Friday, October 5, 2007

Fellowship Personal Statement

It was my first day teaching. Pastors, electricians, farmers, mothers, and small children filled the primary school classroom—all seated on chairs so tiny the adults could hug their knees without bending. I started the lesson with self-introductions, a task which (given our language constraints) was more theatrical than verbal. Pulling an imaginary bow across a string, I slowly enunciated my love for the violin. Exaggerated huffing, trudging, and brow-wiping defined my recent exploits on Mount Kilimanjaro. The word “university” was understood easily enough, but graphically explaining “politics” with a piece of chalk proved more of a challenge. When I had finished my show, the first student stood up.

“My name is Jumapili. I am 28 years. I have one mother and no father.”

Jumapili had distilled the exercise to its essence. For my Rwandan students, personal identity was twined around the spring of 1994, the systematic killing of a million citizens in the swiftest genocide in modern history. Jumapili’s example set a precedent, and one-by-one, the students spoke softly of their murdered sisters, brothers, children and parents. This was not a classroom of only Tutsi victims, I realized. These were rural, hard-working Rwandans, both Tutsi and Hutu, and genocide had devastated them all. They had gathered in this undersized classroom, united by grief and buoyed by hope, to attempt a new beginning, and I, the cheery-faced undergraduate with the bizarre musical interests and exercise habits, symbolized their ticket to a better life. I hesitated before them, wanting to say I was sorry for their losses and inspired by their determination. I wanted to explain that although I may appear to be their teacher, ours would be a symbiotic relationship of learning and understanding. I wanted to say many things, but the language barrier loomed large between us, so I smiled, then picked up the dry erase board and began the morning phonics lesson.

I had not come to Rwanda to teach English. I had come to set up a library in collaboration with a cousin who was building a secondary school in Rwamagana, Rwanda. Our wishes were complementary: she needed a library and I was fascinated by Rwanda’s reconciliation process and eager to meet her Rwandan husband and children—my new cousins! I spent the spring before my departure acquainting myself with the myriad of forces behind the calm façade of a book shelf. But when I stepped off the plane in Kigali, I was at the mercy of the Rwandan Postal Service: the books I had shipped four months earlier had not arrived. The book delay became a blessing, however, when I was asked to take over teaching my cousin’s community English lessons.

Much that I thought I understood about Rwanda’s history changed over the next eight weeks as I came to know a peaceful people—socially cautious, yet teeming with entrepreneurial spirit. On Independence Day, I watched from the stands at the national stadium as a thousand citizens proudly processed behind a banner that read “The Private Sector.” Twice a week, I called out Kinyarwanda greetings to women as they mobilized for market with babies tied to their backs and heaping baskets of produce balanced on their heads. I learned that the best way to experience Rwanda is not a week-long safari, a night at the famed Mille Collines, or a gorilla trek, but a ride on a crowded mini-bus, a rural wedding that stretches long into the night, and the beautiful ritual that is African tea.

Captivated by Rwanda’s peace and reconciliation process, I spent my free hours devouring books on the subject and found to my surprise that Rwandans were willing to speak about what had happened. I traveled to Arusha, Tanzania to observe the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda where the masterminds of the genocide are put to trial. There I watched a bickering fleet of foreign lawyers and wondered what could have been different if half of the international energy spent cleaning up the genocide had been used to attempt to preempt it. When I returned to Rwanda, where chain-gangs of prisoners lined the road-sides, I attended the traditional Gacaca courts. Sitting cross-legged in a field, the only muzungo in a sea of Rwandans, I watched murderers confess their crimes to the families of their victims and walk free—an indispensable human experiment in restorative, not retributive justice.

Back on campus at Washington and Lee University, I step with purposeful energy. While my own understanding of the peaceful and progressive climate in Rwanda has been informed by having lived there, conversations with my peers indicate that despite the passage of thirteen years, Rwanda’s global identity remains plagued by a simple word-association—genocide. As chairwoman of W&L’s speakers committee, I find myself in a position to sponsor a series of discussions about Rwanda’s healing example, and I am organizing a “Re-imagining Rwanda” forum this spring. President Paul Kagame has been invited to keynote the event, and academics, students, community members, and Rwandan refugees will be included in the dialog.

Rwanda’s example of reconciliation, resilience, and rebuilding offers insight into contemporary conflicts as well as human nature. At Oxford University, I hope to anchor my experiences in Rwanda, Swaziland, and South Africa with a rigorous theoretical foundation by pursuing a Masters in Philosophy in Development Studies.

The books finally arrived three days before I left Rwanda, but the library is far from finished. As campus president of Books for Africa, I relish trips to the storage room to hand-select books to ship to Rwanda. I pull out Dr. Seuss for Francoise, the energetic mother of four, and Chinua Achebe for Jumapili, restless in the monotony of country life. As I flip through the familiar pages, I am overcome with nostalgia for the stories that shaped my childhood and a vicarious excitement for the Rwandan students who will experience the creative power of these books for the first time.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Live radio interview on my summer in Rwanda...

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Uganda travels

Robin’s return to Rwanda in early August brought a sad end to my teaching duties. In addition, I had cataloged every paper-clip and pipe-cleaner donated to the Rwanda School Project and the absence of library books left me restless and itching for adventure. So Maria and I decided to take a trip to Rwanda’s northern neighbor to check on an ailing friend, visit Maria’s sister, Jenny, and travel to the source of the mighty Nile River.

On Friday, August 3rd, we packed our bags and caught a bus to Kigali. After purchasing tickets for the 7:30 am bus to Kampala, we took motorcycle taxis to the home of our host for the evening—a cousin of Pastor John’s. Her four children had all been raised in Canada, but had returned to Rwanda last year to spend time in their native country. Although they knew and loved Maria, the children grew shy at the arrival of a stranger in their home. Determined to break the ice, I pulled out my camcorder which was wrapped in a kitenge and announced a game of 20 Questions to see what was inside. They began timidly, but soon shed their inhibitions.

Is it blue? “NO!” Is it hard? “YES!” Can you eat it? “NO!”

It took about 30 questions, but no one was counting. At the winning guess, I revealed the camera and began taking footage of the giddy little actors cart-wheeling and somersaulting all over the house, pausing to play back the clips to the tangle of eager bodies. It’s a fail-safe tactic and by the time we settled down to watch a sing-along movie for the three youngest, I had children crawling all over me.

At dinner, I was introduced to another Rwandan staple food which I soon came to love—ugali. It’s a sticky mound made from slowly stirring cassava flour into boiling water. You pull pieces off with your hands, roll it in flavorful sauce, and pop it into your mouth. After dinner, Maria and I headed to bed because we had to be up early for the bus. As I settled down to read my book, I permitted one of the small boys to play with my hair because he assured me that he was an experienced braider. After fifteen minutes of strange tugging, I put my hand up to feel his handiwork and discovered that he had tied most of my hair into tight knots. I winced in pain as Maria ripped them out with a comb, but I had to laugh at my gullibility that a boy of six years could braid hair. We shared a bedroom with the three eldest children, and soon discovered their secret habit of staying up all night. Maria and I spent a sleepless night grunting and turning from their attempts to wake us by shining flashlights in our eyes. In the morning, we groggily caught a taxi to the bus station and climbed aboard for the 12-hour ride to Kampala.

I’d been warned that these long-haul bus rides were dangerous, but I felt conditioned after five weeks of crazy mini-bus drivers. The trip was decent enough to the Rwandan border, but once across, the driver took off like a bat out of hell. Maria and I gripped the seat backs as we steamed through towns and skidded around bends. The driver laid on the horn incessantly and children and goats scattered before us. A woman seated in front of me opened her window and vomited outside. She hadn’t bothered to check if our window was also open (thank goodness it wasn’t) and as the throw-up streaked horizontally across the glass, I concluded that she had never been instructed of the laws of physics—another reason why a good education is critical for everyone. We slowed only once…to observe the chaos surrounding an overturned cattle truck. Farmers were slaughtering the cows too injured to walk, and I turned away as they began to slit their bellowing throats.

From the fast-forwarded screen of my window, Rwanda’s rolling hills gave way to gentle ripples of land. The Ugandan county side displayed a brilliant spectrum of green flora—from the dark patches of bean plants to the light neon of tea plantations. Mud and stick houses dotted the land and an abundance of small children teetered around, always barefoot and sometimes naked. At fuel stops, Uganda’s teaming entrepreneurial spirit showed itself as young boys and girls rushed to the bus windows holding up goat meat kabobs—skewered on strong reeds, baskets of roasted bananas and corn, and folded hot chapatti (like fluffy flour crepes). I abandoned my traveler’s instinct and bought us two cobs of maize and two steaming bananas for the equivalent of five cents.

An hour from Kampala, Maria and I stepped off the bus in a town called Nsangi. It didn’t look like much, but this was where Jenny (Maria’s sister) attended boarding school, and we trudged down the dirt road with our packs to the school gate. In addition to seeing Jenny, our plan was to save money by convincing the head master to let us spend the night. While Maria lobbied the administration on our behalf, Jenny offered me a tour of the school grounds. After observing and working in some decrepit public schools in Africa, this private school was a breath of fresh air. The grounds were clean and pleasantly landscaped, the classrooms roomy and decently-equipped, and there was even an outdoor swimming pool and a soccer pitch with grass! Maria returned with our permission to stay, and we washed up and headed over to the cafeteria for dinner. A rumor had spread that there was a new muzungo student, and all 500 sets of eyes were on me as we passed through the serving line of rice, ugali, and beans. As curious boys and girls came up to greet us, we played along with the rumor for a while before confessing that we were just weekend visitors.

