Archive for the ‘Rwanda’ Category

Change of plans

Sunday, October 9th, 2016

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I have changed my plans quite considerably since coming to Africa. This entire adventure has been borne out of a lot of changes of plans. And this one is certainly a change for the better. 🙂

While walking through the villages of Rwanda (just outside of Muhanga) with my guide and translator, I was thinking about how much I loved Rwanda. And about how much I like what Azizi Life do there and how much I’d like to be able to help. I was thinking about coming back to Rwanda. And it occurred to me that I don’t need to wait very long before coming back. I need to be in Uganda until the end of October. I need to be in Cape Town for the 20th of December. But I don’t need to travel overland from one to the other, I could come back into Rwanda.

So I changed my plans for the last few days in Rwanda and went back to Kigali rather than going north to the Volcanoes national park. I spent the time in Rwanda trying to sort out a volunteering placement for 7 weeks in November and December.

I have a magnificent Plan B – which is to volunteer with Azizi Life back in Muhanga. Plan A is to try to get a placement with someone like Save the Children, UNICEF, the World Food Programme, etc. At the time of writing I am still trying to secure a Plan A position. But I will be very, very happy with Plan B if I can’t. (If anyone is reading this and it’s still October 2016 and you know anyone who works in one of these organisations in Rwanda who might be able to help me, then please do get in touch!)

The overland travel (including the trains and Kilimanjaro) will just have to wait till next time I come to Africa. 🙂


Wednesday, September 14th, 2016

The rainy season is due to start in Rwanda in mid-September. There hasn’t been any rain since April. This has been the longest dry season in living memory. It was lovely and hot and dry this morning when I left the house. But this afternoon, while sitting in a lovely coffee shop in a lovely bookshop with a lovely view of Kigali writing blog posts about my morning at the Genocide Memorial the rainy season started.

All of the rain in the world has thrown itself against the windows. Black clouds have blown past obscuring the distant hills. The sun set at some point. I can hear myself think again and I can see the lights of the buildings on the hill opposite so the worst of this deluge may have just passed. Though the tinkling on the tin roof and the distant rumbles of thunder make me think this may just be a temporary reprieve.

The Rwandan Genocide – My Story

Wednesday, September 14th, 2016

My story about the Rwandan Genocide is the least important story of all. But it has value to me in that it is my story. And I hope it has value to you reading this. I hope my story gives access to the other, much more important stories.

In April 1994 I was in my first year of university in Australia. I was living at home. I was 18 years old but I was a very young 18.

In 1986 I had been on a family trip to the USA, the UK and Canada to visit family. It was a safe, controlled environment. And apart from the fact that Smarties came in tubes (revolutionary!!) it was the same culture and values and lifestyle. I knew that the rest of the world existed. Every night as a child the news had updated us on the Iran / Iraq war. I knew that there was a wall in Berlin that had been torn down. I knew the joke about a Jew in Belfast being asked if he was a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew. But I had been a child. And these things were far away and even though I left the room when the television announcer said that some of the following scenes may be disturbing for some viewers, they had nothing to do with me. There was nothing I could do. I was only a child.

In April 1994 I heard about the genocide in Rwanda. I had never heard of Rwanda. I had no connection with the country whatsoever. And yet, the horror of what was unfolding there struck me. I cried. I went to the bank and withdrew money from my account so that I could donate it to the fundraising that the Red Cross was doing. I had never done anything like that before. It was a lot of money for me at the time and yet it was such a tiny, pitiful amount. What could my meagre Australian dollars do in the face of such atrocity?

The days turned into weeks. The number of people killed had long surpassed numbers that my brain could comprehend. I was deeply horrified. I didn’t understand the political situation. But I didn’t need to. People were killing each other. I didn’t really care that it was genocide. It didn’t matter to me whether the stated motivation was race, religion, skin colour, language, wealth, nationality, age, height, weight, gender, eye colour, hair colour, favourite football team. People were killing each other. And there was absolutely nothing I could do. I cried. But what could my compassion and my tears do in the face of such inhumanity?

I was not a child. I was an adult. My powerlessness struck me. But I was so far away and I was so small and weak and powerless. All I could do was to grieve for these people I didn’t know. All I could do was to be resolute in my belief that we are all human beings and that no distinction between us really matters.

