A Travellerspoint blog


Someone told me that the derivation of mzungu is "aimless wanderer." I was that person today, managing to find my way to the bus from Gisenyi, which was disappointingly empty of chickens or the need to sit on a stranger's lap. The 3 hour bus ride was cheaper than the 8 minute taxi ride from my hotel to the bus station, but I can't figure these things out.

Kigali is a fairly sleepy, green city, awash with aid money and expats, surprisingly free of the exhaust fumes and dust of other african capitals.

It's just as cobbled together in some ways, despite the rising office "towers." I asked for directions to my hotel at the bus station, suspecting it was about a 5 minute walk away, but no one seemed to be able to read my map or know the hotel. I picked a driver who claimed to know where he was going, but he was grasping at straws, thinking I wanted the airport because my map had a little arrow indicating where it was. We went the long way around to find a hotel that indeed turned out to be about 500 m from the bus station, and abashed, he told me I only had to pay what I thought was fair. That was novel.

I am a bit stupefied and numbly tired, sleep consistently interrupted by different people. (It's a fairly loud country, radios blaring constantly, even on the bus, so loud that it irritated even through earplugs). It's also a cash-only country, and I had to pay for my plane ticket back to Kampala in cash. I managed to successfully get a cash advance on my visa (I'm running out of money), which involved a complicated series of steps and the nether regions of a bank.

I'm also running out of books, so I looked fruitlessly for a bookshop my guidebook noted for about 45 minutes, until I managed to piece together that it had moved to a suburb. I found an alternative, a christian french bookshop where I bought a Time and a Newsweek for about $20.

My only reason to be here, really, is to see the city (seen) and visit a couple of genocide memorials, so I'm trying to negotiate how to get to this one, about 125 km away, tomorrow or friday. Minibusses would involve a lot of shifting and switching and I'm running out of energy, so I'll probably end up paying a taxi driver. Who won't, I hope, want to talk to me.


I don't think I'll be able to say anything meaningful about this, in any way. I came across this excerpt from an abstract of a Philip Gourevitch piece in the New Yorker last year, and while I know he's been criticized as being Kagame's hagiographer, it's fairly consistent with the story I've heard so far. Our kids like Kagame, credit his rigidity and efforts to create one unified rwanda as contributing to a safe and vibrant country. (People are all banyarwanda -- rwandese -- not identified by tribes; anyone contributing to hate speech or prejudice can be fined or arrested).

...President Paul Kagame’s attempts to rebuild Rwanda after the genocidal violence fifteen years ago. In the course of a hundred days, beginning on April 6, 1994, nearly a million people from the Tutsi minority were massacred in the name of an ideology known as Hutu Power. On the fifteenth anniversary of the genocide, Rwanda is one of the safest and most orderly countries in Africa. The great majority of prisoners accused or convicted of genocide have been released. And Rwanda is the only nation where hundreds of thousands of people who took part in mass murder live intermingled at every level of society with the families of their victims. “So far, so good,” Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame tells the writer. Kagame led the rebel force that stopped the genocide. He has presided over Rwanda’s destiny ever since. He is unapologetically authoritarian, and Rwanda’s stability has come at the expense of internal opposition and dissent, while its security is owed in large part to the exporting of its violent conflict into the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I can't pretend to understand any of it. All I know is that you see aid money everywhere, in the shiny tin roofs of rural homes, well projects that children bring yellow jerry cans to, refugee and genocide survivor camps, tiny community initiatives along every road, from tailoring cooperatives to community banking co-ops. Women from different tribes given shares in the same goats and cows. A big city supermarket catering to ex-pats in kigali, a coffee shop with free wifi filled with expats that could be transplanted to Yonge and Eglinton. More people beg on the streets than in kampala, and more aggressively hawk clothing, pens, maps.

A liminal moment, where "Bill Clinton's roads" between towns are smooth and slick, if too narrow, and the roads inside towns like Gisenyi are barely roads at all, just potholed, stoney, bumpy dirt.