After dinner, a projector was brought out for a movie and we pulled our plastic chairs up to watch. The chosen film was a horror flick about an American college spring break gone wrong. Seated in the center of a cluster of girls—I sucked on a Blow Pop someone had handed me and mused over my situation. I once watched Schindler’s List with two German friends. I knew that they probably had no more sympathy for the Nazi regime than I did myself, but still it was an agonizing experience for me. What were they thinking? What were they thinking I was thinking? The incident helped me realize that nothing can be fully understood in isolation—just as a word, a symbol, or even a blog can take on different meanings for different people. Enjoying an American horror flick isn’t exactly like rocking a confederate flag or a swastika, but I found that something that I could view with careless abandon in the States with my friends suddenly demanded a heightened awareness. What were they wearing? What cars were they driving? Why the over-exuberance for the “f” word? How did the African students watching this feel? Minus the gore and killing, I felt I was watching a version of my own social life in America through the eyes of an African teenager, and the new perspective distressed me a little.

Following the movie, we headed off to the dormitory. Jenny’s dorm was a giant concrete room with 38 sets of bunk beds and consequently, zero privacy. Maria and I shared Jenny’s twin-sized top bunk, and some of the girls were afraid of the dark, so the electric light directly above us remained lit all night. I had my fifth consecutive asthma attack and needless to say, Maria and I didn’t get much sleep.

The next morning, we hugged Jenny and other new friends goodbye and caught a crowded taxi to Kampala. The city both excited and disgusted me. It was enormous with a zillion smells, sounds, shops, and people milling about, but the streets were filthy. Heaps of trash, veritable streams of sewage, and clouds of exhaust fumes made navigating the city on foot a complicated dance of leaps, side-steps, and nose-plugged rushes. We decided to continue east to the town of Jinja at the source of the Nile, so we fought through a sea of honking taxis and insistent drivers at the park till we found one headed in our direction.

In Jinja, we found a guest house based on messy notes I had jotted down from the travel guide of a Korean tourist I had schmoozed on the bus from Kigali. Maria and I had made no reservations or even concrete plans for our travels in Uganda, and were pretty much making decisions by whim. [This, by the way, is not the best idea in Africa, but we are young, penniless, and easily amused.] After heaving our packs onto the bed and checking under it and in the closets for hiding mass murderers, we set out to explore Jinja on foot. It was a spirit-soaring day with just enough breeze to temper the heat of the African sun and an exciting tease of grey clouds on the horizon like the rains might come right when you were least prepared. From our hill-top hotel, the Nile glittered like a melting icicle in the green valley beyond the city limits. It was impossible to tell how far away it really was, but I suggested we walk to the banks and touch its hallowed waters. Dear Maria was game, as always.

Jinja was a bustling little town where just about everyone seemed to have something to sell. Some of the buildings looked recent, but most were shells from the colonial days—crumbling yet picturesque. It reminded me a bit of the Portuguese influence I observed in Mozambique, although Uganda was formerly a British colony. There was an obvious Indian presence in the town reflected in the wafting curry smells and the ethnicity of many of the merchants. Maria and I walked down the streets, shaking our heads at the hissing motorcycle drivers (hissing isn’t rude here but is a means of getting one’s attention) and the begging children who had spotted a possible benefactor in the paleness of my arm. Gradually, quant shops fell away to hollow factories and we found ourselves in the industrial outskirts of the town. We were walking through what seemed to be a junkyard of cars, still following the straight road that promised to take us to the banks of the Nile. All around us were men—elbow-deep in greasy engines like male mid-wives delivering baby machinery. One by one, they picked their heads up and stared at us—cat-calling and making kissing sounds as we passed. Like peacocks unwillingly on display, our bright clothing accentuated us against the black and brown and gray of the stock yard, and a quick visual assessment revealed that what I thought was a vast field of green grass on the banks of the Nile was actually a green swamp we would have to wade through to get to the river. Maria and I held a conference through clenched teeth, and then turned confidently into a side street like we’d seen what we came to see and quickened our pace until we could no longer feel the stares boring into our skin.

We found a motorcycle driver who agreed to take us to the source of the Nile for 2,000 shillings, or roughly a dollar, and we both climbed on the back his bike for the six kilometer ride. The source was breath-taking. In the distance, the waters of Lake Victoria glimmered calmly before surging into the mouth of the Nile to begin the 4,000 mile ascent to the Mediterranean Sea—a journey that takes three months to complete. We hired a motor boat to take us out to the seam where the still lake waters swirl into motion like a great tub being drained. Of the seven passengers on the boat, Maria and I were the only ones given life jackets, and as I later observed—the only ones charged money. I passed around a bag of potato chips and gave an impromptu lecture on the importance of love to a young Ugandan who asked me to help him get a muzungo wife. Some traditional dancers were performing on the bank when we docked, and Maria and I left the Nile to the pounding of cow-skin drums.

It was a pleasant evening, so we walked back to Jinja instead of hailing a motorcycle. Along the way, we heard extremely loud music so we followed the sound until we came across the album release concert of a popular Ugandan singer. There were hundreds of people lining up to buy tickets and at my beseeching , Maria agreed to join the queue with me. I was the only muzungo there among a crowd of a couple thousand and we rocked out for a couple of songs before leaving to beat the setting sun. We ate a dinner of vegetable curry and naan at a posh-looking Indian restaurant in town and then fell asleep at the guest house watching a Nigerian detective movie.

The next day’s journey took us to the roaring Nile waterfalls. Instead of deserting Maria and spending ninety dollars to go rafting down the chute, I opted to sip a Nile Special on the banks of the beer’s name-sake and watch the locals tempt death by body surfing down the class-six rapids on empty, yellow jerricans—their bodies like black polka-dots in the frothy white swells. The raft of muzungos I surely would have been on passed in a blur of yellow rubber and I silently thanked my stars for my dwindling money supply and Maria’s unshakable common sense. The next day, we were shocked to read in the Kampala paper that an 11-year-old girl from Ethiopia had been killed rafting that same stretch of river.

After leaving the falls, we caught various modes of transportation to reach the secondary school of a friend about an hour away. She had been suffering from a double bout of malaria and typhoid and our main purpose of the trip to Uganda was to check on her and take her back home to Rwanda with us, if need be. Maria and I sat in the stuffy waiting room of the principal’s office for about an hour before being admitted to speak with him. It took less than ten seconds to peg him as a scummy guy, and we listened in disbelief as he asked us for $150 in “extra school fees” but failed to come up with sensible reasons for the additional expenses. It was the middle of the exam week, but we managed to get permission for our friend to leave three days later. On the taxi bus back to Kampala that evening, we met two Ugandan journalists who struck up a lively conversation about democratic presidential candidates in the U.S. and our mutual admiration of the actor, Denzel Washington. They explained why they thought the recent Last King of Scotland movie did an unfair portrayal of Idi Amin and what exactly was going on with the sporadic fighting over Sudanese oil in the north of Uganda.

The next day we explored Uganda on foot—purposefully avoiding the richer, cleaner part of downtown in favor of the crowded mayhem of the city center. I bought a couple bootlegged CDs of popular African songs, savored my first ice cream in weeks, and visited the home of a former school-mate of Maria’s. The next day, we boarded the crowded bus back to Rwanda feeling a little wiser and quite weary.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Maria and I at the source of the Nile

Goat-meat kabobs, anyone?

The porters were extraordinary!

View of Kilimanjaro from inside tent

Hotel Des Mille Collines

Teaching in Rwamagana

Teaching the buzz/fizz game to the class

Goat in ivy

Cousin Maria

...Followed by a cohort of children wherever I went

Cataloging library books


On August 1st, I attended a Gacaca traditional court hearing—an experience few foreigners get to have because the application process for a visitor’s pass is lengthy and purposefully discouraging. One of the lessons I learned early on in Africa is that personal connections are everything. Incidentally, the friendly pastor who had accompanied us to the community organization project in Mumeya the previous day, was also the president of gacaca in the Eastern sector of Rwanda close to Rusumo. So I bypassed the bureaucratic humdig and asked the pastor point-blank if I could attend gacaca with him the following day. To my delight, he said yes, and we arranged to meet at 7:45 a.m. at km marker 113 where he would take me up the dirt road to Rukira on his motorcycle. I needed a translator, and Maria kindly agreed to accompany me.

We woke at 6:30, took our breakfast of coffee and eggs, and walked down the road to the taxi stand. The taxi to Rusumo had just left, so we climbed in the next one and began the agonizing wait until the taxi was completely full (20 people) before we could depart. Because the pastor was doing me a special favor, I felt a strong need to be punctual, but I’ve learned that life in Africa rarely follows schedule and sure enough, we didn’t pull out of Kibungo until 8:20. The pastor and his friend were waiting patiently for us at the turn-off and after profuse and heart-felt apologies, we jumped on the backs of their motorcycles and vroomed up the mountain side.

I should have predicted that we would first go to his home and take African tea and food together. We pulled over at a compound where I soon found my right arm grasped enthusiastically by the pastor’s wife in the traditional Rwandan greeting, my head bowed in prayer, and my plate heaped with steaming ibitoki and beans. That we’d purposefully eaten enough breakfast to tide us over till dinner was irrelevant, and Maria and I exchanged sympathetic smiles as we dutifully praised the meal and accepted second helpings. The pastor’s house was designed similarly to many Rwandan households I’ve been received in and as we sat sharing stories and sipping tea, the likenesses of President Kagame and the pastor’s first-born son shared in our merry-making from their positions on the walls of the sitting room. After eating, we climbed back on the bikes and motored up to the gacaca hearings.

