one final post, not from Rwanda

I’ve been trying for over two weeks (and failing up until now) to write a post to close out this blog.  My tardiness stems in part from how busy I’ve been since I returned to the US. To blame my schedule, however, would be a incomplete explanation.  I’ve had enough time to write, plenty of internet access, and even some fresh Rwandan music to inspire me to author the greatest blog post in the history of blogs. What then, kept me from writing?  Put simply, I was overwhelmed by the depth and extent of the experience that I was trying to “sum up” in a few paragraphs.  I was at a loss for words, a state I rarely find myself in as anyone who knows me will readily acknowledge.  I don’t really have the words now, but I’m going to write anyway. Now, lets get on with this post……

I learned a great deal during my 4 weeks in Rwanda—about the country, its people, and myself.  I picked up a few words of Kinywarwandan, the most important being “amazi” (water).  I acquired an appreciation for Rwandan music.  Personal favorites: Kitoko, Dream Boyz, and King James.  I witnessed affluence and poverty, often side by side. I saw images that will remain etched in my memory for years to come, some beautiful, others horrific. I heard stories of violence and conflict, brokenness and division.  I heard stories of unity and hope, redemption and reconciliation.  I confirmed that I do, in fact, want to pursue a career working on issues related to peace and security in Africa.

Since my flight home wasn’t scheduled until 1am, my final day was a long one.  It started with packing, then goodbyes at NCV.

Next Chris and I went to Kigali to meet up with a few of our new-found Rwandan friends  We did some  shopping, enjoyed a relaxing dinner and then met up with the NCV staff at a Chinese restaurant. After another round of goodbyes, Chris and the NCV crew took me to the airport for the final sendoff.  When it came time for me to go through security, the entire group walked me up.  And then I was off.  Actually I waited 5 hours at the gate for my flight to take off (4am by that time, thanks Turkish Airlines)

As I conclude, I want to offer a word of thanks to you, the faithful readers of this blog.  Chris and I thoroughly enjoyed checking the stats on our posts. We were pleasantly surprised to top 1000 views.  Then again, my mom may have accounted for about 500 of them…

Everyone at NCV seemed pretty confident I’ll be back in Rwanda at some point. Sounds good to me!

-DO

 

what’s your name?

If you’re a faithful reader of this blog you might remember that Chris and I are often called “mzungus”, the Kinyarwandan word borrowed from Swahili for “white person”. The prevalence of the term is magnified in the rural area where we are staying because there are only a handful of white people in the entire district, making us true novelties.

Having the term mzungu directed at me so frequently has been frustrating in several respects. First, the term is widely associated with power, wealth, etc—all things that inhibit my ability have open, honest conversations with a broad cross-section of the local community. That I’m usually riding in a car when I pass by people walking or pushing bikes along the road only reinforces this dynamic. Second, it forces me to represent “white people” as a group rather than just myself. Finally, I, like most people, prefer to be called by my name rather than objectified.

Two weeks ago we took NCV’s kids out to a nearby field for a soccer game. Much of the neighborhood soon joined, and, not surprisingly, “mzungu mzungu!” rang in my ears as I traversed the field. In response, I began telling the kids “my name is Daniel, what’s your name?” Despite their limited English, nearly all of them responded with their name—many were shy, some hesitant. While I only remembered a few of the names (there were SO many, and most were difficult to pronounce), this exchange of names helped me feel less like an object of fascination and more like a kid out playing soccer.

As I walked through the same field a few days later, I heard “Daniel, Daniel”. When I turned around, I realized it was some of the kids I had met during the soccer game. I waved; they waved back. Progress.

On an unrelated note, I only have four days left here in Rwanda. Tempus fugit. (Latin phrase for “time flies”)

The “freshness” of independence

Over the past few days I’ve found myself thinking a great deal about how the“ freshness” of independence interacts with national pride. Rwanda attained its independence 50 years ago, but, as speakers constantly reminded me during the anniversary celebration on Sunday, “liberation” for Rwanda occurred just 18 years ago

It is nearly impossible to drive anywhere here without passing a Rwandan flag. Billboards stressing national unity line the highways, and if knew how to read Kinyarwandan I suspect patriotic messaging would be even more apparent. Such an emphasis on national pride is not unlike what I experienced last fall while studying in Durban, South Africa. When my study abroad group visited schools, we were often given a rendition of the country’s famed national anthem. South Africa’s national teams—soccer, rugby, and to a lesser extent cricket—captured the nation’s collective attention whenever they competed.

It is not surprising that efforts to promote national pride tend to be highly visible and pronounced in these post-conflict countries. As in South Africa, Rwanda has only recently emerged from a period of intense internal strife, and the restoration of national unity is an ongoing process. Anniversaries, anthems, teams, and other forms of national expression offer an opportunity to forge a “new” identity, one that is inclusive rather than exclusive.

As an outsider, it has been fascinating to observe how expressions of national pride and identity both differ and, in some ways, relate to my own experience in the US.

