Monday, September 11, 2006

I, Spy? And all the other things I couldn't say.

I waited until my return to the States before sharing this, partially to collect my thoughts, and partially for fear of potential consequences.

As I’ve mentioned before, Rwanda is a tremendously stable country with excellent security. I’m convinced that Kigali is the safest capital in Africa (Kampala as a close second) because it’s safe to walk around basically anywhere at any time. In the provinces, army police, and local security patrol the villages looking for suspicious activity. The borders are heavily guarded, with frequent helicopter flyovers. Police pull over cars along the road to check for identification. Security is assured, and it’s trustworthy—the military is well-trained and equipped (by the U.S.), and corruption is minimal.

In this environment, Rwanda has flourished. The government has implemented progressive economic changes at breakneck speed. Tall, shiny buildings are going up. The transportation infrastructure is impressive; all primary and most secondary roads are paved. A cell phone network covers the country. Everyone, even those in the most remote villages, has access to clean water. Electricity is available in all of the cities and most of the towns. The government has dramatically altered administrative divisions and the administrative structure to streamline and reduce the bureaucracy. Surprisingly progressive environmental policies have been put in place—plastic bags are no longer allowed, and it’s forbidden to cut trees for firewood (there has been an increasing erosion problem). If countries are climbing the development ladder, Rwanda is a mountaineer.

One notable exception to these successes is the lack of attention paid to the psychological trauma of the Rwandan people. I often half-joke that an army of psychiatrists needs to parachute into the country. The depression is real.

The government has been able to accomplish much during the past 12 years. But at what cost? Free speech and diversity of political opinion. There was only one real newspaper, the New Times, until a couple of months ago, when a second, Focus, emerged on the scene. Both are in English, and so are inaccessible to the vast majority of Rwandans. The New Times is widely understood to represent the opinions of the government, so dissenting opinions are rare at best. When Focus began, its inaugural issue featured an article critical of the government. In subsequent issues, the tone inexplicably became more positive, at times effusive. Makes you wonder aloud what really happened.

Political opposition doesn’t exist. Kagame won the last presidential election by a veritable landslide. I have only heard of one political party. (I have recently received word that a nascent political party formed by genocide survivors has been shut down.) And no one, no one questions the actions of the government. Good thing they’re not malevolent.

I refer to Rwanda’s political system as a benevolent authoritarian democracy. There were elections, and they were accepted as free and fair. But after electing their leaders, it seems like Rwandans take a more hands-off approach, as if now that they have supported the lawmaker, they have total trust in the government. I also get the impression that the Rwandan government believes that political opposition could cause fissures in a society that needs to remain united in the post-war years in order to move forward. I can understand this perspective. Luckily, the Rwandan people have elected Paul Kagame, a heralded war hero with a sharp intellect and a keen understanding of what the country needs to develop. If it weren’t Kagame, I would probably have a more pessimistic opinion of the government. It makes me question whether the country would be as successful if Kagame weren’t the president…and what the country would do without him.

Kagame is a man of strong opinions, which isn’t great if you 1) are French, or 2) work for UNHCR. For reasons stemming from actions (and inaction) during and after the genocide, Kagame harbors some resentment. There is no shortage of reminders of the low regard he holds for people who fall into either of these two groups.

Which is why, a couple of months into my time there, I started to be more prudent about the opinions I was sharing on my blog. What I said always represented how I felt, but I saved my criticism for later. For now.

My caution initially stemmed from a conversation I had with a friend who used to work for the South African secret service. He told me that it would be wise not to discuss how I felt about the government with any Rwandans, because there were spies everywhere. Perhaps “spies” is a strong word—as I understood it, the government has employed a significant number of people to keep tabs on expatriates, to figure out, according to my friend, “why you’re here, what you think about the government, and if you’re racist.” He told me he actually called a guy out on it one day. The guy, who initially denied it, later confessed in confidence. “We’re good friends now,” he said. The same friend told me how a friend of his had received a phone call when they were at dinner. He returned to the table with the news that the government had given him 24 hours to leave the country. Apparently he hadn’t said the right things to the right people.

But when accounts are secondhand, they’re more difficult to believe. Similarly, I took the information and filed it away in my head. So maybe there were intelligence agents. I thought the government was pretty good, so I didn’t really have to watch what I said. And I only half-believed the expulsion story.

Until I found myself invited to a mysterious party in Kigali. It was a house party, and I assumed it was to celebrate the birthday of one of my friend’s housemates. When I arrived, wine in hand, I was ready to congratulate someone. “Oh, no, it’s not a birthday,” my friend urgently whispered to me in the kitchen. “My housemate has been expelled.”