Gacaca is a weekly traditional court that is held in every district in the country and all Rwandans over the age of 19 are encouraged to attend. While the masterminds and planners of the genocide are tried in long, expensive hearings at the UN tribunal in Arusha, the lay people who carried out the killing orders are given the chance to give a full disclosure of their actions and seek forgiveness in gacaca courts that are based upon the African principle of ubunto or humanity. Following the genocide, Rwanda’s legal system was in shambles and its prisons were horribly overcrowded. With such an urgent need to foster peace and reconciliation, these traditional courts were set up and respected community members were elected and trained to serve as functional judges. Once a week, shops close, work stops, and for a few tumultuous hours, Rwandans come together to seek truth and forgiveness regarding their painful past.

A few hundred people were gathered at the site when we arrived, and I felt a little like Moses as the sea of colorful kitenge parted before me. Five courts were being held—two dealing with reparations to the families of victims and three concerning accused killers. All but one of the courts were held in the fields—judges seated on wooden benches under the shade of a tree while the accused stood before them and spectators sat in the grass behind. Maria and I watched as the line of judges passed by—their blue, green, and yellow sashes labeling them as leaders, respected ones. The pastor invited us to observe the indoor court were he presided. As we climbed through the window into a cement room with no proper floor, he apologized, explaining that the builder had walked out mid-construction and had taken the door keys with him. Maria and I sat on a low bench against the wall as others climbed in. An older woman in a green kitenge greeted us respectfully and sat down beside me. Though the bench was not yet full, she sat pressed against my side. Most spectators remained outside—heads darkening the pane-less windows.

After the six judges had entered the room, the pastor reminded the crowd of the gacaca rules (for instance, anyone may ask a question provided that they are respectful and request permission). He then led us in a prayer and a moment of silence for the victims of the genocide. Next, a female judge read out the charges of the accused and I was shocked when the woman next to me in the green kitenge rose and joined two other male prisoners standing before the judges.

For three hours, the judges heard testimony and called witnesses. Every prisoner is given three chances in gacaca court. For two of the accused, it was their second time on trial, and for one, it was his third and final time. The three cases were not linked, and all had requested appeals for one reason or another. The two men had been members of killing squads during the genocide and had been given a fifteen year jail sentence. They both had previously denied all charges but one had requested an appeal in order to confess. He was being charged with killing two older women, and I watched as an ancient man was carried through the window. As black as night with a face like the bark of a tree, he was the brother to one of the deceased. His frail voice cracked with age as he spoke—explaining that he couldn’t rest peacefully until he knew who had killed his younger sister and how she had died. His nephew, the son of the woman was also present. The prisoner described how the two women had been found hiding in a latrine by members of his squad. They were brought before him and he had killed them with a machete. As Maria whispered translations, I watched the sad eyes of the brother and son as they listened. Their stoic composure in the presence of the killer amazed me.

I’ve read much about the African principal of ubuntu, but I never really understood the true meaning or power of the word from scholarly journals or articles. By observing the people of Rukira, I finally began to comprehend that incredible African quality of human compassion and understanding one’s self in terms of one’s relationships with others. The victims were actually listening to the explanations of the accused. Outside on breaks, people from the community brought food to the prisoners—greeting them with heart-felt though solemn arm grasps. Because the prisoner had not given a full confession at his first trial, gacaca rules stated that his sentence could not be reduced, yet he still came forward to confess to his actions and disclose what happened to the two women.

Though I was moved by the actions of the people, I felt a heightened frustration with the simplicity of the court proceedings. While a summer’s internship at a Charlottesville law firm left me feeling that the American legal system was robotic and devoid of humanity, I felt that precisely the opposite was the fault of the gacaca proceedings. Mere hearsay became evidence, numerous witnesses gave conflicting testimony and there was no capacity to check into the legitimacy of their claims. Witnesses mingled freely with each other and the spectators—perhaps collaborating stories. Although the judges and the spectators were both permitted to ask questions of the witnesses, no one seemed to be pursuing the obvious lines of questioning. The woman in green had been accused of revealing the hiding place of a group of tutsi children. She was denying the accusation and insisting that she had actually helped to save four of them from the killers. The judges listened to her and her daughter’s testimony of how she had hidden the children under her kitenge when the killers entered her compound but they never questioned how this had been accomplished. A little exasperated, I stood up and addressed the court—asking if the woman could demonstrate how she had managed to hide four children under her skirt. The woman described how she, her two daughters, and the four children had been sitting outside of her house within the walls of the compound when the killing squad came. They had shoved the children behind them and spread their kitenge on top. I asked how she thought the killers hadn’t observed the children, and she said that she surely thought they would all be killed and it was an act of God.

The gacaca proceedings were a complete novelty to me—both fascinating and positively perplexing. They system had obvious flaws in my eyes, but I came away with the impression that if the Rwandan people are indeed as resilient and compassionate as I believe them to be, then they will continue to heal, to forgive, and to live along-side each other in relative harmony.

By the time Maria and I returned to Kibungo, it was getting dark. The local youth center (next-door to LWF) was hosting an AIDS awareness evening and we were lured into joining the festivities by the sight and sound of African music videos being projected onto a huge screen. We spread our kitenge on the grass and watched a pack of eight year old boys freestyle dance to the music—their twig-like limbs twirling and stomping in a mix of African styles and Michael Jackson moves. Like my experience leaving the genocide museum in Kigali many weeks before, I felt refreshed by the carefree presence of the children. How long would they remain as such, I wondered? Would their eyes learn to stare in the persistent, unreadable manner of their elders or would they keep dancing throughout life? History has such a powerful tie to the future. What are these children being taught by their families about Rwanda’s history? Will they grow up to embrace the ubuntu philosophy or will they become more fiercely militant than the previous generation about the injustices of their past—both tutsi and hutu?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Homeward Bound

Dear family, friends, and latest Harry Potter novel:

I bid a sorrowful farewell to family and friends in Rwanda this morning and am now in my old stomping ground, the Nairobi airport--basking in the familiar comfort of a seven hour lay-over. I'm currently pouring American dollars into the hands of the cashier at the over-priced internet cafe (it's hard to spend real money after weeks of living on about $2/day in Kibungo) and rocking out to Kenny Roger's "Coward of the County" on the radio--no joke, East Africans LOVE country music!

I have a flash-drive full of unfinished blogs, but there's a rather intimidating sign banning flash drives so they will have to wait.

A quick update on the past few weeks--Maria and I did a whirl-wind tour of Southern Uganda to the source of the Nile (mostly on motorcycles) and 23 boxes of books finally arrived three days before I was to leave Rwanda. We put in two 16-hour days of cataloging, inventorying, stamping, book pocketing, and tea-drinking. The 450 books are only about a tenth of what's coming and though I left pages and pages of detailed instructions for future volunteers, I'm determined to return next summer and finish the job. Who knew cataloging a library could be so exciting and challenging? I devised a personalized system that combined the Dewey approach with form-based organization--creating seperate file distinctions for fiction, non-fiction, reference, biography, media, children's outreach, teacher resource, textbooks, and maps. It was like a perpetual Christmas morning--perhaps I should rethink my career path.

Maria got her American visa and will likely come to Virginia in early September. I can't wait to introduce America to her like she shared Rwanda with me.

To those at Duck Beach, we'll be riding waves together in a few hours! Love to all!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Lasting impressions

I’ve let the memories of the past weeks accumulate like so many leaves of rich Rwandan tea—crushed together, potent in their plentitude, and steeped in time to make a drink that captures the tang of my experience. The flavor is unlike any I’ve ever tasted—a hint of fruit, slightly acidic, with a bitterness that leaves my tongue dry and wanting more. It heats me from the inside out until I lightly perspire at my thoughts, impressions, and lingering confusions.

On Saturday July 7th, Maria and I packed lightly, said goodbye to the guards at the gate of the LWF compound (LWF is pronounced [la-woof] here), and walked down the dusty road to the taxi stand. It was our first venture back to Kigali since we had retired to the Kibungo countryside and the first of our weekly excursions to the capital to check the post office box for the arrival slips of library books. We had missed our chance to catch the roomy Onatracom bus, so we were left at the mercy of the crowded mini-van taxis, where for the equivalent of $1, you can endure a two-hour jostling as one twentieth of a traveling human pile. There were two persons in my row who geometrically speaking, took up far more than two twentieths of the breathable space in the van, and so I was forced to rigidly perch on the lap of a Congolese man for the duration of the journey. We conversed a little in broken French, and as we came within sight of Kigali, he proposed marriage. Perhaps it was African decency after such forced intimacy, I don’t know. I told him that I already had three husbands and a forth would be too much to handle.

The P. O. Box was empty, so we set off for our favorite yogurt shop to ease our sorrow. Rwandan yogurt is a delightful new experience. It’s a beverage served in pint-size glass mugs that leave you with a milk mustache worthy of any Got Milk add. Thicker than milk but less dense than American yogurt, it’s an unsweetened treat that tastes faintly bitter but smooth as honey. I adore it, and this particular joint is famous in Kigali for its first rate yogurt and the fact that President Kagame’s sister runs the place. All of the staff know me as the muzungo who loves African yogurt as well as trying her limited knowledge of Kinyarwanda greetings on new victims. Last time I was there, the owner joked that in the future, she expects me to walk in carrying my belongings on my head like a true African.

I’m known to many people here as Rusaro, the name for a traditional Rwandan bead (similar to a pearl) used in cultural ceremonies. It’s a name given to me by Edgar, a close friend of Maria’s and cousin to Pastor John. He’s a tall goliath of a man who flies helicopters for the Rwandan army and has a sense of humor to rival his tree-like height. The name has stuck among all his friends and family, and when I attended his wedding last weekend, it warmed my heart to hear complete strangers calling it out to me like a tacit message that I’ve been accepted as one of the clan.

