Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Week 4: (Oct. 7th - Oct. 12th) Kigali, Rwanda

BE FREE…like your hair in the Piki wind breeze

So this week has been really tiring with meetings and just all around getting to know the place. I find that when you’re in an entirely new environment your mind is constantly on overload with new smells, tastes and, sounds and sights that by the end of the day, you feel like you’ve been hit by a bus…and you’re just going to fall over (which careful with Kigali city centre traffic…yikes!)

Not to mention, we have been making progress on the project and have already gone to many meetings to pitch our ideas for the project to many different organizations.

We started our week with attending a public lecture at the Kigali Health Institute (KHI) our hosts for our exploratory visit. This lecture was the perfect opportunity for us to visit the campus and meet some of the faculty, as well as meet some of the students that would also be attending the lecture. The guest speaker was a young woman named Marvelyn Brown from Tennessee who is well known for her public engagement activities with HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention. Her testimony was very well received by the students and faculty and we were happy to meet her afterwards. We told her about our project and talked to her about her tour. She was very friendly and wished us luck with our project even though she jokingly told us that she hated yogurt. We laughed it off and hope that one day, she will change her mind after trying our “Fiti” yogurt…THE MOST DELICIOUS YOGURT IN THE WORLD!!!

This also helped us get into the discussion along with other students to gage the problems with stigma in Rwanda. For us, it was clear that Mwanza was struggling with stigma on people living with HIV/AIDS and although we were told that there is no stigma in Rwanda, it was nice to hear the student’s opinions on matters that Marvelyn was commenting.

Later this week we met with the Dean of KHI. He told us more about KHI and its programs. We were able to pitch our project to him as kind of a test run and it went well. He was very enthusiastic about our ideas and what we have come to do. He gave us a lot of ideas of where we could set up. Although for us, Kigali is the main point to set up shop, it’s good to know that the entire country however small could do well with a project like this. Most people are very excited when they hear of our plan and reassure us that it will work here in Rwanda, just for the mere fact that they are willing to work for it.

Back on campus, KHI and KIST (Kigali Institute of Science and Technology) were teaming up at the official launching of KIST and KHI Gender club. It’s always good to see people our age mobilizing, showing leadership and making something their own. They had invited the minister of Gender who gave a lecture on gender roles in Rwanda and the power that women have over their own futures and bodies.

And speaking of bodies, can I just say that having malaria is not all it’s cracked up to be….granted we are only suffering from 1 and 2 ring…but still the meds we’re on make us so tired, making it sometimes hard to sit for long periods of time no matter how interesting the discussions are. I know our parents and even coordinators in Canada would just tell us to rest up and concentrate on getting better, but it’s so hard when there is so much to do!! So we just keep on trekking upwards and onwards to the next event…Downtown, always an experience. This time we were able to find out a few things concerning material for the yogurt mama’s like prices for supplies etc. which is also good!

We also took our first piki piki ride and I swear Helen almost shat her pants! In Mwanza we encountered our first Piki Piki’s but were too scared to take them….they are basically motorcycle taxi’s and are known to be kind of dangerous in Mwanza. But in Kigali, they are regulated like a real business, so they have helmets and everything. They are apparently very safe here…so we decided to go for it. I’ll admit I was a little nervous too but after being on it for a few minutes felt quite at ease. It was soooo much fun and really safe for all those holding their breath right now. Helen was so scared though…she was holding on to the driver for dear life which is quite funny because normally most people hand onto the sides or behind the bike if at all, but no…not Helen, she wanted to make sure that if for any reason the bike were to fall over…she would be right behind the driver at all times!

On Friday we went to the Genocide memorial here in Kigali, although there are memorials all over the country, it’s supposed to be the biggest one. Listening to Didier, who is becoming more and more comfortable with us and we with him, tell us stories about his past is very difficult…but seeing all these images and reading more into what happened, while the rest of the world let it was harder than I can put into words. You go through so many stages of pain, grief, anger, rage, helplessness, inspiration, hope and amazement. Throughout the entire memorial, I could only think of Didier and his family, every now and then he would point out to a picture or during a video he would tell us that he knew that person or that they were related to him; friends, cousins aunts and uncles…it was too much. And yet at the end of the day, it was him trying to comfort our sobbing faces in some backwards way. At one point I felt like I couldn’t breathe, it was in the children’s section. There were stories and pictures of children that were killed and although this wasn’t even a fraction of the children murdered, it was enough to make you stomach turn. Knowing that their last moments of life were nothing like the smiling pictures was devastating.