And that was probably the moment when my mindset changed. I am Australian by birth. I grew up there. But my Australian identity is only a result of living in that country. I am British. I have spent most of my adult life in the UK. But my British identity is only a result of living in that country. Much more importantly, I am a global citizen. I am inherently the same as all of the other people on the planet. My luck, my opportunities, my choices are different. But my blood and my breath and my heart are the same. I am a global citizen. Crimes against any people are crimes against my people. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, there is only ‘us’. And it was Rwanda that taught me that.

Today, I have spent some time in the Kigali Genocide Memorial. This was important to me. It was a chance for me to close a chapter that started 22 years ago. It was a chance for me to pause over the mass graves of 250,000 people. Some of the people I cried for – half a world away and half a lifetime ago. And today I fought back tears but I didn’t cry. Today was not about crying. Today was about facing one of the defining moments of my life. It was a chance for me to pay my respects.

My visit here in Rwanda is about that. It is about me showing respect for a country and a people (one people) who have come through so much and rebuilt from such tragedy. It is about me contributing in some small way: giving my time and attention to this beautiful corner of the world; spending my money in businesses run by these wonderful people; telling all of you about what a lovely country this is. Tomorrow I’m off to an orphanage / school / community where I’ll spend a couple of days and hope to do some teaching. Then I’m heading off to another local development organisation where I’m going to learn more about Rwandan life. And then it’ll be a couple of days of hiking in the spectacular Volcanoes national park before my Ugandan adventure starts.

I don’t think my Rwandan story will ever end. But this chapter is a very important chapter for me.

The Rwandan Genocide

Wednesday, September 14th, 2016

In April 1994 a planned genocide against the Tutsi people in Rwanda was carried out. 1,000,000 people were killed. In 100 days. Tutsis and moderate Hutus. 70% of Rwanda’s Tutsis. 20% of the entire population. Men and women. Children and the elderly. Rich and poor. In cities and in villages.

There were state-sponsored extremist militias, the Interahamwe, who were guilty of a lot of the systematic killing. But they were not alone: this was neighbour murdering neighbour in a calculated attempt to wipe out a people based on their race.

Genocide ideology had been spreading through the country for some time. And there was civil unrest at the time. But this was not a generational feud between tribes that had been brewing for hundreds of years. Ethnic tension was a direct result of European colonisation. Ethnic distinctions only begun to matter when the German and Belgian colonial powers created / exacerbated the differences to serve their own ends. Tutsis were cattle herders. Tutsis were an elite minority. Tutsis originally came from the north so were more Aryan and therefore more pure. If you owned more than 10 head of cattle you were a Tutsi. If you had a Tutsi-shaped nose you were a Tutsi. The actual tribes themselves had intermingled. The distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was more based on class than ethnicity. In 1935 the Belgians put race on the national identity card. Race was now fixed. And race was now important.

There are people who were present in Rwanda at the time of the genocide who had literal blood on their hands. They were in actual fact responsible for killing, torturing, mutilating, raping other human beings. And no matter the external factors in play, they each made a decision to take a life. Some have been held responsible. Some have acknowledged their crimes and have sought forgiveness. Some have been punished.

There are people who were responsible for the grand scheme of the genocide. Those who planned it and orchestrated it. Those who paved the way with widespread propaganda. Those who created the Interahamwe militias and who were active in training and supplying them. Those who created the lists of people who would be first to be killed. Those who decided to set up roadblocks in order to stop freedom of movement and make the extermination more efficient. Some have been held responsible. Some have acknowledged their crimes and have sought forgiveness. Some have been punished.

The international community knew this was being planned and did very little. The international community knew it was happening and did very little. The French government supported the Rwandan government and helped to train the militias that carried out much of the killing. The UN made a decision to withdraw staff from Rwanda despite their representative in Rwanda asking for more people. But Rwanda is a small landlocked African nation with no global strategic importance.

The Catholic Church in some cases protected people but in some cases it was the priests who arranged for their churches – full of their congregants seeking sanctuary – to be destroyed. Communities gathering inside a church for shelter made the job of the Interahamwe easier.

