Thursday, May 18, 2006

Survivor: Uganda

A couple of friends in Kigali decided to travel to Kabale, Uganda, just over the northern border of Rwanda. They traveled north in a matatu, the always-overstuffed vans that serve as public transportation.

They asked me to come with them, but because of work, I couldn’t leave at the same time. They told me to meet them there, and advised that I take the same matatu.

I thought differently…I thought it was stupid to travel south for three hours to Kigali, just to turn around and go north again for two hours to Uganda. I decided that there must be a shortcut—that is, there must be an easier way to get to Kabale from Gisenyi.

I asked everyone I knew if they had gone to Uganda from here, and no one had…everyone advised that I just go from Kigali. I decided, stubbornly, to try my way anyway. The result? Getting to Uganda became half the adventure.

My knowledge of the route was limited; I had heard that the Rwandan town of Cyanika, which borders Uganda, was only 25 km away from Ruhengeri, and I knew that I would pay $30 for a single-entry visa. Beyond that, I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t even have a map, so I had no idea how far Cyanika was from Kabale, but I figured that it couldn’t be that bad.

With only a backpack for luggage, I began my trip, taking the noon regional matatu to Ruhengeri. Upon arrival in Ruhengeri an hour later, I asked locals how to get to Kabale.

One man led me to the Ruhengeri bus station, and pointed to the local matatus going to Cyanika. It’s lucky that I speak some Kinyarwanda, because the bus driver didn’t speak French or English! “Ngiye Kabale. Nangahe?” I asked. (This spelling is probably totally off, but I’m trying. It means: “I’m going to Kabale. How much does that cost?”) “Magana atanu,” he replied, which is 500 Francs. I hopped in and was on my way.

After an hour of conversations in broken Kinyarwanda on the local matatu (and having my space invaded by sacks of potatoes, gardening tools, and the like), the bus reached its final destination: the Rwandan-Ugandan border.

I went into the Immigration Office and signed out (the officer was a little annoying. He kept repeating, “How are you an American? You look like a Chinese!”) and crossed over to the Ugandan side. Usually, border towns are bustling with trade—here, there was nothing—just a couple of wooden kiosks and an immigration building. The Ugandan immigration officer game me a surprisingly hard time (“Why are you alone?” “Where is your luggage?” “Why do you want to go to Kabale and not Kampala?” and 17 more questions) but, in the end, was very helpful, because he gave me precious information about how to get to Kabale and the exchange rate! (Which, by the way, is 1,750 Ugandan shillings on the dollar.) I paid my visa and tried to find a matatu to Kisoro, the town from which I would find transport to Kabale.

No matatus were to be found—only a couple of taxis. “17,000 shillings, best price!” is what the drivers told me. (Almost everyone in Uganda speaks English.) But as the immigration officer told me not to spend a penny more than 2,000, I offered this price, and when the drivers refused, I began to walk away. (My two bargaining techniques are laughing and walking away.)

“Okay, okay, 2,000!” one said, and I hopped in the car. We left, whereupon I realized that I was lucky that the technique of walking away actually worked…there wasn’t a town for miles, so mine was an empty threat! (If these taxis figure this out, they will make a killing.)

We picked up 8 people on the way. That meant that there were 4 across the two front seats, and six in the back. One guy was straddling the stick shift.

Half an hour later, we arrived in Kisoro, a dusty (and, frankly, ugly) little town which looks similar to towns in Afghanistan. I didn’t know how far it was from Kabale, and, when I asked, received a litany of conflicting responses (60 km, 10 miles, 2 hours). Taxis were willing to drive me for a wallet-choking 70,000 USh. There was also a Greyhound-type bus which apparently only went to Kabale in the morning, en route to Kampala. The bus was only 7,000. I decided that I would just stay the night in Kisoro and take the bus the next morning.

The Ugandans I met were very helpful. One guy, who worked for the bus company, helped me to exchange money in the market and buy my ticket for the bus. When I bought it, imagine my surprise when the man behind the counter said, “Where will you need to be picked up?”

The bus goes around to people’s houses to pick them up. This can’t be very efficient, but it’s pretty cool.

I didn’t yet have a place to stay, so the same Ugandan guy who helped me with my money said that he would show me some hotels. (“Hotel” loosely defined.) He brought me to the “Graceland Motel,” which is where, he said, he had brought “other white people.” While a little bit chintzy, the place was cute, and, more importantly, had my two basic needs: a mosquito net and hot water. I took a room at $13 a night. The nice guy said that he would come back at 5 am to escort me to the bus.