That evening, my naïveté went out the window as I absorbed the discussion. The roommate was a French journalist who had been in Rwanda for a year and a half. She was waiting for her visa to be renewed when she received a call that afternoon. It was a government official, who told her that her visa application had been denied and that she had 24 hours to leave the country.

Outraged, and in true investigative fashion, she went to the French Embassy to uncover the truth. She had apparently been labeled a spy by the Rwandan government—which is their way of justifying expulsions for other reasons. She wasn’t a spy at all—she said she hadn’t even broadcast any news items that were particularly critical of the government.

As the night went on, the stories flowed like the liquor. That was when I discovered that our cell phones were tapped, and that Rwandan monitors were planted everywhere, trying to figure out what we were doing and who our friends were. Friends had hidden their marijuana in their chimney in case of a surprise government raid. Others had received anonymous calls from unavailable numbers—men who said, “We know who you are and who you work for. We’re watching you.” I became very fearful about my blog. The government was obsessed with technology, and I suddenly realized that there was no possible way that they couldn’t know about it.

I started watching what I was saying.

My friend’s experience caused me to analyze how I might look to a foreign government. I had three years of experience on post-conflict issues, including a stint in Afghanistan, before I decided to move to Rwanda to work in the field for free for six months. Strange. Also strange was why I chose to work for UNHCR, Enemy Number One in the eyes of many Rwandan officials. In the field, I was actively learning Kinyarwanda, all of my friends were Rwandan, and I ventured out into the villages to speak with returnees (some of whom were former combatants) on a regular basis. To a novice, I looked like prime spy material, and some of my acquaintances even suggested as much.

Soon after my return, I called a Rwandan friend of mine for a favor. He was very influential, making frequent business trips to Europe, the U.S., and the Middle East. “Morgan,” he said, “You must be so excited that your friend is coming to visit from the States. You’re going to Uganda, right?”

I was about to agree when I realized that something was fishy. “But…I didn’t tell you any of that. How did you know?” I asked. He laughed uneasily and changed the topic.

In fact, I hadn’t told anyone by that point—I’d only discussed it on the phone. That’s when I started to clam up during phone conversations.

In other words, I felt, rightly or wrongly, like I was walking on eggshells. I didn’t think that I would really be expelled, but I didn’t want to invite any threatening phone calls, as some of my friends had received. My saving grace, I’m surprised to say, was probably my citizenship.

“You’re an American? We love Americans!” was usually the refrain when I told people where I was from. (I did get the occasional “How can you be American? You look like a Chinese!) I said it as often as I could, fully capitalizing on the strength of the Rwando-American relationship. How nice it is to be loved, not hated.

Unlike the French. I often wonder if the journalist was expelled for a story she wrote, for something she said in confidence to another, because she became friends with some important people, or if it was just to keep the French government on its toes. They know how they are regarded by Rwandan officials. During the World Cup finals, the French Embassy set up roadblocks in case of riots. (There weren’t any, probably because they lost.)

In the end, I was fine. But I had never before felt as though I couldn’t express all the things I wanted to say, and I had never before been monitored. We’re lucky in the United States—we have freedom of speech, of assembly, of movement, and the right to privacy—but we’re also at a different place developmentally. Maybe, in the eyes of outsiders, Rwanda’s controlling current approach isn’t the best one…but, until they’ve healed their wounds, bridged the ethnic divide, and advanced their own development, maybe it is.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Welcome to Nairobbery. Please fasten your wallets.

“They call Nairobi “Nairobbery”? Well, it’s better than “Nai-rape-y, I suppose,” mused my friend John before I left the States. I didn’t plan to spend more than two nights in the notoriously dangerous city—one on the way into Rwanda, and one on the way out. Advice from fellow travelers and friends had made me very cautious.

“Money belts are no good. Thieves know exactly where they are and if you’re wearing one.”

“If someone puts a gun in your face, give them everything you have.”

“Someone took my cell phone when I was in the bus by holding a knife to my side.”

“When you go out into town, don’t carry your bag. Put some money in your pocket like the Kenyans do.”

“Walk with purpose. Thieves won’t bother white people who look like they live here.”

“Don’t walk around after dark.”

I decided that my evening in Nairobi would be spent confined to my hotel. When I arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, I went to Kenya Airways, where I bought a ticket to Rwanda for the following morning. Then I got into my hotel’s shuttle, which brought me to the Hilton Nairobi, where I ate dinner in my room at 10 pm. In the morning, I left for the airport.

Phew, I had thought, I survived one night in Nairobi without being robbed.

