A Rwanda Experience
Contemporaneous notes from a working vacation
By: Joyce Cummings
January 12-24, 2012
Agahozo-shalom means “a place to dry one’s tears in peace.” The appropriately named Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) in Rubona, Rwanda was founded by Anne Heyman and Seth Merrin to house and educate about 500 high school age children, most of whom are orphans of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, or other highly vulnerable children.
Since 2009, groups of 20 Tufts students have volunteered at the Village each spring, and Bill and I have been pleased to financially sponsor this program. After reading letters from the students, many of whom described truly life-altering experiences, we decided we needed to see ASYV ourselves—thus the main purpose of our recent trip.
Through the Cummings Hillel Program for Holocaust and Genocide Education at Tufts University we are also connected to Aegis Trust, a foundation working throughout the world on genocide education. Aegis worked with the Rwandan government to establish the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda’s capital. The Memorial is helping adult victims of the genocide get back on their feet.
Friends Alice and Dr. Arlan Fuller, of Winchester, MA, have a special interest in Partners In Health (PIH) hospitals, of which there are three in Rwanda, and they joined us on our adventure. Our traveling party also included friends Christy Regan and Jill Bohlin, also of Winchester, who joined us for our first three days, as well as the last three, but they travelled to nearby Kenya on safari in the middle of the trip. The Cummings' and Fullers are returning to Rwanda in August 2013.
To set the context for the country in the years leading up to the genocide, we have, with permission from Dr. James Smith, included italicized excerpts from the booklet “jenocide,” published and produced in 2004 by Aegis Trust and the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
We did not choose to be colonized. The Germans arrived first (1895-1916). During WWI, the country was occupied by Belgian troops, who in 1923 were granted a mandate by the League of Nations to govern Rwanda-Urundi, which it ruled indirectly. They turned their mandate into a colonial occupation until our independence in 1962.
The primary identity of all Rwandans was originally associated with 18 different clans. The categories Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa (commonly known as Pygmy) were socio-economic classifications within the clans, which could change with personal circumstances. Under colonial rule, the distinctions were made racial, particularly with the introduction of the identity card in 1932. In creating these distinctions, the colonial power identified anyone with 10 cows or more in 1932 as a Tutsi, and anyone with fewer than 10 cows as Hutu. This categorization also applied to his descendants. We had lived in peace for many centuries, but now the divide between us had begun.
(Body size or shape did not define the races; rather it was economic, based on the number of cows one owned. There are differences of opinion about whether Tutsis are tall and slim and Hutus not. We certainly interacted with both and could never tell any difference. One woman we met told us she did not know what she was—her parents never told her. Unfortunately, her husband was considered a traitor and so was killed. She wandered from place to place seeking refuge. Her story has a happy ending, which I will share later.
By 1959, several new political parties had been formed and there was much infighting between them creating further discord between Tutsis and Hutus. The country’s first Prime Minister, Gregoire Kayibanda, (even) said, “The Hutu and the Tutsi communities are two nations in a single state. Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy, who are ignorant of each other’s habit, thought and feelings as if they were the inhabitants of different zones or planets.” The regime was characterized by the persecution and ethnic cleansing of Tutsis.
Over 700,000 Tutsis were exiled from our country between 1959 and 1973 as a result of the ethnic cleansing encouraged by the Belgian colonialists. The refuges were prevented from returning, despite many peaceful efforts to do so. Some then joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) who, on 1 October 1990, invaded Rwanda. Civil war followed. Massacres of Tutsis were carried out (periodically from October 1990 to February 1994). Despite knowing about these atrocities, the French Government continued to support the then current regime.
An intense propaganda campaign began, to persuade and compel the majority of the population as to why they should see their compatriots, their neighbors, even their own families, as enemies, and distrust them. (Much as in the Holocaust) the population was being conditioned to accept and to join the plan to act before it was too late. More than 20 newspapers and journals incited hatred of the Tutsi. One of the leading papers suggested that the Hutus needed to protect themselves as the Tutsis were planning a war that would “leave no survivors.” (Actually, the Hutus were planning a war that would leave no survivors.)
(Schoolchildren were separated in classrooms with Tutsis on one side of the room and Hutus on the other. Radio stations and newspapers spewed hatred, and young people were carefully indoctrinated with extreme political views. As with the Holocaust, hate was spread with little or no real cause. Families and friends were divided and, eventually, turned on each other.)
In August 1993, the Rwandan Government and RPF signed an agreement known as the Arusha Peace Accords. Rwanda was to have a transitional government leading to a democratically elected government. (Long story short–the current leadership did not want the Accord to work, and managed to see that it did not.)
By the early 1990's, persecution was so extreme that some Tutsi and Hutu moderates again began to leave their homes and became refugees in neighboring countries. (Tutsi men and women were jailed and tortured. Waves of massacres acted as a precursor to the genocide.)
On 10 January 1994, an informant, code-named “Jean-Pierre,” who was a former member of the president’s security guard, came forward with information. He reported the (Government) was registering all Tutsi in Kigali for an extermination plan, which would kill up to 1,000 people every 20 minutes. Jean-Pierre believed that the President had lost control of the extremists. He was willing to warn about the dangers of Hutu power and go to the press in exchange for his security (by the UN). Jean-Pierre disappeared. His fate remains unknown.
(Although there were various cables sent to New York to inform the UN Secretary General of the situation, nothing was done. Something BIG was about to happen, but no one knew just what, and the cables were ignored.)
(6 April 1994—“Something Big” happened!) Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and President Cyrien Ntaryamira of Burundi were flying to Kigali, when at 20:23, the plane was shot down on its approach to Kigali airport. By 21:15, roadblocks had been constructed throughout Kigali and houses were being searched. Shooting began to be heard within an hour...the death lists had been prepared in advance.
