Welcome to the Land of a Thousand Hills!
For all of you that have been hoping to see pictures and updates of my first month in Rwanda, this blog is for you! And as you may already know, this is the first, and hopefully only, solo-blogged country on The Extended Honeymoon.
While not every day has been easy, my time here so far has been a time I will never forget. From near death experiences in taxis to channeling my inner Jane Goodall while trekking the Nyungwe Rainforest for chimpanzees, living in Rwanda for the past month has been quite the ride.
As you can imagine, getting to Rwanda is no easy feat. One short flight to DC, a nine hour flight to Belgium, followed by another nine hour flight to Kigali, I finally landed in my destination! Bright eyed and BO smelled, I worked my way through immigration and customs with ease. Followed by the usual money exchange, I left the airport with a fat stack of 5,000RWF bills. This may seem like a lot of money, but 5,000RWF is equivalent to five dollars, and is the largest bill they have here in Rwanda. One over-priced taxi ride later (per ushe), I found myself at the house I would be living in for the next two and a half months.
Before I delve into the more trivial aspects of my time here, I think it’s necessary to give a quick history lesson on Rwanda. Due to just about everyone I mentioned about my upcoming trip to Rwanda bringing up “Hotel Rwanda” or the genocide in one form or another, I feel the need to address that part of Rwanda’s history as well as the measures the country has taken since the genocide to become the wonderful country it is today.
In 1919 Belgium began its colonization of Rwanda as part of the World War I League of Nations mandate distributing control of German territories to other countries. Prior to this colonization, Rwandans lived in fairly mutual harmony with each other not seeing many differences amongst them. As white people tend to do, the Belgians became obsessed with finding differences in the Rwandans, and distinguished two different ‘ethnicities’: Hutus and Tutsis. The Tutsis quickly became the privileged minority put in place by the Belgians to become the monarchs set to control the Hutus and most of Rwanda’s resources. While Rwanda became an independent nation in 1962, tensions between Hutus and Tutsis continued, perpetuating the class divide between the two ‘ethnicities’.
There was a three year civil war beginning in 1990 that resulted in a joint government of both Hutus and Tutsis. On April 6, 1994 the Hutu President, Juvenal Habyarimana, was killed along with everybody else on board after his plane was shot down by unknown forces. While the genocide was pre-meditated, immediately following the plane crash, the Hutu extremists initiated the genocide of approximately 1,000,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus over a period of one hundred days. People were forced to kill their neighbors, friends, and even family. Hutu mothers in mixed marriages were forced to kill their husbands and children before being raped and killed themselves. Hundreds of thousands of children were left with no parents and in many instances no siblings. To tone down the brutality of genocide is something that I don’t feel the need to do. Atrocities like this continue to occur in human civilization time and time again no matter how many times we promise ‘to learn from our mistakes.’ It’s so easy to say that when put in this situation, we would never in a million years do what these people did to their friends and family, but history consistently tells us otherwise.
Unlike many genocides prior, including the Holocaust, there is evidence that the international community could have prevented it. Multiple countries knew that the genocide was being planned, but refused to intervene. Many historians have proven that there was a large enough international military presence in Rwanda prior to the genocide that they could have prevented it without bringing in any more troops. Other evidence suggests that the amount of military personnel used to evacuate non-Rwandans would have easily been able to defeat the extremists if their efforts had been focused on doing so instead of the evacuation.
Following the genocide, Paul Kigame, former head of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) that defeated the extremists, was made Vice President and later President of Rwanda. Paul Kagame has remained president since 2000, focusing his time as the leader of Rwanda on growing the economy and strengthening relationships among the people. While the RPF is most definitely not innocent in all of this, it is impossible to say that President Kagame has not completely turned around the nation that not long ago had a divide so extreme that it caused a genocide. One way Kigame has re-enacted to bring the citizens of Rwanda together is Umuganda: a mandatory day of community service each month, where Rwandan citizens work together to improve their communities through cleaning, building common infrastructure, and many other services thought up by village leaders and members.
