Monday, March 31, 2008

sick days

(march 28, 2008)

first of all, i am going to south africa in 3 weeks. 3 weeks! 21 days!

secondly, i am sick. again. what has happened to my immune system of steel? since i moved to kenya, i have been sick more often than i can count in my previous 26 years. this time it is a tuberculosis-type cough. i do not believe that i have tb, but i sound disgusting. and i am pretty sure my host in kigali gave it to me because i sound peculiarly like she did when she coughed up lungs.

i am sick on the coast of kenya. here i am beside the indian ocean surrounded by great italian food (did you know there is a little italy in kenya? there is, and it is full of perverts and old wrinkled up italians who are the equivalent of the canadian snow birds) and i have to be sick enough that after i finish my day of work i cannot even muster a walk on the beach! cripes.

to make this whole sickness feel worse, i am right now sitting in a conference room and it is 9:00am and i have no more than 6 of the people who are supposed to be attending my workshop today (out of a total of 30) that was to start at 8:30am. double cripes.

and, and! one man in my training told me yesterday that ‘in the african context, a commercial sex worker cannot be raped.’ grrrrrr....... i know many african women who vehemently disagree. but he felt the need to educate me on this fact, just so we were clear. i wanted to spit. on him. but i didn’t.

because then i was interviewed by 4 national newspapers and broadcast news stations. my only hope is that i did not sound ridiculous and that the shine off my forehead did not blind the viewers because this place is hot and i had to stand in the sun and melt while trying to sound intelligent. seriously, try that at home and tell me how easy it is.

the newspaper article can be found here

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


(march 23, 2008)

i have been captivated by the rwandan genocide since reading romeo dallaire’s book Shake Hands With the Devil years ago. since then i’ve tracked down other authors and movies about the events of the 1994 genocide that attempt to provide information on the actions taken by government and social leaders with the goal of eradicating an entire ethnic group of people while at the same time laying bare the facts and details of an apathetic and inactive international community and united nations and the calamitous effects of that inaction.

i’ve visited 3 memorial sites in rwanda, the first being the Kigali Memorial Center, which is a fine example of a museum and is alone worth the trip to kigali. set in memorial gardens that have been planted around mass graves and with a view of the city where the genocide began, it is a testament to those who were murdered, to those who survived, and to those who carried out acts to be considered no less than heroic. the country’s colonial and post-independence history, the genocide, and the effects are explained simply without losing the details in kinyarwanda and french and english.

i was struck how the memorial seemed to be designed to appeal to rwandan and foreign visitors alike and it was extremely tasteful without diminishing the atrocities nor reducing the realities to something to be absorbed in an afternoon. it does an excellent job at allowing those who were not there to have a better understanding of what those 3 months were like and it honours those who were there while being unapologetic on the known causes and contributing factors that led to nearly 1 million people dead at their hands of their fellow countrymen, women, and children.
but if i thought the room containing the bones and clothing was disturbing, i was unprepared for what i would see and feel at the Nyamata and Ntarama memorial sites.

both were catholic churches and both served as sites of mass murder when tutsis sought refuge in the only place they thought would be safe, which was utilised by the interahamwe to kill almost all of them inside the church walls. the skulls and larger bones like femurs have been collected and piled up as a memorial and reminder of what happened. some bones have visible hack marks from machetes and some have obvious holes in them. one still has a spear sticking out the top of it. some are small enough to be babies, who were apparently thrown against walls until they died.

more upsetting than the bones are the clothes hanging from the rafters of the church. they are filthy and still hold smells that bones cannot. the items people carried with them into the churches have also been kept – jerry cans, beans, school notebooks, mattresses... – and those things more than the bone make it real for me. that they came to escape the violence with the hope they’d survive. a children’s notebook carries with the belief that preceded the reality.
the man showing me around was there the day the interahamwe came into the church and began killing until there was no one left alive, but managed to escape. i felt in one moment an opportunistic tourist and the next, a member of a civilisation who should carry the weight of the consequences of doing nothing in the face of hatred. those working in the memorials are intimately and forever connected to their reason for existing and have lost more than i can begin to imagine and yet they continue telling their stories and the stories of the thousands who were killed so we can know what happened. they walk in every day and see the skulls of their family and community members who did not survive and talk about the horrors they witnessed.

bricks stained with blood, bullet holes in an altar, a machete left behind by a killer, thousands upon thousands of skulls, hair and bones scattered amidst the rubble of a sunday school, rosary beads, smoke stains from fires that burned people alive, holes in brick walls from grenades, coffins of newly found bodies to be buried this year during the upcoming national week of memorial.

i’ll keep reading about the genocide and i will still be utterly confused when attempting to understand not only why but how. just that now it will be so frighteningly real.

gorilla gorilla!