APOCALYPSE: Genocide was instant. Roadblocks sprang up right across the city with militia armed with one intent—to identify and kill Tutsis. House-to-house searches began. The murderers used machetes, clubs, guns and any blunt tool they could find to inflict as much pain on their victims as possible. Women were beaten, raped, humiliated, abused and ultimately murdered, often in sight of their own families. Children watched as their parents were tortured, beaten and killed in front of their eyes. Neighbors turned on neighbors. Rwanda had turned into a nation of brutal, sadistic merciless killers and of innocent victims, overnight. (I disagree with the word overnight. The genocide had been slowly gaining momentum since identity cards were required in 1932.)
In Kigali, our Winchester group stayed at the very comfortable Serena Hotel ($390 per room including breakfast, taxes, etc.). Starting with its rapidly growing airport, Kigali is a modern, very clean city in the center of this landlocked country, about the size of Vermont. There are major roads out of the city in many directions, but often on these spoke roads, there is not much paving, and no semblance of ring roads or much at all in the way of connecting highways.
The experiences we had in this city were unlike anything we had ever experienced before. We started with five hours at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, learning much about the events leading up to the terrible 1994 conflict. As with any genocide, including the Holocaust, the tensions and unrest did not happen suddenly.
Aegis Trust is a charity dedicated to the prediction, prevention, and ultimately, elimination of genocide. Its work is done through research, education, and the dissemination of information and advice. Bill and I are privileged to have met and become friends with James and Stephen Smith, the founders of Aegis Trust. They are English sons of a Methodist minister, who spent much of their growing up years in Israel. While there, they became knowledgeable about the Holocaust and after leaving Israel, they convinced their parents to allow their family home outside of London to be turned into the UK’s first Holocaust Museum.
James, a British-trained physician, now travels the world, having dedicated his life to genocide prevention. He was the driving force in the creation of the Kigali Memorial, which was designed by Stephen Smith and Glen Powell. Stephen, who holds a Ph.D., is director of the Shoah Foundation, founded by Stephen Spielberg. The Foundation’s mission is to record as many interviews as possible from Holocaust survivors. It is also doing some work regarding the Armenian Holocaust. Shoah Foundation is based in Los Angeles, CA at University of Southern California.
Kigali Genocide Memorial
In 2001, representatives of the Rwandan government invited Aegis Trust to establish the Memorial in partnership with the Kigali City Council. The Memorial opened in 2004, at the time of the 10th anniversary of the genocide. More than 250,000 victims of the genocide are buried in mass graves there, surrounded by beautiful gardens. Altogether, more than 800,000 Rwandans died in 100 days of unbelievable mayhem.
The Museum's main exhibition tells the history of Rwanda leading up to the genocide, and it catalogues the details of the 1994 genocide through personal testimonies, photographs, video, and artifacts. There is also a small room dedicated to children, innocent victims of the genocide. On another floor, the exhibition “Wasted Lives” reflects on genocides of the past, including the massacres in Armenia, South West Africa, Bosnia, and Cambodia, as well as the Holocaust.
We heard stories of children who had eaten dinner with “friends” several days before the slaughter began, and then were turned away or even killed by those they thought would protect them. Perpetrators did not consider Tutsis human. They routinely referred to them as cockroaches, and could therefore bash them to death with no guilt. “Cockroaches must be eliminated!” Although Tutsis were being killed several years before 1994 and for some years after, the official timeline of the genocide begins April 6, 1994 and lasts 100 days.
We were fortunate to be a small group and have a special guide take us through the Memorial. A significant portion of the display is photographs of the victims. Freddy Mutanguha, left, director of the Memorial, showed us pictures and told us stories about his parents and sisters, all of whom were killed. Freddy’s story in his own words.
We were given beautiful flowers to place on several of the mass graves, and we walked around the extensive gardens enjoying the warm African breeze. There is a café at the Memorial run by survivors. Our group along with a number of people working for Aegis enjoyed lunch, a short video, and conversation before heading back to our hotel to change clothes for a wedding introduction party. (More on that later.)
There are many more memorial sites throughout the country. We visited several while traveling and each gave us a haunting feeling about the senselessness of the lives lost.
The day after visiting Kigali Genocide Memorial, we toured Kigali and, thanks to Alice’s intervention, were taken out of the city to visit two former churches where thousands of people sought refuge. When there were troubles in 1959, the church supposedly protected anyone who was able to get to it. Not so in 1994. Priests were reportedly more interested in getting out of the country and were simply not there. This was the single most difficult part of the trip for me to handle emotionally.
At each church, we were shown a wall splattered with splashed blood that was still very visible. That was the place babies were thrown. Each church has clothes of all the victims, turned brown by blood and laid out on pews and kneelers. Even alter cloths are splattered with blood. We were told stories of women being raped and then having poles thrust into their sex organs. In my most horrific nightmare I could never have imagined seeing rows and rows of skulls and being able to say, “This one was killed by a machete; this one by a club.” Alice, a dental hygienist in a former life, identified children by the size of the jawbone.
Each church had a young man who told us the history of the church and took us on a tour. One was 19 years old in 1994, and said he and his father were in the hills with all the other men of the village, hoping to protect the women and children by getting to the killers before they reached the village. They were unable to do so, and almost everyone, of all ages, was killed. The young man hid in swamps for several days and eventually found his way to another country. He seemed so “normal” and at peace, and so we asked him about his feelings at the time and now. He answered, “I had to get on with my life. The country needed everyone to help rebuild, so I returned and I work toward making Rwanda strong and safe again.”
For several days after returning home, I was not able to get the images we saw at the Memorial and in the two churches we visited out of my mind.
Other Genocide Tales
One white man from the Memorial, with whom we talked extensively, was married to a Rwandan woman. I do not know her name, but for the sake of telling the story clearly, I will call her "Jane." Jane took her husband to her village and showed him where she lived, as well as the house where the man who killed her mother lived. She thought the man wasstill in jail.
They walked to the top of a hill and spent some time there. When they returned, however, they saw the man working in his garden. They went to him and Jane asked if he remembered her. The man said “no.” Jane told him about her family living next-door, and then he said, “yes,” he did remember. When asked how the man felt about killing Jane’s mother, he said he did not feel anything. He was then asked what he and the other four men talked about during the killing, and he said they did not talk about anything. The couple persisted, “Do you mean to tell me that the whole time the five of you were torturing her and dragging her down the hill, you didn’t say anything?” The man replied that they were singing victory songs.
