Tuesday, March 28, 2006

...and Sunday (feat. Daryl Hannah)

My friend Faycal, who sings every Saturday night at Kivu Sun, invited me to join him at church on Sunday. Unlike others, he did not proselytize. He just said it would be fun. So I decided to go.

We were supposed to meet at 9 am, but he showed up late. “Guesswhatguesswhatguesswhat!!” Faycal was bouncing. He was so jumpy that I told him he reminded me of a squirrel on crack. “I met Daryl Hannah last night!” Apparently Daryl Hannah (of Kill Bill, etc.) was visiting the gorillas, and was staying at Kivu Sun with her 30-person entourage. “She thought my songs were tight.” Faycal has a funny way of speaking. I can’t tell if he’s deliberately trying to sound like a thug, or if it’s just because he learned English primarily through rap music. Daryl Hannah “wanted all his records,” and Faycal frantically spent the morning burning songs he had recorded onto a disc. He saw her approval as his big break into the music world. After I calmed him down, we went to church.

The Restoration Church sits atop a hill that overlooks the town of Gisenyi and the lake, a breathtaking view. The church itself is typical of Rwandan architecture—rectangular, with brick and mortar walls, and a roof made of corrugated metal and terracotta tiles. Inside, it looks unfinished; the floor is made of rocks and dirt, not concrete, and the walls are the same inside as they are outside. There is a stage, behind which are draped long sheets of white and light blue polyester fabric, punctuated by matching plastic bows, like the kind you stick on birthday presents. The stage is equipped with a sound system so that everyone can hear (the building is so massive that it can hold at least 2,000 people) and various instruments: a drum set, a keyboard, and several guitars.

I was worried that we were very late, but Fayçal told me that we were fine on time. “Church is from 9 to 12,” he said. He had conveniently forgotten to mention that. There is music until 11, when the preacher finally begins.

As expected, the church’s choir was singing. Their songs were briefly interrupted by readings of psalms (I know this because Fayçal was translating everything for me). This was followed by 5 presentations by congregants of ways that God touched their lives (stories included how God was able to overcome witch spells), and an interpretive dance by several dispassionate teenagers. (Think Napoleon Dynamite set to Christian music.) The latter was, maybe, the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in church. Ever. Funnier still because the audience was steely-faced.

Then a guest pastor came up, and began to lecture violently. When I say “violently,” I mean it. He started jumping in the air, touching his knees to his chin, shaking his fist, and he COULDN’T seem to CONTROL the LEVEL OF his VOICE. He shouted into the microphone, making me jump every time.

When I inquired why he was so angry, Faycal said, “Oh, he’s not mad. He’s just telling the story of Noah’s Ark. That part was about how God wanted three levels.”

And I thought he had been screaming about the apocalypse. He went on for an hour, making kids cry. In our boredom, Faycal and I started playing with a baby, who peed in our laps when the pastor started yelling about friendship with God. When I left, my eardrums were ringing, like after a concert.

We headed to Kivu Sun afterward, so Faycal could leave his CDs at the front desk for Daryl Hannah. To our surprise, she walked in at the same time we did.

She’s enormous. She’s also kind of shaggy. Not sleek and viper-ish like in Kill Bill. But she was very polite. I shook her hand and told her that it was rare to run into another American. Then she ran off to have her designer jeans washed.


Saturday was strange. I had a long conversation with a friend about witch doctors. He told me a story about a man who stole a goat, and when he killed it for dinner, it turned into a snake. Witches transform into hippopotamuses and lions, he said. On the news, there was a story about a 5 year-old girl who was buried alive in Congo last week because it was thought that she was a sorceress. In exchange for his stories, I recounted the plot of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

We were later joined by a Serbian guy who has apparently lived here for 3 years, and has very pronounced opinions about the United States (he is convinced that Milosevic was a CIA agent). A large, jolly man who spoke in assured, but broken English, he favored the “F-word” and used it liberally.

After a long, heated, and often frustrating conversation about Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, historic empires and the like, we finally agreed that we both didn’t like Clinton and left it there.

Later, the Rwandan owner of Gisenyi’s nightclub came by. When I introduced myself, he said, “Morgan. What does that make me think of? Oh, Adams Morgan.” I was astonished. Apparently he had spent a month in Washington. I never thought anyone here would know about Washington’s neighborhoods.

Now that I know the owner of the nightclub, I don’t have to pay cover anymore. Go me.