(march 23, 2008)

i woke up at 5:30am to meet my driver with whom the only language i shared being kiswahili. he brought me to parc national des volcanes headquarters where i wished i had someone to chat with as i waited to be assigned a group nursing my rwandan coffee and fighting off a nervous pee while everyone else chatted with the people they came with. damned travelling alone.

but a nice australian lady befriended me in the loo queue and we ended up being in the same group with our guide, a man named patience. (gender specific names are apparently not so important in rwanda.) we went through the generic platitudes of new group formations and i was happy to find out that we were just 6 people, 2 of which were fellow solo travellers.

i thought we’d get on with hiking then, but we had to drive another 30-40 minutes to the base of the volcano we would climb on some of the worst roads my bum’s experienced. but the countryside with houses constructed with mud and wooden skeletons and the women walking along the road wrapped in brightly coloured fabrics was enough to keep me distracted. it is quite a different picture than kenya, where there are always signs pointing to some ngo or evangelical organisation down each red dirt road. but the children in the villages we passed are already realising there is money to be made in the increasing numbers of tourists; pens and sweets to be collected from the foreigners passing by in their safari mobiles as they run alongside the car trying to sell you their drawing of a gorilla or a flower they just picked.

before long, we arrived at our starting point, a stone’s throw from the border with the drc, where we met out porters and were convinced we needed them to carry our things. but being the control freak that i am, i insisted i could carry my backpack. you pack it, you carry it, right? i had thought very carefully about what i would pack and had made home roasted cashews and maple granola as well as brought along 4 extra pairs of socks in ziploc bags (paranoid?!) in case my feet got wet and i wanted my stuff to hand.

the hike itself was uphill, was very muddy, was full of stinging nettles that went right through my two pairs of pants, was led by a machete-wielding porter to cut away the rainforest so we could pass through, and was chaperoned by armed rwandan soldiers because i guess they don’t like to take chances that there are still hostile poachers in the area, especially with instability in the drc.

but all of it was forgotten when we turned a corner around some forest and saw the first gorilla. there were a group of about 10-15 of them sitting in an area where they’d squished the trees and leaves and were so close the only thing keeping me from touching them was the rules not to. they regarded us as we approached and then carried on doing what they had been doing previous to our expected arrival: the baby gorillas played and turned somersaults down the hill, the silverback groomed one of the females, some sprawled on their backs and just relaxed, and the mama gorillas cradled their babies.

one gorilla, a middle aged female, was not thrilled with our presence and challenged our guide, who she knew and who grunted at her to let her know he wouldn’t back down (or she would charge) and told us to ignore her so as not to encourage her, as if he was talking about a misbehaving child. it worked, and she walked past and behind us to find some trees to swing on while we sat with the rest of the group.

how many other ways can i say amazing?

once the silverback decided it was time to move, they slowly followed him out of the nesting area and we slowly followed them through the bush. that female who had earlier been asserting her authority must have decided that she didn’t like being on her own after all and came barrelling through the bush and walked RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME, which scared the living bejesus out of me and like a human with a natural fear of a wild animal twice her weight, i turned and ran right into the austrian man in our group while reminding myself not to scream. oh, i am such a natural animal trekker...

we followed them until we reached a ravine that was not human-friendly and watched them disappear into the forest.

worth $500 for the permit? in a word, yes. would i do it again? absolutely. the chance to spend more time with the gorillas would draw me back to this country even if the fried bananas don’t.

the trek to the trek to the gorillas

(march 23, 2008)

i have not been as nervous or excited for anything in a long time. the kind of childlike excitement that keeps you awake at night and makes you ever so slightly nauseous with anxiety about what is to come. i had done my last minute preparations before leaving nairobi, packing clothes suitable for hiking, bagging high energy snacks, and throwing my swiss army knife in my backpack for good measure. i had heard that trekking with the gorillas was a once in a lifetime experience not to be missed whatever the price and that it was surreal even if the hike up the volcano is tough.

