Remembering the Genocide 20 Years Later

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The good folks at Conscience Display licensed an image I took in Rwanda in 2012 for an upcoming exhibition for the UN commemorating 20 years since the Rwandan Genocide.

It came out great, and the banner is a full six meters wide, so the impact should be pretty spectacular.

Can’t wait to see it in real life and follow the events at www.kwibuka20.rw.

Closure

rwanda pensiveIn the course of the six weeks or so since we returned from Rwanda, I’ve tried time and again to honestly answer the question asked by everybody: “so, how was it?” (Actually, mostly I’ve dealt with kitty litter, homework delinquencies, chauffeuring, and getting life back on track, but with enough coffee around, I’ve tried to reach some kind of conclusion.)

Let me be very clear: this is, of course, my opinion, my slightly snarky take on things. This is not to be construed as representing the views of Dartmouth, my wife, the HRH Program staff, or anybody else. This is not the gospel truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Much of it is conjecture, subjective, and probably wrong. But this is my theory (which is mine), take it for what it’s worth, YMMV.

Things I’ll Sort of Miss About Rwanda

  • The ridiculously comfy climate. At almost 5000 feet, Kigali rarely gets really hot, and it almost always features decent breezes. And then there’s the added bonus of sudden, biblical downpours in the rainy season that can be a pain to deal with, but are awe-inspiring to watch in action. The weirdly compelling Groundhog-day feel to living on the equator, where every day starts at 6AM sharp, and ends at 6PM. sharp. Predictable, plannable-around-able. Consistent. 

  • The absolutely gorgeous views across valleys and mountains, particularly in the morning and evenings when the sun would work its magic.

  • Mountain biking with the wonderful, crazy Dutch Priest and his posse on Saturday mornings, on some of the most breathtakingly beautiful trails in the world. Great company, great rides, great memories. 

  • Veggie samosas from Sharma’s: cheap, fresh, tasty. Deep-fried, of course, and lethal — but did I mention tasty?

  • The friendly guys behind the counter at Sharma’s, always working their ecclectic mix of hindi, swahili, kinyarwanda, and english to sell whatever they could to whoever wanted to buy. They never did manage to get me my poppy seeds, though… 

  • Noshing on grotesquely extravagant Dutch treats while watching Lea ride on top of Mt. Kigali with a spectacular view in the background.

  • Dealing with Bob, our efficient, always smiling and unfappable wonder-mechanic — and not feeling the least bit ripped off, even when handing him rather large sums of money time and time again.

  • The warm fuzzy feeling you get when you find that you haven’t been ripped off for a change (see Bob, above). And deliberately lowering the bar so far that finding your favorite brand of crackers 20 cents cheaper than normal gives you a bit of a head rush.

  • Listening to streaming radio from the Upper Valley (The Point FM!) over a hot cop of coffee in the morning while fantasizing about being back home.

  • The incredible birds: eagles, hawks, egrets, bald-winged spotted whatnots — that hover everywhere, even in the middle of the city.

  • Freshly picked baby bananas and pineapples for breakfast. Avocadoes the size of soccer balls growing in our back yard, tastier than anything shipped thousands of miles from Mexico to New England could ever hope to be. 
  • Making new friends for life — as shoulders to cry on, partners-in-crime to indulge in snarky commiserating, loyal helpers and back-coverers, and all-round pillars of strength and little points of light. 
  • Five bars, baby, five bars! Always solid cell phone coverage, indoors and out, in the city, in the countryside, on the hills, in the valleys. Dear AT&T: if Rwanda can do it, so can you. I even grew to appreciate the convenience of texting (I know, I’m either old or closet Amish if I’m only getting around to seeing the value of texting now… so, sue me). 

Things I Most Assuredly Will Not Miss About Rwanda

  • The insanely incompetent drivers and the massive traffic mess they’re slowly but surely creating and which is apparently seen as a positive sign of “civilization” by the delusional powers-that-be.

  • The idiotic bureaucracy that passes for “order” here. Their obsessive-compulsive fetish with forms and formalities, with etiquette and procedure. To hell with results, let’s make sure we do this the most cumbersome way possible. And, yes, the mantra “African solutions to African Problems” is largely a cop-out when the going gets tough and real problems turn out to require unpleasant, demanding changes in culture and attitude. 

