Friday, April 03, 2009

Murisanga! Feel at home.

It’s good to be back. It was hard to explain to my colleagues at school that I wasn’t excited to go to Rwanda. Excited wasn’t exactly the word I would use to describe the feeling of returning—as my fifth time in Rwanda, it felt more like I was just going home. There’s a strange comfort in the sights, smells, and sounds of this place. Landing at Kayibanda airport, I felt like I was a full human again.

I don’t have much time here, but have a lot to do. The conference on the genocide lasts for three days, and this Tuesday, April 7, is the official day of mourning. While I’m here, I also have to see my friend Faycal (the pop singer) and my Rwandan family in Kigali. Today, I stopped by the newly-opened Peace Corps office to say hello to the staff and drop off some magazines for the Volunteers, including the latest Vanity Fair. When I was living in the north, I made a pilgrimage to Kigali’s Librarie Ikirezi, where I spent 7,500 FRw ($15--ouch) on a Vanity Fair and read it cover to cover by candlelight, memorizing every word and studying every photo.

After visiting the office, I took shelter from the torrential April rain at the MTN Center and had a Rwandan buffet for lunch. Such buffets are typically comprised of salad, a long series of starches (rice, fries, fried bananas, fried plantains, sweet potatoes, and pasta) and then isombe, beans, some meat (usually beef) and tomato-based sauce. I regrettably took a large portion of isombe, and was reminded that it is an acquired taste. Bitter, green, and a bit pasty, isombe is prepared with cassava leaves. It looks vaguely like spinach, but that’s where the comparison ends. After I forced it down, I nearly broke a tooth on a rock I found in my beans. Eh, well.

Before leaving, I popped by Café Bourbon for an ikawaccino (their answer to the Starbucks Frappuccino). While making small talk with the woman behind the counter, I discovered that they have opened a Bourbon Café selling Rwandan coffee in Boston, and soon they will be opening one in Washington, D.C. Let me just repeat that, if only for my own benefit: there will be Bourbon Coffeeshops in Boston and in D.C. Now I don’t have to go all the way to Rwanda to restock my coffee supply! Score!

Now I’m relaxing at my friend Victoria’s house in the middle of a thunderstorm. The rain is pounding so loudly that we can barely hear, and it’s glazing the windows as if we were in a car wash. It’s nice to be home.


Blogger Morgan C. said...

Thanks to Lucy for this!

4/03/2009 2:13 PM  
Blogger Selina Cuff said...

I have been following your blog and it makes me feel much calmer about coming to Rwanda in a few weeks time. I am coming in for a five days before heading to Nairobi where I am going to be based. Do you have any contact details for the beausejour? That is the best place to stay don't you reckon? I am trying to make as many contacts with NGO's etc as possible in the time I am there so any tips etc you have would be great.

4/04/2009 11:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So Morgan you may find a number of differences:- eg more supermarkets, some improved roads, more houses, more mobile phones, more traffic, more students at secondary school? Do you notice any changes in the minds of the people?

4/04/2009 4:19 PM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

Selina, I think there should be phone numbers/an email address for the Beausejour on the "Things to Do in Rwanda" page on this site. You may have to add 78 to the phone number (for example, if the number is 03012345, it has become 0783012345). I love the Beausejour!

4/05/2009 9:40 AM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

Anonymous,that's the $64,000 question. Changes how? Because while some things (like shops, roads, etc.) have changed rapidly, other things will take a while.

Most salient are two questions:
1. Have Rwandans overcome the divisive beliefs that caused the genocide?
2. Are Rwandans able to express independent thought?

These are heavy questions. The first is very difficult to answer. Anecdotally, there is some evidence that people are still keenly aware of the different ethnic groups and stereotypes, even if they aren't able to talk about it (it's against the law, classified as promotion of "genocide ideology"). It would be impossible to stop people from maintaining some stereotypes when these were the thoughts with which they were raised. Moving beyond them takes time.

As for the second question, I would hesitate to say that people have full freedom of expression. There is a real fear in the government (despite efforts to increase the participation of civil society) that strong political parties (as an example) in the post-conflict period could cause rifts in society as people choose to adhere to parties solely due to ethnicity and not issue platforms. (This was also the reason why, in the constitution-making process in Uganda, the Constituent Assembly decided to only permit one political party for 5 years after the adoption of the Constitution.)

Interestingly, there has been some research on how independent thought among Rwandese might be encouraged. I listened to a presentation by Elizabeth (Betsy) Paluck recently, who presented her study on how mixed media encouraged independent problem solving among rural Rwandans, instead of resorting to authority for problem resolution. It's the first step toward independent expression, although in her study, she found that Rwandans still hesitated to express dissenting opinions, and incorporated a lot of government language (such as unity, decentralization, etc.) in their discussions.