There was also a section of the memorial dedicated to the acknowledgment of the various genocidal tendencies from all over the world which was very informative. At the end the tour leads to the outside where there is a burial site for those whose bodies have been found. By this time it was getting ready to downpour which pretty much embodied my insides…on the outside. We quickly got on the bus and headed out for dinner in town. We were able to talk a bit more about what we saw and read and although we were very sad…we also were tremendously inspired and grateful for this country’s tremendous success, because to look at Rwanda right now, you would never be able to tell that this happened only a few years ago. We decided to do what Rwandan’s have taught the world to do best, move forward with great strength and courage. We will never forget, but we will continue to work hard for the benefit of this country.

Since it was Friday night and also one of our new friend’s birthdays, we decided to celebrate! Man do Rwandan’s know how to party! One thing we’ve noticed is that it’s all about the dancing, which is good for us because we all love to dance!

It was definitely a good way to end the emotional rollercoaster we were just on and have a good time with our new friends!

On Saturday we went on a city tour where we learned morea about Kigali and the different districts and a bit more history. We learned that Nyamirambo, where we live is the oldest neighbourhood in Kigali which makes it special. Also, that there is an orphanage close to our house where aman named Damas Mutezintare Gisimba hid over 400 children and adults during the genocide saving them from almost certain death. He is known as one of the seven heroes of the Genocide. Knowing that on every street corner hundreds of people’s lives were ended is so strange…the streets are literally drenched in history. We also got to see where we can buy food at a local market instead of going all the way to town to the crazy expensive supermarket…Nakumat and Simba…which is better for us because it’s close by and it’s a lot of fun.

On Sunday we celebrated thanksgiving with some of our friends. We decided on just going to a restaurant where most of us ended up getting pizza…which is not very thanksgiving-like…and I’m going to be quite honest I really really missed my mom’s turtey as we like to call it at the Marroquin-Ponce residence…then we all started talking about our favourite thanksgiving foods and how we each prepare it…which sort of made things worse…but it’s OK…because we’re in Rwanda living the dream…SO THERE!

…plus my parents told me that they would save some Christmas turkey for me when I get home!!

What was nice about this thanksgiving though, was that we went around the table and each got to say what we were thankful for. Sometimes, we forget that living is gift enough and that there is so much to be thankful for on top of that.

Everytime we look at the calendar we can’t believe how fast time is going by…it’s already been two weeks and now Missy was leaving us for good…after a month of Team Spectoring it all around…we would be separated until we all get back to Canada in December. We decided on having a goodbye party for Missy on Monday night seeing as her plane left the Tuesday at 2 in the morning…we would all just stay up with her until she had to leave. We invited Didier or course…who we have begun to nickname Didler…or The Did…just for funzies…we all have nicknames for each other…Browntown for Nilmi…of course…but she’s also Mhindi, Nilms and Nilmalot…

Helen is also Helster, HULLEN, Pod, Podster, Podulous and iPod!

For me it’s Silvo, Silverado and Sully (it’s silly but with an accent) and Mzungu for all those people on the streets of Kigali...this one I can’t escape as much as I try!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Week 3: (Oct. 1st – Oct. 6th) Kigali, Rwanda

Left and leaving: Leaving Mwanza …arriving in Kigali

After packing most of the day yesterday and having a few stops to say bye to some friends we’ve made…we had the night before a trip sleep…you sort of rest but even in your dreams you think you’re forgetting something. We got up early and made our way downstairs with our huge suitcases that are probably more overweight than when we first got here because of the stuff we bought. They don’t seem too bad…but then again, the scale at the apartment broke so we really had no idea. As we made our way downstairs we were dreading the ridiculous route we were forced to take: instead of a one hour direct flight that Missy will be taking to join us in Kigali a few days after us we’re taking a stupid detour flight that has us going from Mwanza to Dar Es Salaam for a 3 hour layover, then to Nairobi for another 4 hour layover and then finally making our way to Kigali. Now, I’m not very good at geography or have very good sense of direction, I get lost in my own neighbourhood…but even I know that that doesn’t sound right. And if you look at the map, which I am doing right now, you will see that actually...we went further way from Kigali by going to Dar, and then still further in going to Nairobi probably flying right over Mwanza again on our way to Kigali…so all in all not the best route.

