Monday, August 28, 2006

Thoughts on refugee work

Working with refugees isn’t easy. There are touching, inspirational moments that bring tears to your eyes and remind you why you chose this work—and there are moments that make you want to jump up and down and scream.

Most of the refugees at our camp left their homes with little more than the shirts on their backs. At home, they had jobs, they had land, they had dreams. But then their houses were torched, their land was stolen, and the violence that surrounded them—and pursued them—forced them to flee. Now, most of the adults sit idly in the camp. Others venture into the neighboring village in search of employment, which, if found, generally means farming work for that day only. The pay hovers around 200 Francs a day, or $0.40. They are desperate for money. Some girls, who wish to acquire new skirts, consider prostituting themselves. Families sell their two-week World Food Programme-allocated ration to make a profit and diversify their meals. It’s a sad situation, one that no one should ever have to experience.

It was in this context that I worked. I wanted to initiate and implement programs on a budget—literally—of $0. I was a volunteer, so I wasn’t paid, and, in fact, was draining my life savings during my stay. If I needed money to implement a program, it had to be my own. (I am very grateful for the generous contributions of my friends in June and July, which were an enormous help.) I didn’t wallow in self-pity—after all, it was my choice to go to Rwanda in the first place—but I did want just a smidgin of recognition from the refugees that I was doing the most I could with the few resources I had.

Being a muzungu, however, this recognition was hard to come by. The term “muzungu” really means “light-skinned,” but has become synonymous with “rich person.” To the refugees, I was rich, and many believed that they were entitled to whatever I could give them—and more—because I could afford it. By American standards, I was not—but that was not something they could understand. So when I had my first meeting with the Refugee Youth Committee and made the announcement that I had purchased two soccer balls for them, they began by thanking me profusely—and finished by asking me for volleyballs, too. I was devastated—I had spent $60 (I was overcharged, of course, because I was a “rich person”) for the balls, an expense I had never budgeted for, and where I had expected gratitude, I received a request for more. I told them that I didn’t have the money to buy them more balls—and that if they wanted to play volleyball, they needed a net, too, which I couldn’t provide, either. I was crushed. When I gave as much as I could, they asked for more.

The episode was repeated the next time I met with the youth. “Thanks for the balls,” they said. “They’re almost broken. Next time, can you get leather ones? They last longer.” It seemed a fair request, though I was in no financial position to buy them any more. I discussed the issue with Boniface. “They’re crazy,” he said. “Leather balls cost $100 each. They’ve never played with a leather ball in their lives.” They had again seen me as having deep pockets, which I found very upsetting. After all, if I hadn’t come to Rwanda, they wouldn’t have had any soccer balls at all, because playing soccer wasn’t a basic human need, and the UN is only in the business of providing basic human needs. I had decided to start a soccer league because the adolescents weren’t in school and needed something to do. It was a privilege, not a right. I couldn’t explain this to them, but it was something that I hoped they would understand.

I frequently told them that there was no pot of money anywhere, that these were my resources. So when one refugee subsequently asked, “Why? After all, you’re a ‘bailleur de fonds’” (a funder), I became visibly upset. Only one among them, the de facto leader, understood me, and it was he that endeavored to explain that I was not the wealthy donor everyone took me to be.

This episode was not the only one—the AIDS-awareness theatre group that I formed wanted to be paid for every performance, saying that at the other camps, NGOs paid the actors. We didn’t have any NGO partners in our camp, and I didn’t think that they should be paid for what should be a public service. When I organized a 3-day training workshop on AIDS for the refugees, the session was supposed to start at 9 am. By noon the room was still empty, and the CARE International trainer sat alone with his materials waiting for people to show. The refugees had wanted some kind of compensation for attending the workshop; they didn’t understand that the knowledge itself was valuable. A malaria problem developed as a result of the presence of pools of standing water. We brought bags of sand to fill the holes, and asked the refugees to help us. They refused, saying that at other camps, NGOs took care of that—and that if we wanted them to help, we had to pay them. It was as if they didn’t understand that it was in their own interest. We gave them a choice between paying them for filling the holes or buying school uniforms for their kids so they wouldn’t stand out as refugees in class. They wisely (though grudgingly) chose the latter.

The thing is, I couldn’t entirely blame them for having the attitude of always wanting to be compensated, always asking for more. Many of my colleagues and acquaintances were deeply annoyed, complaining that they acted helpless, that many people have the twisted idea that when they become refugees, they should receive a paycheck from UNHCR. In many ways, that’s true—if someone is doing something for you (especially when it’s the UN, universally understood to have deep pockets), why do something yourself? “The refugees know that when they return home, they won’t be given kilos and kilos of food every two weeks, and they won’t receive free medical services. They will be compelled to work because they won’t have anyone else to rely on, and will be much more resourceful,” one colleague said. “Right now, they act like they can’t do anything for themselves.” But I think that this is due in part to humanitarian aid. There are no sensitization programs for refugees on what their rights—and responsibilities—are. Some NGOs are less responsible than others, providing compensation for things that should be voluntary. Above all, humanitarian aid should really be humanitarian assistance, in the sense that the former is a donation, and the latter implies a partnership. Because that’s how the international community should view refugees—not uniquely as victims, but also as partners.

