From Canada With Love

Being back at home has had it’s advantages.  Reliable electricity, clean and drinkable tap water, a machine that washes my clothing whenever I wish, dry cleaners that don’t dye my suit jacket and trousers each to a different colour, my favourite foods at a reasonable price, and of course, being surrounded by friends and family that I’ve missed for so long.  The list goes on and on encompassing everything and everyone we forget to appreciate when we aren’t challenged or stretched or, more simply, living without.

Yet somehow, between the concrete jungles and national parks here at home, there are some things that I miss.  The red earth on my shoes, the colourful birds with long tropical tail feathers, the constant foot-travel, living out of a backpack on the weekends, the thrill of getting on and off and moving mini bus in one piece, the adventure and suspense of knowing the safari world is only a few hours away, the laughter that helps us survive and learn through our cultural faux pas, the time when a true story teller recalls their best moments, the awareness that comes when we begin to understand how small our differences are in light of all our similarities, and the anticipation of something new waiting just around the corner.

That’s right world.  I MISS YOU.  I’m happy to be home but this optimistic, adventure seeking, thrill rider will never be free of the call to travel.

Sometimes You Need to Get Your Hands Dirty: 2012 – Part 2

After the exhilarating thrill of bungee jumping we are hungry.  How perfect!  We walk up to the bright blue stall on the street for our second celebratory event of New Years Day 2012.

Let the CHAPATI LESSONS begin!

As our instructors introduce themselves and walk us through the preparations.  I am surprised by my sudden realization that the roadside stalls making and selling chapatis I have seen across East Africa (and they are plenty) have been, equally surprising, manned by men and not women.  Food for thought… quite literally.

This roadside shop is now full to capacity with the three of us to-be-chapati-chiefs, three instructors, the stove, and workspace.  Kids and other curious community members come in and out leaving the stall bursting at its seams.  All are eager to watch us learn our new skill.  I am selected as the first participant.  They pour water from the jerry can over my hands.  I rub them together washing them as best I can.  The excess water falls onto the middle of the dirt floor below and it is quickly soaked into the ground -nothing unusual- and we carry on.  Into our large mixing bowl come the first ingredients: water, flour, and a little salt.  I mix and knead.  This reminds me of home being in the kitchen with my Mom.  I am happy.  I knead and knead until the batter is thick.  My turn ends quickly to enable the other two to participate in making this short recipe.

As I sit down, letting the others take a turn, one friend tells me I look like a natural in this kitchen.  As I listen I observe how different it is from the kitchen I have grown up with.  I smile.  I smile in part because there is something about people gathered together in a kitchen environment that reminds me of home (and I think her comment would make my mother proud); and, in part because it feels so right to be working alongside those who live here.  I love my job but I miss the opportunities to engage with the local community.  Here we are challenging the colonial stereotype.  Here we are respecting them as the ones with the knowledge allowing them to speak and share; to teach us.  Here they are respecting us by choosing to share their culture, their food, with us.  Here we feel like equals; one global community.  Cross-cultural misunderstandings and miscommunications occur and laughter rings out from all of us: Ugandan, Canadian, Colombian.  Realizing again that this is where I am content, where I belong, memories of working in Ghana flood my mind.  How I have missed this local connection!  I want my work to include these connections and friendships in the future.

The dough is soon rolled out into small balls.  One at a time we work the dough balls stretching them out and placing them onto a hot stove top.  We fry them using a makeshift utensil (of densely pressed newspaper?) to flatten the dough out into a circle-like shape.  With the heat drying out each chapati we quickly add oil.  Now the chapati is slowly fried until it is golden brown on each side.

Complete and serving customers our crepe-like chapatis are eaten differently.  Some eat it wrapped with a fried egg.  Some eat it plain.  Some tourists eat it with a version of natural peanut butter.  I eat it like any good Canadian-Italian girl should: with a thin layer of chocolate wrapped around a banana.

Sometimes the best things in life are simple.  They are best shared.  They require you to get your hands dirty.

*   *   *

Stepping off the bus in Nairobi we feel its familiarity.  The language, the currency, transportation routes and costs, streets, locations, familiar faces.  Returning to a home-away-from-home provides a great sense of relaxation and comfort to its travelers, but never will it come near that utmost sense of belonging one finds when returning home.  There is no place like home.  Home.

Jumping Into The New Year: 2012 – Part 1

Every year on New Year’s Day my family attends the Courage Brother’s Polar Bear Dip.  In recent years I have convinced relatives and friends to join me as Polar Bears.  We stand on the first of January for hours in the cold wearing a swimsuit bundled in layers of sweaters, housecoats and blankets.  We gradually grow numb as we dream of the heated cars, fireplace, warm blankets and chili awaiting us at home.  When the time is called out we run into Lake Ontario as far as we can before the unbearable cold turns us back towards the shore where friends and family are awaiting us with open towels.  We do this to raise funds for World Vision’s water programs.