to get to ruhengeri, the village close to the parc national des volcans, i took a bus from kigali (that was more like a matatu) and sat between 2 sweaty men where we had to fold our shoulders like accordions to fit 4 people across the seat. I thought at that moment that it is a good thing i don’t take up a lot of space and that rwandans tend to be thin people.

the 2 hour drive was on paved roads without potholes and with guardrails, both of which have become novelties to me. the views of the countless hills and valleys draped in all shades of green were stunning and made the numbing of my bum worthwhile.

my complimentary thoughts on rwanda and rwandans were temporarily suspended, however, when someone on the ‘taxi’ began a conversation, that soon involved everyone of the 18 passengers and driver, about the mzungu that continued for awhile in kinyarwanda with people looking in my direction every now and again without ever explaining what they all found so conversation-worthy about my existence. annoying.

but my limited kiswahili was useful in explaining where i wanted to go and soon realised that the person who bought me my ticket purchased the wrong one. makes me want to reinvigorate my swahili study, not to mention learn french once and for all. (but let me say now that the languages in rwanda are a bit of a smorgasboard of french, english, swahili, with nearly everyone speaking kinyarwanda – many of the people living in rwanda today grew up in kenya, uganda, tanzania, or further afield in the us or canada and so speak english or swahili instead of french, even though that was the official language for decades).

my guesthouse in ruhengeri was friendly and cozy enough. i was contented that it had warm water, and mosquito net (less because there were mosquitoes and more just so i could rest assure the creepy crawlies who neither creep nor crawl on my during the night), and a pillow. i’m afraid i may have offended the hotel staff though, when i didn’t eat much for dinner and wasn’t interested in indulging in friend bananas for dinner. but i managed to get to sleep in spite of my excitement and only woke about 5 times during the night worried that i had overslept.

impressions of my new favourite african capital

(march 23, 2008)

my first impressions of rwanda are that it is indeed the land of a thousand hills and that i’ve never been to a country as green (although even with my magnetism to irish men, i’ve yet to make it to ireland, but i bet rwanda give it a run for it’s green money).
when i first arrived, i couldn’t help by wonder though, who was who, was here during the genocide, and who has returned since. i couldn’t help but look at people’s faces and wonder if they were hutus or tutsis (or h’s and t’s as i’ve heard people say because today, they are all to be considered rwandans). i wondered how exhausting it must feel to be constantly confronted with the country’s ethnic division and history. then i realised that you just get on with it. because the country’s present and future are just as fascinating as its history.

kigali is thus far the cleanest and most beautiful african city i have visited (usurping arusha, my previous favourite) and it is incredibly photogenic. the entire city spills over and up and down the hills and houses are built right into the sides of the hills that give this country its name.

as an expat in this whole thing we call development, i was always ask myself if i could live here, where ever ‘here’ is at that moment. my answer in kigali so far is yes. although it might become monotonous – the landscape, the limited amount of entertainment options, and the greyness that sets into these hills on overcast days. but the city is safe, using plastic bags is against the law, the roads make sense, and i’ve located a coffeehouse that rivals its kenyan counterparts (being nairobi java house and dormans, but of course) with its rwandan twist on the concept made famous and profitable by starbucks.
as in kenya, a photo of the current president graces the walls of all business establishments in rwanda. but unlike kenya, people here seem to revere their leader, paul kagame, and as far as i can tell, i would if i were rwandan. i think i still do even though i am not.

keep your eye on rwanda, i think this place will continue to capture an audience and not just for their gorillas. oh, but the gorillas...!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

le pays des milles collines

the country of a thousand hills is very hilly. and very green. and very friendly. and very orderly. and very different than nairobi.

i have been here only 3 days and have been enjoying what rwanda has to offer, which includes good cheese, good coffee, good museums, good hiking (gorillas!), and good roads.

at the moment, i am avoiding the monsoon outside as i wait for my bus to depart from ruhengeri back to kigali and dreaming of a bathtub full of hot water and a cup of tea after a very uphill hike to see some gorillas this morning. i am also at this moment wishing i spoke more french and wishing i was a millionaire and could just hire someone to drive me in a very comfy car back to the city and then spend the night in a swank hotel while i process and recuperate from the last few days.

pictures and more stories to follow...