For every disappointing encounter with the refugees, however, there were many wonderful ones. Everyone at the camp knew my name, because I told them in broken Kinyarwanda, “Nitwa Morgani. Oya Muzungu,” which means: “My name is Morgan. No[t] Muzungu.” I could always tell who the new refugees were because they called me “muzungu” and would stare at me, mouths agape. The kids would correct the newcomers. The kids were simply charming—they would see the UN car rumble into the camp, up to the front office, and as they watched my arrival, they would wave and say, “Bye!” because they didn’t know the difference between “Hi” and “Bye.” When I descended from the car, they would crowd around and call, “Morgani!” and then make a fist (sometimes with a thumbs-up) and clamor to touch fists with me, exclaiming, “Chance!” (I’m pretty sure they meant “cheers” but my efforts to correct them failed.)

The children would dance around, doing fake martial arts to make me laugh—they would do anything to make me laugh. I often chased them around, tickling them and twirling them around. A few among them became my favorites: one, a shy little girl (who’s holding the UNICEF sign in my post about sending the kids to school); a couple of mischievous little boys; a handicapped girl who, I believe, has Parkinson’s disease; and a 27 year-old guy named Emmanuel, the de facto leader of the youth, and the only Anglophone among the refugees.

I also remember how I nearly began to cry after I found out that the refugee team didn’t just win the game on World Refugee Day—the day they received new balls and jerseys, and finally had proper goals—they had won spectacularly, 4-1. (I had posted 3-1 before, but I was later informed that that was a mistake.) It was everything I had hoped for—I wanted to show them that they could do a lot with very little, and with just the basics, our soccer team rose to become one of the best (if not the best, because to date, they’re undefeated) in the area.

The AIDS-awareness theatre group did the same, on World Refugee Day. They put on a spectacular 40-minute performance. And the Scouts would regularly greet each other with a secret handshake—the youth were excited to be a part of something bigger than the camp, an organization that provided them with inspiration, a rare commodity.

The other thing that struck me about the refugees was their love of writing thank-you letters. They always managed to procure paper, a pen, and air-mail envelopes, and what they wrote was always charming. The morning of my departure, I stopped briefly by the camp for a last goodbye. Emmanuel translated a letter that the youth had collectively written for me. As he read, tears began to well in my eyes, and with a complete lack of composure, I broke down sobbing.

From the youth of Nkamira:

We are hereby saying goodbye and thanking Our Morgan.

We are thanking her for all she brought to us.

You introduced the [Boy/Girl] Scouts to Nkamira for the first time;

You brought the youth together by giving them soccer balls;

You developed and supported the anti-AIDS theatre club;

You were an openhearted girl throughout your stay at Nkamira.

Even though you are leaving, we hope you will always support us and will never forget us.

Notez Bien (Please Note):

We thank everyone who has helped us, and we hope that someone who feels they can be a friend to us they way you have will continue your achievements after you leave.

Thank You

I hugged Emmanuel and thanked the youth, getting back into the car. We had to leave. And as we went, the children waved a ran next to the car, crying, “Bye! Bye!” They had gotten it right this time.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Ethnic Question

Hutus, Tutsis, and Twa don’t exist in Rwanda anymore—at least, according to the government. Eliminating (or, rather, attempting to eliminate) the concept of ethnicity is one main tactic the government is employing to try to move the country forward, to remove the perceived gap between them.

But the gap still exists. Where I lived, all of my friends (and coworkers) were Tutsi. This was not by choice, but it was the simple fact that they were the people with whom I most came in contact. They tended to be well-educated and spoke English and French in addition to Kinyarwanda and Swahili. They tended to grow up in towns, not villages. They tended to come from more privileged backgrounds, despite suffering disfavor in the post-independence era.

During the week, I would venture out into remote villages, where I would talk to some of Rwanda’s poorest people. The vast majority of the villagers I met were Hutu. They lived in destitute conditions, most in stick-and-mud huts with one bed of packed straw which the family shared together. There was usually a “stove” made of an old can of American vegetable oil or a pile of volcanic rocks. Babies without pants chewed on trash and defecated on the dirt floor. Chickens fluttered through, pecking at bits of leaves and errant kernels of corn. These villagers live off parcels of land that are often as big as the average American living room, and the food that it provides can hardly feed one person for a year, let alone the large families of six or seven (or more) that are often found in the villages. The difference in the quality of life between Gisenyi and villages ten minutes outside of Gisenyi are shocking. And as Tutsis tend to be more concentrated in the towns and Hutus tend to be more concentrated in the villages, the socio-economic division continues, and could foment unrest.

The government has taken some important steps to win over the minds of village Hutus, some of whom view Kagame’s presidency as the symbol of a Tutsi government. The first appealed to basic needs: water and education. There are now public water taps within walking distance of even the most remote villages. The government has even been remarkably progressive in teaching the people that they shouldn’t expect utilities to be free (a lesson which will be useful as the country further develops and utilities like electricity become more widely available), and charges 10 francs ($0.02) per jerrycan of water.