This year I do not have Lake Ontario but I do have the Source of the Nile.  I decide that I will do my best to keep up tradition.  I will jump into the Nile.  However, welcoming 2012 at the Source of the Nile is special and since I do not have the cold to contend with perhaps I need another element of challenge.  The New Year’s Polar Bear Dip is not the same if there is no element of crazy.  It’s settled.  I will bungee jump and hopefully dunk myself into the Nile at the bottom before rebounding upwards again.  I take photos of the dare we are about to perform.

My friend and I stare at the platform high above us.  She is freaking out.  I am excited.  We wait for those in charge to arrive.  We are an unusual mix of opposites.  She is impatient, anxious.  I am patient, calm.

The others arrive, tell us the details (including that they operate on Kiwi standards), our weight is measured, and we sign a waiver.  A third friend who has previously done the jump will accompany us to the top.  He tells us that it is okay to be hesitant – that once he was connected to the bungee cord it took him walking to the edge three times before he chose to jump.  I smile.

We climb to the top of the platform and look out.  My friend is adamant that I go first, proving that this idea of mine is safe, before she follows.  Only a week before, when we were in Jinja for Christmas, she swore she would never bungee jump proclaiming it as a suicide jump.  However, on New Year’s Eve she changed her mind.  Perhaps that was not the best evening to make this kind of decision.  She says she still does not want to do it but claims she must because I am determined to.  She has self-diagnosed herself as a FOMO: someone with Fear Of Missing Out.  She hates me for doing this because it means she must as well.  While I not pressure her I cannot say that I share her sentiments.  Having decided to do this I am filled with thrill and suppressed adrenaline.  I am set on and look forward to jumping.

We walk out on the plank, look out at the view, and look beneath us at the long way down.  They set the bungee so that I will have the greatest chance of getting dipped into the Nile.  They tell me I am light and may not reach it but show me how to position my jump with the best chance of touching it.  They instruct us on the proper technique for hitting the water; chin tucked in and remind us that they will not push us.  To jump must be completely our decision.

Jumping first, I am invited to the throne.  I take a seat in the grand ethnically carved chair and look into the depths below as they wrap a towel around my ankles and bind my feet.  Then they clip in and double check my back-up safety harness.  I feel peace.  Calm with the jump before me.  I see my friend visibly shaking where she stands on the platform across from me.  I wonder, is this odd?  I had expected my nerves to at least kick in when standing atop this jump and looking out.  Instead, here I am with a most unusual sense of tranquility; in a place of utmost peace and serenity.  I call out, “I’m so calm.  I feel like something is wrong with me; that I should be nervous, at least concerned?”  She says she can tell I am calm and it is so weird for her to see because she is so beyond nervous.  The man who instructs us on how to jump asks me if I’ve ever jumped before.  “Never.”  So he assumes I’ve cliff jumped.  “Never.”  He looks at me, his dreadlocks framing his face, puzzled.  “I just like this kind of stuff.  You know.”  He is still looking at me.  I just smile. 

It is time.  I stand up and hop over to the barrier.  I shuffle towards the line on the ground.  I am asked to look at the camera and say some last words.  What do I say?  I do not have last words.  I plan to speak for many more years to come.  Hm… “This isn’t the end of me.  You can’t be rid of me yet so you’ll be hearing from me soon.”  The man with dreadlocks laughs and says that was very insightful.  He’s not heard something like that before.  A pang of nervous excitement runs through me and I take a second.  It quickly passes.

I barely reach the bar above my head which I hold onto as I shuffle my feet until my toes are over the edge.  This is real!  This is exciting.  They will call out “Three… Two… One… Bungee!!!”  I have to choose to jump.  They will not push me.  If I need they will let me sit down again.  I remember our accompanying friend say he didn’t jump until his third attempt.  I don’t consider this option.  Instead I find myself wondering if I should jump on One or Two just to surprise them.  No, that wouldn’t do.  I want to make sure that those in charge are prepared and the camera is ready.  I hear them call out “Three… Two… One… Bungee!!!”

I instantly lean forward without a second to spare.  My arms out beside me -behind me.  My smile is beaming ear-to-ear.  Sending a great big hug into the air I become my best version of the famous Pocahontas dive.  There is such a sensation of peace, flying through the air.  I am in pure bliss until my body becomes vertical.  Head first with speed picks up.  Racing faster and faster and going further and further than imagined I wonder will my lungs pop?  The lower I get, the more engaged the bungee is and the slower the fall becomes.  “This is awesome!!!”  Yes, my lungs are still here.  I say this for fun and to encourage my friend who is still up top on the platform.  I wonder what she thinks.

Approaching the water, my arms are straight out before me, chin tucked in, I stretch to become as long as I can and … I am almost a foot from the water when my gigantic elastic pulls me upwards.  This New Year’s I attempted to jump into the Nile: I jumped, but never created a splash.  Coming up I do the Superman pose, going down I try to touch the water again, going up I turn into an ‘L’ and look up at the platform high above.  “Whooohooo!!!“  I am pulled up and down in every direction.  I wiggle and squirm into as many fun poses as I can.  

Hanging there, gently swinging back and forth, adrenaline rush over, I am aware of the blood rushing to my face.  The rafters align beneath me and ask me to grab their up-raised paddle.  Eventually, I make contact and they pull me into the raft and untie my ankles.  I am beaming with excitement.  Safe on shore I look up, way up, to where my friend will appear.