Rwandan Independence Day

Yesterday (Sunday) Rwanda marked 50 years of independence from Belgium.  As one might expect, it was a day full of celebrations across the country. We joined in, waking up at 530am to drive into Kigali for the main event in the national soccer stadium. By the time the festivities started around 10am the stadium was filled to capacity with tens of thousands of Rwandans, several Presidents/VPs and “distinguished guests” from around the world.  While the military parade, traditional dancers, and artists were impressive, the highlight for me was listening to President Kagame speak about Rwanda’s past, present, and future.

The military on parade

President Kagame inspecting the military

A trip to Gisenyi

After spending our first 10 days in Kigali and the area around the orphanage, we ventured to Giseyni, a city in the northwest corner of the country, for few days this week. Tucked away in Rwanda’s northwestern corner, Gisenyi is serene and spectacular. Its signature feature is Lake Kivu, a sizeale body of water similar to our beloved Great Lakes.

The trip was, in some ways, a mini-vacation. We enjoyed breakfast steps from the lake—crepes, omelets, the BEST bananas ever, and Rwandan coffee, took a boatride around part of the lake (free ride thanks to Floriane’s friend!), and drove to see the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  Don’t worry, we didn’t try and cross it. On our way back to NCV yesterday we stopped at a resort situated at the foot of 3 extinct volcanoes.  This also happens to be where Rwanda’s famous gorillas live. No, we didn’t see any. If only we had $500 laying around to take the official expedition to see them….

Here’s a few quick thoughts on the trip

1. Borders matter. Seems obvious, right? But I never appreciated how important an imaginary line can be.  On the Rwandan side of the border we were able to enjoy a relaxing few days at a nice resort and walk around the city freely in the evening. Yet just a few miles away, across the border in DRC, armed conflict is not a distant memory; it’s a daily reality. Displaced Congolese continue to stream into Rwanda, as evidenced by the refugee camp we passed on the drive to Giseyni. Due in large part to Rwanda’s cleanliness, it was all the more striking to see the depravity of the camp.

2. To begin to understand a country, even one as small as Rwanda, it is crucial to see different regions. This trip was invaluable in this regard, and I’ll try and write a bit more about this in a later post.

3. Rwanda is beautiful. Seriously.

Sadly our internet connection isn’t fast enough right now to upload photos here, but hopefully we can get some up soon. Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of Rwanda’s independence from Belgium. Celebrations will be going on nationwide, and we are planning on attending some of the events in Kigali. Should be an interesting day!

-DO

Seeking the full story

The stories and images of Africa that reach the US tend to be overwhelmingly negative. The Western media and advocacy groups typically portray the continent as the heart of darkness—a place where warlords, corrupt dictators, diseases, and endemic poverty reign.  (Think Kony 2012) Since Rwanda’s 1994 genocide has achieved some notoriety in the West, the East African state is especially vulnerable to such assumptions.

To be sure, conflict, malgovernance, disease, and poverty continue to ravage the continent, and minimizing the scale or scope of these challenges would be irresponsible.  Yet it is also crucial to recognize that the story of Rwanda, or really Africa in general, is far more complex than a poor continent that needs to be rescued by the international community.

For example, Chris and I have spent the majority of our evenings this week sitting at poolside tables at upscale Kigali hotels including Milles Collines (Hotel Rwanda).  These hotels are in many respects nicer than places we would normally hang out in the US.  Live music, attentive service, fancy foods and drinks—a truly classy “vibe”. Or take the coffee shops where we go to use “fast” internet.  The views are spectacular, the food’s rather expensive, and everyone seems to be sitting on their smartphone or laptop.  There are some foreigners like ourselves at these places, but mostly its Rwandans.  While these up-market “hangouts” represent only a fraction of Rwanda’s story, they are part of it nonetheless. Hopefully we will continue to explore and experience new and different aspects of Rwanda’s story over the next three weeks.

My motivation for this post stemmed from watching Africa United yesterday afternoon.  It hasn’t been released yet in the United States, but you can buy it on Amazon. I would highly recommend it, as it tells a uniquely African story from an African perspective. Chris will be writing a full review up momentarily.

Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t note that the weather here has been ideal—probably 75 degree and sunny every single day so far!

-DO

The Kigali Genocide Memorial

We spent yesterday afternoon at the Kigali National Genocide Memorial.  The visit was strikingly similar to what I had experienced at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa.  As in each of these cases, the Kigali memorial employs a combination of images, quotes, text, stories, multimedia, and material from the period to create a powerful experience, one that is meant to shock, awe, educate, and ultimately inspire visitors to join the genocide prevention movement. (gen-preven for short).

I was appalled by what I saw, and the genocide here was certainly one of the most tragic events in recent history. Yet I managed to stay relatively stoic while walking through the exhibit.  Perhaps this was the result of having studied genocide in general and Rwanda in particular at some length.  Or maybe the research I am conducting on the aftermath of the genocide allowed me to distance myself emotionally and focus on data collection.  I did, however, have a difficult time walking through the final section of the indoor exhibit, the Children’s Room.  Dedicated to the thousands of children who were killed during the genocide, this section humanized the staggering numbers; it showed the faces behind the figures.

One recurring theme throughout the memorial was the urgency of learning about the past in order to prevent future atrocities.  Here’s a few excerpts:

“a terrible and unavoidable warning for our future if we do not take active steps to avoid it all over again”

“we need to learn about the past…we also need to learn from it”

“education became our way forward”

-DO