Education in the villages before 1994 was difficult to access; if it was available, it required kids leaving the fields to study, a luxury most families couldn’t afford. Tutsis, who tended to inhabit the cities and towns, were able to go to school. The difference in educational opportunities widened the socioeconomic fissure between Hutus and Tutsis.

Now, primary education is available everywhere, and it’s free. The vast majority of rural families I interviewed sent their kids to primary school, even if they themselves hadn’t ever attended. Villagers seemed to be happy that their children, many of whom, they concede, will likely be cultivators like them, are learning to read and write. That said, secondary education remains so expensive (about $150 a year) that urban children (generally Tutsi) make up the vast majority of the student body. In a society where jobs are increasingly asking for at least a university degree (higher degrees preferred), students who can’t attend secondary school for financial reasons are left behind. In other words, the gap remains.

Interestingly, the government is also using psychology in their quest for reconciliation. Having understood that the reason that the youth had cultivated so much hatred of other ethnicities was due to the fact that the youths’ minds were shaped by their parents from a young age, the government is using a similar strategy to teach kids the opposite—that there is no ethnicity, and that everyone is simply Rwandan. The program is implemented through schools, churches, and a National Youth Council with representatives at even the lowest levels. Since I didn’t feel comfortable discussing—er, nonexistent ethnicities, I wasn’t able to get a real sense of whether the programs were working in the villages. Did I mention that it’s illegal to discuss the ethnicities at all? I didn’t feel like standing trial during my time there, and certainly wouldn’t have wanted to put any Rwandans into that position.

* * *

I did manage to talk around the proverbial “elephant in the room” with several of my friends. All in their 20s, they were all Tutsi, except for one, who was half-Belgian. “I have no problem with people of another tribe,” B. said. “I live with one and have dated some. We’re all Rwandan. But my family has asked me if I would trust my roommate if there were another war.” He didn’t provide an answer to that question. Another friend said that his family expressed concerns about a mixed (Hutu/Tutsi) child. “If there were another war, which side would the child choose?” It seemed simpler just to keep everyone separate.

One friend was half-Hutu and half-Tutsi, and was dating a Tutsi. He wasn’t afraid to discuss the issue, since he wasn’t in the country during the war. “I don’t care about the girl’s tribe, as long as she’s cute, you know?” My half-Belgian friend agreed. “I’m an equal opportunity dater when it comes to hot girls.” (Sometimes it becomes very clear that Rwandan guys don’t differ much from American guys.)

* * *

The ethnic question in Rwanda is complex and historical. (I had mentioned it earlier here.) The three tribes peacefully coexisted for years—the Twa pygmies originally inhabited the land. Then Hutu cultivators moved onto Rwanda’s lush terrain, followed by Tutsi cattle-raisers who came in from the north. Cattle has always been more lucrative than produce in agrarian societies, and the Tutsis, as a result, gained political power; the mwamis (spiritual leaders and kings) were all Tutsi.

During the era of colonialism, the Germans and the Belgians trampled into Rwanda, miraculously preserving the country’s historical boundaries largely intact (Ruanda-Urundi chose to split under UN supervision in 1961) but placing more emphasis on the tribal divide in order to control the population. Anyone with a certain number of cattle on census day was deemed a Tutsi, whether or not they were really ethnically Tutsi. Many Rwandans I know point to this to prove that the differences in ethnicities are fabricated, that there was considerable crossover long ago which blurred the lines. I disagree. I’m certain that quite a few ethnic Hutu found themselves to be called “Tutsi” on census day, but since raising cattle was a specific tribal practice, it can be assumed that the vast majority of those who were labeled “Tutsi” actually were.

The rest of the story, of course, is that the Belgians exploited the differences between the two tribes, favoring Tutsis and providing them with more opportunities. This generated resentment among the Hutu population, which began to exact its revenge in 1959, when the Belgians began to hand over power to the Hutus in advance of independence (the Belgians, 50 years too late, had been struck by the revelation that governments should be run with the will of the majority). Ineffective governance led to a continuation of the socio-economic status quo—that Tutsis primarily occupied the educated classes—and starting in 1990 and culminating in 1994, the terror began again.

So how is the country now? Peaceful, on the surface. The government estimates, however, that 30 percent of the population still maintains genocidal opinions, but I’m not sure if that’s accurate. Perhaps the willful ignorance of the ethnic differences is actually working, in a sense—there is general calm, despite the fact that everyone can still generally tell at a glance who belongs to which tribe. Most people are tired of war, many are scarred, and most Tutsis I’ve talked to still fear another genocide. But others talk of how few Hutu leaders they see, and they talk of the continued poverty of Hutu-dominated villages. The country is still unbalanced, and the longer it remains that way, the more likely that resentment could bubble up again. Just ignoring the ethnic issue won’t work. Perhaps what Rwanda needs to move forward are equal educational opportunities and their own brand of affirmative action.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Bungalows and Beaches


At noon, we left Stone Town in favor of the beach. We didn’t have a reservation, but found a shared taxi to Kendwa, our first destination. Our driver didn’t really speak English, so we also had a guide named Saidi (though he went by Side—pronounced “see-day”), a surprisingly intellectual and sharp guy on whom I would end up relying heavily at the end of my trip.