My friend jumps.  She gets her arms and half of her head dunked in the Nile.  After, both on solid ground, she tells me not only did she have to jump because I did but that she had to jump right away on the first chance because I had done that too.  The difference, she claims, is that she was so nervous she was shaking uncontrollably.  I am proud of her for conquering her fear, yet, I wonder what her parents will think of my influence.  She is equally impressed by me and my calm state throughout this challenge -her fear.  Agreeing it was fun, but that she would never do it again, we celebrate with a drink before joining the rest of our traveling companions.

With my New Years tradition accounted for now I can say it.  “Welcome 2012.”

Through Katuna & Back Again …Lessons Learned

We got to the bus station congratulating ourselves that we managed to get tickets that would carry us overnight from Kigali, Rwanda straight to Jinja, Uganda.  We were scheduled to arrive in Jinja bright and early on New Year’s Eve.  These were the exact tickets our friends had wanted and tried to buy two days before we bought ours but were unsuccessful.  We were the lucky ones.  The bus company must have added a new bus on the route to meet the demand.

With a reliable bus line (especially on a route you know) traveling at night is relatively safe and affordable.  The same rules apply as they would anywhere else at any other time: don’t accept food or water from anyone, don’t carry valuables, be prepared to part with whatever you do have if it means continued safety (a watch, earrings, etc.), bring a flashlight or headlamp, carry your passport (with proof of vaccinations if in a yellow fever zone to avoid on the spot vaccinations – scary but I`ve seen it happen), be friendly to the people around you because they could be the ones negotiating for you in the worst case scenario, and always, always, always say a prayer for safety.  You never know the conditions of the road, the racing speeds of other drivers, the skill required for your driver to manage the obstacle course of animals and other opponents fighting at break-neck speeds for the right of way, or whether or not the resourceful shoelace and bicycle part holding a critical element of the vehicle together will stay intact.  Most of all, you never know who may be lurking around the corner.

All our belongings in tow, we stepped up to the ticket counter with our previously purchased tickets in hand and ask which of the buses we need to board for today’s evening bus to Jinja.  We are about to find out that this bus does not exist.  We are about to find out that our gloating over having the tickets our friends wanted would leave them with the last laugh.  We are about to find out that our tickets are actually for tomorrow’s evening bus.  We already knew we did not want to be on an overnight African bus to welcome in the New Year.  We already knew we did not have the finances to stay another night.  The news dropped like heavy rain on new leaves unable to bear its weight; but bear it we did.  There was no time for wallowing in self-pity.

We asked for a refund, to know when the next bus was leaving, and for tickets on that bus.  Upon hearing this was another day away we pleaded for a refund of at least two tickets and this humility taught us an important lesson: When something turns out to be too good to be true, maybe it is.  Maybe we should have taken the time to not only double, but triple check our ticket date and time of departure when purchasing.  It turned out our brilliant plan and had not been so brilliant after all.

Let me now make the context a little clearer.  Most of the Rwandan Francs in our possession came from the currency exchange bureau.  An assortment of US Dollars, Euros, Ugandan Shillings, and Kenyan Shillings all for Rwandan Francs.  We spent cautiously and on our last day in Rwanda took what we had budgeted for our trip to the memorial centres outside Kigali and spent it accordingly.  We had just enough for lunch in the city and for transportation to pick up our belongs from the hotel and head to the bus station. Now, with our Rwandan Francs spent all we had to do was get onto our Ugandan-bound bus.  That same bus which we now hear leaves the following night.  We are acutely aware that we have no money left to stay the night – never mind afford the transportation required to get us to a hotel.  Okay, this isn’t entirely true.  Two of us have VISA, which thankfully does work, but only 1 of us could afford to use it.  I thought of leaving the other 2 and putting myself up in Hôtel des Mille Collines and then booking a flight to Nairobi on VISA but realized how selfish this would be – to leave my two traveling companions stranded.  So we pleaded.  We pleaded for a ticket refund that would be enough get the three of us safe transportation to the Katuna, the Rwandan-Ugandan border town where we knew there would be taxis that could take us to banks which were compatible with our international bank cards.  Two Canadians and a Colombian: two negotiators and one to sit overwhelmed on the verge of tears.  Two of the three tickets refunded, cash in hand, I look up and notice a sign in the office reading ‘never trust your friends’ and a second one about something hiding behind a smile.  It was such an unusual sentiment for a bus company to have on the walls that I couldn`t help but wonder about the coincidence of them hanging in this particular ticket office in Rwanda.  From the bottom of our hearts today we still send a grateful merci beaucoup to the man, whom we believe out of goodness of his heart and his own pocket, refunded our tickets.  May he be blessed and never he nor his dear ones be in need!

We headed to the bus park in search of a mini bus to get us to the Ugandan border – and fast if we were to make it before midnight.  We asked around in French.  Eventually someone took my hand and led us to the one which was leaving the soonest.  We asked around and upon confirmation that this was indeed where we needed to be, thanked him gratefully, doubled checked the price, and got on board.  I took a window seat (which I always prefer) and the bus was soon filled with passengers all heading towards Katuna.