Posted by CateinTO 06:22 Comments (0)

Tea Leaves

The part of rural Rwanda I was in yesterday and earlier today smells like burning tea leaves. When a neighbour showed me what he said was tea, it looked a lot like rosemary to me, but smelled like tea.

In the matutu yesterday on our 10 hour journey over mostly awful roads, the kids bought snacks at a fuel station. One bag of popcorn and one bag of grasshoppers. They think I'm ridiculous for not eating them. Or the "matooke and offals" that were a possibility for breakfast at one place we stopped. Matooke is like plantain. Offals are just, well, awful.

In restaurants, you are usually handed a menu, but it's more of a conceptual art piece. You have to ask "what is there?" It might be matooke and offals. In which case you go to the place where you have chapati and black tea. (African tea has boiled milk in it). For lunch yesterday it was goats and chips, fish and chips or beef and chips. I had the fish and chips and the came whole, skin and fins on the plate. "You have to wash your hands because you can't eat fish with a fork," laughed Tina. I don't know if I got deep inside as she did, but it was surprisingly delicious.

Asking "what is there" is a way of following the cadences of local english. Like, "we found what? the boy." Rather than "what do you think we found?" Pronouncing the ends of words so the kids understand. Clo-zed for closed. it's clo-zed. Clo-thes for clothes. Finish-ed. We understand each other.

I find Rwandan and Congolese french, far far FAR easier to understand than Haitian or even Quebec french. Most of my conversations in the french in the past year have been about devastation. Haitian cabdrivers and people on the borders of congo/uganda/rwanda. My waiter emmanuel and I decided tonight that despite the hideous winters of canada, "l'hiver c'est pas la guerre." Then we laughed.

The single most frequently found food that sits most easily in my tummy is, bizarrely, spaghetti napolitain. Mostly pasta with tomato sauce, sometimes with a few veggies added.

The food ugandans eat 90% of the time is posho, a kind of grainy meal akin to grits or polenta, if these were completely bland and gravy-less. Preparing it involves a bitterly detested and mysterious chore called "mingling posho," and the woman who's been our cook for 10 years flatly quit last week because she doesn't want to mingle posho anymore. I don't blame her. A decade of making a kind of peasant rissoto in enormous pots over a blazing fire is probably enough. We had already agreed to support her 3 year old son through school, and after some compromise involving a local worker coming for 20 minutes a day to mingle the posho, our director ordered her to rip up her resignation letter. He commented later he thought she was pregnant. The boy who knows her well told me he thought she was just growing fat.

I actually like posho, and ate it two or three times at the project this year, with peas. I should cook it at home. If I knew what mingling it meant.

You don't get posho in restaurants.

We almost hit a little girl on the road today who dashed out without looking. That would have been horrifying, not only if we'd injured her but for the paperwork. I'd probably be found in an orange prison jumpsuit building a road. Unlike Uganda, in rwanda, if you overload your taxi or matatu, you can be arrested. You have to buy road permits for non-rwandan cars with specific destinations, which is why our driver couldn't take me to kigali (he'd bought one for gisenyi). There are frequent random police roadblocks. You aren't supposed to bring plastic bags into the country (though no one asked me about mine). There are rules about littering, but that didn't stop sylver from throwing a water bottle out the window while proclaiming what a pristine country rwanda is.

All of the people who worry about my safety in africa probably have no idea that the most dangerous thing is roads. And I've been on three different motorcycles in the past week, and was helmeted only once. The boda drivers here carry spare helmets but frankly, I'd rather risk bouncing off the pavement than ringworm or lice.

I hate that I have started to be able to discern different tribes based on facial features and body type.

None of this adds up to what it means to be here, but without any of it, I couldn't understand the context at all.

Posted by CateinTO 08:59 Comments (0)


My phone rings. I answer it, happily perched on my too expensive hotel bed overlooking Lake Kivu. It's Abdu, the boy who is raising me. "Did you arrive safely, aunt? I was worried about you."

Posted by CateinTO 07:52 Comments (1)


As soon as we crossed the border into Rwanda, the six kids in the car began to bubble. The Uganda reserve dissolved and they sat more upright, animated. The land verdant, roads smooth of the "pitholes" of Uganda but too narrow. "These people do not move from the road!" said Tina. "They told me about this! They think we will see them!"