The wedding was in Rukira, and Maria and I had agreed to help Edgar’s sister serve food to guests at the groom’s house. From what I can tell, many Rwandans have two marriage ceremonies—a traditional one and a more western-style ceremony complete with a white bridal gown. We woke early from Kibungo, took our breakfast, and caught a taxi to the place were taxis stop going. Then we hired motorcycles to take us the rest of the way up the mountain. Much of the dirt path was washed out by heavy rains, and at times we were balancing on little more than a ledge before the steep drop off into what Maria translated as “Death Camp Valley.” I shut my eyes tightly and clung to the driver—feeling both exhilarated and terrified. When we reached the groom’s house, Maria and I were a deep orange color from the dirt. We changed into the dresses we had brought and I tried to sponge the dirt off my arms and legs with a Wet-One only to blend it into an orange and tan marble. Many family members were already present (though it was hours before the wedding) so Maria and I went into the front sitting room to greet people. I was invited to sit with the grandmothers on a reed mat—legs stretched out before me as I clasped and greeted arm after arm, touching my right elbow with my left hand as a sign of respect.

After a few hours, Edgar and his wedding party emerged from a back room. They looked splendid in their white and black spotted mikenyero and rusaro, each carrying a spear and a small wooden shield. Following them, we left for the bride’s house where the main ceremony was being held. The compound was decorated with bundles of reeds and woven mats. The bride’s family and friends and the groom’s sat facing each other, each side numbering about 200 people. The fathers and their representatives sat in the center of their clans, and between the two parties was a white tent with a table and low wooden stools where the bride and groom would eventually be united. I was impressed that a sound system had been rented and while the people took their seats, an MC played Rwandan music and young women wearing decorative mikenyero served Fanta, Coke, and beer to the guests.

Once everyone was seated, the representatives of the fathers began the tradition of negotiating the bride price. The fathers never spoke, but let their chosen spokespersons handle the matter. The process was lengthy and fascinating, thanks to Maria’s translations. Never directly broaching the subject, the two men did a poetic tango of riddles, compliments, and gentle chides. Once they had settled on eight cows, each side called forth a young man to sing a cattle herding song and a delegation of men left to examine the dowry. A gourd of banana wine was passed around to celebrate and all eyes turned expectantly toward me as the gourd came to rest in my lap. Since the entire wedding was sipping from the same straw, I had intended to subtly slip the drink to the next person without partaking, but I now realized that was totally out of the question. I took a lengthy draught and smiled to congratulatory cheers and then sat back as my head spun to the banging of the drums. The bride and her wedding party emerged from the house, her hair twisted beautifully into the traditional Rwandan style. Plates heaped with food were served to each guest and the dancing began.

Maria and I slipped out of the compound to help out with the preparations back at the groom’s house. A shorter yet similar ceremony was to be held there and as the guests filtered over, we began taking drink orders and distributing beverages. Because of my obvious Kinyarwanda handicap, I manned the bottle opener—following behind Maria and popping caps off to the whispers and laughter of the guests, who I imagine had never been served by a muzungo. Vast cauldrons of meat, sauce, ibitoke, and rice were bubbling in the yard behind the house and we loaded plates and brought them out to the people—their second heaping meal in short order. As the sun set, Maria and I realized we’d been here all day and finding transportation off the mountain would be a challenge. The cab of a departing pick-up truck was already full, but we asked the driver to let us sit in the bed. He was dismayed at the thought of the dust we would have to endure and offered to make a second trip back up for us, but we refused and insisted that we liked the adventure. We piled in and just before we left, an old woman was also lifted into the back. She was quite drunk and Maria and I giggled as she latched on to me like a baby koala—cooing that I was her white daughter, her baby girl. Halfway down the mountain, an SUV flagged us over. It was the groom, Edgar and his wedding party heading back to Kigali. They insisted we pile in with them, so we did—laughing and singing all the way back to the LWF compound.

Pastor John returned to Rwanda from conferences in America on July 22nd and lavished attention on Mama Jean and I that he almost certainly couldn’t spare. On his second day in Kibungo, he announced that we should all take a day off and drive to the north western part of Rwanda to see the great Volcanoes National Park. Even if we couldn’t afford to see the gorillas, we would go see their habitat. So the four of us set off from a Kigali guest house at 5:30 the next morning on a cross-country adventure to Ruhengeri.

Pastor John has graduate degrees in theology, community development, and conflict resolution, and spending time in his presence is similar to the head-rush of possibilities one feels after reading an inspirational book. Car trips are always interesting as he is constantly pulling over his green Land Cruser to pick up friends or mere pedestrians. But what I admire most is his openness and willingness to talk about anything from the genocide to faith to poverty. For instance, there’s a pretty open hostility for the French here in Rwanda over their involvement in the genocide. The French embassy even left the country last year! In a foreign policy class, I once wrote a research paper on America’s decision not to intervene in Rwanda in the aftermath of Mogadishu and how we didn’t merely abstain, we actively blocked a UN resolution to send aid. But despite the anger some Rwandans feel toward the Belgian colonists for fostering divisions, the French for supplying weapons, and the international community for standing back and watching, Americans seem to be welcomed here with open arms. As we snaked through the mountains to Ruhengire, I asked Pastor John why that is and why Rwandans don’t harbor any hostility for our actions and inactions. His answer surprised me but I later realized it typifies his outlook on war and development. First he mentioned President Kagame’s military training in America and his public embrace of the country and of foreign and private sector investment in Rwanda. Then he turned to the genocide, saying that the genocide was an internal conflict. The Rwandese could not just wait for the international community to bail them out, they had to end the conflict within, heal within, and rebuild lives within. Foreign aid could be a huge help, but individual empowerment and a willingness to change at a grassroots level were imperative for reconciliation and growth. It was a bold statement that grasped capability and thrust it in the hands of the farmer, the mother, the aspiring pastor. I sat back and thought about what he had said about individual empowerment and community development. I’m pretty involved in politics at my campus and it’s even my field of major, but often I feel like the top-down process I observe is more of a slow rot than an instrument of democratic possibility. Here was a new form of political expression that was non-exclusionary. It taught the voiceless how to speak and the destitute how to achieve, not in spite of, but in partnership with their elected officials…and as equals. John would later take me to the community development project that he advises in the rural town of Mumeya. There, he helped me to see that the real achievement is not the clinic they are building, but the capability and hope that has been realized within the 500 committed yet impoverished community members who carried off 480 tons of rocks from the field on their heads and dug the foundation and the project leaders (most without secondary educations) who are meeting with the governor, voicing concerns, and holding public officials accountable for their spoken promises. I believe it’s a concept that holds particular promise for the peoples of Africa who cannot count on their governments to provide for their needs due to lack of resources, corruption, or unrest.

The volcanoes were hazy but majestic, and through the mist I imagined I saw a band of gorillas feasting their way through the foliage. We returned to Kigali in the only rain storm I’ve seen in my six-week stay here in Rwanda. The pounding rain and my pounding thoughts found solace together as the dry, cracked earth drank from the sky.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Life in Kibungo

Life in Kibungo seems worlds away from Kigali's sprawling suburbia. The drive itself is a transformation as you depart downtown Kigali with its massive American-embassy-in-progress that looks like it intends to cast a shadow over the surrounding hills and wind through the countryside. The bbrrrr of motorcycles gradually fades into the clickity-clank of bicycles, and the concrete fences topped with broken shards of Fanta bottles give way to enclosures made from tall reeds bound tightly together called imiyenzi. The roadsides are full of pedestrians. There are mothers in kitenge with babies bound tightly to their backs with colorful cloths-umbrellas raised at high noon to shade the tiny bobbing heads. Woman march to the market with their wares balanced expertly on their heads in great plastic tubs or cloth sacks. Boys labor on bicycles so over-loaded with bananas and pineapples that their bodies are obscured and it appears that the fruit is peddling on its own. Men sit on grassy embankments chewing stalks of sugar cane and eyeing passing cars like invading armies. And the sight that continues to disturb me-tiny children no older than three or four, wandering the roadside barefoot and alone. Houses here are gray concrete or mud and stick-almost all without electricity and water. People collect and pay for water at communal pumps in giant yellow jerricans and truck them home on their heads or on bicycles. The water isn't potable, but I can't imagine boiling such large quantities of water every day by fire.

I love the remoteness and the closeness to nature. I've often heard my grandfather, an organic farmer, speak of the Slow Food Movement, but it always seemed obscure to me. Slow Food is an ideology that celebrates the full life-cycle of crops. A carrot isn't simply an orange vegetable you buy pre-sliced and bagged at the supermarket. It's a tiny seed-planted, nurtured, weeded, and harvested by hand and then washed, peeled, and sliced before being savored by humble and appreciative taste buds. There's nothing but slow food here in Kibungo. Meals taste wonderful-not because the food is different (although eggs and fresh fruit taste worlds better)-but because we labor to make it. Milk is delivered straight from the cow every morning. We boil it to kill the bacteria, siphon off the thick cream, and drink it with breakfast-thick, filling, and 100 percent more flavorful than the watery excuse I force myself to drink at school. Bread isn't pulled from the freezer here, it's mixed, kneaded, left to rise, and baked fresh. Fruits and vegetables are either grown in our garden or negotiated for at the village market. I haven't had the heart to ask for meat, however, because I've been warned that the live chicken or goat will be brought home and butchered at our doorstep.

