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.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Ginny said...

It sounds wonderful, Morgan.

3/12/2008 1:55 PM  
Blogger Amelia said...

Hello- this might be a little strange, please forgive me! My name is Amelia, and your blog came up when I Googled "learn Kinyarwanda". I'm from the US, a college student studying anthropology, and I just got back from Kenya. I'm trying to plan a trip to Rwanda for next winter to do fieldwork and I REALLY need someone I can ask about living there. There are SO few resources. It would be incredible if you could email me at ahogan87@gmail.com. Thank you!!

3/13/2008 11:16 PM  
Blogger Jeri said...

Greetings!
I see that many ppl have contacted you as a primary resource for life in Rwanda - your blog is AMAZING and I'm so grateful I landed upon it!

I am going to be traveling to Rwanda in August 2008. I'll be in Kigali at an HIV/AIDS research center/medical clinic - only staying for 6 weeks, but totally stoked! I was wondering if it would be possible to contact you over the next few months as I prepare for this trip? I would appreciate it so much...

My email is jeri.sumitani@gmail.com

3/15/2008 10:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Morgan,

Heading back in May for my fourth visit...I've used your dictionary and passed it around. Your blog is wonderful. Will you be there in May/June? Maybe we could meet and share info. I do nursing and trauma counseling training. Our group is www.network4africa.org .
Contact me at mjterrill8@yahoo.com
Rwandans are beautiful people! I cannot stay away. MJ

4/21/2008 4:00 PM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

Hey, MJ, I won't be there in May (I don't think) and have no idea if I will be there in June... but I'm happy to talk anyway! Cheers, Morgan

4/25/2008 8:59 PM  
Anonymous rick said...

Hi Morgan, I was hoping to find a recent post from you to see if all is well with you and your adventure in Africa. You don't know me, but I am a brother in-law to a husband and wife couple who just adopted three beautiful Rwandan children from an orphanage there in Rwanda. They just arrived two weeks ago here in Southern California. I am trying to learn words in Kinyarwanda from your postings and it helps to be able to communicate a little more each time I see the children. Do you know how to say "I am her sister", "I am your Aunt", "I am your uncle", "we have been praying for you to come here"? I know you are busy with your focus, but when you have some time maybe add these sayings to your dictionary or drop me a line. My sister-in-law and brother-in-law are volunteers helping with the HIV/AIDS crisis there in Rwanda. They are part of the P.E.A.C.E. plan from Saddleback church.
My prayers are with you!
Rick

4/30/2008 4:37 PM  
Blogger E. Griffin said...

fancy blog.

6/04/2008 7:39 PM  
Blogger Sandy said...

Hi Morgan-your blog is awesome by the way. I just got back from Rwanda a few days ago I was there on a mission with my church. Your Kinyarwandan dictionary was such a blessing for my group, thank you!! I am in love with the country and would love to go back! I was hoping you could give me some insight on finding a job (short term) since you seem to have a lot of connections. I would be grateful if you would email me @Duhhbeach@yahoo.com...Peace!

7/03/2008 7:47 AM  
Blogger soerenarp said...

Seems that we have common acquaintanceship in Gisenye. Boniface was my headdriver at the UNHCR fieldoffice there in the later part of '94. Could you give me a hint about his address, @-mail or tel.no. I would be ever so grateful.
Best regards
Soeren
soeren@operamail.com

6/30/2010 7:07 AM  

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