Today, while Rwanda still has its problems, the country is relatively thriving. It is considered the cleanest country in Africa and in terms of serious crime, is one of the safest countries in the world. Living here, though, it’s hard to ignore the effects the genocide has had on this beautiful country. The population, overall, is VERY young because so many parents and grandparents were killed during the genocide. While they are adults now, there are approximately 400,000 orphans in Rwanda. I have met a few of them, and most will openly tell you their story without prompting them to do so. One person in particular has stuck with me: Charles Habonimana, a Rwandan author of a book titled ’I, The Last Tutsi’. While we were sitting at dinner one night, he came up to us and openly started to tell his story. During the genocide, he was a mere twelve years old. When the Hutu militants came to his village and started their massacre, he requested to the Hutu leader that he be killed with a machete. The leader then decided because of this that he would keep Charles to be the last one killed in his village. Over the next couple of days the Hutu militants killed everyone he knew including his parents and all of his siblings. Shortly before his planned execution, the RPF came to the boy’s village and defeated the militants, leaving Charles to be the last Tutsi standing.
Well, so much for the “quick” history lesson…
So some of you may be wondering at this point “Why the heck is Sam in Rwanda?!”. Well it’s actually for a bunch of reasons, but the primary reason is to figure out what it would be like for Patrick and I to become expats some time in the future. While Patrick and I have traveled a bunch, we have yet to know what it’s like to live in another country. We always would talk about how different long-term traveling is from vacationing, but now I know that living in a country is so incredibly different from traveling long-term. While I’ve felt strong connections to many of the countries that we have traveled to in the past, that connection seems to amplify when living in one spot for an extended period of time. Now, I’m not saying that Patrick and I will be moving across the globe the moment I get back or that it would be to Rwanda, but it is something that we are both interested in doing eventually.
So now you may be wondering, “How the heck does Sam fill her time in Rwanda?!”. Prior to coming here, I was digitally introduced to Beth, the founder of Seeing Hands Rwanda, an NGO here in Kigali focused on training visually impaired persons to become massage therapists. Visually impaired people are one of the most stigmatized groups of people in Rwanda with the highest rate of unemployment due to the prejudices against them. Prior to me coming to Kigali, Seeing Hands Rwanda did not have a website, so with the help of Mirka, a friend of Beth, we are building a website and a marketing plan for the NGO. It has been so incredibly rewarding to help with such an amazing NGO, not to mention that I get paid in massages!
I’ve also spent some of my time teaching at a preschool here in Kigali. Prior to me arriving, the preschool lost all but one of its teachers due to the parents not being able to afford the 9,000 RWF per month tuition. A local restaurant owner reached out to the community and was able to assemble a small group of volunteers to fill the void until we could figure out what was to come in the next school term. With working with the parents as well as a few donors, we have a plan come the new year for the kiddos to continue their education!
After teaching and administering exams (yes, I said exams… a full week of them) to these three and four year olds, I have a new found respect for teachers. Seriously… how do y’all do it?!? On day three of the exams, Teddy, the one Rwandan volunteer, had to go make copies of a few pieces of paper. Not knowing how long she would be gone, another volunteer, Ethan, and I felt confident that we would be able to keep the class focused on their exams. Legit less than five freakin’ minutes after Teddy left, Muhammed, the class ring leader, stood up on a table and incited a riot… yes a riot!! Within seconds there was mass chaos – kids jumping from desk to desk, crying, screaming, chalk powder everywhere! I thought in that very moment, “There is NO FREAKING WAY I am having children!”. Luckily for Patrick and I’s parents, that thought quickly disappeared as the children were of course perfect little angels the next day.
In Rwanda, and East Africa in general, there a very little white people. I can honestly go days without seeing another white person other than my roommates. With that being said, our appearance is pretty foreign to the locals and especially the children. When walking around, I get stares constantly, like full body turn around kind of stares, and when there are children around, I hear either a quiet mumbling or the more common straight up shouting of “MUZUNGU, MUZUNGU, MUZUNGU!!!” For those of you that don’t know, “muzungu” roughly translates to “white person.” I’ve had my hair flipped, arms pet, and whole walks to the grocery store stalked by children so curious about my appearance as a white person.
One of my favorite muzungu stories, as I like to call them, comes from a short and stinky time spent in a latrine. While toilets are pretty common in Rwanda, many of the more local bathroom options involve a hole in the ground surrounded by soaked cement and a stall that every once in a while manages to cover your butt hanging out from the bottom… this latrine was not one of those.