For the rest of the evening, everyone was discussing ways to get me in and out of Goma (the city in Congo that’s just across the border) semi-legally. The whole area is on lock-down because Joseph Kabila (president of Congo) and Paul Kagame (president of Rwanda) are in the area. Whenever Paul Kagame travels near the Congolese border, the Rwandan army protection is almost suffocating, because the Congolese military is made up of many Interahamwe.

I’m getting the impression that anything goes in Congo. The Congolese military, composed of rebels, is supposed to be fighting against the rebels. Little wonder that insecurity remains so high and we receive 50 new refugees every week.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Back To Work

I was sent to Gisenyi to strengthen our returnee monitoring program, working alongside the monitoring officer, a Rwandan national.

Well, two weeks ago, she quit. She moved back to Kigali the next day. The monitoring program was put on hold, and I pestered Kigali to allow me to go without her, using Boniface, our magnificent driver, as my translator.

Kigali said that this seemed to be a pretty good plan until a replacement was hired. So Monday and Wednesday this week, I’m doing a trial run in three of the safest sectors of the province. We have to be prudent, because Boniface also serves as security on monitoring missions—always near the car, ready to race the Land Cruiser out of there if the situation becomes dicey. If he’s with me, we minimize that protection. At least he is allowed to leave the car—in Afghanistan, drivers have to be in or standing next to the cars at all times, in case someone tries to plant an IED or something. Luckily, that’s not an issue here.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been busying myself with transit center issues. We were informed that our refugees were probably not going to be moved to a camp this year. We were therefore given the permission to enroll primary school-aged children in local schools. These children had been out of school for over a year. I’ve never seen such happy parents in my life. Yet, after three weeks of schooling, the Congolese refugees were forced to leave, with authorities saying that all the kids needed uniforms, books, and a 100 Frw (20 cent) schooling fee. HCR Kigali granted us the funds, and we found some local dressmakers to make the uniforms. UNICEF is giving us the books.

So, crisis averted. Then we found out that the small nutritional center (which provides food and formula for ill children, pregnant mothers, and people living with HIV/AIDS ) at the transit center, whose three nurses are supported by UNICEF, hadn’t been paid their salaries since September. I was flabbergasted. That’s a pretty major boo-boo on someone’s part.

We looked into it, and no one seemed to have any clue. UNICEF funnels money through the local hospital, which pays the nurses…but there are no contracts and no real recognition that the center is run by UNICEF. It’s all very hazy. Apparently, the number of people benefiting from the clinic is low, and in light of the personnel payment situation, we had to close it down. It was an unbearable thought—these people have nothing, and we were taking away what little they had.

My understanding is that the nurses will get back pay.

I also had a long meeting with the Youth Committee. The activities I’m starting are: a soccer league (boys and girls); Igisoro (a traditional Rwandan game); an AIDS-awareness theatre group; a modern and traditional dance group; a choir; and the Boy and Girl Scouts. (I admit to being more than a little ambitious.)

The soccer league is well underway. We have six teams, two of which are girls. The girls train three times a week. I was amazed. I asked the Committee how many times the boys trained. One guy laughed, “Every morning!” They’re tremendously dedicated and gifted. They played a scrimmage against a team in the neighboring village, and gave them a thorough beating. The only problem is the soccer balls—I bought two with the little funds I have, and they lasted all of 2 weeks. They still use them, but they inserted balloons into their cavities, which they fill with air, and they sew the stitches shut whenever they come out. I was told that the only balls that would hold up were leather ones.

I shopped around for leather soccer balls (by “shopped around” I mean that I went to the only kiosk in the Gisenyi market that sold them) and found one for $30, more expensive than the two I had already purchased combined. My driver and all the people in the shop told me that the Adidas ball was leather, so I figured that it was a costly but worthwhile investment.

….until I was told by the people at the transit center that 1) it wasn’t really leather, and 2) it was a fake. In other words, I bought another ball that would only last 2 weeks, and it was expensive, to boot. They told me that leather balls cost at least 50,000 Frw. This is roughly ONE HUNDRED BLOODY DOLLARS. Unbelievable—you can get one for $20 in the US! I scratched that off my list of future purchases.

The AIDS theatre group is coming along nicely—we have a core of four people, and they’re holding auditions this week. I’ve talked CARE International into coming to the camp to hold a 3-day training session on HIV/AIDS. The training session will be limited to camp leaders, but I’ve already ensured that youth will be included.

I’m also bringing the provincial officer responsible for the Association of Scouts. He has agreed to work with me to set up Scout troops at the camp, which will be great for the smaller kids. Training Scout leaders is going to be the most difficult hurdle, I predict. I’m really excited about this because there are already Scout troops in the Byumba refugee camps where these people will eventually be transferred—so, in effect, there’s a network of support for the kids when they arrive!

