Friday, April 28, 2006

Letter from the youth

The Youth Committee wrote me a letter, which I thought I should share. I have translated it (from the French) below:

NKAMIRA, April 21, 2006


Toward the goal of preventing vagrancy and bad behavior in the Nkamira transit center, we decided to organize some sports.

Concerning the soccer team, we began with training, which went well; we also played several games against our neighbors in the village outside the center.

In brief, here are the results of games played:

-On March 10, 2006, against the “Clairement” school, we won two to zero (2-0).

-On March 16, 2006, against the Mutura school team, the score was tied zero-zero (0-0).

-On March 30, 2006, against the Kanzenze school, the score was one to zero (1-0).

-And finally, on April 20, 2006, we bombarded the Nyiramirango team four to one (4-1).

And we’re thinking of playing a friendly game against the district team.

Finally, if there were a way to find jerseys, this would be good for us because it’s not easy to differentiate ourselves from our adversaries when we are wearing different clothes.

As you can see, the team continues to evolve following your help and we hope there will be a good return on your investment.

We thank you for everything you do.

May God bless you.

Jean-Bosco KABANDA
The president of youth of the Nkamira transit center

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Nyamyumba After The Rains

I took this picture when I was out in the field monitoring Rwandan repatriates. It overlooks Nyamyumba, just south of Gisenyi town, and Lake Kivu. I'm convinced that no camera can truly capture the beauty of this country.

It was so slick on the hilly dirt roads that our Land Cruiser nearly slipped off the road and down the hill into a field of banana trees! The view was simply gorgeous, though.

Chicken Transport

This is how live chickens are transported to the markets. Somehow, the chickens are stuffed into this small handmade box and then tied onto the back of a bicycle. I tried counting...there are at least 20 chickens in this box!

Friday, April 21, 2006

Over the river and through the banana palms

More recycled people! That’s basically what I’ve been finding every time I go out…Boniface and I take the Land Cruiser out to a remote area, and, using a list of Rwandans who have repatriated in 2004, 2005, and 2006, look for their residences. If we’re lucky, we find them and interview them about their lives and about how they’re reintegrating into their communities.

We also ask people in the villages if they recognize the names of the people on our list. Most of them don’t. This is normal in a place like Fairfax or Alexandria, because the population is comparatively large. But in these tiny villages of 50-100 people, everyone knows everyone else, and if a name is not recognized, it can safely be said that the name on our list isn’t real. That is, a Rwandan left their community, went to Congo, came back through the border, and claimed to be returning to Rwanda for the first time, using a name they’ve made up.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, there’s a lot to gain. We give out a kitchen set, a plastic tarp, a hoe, food for 2-3 months, and other items. The plastic tarp alone sells for $10, which is, for some, a month’s income. Spending a whole day in the field and not finding a single person can be exasperating (I don’t want to think about how inflated our lists are!), but it is nice to get out of dusty Gisenyi town and into the hilly banana plantations, where the air is fresh and smells like grass and smoke.

You can tell when you’ve left the beaten path by the way that people greet you. Near the main roads, all you hear is “Agacupa! Agacupa!” (a cry for plastic water bottles), or “Amafaranga!” (a cry for money). Children outstretch their hands, hoping for a handout.

In the backwater areas, everyone waves and smiles, from children, to their parents, to the eldest sages of the village. The most common cry (other than the ever-present “muzungu!” which is actually charming because you’re seen as a novelty rather than a bank) is “Komera!” which means “Be strong!” From the delight on the faces of villagers, it’s evident that they are pleased that you have come to see and help their country.

As we drive down the muddy paths, goats and chickens flee while children, hearing the cries of those before them, run out to see what all the commotion is about. (It is interesting to note that the UN Population Fund estimates that 67% of Rwanda’s population is under 25…based on what I have seen in the field, I would judge that 67% of the population is under 15. Babies are EVERYWHERE.)

Once, I asked Boniface to stop the car so I could admire a baby goat, about a week old. Goats are omnipresent in Rwanda (like babies), and I contemplated getting one and keeping it at the office as a pet. (My boss did not agree.) The owner of the goat, surprised that I was so enchanted with an animal that can be found every five feet in this country, was happy to hand him over, through the window of our car, so I could hold him in my lap. It was one of my happiest moments to date, but I smelled like goat poo after I handed him back over. Thank goodness I now have someone to help me wash my clothes.