  • The perpetual hunt for decent prices and decent quality and the constant trade-off between the two. No, no I don’t think a pre-broken made-in-China plastic bowl should cost eight dollars. And 12 bucks for a small bag of cashews is insane – they grow in Mozambique, just down the road, fer cryin’ out loud – when I can get five times that amount for my money in the States. Decent coffee is five bucks a pound?!? I know it’s your big export crop and all that, but c’mon, you can’t charge Whole Foods Market prices in-country. 

  • The staring. Really? A white guy… in Kigali. You’ve never seen that before? Even though you saw me yesterday, and I looked just the same, and even though the pudgy, pale missionary from Our Lady of the Perpetual Con Job Church in Slowpoke, Iowa preaches every Sunday, just across the road from you? Get over it, already.

  • The crowds. There are just entirely too many people in Rwanda. Not just in the city, but everywhere: on the hillsides, on the roads, in the fields, at the markets, in the tiny two-bit villages… Not only is it overwhelming, it will likely be their downfall as they all grow to want more space and require more resources. Kids are awfully cute, and I know you may feel like you’ve got some catching up to do after the genocide decimated the country — but five, six, eight, ten little ones per couple? Really, now… 

  • The dirt, the dust, the profoundly crappy roads – even in the middle of Kigali. Yes, the Chinese are busy paving the hell out of it all, but there’s still an awfully long way to go. 

  • The guards that don’t guard, the cops that don’t police, the “excellence” that doesn’t excel.

  • The delusional self-deceit that passes for national pride, the incompetence that passes for sophistication, and the crap that passes for quality.

  • The depressing realization that you’re being ripped off and taken for a ride most of the time (“special price for you” — aka twice as much as it’s worth; third rate service, just because “you’re not one of us.”)

  • Perpetually holding my breath in the hope that my car will hold it together another day without falling apart. Perpetually holding my breath in the hope that I’ll hold it together even when my car surprises nobody at all by falling apart yet again.

  • The predictable mantra of “good-y morning… give-a me money!” — a one-two punch to the soul deftly delivered from smiling kids and old grandmothers alike.

  • Constantly having to bleach your veggies, filter your water, and think twice about everything you eat.

  • The chronic lack of initiative and personal responsibility displayed by pretty much everybody.

  • The language barrier. Sure, I could have gotten my act together and tried to learn more Kinyarwanda, but Christ-on-a-hillclimb that’s a tough language to learn. And without it, you’re lost. 
  • Having to spend my days behind a huge locked and “guarded” gate, even though this is supposedly the safest city in Africa. Maybe it’s not.   

  • The lack of seasons. Yes, comfy climate every day from 6AM to 6PM is nice, but after a while it gets weird when there’s no fall, no spring, no winter, no change. And, no, rainy season doesn’t count. 

More to come as I purge and ponder. 

First Sunset in Vermont

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And… we’re back. Last days of the year, first full days of recovery. In the picture above, Lisa is getting in a few laps of cross country skiing on our local field before sunset, while our dog Lucky tries to get to grips with the fact that her owners have suddenly reappeared after abandoning her six months ago. That may take a while — at least as long as it will take me to get her back down to her usual weight — apparently, she’s been eating feverishly to deal with anxiety over our absence.

After an insane last day in Kigali (no, really; that was one for the record books), we had a refreshingly uneventful trip home. No real surprises getting out of Kigali; all our bags got checked, including the awkward box with my bike (of course, given the $100 fee that KLM insisted on charging, I would have liked to see the bike fully assembled and race tuned upon our arrival — but, alas, no such luck). The immigration desk was newly equipped with a camera and fingerprint reader (uh, why?) and staffed with a couple of friendly guys who actually smiled briefly and couldn’t be bothered to find anything wrong with our paperwork (slackers).

It is of course a well-known secret of the airline industry that sticking a 6’3″ guy with a 36″ inseam in a seat in steerage on an eight hour overnight flight is at least as effective as waterboarding him. With my knees wrapped around my ears, my back and neck screaming for relief, and my feet tingling from the rapid onset of blood clots, rigor mortis, or both, I would have confessed to pretty much anything the tired and overworked KLM cabin crew could have demanded. Thankfully, half the passengers on the plane got off when we stopped in Entebbe, allowing Lea and I to share a row of four seats between us for the night. Still, with less than two hours of sleep, I felt like export-grade shit when we landed in Amsterdam before dawn, swearing once again to never, ever travel by plane unless forced to do so by “circumstances entirely beyond my control.”