Igisoro (pronounced ee-gee-sore-oh) is a board game mostly played by old men. They made a special request that I buy one for them. Since I didn’t have the funds, I asked my friend Daniel, the Catholic carpenter who made my furniture, if his workshop would be willing to make the Igisoro base as a charitable donation. They made the base, which I gave to the happy elders of the camp. They will finish making the rest of it. I tell the refugees every time I’m there that I will go halfway if they will go the other half—that I’m not there to give, but rather, to support.

No real news on my other activities (dance, music). It appears that there are some talented traditional dancers at the camp, so I’m hoping to learn a thing or two from then once these groups get started.

Phew! Lots going on. I’m hoping a lot of these become active before June—that’s when the Congo is having presidential elections and is voting on a constitution—and many refugees may feel that it’s safe to go home. Of course, we may also end up getting a major influx of new refugees instead; elections tend to be unstable times around here, and some people prefer to leave the area until the results have been announced and order has been restored. (That’s what happened in Burundi last year.)

Monday, March 20, 2006

Cow Cheese

Maybe it’s because I’m reading Running With Scissors, but last night, I dreamt of hair products. I also dreamed about walking around a mega-supermarket, and the first thing I looked for was teriyaki sauce (followed closely by a search for artificially-colored cereal). Perhaps it’s homesickness, but I think it’s also because I’m eating really poorly—pasta, noodles, or rice every night—which isn’t healthy. Breakfast, when I eat it, is dry cereal. I hardly eat meat because I’ve seen some of the (un)sanitary practices here and am a bit repulsed. It’s hard to find normal eggs here—almost everywhere you go, only mutant eggs with yolks are sold. Yes. Not yellow yolks, but white yolks. (I asked why, and have been told that it’s cheaper to make them. I’m still scratching my head at this explanation.) They have a different taste and the yolks are gooey like phlegm, so I don’t really like to eat them.

I love to cook, and many of the dishes I make somehow require cheese. You can find cheese in Gisenyi, but only one kind: Cow Cheese. If you’re in Kigali (and not in the expatriates’ favorite store, La Galette), you can also find Goat Cheese. There are not different types of Cow Cheese and Goat Cheese. The Cow Cheese is a yellow, semi-hard block with a taste vaguely similar to mild cheddar, and with small holes like Swiss. The Goat Cheese is just white and pasty.

From experience, I can tell you that the Cow Cheese does not melt well, resulting in goopy macaroni and cheese. I haven’t really figured out what to do with it, so I keep it around to eat when there isn’t any power to cook.

...which happens often.

For the past several weeks, since the beginning of the rainy season, the power has been intermittent, favoring being off instead of the other way around. By force of necessity, I now cook the simplest, fastest thing I can when I have power—usually pasta or Ramen—and more often than not, I end up eating my meal by candlelight. The power situation is such that I can’t cook anything special (i.e. not plain rice with soy sauce) for guests. So dinners with friends are on hold until I get home. In the meantime, I’m having romantic candlelight meals by myself.

Sometimes I think back to when I lived in France, when my apartment was above the Rodier boutique. I thought hardship was not being able to find peanut butter. My, how times have changed.

Customs and Habits

I’m trying to pick up some of the customs here, of which there are many. In particular, Rwandans have perfected the art of the greeting. After the initial hellos (which depend on the time of day), they exchange three kisses, starting on the left. If men are greeting, they hold each other’s shoulders and touch foreheads, also starting on the left. Everyone exchanges low hand slaps.

Rwandans stop to greet every person they know (or, as far as I can tell, every person they have met at least once). This can make getting from Point A to Point B a long process—especially when you’re walking with a longtime resident. (In some ways, it’s a good thing that time is a fluid concept here, which I will discuss.) I chose to selectively follow this custom, really only acknowledging friends or people with whom I had had conversations. Yesterday, however, I was scolded by a shopkeeper from whom I had twice purchased toilet paper for not saying hello every time I passed her shop (to be honest, I wasn’t aware that she even knew when I walked by). As recompense, she wanted me to marry her son, who was drinking a beer at 8 o’clock in the morning.

If that’s my punishment, I’m definitely going to be saying hello to everyone from now on.