Mzee tends the garden and does some of the cleaning around the compound. He appears to be in his fifties and is so thin (I marvel that I can't see a trace of his legs beneath his cotton pants) that I wonder where all his strength comes from. He doesn't speak a word of English and has a sort of self-constructed version of French, so after we greet each other each morning in Kinyarwanda, its all smiles and gestures for the rest of the day. Last week, he taught me how to make bread-sweeping his hands around in great cloudy arks to signal me to pour more flour. I love to observe his resourcefulness. While gardening, if he needs another terrace for the cabbage patch, he hacks down a sapling with his machete, strips the tree, and drags it over to the garden. Mzee keeps three hand-made beehives up in the trees behind our house. He makes them out of hollowed out logs that he hangs from the upper branches. Once a month after sunset, he climbs the tree-feet and hands clamping the trunk like an inch worm, and smokes out the bees to get honey. We sat outside and watched one night. He carried a bucket, a long length of rope, a torch, and a machete up into the tree. It was too dark to see, but after the sudden humming of a thousand displaced bees, a shower of sparks, and the lowering of the bucket, Mzee climbed down and showed us the empty honeycomb he had sliced out. He explained that he had waited too long and the bees had already feasted on all the honey. Maria asked if he'd been stung and he grinned and nodded, turning his forearms over to show us the marks.

I've had a diverse array of bathing experiences while in Africa. On Kilimanjaro, I didn't wash at all. At the guest houses of Arusha and Kigali, I was pampered with hot showers or baths. But here in Kibungo, the bathing experience is my favorite. Every morning, I stand in a basin and pour cupfuls of water on my head. The air is warm, the water is warm, and it feels blissfully natural to be bathing this way. This is how humans have washed themselves for thousands of years and here I am at 21 trying it for the first time. I press my hand to my forehead like the brim of a hat to keep the soap from stinging my eyes-like I did so many times for Stella when she was a baby. When I'm all scrubbed and clean, I've only used a tenth of the water I might otherwise have in a high-powered shower back home.

Waste disposal is a problem in a country the size of Maryland with a surging population. President Kagame has even outlawed plastic bags-a move that is pure genius but would be viewed as a huge breach of the Bill of Rights back at home. We compost everything edible, and I'm speaking truthfully when I say that as a household, we produce only a half a bag of trash a week. It makes sense when you consider that there is no packaged food or supplies. We save and reuse everything from the milk jug to the yellow plastic phone cards we turn into flash cards for the class. I've been told it takes 28 days to build a habit. I'm curious to see whether any of these newly acquired and environmentally conscious behaviors will stick when I return to the states.

Another difference between the city and the countryside is the complete absence of muzungos. Beside Mama Jean, Robin, and myself, I'm aware of only one other white person living in the area. She's a British headmaster training Rwandan school administrators in the area. I've glimpsed her twice, met her once, and though she was perfectly nice, our conversation confirmed my suspicion that most muzungos are territorial of remote African villages in which they are the sole pale novelty.

Because of the color of my skin, I've grown accustomed to the stares, laughs, and shouts when I walk or drive by. I have to figure that most of the young children in the remotest of villages have only seen whites several times in their lives, because what else can justify the shrieks of "MUZUNGO!"? That's like screaming "ALBINO!" every time you see a person with that skin affliction. It's shocking, hilarious, and a little disconcerting to be on the receiving end of such targeted racial commentary (the word muzungo isn't a racial slur, but it certainly isn't polite either.) Never in my life have I experienced so completely what it feels like to be a minority. Of course, being a minority with celebrity status is an entirely different thing, but there are times I wish I could just blend in.

Maria and I have started jogging several nights a week. At first, we ran on the main road, but the reactions of the people were so alarming that we decided to pick another route. Pedestrians would literally stop in their tracks and stare and shopkeepers would come out of their shops and stand in the doorways. I felt like a zoo animal on display. So we started jogging on a dirt road near the LWF compound. The reaction of the people was no different, but there were more children than adults there and I enjoyed observing the homes and life-styles of the families as we passed by. Often the kids would come out of their compounds to watch us, and one day they began running after us. If you've ever been chased by a large pack of children, it's a truly frightening experience. I caught a surge of adrenaline and was ready to sprint away, but Maria was visibly winded so we kept our pace. To my surprise, the children caught up with us and slowed down, silently running along side while looking up at me with wide eyes. Maria giggled and I looked down to see a tiny boy who had managed to squeeze himself in the small space between us. His arms were pressed flat to his sides and he shrunk up his shoulders to fit in the gap-running like a tiny little pole. It was too funny. We continued like that for about a half mile before the children dropped out one by one, as silently as they'd come.

It's the dry season in Rwanda, which means we haven't seen a drop of rain in the five weeks I've been here. As Maria and I jog, we kick up orange clouds of dusty dirt-coloring our skin and our clothes an earthy tone. My sinuses suffer, and even letting down my dust-coated hair at night prompts a sneezing fit. Post exercise, I wash-rivets of orange streaming down my legs into the murky water I stand in. Afterward, dinner preparations-washing, pealing, slicing, boiling, steaming, serving, eating.washing, drying, stacking. sighing, sitting, chatting, reading, sleeping. There are no shortcuts to life in Kibungo. We're beyond lucky to have running water, electricity (at times), and a stove and refrigerator-not to mention shelves of books on faith, war, genocide, peace, poverty, fantasy, and fiction.

A few hundred yards away, a dim candle lights a mud room, and a woman tends a low-burning fire-feeding sliced matoke, garlic, and beans into the boiling water as her children play quietly around her. It's only 6:30, but the sunlight has fled, and along with it, the useable hours of the day. It's early to bed, early to rise in this household. No books, no lights, no laptop computers, just family, friends, a few goats and chickens, a cherished plot of land, hard work, and dreams.

Rwanda for me is a brief cultural emersion-like playing house or a family vacation to an isolated log cabin. It's fun, but it's finite, and perhaps that's the reason I can enjoy it. It's no passing experience for the students I teach and the people that gawk as I jog by. That's a truth that is hard to fully appreciate. Maybe an opportunity for a better life won't come for these people. Maybe the closest thing is a free English lesson three times a week with some crazy muzungos that smile so much their mouth is likely to get stuck like that-acting like the world doesn't have problems.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

TIA- This is Africa

It’s been three weeks since the setting of my last blog entry and the chronological congestion has been preying on my conscious like a lie I need to come clean about. I’m no longer living in Kigali, but am staying in a house at the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) compound in Kibungo, Rwanda. My cousin, Robin, and an American volunteer named Jean, arrived in Rwanda on July 7th. Robin and her husband, Pastor John, live at the LWF in Kibungo, and her project of building a secondary school is the reason I am here this summer. Robin is fun and fearless, with an inspiring ability to understand and assimilate into foreign cultures. She spent 8 years as a teacher in Japan, and for the first part of my life, I knew her only vicariously though the stories of my older sister, Helen, who visited her there. It has been wonderful to get to know her in this setting, and she is a natural teacher—both inside and outside the classroom. Jean is a tiny grandmother from Harrisonburg, Virginia, with more spunk and hutzpah than her compact height suggests. Now in her sixties, she has returned to school to get a college degree and is studying religion and community organization at James Madison University. She’s full of funny stories and has more stored-up knowledge than an almanac. With the addition of two such vibrant figures, the group dynamic has changed dramatically, and Maria and I find ourselves swept into long post-dinner discussions about liturgy, culture clashes, and puppy (or rather owner) training.

Contrary to how it may appear in this diary, I did not come to Africa to climb snow-capped equatorial mountains and sight-see. I came on a grant sponsored by the 100 Projects for Peace Foundation to catalogue, label, and assemble a small library in Rwamagana, Rwanda. Like many countries in Africa, Rwanda has an appalling shortage of books. There is not a single public library in the country (although one is currently being constructed in Kigali) and the only bookstore I’ve heard of is a Christian bookstore in downtown Kigali. It seems as if a person’s best chance to study English is by reading a bible (the only book readily available here) or surfing the net. For a country with an enormous potential to develop and with such a divisive past to overcome, education—and especially a command of the English language is critical. The people and the government know this all too well. The Rwandan government is increasingly pushing the Rwandan people to pursue the English language, and the push is hardly needed—everyone I’ve met here appreciates the value of education and embraces it whole-heartedly as a means to escape poverty and improve the lifestyles of their families.

For the past six months, I’ve been purchasing, collecting, and shipping books and supplies for a library that will be a part of the secondary school Robin is building here. She plans to commence classes in January of 2008, but as of now, there are no physical buildings. My summer goal is to collect all the boxes of books from the Kigali Post Office and truck them to Kibungo, where I can catalog, label, and organize them all into big boxes than can be easily transplanted onto library shelves in Rwamagana when the time comes.

I’ve encountered one major problem in my plans…the books and most of the materials haven’t arrived here in Rwanda yet. The first shipment of two thousand pounds of books was mailed from California in March. The second shipment of books, I sent from the Lexington Post Office in April, and the library supplies were shipped priority from Harrisonburg in early June. All of the books were sent via m-bag delivery—a method of shipment for paper-products only that costs about a fifth of the standard shipping price and purports to take 6-8 weeks for delivery. You cannot purchase shipping insurance on m-bags, nor can you track shipments, but Robin has used this method frequently and has never had any trouble…until now. Once a week, I take a bus from Kibungo to Kigali to check our P.O. Box. I’m confident that the books will arrive sometime soon, and I’ve adopted the acronym from the movie, Blood Diamond, to cope with the delay…TIA—“this is Africa”.