Almost every house has a stick buried in the mud, to which is tied either a banana palm, a plastic bag, or flowers. A banana palm signifies that the house produces the local banana brew. A plastic bag or flowers signify that the house produces sorghum juice, which tastes like smoked gym socks. I would place it in the category of “acquired tastes.” Further, in front of many houses are inverted, hollowed-out banana palm trunks, which are used to collect rainwater for drinking.

On the subject of houses, there are several types here, of which the icyondo is the most common. An icyondo is a stick and mud house, often covered with plastic sheeting, corrugated metal, reeds, or, if the family is comparatively well-to-do, curved terracotta tiles. Occasionally there are amatafari ahiye, which are brick houses. Up until recently, bricks were made the traditional way—formed and fired in a kiln. The government has banned the cutting of wood for fires (which has had a devastating effect in rural villages), and wood-fired bricks can no longer be made. The alternative has been sun-dried bricks, which do not hold up in the torrential rainy seasons. The poorest villagers have inzu y’ibyatsi, or reed huts. Boniface tells me that this is the favored shelter of the Twa people, the smallest ethnic minority of Rwanda and the original inhabitants of the land.

And, while this doesn’t really fit in anywhere else, I always think it’s interesting when we allow a villager to come with us in our car. We only allow it if the person is a local official, or if s/he knows where to find a returnee. They are so excited to be in a car—for most of these people, it’s the first time they’ve ever been inside one! This is most evident by the fact that the vast majority do not know how to open the door; we have to show them how. Sometimes I turn on the music for them to enjoy, and, if it’s raining, the air conditioning. People in cars (particularly UN cars) are seen to be privileged, so the villagers love to come with us. It’s heartwarming to see how thrilled they are by something to which we Westerners are so accustomed.

Rule #1

Rule #1 of Mosquito Nets:

Mosquito nets should keep mosquitoes out, not in.

Lesson learned. Ouch.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Ruhengeri At Dawn

This photo was taken by a friend of mine. It wasn't doctored...that's really what this region looks like in the morning!

Friday, April 14, 2006

Purple is the color of genocide

The genocide memorial period concluded yesterday, after a week of discussions, films, speeches, church services, and parades. Businesses were ordered to close between the hours of noon and 6 pm so that employees could attend the events. All of Rwanda’s schools were closed. Only songs about the genocide were permitted to be played on the radio.

In one song, a man sang, “Death, why must you follow me? I’ve paid you, I’ve done everything I can to escape from you.” The song came out in 2004. Two weeks later, the singer was found in the Nyabarongo River, a waterway that winds through the marshes and valleys near Kigali and moves north, feeding into the Nile. During the genocide, Tutsis were killed and throw into the river because extremists said that the Tutsis should be “sent back where they came from.” (The generally tall, lean, fairer-skin characteristics of Tutsis had led many to believe that they have ethnically Ethiopian roots.)

Every year, the genocide memorial period closes with the burial of victims in a memorial tomb. This is done across the country. In Rubavu, the district in which Gisenyi is located, the memorial service was held at a relatively new genocide memorial in Rugerero, more than an hour by foot from Gisenyi. It was funded and built this year by a Chinese-American woman.

Thousands from the surrounding areas came to the site, many walking from Gisenyi in their best clothes. It seemed that everyone present wore purple if they could. Most wore deep purple handkerchiefs around their necks or wrists, a symbol of mourning and remembrance of the family members they lost. Purple is the color of genocide. It’s also the color of Lent. The genocide memorial period sadly coincides with the Christians’ Holy Week.

The ceremony opened with prayers by representatives of the Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim faiths. Then the stories began. In French, they are called temoignages, from the French word temoigner, “to witness.” I prefer the term temoignages to any English translation because it is a better description: these are the stories of witnesses.