The next question was, “If the same thing were to happen again, would you participate?” He told Jane and her husband that he hoped the government would not make them do such things again. Upon further questioning, he repeated that the government forced them to do it. It gives one pause to think about governmental power and what happens all over the world, depending on who is in charge.
Fortunately, the highly regarded current president, Paul Kagame, has received recognition for his leadership in peace building and reconciliation, as well as acclaim for development, good governance, and promotion of human rights. Freedom of speech is not a revered tradition in Rwanda, nor is graft and corruption under the Kagame regime. The president has banned all discussion or even any use of the words Tutsi and Hutu.
Freddy Mutanguha, whom I mentioned above and who is pictured left with his wife, made most of our travel arrangements for us within Rwanda, and was enormously helpful in so many ways. His official position is that of executive director of Kigali Memorial, but as such, he is also a real ambassador for the nation. And like most Rwandans older than 20, he has vivid memories of the 1994 genocide. Freddy was 18 at the time of the genocide and he had four sisters – one survived. This is a portion of Freddy’s story, told in his own words:
“My strongest memory of the genocide, the one that hurts me most, is the night of 13 April 1994. That was the day they came to kill my family. I was away from the house, in hiding, but Mum came to find me. She knew I was very hungry because by then nobody could cook any food... Mum knew I didn’t like beans so she brought me some vegetables and passion fruit... The people I told you about – the ones who don’t like us – took everything away from me... Today, passion fruit still reminds me of that last meal my Mum gave to me...
“I also remember that before she was killed, Mum told me I had to be strong. She said that if my sister and I survived, I had to be a man. Those are the two things still on my heart to this day. I was there when the perpetrators came to kill my family. They came saying, “We’re tired, we’ll take those two fat kids (Freddy and his sister) later.” So they took the younger ones; my sister Rosette and I were left behind. We couldn’t see it happening, but we could hear them screaming... later at night I went with another boy to find Mum’s body... the younger sisters were dumped alive into a latrine.
“I know some of the killers very well... they were our neighbors among them a man called Benoit who had been our neighbor for years and owned a shop nearby. He was Mum’s friend and he even used to lend her money for me to go to school...
“These memories usually come back to me in April. That’s when I have nightmares and I see people killing other people. But, otherwise I am lucky, I rarely have nightmares. (except in April... we were told Rwanda becomes a very quiet and sad place in April. There are many remembrances throughout the country that month.)
“It’s hard to describe how I felt during the genocide. I was so afraid and lost all hope of survival. But then I reached a point where I wasn’t scared any more. I was no longer afraid of death. Death or life, it meant nothing any more...
“I personally believe that surviving was partly a matter of luck – but it’s also a great responsibility because many survivors are very poor and don’t even have life’s basic necessities. That’s why those who have something to share need to feel responsible for those who have nothing. I also think surviving is a privilege because when I consider what happened in Rwanda, all the determination of the killers and their accomplices, it’s a miracle that some people managed to survive...
“Forgiving is difficult... I don’t even know where to start. Whom should I forgive anyway? The former Government? Individuals? I look around and I don’t even know where to start... Forgiving is difficult, but it’s not impossible because the few genocide survivors can’t develop Rwanda by themselves. We all need to combine our energy to develop the country. But I think it’s better for those who committed the crimes to start asking for forgiveness. They should come to us to talk about it... They should show us that they are truly sorry. Then things could proceed.”
One example of people in Rwanda working for the common good is found in the primary schools. Paid for by the government, schools used to go through sixth grade, at which point most students would drop out because they could not afford the relatively small fees required for high school. Several years ago, however, primary school was extended through ninth grade. While everyone thought it was a great idea, it required 3,000 new classrooms throughout the country—obviously, something that could not be done in the few months of school vacation. Well, it was done. President Kagame simply said, “We will do it. Everyone together.”
Everyone did what he or she could and did it quickly. Materials were purchased, and builders, electricians, and trades people stopped other projects. In less than three months, 3,000 new classrooms were constructed, and school opened on time for students in grades seven through nine. Now, many of the students continue through the 12th grade. The annual income of the average Rwandan, however, is only a few hundred dollars a year.
One more lesson for us: The streets are very clean—litter is simply not acceptable. I do not know about things like zip lock bags, but plastic grocery bags are not allowed in the country. We were warned that if our luggage was searched and plastic bags were found, we would not be able to take them out of the airport. Our bags were not searched, however if they were, we would have passed inspection. In addition, the last Saturday of the month is National Clean–Up Day. Each city and village has a leader who organizes groups of volunteers who do clean–up projects on that day, such as rebuilding something, painting, weeding gardens, and other tasks to keep the country clean. While I am not ready to move to Rwanda, it certainly offers lessons from which the U.S. could learn. Surprisingly to Bill, Rwanda has very serious, although apparently very reasonable wetland protection laws and reportedly enforces them rigorously.
The Wedding Party
I promised you a wedding party, and here it is. Part of the process to get married in Rwanda is a wedding introduction party. Usually held two weeks before the wedding, it was just one week prior in this case. A young man who works for Aegis became head of his household following the genocide, as both parents were killed, and he raised his younger sister who was getting married. While the bride’s family hosts the party, it is the responsibility of the groom’s family to prove he is good enough to marry her.
We put on our fanciest clothes, which for me meant a Travel Smith skirt and a nice white sweater. Christy had a very attractive “designer” African dress she bought at Nordstrom Rack and swore she would never wear again. We were not, however, the standout fashion statements of the evening. The African women, on the other hand, were dressed to the nines, and we wondered what they would ever wear the next weekend to the wedding itself.
