A Week in Rwanda

August 5th 2015

Until recently, I knew Rwanda only as a country that had suffered a brutal genocide. During my degree I learned about the Belgian occupation of Rwanda, the practically indistinguishable Hutu and Tutsi tribes, and the hundred days of conflict in 1994. In International Development Studies classes the Rwandan genocide is used as a prime example of the harm caused by colonialism. Meanwhile, in Political Science classes professors describe the genocide as a failure on the part of the international community. They talk about the limited definition of genocide under the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. With all this emphasis throughout my degree, I felt like I knew a lot about Rwanda. But after visiting the country I realized that my education had taught me about Rwanda as if it was frozen in time.

Our trip to Rwanda was a bit like a tour we went on on our third day there. The tour was of the home of President Habyarimana. For those of you who haven’t taken a social science degree, President Habyarimana ran the country in the time leading up to the genocide. He was responsible for creating Hutu youth militias. While he was in power Tutsis were routinely killed, although not on a grand enough scale to be termed a genocide. Instead, “genocide was being rehearsed” (to quote a haunting panel at the genocide memorial in Kigali). On top of that, President Habyarimana condoned the making of a ‘Death List’ naming all the Tutsi’s he and his followers wanted to kill. This was later used to target people during the genocide.

Needless to say, President Habyarimana was a pretty horrible guy. Interestingly though his house was presented completely devoid of his history. There was no mention of his crimes. Other than a few photos from the genocide, during the tour we were given only facts about each room and what it was used for. For example, we saw President Haryarimana’s staircase with the built-in alarm system, the shelf for guns hidden in his sons’ bedroom, the secret escape route, the safe full of money in his bathroom, and the room he kept for his witch doctor. Outside his house, we saw the pool reserved for President Habyarimana`s 19 meter long, albino python. Clearly President Habyarimana was a paranoid, superstitious dude.

Most interestingly, in the president`s complex there were the remains of an airplane. This was the plane that he died in after it was shot down by a still unknown person. Chunks of the plane’s broken carcass are scattered in the president’s yard, where it landed after being shot. The whole thing was eerie in its entire decomposing splendor.

As usual I’ve gotten carried away telling a story and have lost the main point. What I`m trying to say is that Rwanda is much like the president`s house (minus the albino snake). Like the tour of his house, many things in Rwanda aren`t talked about. If you didn’t know its history, modern day Rwanda would seem like any other up and coming middle income country. Our experience was full of clean streets, cute cafes, and sunshine.

Kigame is Rwanda`s current president, and at the time of the genocide he was the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). He has officially been president of the country since 2000, and is currently in the process of amending the constitution so he can remain in office. Many outside of the country refer to him as a ‘benevolent dictator’, although few inside would dare. It is under his rule that the word `genocide` is not used, and mourning is restricted to April through June each year.

I’ve heard many opinions on whether Kigame’s strategy of sweeping everything under the rug is good for the country or not. On the one hand, it won’t do to dwell on events of the past. Rwanda has to look forward and focus on where it is going rather than where it has been. And under Kigame, the country has become a model for the rest of East Africa. The streets are clean, people obey the laws, and Rwanda has the highest number of women in parliament in the world. Corruption is none existent. Kigame successfully took a country that was crippled by colonialism, torn apart by ethnic divides, with 2/3 of the population displaced, and turned it into a peaceful, functioning society. Obviously he didn’t do this single handedly, but still, kudos to him.

On the other hand, Rwandan society seems repressed. Like a pot about to boil over, the events of 1994 can’t be forgotten – and nor should they be. Kigame’s strategy of keeping the genocide quiet may have helped the country move forward, but it also may have prevented the citizens from grieving properly. In his rush to build a better country, did Kigame fail to respect the needs of the population? One of Erica and William’s friends put it well: he said that Kigame was the right person at the right time. Rwanda needed leadership like his in the post-genocide period to help get through it. But now, 20 years later, his style isn’t what the country needs. Kind of like how some leaders are only good in times of war, Kigame was only good in a time of crisis. Now however it seems as if new leadership is needed.