A woman told the story of her harrowing escape, hiding among the banana trees and paying her way through interahamwe roadblocks. She was hiding in a grassy field when her brother-in-law, a Hutu, found her. He left her there and returned with a group of interahamwe, machetes at the ready. She fled to a friend’s house. They found her there and slaughtered her friend’s family. They tried to kill the woman, too, starting by chopping her arms with machetes. She still bears the scars, and showed them. Her husband managed to save her from his family. He is now estranged from them; his family is angry that he married a Tutsi and that she did not perish like many others.

It was then that I heard the screams. They cut through the silence. It sounded like someone behind the memorial was being attacked. My heart jumped into my throat as policemen and Red Cross volunteers started running toward the noise.

When they emerged through the crowd, they were carrying two women, both looking possessed, convulsing and screaming in agony. They were carried to a tent nearby, erected to deal with cases like these—many people literally go insane during this period, when they remember what they suffered and the widespread carnage they witnessed.

The temoignages continued over the screaming and wailing, which became more frequent. They conclude with the remarks of a young child, maybe 13 or 14 years old, who had brought the bones of his father to the site to lay them to rest.

It was impossible, throughout the memorial service, to not be touched. Everyone around me was wiping their tears, leaning on each other for support, or softly wailing into their hands. I, too, was moved to tears.

Then came the coffins. There were about six or seven of them. They contained multiple bodies—53 people were entombed, their caskets draped with purple cloth.

The tone of the event then changed. The Minister for Social and Cultural Affairs made a speech denouncing those who denied a genocide had ever occurred. I hadn’t realized that anyone refused to believe it—it’s like denying that grass is green or that the sky is blue—the proof is everywhere. She said that those who denied it tended to be those who still had extremist views.

She had met a girl last month who had had problems with her father because he continued to maintain extremist views. She turned him into the authorities, reporting how he had been a genocidaire. In 1994, she was a very young girl, and was walking along the road when she found a baby next to its dead parents. She brought the baby home to take care of it.

“What is this shit?” her father asked, referring to the baby. He took his machete and chopped the baby into pieces before throwing it into a toilet.

The Minister also recounted how there was a mass grave of babies—the genocidaires used pieces of wood to smash the babies in the hole, not unlike a mortar and pestle.

“It’s not over,” she said. “Extremists persist here.” Two days ago, a Tutsi girl was attacked in Gisenyi by two young men on account of her ethnicity—she was beaten nearly to death, and was hospitalized. In another case, the goats of a Tutsi farmer were used to incite terror—their eyes were gouged out while he was away.

After four hours, the event concluded with a song. Everyone present was invited to the district office down the road to wash their hands, a traditional practice at the close of a period of mourning, before making the long walk home.

Stranger Than Fiction

On the way to Rugerero for the closing ceremonies of genocide memorial week, our car came upon a big group of people on the side of the road. With all the people walking along the road that day, I imagined that it had to be a pedestrian accident. We stopped the car.

As it turns out, truth is stranger than fiction. A child had been chasing a blind cow out of the road, and the cow fell headfirst into a 3 foot-by-3 foot drainage hole.

Nine people were trying to haul the poor thing out of the hole, pulling on its back legs and its tail as it howled in agony. It was too heavy (and certainly unwieldy), so they sought the help of our Land Cruiser. Using some old rope and wire, they attached one of the cow’s legs to the car and we drove forward. The rope snapped several times.

While everyone was struggling, half of Gisenyi drove by, and asked us how we could be so careless as to hit a cow. No one believed that we just stopped to help!

Someone found some new rope, and this time, it held. After more heaving, we pulled Blind Bessie out of the hole. Her back legs were bloody from the irritation of the rope, and she was moaning in agony. But we managed to save her, and it looks like she’ll probably survive. The villagers were immensely thankful. I think it can safely be said that that was probably the first time in UNHCR history that a blind cow was rescued!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

A Moral Dilemma

Before I left the States, a friend who had lived in Rwanda for a year had told me that he had a cook/cleaner, a gardener, and a guard during his stay in Kigali.

I had thought this was a bit excessive, but he assured me that it was only appropriate. “You’re giving people jobs,” he said. He had a point.

But I couldn’t help feeling, deep down, like a colonialist. I’ve never needed help before, and never really thought I would. Plus, I intensely dislike the thought of having someone serve me, particularly in a country that only received independence in the 1960s. I disliked it so much that it’s almost the halfway point of my time here, and to date, I’ve done all of my own cooking and cleaning.