The party was in full swing when we arrived. We did not understand a word, and the ceremony was very long. Several people who sat near us diligently explained many details of the protocol, and we enjoyed ourselves quite a bit. The party was in the backyard of the bride’s home, located in a village with the famously bumpy roads. The houses were very nice and the yard was quite large, which was a good thing, with several hundred in attendance. There were two “tents,” one for each family, and guests were seated on one side of the square with another canopy type structure facing us where the bride and groom eventually sat.
The ceremony consisted of many groups of professional dancers, singers, and chanters, all hired by the groom’s family. Their job was to convince the bride’s family he was worthy of her. Elders from both families wrote poems that, apparently, were hysterically funny because everyone except us laughed loudly. There was much ado about the number of cows (although no real cows were present), as dancers frolicked around, representing cows and allowing their teeth and other body parts to be checked. This had been going on for more than an hour before we arrived, and continued for at least another 40 minutes. Then, female dancers arrived, and gifts were passed back and forth from family to family, including a bottle of Jim Beam and some Fanta orangeade.
Finally, the groom came in—looking very bored, I must say! The bride was then escorted to her seat next to the groom and she, too, looked a little weary of the whole affair. We were told we would know the bride because she would wear a crown. It was very simple and complimented her small frame. There was some ceremonial exchange of gifts between the bride and the groom’s family, and vice versa. Then everyone paraded out, and that was that.
We wondered how a family could afford to throw such a party and then do it all over again the next week. As it turns out, they can’t. Guests give money to the bride’s family for the introduction party, and then the groom’s family takes care of the wedding.
After the ceremony, the groom and his entire family leave. No wonder he was bored—all that hoopla and then he doesn’t even get fed! As the bride is then not allowed to see or be with the groom or any member of his family until the wedding day, they all leave and the bride’s family and guests enjoy a meal. We did not stay, as we did not know anyone other than James and Freddy, and it would not have been appropriate for us to intrude. It had been a long day and we all yearned for a quiet dinner together at the hotel. Freddy and his wife stayed for the party. He reported that it went well into the night and was a good time. Back for our second night at the Serena, with a very nice American–style breakfast buffet in the morning.
Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village
Starting in 2007, the Village was built from nothing, using basic, quality materials. It was beautifully assembled, yet with no frills, and certainly a few shortcomings. Four years ago, it opened with one class of 125 students, and each year, has added another class of 125. This year is its first at full occupancy of 500, mostly between 15 and 19 years old. The marvelous project was conceived and largely financed and built by New Yorkers Anne Heyman and Seth Merrin.
Each “mayor” of Rwanda’s 30 districts is asked to submit to ASYV a list of the 10 most vulnerable children aged 15 – 19 in the district, thereby creating a list of 300 children. The list is culled to around 200, at which point “home” visits are made to determine which children will be chosen. Home is in quotation marks because some have no family and are living on the streets. Others have no parents, but live with a relative, while some have one parent, usually a mother who has HIV from being raped during the genocide. Still others are heads of households, taking care of younger siblings.
The students’ homes at the Village each include 16 children and a hired House Mama from a nearby town. From the minute they arrive, everyone is considered family, and the word love is used a lot! One girl who did not know her birthday chose Valentines’ Day for her birthday, because “that day has the most love.” Each house is assigned a volunteer who is their “cousin,” and the cousin participates in family time every night.
The students are responsible for their own laundry, and are also assigned chores in the house and dining hall. Some speak English when they arrive, but all are fluent within a short period of time. These kids have lived a nightmare of a life and seen things we cannot even imagine. But, they become engaging, delightful people after arriving at the Village and receiving a lot of TLC, counseling services, medical care, decent food, housing, and education. (There is no dental care yet, but that has been identified as an urgent priority.) Almost all have endured significant emotional trauma, and seem to thrive on a regimented lifestyle of study and leadership training, along with a mostly vegetarian diet, and a huge dose of loving discipline. They are hungry to learn everything they can. Oh, but that kids in the U.S. might feel the same way!
Despite the large numbers of children, and a striking lack of resources, ASYV operates in an extremely orderly fashion. Every day, the kids get up at 6:00 AM, eat breakfast at 6:30 AM, and then go to classes from 7:00 AM until 1:45 PM. A well-earned lunch is enjoyed at 2:00 PM, and dinner is served each evening at 8:00 PM.
Outside of school and meals, the students fill their days with sports, electives, and “family time” until “lights out” at 11:00 PM. It may sound like a long day for such young people, but there are so many students who still have terrible memories, some of them simply do not want to sleep. Their lives work better when they are really tired. They do not tell their housemates “good night;” rather they tell them, “have good dreams.” Jill and Christy spent one night in the village while Bill and I and the Fullers spent four nights there. For privacy reasons we include no pictures of ASYV students.
Daily meals, held in the 550 or so-seat dining room, are an excellent example of the school’s efficient and organized operation. The students, all of whom appear to be quite happy and well mannered, eat together at long tables of 20 each. They enter the dining room, serve themselves “family style” from huge serving containers of rice and veggies, clear their plates, wipe the tables, and depart—all in well under an hour.
Much of what is consumed at ASYV is grown on its own farm. There are no freezers of any sort—only two reach–in refrigerators. Everything is cooked over wood-fired stoves and wood-fired steam kettles. And, it all works beautifully with lots of rice, beans, cabbage, squash, etc.
Breakfast for students is generally the same every day: a bun and vitamin-fortified porridge made with milk. Lunch and dinner seems to almost always consist of white rice, a thin fresh vegetable stew, and either white sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes (which we know as a white potato), or a type of green banana that to me, tastes exactly like white potatoes. The vegetable soup has different mixed vegetables and it all tasted very good, but very similar. The bananas must be cooked, and are steamed or boiled at the Village, although we also had them fried in a restaurant. No condiments are offered.
Each student gets one hard-boiled egg on Saturday, and milk once a week. Pineapple is sometimes served, but there are no snacks. Birthdays are celebrated once a month with a large cake and New Year’s Eve is celebrated with a piece of unfrosted cake. Otherwise, there are no desserts.