At President Habyarimana’s house his history almost became more obvious by its absence. Similarly, while we were in Rwanda the genocide felt like the elephant in the room (I say that quite literally, since in President Habyarimana`s bedroom there was a coffee table made of elephant skin, held up by stuffed elephant feet). Although the genocide isn’t discussed in Rwanda, evidence of it can`t fully be hidden. For example, there are still visible bullet holes in the sides of the Rwandan parliament buildings. They eerily stare at you as you whiz by on a moto. There are also interesting laws, clearly meant to combat any residual divisions between people.

The best example of these laws is something called Umuganda. Umuganda is essentially a 1984 style community work day that happens on the last Saturday of every month. Each community comes together to work on a project to better their area – be it picking up trash or paving a road. Sometimes the work day is concluded with a community meeting, where information is disseminated, community issues are addressed, etc. During Umuganda people are not allowed to use cars or motos, and if they are not participating in the work day they must stay inside.

In theory I’m all for community work days. The community gets a face lift, important issues are discussed, and you get to know your neighbors. So I’m not totally against Umuganda. But I don’t like the idea of it being enforced by law – in an ideal world, people would show up for a community work day because they want to, not because they have to. Also, apparently only one member of each household has to attend, so often people will send their guards or housekeepers. It seems to defeat the purpose of community building if the whole community doesn’t attend.

But before I go off on a tangent let me wrap this post up: I was comparing our trip to Rwanda with our visit to President Habyarimana’s house. What I remember from his house is all the interesting things in it, set against the backdrop of his notorious life. Similarly, our trip to Rwanda will be remembered not for the country’s turbulent history, but as a holiday from our normal lives. For me, the word ‘Rwanda’ no longer conjures images of machetes, mass graves, and Romeo Dallaire, but rather memories of clean streets, friendly people, and delicious pancakes (thanks Erica and William!).

The Tyranny of Airport Security

July 29th 2015

*BEEP-BE-BE-BEEP! BEEP-BE-BE-BEEP!*

I roll over and fumble to silence my unnecessarily obnoxious alarm. I peer at my phone’s tiny screen: 5am on Thursday morning. Blearily, I role out of bed and trip over piles of clothes to reach the washroom. After splashing my face I stumble back into my room – slightly more alert – and start haphazardly tossing the clothes into my backpack. I guess I’ll worry about outfits when I get there. Who packs the night before, am I right?

The reason for the early morning and the last minute packing is that today Jeremy, Shelby and I are finally going to Rwanda! My amazingly awesome, fun, cool friends Erica and William happen to live in Kigali, and they graciously invited us to come visit. So, at precisely 6am, we load our bags into the taxi waiting outside.

In Canada, a 6am ride to the airport would probably mean seeing a few other cars, and maybe some early morning joggers. But not in Kampala: in the 45 minute trip to the airport we drove through markets already bustling with people, while kids in uniform trekked to school on the dusty road. I guess now I know why it’s always too loud to sleep in!

After navigating the busy markets we arrive at the airport two and a half hours before our flight. We congratulate each other for being so on the ball. Heck, the security hasn’t even opened yet! Little did we know what we were in for. Here’s the breakdown of our airport adventure:

7am – Once the security opens, we stroll over to the check in counter. We’d been told that we had to apply for a visa three days before departure, so on Monday evening we dutifully filled out the online form (alright, mayyybe I did mine Tuesday morning. Always the procrastinator). Anyways soon after, we received an email asking for our letter of invitation, so we hastily messaged William and he whipped one up. I updated my application, and Wednesday night my visa was confirmed. Perfect. At that point Shelby and Jeremy hadn’t gotten their visas yet, but we figured it was no big deal and we could take care of it at the airport. But boy were we wrong.

Fun fact: Canadians are actually the only people who have to do the online application before going to Rwanda. We are the only ones who need a letter of invitation from someone within the country. Why? Because after the Rwandan genocide the Canadian government pissed off the wrong people by harboring some suspected perpetrators. Even though Rwanda no longer has DCO status, these potential perpetrators had their Rwandan citizenship revoked, and faced persecution if they returned. So, Canada took them under their wing. Much to the disgruntlement of the Rwandan government.