Luckily, I sent some books and materials in Robin and Jean’s luggage because their airline permitted 50 more pounds than British Airways allowed me. So I have about 50 books, a stack of DVDs, a few bags of science and math-related instruments, and some art supplies that Robin collected to catalog. I have no prior experience with setting up libraries and am teaching myself as I go from two books—the first is a massive volume on Dewey Decimal System classifications, and the second is a thinner book titled, Small Library Cataloging. I teach Maria as I teach myself so the project will be sustainable. I’m incredibly fortunate that she’s here, can speak fluent English, and truly wants to learn. Thankfully, many of the skills will be useful to her in life. This week, I taught her how to use Microsoft Excel—how to enter data, how to sort columns alphabetically, how to classify a title starting with a conjunction, e.g. Wrinkle in Time, A. and where to find the Dewey Decimal classification in books with newer copyrights. I’ve purchased two lap-top computers and a printer for the library and am showing her how to use them as well. Some of the grant money has been set aside to pay a student-librarian for a three-year work study position. If the books don’t arrive soon, it looks like Maria will either fill this position herself, or I’ll allot a portion of the money to pay her to train someone after I’m gone.

But even without the books, I’ve found that life has mysterious ways of working itself out, and my time here has been incredibly fulfilling. Robin was summoned back to America after only a week back in Rwanda to complete her missionary training, and Jean and I have taken over teaching her English class. After my teaching experience last summer in South Africa, I thought I’d never get to make this statement again, but teaching this class in Rwamagana is most inspiring thing I’ve ever done.

The inspiration starts with Robin. As if spearheading the planning, fundraising for, and construction of a secondary school isn’t enough work for one person, for the past six months, she has been travelling the hour-long distance to Rwamagana three days a week to offer free English classes to those who truly wish to learn. She is not discriminatory about age, and the class ranges from a nine-year old girl that comes after her primary school lets out to a married mother of six. After a few weeks of teaching, so many people started showing up for her class that she had to start turning some away. The current roll-call is 42 students, all of whom pack into a small classroom with equivalently small chairs at a local primary school. There are electricians, farmers, pastors, college hopefuls, and many unemployed persons in the class—all of whom view English as their ticket out of poverty. It’s a sobering inspiration to think about the hope and determination of these people compared to the way in which many Americans (myself included) take education for granted. Only a small handful have had the chance to attend secondary school, whereas there was never even a doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t attend college. These people survived a genocide, picked up the pieces of their lives, and somehow found enough determination to return to school to learn a language that is barely spoken in their country, but holds the promise of a new beginning. I have no idea if any of them will be able to make those changes—if they’ll learn enough English to communicate well or if they’ll be able to find jobs in such a dry market, but I do know that even if only for a few weeks, I’m lucky to be a part of their lives.

More on the class, various marriage proposals, and other funny experiences I’ve had during these past few weeks later.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Forth of July

On the fourth of July, I woke early and stepped into the claw-foot bathtub of the Kigali guest house—conscious that I would be doing the exact same thing a half a world away if I were home in America. Every fourth, we drive to the family’s organic farm in Brewster, New York for our annual reunion of scattered cousins, heavy eating, and dynamic games of Hell and Dictionary. The old Sycamore farm house was built in 1795 and hasn’t changed in nearly as long, with its low wood ceilings, ancient horse-hair furniture, and faded daguerreotypes of scowling ancestors. Each year, crossing the threshold feels like stepping into a portal into the past, and as kids, our imaginations ran wild. We’d put on plays for the adults in the great sitting room. Most involved ghosts, and all ended in death or despair—which is how we imagined life was in those days. In the upstairs bathroom is a deep claw-foot bathtub, which takes about an hour to fill. As I lay submerged in the tub in Kigali, I let my mind drift across the ocean to Ryder farm. It would still be night time there, but I knew what the morning would bring—little cousins to the chicken coops to collect eggs and then to the pastures to watch the sheep dogs at work and a bustling kitchen of elder cousins making rhubarb pies, smoked ham, deviled eggs, steamed vegetables, and my favorite—a giant American flag cake, iced in white with fifty blueberry stars and stripes of sliced strawberries.

Submerged in the bath water, I occupied the nexus between my two worlds, but right outside my window was the hypnotic beating of cow skin drums, spirited singing, and honking taxi buses on the street. Rwanda also celebrates its Independence Day on July 4th—the day that the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) swept into Kigali and secured the capital city from the genocide. Already, crowds were streaming down the streets to the stadium, where the cultural events were to be held.

Egide had put me in touch with a friend of his, Senator Gasamagera, so that I might have an official invitation to the stadium events and sit in the dignitary section. I kindly refused the Senator’s offer so Maria and I could sit together. We knew we had to get to the ceremony early, but when we reached the stadium an hour and a half before the start, guards had formed a barricade at the gate to prevent more people from getting in. The crowd swelled as people packed in to see what the congestion was all about. To my surprise, the guards swung their batons in wide swipes in front of them, and I heard a crack as one made contact with a boy’s back. Maria and I held hands to stay together, but we were being shoved around and were packed so closely with others that it was difficult to breathe. I knew crowds of people, like rushing water, have incredible power and I was fearful we would be crushed or trampled. Suddenly, there were shouts as people broke through the police barricade. Like a dam breaking, the crowd started pouring through the gate. It was all I could do to stay on my feet and retain my grip of Maria’s hand. A policeman seized my arm as I passed, but Maria jerked me away and we somehow fought our way out of the stampede.

Once inside the gate, however, our hope of entering faded. There were 18 entrances, and all were blocked by armed guards and sustained massive crowds of pushing people. Only those with official invitations could pass. A rumor spread that an opposite entrance was admitting people to sit on the field, and I thought of the wildebeest herds in the Serengeti as the crowds blindly took off running to the gate. Those who remained were either elderly or had young children. Maria and I stood to the side, watching as people in fancy suits or beautiful umukenyero (the traditional dress of women) raised their white envelopes above their heads and pushed through. I called the Senator’s cell phone, hoping to get help, but he didn’t answer. As Maria and I sat there watching the gate proceedings, the head guard shouted “mzungu” [white person] and beckoned me over. He asked if I had an invitation and I responded that I did (small lie) but I couldn’t get in touch with Senator Gasamegera. He seemed to believe me so I gestured toward Maria and said she was my friend and translator. He nodded curtly and shouted for the crowd to make way. I felt guilty as we pushed through—knowing that my white skin was the only reason we were being admitted, but it was a relief to be inside and we found good seats in the shade to wait for the start of the ceremony.

For hours we watched the parade of soldiers, policemen, security forces, and marching bands. Later came a procession of students, teachers, and the private sector. I laughed aloud as businessmen and women traipsed behind a huge banner that literally read, “private sector”. Next, traditional dancers, drummers, and a sequence of orating poets performed their various arts. When President Kagame and the ministers came in, the stadium seemed to gyrate with excitement. Spectators were packed like sardines on the field as well as in the stands, and I heard someone comment that there were 42 thousand people packed into that stadium meant for 25 thousand.

By the overwhelming number of soldiers and policemen participating, it seemed like the intended message of the demonstrations was one of strength and safety, but Maria and I were both surprised by the final military demonstration. After a series of karate simulations performed at the center line, troops ran out onto the field and erected five white targets. Next, soldiers were called onto the field to demonstrate how they might kill these ‘enemies’ by using only common garden tools and everyday supplies. Maria and I watched in confusion, and then horror, as one by one, they hurled machetes, hoes, pick axes, shovels, scythes, and kitchen knives at the targets. As each was embedded into the center with an echoing thud, the MC shouted comments like “Got him!” and “He’s dead!” Some people laughed nervously and others remained stony-faced. These were exactly the killing tactics used in the genocide, and for an Independence Day celebration, it seemed like an incredibly tactless and insensitive simulation.

Last in the line-up, Paul Kagame spoke. Maria translated his words as I arched my neck to glimpse his thin frame at the podium. It was an eloquent speech, though tame in fervor. He spoke about the great distance Rwanda has come since the time of the genocide, and what more it hopes to achieve in the coming years. One part in particular stood out to me. Kagame lamented that the Western world still sees Africa as only a charity case—like a sick child in need of guidance and care, instead of recognizing the great contributions Africa can make and the lessons it can teach. I found myself considering Kagame’s message carefully. It is true that almost all of the Westerners I’ve seen on the continent are either tourists seeking to glimpse primitive lifestyles or wild animals, missionaries hoping to spread the Christian faith, or aid workers. But am I any different? Here I am, thrilled by the Maasai’s cow-skin pouch of blood, elated by the serenity of a cheetah slinking through the elephant grass, and living among Lutheran missionaries, while my personal purpose here in Rwanda is to organize a small library for a school in a rural Rwandan town. It practically stinks of that Western oxymoron, the preservationist/development-minded philanthropist ideology that is rather like saving fish from drowning (Amy Tan). But what sets me apart, I tell myself, is that I know that when all’s said and done, I’m the one who is receiving the greatest gift. No matter how many English phrases I teach or books I catalog, I will come away from this experience with a set of life lessons that no college seminar could ever teach me.

Behind us in the stands was a group of five Americans. I felt bad that they had no one to translate the fast-paced Kinyarwanda, so I turned around and smiled, “Happy Forth of July!” Excited to talk with an American on this day in particular, I struck up a conversation with an older woman wearing an American flag vest from Minnesota. She asked me what brought me to Rwanda. The library is something I feel pretty uncomfortable speaking about because any way I phrase it, it always sounds self-righteous. With Kagame’s words echoing in my head, I explained a little about the project. “So you’re a part of the solution,” the woman stated, approvingly. Changing the subject, I asked her why she was visiting Rwanda. She gestured to her group and very seriously explained, “We are here for a week, helping with the malaria and AIDS problem in Rwanda.” I know she had the best of intentions, but I cringed inside, deeply conscious of the English-speaking Rwandans around me. Later, Maria and I recapped the conversation and laughed at the conviction with which she spoke. And here for only one week! To be sure, it’s a noble cause and a serious problem, but our brief exchange typified the Western mentality that Kagame spoke about and I felt sad for my fellow Americans who can’t possibly know better than to share her same outlook on Africa.