After making our way through Kigali traffic and filling up at a petrol station we were off.  The paved road began to rise and fall carrying us further away from a shrinking Kigali.  When the pavement ended and the potholes began Kigali was far from sight folded in the hilly horizon.  Interesting, the other side of Kigali we saw today (towards the memorials) was flat, encompassing both fields and swamps.  Our hope to reach the border before dark was quickly diminished as the potholes stretched out for miles before us slowing down our pace and were accompanied by numerous stops for people to descend and walk into the scenery.  Where was the path they followed or the sign which told when to alight?

It was already dark on these roads when the biggest surprise occurred.

We are smoking.  Not literally but our mini bus is.  The passengers on the front seats pull the material back from the ceiling above the window and there we find the wires.  The engine still on, they pull on the wires until they all come out. I think this is the scariest moment of my life.  What are these wires connected to?  Even if they are connected to the lights – on this curvy road which is comprised only of potholes  – it would be a death sentence.  I pray we not be pulling on those or other more important wiring.  Wires out and the impromptu electricians satisfied the ceiling is placed back in order and we carry on.  This smoking vehicle, what I had thought was the scariest moment of this trip, (second to being under water for so long when rafting), is actually soon to be replaced as the actual scariest moment of this trip.

We are now on fire.  Being rammed in a vehicle full of people with a fire above out heads on a bumpy road in the middle of nowhere surrounded by complete darkness in Central Africa was not on my list of things to do before I die, but now I will have to write it down and cross it off.  That’s right; because now I’ve been there, done that.

Directly underneath the light bulb that is shooting sparks is a grade school child whose mother hugged her aside, close to her body away farther from the danger.  People are pulling on more wires the engine is running, there is yelling in a local dialect I do not understand.  Finally the engine is turned off.  Thank God, I think.  And then I wonder, is it better to be in here in darkness or filed out of this vehicle on the side of the road in a foreign jungle in the middle of the night?  I don’t know, so I pray.

After what feels like a very long time we are back on the road.  We must be nearing the border.  Fewer people remain in our vehicle and monstrous 18-wheeler trucks are flying by at break-neck speeds.  Eventually we stop.  I try to get my bearings.  Katuna.  We are told this is the last stop, collect our items, and step out.  Yes!  It is the border crossing I remember.  Thank God.

Having officially left Rwanda we walk 3 across as we head to the Ugandan immigration office.  There is an unlit curve in the road ahead of us.  We can barely make out the silhouettes of men gathering and our heartbeats rise.  Eventually we realize they are the non-threatening currency exchangers present at every border crossing.   Regardless, our pace quickens and we pass them.  Out of ears reach we can’t help but comment on what an adventure this has been: leaving a country we love, Rwanda, with everything we own on our backs and not a Franc in our pocket.  Humbled and remembering those who would have left similarly but for other reasons, we carry on.

Officially in Uganda we seek out a taxi to take us to Kampala.  With prospective drivers now arguing each other over the prices we are guided by locals to decide on going to a nearby town which is a common stop for buses en route to Kampala.  There we will find ATMs to pay the taxi driver and purchase bus tickets to Kampala.  Having thought this may happen when arriving back in Uganda we knew it was the only plausible option.  However, when offered to share a taxi with others, 1 in the back seat and 2 in the station wagon trunk, I admittedly refuse.  If there was anything I remember being drilled about in Ghana it was to never share a taxi with people you don’t know.  I convinced my travel companions and we agreed to take our own car and pay the difference.  Amidst more arguing between taxi drivers and the share taxi drivers (over taking us and over the price we had negotiated down to) we eventually get into our own vehicle and head north into Uganda.

The road is turns around corners, the car is flying, and the fog is so dense I can barely see.  I do not feel safe.  We tell the driver to slow down.  The road continues.  So do we.  Up, down, and around the corner.  Eventually we pass a small town.  Outside the town our taxi slows down.  The driver asks if his ‘bro’ can join us.  Shock escapes my lips certain I heard wrong, “what?!”  As the driver asks again someone tries to get into my locked car door.  It’s an odd thing how people respond in these situations.  Auto-command came on.  “NO!” I state with authority.  I point forward past the driver to the road ahead.  “Drive!”  To my travel companions I say “lock your doors.”  They are already doing so and for that I am thankful because the outsider is already on the other side of the car at one of their doors.  Realizing the potential severity we all command the driver at the same time to continue forward.  I fear for our Colombian traveling companion that this is too close to home as she cries “no, no, no, no, no, no, no!”  Our driver laughs as he gives the vehicle some gas.  I notice a car slowing down beside us as we begin moving forward again; the hopeful passenger behind us.  Perhaps it was to be an innocent rider, but for us, it was too close for comfort.

We make it to town, reserve bus tickets, find the ATM, pay the taxi driver, find a makeshift washroom, and get on the bus.  Ten minutes later we are heading to Kampala.  Finally feeling safe we sleep the most uncomfortable sleep of our lives.  I wake up with a huge bump on my head from it banging on the window.  With the gravol induced haze coupled with the overwhelming sense of relief to be leaving the border nightmare behind, I could have slept through anything.