Of course we didn’t know any of this background when we showed up at the airport. All we knew was that the airport staff wouldn’t give Jeremy and Shelby their boarding passes until they saw their visas. Which they didn’t have. We tried to explain that they had applied three days beforehand, and even gave them the two tracking numbers. The airport staff took these, and went to make some calls to Rwandan immigration. They told us to wait…(famous last words).

7:30am – We’re told to keep waiting. Our flight doesn’t leave until 9:30am, so no rush. The airport has free wifi, so everything is fine.

8am – The airport staff ask for our letter of invitation, which they scan and send to Rwandan immigration. They say they’ll hear back soon. We’re feeling optimistic.

8:30am – The man who was helping us tells us his shift is over, but that he’s told his co-workers our story and they’re looking after it. He wishes us luck.

8:45am – The new staff member comes and asks us for Shelby and Jeremy’s tracking numbers. We explain that we’d already given it to the guy before. This gets us nowhere, so we give it to him again. We’re back to square one. The man asks to borrow one of our cell phones since his is out of phone money, and he makes a call. He hangs up, looks at us, and casually tells us that the visas won’t be processed until tomorrow so we’ll just have to fly out then.

I’m sorry, WHAT?

Obviously, at this point we’re trying to stay calm but we’re more than a little panicky. What does he mean we can’t fly out until tomorrow?! Our flight leaves in less than an hour!

We get the number the man had just called in order to speak to the Rwandan side directly. The man on the other end tells us there is nothing he can do, but he can give us the number of immigration. He hangs up. He hasn’t given us the number.

The airport staff tells us that our best bet is for me to get on the flight and to try to reason with immigration when I get to Kigali. “Great”, I think “I’ll just hop on a plane and leave Shelby and Jeremy behind. THAT makes sense”. Also, that’s a telling sign about Entebbe Airport if the best way to get something done is to go somewhere else…

Alternatively, we’re told to go to the RwandAir office and cancel our flights. We can rebook when they get their visas. Grudgingly, we head up there to do so, but we haven’t given up yet. We start calling everyone we think can help: Erica, William, the Canadian consulate, the guy with the immigration number. No answers.

9am – The Rwandan immigration number is texted to us. Jeremy calls – the woman on the other end doesn’t speak English. I call – I get far enough to learn that the lady on the other end is named Gertrude. She asks what I want to talk to her about.

Ok, so wrong number. Jeremy is pissed. I’m pissed at him for being pissed. Shelby quietly hands us chocolate. We try to breathe.

9:15am – Our flight leaves in 15 minutes. Erica calls me back. I tell her the story, explaining how for some reason it’s going to take a whole extra day to send an email, and in the meantime we’re stuck at the airport. She’s apologetic and confused (in the background I can hear W swearing). Erica tells us William will go to immigration and try to get the visas fast tracked.

9:36am – We cancel our flights. The man at the desk tells us it’ll cost us each USD 100 to rebook them. Our blood temperatures are rising – we don’t have that money to spare, but what can we do? We go back downstairs and wait for William to call.

10:09am
– William calls. Good news! He kicked up enough of a fuss to get the visa process sped up. They should be emailed within half an hour. Phew.( It isn’t until later that we find out that he accidentally – and then purposefully – told immigration that there were three kids stuck in the airport in Kampala trying to get on a flight. Whatever works right?)

When William hears about us having to pay a fee, he says he’ll head to the RwandAir office in Kigali to see what he can do. We wait for him to call.

10:48am – The visas arrive via email. No word from William, but the next flight to Kigali leaves at noon. We have to act fast if we want to get on it. We decide to go try to get on the next flight, and pray that William gets back to us before we have to pay.

10:51am – We ask the man at the RwandAir office if we can get on the next flight, and he responds by making two unrelated calls and sending three emails. Finally he looks up and tells us that the gates have already closed for the noon flight. He says they close at 11 – it’s 10:58.

At this point I’m mad. Through clenched teeth I tell him there must be something he can do. He looks at my red face, picks up the phone, says a few words, puts it back down. He says we can make it but we’ll have to run! No mention yet of the extra fees.