The staple food of Rwanda is "Irish" -- i.e., irish potatoes -- and since it was a market day, the road from the border was thronged with a stream of women in colourful wraps with huge lumpy sacks on their heads. Boys straining to push bicycles with enormous sacks of Irish up hills. "Bill Clinton made these roads," said Abdu.

I still don't quite understand what happened at the border, but it was an hour of denouncing two of the kids as "not Ugandan!" based on their long noses (a signifier of being Tutsi for generations now), arguments, accusations of human trafficking, requests for 30,000 UGX each, my being hustled away by the oldest boy so they wouldn't accuse me of worse or demand more money, a production of a voter registration slip and being vouched for by some random man our driver knew.

No one has anything resembling official documents. The permission to leave the district for our kids was handwritten by the local official on school notebook paper. The official travel documents of Rwanda are large sheets of what looks like pink construction paper, the photo's glue loosened and official stamps crowded on the back. Passports exist, but they're expensive and complicated, hence this combination of officiousness and chaos at the border, people refused clearance while market-goers move back and forth freely.

My guidebook had said Canadians didn't need visas for Rwanda, so I blithely showed up expecting to pay $50 or so as I had in TZ and UG; I was sternly lectured by Mr Immigration in a sharp suit and told to return to Kampala and apply online. "It only takes a few minutes." "I'm here now," I argued. "What can I do here and now?" After a lot of lecturing, and Sylver pleading my case as his sponsor, and a lot of hectoring about how I could know what hotel I was staying at in Kigali when I wasn't actually there yet, Mr. Immigration went off and got paperwork to sell me a visa. I'm still unclear what this was about, but I did have a chance to learn how to say "don't lose yourself by getting into a car with a sugar daddy" in kinyarwanda, the billboard overshadowing any official welcome to rwanda.

So we crossed, and I had a weird little forex moment that appeared to be a street transaction but where abdu claimed he was avoiding my getting cheated, and then we went to the village.

We have five kids from one family in the project, and they embody it for us, I think. Good, sweet, softspoken young adults -- the youngest is 13 -- who have a kind of essential spirit of kindness and openness. Carissa and I both hold this family in our souls, I think. But no one from the project had ever visited their home in Rwanda, and we have been trying to implement home assessments for all our kids. So I was privileged enough to visit.

The kids were excited to show me their tiny plot of land, subsistence agriculture where their mother lives without an income. They had a plot in Congo that they fled to before the genocide, and managed to survive it by staying in Congo for two or three years. But when they came back to Rwanda, Interahamwe hiding in Congo came across the mountains -- they're mere kilometres from the border -- and first their sister and then their father was killed. Separate occasions.

The mom is worn and stiff, probably close to my age but centuries have passed through her veins. She sees her five remaining children only at the holidays. She has no french or english, and my kinyarwanda is limited to thank you, I love you and help me. (The essentials, right?) There was handclasping and shoulder gripping that went beyond flesh. Such gratitude. Clean small house, larger than I expected, though the boys - and their cousin we brought along -- share one bed. Hard for north americans to fathom. Subsistence farming in the shadows of the mountain-gorillas park.

To give our social worker space to interview the kids and their mom, and to draw our driver away, I roamed the village with my camera. First two kids, then five, then eventually a snotty, filthy little mob, shrieking with joy and pressing me so hard I almost fell every time I showed them what I'd captured in the display. I quivered with a weird combination of joy that matched theirs and a soft horror I successfully quelled, especially when a slightly older one pinched a huge gob of snot off his brother's nose and wiped it on his shirt. So filthy, and so many of them, on this already chock-ful land. I told them to stop calling me mzungu, that my name was Cate, and one or two of the older ones understood enough english to translate. We moved up the hill, and I said "tous finis" -- and as they repeated "finish" through their mob, they started to grab my hands in a kind of sideways high five. I stood on the tiny rocky path, mid-fiving two dozen filthy children, as they chanted Cate Cate Cate Cate with a kind of glorious vigour. Their excited jostling squishing the smallest ones, and once or twice, almost knocking me down. Embodiment of the need and spirit here, too much, too crowded, such humanness.