Guests like us were are spoiled with a generous breakfast of eggs and a variety of fresh fruit delivered to a common room in the guesthouse. I felt guilty and thought we should be eating porridge, but was glad we did not have to walk a half mile to the dining room by 6:30 AM. For lunch and dinner, however, we were delighted to eat with students, the house Mamas, volunteers, and teachers.
We were told that Rwandans do not care about variety, and they are content to eat the same things day after day. For many of the students, simply having regular meals was a luxury. The volunteer guest coordinator, Barrett, told us about one girl who would not put her bun down during breakfast for several weeks when she first arrived, as she feared someone would take it from her. She now acts like a happy kid, assured she will be fed well every day.
Seefar Road, probably the only straight pathway here, leads directly from the center of ASYV’s hilltop campus to a well-made concrete and stone gathering spot, reminiscent of the old Greek and Roman amphitheaters. Other than the village’s huge dining hall, this open-air structure is the only place on campus capable of accommodating the entire school community at once. It is used for all sorts of assemblies, including native dancing and student performances.
The end of Seefar Road provides magnificent views over a vast valley, and all the way north to Burundi. The picturesque scene includes a beautiful lake and fields of rice, banana trees, and pineapples. The students, who grew up thinking of nothing more than where their next meal might come from, have to be taught to “see far.” In fact, “If you can see far, you can go far,” is one of the mottos of the school.
Another popular saying at ASYV that is prominently displayed is “Wait a moment, let me think.” Students will leave the Village with a much greater capacity to evaluate what they see and hear before jumping into action. We know that Americans need to say this more often, rather than quickly, and sometimes, blindly plunging into something. We tried it several times during the trip and were rightly rewarded.
While some graduates surely will go on to college, the overriding goal of ASYV is to give students tools to be responsible citizens, with the ability to earn a living, be good parents, and think straight. Throughout the country, there is a policy not only of reconciliation, but also of retraining the way people think about following their leaders blindly. But, what will it take to change a culture that condoned the massacre of more than a million friends, neighbors, and even family members in the horrific genocide of 1994?
After one or two cold showers, we discovered that our guest rooms had hot water, but we needed to go outdoors and plug in the hot water heaters. It certainly is not something we could complain about, however, since no one else in the Village ever has hot water. They spoil guests. Our nicely built rooms were larger than necessary, but had only one low wattage light bulb in the ceiling of the bedroom. I laughed when I saw two floor lamps with one light bulb, but with plugs that were not compatible with outlets. There was adequate lighting in the bathroom. The Village was the only place we had mosquito netting. Some of us did use plenty of insect repellant when outside our rooms, but insects were never any kind of an issue.
The Happy Anniversary
This day was Alice and Skip's 43rd wedding anniversary. Skip arranged for our driver, lets call him "Charlie," to get a bouquet, and he brought a gorgeous arrangement of multicolored roses. Alice was totally surprised, as the Village was not near any city. The driver's name was changed (above) because of an incident, near the end, when he attempted to con an extra $250 payment from Bill.
We celebrated all day. Our agenda was an excursion to Akagera National Park, a game reserve about two hours drive from the Village. We saw zebras, giraffe, warthogs and some pretty birds, but they were few and far between. We stopped at a campground for lunch and had peanut butter and crackers brought from home with granola bars as dessert, all washed down by bottled water. Charlie had a CD in the van with a wild African version of Happy Birthday, and we used it as "Happy Anniversary" instead, with Bill and Charlie providing entertainment by breaking into a crazy dance. We drove through the park for another hour and decided we had had enough. And then, we countered the hippos. Four enormous hippopotamus were frolicking in the water and put on quite a show pounding after each other through the water. The hippo performance alone was worth the drive out and through the park.
On the way back to the village, Skip proposed we stop at a specific hotel for beer and a snack. Charlie decided we should not go to the hotel, but instead, to a new beach resort not far off the road. Well, his version of “not far off” differed quite a bit from ours, and we were ready to be very disgruntled, but we finally came to a beautiful lake and beach, with a lovely restaurant/bar area. We put in our order for four Mutzig beers and a coke for Charlie, and one order of fish and banana. We just wanted a little taste to carry us through to dinner. After all, our lunch was only PB crackers! Another long story short–the fish just did not come and did not come. We knew they used fresh ingredients, as we saw a chicken being carried to the kitchen and heard its death cry, so we wondered if they were trying to catch a fish. We finally had to leave, over protests from the server and manager, and so it became the “no fish snack day.”
Surprisingly, the Village was in total darkness when we returned because of a not too uncommon district-wide power outage. We fumbled our way into our rooms and found flashlights. I was pretty sure the kids would be fed in their houses; but at 7:30 PM everyone spilled out onto the dark road and made their way to the dining hall. We, of course, needed flashlights to find our way, but among the five or six hundred diners making the half-mile walk that night, we had the only flashlights.
That evening was perhaps the best of all our time at the Village. Five hundred plus people were calmly seated eating the standard rice and vegetable stew by the illumination of ONE battery powered ceiling light. Several girls came to eat and talk with us and we became quite smitten with them. We even had a friendly banter about which of us had the cutest and smartest student sitting next to us. Mine was Denise, a first-year student who is “very very happy at school. I love school!” She speaks three languages and wants to learn a fourth, so she can be a diplomat and travel all over the world. She plays piano and “maybe will be a professional pianist instead of a diplomat.” She asked me how many languages I spoke and I was embarrassed to say only one. She was fascinated with Skip and wanted me to tell her all about him.
Alice talked with Rosalie, whose family fled to the Congo when she was two. She did not say how, but they all died and she was deported back to Rwanda when she was 12. She did not speak Kinyarwanda, had no family or friends, and was living on the street. She is a third-year student and speaks four languages. When she finishes school, she wants to get a job, save money, buy a house, and take care of children who have no parents.