Eventually a city rises before us and as we near we can see, yes, this is Kampala.  Sweet victory!  Surely we will now safely arrive in Jinja before the others even leave Kigali.  We alight at the final stop in Kampala and take boda-bodas to a bus heading to Jinja.  We buy tickets, water and board the bus.  I notice a hole in the lining of my purse.  There I find what has be driving me crazy: the extra Euro, US Dollars, and Rwanda Francs I knew I hadn’t spent.  From the window, under heavy eyelids, I watch as Kampala awakes around us.

We are in Jinja bright and early on New Year’s Eve, 31 December 2011.  We hike to find somewhere for breakfast.  A familiar place.  In the last 12 hours nothing has felt so good.

Rwanda: A Beautiful Mystery

Crossing the border from Uganda to Rwanda the road was bumpy.  I strained to see both through window and the darkness of night on the other side.  I could make out trees and then a wall of rocks that had been blown through to make passage possible.  I was reminded of Northern Ontario.  Thoughts drifting back to Rwanda, I could not stop thinking of how many people may have been trying to flee this country years ago on this very road, or would they have been off the road hiding in the trees?  It seems so unbelievable that this was once a reality as I so easily let the coach bus carry me up and down and around the rolling hills.  I later learned that although the genocide had a slow start, commencing before 1994, it was far more organized and fast than I remembered hearing before.  Or perhaps the reality just sets in deeper when you actually take the time to walk through history.  Questions rang out within the confines of my mind that I had no answer for, the biggest one: how many people would have had time to make it this far and into refuge in Uganda?

So here we are.  Kigali.

The big first surprise was how safe and peaceful Rwanda felt.  Our coach bus, having nearly flown through the night, brought us into Kigali much earlier than we intended to be there; not to mention that we miscalculated the time-change and thus found ourselves arriving while darkness still blanketed the city.  The one thing I always plan never do – arriving in a strange new place in darkness makes you a most vulnerable target.  Thankfully this mistake occurred in what we quickly learned was a country much different from the other African countries we had recently seen.  Not that they are unsafe, but that Kigali felt incredibly calm and peaceful.  Why was this?  There were barely any taxis to choose from.  Instead we were swarmed by motorcycle taxis, known as boda-bodas.  The rebel in me loved it.

The second big surprise was the French.  Before the trip I was excited to go to Rwanda because I knew I would have to speak French.  Finally a way to force myself to seriously think in French again!  I was so excited; however I had completely forgotten about this during our travels until I tried to speak to someone on the bus and realized they had no idea what I was saying.  Right!  French it is.  Rwandan French is so beautiful, my friend continually observed.  I agreed.  After all, it didn’t hurt either that Rwanda presented the perfect opportunity to speak French, with enough people speaking English in Kigali just in case you can’t get your point across.  Thanks to the Explore Program and the French classes provided at work, my French proved very conversation with most people understanding – a nice confidence boost!

My third surprise came when the sun was up.  Kigali is officially the cleanest African city I have seen.  (From what I hear its only rival would be Malindi, the Italian city on Kenya’s coast, which I unfortunately did not get to see.)  In Kigali there are not only intersections and traffic lights (as is uncommon in many African cities) but, bewilderingly, they are also followed (just as uncommon in many -most- African cities).  The intersection even counts down the amount of time left on each colour.  I am further shocked to see that there are lights on the ground which serve to give the drivers a sense of direction at night.  This is something I rarely see at home outside of the airport landing strip.  To top it all off, every boda-boda driver has a helmet, and even more incredible is that they all carry one for their passenger too.  No where else in my African experiences are the rules of the road followed like this.  I’m not saying that the helmets were in top-notch condition, and trust me some would not have provided much protection at all, but the fact is, they were there. There was only one passenger to a motorcycle, quite unlike West Africa.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that things with road traffic are running completely smooth.  In fact, on one of our travels my boda-boda ran out of petrol while climbing a hill.  The driver and I dismounted, the driver lifted the bike in such a way that the petrol would get to the engine, we remounted and off we were up the hill and around the corner to the nearest petrol station.

From our travels within the city and into the countryside we noticed that homes were also very different, not only from West Africa, but from Rwanda’s East African neighbours as well.  One of my traveling companions works in low-income housing in Kenya.  We were stunned to see the number of homes in the rural areas outside Kigali which were made with brick, a costly material.  The few which were not brick still looked sturdy to the eye.  It was incredible.  So unpredictable.  An unexpected reality which should be used to help re-shape the many images held in outsiders’ minds when they conjure up pictures of Africa.  The infrastructure in Kigali is developed to a level even unlike Nairobi, or perhaps its cleanliness just makes it seem that way.