But there are people who did something. There are people who refused to kill. There are people who protected their friends and neighbours and hid them in trenches in their field, or in the ceiling. There are people who worked to help people flee.

And these people were not just present in the Rwandan genocide they were also there during the genocides in Namibia, in Cambodia, of the Armenians, of the Jews.

And each one of these people, who had the courage to do what is right in the face of such overwhelming horror, reminds us that there is hope. There are good people who will do good things. But they also remind us of our personal responsibility. They made a choice. A choice not to be complicit in the killing. And that choice was open to every single one of the people involved in the genocide.

I don’t say this to allocate blame. I say this as a reminder to each one of us that we each have the choice and we have a responsibility. And no matter what happens around us, we will always have that choice.

One of the quotes from one of the exhibitions inside the Kigali Genocide Memorial says that genocide is not a single act of murdering 1,000,000 people. It is 1,000,000 acts of murder. And each one of those acts is stopped if we each make the right choice.

Perhaps the most heroic and wonderful thing that I have seen in the Kigali Genocide Memorial is the testimonies of the victims. They want the perpetrators to acknowledge their crimes. They want the truth about what happened to their family. They want to know where the bodies of their loved ones are so that they can be reburied with dignity. They want the perpetrators to seek forgiveness. What they do not want is revenge. And that is the thing that fills my heart so completely and brings tears to my eyes. That people who have undergone such barbarity are able to see that revenge will only beget further cycles of revenge and that violence will only lead to more violence. For them, for all of us, it is the future that matters. And that does not mean allowing criminals to get away with their crimes. It does not mean that we should not hold people to account. We should. But we should seek responsibility and forgiveness and we should rebuild in a way that will contribute to a world in which this does not happen again.

And for the past 20 years Rwanda has been rebuilding itself. It is a safe, beautiful country of one people. It is a lovely place to visit. The young people of Rwanda have high hopes for a peaceful and prosperous future. And they know that this future is theirs to build.


Wednesday, September 14th, 2016

Motos are motorbike taxis. They are everywhere here (Kigali). I was at the bus station and heading to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. My host had said it should be about 400 Rwandan Francs (about 40 pence). The first guy quoted me 1000. I said no, how about 500. Which another guy said he’d do. (There were about 7 of them laughing at me with my little map trying to tell them where I wanted to go. It was quite funny.) The first guy also agreed to 500 so I went with him. (The fact that the second guy jumped at the chance to take me for 500 confirmed that this was definitely not ripping him off and that the initial 1000 was an attempt to take me for a ride – pun intended.)

For those who haven’t read any of my previous posts about foreigner prices here’s a brief summary: of course local people want to charge foreigners as much as they can, foreigners have more money, 500 francs is a lot of money but 50 pence is not, however, not all foreigners have lots of money, it’s not fair to charge us more just because of the colour of our skin, if we let them get away with it then they will keep doing it and that makes it harder for the others coming after us. So I am in two minds – I don’t want to rip them off, I don’t mind paying a little extra, but I don’t want to get ripped off either. It’s a delicate balance. And the balance does depend on the mood I’m in, if I have eaten, how long the process is taking, whether I feel like I am being ripped off, etc.

Motos are an exercise in trust for me. I don’t find them thrilling or exhilarating. I find them quite terrifying. I want to tap the driver on the shoulder and tell him to slow down, put his phone away, don’t lean into that corner so much, don’t pass that car down that side, don’t try to overtake that truck, don’t stick your nose so far out into the traffic, etc. But I have never driven a moto. He has. A lot. This is what he does, every day. This is how he makes his living. He knows what he can and can’t do. And I should trust him. My judgement in this domain is not sound. Plus, letting go of my hand holds to tap him on the shoulder is certainly not possible after the thing has started moving.

So I hang on tight to the little handles that are beside and slightly behind me. All the muscles in both my arms are rigid with tension. I lean slightly forward and try to keep my core (and therefore my centre of mass) exactly where it is. When he leans into a corner, I try to go with him, or at least not fight him and pull him off balance. I close my eyes when it’s particularly frightening. I try to breathe. And I remind myself that this is an exercise in trust.