After driving through villages where every child greeted us with a smile and a dance, we turned down an unmarked, dusty path leading to Kendwa, a village in the northwest of Zanzibar. Just south of Nungwi, a major destination for young, drunken travelers (think Cancun in the Indian Ocean), the Lonely Planet guide said that Kendwa was a quiet, relaxing foil to its loud, northerly neighbor.

Let me be perfectly clear: the Lonely Planet Guidebook is a waste of space in your luggage. It hasn’t been updated for years, and its advice is at once incomplete and unreliable. Get a different guide.

Perhaps with regard to Kendwa, it’s better that the guidebook doesn’t say much about it—it is, quite simply, the best destination in Zanzibar.

We found a bungalow at Kendwa Rocks, an eclectic, laid-back hotel run by Rastafarians. While the bungalows don’t have hot water, most “hotels” in Kendwa don’t. In front of every thatched roof bungalow is a hammock, and there are some in the restaurant, too. The outdoor pavilion restaurant was the center of activity not just for the lodge, but for all of Kendwa—people in neighboring lodges came to Kendwa Rocks because the meals were delicious (they had all sorts of seafood at every meal) and cheap, there was a DJ spinning music, and there was an outside lounge were everyone drank beer and watched the World Cup. The Rastafarians often enjoyed their beer with a joint (or several). On the beach at night, the Rastas would build a bonfire, and people would pluck guitars and watch the stars.

The one thing about Kendwa that I couldn’t figure out was the constant presence of village guys. Between 18 and 30 years old, they appeared out of practically nowhere every night. Always friendly, they were a bit too friendly, but never aggressive…they were also a bit suffocating because they sat down at your table uninvited, or would start a conversation with you when you’re trying to have a quiet moment to yourself. They would even interrupt or sit in on conversations and toss in an opinion. I had, like everyone else, become friends with them (they took to calling me “cappuccino” because of my skin color) but I must admit that it felt like every one of them would have jumped at the opportunity to stick their tongue down my throat. Or any other girl’s, for that matter.

Stranger than that was the fact that all the villagers were male. “Where are the women?” we repeatedly asked these guys. They told us that the women were Muslim, so they couldn’t come out. We only partially believed them. After much debate, we decided that the guys either wanted us to buy hash or were male prostitutes for the flocks of single female travelers that passed through. Maybe they were just nice people, but I’m telling you, something was fishy.

On the subject of crazy locals, when Portugal beat England in the World Cup, a man in his fifties in a drunken stupor pulled down his pants and jumped around bottomless. (This followed an earlier spectacle, during which he cast a spell on the English team. I am not kidding.) I am happy to report that I was blissfully on the other side of the lodge, but a fellow traveler reported that the man bent over and spread his cheeks (“the single most disgusting thing I have ever seen,” he reported). This was, not surprisingly, the same man who, earlier in the evening, kept repeating “Konichiwa” to me until I told him to go to hell and walked away.

The snorkeling around Zanzibar is world-class, so we decided to take advantage. We signed up for a full day of snorkeling (lunch included) for only $20 at the Spanish Dancer Dive Center. When we showed up, we found out that the people taking us were not actually with the Dive Center, but were other locals. We don’t really know how or why this happened, but since everything is so fluid and laid back in Kendwa, we decided to go with the flow.

Twelve of us boarded the boat for a two-hour boat ride around the northern tip of Zanzibar to a reef near Mnemba Island, a private resort island. It was only when we were at the reef that we began to understand the downfalls of going with locals instead of an established company—they didn’t give any instructions. I ended up being the seasoned expert among my friends, and I’ve only been snorkeling once before, in a tank at Disney World (where I hyperventilated and nearly drowned). Something about that seemed wrong.

This professionalism of our snorkeling staff was perhaps epitomized when I asked for a life jacket, and the boatmen asked me why. “Nah, just swim without it,” one said. “You’ll be fine.” Great.

The water was surprisingly warm, and I paddled around, admiring the wealth of fish (I felt like I was in “Finding Nemo”) and coral. It was then that I first felt it—a sting like a needle on my thigh. I scratched it and kept thinking, “Don’t hyperventilate. Don’t hyperventilate” as whatever it was kept stinging me all over my legs. I thought it was floating kelp or something. Finally, I had had enough, and I returned to the boat to find my legs covered with welts.

I wasn’t alone. No one had warned us about the almost-invisible baby jellyfish. Riiiight.

We had a late lunch on the shore facing Mnemba Island (to touch the sand of their beach is to be tackled by 10 guards) and feasted on fruit, chapatti, and fish grilled in a foil papillote with cardamom, ginger, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, and lime juice. What a tasty change from Rwandan food!
A Zanzibarian sailor on a dhow we hired to watch the sunset.

Jambiani, Paje, Bwejuu

From Kendwa, we ventured diagonally across the island to Jambiani, which our guidebook had said was a favorite place for travelers, and looked like a postcard of paradise.