***

There is so much more to Rwanda than the genocide but with its recent shadow over the country’s history, I could not help but think about it.  With everywhere I went, my mind was flooded with what could have happened where I was presently standing if I had arrived 17 years earlier.  With everyone I saw, my mind would wander, who was I looking at?  What had their role been?  I tried not to focus on this and to remember that things have changed.  That it seems like this country has found a new way to move on.  That there are no longer Hutus or Tutsi or the other ethnic minorities, such as the marginalized Twa.  That these ethnic classifications are now illegal to speak of. That everyone is a Rwandan.  That now, all are one.  This seems to make sense, that it was necessary in order to piece together a country in utter disaster, but is it even possible?  Can you wipe away someone’s identity?  As peaceful and far from their past as the nation seems, it is near impossible to move on from something so large and grotesque; whatever happened then, has formed the Rwanda of today.  This I want to know more about.  Who are these re-identified Rwandans?  Who am I interacting with on the street in daily business?  I am not all about touristic sites and the idea of genocide tourism, however I do believe in learning from the past.  Following my prison walk of Idi Amin, I could not help but wonder what happened here in this neighbouring country.

***

Breakfast at the Mille Collines saved us.  We were not in as dire circumstances as those who were flooding its compound in 1994, but our lack of financial planning left us in a country without any access to ATMs compatible with international bank cards, and without local currency.  On top of this we quickly learned that life in Rwanda is far more expensive than in East Africa.  We exchanged all our remaining Ugandan Shillings for Rwandan Francs, as well as some Euro and American Dollars.  How had we not read this part of the guide book or travel websites?  So we indulged ourselves on the Mille Collines breakfast table, because there, we could pay VISA.  We walked the halls of the building, our minds replaying scenes of Hotel Rwanda.  We overlooked the hotel’s pool, beyond which we could see city’s populated rolling hills everywhere before us.  It was beautiful.

Those of us who were Canadian knew the most about the genocide, largely due to Romeo Dallaire’s involvement and actions upon his return to Canada.  However we did not realize how early the genocide actually started.  That its gruesome head had in fact shown its face decades in advance and numerous times leading up to April 1994.  This may have surprised us, but it had come as no surprise to the Rwandans.

We went to the Kigali Memorial Centre where we learned of the Rwandan genocide and of numerous genocides which predated it in other countries with other peoples.  Inside the Centre there is also a place to recognize lost ones, to leave a photo and a story, to record their names and memories.  One room is dedicated to children lost, and the Centre’s gardens are home to mass graves for both children and adults alike.  While we were there, we noticed that newly discovered bodies had recently been laid to rest while other gardens hosted people laying down flowers in memory of their own loved ones.

We also went to two sites outside of the city where literally thousands of women and children died, Ntarama and Nyamata.  It was here we learned about the years leading up to the 1994 genocide; years in which there had been instances of genocide.  These had resulted in the Tutsis being forced to live in certain areas, and experience numerous attacks.  During these times, safety had always been found in the churches.  No one dared kill within a church.  In the 1994 genocide, the men (and boys) of Bisesero were fighting on the Hill of Resistance, while women and children sought refuge in the churches.  This time their refuge did not hold back the forces of evil.  Women were tortured, brutalized, raped, cut into a slow death by machete or mercilessly left to live with HIV/AIDS and missing body parts.  Inside Ntarama the back of the church is like a scene from a horror movie or of Cambodia, with shelves piled roof-high of human bones.  Seeing the cracked skulls was both interesting and overwhelmingly humbling.  Children had been grabbed by the foot and swung into the nursery wall.  Their blood, brain and hair still hold steadfast to the brick.  The rafters and walls of the church are lined with the stained clothing of the victims.  The church pews, rather modest benches, support the coffins of bodies discovered in 2011 and subsequently, flowers.  The quote on the banner at the front of the church reads, “If you knew me, and if you knew yourself, you would not have done this to me.”  Framing this, across the entire front of the church, are the mattresses, cooking pots, identity cards and school books which belonged to the women and children.  They had literally moved into the church.  Nyamata was quite similar in all ways but significantly larger.  As for the Hill of Resistance, the men had fought for a long time and were seen as a relatively strong force of Tutsis.  They were betrayed by French soldiers who claimed it was safe to descend only to have many of the eventually descend the hills days later to be slaughtered in the waiting hands of their enemies, the Interahamwe.  This purple website, the colour of memorials, mourning, remembering encases these memorial sites.

I had expected to see more of the genocide’s aftermath lingering in the present but much seemed gone, cleaned away, hidden from sight.  It was not that I was looking for morbidity or expecting the country to be stuck in the past, but I found it shocking how it seems possible to have such drastic past neatly filed away.  It was only when we reached these churches outside Kigali, in the areas former Tutsis had once been forced to live in, that we recognized some people walk with a limp.  People didn’t talk about it and when they did it was the story of how they had to run, how they were beaten, or how their family was killed.  I always heard the same story, even in Kigali, and eventually I wondered about it.  Obviously no one wants to re-live the history, yet those that do are always someone who was once a Tutsi (as opposed to now, when everyone is solely Rwandan).  Would not once-a-Hutu tell us their experience?  Is it right to assume, according to population, that most people I saw were once a Hutu?  Are they still in and around Kigali or are they in the countryside dealing with guilt and remorse, unable to forgive themselves?  Or are they living in neighbouring refugee camps fearing their lives, from retaliation or justice?  Or are they just on the other side of Lake Kivu, training young Congolese to become militants and finish the job they once started?  So many unanswered questions.