Gorillas Nest Lodge
A beautiful resort not too long ago, GNL had a major fire in 2011 and has not been rebuilt. Two buildings survived the fire: The Ranch and Hanna Cottage, which is owned by Jack Hanna of television and Columbus Zoo fame. Hanna Cottage has two bedrooms and a large living room that extends into a dining room and kitchen separated by a half wall. A porch runs the length of the back of the cottage and overlooks a gorgeous panorama of lush green lawn, and a nine-hole golf course. The world’s largest hydrangeas surround the cottage–they are gigantic! Another perk at GNL was good television reception.
With a manager, server, housekeeper, cook, and dishwasher, there were five people attending to our every wish. We had three entrée choices every lunch and dinner, with both meals including a soup and/or salad and dessert. We enjoyed a variety of fresh fruit at breakfast, excellent toast, rolls, cured meats, and cheese. Eggs were cooked to order, but some things got lost in translation. For example, Alice, Skip and Bill all ordered omelets one morning and all received two fried eggs, (over light and broken.)
To go along with the nine-hole course, GNL has one bag of 20 golf clubs to share. Skip and Bill decided they would play, and they would alternate carrying the bag. Gilbert, the manager, however, was insistent about knowing their “tee time,” and at the appointed time, showed up to play himself, and brought with him the cook, dishwasher, and several guards from the entrance gate. One man was the caddie; one carried a stick with a flag (a stick, not a flagstick as usually used in golf) from hole to hole; four were forecaddies and placed the flag stick or a eucalyptus branch where each ball landed, and also fluffed the grass up a bit. The lead guard had a carbine always at the ready supposedly for protection from mountain buffalos if they showed up.
Jack Nicklaus reportedly played a few holes with Gilbert sometime last year, but our guys stuck it out for the full nine. We never heard the score, but that was obviously not important.
That was the night we had a wonderful outdoor BBQ dinner. There was a roaring outdoor campfire and a troupe of local dancers–schoolchildren from the nearby village. They were such fun to watch and they had us dancing with them at the end of the program. It was another WOW day!
The Mountain Gorillas
There are fewer than 800 highly protected mountain gorillas in the world. They dwell in the National Parks of Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, which come together on the side of a high volcano in the Virunga Mountains 80 miles north of Kigali. Another smaller population lies in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. They stay at altitudes between 9,000 and 12,000 feet, and they eat up to 75 pounds of vegetation daily.
There was a bit of a mix up regarding gorilla passes so we had to make a change in our itinerary. Passes must be purchased at least several months in advance. Trekkers are limited to 64 a day so when something gets mixed up it can mean serious trouble. But, that’s a story for another time. We and the Fullers trekked on Friday and Saturday and Christy and Jill had their two treks on Saturday and Sunday. There were eight people in each group, and we were fortunate to have James, Freddy, Glenn and Solange, all from Aegis Trust be with us on Friday. Saturday, Thelma and John, a charming couple from England, joined us. Thelma was in better shape than John. No matter, we all marched along and everything was fine. We had been told we should do a medium trek the first day and an easy one the second day... VERY wise advise!!
The first trek started at 6000 feet and we climbed to between 8000 and 9000 – no easy task for me!! I thought my heart would pound out of my chest, and without my trusty walking stick and a fantastic porter, Jean Claude, known as JC, I would never have finished. All the way up I wasworrying about how I would get down. The climb was especially difficult because it was over volcanic rock – not a smooth step anywhere. I am not fond of heights and am still wondering how I managed to walk across a rugged stone outcrop overhanging a cliff without falling into a dead faint.
JC spoke no English other than “hello, thank you, you’re welcome, and ok,” but he communicated with me perfectly. He had a way of pointing with one hand and holding onto me with the other that made me feel very secure... most of the time. I told him I was going to bring him home with me. We had plenty of bedrooms and he could move right in, but of course he didn’t understand a word I was saying so just smiled and continued to pull or push me along. Alice and Skip have done a lot of hiking for many years and she just trudged along as though she was back in the Middlesex Fells. James, who is only 40, told me he was having trouble and was surprised at the difficulty of the trail. He said if he had not been there, and had just heard the story from me, he would have surely thought I was exaggerating.
The first day we walked through huge fields of white flowers that looked like daisies. Each blossom will be hand-picked and spread out in the sun to dry. These flowers are grown for a chemical that is used in insect repellant, and most of it is shipped to the US. The second day we were in Irish Potato country – fields and fields of potatoes at the bottom of the mountain.
Each day when the gorillas were spotted we left our walking sticks and backpacks with the porters. Only cameras and water were allowed to be carried near the gorillas. The trackers cleared the way with machetes, hacking at bushes, vines, stinging nettles, etc., and creating a narrow path for us to climb through.
The second trek was much easier, with an almost flat walk through a beautiful bamboo forest. There were a few rough hills to navigate when we found the gorilla family, but nothing any of us couldn’t easily handle. Thelma’s porter, a 60 year-old man who has experienced the best and worst of Rwanda’s history, had been a porter for Dian Fossey (Gorillas in the Mist).
Augustine, our guide, was wonderful. He encouraged all of us to let him know whenever we needed a rest and made it clear that we were in no hurry. He kept telling us that we were all going to achieve our goal, seeing the gorillas, and it didn’t matter how long it took. He also gave information about plants such as Bitter Apple. It grows on a bush and looks a bit like a lime. It is not edible by humans but elephants like it. When a girl (could be a boy) falls in love and wants a parent to meet the boy, the girl puts a Bitter Apple in a pocket and takes her parent to the boy’s house. She throws the apple to the boy and if he loves her he throws the apple back. It is a sad day if the boy puts the apple in his pocket, because that means a relationship ended.
We were delighted Augustine arranged to be our guide for the second day also. I was amused but pleased that he asked several times how I was, and when I convinced him I was perfectly fine he just smiled and didn’t single me out again until the very end. When we finished our second trek he asked me to tell Christy, Jill, Thelma and John how the first day differed from the second. I think I took at least several minutes explaining how the two days were dramatically different.