Another phenomenon is same-sex hand-holding. Surprisingly, it’s mostly done by boys—they walk down the street together, hands clasped. Many opt to wrap arms around each others’ waists. It’s a sign of great friendship, not homosexuality, but I can’t help the fact that I’m struck, at least for a moment, every time I see it. I’ve had countless conversations about homosexuals with my Rwandan friends, and all of them, bar one, was dismayed by the concept. (This has made for some very colorful discussions, and my friends all think I’m a wayward soul for both 1) having gay friends, and 2) not caring that they were gay.) Rwandan society is very traditional and very religious, and hasn’t yet come to accept homosexuality. My co-worker said, “Gays? We don’t have any here,” at which point I informed him that, once upon a time, the U.S. “didn’t have any gays” either. Now it’s said that they’re 10 percent of the U.S. population. He was incredulous. At any rate, any closeted people would feel comfortable walking down the street, holding hands with their partners, because no one would be able to tell the difference.

Another custom that I just learned about (again) involves alcohol. The label of the Primus beer reads: “Gahuza Miryango,” which means, roughly, “Brings Families Together.” I thought this was pretty strange for a beer. Apparently, tradition dictates that when a boy wants to ask the girl’s family for permission to marry her, he is supposed to bring beer to drink while the family discusses the proposition. In this way, it “brings families together.” (They also used to make blood pacts, which have ended because of the threat of HIV/AIDS.) Similarly, there is another expression, “Tarama” (banana liqueur) which is used as an invitation to meet during the evening to have a discussion (the implication being that the conversation will take place over a glass of banana liqueur).

Dogs and cats are pretty rare here, and generally, people don’t keep dogs as pets. They are generally kept as guardians, and rarely as companions. One friend explained that Rwandans tend to avoid emotional attachment of any kind to animals. Another, who happens to be very religious, said with conviction that they can often be shape-shifting witch doctors. “Once, a boy threw rocks at a cat, and the cat turned into an old woman. She asked him why he threw rocks at her.” I asked her how she knew this story was true. “Oh, there were many witnesses,” she said. I’ve heard some crazy things about voodoo, which is less present here than it is in neighboring countries such as the DRC. I don’t really believe it, but I’m not planning on throwing rocks at any animals anytime soon.

Finally (this is less a custom than a habit), Rwandans have a very lax sense of time. 9:00 can be 10 or 11. When I was in the U.S., my friends made fun of me, saying that in terms of being fashionably late, I was indeed very fashionable. Rwandans, however, redefine tardiness. I’m on time compared to them, and if you know me, you can only imagine what this must mean. Sometimes I feel like this is God’s way of punishing me. It’s only too appropriate.

Expatriates here joke that, when you’re at a restaurant and, after a long wait, the waiter brings out plates and condiments, you only have 45 minutes left before the food arrives. (My experience has shown this to be frustratingly true.) Often, waiters won’t tell you until 30 minutes after you place your order that they have run out of whatever you ordered.

One weekend, I was supposed to meet my friend Fred at 8 pm. At 10:30, he finally arrived, chipper and oblivious—I, however, was exhausted and wanted to go to sleep. He didn’t realize that being 2 ½ hours late was a problem. Of course, all my friends have cell phones, but they don’t think to call you to tell you that they’re not on schedule. And if you call them, they’ll always tell you they’re almost there.

I’m trying to be more flexible, with little success. It’s so aggravating. I’ve decided that I’m going to make a more concerted effort to be on time when I get home. (Don’t hold me to that.)

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Sugar Cane Is Hard To Eat.

In my never-ending attempt to try everything I can, I decided to try my hand at eating sugar cane, which is as present as banana palms, but I just hadn’t noticed. From the towns to the most remote areas, everyone gnaws on sugar cane. My only past experience with it was at Café Atlantico, where it was a garnish in my mojito (and even then, I honestly had no idea what to do with it).

One of my co-workers was a sugar-cane eating fiend. I had seen her eat it many times on the back stoop of our office during work. It seemed soft and effortless in her experienced hands. I figured, It can’t be that difficult.

My opportunity came one day when I had gone monitoring. I bought a whole sugar cane (about 4 feet long) in a tiny rural village, and the children from whom I bought it broke it into foot-long pieces.

For those of you who haven’t seen a sugar cane before, it looks like fat bamboo. And it’s as hard as bamboo, as I soon found out.

To eat sugar cane, you have to first break it into manageable pieces. Happily, this was done for me. Then you are supposed to remove the hard exterior, slice the pulpy interior into bite-sized chunks, chew them, and spit out the pulp. This all sounds very easy.

Well. Imagine trying to hack off a branch of a tree using a blunt knife: chips fly, but you still make zero headway. That’s what it’s like. When you have finally spent 20 minutes on the sugar cane, the woody exterior finally removed, you then have to cut the interior. The hacking is not through—you still have to cut it crosswise. This time, it’s not just chips flying: it’s sugar juice.