Dinner (plus two beverages) rang in at a meager $4. I avoided the item on the menu that read: “Chicken Sweat and Sour.” That didn’t sound too appetizing. Being alone, I was also forced to watch the preferred TV channel: JCTV. That stands for Jesus Christ Television. All the programming is from the United States.

Note to anyone traveling from Rwanda to Uganda: Uganda is one hour ahead!!!! I was very fortunate to have noticed the clock in the restaurant—otherwise, I would have completely missed my bus.

I was up and ready by 5, and the guy appeared on time, as promised. I made myself comfortable on the bus and we left for Kabale at 6.

The bus ambled along for 2 hours, going down eroded roads and mud paths that mega-buses really shouldn’t be traveling on. When I arrived in Kabale, I felt like I was definitely in another country—there were signs in English….big, clean, gas stations…supermarkets with aisles (that is, not the general stores/bodegas we have in Rwanda)…and the architectural design was more advanced.

I hopped on a motorcycle, which took me all the way to my destination: Lake Bunyonyi, the second deepest lake in Africa. When I got there, I expected him to take me all the way to my hotel, the Bushara Island Camp. Instead, he dropped me off by a bunch of canoes and told me that I had to row a boat to get there.


It was thus that I found myself rowing a dugout canoe at 8:30 a.m. No one had told me about that part. I felt like I was on Survivor or something. By this point, I had taken nearly every kind of transport possible.

When I arrived at the island, I climbed the steep hill to the restaurant, where I found my friends eating breakfast. One of my friends looked at me, perplexed. They didn’t think I was going to make it. After all, I was two days late. 

The Bushara Island Lodge is simply amazing, and I highly recommend it. It takes up a whole island in the middle of the lake, and there are several lodging choices—you can rent a cottage, a treehouse, a furnished safari tent, or you can pitch your own tent. We had a treehouse, which felt a lot like summer camp! The bamboo shower was outside, and you can look over the lake through the slats of bamboo as you wash your hair. There is no piped water—the water that comes through the shower heads is attached to a long pipe that connects to a large metal bucket that someone fills up with hot water in the morning.

There are many activities…you can rent a sailboat, canoe around the lake, go birdwatching on a nearby island, look at the stars through their telescope, swim, sit around the bonfire at night, use the rope swing to dump yourself into the lake, read a book from their small library, and eat your heart out. There is so much good (and CHEAP!) food that you can’t help but gorge yourself.

My only critique of my time there was the lack of mosquito nets…we came back to the treehouse one night to find that there were no less than 50 large, evil looking spiders on the ceiling, many with egg sacs. It was disgusting. They got into our clothes, our bags, everything. I slept very poorly that night, because I kept feeling something crawling up my legs and feared that a spider would drop onto my face. Uggggh.

I did relax, though, during the day. And the landscape is amazing. There are many more islands in the lake: one is called “Punishment,” because unmarried pregnant girls used to be dropped off (by their brothers) on the island and left there for several days to a week. Often, poor village men would row their canoes out and choose one as a wife, which was very convenient for them because this meant that they did not have to pay a dowry.

There was another island that served as a tri-country leper colony. It was closed at the end of the last century.

All in all, my entire vacation, transport and all (visa excluded) cost me $26. That’s right. It was $10 for the lodging, and $16 for the food. Rwanda’s tourism industry could take a lesson from Uganda! And even though it was a hassle getting there, it was outweighed by the great experience I had once arrived! (And my advice is: Go to Kabale from Kigali!!)

p.s. I managed to hitch a ride to Kigali with a private car of expatriates that I met at the Bushara Island Camp, so getting home was much easier!

p.p.s. Pictures to come, when I have better internet!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Nkamira soccer

A young refugee with his homemade soccer ball. It is made of plastic bags and string.
The undefeated boys' soccer team at the refugee camp with the last ball I gave them... They're really tough on soccer balls! I wanted to take a picture of the two girls' teams, but apparently they weren't ready for a photo shoot (girls everywhere are the same...they have to primp before a photo! :)

And one action photo! Most of them play barefoot or in sandals. Tennis shoes (any shoes, for that matter) are a real luxury.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


I just received a Motorola Walkie Talkie for my security. I even have a code name. I won’t reveal the whole thing because, well, I’m not allowed for security reasons, but it starts with “Sierra Romeo,” and is followed by a number. I am enjoying my new toy, and think it’s really funny but I’m not sure why.