Other people involved in the treks were "a sweep", making sure we were all together, and the trackers who find the gorilla families and keep in touch with the guides by radio. The trackers spend all day on the mountain keeping notes on what’s happening with the gorillas each day. They carry rifles to ward off buffalo that can be very dangerous. We didn’t see any, but were told the trackers just shot their rifles in the air to scare them off. We weren’t really sad to have missed that action.
It was important to watch out for all parts of our bodies because we could and did trip over vines, bump heads on branches and have arms, legs, and rear ends “attacked” by stinging “nettles. I thought it rather funny that Augustine kept warning us about the nettles when we were on pretty open paths, but there was no way to avoid them when in the jungle. Clothing was little protection and we just had to make up our minds that we would ignore the pain and carry on because there was nothing we could do about it. Poor Alice took a tumble the first day and landed on her bum – not the nicest place to have nettles.
YES, we saw lots of gorillas! There are 18 mountain gorilla families in Rwanda. Fourteen are acclimated to humans. Each family is named and each individual is named. Friday we visited the Ugenda Family (not Uganda... smile Alice!) and Saturday we were hosted by the Sabyinyo Family. We were not told individual names. Rules while near the gorillas include a very strong caution against pointing, no spitting and, if necessary, turn your back and cough into your sleeve, no flash cameras, and no loud talking. The guide makes gorilla sounds to request the gorillas’ permission to come in before visiting the group. He makes a low “errrr” sound and the Silverback responds with the same sound. Only then could we proceed. Visitors stay exactly one hour – no one is allowed to overextend their welcome.
The first trek took over two hours before arriving where the Ugenda Family was hanging out for the day, so they had already had their morning meal and play time. The adults were ready for a rest but several babies were crawling around over the adults. The dominant silverback lay pretty still for quite a while but eventually rolled around a bit and let one of the youngsters know he didn’t want it bothering him. A female sitting down looking at us had a baby nearby. One of the trackers told us the baby was asking for milk. The baby, who was pretty large, but not yet a juvenile, went to its mother, sat down and they put their arms around each other. Then the mother cuddled the baby, turned her back to us and started nursing... a private affair and very cute. We were very close and able to get good photos but it was a bit disappointing they weren’t a bit more active.
After exactly one hour, we were required to immediately leave the gorillas each day. On day one, when we started the return trek down the side of our extinct volcano, I was able to enjoy the spectacular views I missed on the way up. JC again helped me and I was not nearly as nervous going down as I was going up. I had to admit it was well worth the pain.
On the second day’s trek we reached our rendezvous in less than an hour, and the Sabyinyo Family was in full playful mode. They were all over the place, little ones climbing trees, the number one silverback hiding in the bushes. At one point a female adult rushed right by us when she decided to move from place A to place B. With little warning she stood up, took a quick look in our direction, and before we had a chance to back away, she whizzed by. An exciting moment to say the least.
Trackers continued to hack away through the jungle so we could follow the family around. They were eating bamboos shoots – cracking off the outside and spitting it out to get to the juice inside the stalk. They do the same thing with eucalyptus branches. We saw a two month old baby and (reportedly) the largest Silverback in the world on the same morning. That day was truly exhilarating!!
Partners In Health
A paragraph I wrote on our first morning in Kigali: “Looking out the hotel window at a beautiful large swimming pool, listening to soothing sounds of a fountain, drinking in the clean air, and enjoying large tropical plants. This is the way God intended Rwanda to be.” Fortunately, there are many organizations with smart, energetic, dedicated people who are working hard every day to return Rwanda to its original beauty and peaceful way of life. Partners In Health (PIH) is one of the most important such organizations.
PIH was founded in 1987 by Dr. Paul Farmer, Thomas J. White and Todd McCormack to support schools and health care in Cange, a village in Haiti. Although best known for its ongoing work in Haiti, it has expanded service throughout the world and has centers in Russia, Peru, USA, Mexico, Guatemala, and several African countries. We visited two of the three PIH hospitals in Rwanda. Coincidentally, Bill and I were pleased to meet Paul Farmer two weeks earlier in Boston.
Rwinkwavu Hospital was launched in April 2005. When the Rwandan government’s health officials asked PIH to replicate work it was doing in Haiti, Paul Farmer went to Rwanda to scout locations for a hospital. He declared one of the sites too nice and asked to be shown the worst place in Rwanda. Rwinkwavu was it.
From the PIH website:
Like desert country everywhere, the savanna around Rwinkwavu has its own austere beauty, but limited water and dry winds that sweep away topsoil have made it one of the poorest areas in Rwanda. This is where Partners In Health chose to begin its work in the heart of Africa.
As with most structures in Rwanda, the hospital is built up the side of a steep hill. The higher you climb–from the hospital itself to the new training center to the clean and pleasant housing for visitors and trainees on the summit–the more you are convinced that it really isn’t possible to go any further. One wonders whether similar doubts crossed the minds of the PIH visionaries who raised the funds, developed the programs and forged the partnerships with local and national officials that now bring world-class healthcare to this impoverished corner of Rwanda.”
We had a morning meeting with all levels of the hospital management and health care providers, and received an extensive tour of the facility. In the afternoon, we went with a nurse and social worker for two home visits. It took more than an hour to get to the first village, far off the paved road, where we were greeted by many children all wanting the Wazungu (white people) to take their photos. The kids get very excited when they see their picture on a digital camera.
We visited Sylva, a 14-year-old girl born with HIV who is also being treated for cancer. Sylva shyly answered questions with a soft voice and her head down a bit. Her charming grandmother, with whom she lives, spoke right up and was not at all bashful about telling her and Sylva’s story. Rwinkwavu Hospital saved Sylva’s life, and there is a good chance she will be able to go to college and have a successful career. Sylva gave a wide smile when her grandmother talked about school. She is well enough now to go to a boarding school, where in addition to being educated, she is fed well. They allowed us to take pictures, but only after Grandma powdered her face!
Our second home visit was more than an hour’s drive from the first. We thought we were being taken to the ends of the earth, but were rewarded for the effort. Kids were all over the Wazungu again and, after the obligatory photo session, we entered the humble home of Dalia. Her story is almost unbelievable. We recently promised ourselves we would not say or write the word amazing because it is so overused–but, Dalia’s story is AMAZING. There is just no getting around that.