When the cubes are cut, you can finally chew on them, which is, admittedly, delicious. It’s sugary, of course, but not as strong as candy. After chewing on it, the sugary pulp becomes hard like wood, and you spit it out before proceeding to the next piece. It’s very funny to watch the spitting process—some are very delicate about it, depositing the pulp in a trashcan nearby; others throw it on the ground. Some, like one toddler who was absently enjoying his snack, accidentally spit on your foot.

The process of eating sugar cane is kind of like eating crab—a lot of work for a little food. I tried eating it last night. To my great displeasure, I nearly chopped off my finger, got sugar juice all over my tablecloth, and broke the plate I was using into bits after a long struggle with my dull (Chinese) knife. I’m still picking bits of sugar cane from my hair and clothing. For once, I was actually happy to be alone in my apartment, because no one was there to witness the ridiculous spectacle.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Mille Collines

I made another trip to Kigali this weekend to discuss the possibility of transfer to another town. My options were Cyangugu (the southern border town with Congo), Butare (the university town), and Byumba (where there are two refugee camps). Personally, I’m not interested in moving just yet; I’ve only just settled in and I’ve started to make friends. “But there are no expatriates there! Aren’t you lonely?” was all I heard all weekend. Apparently, it’s unusual to have many Rwandan friends. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Kigali was largely uneventful this time around. I went to a house party thrown by some French aid workers, where there was a surprising amount of wine (it’s a rare luxury around here. The cheapest is $16 for a bottle that would pass in the U.S. for 2-buck chuck) and pot. It reminded me of similar parties in Afghanistan—everyone is Bohemian, wearing their Diesel trainers and tiered skirts and dancing in a trance to Counting Crows. I drank enough wine to last me for the month. It was a long night.

On Sunday, my friends and I spent the afternoon by the pool of the Hotel des Mille Collines. It’s the oldest luxury hotel in Kigali, having been there for 30 years, and it certainly looks like it. It’s about six stories tall, and it has a commanding view over several of Kigali’s hills. It’s surreal to imagine what this place must have been like in April 1994; the front entrance is buffeted by a parking lot and a guard hut, but the rear of the hotel is protected only by a chain link fence. I couldn’t believe how poor the security was there, and what a miracle it was that drunken roving militias seemed to come through the front instead of through the back. Even in the couple of hours I was there, some guy tried to hop the fence, but was chased away by a security guard wielding a nightstick.

I’m sure the place has benefited from tourist attention, as is evidenced by the $8 ham sandwich and the $6 coffee (among other outrageous prices). But the pool was dominated, as it has since before the genocide, by expatriates and rich Rwandans who can afford to pay the 2,000 Frw ($3.50) charge, which is more than many Rwandans’ weekly income. (For a perspective on life by the Mille Collines pool in the months before the genocide, you should read Dimanche à la piscine à Kigali. It’s also translated into English: Sunday at the Pool in Kigali. Warning, though: it’s graphic.)

Monday, March 13, 2006

A bad day for tyrants

For those of you who knew him and knew of him, my prized goldfish and longtime companion, Saddam Hussein, has sadly passed. My parents told me the news. He's never been apart from me for so long, and perhaps he missed me. I don't know. All I know is that he had a mild infection again, and this time, he just gave up. May he rest in peace. My father wants to bury him under the garden gnome.

For those of you who didn't know him, I named my goldfish Saddam Hussein as a joke, thinking that he was going to die overnight. He didn't, and instead, he helped me finish my thesis, he graduated with me, he made the long trip down from Boston, he lived in Arlington, and then finally ended up in suburban Fairfax, VA. I bought him almost exactly 3 years ago for 10 cents from Petsmart.

It's funny how attached you can become to a little fish.

So no, this isn't a post about Rwanda, but it's the first time I've felt truly homesick.

I called this post "a bad day for tyrants" because of my dear companion, but also because Milosevic was found dead in his cell yesterday (he left a note saying he was poisoned, but I think it was suicide) and there was an assassination attempt on Robert Mugabe.

And perhaps it was just a coincidence that the real Saddam Hussein's trial resumed on the day that my fish passed.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Gone Fishing

In the boat at Nyamyumba: (l-r) Me, Danielle, and Beatriz, with some very
nice fishermen and a 6-year old who posed like a rapper.