We stayed at the Traveller’s Inn, a hospitable (if tired) hotel. Our room was great (compared to where we had slept in the days prior) as we had a TV, hot water, and beds with real mattresses. We were the only tourists at the hotel. In fact, I would venture to say that we were the only tourists in Jambiani.

The solitude was a bit too much for me. Maybe I would have liked it better had I been on a romantic getaway, but as it was, I was with two girlfriends, and we were looking for other fun people. Up the beach was another town called Paje, where there were many more hotels, restaurants, and people. As the hotel staff told us that it was only 30 minutes’ walking distance, we decided to walk there to find a hotel for the next night.

Little did we realize that Zanzibarians (like Rwandese) have very little concept of time. It may have seemed like a half an hour to them because the route is familiar. In reality, we walked for two and a half hours before we reached a hotel. It was sundown and we hadn’t even arrived at Paje yet. Tired and agitated, we couldn’t find a boda-boda (a motorcycle taxi) or a dalla-dalla (a local bus that looks like a streetcar) to take us to Paje.

In the end, the hotel that we stopped at lent us a Masai—yes, a real Masai—to accompany us to Paje. He carried a walking stick and a knife to protect us. (My friend asked the owner of the hotel if it was safe to walk, and the owner said, “Oh, if anyone tries to rob you, just run. They won’t follow you.” Her advice was little consolation, and we accepted her offer to send one of her Masai staff with us.

As the light was running out, the Masai walked with us. He didn’t understand a word of French or English, and we didn’t understand Swahili. Somehow, Mr. Masai and I managed to have a conversation. For my part, I would just imagine what he might be saying and responding as if that were the case. It was a very interesting conversation. He told me that he wrestled lions with his bare hands. Maybe.

We found that Paje wasn’t much better than Jambiani, so we decided to move even further up the Eastern coast to Bwejuu. Bwejuu had a couple of Italian resorts and a lot of little bungalow lodges on a picture-perfect beach.

We, of course, stayed at one of the bungalow lodges: The Twisted Palm. It was mostly fine, without hot water and a generally pretty gross bathroom. But we were eager to lay on the beautiful beach and frolic in the Indian Ocean waves.

Unfortunately, no one had told us that there are no waves. In fact, there’s no water. There is a natural reef barrier which prevents water from coming up to the beach at low tide, which is during the hours when one generally wants to swim. The water goes out at about 9 am and comes in at about 5 pm. If you want, you can wander through the squishy tide pools, but that wasn’t what I had been hoping for. The wind was also startlingly strong; at the Twisted Palm’s elevated restaurant, the wind blows the food off your fork before it makes it to your mouth.

Since we couldn’t swim, Beatriz and I rented bicycles for $5 and rode down the beach. Poor Ana stayed behind because she had caught the flu and wanted to rest. We rode for a good couple of miles on the packed sand, the wind at our backs, cheerily stopping now and then to take a photo. We pedaled all the way past the last Bwejuu hotel to where the waves carved out caverns in the rocks at high tide.

Of course, what we hadn’t realized was that if the wind was at our backs going down the beach, it would be blowing head-on as we returned. Our quads burned as we painfully and slowly pedaled against the wind. I don’t think I have ever had a better workout, and there was something ironic about the fact that it happened while I was on vacation.

Frankly, we didn’t like Bwejuu at all, so with only a couple of days left, we decided not to waste them there and head back to the best place in Zanzibar: Kendwa. Side picked us up, along with two travelers that smoked more marijuana than I thought possible (I told them that they would love Kendwa, and I was right) and we started on our way.

No vacation, especially in Africa, is complete without some sort of speed bump on the way, and about 20 minutes outside of Kendwa, our taxi van rolled to a stop. We had run out of gas. Beatriz began to flip out, I started laughing, and the marijuana boys went outside for a smoke. Side hitched a ride on a passing motorcycle and returned 20 minutes later with a small can of fuel. Using a page from a magazine, the driver created a funnel and poured in the gas—then he pulled up the mat from under my feet and pulled out a tube, which he started sucking to draw up the fuel. It was disgusting. We then continued on our way as if nothing had happened.

In Zanzibar, for whatever reason, you have to have a permit for the exact number of people in our car. Our van’s capacity was 10, but they only had a permit for me and my friends, not the extra two passengers. We were stopped by a police roadblock, and Side started cheerfully chatting with an official as if they were old friends. He then reached into his wallet and pulled out all of the contents, handing it to the guy, and we continued. It was the first time that I had seen corruption before my eyes—in Rwanda, there is hardly any corruption, which, I grant, is pretty unusual.

After one night in Kendwa, I had to return to Stone Town to catch an early flight the following day. Side drove me back alone, and I realized that I had a lot of shopping to do and didn’t have a guide (we had used Ana’s), nor did I have a map. Oh, and I didn’t speak Swahili, either. He volunteered to spend the day with me, showing me around and helping me to negotiate. We explored the markets, hung out in the park, wandered through the maze of alleys, and drank fresh sugar cane juice mixed with ginger and lemon juice. He recounted the history of Zanzibar and told me how they were to have split from Tanganyika in 1982, but that the agreement between the two countries had been lost and the current government says that without the original agreement, the two may not split; apparently every leader sympathetic to separation has been assassinated or has died. He told me about how he studied in Europe and how he hopes to study law in Dar-es-Salaam. He is also fluent in German, and everyone in Zanzibar (because everyone knows everyone) calls him “Saidi the German.” We grabbed drinks on the rooftop of Emerson and Green’s before he left me there to eat dinner.