Monday, March 17, 2008

nearly rwanda ready

(march 16, 2008)

i was feeling rather unprepared to visit a new country and hike up a volcano to see some gorillas, but i have managed to make a plan of action on how to get all the things i need to get done before i leave. i have found myself a dashing pair of waterproof(ish) trousers, have decided not buy new hiking boots, and will do my best to pack my raincoat and remember all the goodies that i am delivering to friends (things like toothbrushes and bug spray, which makes me wonder what you can get in rwanda, and easter treats).

i have my gorilla permit, my plane ticket, and will get a visa when i land. i am going to make granola to take on the hike, load up with books for relaxing time, and make sure my camera batteries are charged. i need to change some money, find out if i can use my phone without getting a new sim card, and do the packing that i so dread.

but i am going to rwanda in just a few days.

it’s been awhile...

(march 16, 2008)

i have been working in mombasa, which is not a bad place to work if you don’t mind the excruciating heat and humidity and love the beach. my hotel had cnn and al jazeera so i am well informed of the news. go tibetans. sleezy senators (or governors?). poor new yorkers. cold and snowy canadians.

i got some beach time in, achieved a touch of the sun burn, bought some more kanga, and drove around in tuk tuks. i also had to face a moral dilemma whereby the participants in my workshop were lying to me to get more money. now tell me something, in countries like the uk, canada, or the us (i ask you because i know people in all these countries visit me here regularly), do you provide money to those who attend your workshops/conferences/trainings to cover their transportation to and from the venue (if they live in the city or nearby areas) as well as a stipend to cover accommodation for those travelling from out of town?

if you found out that those coming from out of town were actually going back home to sleep and then returning in the morning, do you think they are still eligible for this accommodation stipend? my answer is no. my participants’ answers were yes.

when i outright asked them if they were staying in town that night, all but 2 said they were. i have good reason to believe none of them actually stayed and pocketed the money instead. even the priests and pastors were amongst the dishonest, nice. go jesus.

i made the executive decision not to give them money on the second day. it may cause some concern when i get back to work tomorrow because i did not stick to our budget and our donor may wonder why we planned so inaccurately (answer: the government told me to and i have to listen to them as per my organisation’s mandate and membership), but i frankly do not care.

sure, sure, more principled action, but it felt wrong to spend taxpayers’ money in such a way just because it is the ‘done thing.’

it probably did not help the liars that i was reading We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families by Philip Gourevitch. if you are at all interested in the rwandan genocide and even if you are not, i recommend you read this book. i recommend, in fact, that all grade 12 students read this book. it is so good. and instead of just telling you that it is just so good, i will tell you why.

often, the rwandan genocide is broken down simply into a ‘tribal conflict’ or ‘ethnic hatred’ and although these we certainly elements of the 1994 genocide, this book explains clearly and in non-academic language the how’s and what’s and even attempts to look into the why’s of the events leading up to the genocide and immediately following it. if you read it and look at the situation i was in above, you may understand why i was so adamant not to be a part of the ‘problem of aid.’ and yet, i know i have in so many ways.

this book has sat on my shelf since a nice (clean shaven!) gentleman remembered that i mentioned that i had wanted to read it for years and popped into a bookshop in downtown nairobi and surprised me with it. and it made sense to me to read it before i go to rwanda (on thursday, yay), but it was timely for many other reasons as it spells out exactly how humanitarian aid can (and does) make things worse. and how an african leader like Paul Kagame can be largely disregarded by the international community even though he was the one that brought peace to his country when no other country in the world, rich or poor, northern or southern, african or not, did anything significant to stop the systematic murders.

and remember when that country that is now known as the democratic republic of the congo (not to be confused with the republic of the congo right next door) used to be called zaire and be led by that crazy man who had the fantastically egocentric and self-declared name of Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (translated according to Gourvetich’s book as ‘the all-powerful warrior, who by his endurance and will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake’ and ‘the cock who leaves no hen alone’ – i kid you not. this man, in charge of a country full of riches and leading millions of people for decades.)? well, rwanda helped Laurent Kabila, the current president, to get rid of that megalomaniac through directly opposing international (read: western) opinion to not invade or support rebel troops, which it did and now that crazy man is outta there (and also dead), but no one talks about this. about how a small african state that was trying to overcome the imaginable, mass killings that are comparable only to the Holocaust in modern memory, helped get rid of a dictator who was stealing from everyone in his own country and was known as ‘the dinosaur’ he had been around so long.