The population of wazungu in Gisenyi increased to 3 last weekend, as two of my friends came to visit me--one from Kigali (Beatriz) and the other from Byumba (Danielle). The entire weekend was spent stuffing our faces with food, spending money, and working on our tans. I was responsible for arranging the weekend’s activities, so I decided to bring them to Nyamyumba, a neighboring district a 20-minute drive from Gisenyi.

Situated along the water, Nyamyumba is home to the monstrous Bralirwa brewery, with bright lights, cranes, and fancy vehicles—it seems like it was plucked from the United States and dropped in the middle of a poor lakeside village. It produces most of Rwanda’s beers—the infamous Primus, the fancier Mutzig, and my favorite, Guinness.

You have to arrange a tour in advance, but to be honest, I’ve seen breweries before. We were more interested in the grilled tilapia at Hotel Paradis (rumor has it that it is the best in the country) and trying to find a boat to take us around the bay.

We succeeded in both. I’ve had grilled tilapia in Nyamyumba before, and it’s quite an experience. Fishermen bring their fresh catch up to the riverbank, where it’s placed into a shallow bucket and brought to you. For $2 (sometimes less), you can pick a fresh tilapia, and for 80 cents more, you can have it grilled with spices until the skin is crispy and the meat tender. You can also order fries or grilled plantains on the side, which are delicious when dipped into the hot pili-pili!

The fish I had at Hotel Paradis, for whatever reason, wasn’t as good as I had expected, but I imagine I’ll give it another try in the future. My friends ordered tilapia kebabs, and we all agreed that nothing goes better with grilled tilapia than a Mutzig ikonje (a cold Mutzig).

The Hotel Paradis offers boat lifts out to a tiny island for a fee of $5, which we thought was too much, particularly since the boat looked like it might sink halfway. Instead, we walked down the beach until we reached a fisherman’s wharf of sorts, with tens of fishermen fixing their boats or taking a swim.

There are a couple different types of fishing boats here. The most prevalent is a canoe carved out of a single tree, much like those of the Native Americans. They’re only big enough for one person. There are no large oaks near here, only banana trees, so the boats are all made much further south (in Cyangugu) and brought up here. Fishermen in these boats often use a piece of string tied to a reed to fish; some only use a string.

The second type of boat is made of planks of wood. These, of course, tend to be larger, and can accommodate up to eight. Often, this type has a long stick, about 12 feet long, tied to the front. They use this as their fishing rod.

The third type is almost not worth mentioning, because I’ve seen only two, and I bet they dock in Congo. Motorboats sometimes make their way around the lake; for $100, they will take you from Gisenyi halfway down the lake to Kibuye. For $300, they will take you all the way down to the southern town of Cyangugu. I can’t help but think that someone must be making a hell of a profit—it costs me $300 to fly to New York from DC!

My friend Fred was with us that day, which certainly made our lives easier, because he served as our translator. He convinced some fishermen to take us around the bay in their boat for $3.

The muck inside the boat was thick, and a sea of water filled the bottom. A young boy, perhaps 6 years old, was diligently scooping out the water as fast as it entered. We crossed the lake to the presqu’île (peninsula), where there is a famous hot water spring. Several people were bathing in it when we arrived. Apparently, it’s said to have mysterious healing powers.

Soon, a large crowd began to gather around us, and some fighting cows started running in our direction. We thought it wise to get back into the boat.

We paddled past an association of fishermen (as a member of the association, you are only allowed to fish during certain times and in certain areas, and all profits are shared), where we received multiple marriage proposals. When we landed on the shore again, we were welcomed by a crowd of kids yelling, “Agacupa! Agacupa!” (“Water bottle! Water bottle!”) before we made our way back to the hotel for another drink.

While we were enjoying our Fantas on the grass of the hotel, we watched the fishermen close up for the day. Often, they would strip down to their underwear and dive into the water for a bath. (I admit that I couldn’t bring myself to look…these were 16-20 year olds and it looked like a Calvin Klein ad!) Others were tying their catch to a line, and others were enjoying a Primus.

One fisherman tethered his boat to a pumice rock. When I took a sip of Fanta and looked up again, the boat had disappeared. It turns out that the fishermen here fear that their boats will be stolen during the night—so they tie their boat to a rock, and then fill the boat with water, sliding it deep under the surface so you can’t see it anymore. Only the owner knows exactly where it is. Pretty clever security system.

