Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Kibuye, the land of a thousand islands

When I was in Rwanda last July, I took some time for myself after my work was complete to spend some time with friends. My friend Aimé took time off from his new job in the Middle East to travel around Rwanda with me. The goal of our agenda was getting to Kibuye, the lakeside town that all of my friends had said was almost too beautiful to believe.

Indeed, it is beautiful (but I still think Gisenyi is more beautiful. I’m a little partial).

The two-hour drive from Kigali was stunning. On the way, Aimé pulled over by the side of a cliff to show me a waterfall, and two boys eagerly ran up to us. Aimé spoke to them in Kinyarwanda, and one of the boys began singing and dancing. He told the story of a man who was asked by the Mwami (Rwandan king) to fetch honey from the bottom of the mountain. He went down to get it, and found it to be so good that he ate it all. When he came back to the top of the mountain emptyhanded, the Mwami was so angry that he threw the man down the mountain, and the cliff was named after him. We gave the boys ample applause, 200 francs, and a couple of water bottles before continuing to Kibuye.

The road is windy, only offering occasional glimpses of the grassy peninsulas and islands as you approach the town. We arrived at sunset, pulling into our small hotel after dark. We chose to stay at the Centre Bethanie, a Presbyterian hotel built on the side of a steep hill that rolls down into the lake.

The Centre Bethanie had been recommended by my friend Lucy, who stayed there last year, after I had left. While at dinner at her house just before my return to Rwanda, she sheepishly gave me a key with a large wooden carving attached to it. She confessed that she had accidentally left with the key (despite the enormous thing attached to it). “Can you return it for me?” she asked—and then advised me to ask for that room, since it opened up right on the water.

So there we were, walking up the steep hill to the reception. (A couple days at that hotel and you’ll have killer quads.) I addressed myself to the woman behind the desk, who barely acknowledged my presence. When I finally caught her attention, I said, “Hello, there. My friend in America stayed here last year, and she accidentally took the key. I am returning it to you.”

It took a long second before the woman understood what I was saying. She looked up at me incredulously. “Mais c’etait longtemps!!” she exclaimed. But that was so long ago! I’m sure she now believes that all Americans know each other.

With a smile, I asked if I could keep the key and stay in Room 25.

In the morning, I woke up to an amazing view of the many islands of Kibuye and the sound of water slapping the rocks outside my room. The green hills rise from the water as far as you can see, and along the coast, there are hundreds of picturesque inlets.

After breakfast, Aimé and I hired a boat (they’re parked at the hotel) to take us down the coast. We both went for a swim (really, I went for a quick paddle before getting back in the boat...I’m still a little concerned about the methane gas in the lake). We arrived at a hotel that was mostly built, a new place that looks rather palatial, where we had tea with the fishermen who came with us. Strangely, there’s nothing else around the hotel besides a methane gas extraction plant.

Returning to Kibuye, we rinsed off and were getting ready to return to Kigali when Aimé received a call. His face changed.

His sister was going into labor and needed to go to the hospital. And we had the car.

We sped back to Kigali, and Aimé’s phone was ringing every ten minutes. I really have no idea how we weren’t pulled over by the Rwandan police for reckless driving. They are unforgiving about that. We wove between tractor trailers and matatus, with narrow almosts-and-nearlies with oncoming traffic.

Arriving in Kigali, we wove up the dirt road to Aimé's parents’ house, where his sister was having contractions. I darted out of the car as they led her and several other people into the small 4WD. They went off to the hospital, and I was left to stay with his father and siblings at the house. In the meantime, we were receiving play-by-play accounts of the birth.

Later that night, he returned, exhausted, but with the news that his sister had a healthy baby boy. I helped his siblings prepare beans and plantains for dinner, and we ate family-style on the couches in the living room. I talked for hours with Aimé’s father. He is quite a character—a highly educated man from the northern Kivu area of the Democratic Republic of Congo. My Rwandese uncle, Boniface, knows him and his family because they are from the same area. More proof that the world is small. He told me all about the history of the area, from the division of Rwanda down the middle of Lake Kivu to the current fighting in Eastern Congo. He’s one of those older men who knows everything about everything, and we shared Mutzig beers long into the night.

Before heading to bed, Aimé’s father told me to go to the bathroom, because it wouldn’t be a good idea in the middle of the night. The bathroom was a latrine around back. I didn’t question his judgment. I guessed he meant it was unsafe to go outside at night, since people could easily hop their compound wall.

It wasn’t a safety issue at all. It was a cockroach issue. I have lived in Texas, and while they have some mean bugs, they are nothing compared to Kigali Cockroaches. These suckers are as long as your index finger. Yes. Your index finger. They were on the walls, in the corners, scampering around the hole of the latrine. Suddenly, I lost the urge to pee. It could wait until morning. It had to wait until morning.