Wrong. I wouldn’t find this out until two weeks later, when my parents sent me an email telling me that my credit card information had been stolen. American Express said that I took a roundtrip flight on KLM between Nairobi and Amsterdam five days after my arrival in Rwanda. And that I shipped $1000 of cargo on a flight. And that I had purchased two Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) test registrations. Initially they didn’t believe me when I denied these charges, because I had forgotten to tell them that I would be in Africa—but I don’t know why the TOEFL tests weren’t a dead giveaway. The card was canceled.

And just like that, I only had one credit card left. I am of the sentiment that credit cards are like insurance. If something goes wrong, it’s a parachute. But now, I only had one—which meant that, theoretically, if the card information were stolen, I would lose my last parachute. I guarded my Visa with my life. I would add one more cautionary rule to the above list: “Pay for everything with cash.”

I only used my credit card twice in Nairobi—once at the Kenya Airways desk, and once at the Hilton. Given the charges, I am convinced that it was the woman behind the counter at Kenya Airways.

I eventually went to Zanzibar, which, while I had to pass through Nairobi, had not required my leaving the airport. Until our Kenya Airways connection refused to wait for us and forced us to stay the night. At least Kenya Airways puts you up in the hotel of your choice (and gives you a meal voucher). This happens surprisingly frequently, which can’t be good business practice. Word to the wise—if you get screwed this way by Kenya Airways, pick the nicest hotel you can.

On my way back from Zanzibar, Kenya Airways was so kind as to lose two of my three bags, leaving me with nice paintings and no underwear for an undetermined number of days. Sometimes bags showed up on the next flight, and sometimes they just disappeared into the ether. Just to make things easier, they don’t ship the bags to your house, and the Kigali airport doesn’t have a record of which bags have arrived. Therefore, if you want to see if your bag has arrived, you have to go to the airport. I was lucky that I was in Kigali for several days after my return.

My bags arrived three days later.

“I love Nairobi,” my friend Shafi defended. Shafi was half-Rwandan and half-Belgian who was raised in Nairobi, where he had attended the American school (and acquired an American accent and a New York attitude). He would rave about March Madness and we would butt heads about baseball (he loved the Yankees, I loved the Red Sox), and I considered him the only other American in Gisenyi. (He was also called a muzungu, and hated it even more than I did, because he was actually part Rwandan.) “Nairobi has clubs, and restaurants, and music….” He would go on and on and on about Nairobi’s virtues. When I asked about the crime, he said, “People have stolen stuff from me, sure. But Nairobi’s not that bad. You just need to know where to go, and be with someone who knows the city.”

That would imply that it’s not great for the average tourist.

Shafi did concede that carjackings were frequent. He recounted a time when he was sitting in his car at a stoplight and a gun was shoved in his face through the window. Looking up, he found that the would-be carjacker was a friend of his from elementary school. “Baba, it’s me, Shafi,” he said. The robber, surprised, smiled. “Oh, hey, Shafi, what’s going on?” He put his gun down.

“I’m not gonna steal your car,” he said. “But help me find one I can steal.” The guy got into the passenger seat.

They drove around for a while, until Shafi decided he wanted this guy and his gun out of his car. “How about that one over there?” he asked, indicating a nice SUV. The guy agreed, jumped out, and pulled the same stunt on the SUV’s driver, an older woman.

The woman was left standing on the road as her car sped off. Shafi picked her up and took her to the police station.

“That’s Nairobi,” he said.

* * *

I did end up spending a day as a tourist in Nairobi, on my way out of Africa. It wasn’t bad, but I did follow all the rules—I didn’t carry a bag, just some cash in my pocket. I took a taxi out to the Giraffe Center, a sanctuary for Rothschild giraffes. For the price of entry, you can feed the giraffes with food pellets, either at ground level (it’s amusing when they bend over), or at their head level, a second-story observatory. They extended their long, black tongues and expertly retrieved the pellets from the hands of giggling visitors, young and old. The truly brave could put a pellet between their lips and get a giraffe “French kiss.” I was not among them.

They weren’t too keen on being petted, and one of them had the tendency to head-butt if you were standing in front of them without any food to offer. I named her Zidane.

No first visit to Nairobi is complete without dinner at Carnivore, one of the top 20 restaurants in the world. Happily, it’s only $30 for dinner, which I find very reasonable. Their specialty is (you guessed it) meat, and they have lots of it, regular and exotic. Over an enormous round red grill, they cook tens of different kinds of meat on long metal skewers. When the meat is ready, they bring the long skewer around to the tables, carving off pieces of meat for those who want to try it.

That night, they featured lamb chops, roast beef, ostrich meatballs, ostrich patties, pork sausages, chicken, crocodile, pork loin, camel, and more. They have a vegetarian option, but I don’t know why anyone on earth would order it. (I think you get a salad or something.) I was stuffed as I headed to the airport.

Finally, during my last time in Nairobi, I had enjoyed myself.