That night, we had dinner by the Kivu Sun pool as my friend Fayçal sang (the Saturday night buffet has all kinds of Western comfort foods that I never knew I missed…like beets. Who knew I missed beets so much? And potato salad…And feta cheese with tomatoes! *sigh*). We spent the next morning at the beach before Danielle and Beatriz had to return. Danielle swears she’ll be back in three weeks. With fresh fish, sun, and the beach, who could blame her?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

My friend the Olympian

I had been working out at the only gym in town, at the Kivu Sun hotel. (I use the term "gym" loosely because it has two treadmills and a couple of hand weights.) My friend Fabrice was there with his friend, Fred.

We began discussing the Olympics, and it was revealed to me that Fred had represented Rwanda at the 2000 Olympics, in the 10,000 meter and the marathon. (When I arrived, he had run 15 kilometers on the treadmill over the course of 30 minutes. I’m still trying to figure out how he did that.)

I’ve never met anyone who has competed in the Olympics, so we got to talking. Fred’s an Anglophone, which is the first sign of a refugee who lived in Uganda or Kenya. I was right. Fred’s grandfather had 5 wives, 32 children, and 800 heads of cattle. Owning cattle is a symbol of wealth, and Fred’s grandfather was very wealthy.

In 1959, his family fled Rwanda’s first recorded genocide against the Tutsis. They moved to Uganda, where he was born. They lived in the central region, and when Fred was 6, which would have been 1989, militiamen from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) invaded his village and carried him away to become a child soldier. He was given a one-month training course before he was armed. He carried an AK-47, which was taller than he was, so he dragged it on the ground. He was instead told to carry a box of bullets, and when the LRA went to battle against Ugandan army forces, he was to resupply the rebels.

During one battle, the LRA was defeated, and Fred ran. And ran and ran and ran. He eventually ended up in the hands of an international organization, who gave him demobilization training before he was sent back to his home to find his parents.

When he arrived, he was told that his parents had been killed by a train, and he took care of his three sisters, one of whom is wheelchair-bound.

He worked to put them through school, and joined a running club. He was soon running faster than everyone else, and did the same at the Olympic qualifying trials. He went to Sydney, and talks about it often. He hasn’t had the time to go to college yet, but he wants to learn computer science. “If running is all you have,” he said, “then once someone is faster than you, you don’t have anything anymore.”

After the Olympics, he returned to Kigali, where he finished secondary school and tried to get a job. In 2004, he heard that MONUC, the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Congo (there is a very large contingent in Goma, across the border from Rwanda) was looking for English translators. He and a Rwandan friend were two of four finalists; the other two were Congolese.

He and his friend received the jobs, and were paid very well--$250 a month. Soon after they were hired, the two Congolese who hadn’t been hired pulled up beside them in a car, offering to show them around Goma.

Fred resisted, but his friend wanted to go with them. So they both got into the car, and the car started driving out of the city. When Fred asked why, they said that they were going to pick up a friend before driving back in.

After a while, there were no more houses, and they arrived in the forest, which is a known rebel area. The car stopped, and Fred and his friend were pulled out of the car, blindfolded, stripped naked, and beaten with sticks, reeds, and rocks. They were accused of being Rwandan spies, and of stealing Congolese jobs.

They were beaten every day. For three months.

The two were held in a rebel camp (yes, the two Congolese were rebels trying to be hired within the UN Mission that is fighting against them), and were forced to stand in a ditch filled with water up to their necks. Every morning, their captors would discuss whether to kill them that day, or whether to wait until the next day. Fred became emaciated. “I looked like an AIDS patient,” he said.

After three months, inexplicably, the head rebel decided to have mercy on them, saying that he would call one of their friends to let them know that they were hostages. The two were plucked from the water, showered, and given clothes. They were again blindfolded, and dropped off in Goma in the middle of the night.

Weak from the torture, their skin coming off in pieces, and in the middle of one of the most dangerous cities in East Africa (“At night, if you’re not murdered or raped, you will be at least robbed,” said Fred) the two sat on a curb and waited until daylight, when they were picked up and taken back to Rwanda.

For the next three months, Fred was in rehabilitation, his skin recovering. He told me that he will never go to Congo again.

Despite his experiences, Fred is calm, generous, and funny. He laughs, and I don’t know how he can manage to do so. Everyone copes with calamity in different ways, I suppose. He hardly tells anyone about what he’s been through, and when he does, it’s not to show that he’s been a victim or to impress. “It’s just life here,” he said, smiling, as if being a child soldier, an Olympic runner, and a hostage were inevitable. I told him that I can never really complain about anything again.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

In the field

My job here is to monitor returnees. Now, poli sci 101 for those of you who haven’t studied refugee issues: when you are fleeing persecution, violence, food insecurity, etc. and you move to a different part of your country, you are called an “Internally Displaced Person” (IDP). Camps of IDPs do exist. There aren’t any in Rwanda because the security situation has calmed down, and people have gone home. When you decide to leave your country instead, you become an “asylum seeker.” After you are recognized by the asylum country and UNHCR as a legitimate asylum seeker, you become a “refugee.” In most cases, refugees are not permitted to live in the cities of the country of asylum, but rather, are moved to camps. Refuges are permitted to return to their countries of origin whenever they wish.