After the ceremony were a series of soccer matches, starting with the Government ministers against the private sector—an idea I thought was brilliant and would make the world a lot more interesting if problems were solved in this way. Maria and I were starving and the matches weren’t scheduled to begin for a while, so we set off to find a distant Kigali suburb with a well-reputed Chinese restaurant. We sat outside under red paper lanterns, clinking chopsticks and listening to blaring Celine Dion and Boyz-2-Men songs until our bellies were sated and our ears were ringing. Rwanda has a very severe power problem, and when we left the restaurant, all of the street lights were out to accommodate the lighting needs of the stadium. There wasn’t a single mini-bus to be found, so we stumbled for a couple miles down the pitch-black streets until we reached a lighted area and took a bus back to the guest house. This Forth of July definitely broke the mold of family reunion feasts at the farm, but it left me with plenty to think about concerning what it means to be American and how that appears to others.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

New cousin

On Saturday the 1st of July, I was writing in my room at the Beausejour when an employee knocked to tell me I had a visitor. It was my third such visit because my Rwandan contacts in the States had been enormously kind and have made sure that family and friends are checking in on me every so often. I slipped on my shoes and walked out to the garden where I saw a Rwandan girl about my age sitting at a table. I knew immediately that she was Maria, the adopted daughter of my mother’s cousin, Robin, and her husband, Pastor John Rutsindintwarane. We shook hands, smiled shyly, and sat down to get to know each other. As I’m apt to do in all awkward situations, I began to talk quite a lot and laugh just as much. Maria was the opposite, smiling sweetly and patiently answering my volley of questions. She speaks wonderful English because she studies in Uganda, though she’s taking the year off to do an independent study of French and English reading. We hit it off immediately and have been constant companions for the past two weeks. Some quick calculating determined we were second cousins, and we immediately began introducing each other as such. The amusement we get from people’s shocked expressions as they examine our skin tones and speculate (often not so subtly) about the circumstances of our family ties is endless.

On Sunday, Maria asked me to attend church with her. Full of curiosity, I agreed and chose the Kinyarwanda service over the English one. From the Beausejour, we hoped on motorbike taxis for the bumpy ride to the Lutheran church. There were only about 30 people in the congregation, but practically all came over to welcome us and shake my hand. Maria translated the pastor’s sermon for me, which was about forgiveness and alluded frequently to the genocide. I studied the faces around me, searching for traces of emotion or discomfort, but found little to read. It was a sermon that could have been preached in any country, but it held an obvious gravity in this space and time. For me—new to Rwanda with a million unanswered questions bouncing in my head, it was a tumultuous forty-five minutes. Maria whispered translations as if she were narrating a story that was not her own, and I realized I know nothing about what it truly means to forgive.

The music of the service was lovely. Both the adult and children’s’ choirs were small but sang beautifully in a distinctly African way. Afterward, there was more mingling and I found myself in a long conversation with the bishop’s son who attends university in Ethiopia. He asked me where I was from and when I said Virginia, I was surprised when he placed it by referencing the shootings at Virginia Tech. It was the second time in a week a stranger had associated Virginia with the tragedy, and it made me think about the unbalanced power of media in the world. Here was a country in the heart of Africa that knew all about the Virginia school shooting, while we had buried their genocide in the backs of our papers and newscasts—just as we are now doing with Darfur.

During the next two days, Maria and I explored the city—both by the cheap but packed mini-buses and on foot through the various wards. On Monday, we lounged by the pool at the Mille Colline—straining to feel the anxiety of twelve hundred refugees against the happy splashes of European children. Tuesday brought us to the Genocide Museum, where we made the slow and painful journey down the halls of the narrative history, through the rooms of skulls, femurs, and tibias, and into the chamber displaying the profiles of murdered children…

Name: Innocent
Age: 3
Favorite food: mango
Method of death: decapitation by machete

Upstairs were separate rooms dedicated to past genocides—Namibia, Armenia, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia. Outside was a mass grave, and I watched from afar as families came and placed flowers on the giant tomb.

Afterward, we walked back down the red dirt path to the main road and tried to readjust to reality and the light of day. When I was little and woke up in the middle of the night from a bad dream, I would turn on the radio to listen to the comforting voice of my mother murmuring the news over the airwaves or the fast-paced prattle of the commercials. My mom’s voice served as a protective shield from the demons of my dreams, while the commercials were equally comforting as a reminder that the world was still spinning. As we walked away from the genocide museum, I found similar asylum from the horrors I had witnessed in the eager curiosity of the neighborhood children. They flocked toward us, shouting out “MUZUNGU” [that which gets red in the sun…i.e. white person] in high-pitched squeals. “Bonjour,” they sang out. I started to respond in French, but they had caught my hesitation and expertly ventured, “Hello!” I answered, “Hello, how are you?” knowing well the sequence of English greetings that all African children are taught. “I’M FINE!” They shrieked in unison and scattered as quickly as they’d come. Right then, I needed those children and their unabashed curiosity. They were a strong symbol of the Rwanda I’d been marveling at all week—the clean, growing, accessible, and often impeccably dressed city of Kigali. The present-day Rwanda is worlds different from the one at the time of the genocide. It seems to be full of hope and promise. To be sure, divisions are still present, but most are much too subtle or foreign for me to pick up. Every so often, I get a chill from the unsmiling stares of the older generations (something I never experienced in any of the other four African countries I’ve visited) but children are the future, as the cliché goes, and Rwanda’s future is strong and affable.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

New friends in Kigali

This morning, I sauntered down through the garden to the complimentary breakfast of fruit, bread, eggs, and coffee. As I sat there sipping my coffee and reading about Kigali in my guidebook, a trio of Europeans walked in—two older gentlemen and a young lady, They were laughing and talking in English quite loudly, and I could tell from their somewhat-shabby style of dress that they were volunteers. As they ate, they talked about their upcoming trip to trek gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park in a few weeks. This is something I desperately want to do, so I walked up and introduced myself and joined their conversation. To my dismay, they told me that the Park fee had doubled just in the last month to $500—plus you must find two nights of accommodations and hire a jeep to take you on the mountain. This is wayyy out of my budget, but I listened dreamily as the woman, Katherine, described the trek. You four-wheel for a couple hours down a bumpy road and then get out and hike through the rain forest. She said you see loads of gorillas and they are often as close as 5 feet away, communicating with you through gestures and often showing off with various acrobatic feats. It sounds incredible!

The three Europeans were from Ireland, England, and Sweden, and are volunteers in an organization called VSO, which appears to be a sort of European Peace Corps. They were very kind and gave me all sorts of travel advice such as when and how much to tip, how to get around the country, and most importantly, NOT to carry the shoulder bag I have been using because it is practically begging for theft. All three had gotten mugged at some point. We hit it off extremely well. They were passing through Kigali to go a fellow volunteer’s party in Northern Rwanda, and they offered to take me into the city and show me around before they had to catch their bus.

There are three general modes of transit to get to the city—vans (buses) are the cheapest at only about 20 cents with about 14 passengers packed in. This was how I got around everywhere in South Africa and Swaziland last summer. Private taxis are the most expensive at about 4 dollars. To my delight, we jumped on the back of motorcycle taxis (which cost about a buck-fifty.) I had never been on a motorcycle before and as terrifying as it was, I loved it! I’m definitely going to copy my friend Ginger and find a boyfriend with a motorcycle when I get back to the states. That narrows the choice at W&L to zero, but I absolutely insist. We were given helmets and the volunteers assured me they were very safe, but for the most part, the taxi drove right in the center of the two-lane road, zipping between both lines of moving cars! I clung on for dear life! Once in the city center, we shopped around a bit and they pointed out important things like the Post Office, the internet café, and the fancy grocery store. I bought some gifties and cool little cloth pouch that I can store my valuables in and wear diagonally across my chest as they recommended. As I walked with them to the bus station, we exchanged numbers and they invited me to stay with them for a weekend sometime. I completely forget where they said they live, but it sounds like an adventure. We tentatively planned a white-water rafting trip on the Nile River in Uganda, which apparently is really cheap. Katherine had been before and said it was a must-do but she would never go again…hmmm.

After leaving them, I chugged a bottle of water and jumped on a motorcycle to head back to the Beausejour. Its pretty hot during the day and is also a very nice way of cooling off. I’m now sitting in the middle of the beautiful exotic flower garden out back, writing this entry. There are little striped lizards darting all over the place, and I feel quite peaceful and happy. I think blogging is a disease. I’ve written more voluntarily in the past four days than I ever have before and I’ve even begun to process thoughts like blog entries. It really is ridiculous and I bet I will have written an entire book by the time the summer is over. It gets dark here early, and as a single traveler, there really isn’t much else to do at night. Thank god for my trashy romance novel!

Safe in Kigali!

Here in Rwanda at last! As the small commuter plane dipped below the cloud-line, I leaned over the window seat and craned my neck to catch a glimpse of the rolling hills below. Almost all of the land seems to be farmed, and from the sky, it looks like a green madras Hobbit shire. Rwanda truly is the ‘land of a thousand hills.’ As beautiful as the vista was, it was chilling to think, as we landed, that the genocide was started 13 years ago by the president’s plane being shot from the sky on this very strip of air.

I was greeted at the airport by a young man named Leonce—who is a trusted taxi driver/friend of Robin and John, and his friend, Denison. Leonce spoke English, but Denison only spoke French, so I was finally forced to pull out some of my third-grade reading level French and stumble through the traditional greetings. We changed some money, put some minutes on my SIM card, and headed over to the hotel I’ll be staying in while in Kigali—Beausejour. Once again, I have nice single room with a self-contained bathroom and a double bed. There’s also a mosquito net, to my extreme relief! After settling in, I wandered up to the desk to chat with the nice guy behind it about where I should walk for dinner. He only speaks Kinyarwanda and French, so there was a lot of comic gesturing. He finally got the directions across, and as I turned to leave, I remembered that I wanted to find a book to read at night. I flapped my hands like an open book and said, “Je voudrais chercher un livre.” His eyes lit up in comprehension and he fumbled behind the desk and pulled out one of the most raunchy American romance novels I’ve ever seen. It’s titled “In the Whispers of the Night” and I think it’s so hilarious, I’m definitely going to read it!