I think the only real hope for real opinion change (and an important step toward open expression) is to work with post-genocide Rwandan youth, as their minds are most malleable, and they can be brought up without the ill-feelings of generations who have gone before.

4/05/2009 11:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Morgan, I must say that I was not thinking of the two questions you have set out.
As an occasional visitor to see relatives with whom I am otherwise in contact by email and phone, it is certainly tricky to get inside the Rwandan mind.
Western NGOs nevertheless consider themselves competent to say that such and such is a priority and if there not more "political space" for example there will soon be "hell on earth part 2".
Given that western NGOs do not have an obvious role in the country's redevelopment, it is natural for them to want SOME role but I wonder how much they really know and about the worth of what they are doing.
Rwandan redevelopment is threatening for a number of people and in particular corrupt gov'ts in other African countries without the political will to make development happen and DO something with aid money for example. It also raises questions about western NGOs and whether they are the best way to promote redevelopment. You might have some comments on this.
On my last visit I thought the mentality of the people appeared to have changed least. Punctuality had not improved and if there is to be a "service economy" it is going to have to overcome Rwandans' considerable pride. Ever been ignored in a shop? Ever been told that a shop does not have something - because the assistant did not want to admit they did not know - only to find out that it did? I believe these things will improve in time particularly since they will have to if other EAC citizens are not to just take all those jobs. It is one thing for the gov't to have the political will but quite another for it to get inside the minds of the people.
Finally, there is religion. In Africa this is primarily a business and I suppose that helps to separate any proper teaching from how people lead their lives. Last week an evangelical pastor was attested for organising the death of a business rival in the paint business. Some independent thought would certainly be helpful against exploitative evangelicals.

4/06/2009 7:10 AM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

Anonymous, yes, those are very different points! I think you're right in many ways. People talk a lot about creating political space, and I happen to take a bit of a different position than most others. I think political space is important, but I think expanding it takes time (the West likes immediate gratification, but as in many things, slow and steady wins this race, I think). Moving too rapidly toward the Western conception of freedom of speech and the press may have the unintended effect of being more destructive than constructive in Rwanda. That said, I am as pro-free speech as everyone else, but I believe this right needs to be expanded in a deliberate way in this specific context so as to not be divisive.

In terms of the service industry, it's true that much remains to be desired. For what it's worth, the government appears to have understood that this is quite a big problem, and I think a hotel management school has opened in Kigali. Political will only goes so far, like you said. Anecdotally, my friends in the service industry here have been sent for trainings in other cities in East Africa, and reported being struck by how professional and efficient everyone was. They have changed in response. I'm not sure what it will take to accomplish widespread changes, but I do feel like the service industry has improved since I first came in 2006.

On NGOs, this is a grand debate. I would disagree that Western NGOs don't have an obvious role in Rwanda's redevelopment. I think their greatest virtue is in working at the grassroots level, and supporting local associations and organizations. In Rwanda, unlike in many other countries, the government manages NGOs fairly well; NGOs must show activities that contribute toward the accomplishment of Rwanda's Vision 20/20 goals. Rwanda is trying to develop rapidly, and I think the president understands that doing so requires both top-down (i.e. ministry-level) and bottom-up (such as grassroots) initiatives. Rwanda stands as the exception; because of all the (guilt) aid coming into the country, they can afford to be picky. And I have seen remarkable development here since 2006.

On religion, I think that some groups that come here have the potential to do good development work. It does strike me, however, that religion here has taken on business-like qualities (I remember Joyce Meyer's big-budget visit, for example). One of my friends said that she met a Rwandan man who said that he wanted to start his own church because he heard people would give him money if he did. She said, "Where there's money to be made, there will be entrepreneurs." It's unfortunate.

On a separate but related note, what is most important for me with regard to religious organizations, and what I think is not always achieved, is that they come in the spirit of partnership, not condescension.

4/06/2009 1:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any improvement in the capacity of the Kigali buses? In the evening rush hour last year I tried a few times to get a bus to Kimironko or failing that to the Ministries with the idea of getting a connection from there. Unless I was lucky and one just stopped in front of me this was usually impossible since I do not have the strength of an Olympic standard wrestler or the inclination to be one, since behaving like a wrestler in the bus queue would be a bit un-Rwandese in my view. Eventually a local looked at me as if to say, "why don't you take a taxi-voiture you silly mzungu?". Did anyone lay on some more buses yet?

4/06/2009 5:02 PM  
Blogger Emily said...

I hope you have a fantastic visit, and wish I could be there too! Please send everyone hugs for me. The Bourbon Coffee opening in Washington DC is literally right across the street from my apt. - I am so excited!!

-Emily Narkis

4/07/2009 9:01 PM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

Yay, Emily! Where, exactly??
Hope you're well!

4/21/2009 9:21 PM  
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