A five hour layover in Schiphol offered us a technicolor preview of civilization and a crash refresher course in crass and pointless consumerism. There was an Aston Martin parked in a liquor store by our gate, and a casino parked right next to the Swarovski jewelry store. In fairness, Amsterdam’s airport also features a library and tons of play spaces and zone-out zones, but still… 

In addition to an infinite George Clooney-esque ego boost, Lisa’s Platinum status on Sky Team also gets her and a guest into the KLM business class lounge, so while she and Lucas luxuriated in the inner sanctuary of free food and stark but comfy and functional Euro design, Lea and I roamed the massive temple of duty free excess. Lea tried out the awesome foot-massage-by-fish at the Traveler’s Spa (no, really, it’s a thing), and we shared some ridiculously overpriced coffee and hot chocolate at Starbucks. I bought every variation on licorice I could find (and this being Holland, there were many, many wonderful variations), and we both marveled at how clean, neat, and excessively organized the place was.

Onwards, ever onwards. After the full body scans and professional-grade groping, the third degree interrogation by immigrations, as well as some last minute frantic emptying of water bottles (“take this plane to Cuba, or I’ll hydrate!”), Delta’s flight to Boston left on time with all four of us comfortably tucked on board. Lisa had worked her magic with Delta online and secured us seats in an exit row in Economy Comfort (surely an awkward confession by Delta that, deep down, they know the other half of the plane is Economy Discomfort), so I could actually stretch out and relax for a change. I got started on Daniel Kahneman’s amazing “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” but through no fault of his, I dozed off for large parts of the seven hour flight. A friendly, competent crew made the trip downright enjoyable — particularly the amazing hostess who was retiring after 42 years and was celebrated in style by her colleagues all the way across the Atlantic. Nice to see that in spite of the dogged determination by corporations to turn their staff into mere cogs in the machine, they remain real individuals with real personalities.

After a quick encounter with yet another friendly immigrations officer (who knew there were so many of them out there?) who really wanted a job as safari guide in Tanzania, we collected our mountain o’ crap at Logan and stepped out into the cold, gray world of December in New England. Bliss. Sheer bliss. The cool air felt great, the drab skyline looked inviting, the surly cabbies didn’t stare at us while asking for money, there was free wi-fi everywhere, and a big bus heading towards home.

I don’t know how it had been orchestrated, but it magically started snowing half way up I-93, and by the time we got to Hanover everything was white and blissful, providing the perfect backdrop for our return.

Running entirely on fumes at this point, I was overwhelmed by the army of good friends who had turned out in spite of the snow and the cold to to help us get us the very last bit of the way from the bus stop to our house. Really, truly a sight for sore eyes. Because when all is said and done, this is what matters more than anything — these are people I care about, people I think the world of, that I know I can trust to call on when I get out of my depth. More than anything, that was also what made a difference in Kigali, where similar good friends repeatedly stepped in and picked up the pieces I dropped. 

It feels strange to be back where nothing has changed except those of us who left and came back somehow different. Where everything is as it was when we left, but we’re not, precisely because we left. Where we were sorely missed when we left, and where we have been warmly welcomed back by one and all. Where I truly feel at home and at ease.

These Shoes Were Made for Leaving

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Actually, those particular shoes are being left behind in Rwanda when we hitch a ride to Amsterdam with KLM on Friday night. As a public health service, you understand.

After returning from the Seychelles late Tuesday, we’re now holed up with all our junk in a friend’s apartment in Kigali. We’ve got a few days to kill, mostly waiting to find out just how much money we’ll lose on selling our crappy car in a crappy market (no, the myth that was peddled on us back before we left home that you can buy a used car and sell it for a good price later is just another lie, along with the low cost of living and all the rest). That and closing out our empty bank account is pretty much it on the to-do list. A bit of souvenir shopping, but there’s not a lot to be had in the way of memorabilia here (nope, can’t bring home a baby gorilla) so not sure what we’ll end up with.

Lisa has hurled herself at the first season of the TV show “Homeland” and Lucas scored a couple of luxury car & yacht magazines at Nairobi airport last night, so he’s in jet-setter heaven. Lea has what is probably a mild case of strep throat, so she’s under the weather for a bit, and I’m just exhausted, tired, worn out, finished, wasted, done. Trying to wrap my mind around the thought of being back in Vermont in a few short days; the weather report says we’re coming home to a foot of snow on the ground, which will be great, but also a little overwhelming after six months of high altitude tropics.