Even though it is rumored that summer has begun, the rains disagree…We had a monsoon the other day which came down so fast and so hard that we had veritable rapids of mud crashing down the side of the hill onto the main road. If we hadn’t been in a Land Cruiser, we would have been carried down the mountain!

Rwandans have a drinking tradition which is also very practical: before pouring their beer into a glass (when they’re at a bar), they will pour a little beer into the glass, swish it around, and then toss it out. It’s a “gift to the ancestors,” they say, but it’s also smart—it’s a way to make sure your glass is clean before drinking from it!

The last Saturday of every month is Umuganda, or “community work.” Every Rwandan citizen is obligated to help clean the town, fix the roads, weed the public spaces, etc. Some people try to avoid it, though. When I asked my friend if he was going to participate, he laughed, “I have to do my own umuganda at home!”

Gisenyi and Ruhengeri have the highest concentration of people in all of Rwanda.

Gisenyi has the highest concentration of Muslims in all of Rwanda.

I tried to find pork in the market the other day, with no success. When I asked my driver why this was so, he told me that it’s because of the Muslim population—there is simply no demand. If I want pork, I have to go to a town outside Gisenyi (but only in the morning, when they have just slaughtered the pig, because otherwise, the flies will have already had a go at the meat) or to Goma, across the border in Congo.

I recently received my CEPGL, a paper which allows me to go to Congo (DRC) and Burundi as many times as I want for only $8 a year. Compare this to a $30 single-entry visa that I would otherwise need every time I want to go across the border into Congo, and I think I’ve snagged a pretty good deal!

Angelique, the woman I have hired to work at my home, has been asking me to teach her how to cook American food. In response, I’ve shown her how to make Thai curry with vermicelli noodles, garlic mashed potatoes, caramelized bananas, and minestrone soup; next up are pancakes, potato-leek soup, and guacamole. (I’ve explained that American food, beyond hot dogs and hamburgers, is every kind of food.) I’ve also been teaching her about spices—my parents sent me things like basil and black pepper, which are pretty easy to explain, but it’s much harder to explain spices like garam masala and chipotle pepper!

Speaking of food, it’s quite funny how many times I’ve had to explain to Rwandans that their “capati” (prounounced “chapatti”) and “sambusa” (also known as “samosas”) are actually Indian foods. Everyone I talk to, even my colleagues, thinks that they’re Rwandan—or, at least, African of origin…

Similarly, due to my proximity to Congo, radio stations are dominated by Congolese news and music. Congolese music is variant, but it’s always fast and lively. Some types place more emphasis on traditional instruments, but the types of songs that are most popular on the big radio stations are called “salsa,” “rumba,” and “cha-cha”; in other words, it’s Latin American-style music, but sung in Lingala or Swahili. After a conversation with some colleagues today, I discovered that they thought that this music was uniquely Congolese!

Starting soon, the refugees in our camp will also receive a large ration of rice every two weeks, which is worth four times as much as corn (which they currently receive) in the neighboring village. Rice is perceived as the food of the wealthy, so the refugees are ecstatic that they will both be able to eat some rice and make more money off of the rations they sell.

Gacaca (pronounced ga-cha-cha) is the village judicial system that has been adapted to try “lesser” (i.e. not the people who are being tried in Arusha at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda) genocidaires. Many of them have been in prison since just after the genocide. Gacaca is held every week, and is mandatory; police drive around in trucks and scold you if they find you in the street and not at gacaca (and it’s quite intimidating to be scolded by someone carrying a semi-automatic rifle). Here in Gisenyi, it’s every Thursday morning, and the whole city is a ghost town. (Since gacaca can be bad for commerce, in Kigali, it takes place on Saturday mornings.) There are several gacaca sites. Right now, the courts are in the information collection phase, during which they gather witness accounts and prisoners’ testimonies. The full trials and judgments will take place in the next stage. If you are a foreigner, you have to have permission from the government before you are allowed to witness a gacaca session; the government wants to ensure that it is a fully Rwandan process. I’m going to see if I can get permission, and if/when I do, I will be sure to post.

*Ibindi means “miscellaneous,” or “other things.”

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Rwanda Safari!

Three months in Africa and I still hadn’t seen one monkey. I decided to try to rectify the situation by traveling out to Akagera National Park, which takes up almost the entire eastern border of Rwanda.

My three friends and I hired a 4x4 from a tour company which, when split among us, cost about $50 each. Not too bad for a safari. The driver picked us up in Kigali at 5:30 in the morning, and we started the seemingly endless drive to Akagera. It was about 2-3 hours away, but it felt like ages. (If you go, bring a pillow with you—the drive there and back is exhausting!)

