It’s been quite some time since I’ve had a chance to update—internet time has been hard to come by. I just got back from a week-long trip away from Kampala with the program. We went to western Uganda, visited a refugee settlement, a Millennium Village (part of a project to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals, which include cutting extreme poverty in half by 2020), then we crossed the border into Rwanda. We spent a total of about 50 hours in Rwanda, and I have to say it may have been the strangest 50 hours of my life. This post will largely concern that, and I’ll update you on the other adventures later (I hope).
So our objectives in journeying to Rwanda were to see the interplay of Rwanda with Uganda’s development, and to see the effects of genocide on development. Our journey began in Mbarara, a small city in western Uganda. We crossed the equator (first time in my life!), which apparently is the dividing line between toilets that flush in a clockwise motion and those that flush counterclockwise. Supposedly if you flush a toilet directly on the equator, the water will go straight down, without any circular motion. At least that’s what the signs said…we weren’t able to test it out.
Anyway, by the time we had all acquired a new stamp in our passports, it was apparent that Rwanda was different from Uganda. As I’ve mentioned, Uganda is a little disorganized, lacking in infrastructure, somewhat run-down, and constantly in motion. Rwanda is neat, tidy, well-planned, and calm. It’s also breathtakingly beautiful, with rolling hills that are covered in bright green grass, trees, and shrubbery. As we drove down its smooth paved roads that first day, with the sun shining through the clouds and illuminating trees glistening with freshly-fallen rain, I almost forgot that the country had seen so much violence so recently.
That night, we stayed in a hotel/country club (strange combination? I thought so) in Kigali, the capital city. We had one lecture during the evening, and got a crash course in Rwandan cell phone culture when one of our lecturers answered his cell phone during the panel discussion, but tried to hide it by putting his hand over his face. It was all we could do to keep from bursting into laughter, but the other lecturer was speaking about reconciliation after genocide, so it was really not appropriate.
After the lecture and a dinner of Rwandan food (actually pretty similar to Ugandan food), some friends and I set out to explore the city. We found ourselves in a nearby pub where about 100 people were gathered to watch football [soccer]. When we entered the pub, everyone turned to stare at us, and we were immediately ushered into a semi separate room. We actually wanted to watch the game, but there was no TV in our room, so we spent awhile debating whether it would be crossing a cultural boundary to do so (we were all women, and the football-watchers were all men). We eventually decided it was worth asking, so we tried valiantly to ask the waitress (who spoke no English) in French whether it was ok to move into the other room. After several failed attempts at communication, we figured out that she did not in fact speak French, though she had greeted us in French. Long story short, she found someone who spoke English and we asked him, and he said it was fine for us to watch the game, so we did, and it was a lot of fun. Manchester United took the lead from Italy while we were there, and everyone was very excited. We didn’t stay for the whole game, but I heard that Manchester won.
The next morning, we woke up bright and early to visit the main genocide memorial in Kigali. The memorial is large and includes mass graves for hundreds of thousands of people, well-groomed gardens with pathways and benches for reflecting, and a museum, where we spent the bulk of our time. The museum is an organized series of rooms that provides information about the genocide in excruciating detail, complete with pictures and videos. It took a long time to go through the museum, and nearly all of us were in tears by the end. It was hard to read about all the events, warning signs, and building animosity that led up to the genocide, then see skulls and pictures of those who were killed, as well as statements from international leaders of the time talking about how they could have intervened and saved lives but didn’t. But the worst part for me was the very end, where after experiencing room after room of depressing pictures and dim light, we entered into a bright yellow room that reminded me of the way a family might decorate a room for an expected baby. For this room, and the rooms that were attached to it, families of children who were killed in the genocide had donated their last pictures of their children, which were then enlarged to be poster-sized and hung throughout the exhibit. Beneath each picture was a short bio about the child, stating their name, age, a few things about them (such as favorite food, toy, etc), and cause of death. It’s really difficult to read about children who were 1, 2, 3 years old, loved milk, dolls, playing hide and seek, and were smashed against walls or hacked to death by a machete in their mothers’ arms without losing one’s composure.
The museum affected me a lot, and when I exited onto the large patio outside, which I previously thought had a beautiful view of Kigali, the city had lost all its beauty in my eyes. It’s really hard to imagine that sort of violence happening there, since the city is now so orderly and calm, but that almost made it more ghostly.
As we were all still recovering from the memorial, we were treated to the best lunch I’ve had since arriving here–complete with tons of veggies and some mzungu food, like pasta. Then we headed to our next site visit: the prison in Kigali where many of the perpetrators of the genocide were/are held. We knew it was going to be difficult to transition into the prison visit while we were still thinking about the victims from the memorial, but we were pretty unprepared for what happened next.
When we entered the prison, we heard music playing and we were led into an auditorium-type area, where the prisoners were gathering. We were led onto a stage, where there were chairs set out for us in several rows. There was a small band that was playing music, and we took our seats. The director of the prison addressed us and said the prisoners had some entertainment prepared for us, so we sat and watched while the band played, a choir sang, and the dance troupe performed–all with about 600 other prisoners looking on from the other side. I will never forget sitting on the stage, wondering what the heck was going on, looking out onto a sea of orange and pink (prisoners awaiting trial wear orange uniforms, and those who have already been sentenced wear pink), while I watched traditional Rwandan dance for the first time. Then they started asking us to join them in the dancing, and since there was really no other option, we did. We were still wondering what in the world was going on, but our month in Uganda had taught us that going with the flow is critical in such situations. And that’s how I ended up spending the afternoon dancing with prisoners in Rwanda.
After we finished dancing, we did in fact meet with some administrators of the prison and have a more conventional lecture/question-asking session, which was interesting in a different way than the “entertainment” was. After we had politely declined the invitation from the prisoners to spend the entire evening with them, we went to visit the market. As we were getting briefed outside our busses in the parking lot of the market, we spotted Clive Owen walking right by us! A murmur went around and we all concurred that it was indeed the celebrity we knew from movies that was crossing a parking lot in Rwanda.
As soon as we got back from the market, I was picked up by one of my host sisters who lives in Kigali (I had met her a few days prior to that when she was visiting us in Kampala and we had arranged to meet up while I was in Rwanda). She brought me to her house and I met her one-year old baby, who had never seen a white person before and was alternately fascinated by and terrified of me. It was really funny. I also met her husband, with whom I conversed for long enough for him to tell me that “Cows, women, and children” were status indicators in Africa, and that the more a man had of all of those three things, the wealthier he was. He said the ability to have multiple wives was “the best thing about Africa.” I’m sure all the feminist thinking people reading this will love that one.
The next day we visited more genocide memorials–two churches where people had taken refuge and then been ambushed and murdered. We saw the victims’ clothes hanging on the pews, blood smeared on walls, skulls lined up on a shelf where you could reach out and touch them (not that anyone did), and mass graves that people could walk down inside, like a tomb. Needless to say, it was pretty depressing.
But the funny thing is, as we were leaving one of the churches, who do you think we bumped into? That’s right, Clive Owen again! I was already on the bus by the time he appeared, but he apparently just stuck out his hand and said “Hi, I’m Clive” to a few of the people in the group. He was touring the memorials with someone who manages their upkeep/might fund them…the details were a little unclear, but we just thought it was really strange that we would bump into him in Africa–twice!
That essentially concludes the most interesting parts of the Rwanda adventure. This is way too long now, but thanks for reading if you made it all the way through. I’ll try to blog again soon. Peace! ~Christina