Already dreading that nonsense, it seems as though every single taxi, that is normally hanging around waiting for us…sometimes 5 at a time would ask if we needed a ride, were all busy or not around. We stood in front of the apartment just trying to flag someone down. The flight from Mwanza to Dar seemed to be quite normal, no major commotion or turbulence, although we didn’t get to sit together, it wasn’t a bad flight. On the way off the plane however, we realized that something was not right. It seems that an elderly women travelling with her grand daughter or maybe even niece died sometime while we were in mid air. Of course, we would never have known if it wasn’t for Helen who was sitting with a woman who knew the young women who was in tears while the rest of the passengers were exiting the metal bird. I saw the woman crying and wondered what was going on, beside her I saw what I thought was a women sleeping with a kanga over her face…(duh I know now putting the pieces together) but didn’t think anything of it. While coming off the plane we noticed an entire airport crew (as in like 30-50 people) waiting outside the plane. In my na├»ve eyes all I could think of is “Wow! What a welcoming!” After Helen told us what had happened an eerie feeling came over all of us. We just couldn’t understand how no one on the plane reacted. Maybe to try and keep everyone calm, I’m not sure but we didn’t even notice the crew doing anything out of the ordinary.

After that strange experience that was almost a non experience we were a little rattled and eager to move on. When we wanted to check in, they told us to come back in three hours. When we went back 2 hours later they had told us that we were late but it didn’t matter because our flight was cancelled and oh yeah your bags are overweight. We didn’t have a problem with our luggage out of Mwanza, so we couldn’t understand why it was a problem now. We tried taking things out and putting them in our carry-ons and even contemplated leaving things behind. Then all of a sudden, the man working behind the counter told us to hurry because our plane was leaving without us. This was news to us because we thought it was cancelled. He took our luggage and told us to go and wait in the boarding room. Still confused, we walked over, passing the gates and metal detector we were now realizing that they had given me the wrong tickets. He accidentally printed two of the same off, so we had two tickets for Helen and none for me. The airport was super busy at this point with the many people that had missed their flight that seemed to be overbooked. I walked over to the counter to have them print me off a ticket that had my name on. Trying to get back through the gates was hard because the line ups were never ending. Not knowing if our flight was actually leaving or still cancelled the only thing we could do was wait to get our exit stamp as patiently as possible. Running through the airport and up to the plane happy to not have to wait an entire day in Dar Es Salaam we were Kenya bound.

When we got to Kenya we just wanted to check in right away to avoid whatever it is that just happened in Dar again. Another monumental line but at this point we were just happy to be where we were. An hour and a half later we got to the counter only for the man to tell us that our flight was cancelled. All we could do was laugh and ask him if he was serious. He was sort of smiling, so I didn’t believe him. He was probably just laughing because we were, and told us that he was sorry but very serious. “OK we thought…when’s the next flight?” Thinking we would get out of the airport in a few more hours than we would have had to wait anyway we were optimistic, but alas, no such luck…the next flight was the next morning. He quickly explained that the airline would be paying for our hotel and meals for the inconvenience.

We still couldn’t believe it, but it was true, we would be spending a night in Nairobi, and delaying our arrival by one day. While on the taxi bus with all the other cancelled flight victims Bob the WHE project coordinator called to see where we were. It seems that our community and project liaison in Kigali thought that we had gone missing because we were not on the flight. It seems that there was a mix up with the times and Yves thought we should have been by 2 PM and not 2AM but we called everyone to assure them that we were safe and checking into the Panari hotel for the night. We were the only ones on the taxi bus full of people going to the Panari, it was either that or the Hilton and for a quick second we thought that we would have rather gone to the Hilton with everyone else. We didn’t know at the time, that the Panari is a five star hotel and absolutely breathtaking. We were so tired by the time we got there that we had supper and called it a night. We had a fantastic sleep and were refreshed the next morning to start our journey to Kigali. The bird’s eye view was amazing while hovering over Rwanda. You can really see why they call it the land of a thousands hills, the colours of the soil and earth were rich and vibrant and the vegetation looks so lush and refreshing.

We were so happy to be done with travelling for the time being and at this point we just wanted to go and settle into our new home…

Just our luck, because of the confusion in the airport in Dar and the cancellation in Nairobi, 3 of 6 of our pieces of luggage were lost somewhere in the world. One of mine was lost which was a pain, but both of Helen’s were missing so in my eyes, I still had it pretty good!

Tired and very hungry, we waited for Yves our community contact to pick us up from the airport. Not knowing what he looked like, we weren’t sure who to expect. Everyone at this point was Yves Didier in our eyes. When he got to the airport we were so happy to see him and he welcomed us with the most open arms. We stayed at the airport for a while just to catch up and chat a bit and get to know each other a bit better seeing as we’ll be spending so much time working together. He seems really excited to start working on the project and so are we! He is such a nice guy and we are really lucky to have a community contact just because we would have absolutely no idea what to do or where to go for anything. Even though French was an official language, and English is one now, the language most used is Kinyarwanda, which compared to Swahili that we were beginning to pick up quite fast in Mwanza, will prove to be the ultimate challenge.