Early the next day, I found the courage to try again. This time, I took my Off! spray with me.

The following day proved just as eventful as the last. Aimé and I spent a lazy morning with Faustin and Roger, two of his older brothers, across town when we received word that Faustin’s wife was in labor and needed to go to the hospital. Round 2 began.

At the end of the day, Faustin and his wife also had a baby boy. We visited them at Faustin’s home. His wife, discovering that I was American, asked me if I would help them to pick an American name for their child. (The new fad in Rwanda right now is to give children American names.) I generated a list of names (and their nicknames), and they chose Harry. My guess is that they may have been influenced by J.K. Rowling.

* * *

Finally, as a capstone to my vacation, I made my way up to the Nkamira transit camp, where I had spent so much time. We had been speeding past on our way to Gisenyi, and I hadn’t intended to stop, since it was raining. When it rains, the refugees are reluctant to leave their tents, and the camp looked empty anyway.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stop?” Aimé asked, as we drove by.

I decided he was right and that we should go back. He turned around, and we drove through the camp gates as I had so many times before.

Out of nowhere, the refugees materialized. “Morgani!!” the kids shrieked. I was touched that they remembered not to call me a muzungu. Behind the crowd of dancing children and clapping adults was Emmanuel, my partner at the camp, the Anglophone refugee who worked tirelessly with me to implement the youth and HIV/AIDS programs.

“Welcome back,” he said, smiling. He was married now, he told me, with a child on the way. Then he brought up the soccer team.

“They said you were bringing shoes,” he said. I asked him who told him. “Someone at UNHCR,” he replied.

I shook my head. “I couldn’t fit 2,000 pairs of shoes in my luggage,” I laughed. “I’m sorry—I don’t have any shoes.”

“Not to worry,” he said. “It is good. We have many footballs, and we have new shirts.” A year after I had left, they still had everything they needed.

Emmanuel paused, grinning. “And we are still undefeated.”

Sunday, March 16, 2008

"Homosexuality in Rwanda? Yes, it lives"

That's the title of an article in the NewTimes this week. Thought you all may enjoy a couple of excerpts that I found pretty hilarious.

"It is true that homosexual culture is not Rwandan and is therefore susceptible
to challenges. Rwanda has not spoken much about homosexuality, but certainly it
is against the practice. If homosexuality is not African then it cannot
certainly be Rwandan!

It is against this background that a mini survey was done to know if there are gays in Rwanda or not. [...]Like any other form of prostitution, it is denied, and practiced indoors--a thing that has made it remain in obscurity.

There is a community of gays in Rwanda, even though one will be hard put to produce evidence to clearly prove it. One gentleman, who did not want to be mentioned, caused laughter in public when he complained thus: 'I was surprised when a man of my age approached me to be his boy friend. He was serious and promised to offer me some good money. This is horrible! Suppose I was a young man with problems of money; the amount he offered would have really seduced me into the nasty demands of the son of devil.'


It takes a lot to recognise a gay person; but sometimes young men go around with
treated hair, tinted, walking like a woman, or forcing the voice to soften like
that of a woman and speaking with abnormal gestures, etc. They cannot go out in
the open and shout it out because they would be ridiculed.


There are in fact very many reasons that call us to worry about homosexuality. These reasons go beyond the fact that homosexuality goes against the Rwandan cultural norms and morals. Homosexuality is harmful for society since it does not engender reproduction, thus threatens the survival of society. It poses a great threat to children, and leads to depressing and miserable lifestyles. Generally, homosexuals are obsessed with a sexual lifestyle that is unnatural, and so the society should stand warned well in advance."

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

My return to Rwanda

I’m sitting in a hotel in Johannesburg waiting to return for the third time to Rwanda. This update is long overdue, and I apologize—all I can say is that I have been working on Rwanda in the meantime, and this work has begun to bear some marvelous fruit.

Since leaving UNHCR, I joined a new organization. This organization, serendipitously, was contemplating reestablishing operations in Rwanda, and decided to send me on the mission to assess this possibility in July of last year. It was wonderful—the team I was with decided quickly that the question was not if to go into Rwanda; it was how to do so. It was certainly time. We had left in April of 1994.

During this visit, we had the chance to meet one of the three or four genocide survivors from our original staff of 40. She is now a parliamentarian, which is interesting, given that Rwanda has the highest proportion of females in their parliament in the world. This woman is an astonishing pillar of strength.

We met with ministers, and I had the chance to find out more about the National Commission for Unity and Reconciliation, the Rwandan government body responsible for encouraging healing and dialogue. This commission is implementing incredible initiatives, including mandatory summer camps for students to discuss unity (I have a friend who did this, and was lamenting that he had to live in a cabin for a while!) and manages a volunteer corps that works throughout the country, leading initiatives for dialogue and healing. It’s a very interesting approach.