This doesn’t sound like a very big deal, I realize, but everyone here thinks that I’m out of my mind. Everyone I know (from my boss, to the UNHCR driver, to the cleaner at the HCR office, to my friends working at the video store) has a “bonne” (maid/nanny) or a “houseboy.” They all have impeccably clean houses and apartments, and they always have hot meals waiting for them when they wake, at lunch, and after work. Their clothes are clean and pressed.

So, what hath my stubbornness wrought? Well, to start, I cook all of my own meals, and to be truthful, they’re not good or good for me. I didn’t take out my trash for a month because there isn’t a trash collection area. Perhaps I should clarify. There is no trash collection, period. They’re only starting it in Kigali. People here burn their trash in their backyards, and as my apartment doesn’t have a backyard, I just let my trash rot in my kitchen. There are fruit flies everywhere.

I have since found that they burn it in the church garden, but I’m still pretty bad about dumping my trash.

I’m also unpardonably dirty. I wash my own clothes, which is no small feat, I assure you. I am doing it the Rwandan way—in a big plastic basin. I fill it with detergent and water I have boiled. I then pour in cold water to temper the heat.

Then, I add my clothes. I can’t wash much at one time—one pair of pants or a couple pairs of underwear. After soaking, I scrub and knead and give my arms a proper workout. I rinse the clothes in the sink, wring them out, and hang them out to dry.

Start to finish, one load of laundry takes over an hour. Further, I can’t do laundry on days when it looks like rain (which is every day right now) because my underwear blows off the line into a neighboring palm tree, and I don’t think the priest next door would particularly appreciate that.

The result has been that I do my laundry as infrequently as possible. I have clothes that I haven’t washed since I arrived. Gross, I know.

As for my apartment, it collects dust like Oklahoma, not to mention the fact that the floor is disgusting from all the dirt I’ve tracked in. I also have many house lizards—adorable little buggers about three inches long. I love them. They crawl around in squiggly lines, looking cute, and then they catch mosquitoes that you didn’t even know were there.

They’re really the perfect tropical pet, except for one thing—they poo everywhere. On every horizontal surface, on every vertical surface, sometimes even on the ceiling. It’s a never-ending mess.

In an effort to stop living in filth, I’ve reluctantly decided to try hiring some help. Her name is Angelique, and she used to work in some capacity at the transit center. She has two children, ages 8 and 3. The fathers of her children are deadbeats who disappeared without a trace, so she’s a single mom. She speaks enough French that we can easily communicate (finding a house helper who speaks French is actually quite hard in Gisenyi).

My friend who lived in Kigali had a point when he said that, when you hire a helper, you’re giving someone a job. Angelique has not had a dependable income for months, and has had to scrounge to find money to pay elementary school fees and feed her family. She is grateful to have an income. I’ve offered her 20,000 Frw (just under $40) a month, which is, I’m told, generous, because the going rate is 6,000 Frw (just under $12) a month. I couldn’t possibly agree to pay such a small amount. I don’t think I would be able to sleep at night.

I also want to—well, treat her better than other people treat their helpers. Friends and acquaintances act as if they are entitled to have a houseboy. I’m astounded sometimes by the lack of humanity—I’ve heard few kind words directed toward houseboys and bonnes. “Thank you” and “please” are so rare that I can’t remember the last time I heard them—conversations (if you can call them that) generally have an annoyed tone, and are usually dominated by phrases like “get me this” or “where is that?”

As for me, I wince every time I remember that I’ve hired someone to work for me. Yet, I have reluctantly conceded that I need the help. Perhaps this is why I feel more grateful than others. I sympathize with anyone that has to wash my clothes. After all, I’ve done that. It’s not fun.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Now, things are getting interesting.

It’s April in Rwanda. The rains have come.

Today is April 6. On this day in 1994, Juvenal Habyarimana, the Rwandan president, was assassinated when his plane was shot down. It was on that evening that the genocide began, killing between 800,000 and one million people in 100 days.