The rooftop restaurant at Emerson and Green’s is known to be the finest dining in the Zanzibar archipelago. Overlooking the picturesque Zanzibar harbor, it is decorated in an old-world style, with cushions on the floor, low tables, intricate woodwork, and luxuriant draperies. It seats 20, maximum, and offers a fixed 6-course meal accompanied by live music and a traditional dancer (only on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays). That day, the featured music was Taarab. It was a deal for only $30 a person.

Unfortunately, my lunch was not sitting well with me; Side and I had gone to the Passing Show, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant of questionable cleanliness. While I was eating dinner, I was blindsided by vertigo and a high fever, but was determined to make it through the entire thing. Side was supposed to meet me after dinner and take me dancing before my morning flight, but I had already planned to ask him just to accompany me to my hotel.

Dinner itself, or what little of it I could stomach, was delicious. The first course was a “cigale,” which means “grasshopper” in French. I was a bit apprehensive, but when they brought out the cigales, my heart leapt for joy—they were essentially crayfish. I had been searching for lobster the entire time I was in Zanzibar, and apart from Forodhani Gardens, I hadn’t seen lobster for less than $20 (the locals, I think, caught on that this was a specialty for muzungus). Everyone was served a finger-length sized cigale. When the waiter set the plate in front of me, I looked up at him in surprise. It wasn’t finger-length—it was the length of my foot! It wasn’t a cigale, it was a lobster. The people next to me laughed at the size difference between my cigale and that of everyone else. I looked over at the guy next to me and asked him, with all seriousness, if we were supposed to share. (We both came alone.) But no, it was all mine, and I just shook my head. I wasn’t in the least bit hungry because I was so ill. But there it was, a whole lobster, just for me. Oh, the irony.

I miraculously made it through dinner and met Side at the door. He helped me limp back to my hotel.

The Chavda Hotel is, for the record, gorgeous and beautiful, and the best hotel I stayed at in Zanzibar. It was also, incidentally, the most expensive, but they gave it to me with a $30 discount without my even asking because it was the low season. I cheerfully paid $60, which included breakfast. The room was tastefully appointed with a four-poster bed, a big television, beautiful wooden furniture, air conditioning, ample space to sit and put up your feet, and a great bathroom (the shower head, however, will exfoliate your skin because the water pressure is so high). The halls and doors remind visitors of how Zanzibar used to be back in its heyday. I didn’t have much time to enjoy it, though—I took about 4 different medications that I had thankfully brought with me, and slept poorly through the night. At 6 am, Side came with the car to pick me up and take me to the airport. Still feeble and delirious, I managed to thank my Zanzibarian friend for having been such a great guide.

As I flew back to Nairobi and then Kigali, I waved hello to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. I guess vacations can’t go on forever, because then they wouldn’t really be vacations. Zanzibar was an overload for the senses. I can’t wait to go back. But when I do, I will be avoiding that hole-in-the-wall restaurant.

p.s. If anyone wants to use Side as their guide and taxi, just ask the taxis under the big tree in Stone Town (there’s only one big tree) or ask the taxis as Forodhani Gardens. Everyone knows him. He’s absolutely fabulous.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Hakuna Matata: Zanzibar

In advance of my trip to Rwanda, I had purchased the Lonely Planet guide to Africa. An ambitious work, it inspired many a daydream about traveling all over Africa during my six-month time here. I marked the pages on Mali, Madagascar, Zambia, South Africa. In the end, work caught up with me, and I forgot to take a real vacation, to really change scenery.

I wasn’t alone. Two of my friends in Kigali felt the same way, and we got together and decided to take action. We decided to take time off after World Refugee Day and fly to the most exotic place we could think of.

Lucky for us, Zanzibar (a land of coconut palms, white coral beaches, turquoise water, spices, and a unique Afro-Arab culture) was only a 3-hour flight away.

We headed out through Nairobi on Kenya Airways. After my credit card information was stolen by Kenya Airways in January, I was hesitant to take them again. Unfortunately, Kenya Airways seemingly has a monopoly over all the other airlines in East Africa, so even when you book on another airline, you’re put on a Kenya Airways flight. I haven’t been able to figure it out. In any case, we didn’t have a choice.

So, with the bad experience that I had already had with KA, I should have expected that our flight would be two hours late and that we would miss our connection by 20 minutes. My friends and I found ourselves in Nairobi Airport, at the poorly-situated KA transit desk, along with about 150 very unhappy travelers. After a 2-hour wait, we changed our tickets and were sent down to another KA desk, where they were to make hotel reservations for us and give us food vouchers (a process which took another hour).

Here’s a tip: If you’re ever stranded in Nairobi because of Kenya Airways, you can actually CHOOSE the hotel you want to stay in! We stayed in the Safari Park Hotel, but you could stay at the Hilton or the Stanley (all 4-star hotels). Not that we really had the time to enjoy it, because we were picked up at 4 am for our morning flight.