The variety of Rwanda’s terrain never ceases to amaze me. Akagera is almost entirely savannah grassland, interspersed with lakes and tropical forests. Very different from the high hills and volcanoes of Gisenyi and Ruhengeri in the northwest! Akagera used to be three times its current size—but after the war, many Rwandans who hadn’t lived in Rwanda since 1959 (the first genocide) or who had been born and raised outside the country, returned. The only land available for them was in the national park, and the area the animals inhabited was dramatically reduced. The government, in response, formally reduced the park’s size by 2/3, and placed strict restrictions against further encroachment.

Despite its smaller size, it’s still vast—and surprisingly devoid of animals. There have been efforts to repopulate the terrain, which was devastated during the 1994 genocide—people fleeing the génocidaires killed and ate the animals in the park. The park has since received lions and giraffes from Kenya, but there are so few that you are lucky if you see them.

We arrived at Akagera at about 9 am, and picked up our complementary tour guide from the office. He gave us a choice of a short game drive, just in the southern area, or a long game drive, about 6 hours, which covers the entire park. We decided on the latter, and braced ourselves for a long day in the car.

Here’s a chronology of our day:

9 am- Arrive at park entrance, manage to convince park reception that we are Rwandan residents, laugh when the woman at the desk asks us if we’re all from the same country and realize that all four of us are from different countries (USA, Canada, UK, Italy). I love the diversity of the expatriate community.

9:10 am- One last pit stop, next to park headquarters. Admire the strange finches that build nests that hang from the tips of branches. The male finches build the nests, and the female decides who to mate with by entering the nest when it’s complete. The women agree that it was nice that the men did the work, for a change.

9:30 am- We veer off the beaten path. It rained that morning, so the grassland was muddy. After some searching, we came upon a herd of buffalo with curiously curved horns that kind of make them look like Dutch milkmaids. Birds are picking flies off their backs.

9:45 am- Through the brush, we finally spot our first giraffe. They’re tall, but they seem shorter than the ones at the zoo. A mother giraffe is accompanied by her baby, which is probably six feet tall and has a fat neck. With a slow and awkward gait, she walks toward her mate, who has tall horns with fuzzy crowns. They nuzzle. It was astonishingly adorable, like some African postcard. More giraffes emerge from the brush. I can see eight of them. They don’t seem to mind us. I hope one of them will stick out their long, black tongue, but none do. We take our photos and move on.

10 am- Impalas with black-and-white-striped bottoms see our car and start bounding away. Our guide tells us the monkeys are coming up.

10:30 am- We approach one of the many lakes and encounter some of the strangest birds I’ve ever seen in my life. The guide tells us they’re called “marabou storks.” They’re about three feet tall, with bodies like penguins, stick legs, and vulture-like heads with long, straight beaks. They are damn ugly. I suppose they are scavengers, and the guide confirms. There are hundreds of them. If you squint, they resemble a crowd of Alfred Hitchcocks.

10:45 am- Our vehicle pulls up to a lake shore. Little eyes peer at us from the water. The hippos are already in the lake, which is good news from a safety perspective, because they’re safest when they’re in the water. We gather on the shore and take rather disappointing photos. One hippo stirs, then arches his back out of the water like a whale. He roars at us and starts moving toward us aggressively. We all scream and run back to the car.

Our guide, meanwhile, stays planted on the shore, and laughs. “He wanted to scare you,” he says. “It looks like he did a good job.”

11:00 am- Our guide promises we will see monkeys soon.

11:10 am- My friend finds that something is biting her legs, even though she is wearing pants. It turns out that they are ants, and we laugh that she has “ants in her pants.” She does not think it is funny.

11:30 am- Invasion of the tse-tse flies. Holy Crap. They fill our car and sting the driver, which is when we become aware that they are not friendly flies. No longer are we laughing at the ants that were biting our friend, because we’re being attacked from every angle. The anti-mosquito spray that I brought has no effect on them.

I consult my Rwanda book and find that tse-tse flies are attracted to dark colors, especially blue. I look around the car and find that two of my friends are wearing blue, and the third is wearing dark blue jeans and a black sweater. The latter soon finds himself covered with flies, which are biting him through his jeans. We all move away from him. I thank my lucky stars that I’m wearing orange and green.

Noon- Tse-tse flies surround our car, knocking against the windows. They seem to be more intelligent than other insects, and that scares us. We manage to kill all the flies that are inside the car. There is no AC, so the car becomes suffocatingly hot, since we can’t open the windows.

