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.
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!
Yesterday we had an absolutely awesome day. It was easily the most fun I have had since I have been here. We started the day off by attending Kigali’s Olympic Day. This was an event designed to get the country excited about the upcoming Olympics. In the morning we took part in a 12k walk/run and received free t-shirts. Needless to say we did mainly walking however I found that I actually had lots of energy and ran a little bit on the way. We were accompanied by another Daniel, a 13-year-old Rwandan boy, who walked with us the whole time. His English was very good and I talked with him a lot.
After the walk there was ceremony in the gym. We were given VIP status with floor seats that were right behind the Rwandan Olympic Chair as well as the British High Commissioner. Check the internet to see if I made it in the background of their photos. The event started with a dancing/stretching session followed by performances by popular Rwandan music artists, Dream Boys and Kitoko, performed. There were also some short speeches and race results.
Although this experience was very cool, it still feels awkward to get VIP status everywhere just because we are mazoongos (spelling is probably wrong but it basically means white person). We haven’t done anything to deserve this celebrity status.
After the Olympic day, we got a chance to meet Prosper, the wonderful assistant director of NCV, ‘s mom. It was a nice relaxation period for the events to come.
When we returned home we played with the NCV kids for a bit but Nicole had a great idea to move our game outside to play with the neighborhood kids. We played a game of “futbol” with at least 50+ kids until it got dark. It was so fun, although I think we were lucky to avoid injuries with so many people playing and uneven terrain. We will definitely be engaging with the neighborhood kids more often after this awesome experience.
After soccer, I stupidly thought the fun was over for the night and took a shower. Little did I know that a dance party with the NCV kids was to ensue. I broke into another sweat making my shower moot. We followed the dance party with a viewing of Cool Runnnings. Perfect end to a perfect day.
Tomorrow the orchard project is getting started and we have numerous visitors coming to NCV. I can’t believe a week has gone by. Pretty soon I’ll be attempting to summit Kilimanjaro!
Yesterday we had the unique opportunity to view some of Eric Kabera’s films. He is the founder and president of the Rwanda Cinema Center and is highly renowned in Rwanda as well as around the world. He has done numerous films covering the genocide so we got to view one of these as well as a more positive one.
The first film we viewed was called Iseta: Behind the Roadblock. It was based around the only recorded (on camera) killings of the genocide. Out of 1 million murders, only the ones in the video are documented. The film set out to discover who were the victims, the families of the victims, as well as the killers. Throughout the documentary, there were interviews with the victims’ families as well as other survivors. By the end of the film, we met the accused killers and most likely the man who did the killing of the people in the video.
The end was the most interesting dynamic for me. The four men who were imprisoned and accused were all sitting one row ahead of the victims’ families. Although there was some arguing/ discussion of which man did the killing in the video, it was a rather docile interaction. They were really emphasizing the reconciliation aspect of the killings rather than getting revenge. I am not an expert on the how the courts rulings played out overall, so I can’t necessarily give the best commentary, but through this video I was very shocked at how peaceful the interactions were. I would highly recommend this movie and although very hard to watch at times, it provides a personal connection to one family murdered in the genocide and causes the genocide to hit closer to home.
The second movie we got a chance to see was called Africa United. This was far more uplifting and I think I can speak for all of us when I say that it was very well done. The movie features five kids trying to get from Rwanda to South Africa for the 2010 world cup. The kids travel by foot, boat, car, and every other way imaginable. The movies also tackles issues such as HIV/AIDS, child soldiers, and prostitutes but the issues are not presented in such a depressing way as the other film.
This movie is not released in the US yet although it was nominated for awards at the Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival. I found it to be a very enjoyable film to watch and I would highly recommend it to everyone.
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!
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”
Wow I can’t believe it has already been 4 days here in Nyamata! I know there is still so much more to see, but we have already done so much!
Yesterday was a big day for us. For starters Daniel got his luggage! Turkish Airlines may have been voted the best airline in Europe, however I guess that award doesn’t make it all the way to Rwanda…
Also yesterday, we had the biggest surprise of the trip and I doubt it will end up being topped by anything else we get to experience. We got a chance to have lunch with the President of the Senate, basically the VP of Rwanda, at his home in Kigali.
Wow, are you kidding me (Jim Mora voice)? If you told me that I would get an opportunity like that before I left I would have called you crazy. For starters, the home was awesome. Like most nice places in Rwanda, an armed security guard greeted us at the gate before we were let in. It is still kind of disconcerting to see people walking up to you with AK-47s, but I am starting to get used to it.
The meal we ate was incredible. It started off with salad and then moved to the main courses. The meal was totally dictated by the VP. When he started eating, we started. When he told us to move onto the main course, we moved on. Daniel and I kept looking at each other because we didn’t want to do anything stupid and make sure we followed etiquette. The main course consisted of vegetables, potatoes, and some type of baked steak. Everything was delicious and it reminded me of a pot roast. After the meal we sat down for coffee and conversation. Immediately across from Daniel and I were pictures of the VP with Rwanda’s president. Crazy.
I was actually very impressed with the VP. Although most of the conversation was in Kinyarwandan or French, he did make an effort to speak with Daniel and I. He asked us about our trip to Rwanda, talked about his family, and shared a story about his lost luggage. It was definitely an interesting dynamic for Daniel and I.
Another interesting dynamic was that his two daughters as well as the other Nicole staying at NCV, Nicole, ate outside in a covered porch. I’m not sure if that was expected, or because more people showed up than expected. We found it very interesting none the less.
Following lunch, we went to the Genocide memorial in Kigali. Although I knew a little bit about it, the memorial was very eye opening. I found it incredibly sad and hard to learn about, but I thought the Holocaust museum in DC was actually more graphic. For me, I was obviously deeply affected by what I saw. I will never understand how a human being can ever do something like that to any creature in general, but especially another human. These things have happened over and over again throughout human history, and I just don’t get it.
I am also slightly perplexed that we didn’t learn more about it in school. Around 1 million deaths in 3 months. I also know have heard of Chinese students at OU who thought Hitler was a great guy because they didn’t really learn about the Holocaust. How can we learn from these atrocities if we aren’t being taught about them? It was an eye opening experience and obviously very sobering.
I am very excited for the rest of this trip and if these first 4 days are an indication, it will continue to fly by.