Tomorrow is April 7, Genocide Memorial Day. There will be events at the stadium, and at the “old cemetery,” where they have freshly repainted the massive headstone. Of all the words on the Gisenyi memorial, “JENOSIDE” stands out the most because it is painted in red. They call it the “old cemetery” because there is no more room for more bodies; during the genocide, the land was filled to capacity. I am told that they have not finished burying genocide victims.

It marks the beginning of a week of mourning. Music and dancing are seen as disrespectful, so they have been forbidden. Only genocide documentaries, movies, and discussions are shown on television. Drinking at cabarets is discouraged.

I’m not sure what else to expect—all that I know is that it is only now that people are beginning to talk about it. The elephant in the room that no one would mention is out in the open. My driver pointed to a small red cross in the middle of the cemetery. “That’s my little brother,” he said. He had told me before about how his little brother had worked at the brewery in neighboring Nyamyumba, and how he had been going to work on the bus in April 1994 when the bus was stopped by a roadblock. Everyone had been slaughtered. A concrete memorial next to the road marks the spot of the massacre.

One of my friends, who lived in Congo at the time, told me a story this morning of how her aunt had been hacked by machetes. She had deep cuts on the back of her neck, all over her body, and in several places on her skull. She had been thrown into a mass grave and buried. At midnight, someone knocked on my friend’s door. The family was horrified to find that it was her aunt, barely upright, a walking corpse, blood running down her face. She had found enough strength to climb out of the grave and stumble across the border. After being taken to the local hospital, she eventually healed—but she refuses to step foot in Rwanda ever again. She lives in Uganda now.

As a rule, I don’t ask questions about family—partially because family is a very fluid concept here. Everyone calls each other “cousin,” or “brother,” or “uncle”—but they are hardly ever related. Nuclear families, after the genocide, were often reduced to one person. If a family was lucky, there were two survivors. One NGO worker told a story of how he hid under a bush in his garden while his mother and six siblings hid in the ceiling of his house. His family had been caught and forced out into the garden. The militia knew that he was hiding in the bush, and forced him to watch as his family was cut into pieces, literally, one by one. His father, who was in Congo on business, wasn’t aware of the tragedy. When his son finally revealed the news to him, his father went insane.

There are many stories like this. When I hear them, I will share them—because people outside of Rwanda need to hear them to understand the extent of the suffering here, as well as to understand the fact that these events continue to influence the way that people act, the way the government conducts business, the way that foreigners are perceived, and Rwanda’s relations with its neighbors. It’s a thread that runs through every aspect of life here.

I can’t say that I haven’t been affected. I admit that I sometimes feel like a crazy person. In my apartment, I searched for a good hiding spot. I get goosebumps just thinking about the fact that there was a time when there were corpses in the streets where I walk every day. I think about what life would be like all alone, without any nuclear or extended family. I think about how difficult it would be to maintain my sanity after having seen torture and slaughter on such a grand scale.

I also feel like this place is a powder keg. Hutus and Tutsis are self-segregated; the former tend to be farmers in rural areas or blue-collar workers in the towns, while the latter tend to dominate the urban white-collar jobs and the universities. There is a great deal of resentment that continues; Hutus resent Tutsis because there is still an enormous economic inequality between the two, and Tutsis resent Hutus because of the genocides of 1959 and 1994. One incident that really illustrated this for me occurred in Kigali last month. I went out with several Rwandans, one an IT manager, the others lawyers. We met up with my Italian friend and a Rwandan woman, about my age, who went to university and has a well-paying job at an NGO.

The woman was silent the entire evening. When I asked my Italian friend about it, he said, “Well, you know, she told me that it was because they were all Tutsis and she was Hutu.” She was uncomfortable. And if she, easily considered an elites among Hutus (not to mention Rwandans in general—having a job at an NGO carries quite a distinction), felt uncomfortable, I could only imagine what poor Hutu farmers must think.

I have also spoken with many Rwandans who have told me privately that, because they are Tutsi, they have made special efforts since 1994 to ensure that they have family members in other countries, particularly Belgium, France, England, and the U.S., so that, should another genocide occur, they won’t be stranded like they were last time.

So we’ll see what happens this week. I don’t have any idea what to expect.