We were making so much progress with the language barrier in Tanzania, we find ourselves trying to speak to people in Swahili and thankfully most people seems to understand what we’re trying to say. In most cases though, it’s back to throwing whatever words come out in whatever language comes out.

After checking into Aphrita’s hotel in Nyamirambo (in the Nyarugenge District) known for being the most lively and diverse neighbourhoods in Kigali we were able to freshen up and rest for a while before hitting the town. In that time we were also able to chat a bit with the owner’s wife Rita, who welcomed us with open arms. She is very friendly and even affectionate. She told us all about Rwanda and how she was convinced that we would love it.

She was sad to know that our bags were missing and quickly began to make calls to the Kigali airport as well as the one in Nairobi, as she has family members that work there.

Yves, who is better known as Didier, was nice enough to take us to town when we told him that we needed a few essentials now that our bags were MIA.

You can really get the feel of city life in Rwanda in Kigali’s city centre, not the same hustle in bustle we experienced in Mwanza, Kigali, is still really lively. The people seem quite different too, a bit more reserved than the sharp quick witted people in TZ. We got less marriages proposals, which gave our egos a laugh lines a break and a lot less Mzungu call outs. We also had our first experience on the public transport. They are minibuses kind of in the shape of a minivan that can cram up to about 20 people inside and the fare is only 120 RWF which is roughly about 25 -30 cents US and even still is quite affordable for the general public. We went to many small shops around the city centre where we were able to get a few things to hold us over until our bags were found. Since I usually pack strategically I had many of the raw essentials like underwear and such, but poor Helen had lost everything so she needed a few things...one major thing we noticed while we were discretely looking for underpants for Helen is that there is no real underwear section if you will. Like most stores in North America, we have everything divided into sections like men’s, women’s, kids, bath and body etcetera, etcetera but here it’s not really like that. Most places have a wide variety of things from electronics to perfume to wigs and hair extensions, it’s like mini flea markets all over town. We went to Simba Supermarket which is one o two that we know of in town. For Helen it was bad enough that she had lost everything, but to make matters worse, the unmentionables that she wanted to procure were behind a counter right in front of the check out isles. Apparently, it is normal to just go up to counter and have the young woman or man who is also selling digital cameras, perfume and jewellery for underwear. Then they proceed to open each individual package and showcase it while also measuring to see if it fits. It was pretty funny for us but quite an embarrassing ordeal for poor gitchless Helen. By about 6:30 it was already really dark and it started to storm outside. It’s crazy how fast the weather changes, just a few hours prior the sun was blazing hot. We hid for a while under shelter, you can tell people here don’t like to get wet, and will stand under shelter for as long as it takes the storm to pass. We took a “special” which is just a taxi, but since they call the public transit “taxi’s” it gets a little confusing. So from now on cabs are “specials” and “taxi’s” are the bus. We got back to Aphrita’s and our dinner was almost ready. We went to our rooms to freshen up and ate shortly after. Before saying goodbye, Dider asked us if we wanted to go out later seeing as it was Friday night. We weren’t sure because we were pretty tired, but then decided why not. He said he would be back around 10 PM to pick us up to go somewhere. By 10 we were rested and ready for action. We waited for a while but there was no sign of Didier, we thought that maybe he forgot or something so we called him. He told us he was running a little late, and that he would be coming in half an hour. An hour later there was still no sign of him but we figured it might be for the better since we were really tired and should have a good night’s rest.

A few minutes later, he called saying he would be here within 20 minutes, but we didn’t think it was actually happening. Sure enough, there was still no sign of movement. The three of us started dozing off when Helen’s phone rang, he assured us that he was on him way just five minutes from the hotel. We decided to wait outside reluctantly now tired at 12 AM. Sure enough ten minutes later two cars pull in the drive way blaring a little Akon. At this point all we could do was laugh…especially when about 20 people came piling out of the cars…I the only image that came to mind was that of the clowns at the circus with the tiny ca cramming themselves in. It turns out that Didier’s friends, who were waiting for us at the airport with him the day before were having a friendly get together and came all the way across town to pick us up. So we got in the car and drove off. We had a really good time meeting his friends and talking about the project, life in Canada and things in general. It’s really cool to be around people our age and to hear the pride in their country they are all educated have good jobs and all want to help push Rwanda forward.

It’s also a bit strange, because if you talk to any random Canadian our age, or even in general, you wouldn’t here the same pride that we can experience here with Rwandans. Most of them expressed a tremendous love for their country despite its difficulties; this is where they want to be.

