curiously, he is our neighbour, and lives right by La Fiesta. Most importantly, he thought that he might be able to persuade large IT companies—he would not identify which, but household names, he assured me—to donate computers and other equipment to the beleaguered local media. Good news for the media, certainly, if true.
The conference continued with the journalists stealing centre stage and trying to define ICT (Information and Communication Technology) amongst themselves, in laypeople’s terms. One told a story about a man in Ghana who had discovered he had no cell reception on his hilltop. He had built a platform out of three pieces of wood, and discovered that there he had reception. He had proceeded to make money by charging his neighbours a small fee to use his platform. This, said the journalist, was ICT. No it wasn’t said another: building a platform was creativity and entrepreneurship. Not ICT.
The presenters eventually cut off the discussion which was becoming more and more whimsical. They announced that there was funding for ICT workshops for the media. And with that, the conference ended and I went off to write my first story.
Epilogue: I was right about the sneaky cameraman; I was on the news the following night.
July 6, 2007 – First impressions
Before me, the green hills of Kigali arch and roll under a light mist, their edges soft as a Chinese watercolour. Behind the hills there are hills, and behind them, I am told, more yet.
From here, Rwanda’s mille collines seem less like hyperbole.
Our house is set high on its own hill, in a neighbourhood called Kimihurura (“Chee-me-hu-ru-ra”). Roads up here have no names and the houses no numbers: we tell taxi drivers that we live at the house across from La Fiesta restaurant, just down the way from the Rwanda Revenue Authority. I go for walks in straight lines so that I don’t get lost.
The walks take me down red roads rutted like river beds from the spring rains. I walk gingerly to avoid twisting an ankle. It is hardly worth driving up here, though sometimes a local car rocks and wobbles by or a moto driver—maverick of the Rwandan road—scoots by, his two-wheeled steed snug in a road furrow, deepening the route the water took. Sometimes an SUV rumbles by like an urban tank. But mostly we walk.
I pass tiny shops—a few shelves behind a counter—that sell bread, pasta, milk powder, beer, toilet paper. Sometimes I see a woman walk by, balancing a basket or a stack of folded cloth on her head. Sometimes there are kids in blue school uniforms that giggle and say bonjour and reach out tentative hands to touch the muzungu. Always, the faces I see mirror my own curiosity.
We are trying to figure each other out, Rwanda and I.