When a refugee returns to his/her home country, s/he must be repatriated. Once repatriated, the refugee is called a “returnee.”

UNHCR never helps or encourages people to leave a country, as it is not in their mandate. If someone wants to leave, they must go to a UNHCR office or to the border and inform officials. It is then that UNHCR can help. HCR handles asylum seekers, refugees, and the repatriation of returnees. Once upon a time, UNHCR handled both IDPs and refugees. Now, more of the IDP burden is being handled by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

So. Back to the beginning. I am here chiefly to monitor returnees in two provinces: Gisenyi and Ruhengeri. Right now we’re trying to find 2004 and 2005 returnees. The administrative levels are: Federal, Provincial, District, Sector, and Cell. A cell is about 300 people. Our list of returnees includes their whereabouts (as told to us at the time of repatriation). We are to travel to the cells, check the accuracy of the list, and interview returnees to see how they’re coping. We’re kind of like parents looking after our kids.

The only problem is that finding an individual in this hilly, often remote area is like looking for a needle in a haystack. What’s more, families don’t share the same last name, so it’s not as if you can ask someone to point you in the direction of the Jones household. Vénantie UWIMANA could be the wife of Dieudonné HABYARIMANA, and they could be the proud parents of Claudine NYINAWUMUNTU, Patrick NYIRANIZEYIMANA, and sometimes children with a single name, like UGIYEKERA. So it’s almost impossible to find a single individual.

However, we don’t go alone. Upon arrival in a cell (which often takes hours to find, and don’t think that these are smooth roads with signs!) we seek the “responsable” (the French word for the person elected by the cell to lead and represent them), who helps us to find the returnees. At every step, in everything we do, we must work with local authorities. We are here at Rwanda’s invitation, after all. I am told that the authorities have strained relations with UN agencies for their inaction in 1994. I haven’t seen that at the local level, but it’s pretty evident in the government-influenced newspaper.

Of course, the responsable doesn’t have an office, so we have to find him at home. Then we face the challenge of finding someone who knows who the responsable is and where he lives. This process takes a few more hours.

If we’re lucky, we’ll find the responsable and he’ll know someone on our list. We then try to find their home and talk with them there. On good days, we’ll talk to three people. On bad days, we’ll find none, not even the responsable. It’s a process that requires patience.

It also often requires exercise, and it always requires a big bladder. (There are no toilets in the bush.) Once, our Land Cruiser could no longer handle the path, and we got out and walked two miles up a mountain before we came to a tiny shack made of straw and papyrus reeds.

The woman was alone with her two children. She hardly made enough money from her job as a field laborer to pay for food. One of her children, a 4-year old, stared blankly at me and my colleague, barefoot, wearing what could barely be called a shirt, and with dirty snot running over his lips and down his chin. The woman’s newborn, a couple months old, stared wide-eyed at nothing, and she didn’t seem to notice or mind that flies were sitting on her baby’s face.

She was unexpectedly shady. She hardly answered questions, and she never made eye contact. As it turned out, she is what we call a “recycle” case—she has come through Rwanda several times, and has collected aid from UNHCR (we give blankets, mats, kitchen sets, etc. See transit center post) at least twice—she registered under two similar names. Technically, it is illegal to present yourself more than once and collect more items—but a lot of people do it, creating a new name every time. They sell the items for more money, which they use to survive.

In this particular case, I didn’t know what or how to feel. Here was a woman who was so poor that she lived in a house that will not survive the rainy season, she could hardly feed her children, and she had rocks for chairs. We suspect that her husband is recycling through the system right now. Should I be angry that she’s profiting from UNHCR’s generosity? Should I accept that her poverty is so pronounced that her behavior is justifiable? In any case, we can’t and don’t do anything about it. But it’s a hard question to grapple with, and I haven’t really reconciled how I feel.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Coffee News

Good for Starbucks: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20060301/ap_on_bi_ge/starbucks_rwanda

Of course, don't think that you can find coffee here! Strangely, everyone loves tea and no one drinks coffee....so it's all exported, and if you need a jolt, the only thing available is Nescafé. Ew.