Somewhere in between conversations we realized that it was past midnight and that it was my birthday. Didier’s friends sang me happy birthday in three languages: French, English and Kinyarwanda! I got showered with hugs and kisses from our new friends and I was crazy happy to be spending my first hours as a 23 year old in Rwanda!

The next day we went to pick Missy up at the airport and were happily informed that our bags had been found and were waiting for us! We could not be happier!! That was the best birthday present I could have ever asked for!!

We were happy to be reunited with the fourth shade of Team Spectre.

That night we went out to a pub like bar that played Rwanda music that were part traditional part oldies and just awesome! It was probably one of the most memorable birthdays yet. Didier was able to translate the meaning of some of the songs which was really cool. It’s hard to take it all in, cause I still can’t believe I’m here.

On Sunday we got our actual apartment, so we won’t have to stay in a hotel forever and the best part is that KHI will be letting us stay there for free as KHI volunteers!!! The apartment is amazing. It has three rooms so we don’t have to share which is nice, two bathrooms, a small but spacious kitchen a dining room and a living room. It is perfect for the three of us because although it’s cozy, it’s big enough that we’re not on top of each other 24/7. it will be a change though, because up to date I have shared a room with Nilmi because we’re both kind of scaredy cats and we comfort each other’s fears!

After we unpacked a bit we decided to go to the clinic because I was feeling really tired and a bit dizzy at times. I thought I was still just tired and readjusting to the time change and everything, but I wanted to be safe than sorry. Plus, Missy was convinced that I had

2 ring malaria. We walked to the clinic nearby and it was closed. So we went to another a while away just to have Missy’s diagnosis confirmed! “Congratulations you have 2 ring malaria and as a bonus…” it appears that I had Typhoid. Hooray!

After finding out, Helen decided to get checked out too and she ended up having one ring. Nilmi felt fine, but after having both team mates fall under she decided to see if she had it too. Since she didn’t have any symptoms, the nurse told her that she didn’t need to run any tests, which was good for her because we ended up paying quite a bit for the consult, plus the meds. So for the rest of our day we rested because we were all feeling a little tired after walking half an hour both ways to the clinic. So for now we’re just going to concentrate on getting better so that we can go full force in the weeks ahead. We already have a full itinerary for the upcoming weeks. On Monday we went to town so that Missy could exchange some money and had a good time walking around in the daytime looking in shops. We had come on Sunday but everything was closed. To us, it was a total surprise to know that everything, absolutely EVERYTHING was closed on Sundays. We took it easy today, just existing on the streets of Kigali’s city centre, happy to be alive!

When we got home it was after six so it was pretty dark, and shortly after arriving to our apartment our power went…we had no candles so one of the cleaners that showed us around came with candles and matches. We sat around candlelight like our first night in Mwanza, but this time with Didier. He told us more about his life in Rwanda before and after the genocide and what it has meant to him. One thing we have come to realize is that most people in Rwanda and even outside have a story to tell about the genocide. But for us it’s common for older people to have war stories, like our vets in Canada, but for people our age to tell stories about flying bullets, witnessing mass murders and rapes, hiding in piles of dead bodies, is insane. Doing the math, Didier and most of his friends were between the ages of 8-15 during the genocide and almost all have some story relating to that tremendous period. To know that children were left without parents, brothers, and sisters is unimaginable to me. Now, those children are the present and future of this country, and take responsibility and pride in what is to come for Rwanda. They are willing to forgive but never forget for the benefit of their country. Something that Didier said to us struck a chord and will probably stay with me forever. He was talking about his family, and how his parents and most of his family were killed during the genocide and that although for his it is very sad, he does not hate the people who killed his family. He says that he forgives them whole-heartedly because it is necessary to forgive. He said that forgiveness was essential for the development of the country…because to him, he had only two alternatives, try to prosecute the killers, which would take many years and if he were successful, the killers would go to prison. On the other hand, he could forgive the killers and let them be free so that they can somehow contribute to society in the development of the country. to me, that is the most powerful lesson in forgiveness, one that is not always easily learned or even practiced, but to know that he is able to look at the big picture for the benefit of his brothers, comrades and eventually his own children is simply amazing. Didier is such an amazing person, but not just in this regard, all around a great guy. He is so much fun and we are so lucky to have him as a community liaison. Really, we wouldn’t know what to do first without him, especially since Kinyarwanda is so difficult. He’s also really smart and knows a lot about the project already, he speaks so many languages and is just the bomb diggidy! We love him!!