***

Not all of our planned adventures in Rwanda were realized.  Being sick with sunstroke in Kampala limited my time in Rwanda.  (Side Note: If your gut tells you to go back for the wide-brimmed hat that you left in the hotel room when you are about to embark on a bicycle ride throughout the community of Bujagali Falls during the hottest time of day under the intense African sun -even if it’s just for 1 hour- do it.  It can easily avoid days of dizziness and weakness not to mention faintly staring at the hotel ceiling while your friends are out enjoying dinner and exploring the city.)  While we saw the sites in Rwanda that I most wanted to see there were others that remain on my list to be seen another day: the volcanoes, Gorillas, caves and Lake Kivu to name a few. That is not a problem.  I would love to return and to be honest perhaps it is a better thing that we did not see everything.  Following the news leading up to our Rwandan trip we even questioned going to Lake Kivu as the DRC side was increasingly unsafe.  I cannot say that I did not wonder if rebels hiding in the DRC forest perpetrating the Interahamwe’s teachings would ever come back and if so, what would it be like or what if I was still here -but then I catch myself – their return is incredibly unlikely.  Only one thing was certain, I really wanted to stay in Rwanda.  I thought of staying longer and flying home, letting my friends bus back to Nairobi without me, but I knew I couldn’t just leave them.  While I knew I could travel Rwanda on my own, it is not a country I want to travel on my own.  It needs to be discussed and thoughts need to be spoken.  There is simply so much to digest about what you see and hear and think that one must travel it with someone from outside Rwanda who understands your worldview.

Since returning to the work I have asked many people about their thoughts on Rwanda.  Quite a few had worked in Rwanda, or have friends that do.  Some of their experiences answered questions brewing in my mind.  Others just left me with more questions.  Yes, there are many former Tutsis who have returned to Rwanda, particularly to Kigali.  Their return has brought change to the country.  For example, being educated in refugee camps of neighbouring English speaking countries has resulted in many people having a firm command of both the English and French language. This skill has seen them rise to positions of authority again as they are best able to communicate with the majority of the world, or let’s say, the majority of the funding world.  My original thought had been that the switch to English as an official language was in retaliation to France’s role and subsequent responsibility for the murders which took place at the Hill of Resistance.  (This is something I want to learn more about as one question continually comes to mind: Why? There is much I still have to learn about.)  In fact, I was shocked to learn that the Belgium’s were refused entrance to the country while the French were not.  The actions of the French seemed forgiven but the period of Belgium colonization decades before did not.  Why such a difference?  Is this stemming from the initial division the Rwandan peoples’ identities, or of more recent politics?

***

Rwanda left a deep impression of peace and tranquility on me.  Not only had its population emerged from a horrible past of colonization and a genocide which stemmed from the imposed social structure of their communities at that time, but they had chosen to move forward.  While I was later informed about more recent political actions which may have been less than favourable, I still cannot believe how effectively the country’s unifying motion for ‘oneness’ -everyone identifying only as Rwandan- has worked so successfully.  Rwanda is a country which oozes with mercy and forgiveness; understanding that is a requirement in order to move forward.  One cannot soundly move forward if they are focused on the past.  Somehow a small country in Central Africa, which once had most of its civilian population militarized and used to following orders commanded of it, has found a way to mercifully move forward.  Cannot other countries and people groups take a lesson from this?

While in hindsight, the country’s militarized past makes it come as no surprise that some things such as traffic rules are now followed to the law; however, it does shock me that only less than two decades have passed for so much to change and be accomplished.  I heard that the country was well developed before the genocide and that the greatest loss was in human resources, both physically and mentally, yet it is these same people which have left the greatest impact on me.

While I recognize that there is probably much more going on beneath the surface than what I realized at the time, this is what I have taken away: The spirit of the people in many ways is just as beautiful as the country they live in.  Perhaps this is related to the large presence of faith in Rwandan society.  While thoughts of how much time must pass before the unity of this country can accept and tolerate different ways of thinking ruminate in my mind, the strength of the people and their resilience is astounding.  In Rwanda survival has meant not to forget the atrocities of the past in order to prevent their return, but to forgive and choose to look forward to new days; to choose a future and a hope.

There is so much that I wish to say but nothing I could say or write would ever do justice.  One of the females I traveled with is a psychologist from Colombia.  Influenced by what she lived through, she is now studying genocides and the effect on children.  Our conversations were quite interesting.  Our discussions and questions have led to a growing reading list.  Everyone telling me to read We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, by Phillip Gourevitch.  It has quickly moved to the top of my reading list.  One this is certain.  We wished we had more time in Rwanda.

Also, a quick note on getting a Rwandan visa: it’s an incredible process!  I once heard that the country was run by women.  I now believe it.  Perhaps I am biased but of all the visas I have ever needed, the one for Rwanda was 100% stress-free and trust me, this is a big deal.  Let’s just walk through the process: before leaving Nairobi I applied online for a visa.  They ask the typical questions and have a map with all the border crossings visible.  You fill in the questions and highlight the border crossing which you anticipate crossing at.  Then they e-mail you a tracking number.  A couple days later you receive an e-mail with your visa and tracking number.  You print it off.  You are not required to pay anything until you are actually at the border where you present the printed visa and they run it through their system.  It was miraculous.  Sure we had to wait a long time at border while the citizens of surrounding African nations quickly passed us but I’m not complaining.  The Rwanda visa system seemed organized and efficient.  Need I say I was impressed?