(let me just say now that i am not so familiar on the drc nor on how Kabila has done since overtaking the crazy man and running things for himself. me thinks there are a lot of criticisms directed towards him because his country isn’t exactly peaceful nor moving up in the ranks of poor, despotic, african countries, but i leave that for another post and for more reading that i surely will do once i find an excuse to get myself to the drc...)

i could go on and on, but i really loved this book. and at times when i am not so sure that i love my job or the moral conflicts that come with it, it is the kind of book i need on my shelf.

Friday, March 07, 2008

principled action

sometimes i am so stubborn that instead of paying the extra $1 to take the taxi, i will walk 20 minutes in the 30 degree equatorial sun without sunscreen, carrying my laptop, my itouch, and my digital camera through nairobi's streets.

i would never recommend that anyone else do that lest they be mugged or hit by a matatu, but i get so frustrated with being ripped off by taxi drivers and having to bargain EVERY time i want to go anywhere.

me, stomping down the street overloaded with bags and weight nearly melting in my jeans in the heat was not my finest moment. but i sure as hell saved that $1. sometimes being pricipled can be confused with being cheap!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

let’s talk books

(march 3, 2008)

i have postponed writing this until i finished the book Eat, Pray, Love to give it’s author Liz Gilbert the benefit of the doubt that it might actually improve, but it didn’t. and that leaves me here to talk about 2 books that i just read in succession that i did not enjoy.

#1 – The Time Traveller’s Wife
my thoughts on this are the following: there were too many gaps. so, you’re telling me that this dude just materialises naked in places and then disappears and no one else ever notices. very good concept and i cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for the author to conceptualise all of that time travel, but i did not entirely buy it. but perhaps my biggest problem with the book is that i did not like either of the main characters. i think it is possible to enjoy a book even you do not like the protagonists, but in this case, i really did not care what happened to either of them. and it was sad, but not in the tragic sad way, but in a more mundane ‘wow, this sucks’ way.

my thoughts on this book are pretty surprising considering it has been highly recommended by a number of people (including one of my favourite book recommenders), but it didn’t do it for me and i am afraid i will not pass on the recommendation to read 500 pages that is time better spent elsewhere (and where, you might ask? just try me and i will come up and about a million and ten books that you absolutely must read).

#2 – Eat, Love, Pray
this book has some glimmers of hope, some moments where i thought, ‘hell yeah, that’s right, you totally articulated something that has been floating around my own head.’
but mostly it was whiny, annoying, nauseatingly ‘western,’ sickeningly ‘oh, feel sorry for me, i am such a product of my circumstance, but i just love things like yoga and meditation and feeling god in my presence and i am so getting in touch with my eastern religious side and i just feel like i was born to live in an ashram, oh but now look at me, now i love the physical pleasures of life all over again, ok maybe that whole mediation thing wasn’t totally my life path, but this so is, oh yes this is it, yay, let me tell you about it again in a random fashion that has no direction and is just my thoughts sprawled on pages at whim.’

a bit harsh? i don’t doubt it, but the problem with a memoir is that if you do not like the person writing it and if you think that if you met that person their stories about life with medicine men who feed them bs and their glorification of other cultures would make you throw up in your mouth, well then there is a problem. and i am afraid, ms Liz Gilbert, that i do not like you. and it naturally follows that i will not like her memoir, which i did not. apart from the moments of clarity where she puts away her woe-is-me and i-embrace-the-culture-in-which-i-reside self righteousness aside and she says something worthwhile, the book is tough to get through. but i did. and i wouldn’t recommend you do.

i am still readying myself to start We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. but considering I have an upcoming trip planned to rwanda, i think i should finish this and try and fit in Sunday at the Pool in Kigali too.