11:02am – We’re back at check in, showing the new woman there the visas on Jeremy’s computer. She sees that he doesn’t have the official copy, and instead only a screenshot that says ‘approved’. She tries to tell us it isn’t sufficient. She calls over the manager. Having witnessed our whole fiasco, the manager looks at the screenshot, looks at Jeremy’s shaking hands, and decides to let us through. We rush to the baggage drop area, where there’s a line.

11:16am – I have my ticket and my bag has gone through. A police officer cuts in front and gets his ticket. Jeremy and Shelby step up to get theirs. The system shuts down. Great.

The two staff casually sit back, calmly debating what to do. We tap our fingers – our flight leaves in 45 minutes. The next one won’t leave until 5pm. After what feels like hours, they each pull out manual boarding passes and start laboriously filling them out. The woman ‘helping’ Shelby asks her the same question four times.

11:25am – Tickets are done, bags are checked. William calls: he just talked to the manager on our end, who told him the ‘Morgan girl’ had just gone through. He apologized about the confusion, and said we wouldn’t have to pay a penny (or in this case a shilling).

11:39am – We’re through security. We’re at the gate. She’s taking our tickets. She’s motioning for us to board the plane. All seems to be in order. Do we dare congratulate each other or will that jinx it?

In some sort of airport shuffle, the lady who had been checking Shelby in is also collecting our boarding passes on the plane. No wonder she wasn’t in a rush! Given the lack of emphasis on time here, all the airport staff must have been bemused by the stressed, red faced mzungus who were kicking up all the fuss.
We’re on the plane. The pane is taking off. We did it!

8:30pm – We’re sipping cocktails at an art gallery overlooking the hills of Kigali and recounting the morning’s adventures to Erica and William’s friends. Everyone laughs, and we chalk it up to just another travel adventure. What a life!

In conclusion, here are the lessons I learned from our airport fiasco:
1) Don’t piss off the Rwandan government.
2) Show up five hours before your flight.
3) William is the best person to have in a pinch.
4) Don’t take no for an answer.
5) Always have chocolate handy.

Soul Delay

May 15th, 2015

My father, an avid traveler, always says that when you travel your body arrives in the place long before your soul can catch up. Although I’m sure this phenomenon was originally coined by a more reputable source, Urban Dictionary refers to it as “soul delay”. Akin to jet lag, soul delay occurs when you have physically arrived in a place but your body – or in this case your mind – is still elsewhere. It is still set to a different time zone, or influenced by a different set of thoughts. On your phone, you are able to change the clock to a new time zone in a matter of minutes. Similarly, airplanes allow us to cross oceans in the amount of time it takes to have a movie marathon (the highlights of which were ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Big Eyes’). However, the soul is not able to travel as fast. In the past when journeys could take weeks or even months by boat or train, individuals would have time to prepare their souls for their arrival in the destination. But with the advent of modern technology the soul is now left in the dust – like the slowest contestant in a race that everyone cheers on anyways out of sympathy. As William Gibson aptly explains, this delay happens because “souls can’t move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.”

Although it sounds cocky, I would like to think that I have arrived in Uganda with very little soul delay. I have two theories for why this might be: one, because of the weeks and weeks spent preparing for this trip. Because of that preparation time my soul was already partly here even before I’d stepped on the plane in Halifax. The second theory, which is probably more likely, is that I don’t feel as if I’m experiencing soul delay because I am still in the midst of it. Given a few more days this second theory may be proven right.

There is however a third theory. And yes, I know, I lied when I said I only had two (but didn’t it add dramatic affect?). And yes, as you’ve probably already guessed this third theory is the one I am most invested in. But bear with me and let me explain:

The notion of soul delay is hinged on the idea that the place you are traveling to is drastically different than the one you just left, which is why the soul takes longer to catch up. Now I’m not suggesting that Halifax is the same as Kampala, because believe me, it’s not. For one thing Halifax has a population of approximately 300,000, while Kampala sits at over a million. For another, Halifax’s traffic is mildly annoying at worst, but Kampala has the craziest traffic jams I have ever seen. People wait for hours in their cars just to move a few meters, while motorcycles (called boda bodas) whiz in and out and pedestrians cross at their own risk. Furthermore, Halifax is constantly doused in cold, miserable rain, while in Kampala the sun beats down constantly from high in the sky. Halifax is quiet and orderly, while Kampala is loud and vibrant. In Halifax food is sold in supermarkets for high prices, while here you can buy mangos and avocados on the streets for a mere few cents. And the list goes on. These differences are what make it interesting to visit a new place – to compare and contrast it with what you’re used to and to expand your comfort zone.