***

I marvel that this new Rwanda, the united Rwandans, choose to remember the past in order to prevent the past from reoccurring as they choose to move on and live on.  By doing so they live an exemplification of forgiveness.

Blog Backlog

I will admit that these last weeks -months- I have been less than adequate in documenting my adventures.  To all my family, friends, and family of friends (Ava’s dear Grandparents included) who have been asking why I have stopped writing, where the rest of the adventures are, and when I will start writing again; please know that I have no intention of stopping.  I love writing and while I am now home in Canada, I still intend to post the remaining of my 2011-2012 East African adventures.  In fact, have already been writing them.

I did not post them right away as I could no longer upload the photos which accompany the writing because I exceeded my WordPress space quota.  Let’s face it, one cannot write about something such as bungee jumping without including a photo.

However, I now realize that many great writers lived in a time before we all had pocket cameras.  While I dare not consider myself a household name on par with theirs, I will attempt, for the time being, to do as they have and convey everything through words alone in the coming weeks.

Ah, to be writing again.  It feels so good.  Like taking in a breath of fresh air that it is somehow both calming and invigorating; limited only by creativity.

Let the writing resume!

Idi Amin, The Butcher of Uganda

If you have seen the movie The Last King of Scotland you would understand what I wanted to do in Kampala, Uganda.  I wanted to learn more about what the country has gone through, what these people’s history really entailed, and how it has influenced the nation, developing it into Uganda as we know it today.  I wanted to see the remaining footprints of Idi Amin, the military leader and President of Uganda from 1971 to 1979.

In a nutshell, borrowed from About.com, “Idi Amin Dada, who became known as the ‘Butcher of Uganda’ for his brutal, despotic rule whilst president of Uganda in the 1970s, is possibly the most notorious of all Africa’s post-independence dictators. Amin seized power in a military coup in 1971 and ruled over Uganda for 8 years. Estimates for the number of his opponents who were either killed, tortured, or imprisoned vary from 100,000 to half a million. He was ousted in 1979 by Ugandan nationalists, after which he fled into exile.”

I highly recommend reading the BBC Ugandan profile to understand the history and About.com.

I went to the Mengo Palace which stands on one of Uganda’s hills overlooking Idi Amin’s private lake, and from where one can see Gaddafi’s mosque.  The Palace itself is quite modern looking, and if I remember correctly, its architectural design was a gift from England.  Tourists are not allowed to enter, however the reason I came here was that the same grounds are home to the infamous prison and torture chambers built by Idi Amin in the 1970s.  They were later used by President Obote for the same sinister purposes.

The torture chambers were haunting.  Originally designed to store the army’s weaponry, we were told that they were commissioned to be built by Israelis who had no idea that the purpose of these cemented underground caves would be changed upon completion.  They were used for some of humanity’s worst atrocities.

The victims would be blind-folded and driven around the palace grounds all day in order to make them believe they there were far away from where the drive started.  None would guess that they were still on palace grounds in Kampala.  The chambers are elevated multiple feet above the ground and are surrounded by water.  The only way in when the torture chambers were active, was by boat.  The water was electrified, turned on and off as necessary by those in command.  When the entrance was closed there was no light.  Each chamber held about 500 people.  Oxygen would run out, feces would pile, victims starved.  Some chose to jump into the electrified water to end their suffering quickly.

The marks from the wires still run in the walls.  On some walls are charcoal messages.  One such message reads Obote, you have killed me, but what about my children!  Twisted, Idi Amin enjoyed the torture chambers so much that he chose to have them replicated and started to build a second set. Neither he, nor Obote could finish this task.

I was reminded of Cape Coast in Ghana, where slaves were also held captive in such dense quarters.  While slavery did exist in the African Kingdoms prior to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, it had never before been to such a scale.  Initially, the Slave Trade developed along the pre-existing slavery contexts and along internal African trading routes; however, the large-scale horrendous movement of human cargo, such as the slave exporting purpose of Cape Coast, Ghana, was perpetrated by foreigners.  Thus, the overwhelming difference that shocked me most with Idi Amin’s reign in Uganda was that the merciless torture and killing was carried out by a fellow Ugandan at scales unseen before.  According to this website, Idi Amin is ranked number 7 on the list of the world’s most evil men. Many websites describe his sickening torture methods.

Due to technical mishaps, I am unable to post additional photos, so if you are interested in seeing these prisons and torture chambers, check out this link.  They aren’t gruesome to look at, unless you can image what was once the reality of what you are looking at.  Clicking on the photos should open up and allow you to see additional photos that other travelers have posted.

It really is a shame that this history is similar to those of multiple leaders around the world.  Was it Idi Amin who used power for evil, or did having access to so much power corrupt him?  Once hailed and celebrated as a hero by fellow Ugandans and the international community, I cannot help but wonder how the world could have been so blind.  Some say he suffered of illness.

How is it that those who know no love for humanity, often gain and maintain power for so long?