Getting a moto has now been ticked off my list and I didn’t die. So I don’t have to get another one, but if I do, I can do it with slightly more confidence.

Update: since writing this, I have been on two more motos. The second was by far the most terrifying. I had my rucksack on my back (and kept imagining falling off the back of the bike). The guy was going quite fast even after I told him to slow down. These were rural dirt roads with ruts all over them. There were a lot of hills. I kept gasping in fright. I had my eyes squeezed shut for most of it. Having the visor of my helmet fall off while we riding didn’t help matters either. The third moto ride was better. It was the same trip as the second but in reverse (by which I mean the opposite direction rather than the moto reversing along the road – that would have been silly!). I paid for a second moto to carry my bag. I listened to music on my MP3 player. I asked the bilingual guard of the school I was leaving to ask the driver to go slowly because I was very frightened. And he did. I then gave both moto drivers a tip to thank them for being so considerate and so helpful.

A Few Days in Kigali

Wednesday, September 14th, 2016

My first stop on this adventure has been Kigali in Rwanda.

Travelling the world in 2016 is a very different prospect from what it was in 1999 when I first set off with a friend from Australia to Europe. I used AirBnB from the UK to find and pay for a room in a house in Kigali. I had some contact with my host before arriving. My plane landed in Kigali at about 11pm. By the time I got out of the airport it was midnight. But that was ok. There was an ATM where I could get local cash and a little kiosk selling SIM cards. So I had a local SIM in my phone with a data connection and could text my host to tell her I was on my way. I got a taxi to her place. She met me and gave me all the information I needed to get me set up for the next day. I could contact friends and family in Europe and Australia to let them know I was safe. Very different from 1999.

And despite having slept a lot on the plane I still slept well that night.

The next morning (Tuesday) I slept in and very lazily got up and sorted. I had a shower and washed some clothes from the previous day at the same time (stamping on them in the shower helps to push the detergent through them quite effectively and saves water).

I headed out with a few aims in mind: cross a road; buy water; get on a bus (preferably the right bus); go for a walk; find food. And I succeeded in all of these. I’m foreign, these things take considerably longer than they would for a normal, local person. But that’s part of the joy. 🙂

I got the bus into town and got off vaguely where I thought I wanted to be (not that I really knew where I wanted to be). I wandered around for a while and proceeded to get lost. (Well I was outside the Russian Embassy, just down from the Marriott hotel – so I wasn’t really lost – I just didn’t know where these places were.) I then checked the map to discover that I was heading in the opposite direction from where I wanted to be. So I turned around.

This is what travelling is all about. 🙂

I found somewhere for lunch and had a traditional Rwandan buffet. Though I just stuck with the veg options. I did realise part way through that I was breaking several of my food guidelines – I ate salad, I ate from a buffet, I didn’t peel the avocado myself. But my host had said that she brushes her teeth with tap water, so I guessed that any salad that had been washed in tap water was probably ok. I had a Coke with my lunch just to be on the safe side. Given that Coke can strip oil stains off driveways I figured it would kill anything I may have just put in my digestive system! (Note: this is a joke: I did not drink the Coke thinking that it would protect my health.)

After lunch I went for a wander to the Azizi Life boutique. Azizi Life are the organisation I’m visiting next week for their cultural experience days. There’s a café next door, so I sat in there for ages pottering around on my laptop and reading a bit. After all, this is meant to be a holiday!! 🙂

My host, very kindly came to meet me – she has a car. And we decided to go for dinner. She took me to this very lovely place where we sat by the pool overlooking the hills of Kigali. Gorgeous. And the pizza was pretty good too. 🙂 My host is lovely and chatting to her over dinner was fascinating. AirBnB is a fantastic idea!!

Wednesday was a ride on a moto (see the separate post about that) and a trip to the Kigali Genocide Memorial (a few separate posts about that). And the afternoon was buses to a coffee shop with a lovely view and great cake and a chance for me to write some blog posts after the morning.

This was also when the rainy season started. But there’s a separate post about that too.

So a lovely two days in Kigali. I think I could spend a lot of time here and not get bored, but I’m off tomorrow for the next stage in my Rwandan adventure.