1 pm- Our car climbs the Mutumba, or the highest point, of the park. The view is magnificent: rolling hills dotted with the occasional acacia tree, those beautiful savannah trees that look like bonsai and have wide, flat canopies. We eat the lunch we brought with us while looking out over a lake. In the distance, we can see Tanzania.

1:45 pm- Back in the car. We had left the doors open, so we have again been inundated with tse-tse flies. My friend is attacked again. I realize that I have not been bitten once.

1:50 pm- I ask the guide where the monkeys are. He says they’re coming soon. I don’t believe him. I ask him where the elephants are, and he says he doesn’t know. I ask him where the lions are, and he says he hasn’t seen one in a long time.

2:30 pm- Where are the animals? We’ve been driving around and seeing nothing. Our guide points out several different birds to us, but we admit that we can’t really differentiate between one little black bird and another little black bird.

3:00 pm- Zebras everywhere. Several scurry away from our car and stand in a star formation, one zebra looking in every direction. Together, it’s impossible to differentiate one from another. Magnificent defense mechanism! There are tens of them, and many baby zebras. As we try to take pictures, they run away, resulting in many “bum shots,” as we began to call our pictures.

3:45 pm- More zebras. We are in zebra-land. Leopards are rumored to roam the park, but there can’t be very many of them, because the population of zebras is astonishing.

More impalas, and we see topis, which are a kind of antelope.

3:55 pm- We interrupt a family of warthogs, tails straight up in the air. They run away in a perfect line, adults in the front and rear, and babies in the middle. Our car gets stuck in the mud, so we can’t get close enough for a picture.

4:30 pm- The sun starts to descend as we enter the elephant terrain. No elephants are found. I ask where the monkeys are. The guide finally admits that while there are hundreds of monkeys, they take shelter in the dense forest when it rains. We ask him why he didn’t just tell us before. He shrugs.

There is a lodge in Akagera where monkeys roam around like cats. They sit at your table, they hang out in your bedroom, they hug your legs…We don’t have time to stop by there, because it’s too late in the day. Argh.

5:15 pm- We drop off our guide in town outside the northern entrance to the park, where he catches a taxi-moto back to headquarters. We thank him with a $20 tip and head back to Kigali.

Despite the lack of monkeys, it was a good trip. The most remarkable aspect of Akagera, I think, is the remoteness. For the first time since I arrived, I couldn’t see any other human life—no sign of it. It was refreshing to see open, uncultivated, unexploited land. There’s a lot of potential for a thriving game park; tourism is still down after the genocide (and the subsequent insecurity through 2000), but if they bring in more animals, tourism would increase substantially. If not… I fear they may let returnees settle the rest of the land, and the savannah would be transformed into a field of banana trees and sugar cane, like everywhere else. What a pity that would be.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

School Days

The first-graders, all dressed up and ready for school

The 300 primary-aged children of Nkamira camp are back in school! They were sent home several weeks ago because they did not have uniforms like the other children, and because they didn’t have books.

We appealed to UNICEF, which kindly provided 5 “schools-in-a-box,” each providing supplies for 80 students. UNHCR headquarters provided money to fabricate uniforms (you can’t buy them in stores). Today, we gathered in our multipurpose tent, set up tables, and filled plastic UNICEF bags with supplies, handing them to the children with a new uniform. The children clapped and cheered. Smiling parents watched from outside the tent. The kids looked wonderful in their clean, new uniforms.

Balthazar and I, filling the UNICEF bags with school supplies

It was one of my happiest moments in Rwanda to date. After a year, the children are finally going back to school.

The older kids received several writing books, a pen, pencil, and ruler; the younger kids received writing books, individual chalkboards, chalk, and a pencil.

Writing books, given by UNICEF

The leftover pencils and writing books will be given to the Boy/Girl Scouts, which have finally gotten off the ground. The Scouts are mostly secondary-aged students. School fees for secondary aged students can be upwards of $30 a trimester per person, and we are unable to provide the fees for every student. As a result, secondary-aged students are still not in school (and probably won’t be through the end of this year), but we may be able to afford it next year. In the meantime, the Scouts are giving them an informal education, but an education nonetheless; they teach general education, like the history of Rwanda, the history of the United States (I laughed at this, but they’re serious! Amazing how other cultures know everything about us and the average American seems to know nothing about other countries), ethnic unity, English, French, and the like.

It was a great (and tiring!) day.