We landed at the tiny Zanzibar airport, paid for visas (fyi, it’s $50 to enter Zanzibar and $25 to leave) and a taxi sped down palm-lined boulevards bordered by powdery-white elegant arab-style homes. We arrived in Stone Town, the largest city in Zanzibar. Our taxi driver told us that the hotel at which we wanted to stay was closed for renovations, but we didn’t believe him—we had heard that taxis will say anything to direct tourists to hotels from which they will receive commission. When we arrived at the Hotel Kiponda, we found that he had been half-right; it was under renovation, but one room had been more or less finished.

Since we were the only guests, we were able to negotiate the price a bit, down to $10 a person for the three of us. We only found out later that there wasn’t any hot water and the beds were as soft as packed sand.

Traveling reveals a lot about a person. My friends were split; one loved the hotel, the other hated it. That was when I realized that this vacation, about which I had few expectations (except a lot of beach time) would be very interesting. My friend Ana was a professed communist, and preferred cheap, non-commercial, hole-in-the-wall places, and Beatriz, often very cheery, became easily stressed (the roach family that greeted her in the bathroom was an unwelcome surprise). As for myself, I’m not the kind of person who likes to dictate things (at least, on holiday :) but I also won’t deny that I enjoy luxuries when I’m on vacation. Ana didn’t want to spend more than $10 a day on lodging, which made me nervous because it didn’t seem like it would be enough to buy us a room in a relaxing hotel—I didn’t want roaches on vacation!

We decided to compromise—no roach motels, and no Italian resorts, and in retrospect, we definitely stayed in places that were toward the lower end of the price scale. Beatriz unhappily took a cold shower and we headed out to explore Stone Town.

Stone Town is a maze of tight, narrow unnamed alleys reminiscent of Venice. Around every corner were nameless boutiques and stands selling kikoys and kangas, children playing soccer, and Zanzibar natives greeting every muzungu with “Jambo!”—pidgin Swahili for hello. I don’t think I’ve said hello as much in my life, and I have to admit that I was very suspicious because Rwanda was very different. In Rwanda, no one says hello like that unless it’s followed by “give me money!” In Zanzibar, when people beg, they ask, “Give me book!” I thought I was in heaven.

After a while, I realized that the Zanzibarians were truly friendly. It was almost unbelievable, because the entire island was infested with muzungus, and they didn’t seem to mind.

Several hours later, weighed down with our purchases, we walked down to Forodhani Gardens, by the waterfront. The Forodhani Gardens weren’t really gardens; it was a park with a dilapidated pavilion and an enormous night market. Fishermen had set up tables of cooked seafood—steamed lobster claws, fried octopus, fried fish, whole boiled crabs, and all for pennies. We bought a freshly chopped coconut, from which we drank the juice. There were sugar cane juice machines that looked remarkably like instruments of torture, and tens of Masai, some with stretched holes in their ears, selling jewelry, masks and statues. We walked through and ended up on a small beach where locals were swimming and doing acrobatic tricks on the sand. There, I made the acquaintance of some boys with a pet monkey named Eduardo who didn’t seem very happy to be a pet.
Sipping our cocktails at a beachfront restaurant, we watched the sun set as the dhows, or traditional Zanzibarian sailboats, sailed in to shore for the night.

We managed to find our way back to our hotel after dark. Stone Town, the seat of ancient trading (in spices and slaves) is surprisingly safe, despite the masses of rich visitors that crowd its streets. We ate at Kidude (named after a famous female Taarab singer whom I later saw walking around Forodhani Gardens at the end of my trip), which Conde Nast apparently said was the best place for lunch in East Africa or something and was, in my opinion, nothing special. Exhausted, we then retired for the evening.

The next morning, we made it our mission to explore the markets. Zanzibar is a delightfully complex island—it was its own country until 1972, when it united with neighboring Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania. It was home to Omani sultans for centuries, so it is a once Arab and Africa. Over the years, many Indians have also made their home here, and their influence is particularly evident in Zanzibarian cuisine. Zanzibar is also the birthplace of Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa and the most widely spoken language on the African continent.

Islam is the predominant religion by far; 95% of the population is estimated to be Muslim, and the wide presence of mosques confirms this—there are over 400 mosques in Zanzibar Town and only 2 churches—one Anglican and one Catholic!

All of this is a long way of explaining that Zanzibar’s remarkable diversity appears everywhere—in the markets, the Moroccan-like architecture, the colorful wraps and fabrics, the spices (they produce saffron to vanilla to everything in between), the doors—the amazing doors!—and the Taarab music, an Arab-sounding style which Zanzibarians claim to have invented and exported to Egyptians and other Arabs.

Next stop: The beach at Kendwa.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Demystifying the violence in Congo

I’ll be the first to say it. When I went to Rwanda, I was concerned about violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but I didn’t know why there was fighting. Living in a border town with Congo helped me to better understand what was going on. And it is by no means simple.

The explanation that follows is not comprehensive, and it probably has errors. That said, it is an account of the situation as I have understood it from both books and discussions with Congolese and Rwandans.