So one of the days at the preschool, we were having a parent-teacher meeting to discuss what might be able to work in the coming year. A few of the kids from class were there, but not many. I politely excused myself to go to the bathroom, made my way out to the latrine, and started to do my business. On a side note, keep in mind that this is a preschooler’s latrine, so pee and poop did not always make it into the hole. Anyway, about 5 seconds into doing my bizznasty, I hear a couple of three years olds chatting right outside in Kinyarwanda. All is good until I hear “muzungu” brought up three times followed by laughing. To this day, I don’t know whether they watched me walk into the latrine, or if they were able to figure out that a muzungu was peeing in their latrine because her butt was hanging out the bottom of the door. I’m not sure I’ll ever want to know the truth on this one…
About two weeks into being here, one of my friends, Sam, contracted Malaria. A quick lesson on malaria: malaria in Africa is extremely common and is caused by a parasite contracted almost always by infected mosquitoes. There are about 220 million cases worldwide each year with about 400,000 of them leading to death. Most forms of the malaria parasite are easily treatable if caught early, while one parasitic variation is much more serious and causes fatalities in 10% of those who are infected with it. So malaria is scary, but not as scary as some people may think. That being said, it doesn’t make it any less terrible when infected with it. Sam was a champ through the whole thing, and within a week of contracting malaria was back at it, trekking Nyungwe Forest for chimpanzees. As you’ve probably caught on at this point, there are two Sams in our friend group, with me being one of them. Until other Sam caught malaria, it was difficult to decipher which Sam people were talking to. After Sam caught malaria, though, the name distinction became much more clear. Other Sam became “Malaria Sam” while I became “Pre-Malaria Sam.”
While the shock of Malaria Sam getting malaria changed my perfume from the delightful Miss Dior Blooming Bouquet to the more pungent Repel 100 Insect Repellant, that didn’t stop me from having a malaria scare of my own.
About a week after Malaria Sam caught malaria, I started to show the typical symptoms: fever, muscle aches, extreme fatigue, or as some put it, an overall feeling of shit. By the recommendation of my doctor roommate, I made the decision to march my sick ass to the nearest hospital for a malaria test. I’m not going to act like this was a remotely pleasant experience: with flu-like symptoms, I was directed to the payment desk, then to a doctor, then to the payment desk again, then to another doctor who drew blood and pricked me with no explanation, followed by a thirty minute waiting room visit where all I wanted to do was lie on the cold floor, followed by pushing my way through a crowd to get yet ANOTHER doctor to read me my results. Luckily, I was malaria-free, but that didn’t stop them from wanting to do a stool sample to see what else was wrong with me. This girl now marched her malaria-free ass right on out of the hospital, stool sample not complete, and PTFOed for two days straight. Needless to say, I started taking my pre-malaria medicine the next day.
Unfortunately this wasn’t the only sickness I’ve had while here. I had a mean cold for about two weeks, with a mighty cough keeping me up at night. My roommate, Zacharie, noticed my nonstop coughing, and suggested that he make me a ‘medicine’. I agreed immediately looking for anything that will cure me of this sleep depriving cough. Zacharie proceeded to go outside, pick some leaves from some unknown plant in the garden, boil up some water, muddle some leaves, and added some honey for my “muzungu comfort.” He then handed me a tablespoon of this green concoction. I take it down without a thought of what was to come. Two seconds later my throat is ON FIRE! Not like spice fire or even heat fire, but legit burning acid kind of fire. While Zacharie thought this was hilarious, I thought I was dying! Acid burning throat aside, mad props go out to Zacharie as my cough disappeared that day…
One last story to end the blog with a bang! On November 7th, it was one of my roommates, Liz’s, birthday. Her boyfriend, Zacharie, also a roommate of mine initiated a plan to do a surprise party for her the following Saturday. I was in charge of decorations, Ethan and Cara in charge of cooking, and Zacharie was in charge of the cake and various other party essentials. I got pretty excited about my role as surprise party decorator, and made my way to T2000, a massive Chinese supermarket similar to Walmart, but much MUCH shittier. Turns out Rwandans don’t really celebrate birthdays much, so my decorations consisted almost entirely of Christmas tinsel.
At the beginning of the party, Zacharie arrived with the cake. Excited to take a look at it, Lucy, an energetic ten year old, and I couldn’t wait to open up the box and be the first ones to see the baked masterpiece. We took the cake over to the table full of food, and opened up the box. Was there a beautiful cake in the box? Yes. But turns out Lucy and I were not the first to see the cake, as about twenty cockroaches beat us to it. In seconds, the cockroaches scattered out of the box all across the table of food. Then began a stomping frenzy killing all of the cockroaches in sight. After all cockroaches were out of sight, I was sure that we were going to have to throw away the cake. Nope… according to the Rwandans at the party, this was a common occurrence and the cake was good to go! I watched cringing as people took slice by slice of cake and ate it. Then in common “when in Rwanda Sam” form, I thought to myself “f*ck it”, and ate a slice of cake.
Till next time, folks!
Extending the Honeymoon Solo for Now,