I walked up the road about a ways to an Italian restaurant called the Sole Luna. I chose a two-top table on the patio (one of the weirdest things about travelling alone is all the solitary dining) and ordered a goat cheese and tomato pizza and a glass of my favorite juice—passion fruit. I’m staying on the out-skirts of Kigali, high up on a hill, and I sat with my candle-lit dinner and watched the last rays of sun light slink from the city below.

Kigali is a very clean and safe city—much more so than Nairobi, Jo’burg, and Arusha. Even though it was dark, I felt very peaceful and safe on my walk home (a luxury I’ve never felt in any of the other cities—day or night.)

The Maasai People

The Africa of Conrad and Hemingway would have us believe that the continent is a wide expanse of wind-swept savannas, grazing beasts, and indigenous tribes living in grass huts. This is a European glorification—a preservationist way of thinking that holds little future or hope for the African people, who have seen their standards of living actually decrease in recent decades, even as more tourism and foreign investment pour into their countries. Reality paints a different picture of bustling cities, beeping cell phones, spiraling unemployment and poverty, and some of the sharpest inequalities in the world.

But life for the Maasai people appears to have resisted all Western encroachment, and they are truly a fascinating tribe of cattle and goat herders. They live in the greater Arusha area in the bush in family units of huts called bomas surrounded by spiky wooden fences. They wear brilliant red cloth wraps, which I’ve been told is a color that repels lions (but I have to wonder about bull buffalo), and the men stretch their earlobes to great sizes and tattoo their cheeks. The women wear many strings of white beads through their ears. All Maasai people carry sharp wooden spears to defend themselves from wild animals and each other. Historically, they are a fierce, warring people, but I doubt that is still the case.

The Maasai are permitted to live in Ngorongoro Conservation Area precisely because they pose no threat what-so-ever to the wild animals besides self defense. They subsist entirely off their cattle and goats, eating only meat and drinking only blood and milk. When they bleed a cow, they do not kill it, but chink its neck in an apparently painless process (though I can’t imagine how) and catch the blood in a leather drinking pouch. They then seal the hole up with some mud. Cows are sacred to them and they never eat meat and blood on the same day because it would be disrespectful. Recently, times have changed a little and some Maasai women buy fruits and vegetables for their families at town markets.

The Maasai measure wealth in children and cows, and actually, are a very wealthy people. We drove past one particularly large boma and Francis told us that a well-respected traditional healer lived there with his ten wives and herd of 200 cattle. Maasai come from all over to see him and pay for his services with cattle. Francis estimated that his herd of cattle was worth approximately 5 new Land Rovers!

The Maasai are also famous for their circumcision ceremonies. Female circumcision was outlawed by the Tanzanian government only 4 years ago, and is now punished by a minimum jail sentence of 15 years for the parents of the girl. Male circumcision continues. A boy is taken into the bush around the age of 14 and is circumcised by machete. If he so much as cries out, his family is spit upon and shamed for a period of two years until the incident is considered forgotten.

I couldn’t get many pictures because it is considered disrespectful, but driving through the bush and seeing wild animals and a small boy with a spear in the same sight-frame was truly incredible! Apparently, there is a white woman who renounced her European life-style, married a Maasai, and lives as one of them. I’m told she has written a book and a movie on her is coming out in the states this summer. That is something I definitely want to see when I get back!


The next morning we rose early (no such thing as sleeping late in Africa) and piled into two safari vehicles for a week amongst the animals. We booked our tour through a company based in Arusha called Sunny Safaris and they were wonderful. Six to a Land Cruiser, we each had a window seat and the top opened up so we could stand up and ogle as we drove. We dubbed our vehicles Team A and Team B (I was in A, of course) haha. And developed a significant amount of competitive spirit as the week progressed. Francis was the driver for the A Team and accordingly, he was definitely the cooler cat.

We were hitting up the cluster of game parks in Tanzania called the northern circuit—arguably some of the most well-known in Africa. These included Tarangire National Park, the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Wildlife Conservation, and Lake Manyara National Park.

Our first day was in Tarangire—famous for its elephant herds and numerous baobab trees. Sure enough, we saw loads of both. It’s funny to reflect on our changing tolerance as the week went by. At our first sighting of gazelle, we implored Francis to stop the car and we spent about 5 minutes snapping pictures and marveling at the beast. By the last day, we had seen thousands of gazelle and impala and were not the least bit phased by their presence. We had eyes only for the big cats and predators. Some of us developed a strong interest in exotic bird species after the sighting of so many large animals had exhausted their mystique. My favorites were the lilac-breasted roller and the grey-headed Kingfisher. At camp that night, a local trio of boys gave an incredibly impressive acrobatic and bongo drum-playing performance.
The next day we drove straight through a portion of Ngorongoro to the Serengeti. It was in this brief section of Ngorongoro that I saw my favorite sight of the trip—the fascinating Maasai people. The Serengeti is an enormous expanse of savanna—the kind one would picture when thinking of Africa. This is where the great migration of wildebeest occurs each year and we saw herds with thousands of them! They are really dumb creatures and it’s hilarious to watch them get scared because if one takes off running, they ALL follow suit. And they run in single-file lines so you’ll see a massive line of wildebeests running for absolutely no reason. Almost equally numerous where the zebras, and they are generally mixed in with the herds of wildebeest.

Our first day in the Serengeti, we saw eight lions, two cheetahs and a leopard. This is almost unheard of! One of the lions was in a tree, which is apparently a completely new evolution in this region of Africa. It used to be that trees were only the domain of leopards and if they could drag their prey up into the tree, they were safe from competing carnivorous cats. This is no longer the case, and apparently, the first sighting of tree-climbing lions was in Lake Manyara National Park a few years ago (another park we visited). In total, we spent two nights and three days in the Serengeti and saw pretty much everything you could hope for on safari.

The highlight for me was when we saw a lioness and her two cubs at very close range. I had already exhausted both batteries of my camcorder on less interesting footage, but I managed to get a 30 second video of her playfully biting and batting at her cubs as they crawled all over her on my digital camera. The mating hippos were a slightly more traumatizing, but fascinating sighting. Hippos are the most dangerous animal to humans in all of Africa. We came across this one hippo pool with probably over a hundred beasts in it. Most of the time, you couldn’t tell how big they were because you could only see the tops of their backs and their eyes above the water, but once and a while, a couple would briefly fight each other, launching their massive bodies straight out of the water to clash with the other and snapping their huge, sparsely-toothed jaws. It was terrifying. At one point, two of the biggest hippos were mating and another male came over to challenge the first, mid-mount. They had a pretty ferocious battle, and once again, I was sadly out of battery juice. We also saw a cool sort of hippo initiation or rite-of-passage…we think. A very small (comparatively, of course) baby hippo climbed out of the water and approached a crocodile lying on the beach. The baby hippo seemed to freeze up about ten feet from the croc, looking back and forth from the croc to the pool of hippos—who interestingly enough, had all turned to watch. After about 5 minutes, two slightly larger (lets say teen-age) hippos climbed out of the water and nudged the baby forward with their snouts. It progressed hesitantly forward until the croc suddenly scampered off and the baby hippo splashed back into the water…very odd.

Our forth day, we drove to the Ngorongoro crater. The park was named Ngorongoro by the Maasai, because that is the sound that the clay bells that they attach to their cattle make as they walk. The crater was formed 2 million years ago by the collapse of a huge volcano. It is seventeen km across in every direction and most of the wildlife is trapped inside its steep walls. You can find pretty much every animal except for the giraffe because they cannot walk down the steep decline to get inside. The Park is well known for the 20 or so rhinos it has—rhinos are extremely rare in Tanzania. We only saw one from very far off. The highlight was definitely a lion kill of a zebra and I got great footage of the lioness dragging the carcass around. We also saw loads of spotted hyenas, which is rare because like lions and cheetahs, they are nocturnal and usually just sleep in the tall grass during the day.

I’ve been on safari before—a five-day trip in Kruger National Park in South Africa, but this was entirely a different experience. For starters, Kruger is much more touristy, with loads of vehicles, better roads, and even man-made watering holes to facilitate wildlife viewing. But the biggest difference is that in Kruger, each camp ground is behind huge electric fences so you are protected at night. There are no such fences in Tanzania (nor are there fences surrounding any of the parks!) I found this to be a bit worrisome at night—especially when I had to go to the bathroom. We were told to not keep food of any kind in our tents or it would attract animals. We were also told to not wear scent of any kind, which made using shampoo at the two camp sites that had showers, very nerve wracking. At night we could hear the howls of hyenas and the snorts of wildebeests, among other things, and it was often hard for me to fall asleep. On the second to last night, I had to pee pretty badly so I opened the window of my tent to peer outside and I saw the enormous head of a cape buffalo right in front of me. They are really aggressive animals and it was pretty terrifying!

Our last day was spent in Lake Manyara National Park—famous for its massive flocks of flamingos and tree-climbing lions. I think this park was my favorite because of its dense rain forest and exotic trees. Didn’t see any more lions, but we saw a ton of hippos and birds. All in all, it was a pretty amazing week and I feel guilty that I got to enjoy it instead of my nature-loving sister, Stella. Biscuit, I promise I’ll take you some day!