But it is equally as important to notice what makes all people everywhere the same, and that’s what has struck me in Kampala. People here are friendly, just like at home. They are happy to help you, and they like to laugh. For example after a night of horrible internet connection, despite having just bought the modems, we went to tech support to have it fixed. The man did so free of charge, joking with us the whole time. Later, after I had accidentally bypassed security entering a mall, the security guard laughed and asked whether I was trying to run away from her. When the car stopped working, two men at the gas station instantly came by and fixed it, and it was good to go in a matter of minutes. These are the things I’ve noticed so far about Ugandan people, and it makes me feel comfortable and welcomed.

So perhaps the reason why I don’t feel any soul delay is because despite the differences between Canada and Uganda, I have been instantly accepted as if it is as much my home as theirs. Upon our arrival, the first thing that our driver/tour guide said to us was that he wanted us to feel at home, and every moment since then he has made an effort to make us feel like we are. Maybe we just lucked out because of the people who have agreed to take care of us, but from what I’ve seen so far Ugandan people are inherently friendly and welcoming, and because of that the distance between our culture and theirs no longer seems insurmountable. Although every culture is different, I think fundamentally people are the same.

Pilot

May 13th, 2015

It hit me when I sold the couch. I was standing in the rain outside my garage in downtown Halifax, helping a friendly British woman load my couch onto her friend’s trailer. It had been a staple in all of my student apartments over the past four years, and before that it sat in the living room in my childhood home. Needless to say the couch and I had history. But it wasn’t the only sentimental piece of furniture I’d sold that week. In the proceeding month I’d posted numerous Kijiji ads, gotten several vaccinations, bought plane tickets, and a whole slew of other logistical things. In the marathon of planning that leads up to any big trip my focus was on ticking things off my to-do list rather than thinking about the big picture. The weight of the various things to do obscured any view of WHY I was doing all of this prep. But selling the couch was the last thing on my to-do list. And that’s when it finally hit me: I’m going to Uganda!

Now, eighteen hours later, I’m sitting on a flight from Brussels to Entebbe, which is the third flight I’ve taken today. Looking out the window I can see the Sahara desert sprawling out below me with no end in sight. The plane is flying parallel to the Nile, and for the better part of the last hour my nose has been pressed to the window trying to take it all in. But before I get too excited, let me back up and explain some context. Several weeks ago, I was selected to participate in the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarships Program. The purpose of the program is to:

“Increase collaboration between Canadian universities and Commonwealth country partners, via student scholarship placements, to lay the foundation for the next generation of entrepreneurs, public servants, community leaders and academics with innovative minds and a sense of commitment to Canada and the Commonwealth.”

The program is currently in its first year and was created in response to a recommendation by the Queen herself. It is administered by Community Foundations of Canada, the Rideau Hall Foundation, Universities Canada, and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFAIT). Dalhousie University was one of the lucky schools across Canada to have received funding to send students on international placements. As a result, this summer five students will be going to work abroad: one to Barbados, one to Tanzania, and three of us to Uganda.

For the past few weeks we’ve been attending pre-departure training sessions to prepare for our in-country placements, where we will be working for 90 days.The three of us going to Uganda will be interning for two NGOs that work to address issues of food security within the country and the region. As food security is a topic that I’ve become very interested in the last few years, I couldn’t be more excited to get hands on experience in the field. Moreover, as I am a Political Science and International Development Studies student, this internship will utilize the skills I’ve learned thus far in my degree. Not to mention that I’ve never been to any country in Africa, which in itself will be an incredible experience!

All that to say that as I stare out the window at the continent far below, I can’t wait for the adventure to begin.

Link to an article about the QES II Program: http://cfc-fcc.ca/news/news.cfm?intNewsID=2222