I went inside the house, and they ran off and came back a few minutes later. They had picked me a flower and gave it to the driver - "tell that muzungu we love her and give her this flower."

I'm sure these kids smearing their hands all over me and my camera for an hour didn't help my ongoing gut rot, but I'm sure my issues are also partly my body's attempt to process the intense emotion of this place.

When we left, Odetta presented me and tina both with a piece of gorgeous fabric. Mine has birds on it. The same versatile cloth women turn into skirts, bathing wrappers, twirl around their entire bodies when they're cold. She would have had to barter to get this. She bought it with her nothing, to show us how grateful she is that her children will be someone.

I took the four older kids to Gisenyi today, did the 8 tedious transactions that were required to pay university fees for the oldest, and took the kids out to lunch. Our social worker and the driver had headed back to Kasese. Just me and the four, talking about where they would go if I gave them plane tickets to anywhere. South Africa. The UK. To climb mountains in British Columbia. Three boys and a girl, part of the village we're raising.

I hugged them goodbye and they solicitously put me on a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) and instructed him not to cheat me. Abdu handed me my bag, assured me my phone was in it, and patted my shoulder. The boy who's raising me.

Posted by CateinTO 06:04 Comments (2)

Beasts of burden

One of the books I read this week was Peter Godwin's excellent memoir of growing up in and then returning to Zimbabwe, When Crocodile Eats the Sun. A searing, beautifully written, raw book. Chock in the middle were a few answers to questions I didn't exactly know how to answer.

When I returned last year, I was invited to Christmas dinner at the home of a colleague. A generous, generous invitation, and a very nice family. Her cardiologist husband, though, went on a little tangent about how it was quite possible that the people of sub-saharan africa were genetically inferior -- why had they never accomplished any of the signs of civilization? Where were their pyramids? Why had they never progressed beyond subsistence agriculture?

I was flushed and angry, but aware of the hospitality and politeness of the home I was a guest in, over the heritage china I made some assertions about cultural relativism, about judging people by western standards. The daughter of the household argued with her father that living in a subsistence way could be perceived to be more civilized, less damaging to the environment. I talked about colonialism and the slave trade but felt like I was unhappily grasping for answers.

Godwin alludes to this familiar argument, beginning with "It is sometimes said that the worst thing to happen to Africa was the arrival of the white man. And the second worst was his departure. Colonialism lasted just long enough to destroy much of Africa's indigenous cultures and traditions, but not long enough to leave behind a durable replacement."

Useful, but in keeping with my own argument. What I found most interesting was what he writes about Jared Diamond's work. That it's the environment itself that reinforced historical ways of living, prevented the establishment of cities, which are the single most relevant historical force for innovation and invention. That you need a food surplus to establish cities, and Africa's "uniquely hostile environment conspired against this." He notes that the limits of Islamic conversion in Africa "tally roughly with the range of the dreaded tsetse fly, which wiped out the horse-borne northerners in the west and limited Arab traders to the coast in the east."

Fascinatingly, he also explains that Africa has no indigenous beasts of burden, and that for a wild animal to be domesticated, it needs to have a social structure with a leader, "a nice disposition and a tendency not to panic." Diamond apparently indulges in a flight of fancy about what might have been achieved for africa if the people had been able to tame rhinos -- "the zulus would have ridden into Europe on their rhinos and just plunged through the ranks of European calvalry with their wretched little horses."

Parts of Ethiopia are an exception to the persistence of subsistence agriculture, which are free of malaria and sleeping sickness -- which is the place that an ancient stone city of Aksum arose, where an indigenous form of writing was invented, and a strong centralized govt evolved. Godwin notes that Ethiopia was the one african country that largely resisted European colonization.

Clearly, I need to read Diamond's book. As does the irritatingly smug cardiologist.

Posted by CateinTO 06:12 Comments (3)

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