Try as I may, there are precious few items to place on the “things I’ll miss” list. In any case, they’re entirely overshadowed by the extensive set of “things I can’t wait to leave behind.” Right now, the toll this has taken on all of us is a bit overwhelming; hopefully the experience and the lessons learned will somehow balance things out through the awesome power of hindsight and the rosy colored glasses of selective memories. “Oh, it wasn’t really that bad, was it now?” Maybe not, maybe not, but it sure wasn’t that good, either.

"Bring out your trash…"

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I’m not sure if he deals with bio-hazard material and body parts as well, or just sticks with the more mundane and pedestrian crap, but this guy plies the sidewalk outside the University Teaching Hospital in Kigali every day collecting astounding amounts of trash. What then happens with it is a mystery — presumably (but not necessarily) he meets up with a garbage truck somewhere every so often to off-load, before heading back for a new round of assorted junk. 

Mr. Moto Can't Come To The Phone Right Now…

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Apart from insulting the President, the quickest way to find yourself severely injured in Rwanda is to make use of the ever-present wheeled mosquitoes, also known as motos. These taxis for those who can’t afford a real taxi (typically costs RWF4-8,000 for a minor trip, vs. 300-1,000 with a moto) roam throughout the country, but they’re particularly dense in Kigali, where every street corner is teeming with a gang of the blue-clad, morose guys waiting for customers.

Horrible as they may be (most foreign organizations here have a ban against using them – the casualty statistics don’t lie), they’re also exceptionally convenient, fast and ridiculously cheap compared to any other way of getting around town (yes, the town buses are cheaper still – RWF200 for most in-town runs – but between the b.o. and the claustrophobia it’s at least as detrimental to your health as a stint on the back of Evil Knievel’s joy ride from hell). When your car is out of circulation and you really, truly need to get somewhere, the motos are pretty much the only way of getting around town.

So, today I had to go to pick up our car (yes, THAT car) from a pre-sale paint job all the way across town in Nyabugogo – the hairy armpit of Kigali. The first guy I asked for the ride outside my office at Carnegie-Mellon refused my otherwise reasonable price (heck, I just wanted to pay what I’d paid four hours earlier to do the same trip in reverse), but then handed me off to an evidently less picky/more desperate rider and declared, “he’ll take you.”

Just as I was putting on my ill-fitting helmet (all motos must provide their passenger with a helmet – more often than not, it’s a strapless, shapeless, cracked and nasty affair that is strictly of ornamental value) and got on the back of his bike, Mr. Moto’s phone rang. As he gunned the tiny engine and popped the clutch, a swift flick of the wrist wedged his cheap-o phone between his cheek and his helmet, allowing him to jabber away while negotiating his way between buses, cars, other motorbikes, and pedestrians on our way to Nyabugogo. Yeah, well, whatever. I’ve been here long enough to shrug that one off. No, what spooked me was when his argument on the phone got so heated that he felt compelled to add in hand gestures like an aging Italian to get his points across – that left him with a phone stuck to the side of the face, clearly absorbing most of his mental acuity, and only one hand on the handlebars to negotiate cobblestone and the lorries with week-old dead fish and building material surrounding us.

But luckily, the conversation eventually ended, I directed Mr. Moto to the seedy corner where my car was being painted, and I survived the fifteen minute ordeal across Kigali, which ended up costing me a mere buck and change. Life, as they say, is cheap…

Sunset Boulevard

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About half an hours walk north of our house in Kigali lies an entire world of back roads and small villages that mostly function without much connection to the hustle and bustle of big, bad Kigali. Sometimes, it’s even pretty out there, especially around sunset. It’s the end of the small rainy season, and the puddles are slowly drying up, leaving behind a mess of churned up red dirt and other… stuff.

Kids. Kids Everywhere.

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I agreed to help ISK (the International School of Kigali) with this year’s school photos — in part as a nice gesture, in part because I thought it would be good practice to run through a couple of hundred portraits in a day. It was a mixed blessing… Lots of great kids that were fun to shoot, and a handful of kids that made me want to throw my camera down in despair… I can’t imagine doing school photos for a living, being Mr. Happy Smiley day in and day out, adjusting shoulders, wiping off boogers and trying to get a shot that grandma and grandpa will want to proudly display on the mantle for 12 months.