I will start from the 1860s, during the time of colonial rule. Lake Kivu, the lake that forms the Western border of Rwanda, had been entirely Rwandan, including quite a bit of the territory on the other side. During the colonial carving of boundaries, Lake Kivu was cut down the middle, and Rwandans who lived on the other side found one day that they were suddenly Congolese.

They continued to speak Kinyarwanda, becoming known as Congolese Rwandophones. As a result of their difference in language (and, I imagine, as a result of their tribe difference and distance from Kinshasa), the Rwandophones felt that they were sidelined by the government, that they had fewer rights and were not treated as if they were Congolese.

In the meantime, the country as a whole was facing problems. The Belgians granted Congo independence in 1960, after which point the government (with the aid of the Belgians) was overthrown by Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu was an eccentric and tyrannical leader who changed the name of the country to Zaire. He exploited the multitude of Congo’s natural resources to fill his pockets but not that of his people. Unrest grew. In 1997, supported by Paul Kagame’s Rwandan army (Kagame was Minister of Defense at the time, and it should be noted that the Rwandan army at the time was little more than a new name for the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the Tutsi rebel army that effectively ended the genocide), a new, democratic leader marched all the way to Kinshasa. His name was Laurent Kabila. After assuming power, Kabila changed the name of the country back to Congo.

Relations between Laurent Kabila and Paul Kagame soured as a result of disagreements over refugee camps that were allowing genocidal forces to regroup, but the ill-feeling was short-lived; Laurent was assassinated in 2000 and replaced by his son Joseph Kabila, who has shown Mobutu-like characteristics.

After the Rwandan genocide, genocidaires, both those who planned and carried out the murders, escaped to Goma, Congo via Gisenyi, Rwanda—along with all of their light and heavy artillery. There, the Interahamwe began to generate insecurity in an area that was already a powder keg because of strained relations between Rwandophones and non-Rwandophones.

To remedy the problem, Joseph Kabila welcomed the Interahamwe to Kinshasa, where they were incorporated into the Congolese army, thus protected from facing justice in Rwanda. The Rwandan government was angered by the decision. Simultaneously, in the forests of Eastern Congo, several Congolese rebel groups sprung up with the aim of killing or chasing Congolese Rwandophones out of the area. The reasons are more than just linguistic, as many of the rebels can also speak Kinyarwanda, but simply refuse to. Eastern Congo (Goma, Rutshuru, Masisi, Bukavu, etc.) is rich with resources and suffers from weak governance as one of the furthest areas from the capital. (Congo is the size of Western Europe.)

Unluckily for the Congolese Rwandophones, many belong to the Tutsi tribe, making them targets for the ex-FAR (the genocidal government’s army) and Interahamwe that continue to roam through the forests. Collaboration between anti-Rwandophone rebels (such as the Mayi-Mayi) and Interahamwe is far from rare, as their aims are aligned. Worse, when the Congolese army is sent to stabilize the situation, nothing changes—after all, the army is composed of Interahamwe, and they won’t fight their brethren.

In recent years, the Rwandophones have decided to fight back, under the leadership of Laurent Nkunda. He may or may not receive assistance from the Rwandan government, which has a bone to pick with Kabila and is not thrilled about receiving more Rwandophone refugees fleeing violence.

In response to the growing insecurity in the Kivu region, Kabila decided to bring all of the rebel groups (except the Nkunda Rwandophones) into the Congolese government, giving a party operative from each a ministerial position. If you can’t beat ‘em, get ‘em to join you, I guess. Violence has not dropped—it is estimated that 1,000 civilians die every day in the Kivu region from fighting.

This is probably a good opportunity to insert my thoughts on the Congolese elections, which took place on July 31 (but polls re-opened the following day). Kabila made a brave move, allowing the people to vote for their leader for the first time since 1970. The people didn’t just vote for a president—they also voted for a parliament and a constitution. Very ambitious.

Kabila’s not stupid. He has such a monopoly on political power and influence that it seemed like it was inevitable that a presidential election would be an easy win for him. I believed that, as did all the Rwandans I spoke with, and I’m sure Kabila believed it too.

The early speculation, however, shows that Kabila didn’t win in the capital, and that the majority of his supporters were in Eastern Congo. I am curious to see what his reaction will be. I’m not particularly optimistic. I do know that the Rwandophones didn’t care for the presidential elections—they saw it as a given. For them, the parliamentary election mattered. For the first time, they would have a shot of electing Rwandophones to represent their views and interests in Kinshasa.

So now the waiting begins. And while the election itself seems to have gone fairly well, it is the weeks and months following the election that will be the true gauge of the election’s success. The best-case scenario? The people, while divided, will accept the results peacefully and, if need be, there will be a civilized handover of power. The worst? The people reject whomever is proclaimed the victor, Kabila asserts his power, violence breaks out, and 25,000 Congolese refugees flee to the most secure country in the region: Rwanda. Like every case of insecurity in East Africa, only time will tell: Uganda has worsened, Burundi has worsened and improved, and Rwanda has improved dramatically. It’s Congo’s turn. Let’s hope that it surprises us.