I stayed at the Kigali Serena, formerly the Intercontinental. I must admit that it felt very strange to stay at a hotel that was so wildly out of my price range when I was volunteering in Rwanda—I could only occasionally manage to afford a pizza at the poolside café. My friend Aime had been the deputy general manager there, but had left after the Serena hotel group purchased the hotel, and moved to Dubai, where he’s now managing a chain of Western hotels. So I didn’t know anyone there, except Faycal, the singer from Gisenyi who became my best friend.

I checked into my beautiful room and was sorting through my things when there was a knock on the door. It was the turndown service. Opening the door, the woman stared at me, and I stared back. “I know you!” I said. “And I know you!” she responded. She had worked at the Kivu Sun (now the Serena Kivu) in Gisenyi, and had been transferred to Kigali.

“I’m so glad that you didn’t lose any weight!” was the next thing she said. Sigh. I had almost forgotten that in Rwanda, it’s good to have meat on your bones. I laughed and told her that I had been working to lose some of the beans-and-rice weight I had put on, but she shook her head and smiled. Before she left, she gave me the phone number for my friend Fabrice, who had begun to teach me kung fu in Gisenyi, before he tried to steal millions of Rwandan francs from the Kivu Sun and was sent to jail. I decided it was probably best not to contact him.

After the assessment was complete, I took some personal time for vacation. I wanted to surprise Faycal, who I knew was singing at the Serena Kigali every weekend evening. He didn’t know I was in town, and I wanted to just appear one night when he was singing.

He beat me to the surprise. Faycal was in the lobby of the hotel one day when I walked in. Covering his mouth, he just looked at me in disbelief, laughed and we hugged for the first time in a year. Just before he ran off, he said, “You’re going to be an Auntie!”

In the end, he had surprised me.

Faycal reconnected with an ex-girlfriend, a beautiful girl who was a genocide orphan. After losing both her parents, she was taken in by an aunt and uncle in Belgium, and over time, acquired Belgian citizenship. She recently returned to Rwanda, where she met Faycal again and they fell in love. At the time I met her last July, she was visibly pregnant and the two were beautiful together. They were engaged to be married in November. I am delighted for them—while both are young, they are both orphans, and are ready to start their own family. Faycal told me that he is ready to be a real father to his child, the father that he never had.

He is doing very well financially, though I chastised him for putting a hold on law school. He decided it was more important to make money right now, with the baby coming, which I can definitely understand—but I warned him that he was going to have to finish school someday. Faycal now has two singing contracts, at the Kigali Serena and the Mille Collines (the “Hotel Rwanda” hotel) for basically every night of the week. His songs are also played on the radio. He is finally famous! And he’s enjoying every moment of it. He’s an incredible extrovert, and is appreciating the fame.

I also managed to see Boniface and spend some time with the Munyamashara family. Boniface is doing as well as ever, chipper and optimistic. We shared a couple of beers for old times’ sake at the Seminari, the little shop where we used to have drinks and talk for hours. He would teach me Kinyarwanda, and I would teach him English. We also had brochettes with pili-pili. He ordered them just the way I like them—without tendon, just the soft parts, grilled with onions and brushed with sauce. It was wonderfully mundane to spend time with him. It was what I longed for: a little reminder of what was a daily experience for me when I lived there.

I took some time to walk through the Gisenyi market. As I wove my way through the clothing section, a little boy came up, took my hand, and started chatting. I looked down at him, and he looked up at me, still talking. It was Abubakr, the charming little street child I had befriended a year ago. “Morgani, where have you been?” he asked me in Kinyarwanda. “Where is mom?” My mother had come to visit, and had fallen in love with this boy. Then he told me where all of his friends were. One was at the mosque. Another was at church. Abubakr didn’t ask for money. He hadn’t asked me for money since the first time I met him. It wasn’t about that. It was about fondness and friendship. I was profoundly touched.

Later, I was with Boniface again, and we were driving (slowly) through the center of town. As we passed a line of prisoners dressed in pink shirts and shorts, I caught the eye of one of them, whose face transformed with a bright smile, and who jogged over to the car.

“Morgan!” he said. “Good to see you!” It was Jean-Michel, the head of the Boy and Girl Scouts, with whom I had worked to start a Scout troop at the refugee camp. He had been jailed last year for failing to pay his debts. “I’ll be out soon, and will try to start up with the Scouts again!” he managed to tell me before the heavily armed gendarme came over to investigate the situation. He jogged back to the line and waved. Boniface, meanwhile, was astonished that I knew someone in prison.

“You really do know everyone here,” Boniface laughed.