Dalia had suffered four miscarriages. She told us she desperately wanted a baby because that is the only way she could leave anything on earth when she died. The entire village ostracized her and was afraid of her because she was HIV positive. They would not even let her get close enough to get coals from their fire to start one of her own. She had almost no food and, eventually, was down to 40 pounds. When Dalia heard there were white doctors at the hospital who could help her, she somehow managed to walk two days to Rwinkwavu. The HIV rate in Rwanda, by the way, is reportedly the lowest in Africa.
At Rwinkwavu, Dalia was treated, fed, and told she should not get pregnant again for a long time. She ignored this advice, however, as she really wanted a baby. She actually did deliver a healthy baby, and to avoid passing the virus through milk, did not nurse. As time went by, Dalia became stronger, and PIH gave her a cow and taught her how to plant a vegetable garden.
PIH does not just treat people and send them home. It tries to send them home with as much knowledge and skill as possible to improve their lives. There is a garden at Rwinkwavu where patients are taught how to grow food on whatever plot of land they have, and they are given seeds to get started. If they are given a cow, they sign a contract that, when the cow is bred, they will return the first calf to PIH, thus perpetuating the project.
So Dalia got to work. She has a beautiful garden, she sold milk from the cow to buy goats, bred the cow which had two calves, etc. She also formed a support group for HIV positive women within the village. She is “president” of this organization, which now includes women who are not HIV positive, as well as men with and without HIV. She went from being the outcast to being elected as the head of the community.
Dalia continued treatment through PIH and was able to have a second baby who she could nurse. That baby is now a toddler, although she still nurses and still carries the baby on her back. We were told that a Rwandan mother will let the community know she has had her last baby by nursing for up to four years and carrying the baby as long as possible. This creates a very spoiled child, but it is the last, and that is the way it is done.
Dalia is a no nonsense woman who made it clear that she was not interested in talking about her difficult years; rather she wanted us to know about the organization and the good work PIH was doing. Really remarkable!
High ceilings allow for greater ventilation and help with infection control.
On January 24, 2011, Paul Farmer joined Rwandan President Paul Kagame to inaugurate this new hospital in northern Rwanda. Built in just two years, it was a collaboration between PIH, Rwanda’s Ministry of Health, and the Clinton Health Access Initiative. The flagship 150-bed facility is the first permanent hospital in the Burera District, which previously had only one doctor to serve more than 320,000 people. Plans are underway to make Butaro Hospital the cancer center for the entire country. It took us more than two hours to drive from Gorillas Nest to Butaro, but it was through the most scenic views we had seen, and we had seen a lot of gorgeous country.
Dr. Peter Drobac, the country director for PIH in Rwanda, must be one of the world’s shining stars of medicine. His dedication and enthusiasm for his work is infectious. When he walks into a room, I sensed an energy charge, but he also has a terrific sense of humor and is gentle and kind to every patient and every child he sees.
Peter described the importance of the neonatal ICU as just one example of the value of the new services the hospital will offer. He noted, “Prematurity and low birth weight are incredibly common here because of malnutrition, malaria, and other factors associated with poverty–even babies born full-term frequently look like preemies, and many of them die. Although we have incubators and other equipment, very simple things can be done to prevent these deaths. We had the director of the neonatal ICU at Children’s Hospital in Boston, an internationally acclaimed expert, spend two months in Rwanda developing protocols and training doctors and nurses.”
Beds are situated so each patient has an extraordinarily pleasant hilltop view. Farmer said, “I can’t show you a double-blind study that proved that patients are better if they can see beautiful things–but I believe it.”
Through ultrasound, it was determined a Butaro woman was going to deliver triplets. When the day came, her entire village accompanied her to the hospital. There were hundreds of people singing and dancing around the building. The first baby came out healthy and was handed over to a nurse. The second and third also came out healthy and were given to a nurse. Villagers were kept apprised of the situation and cheered as each baby, all girls, were born. When the doctor set out to deliver the placenta, however, a fourth girl slipped out. More rejoicing! The mother already had five children at home, but the village would help raise them–and they have. The girls, now three years old, are healthy, happy, adorable kids whose latest picture is prominently displayed at the maternity ward entrance.
Soon after the quads were born, the same doctor delivered twins, and soon after that, triplets. Now, many women reportedly do not want him as their doctor, because they only want one baby at a time and, as they say, “He only delivers multiples.” But multiples continue to be born. We visited boy-girl 40 ounce twins who were less than 24 hours old–very sweet!
The Twa–Pygmy Village
Part of our excursion to Butaro included an in depth visit to a Twa village. The Twa are commonly referred to as Pygmies, and are the most marginalized group in the country. Most of this group had never lived in a house of any kind. They had no regular jobs, but worked as share croppers and hoped the owners of the fields would give them some money or food at the end of the day, although there were no guarantees. The government had not done anything to improve their standard of living.
PIH convinced the government it needed to help these people and, together, a village was built–again, in record time. There are 15 masonry houses on one side of a hill and an equal number on another nearby hill. In between are a school and a well. Each family has a plot of land for a vegetable garden and some have regular jobs, so their quality of life should improve quite a bit. In addition, children are getting educated for the first time.
We were greeted with much rejoicing by an enthusiastic group, dancing their hearts out. One woman was nursing and dancing–a bit of a trick. That baby was born the first day the family moved into the house. Alice, who reaches out to every baby she sees, asked to hold it. When the mother handed over the baby, it took one look at Alice (a white person), screamed and peed. She had no pants on, and so poor Alice “had her hands full” of more than she wanted. At least I had some Sani Wipe for her to clean up a bit. Lesson learned–check for diapers before taking baby.
The house we toured near the very top of the hill had four rooms and one piece of “furniture,” a single bed mattress on the floor. A young man, 20 years old, lived there with his bride of a few months. He told us, through a translator, that he had lived only in a ditch before, and now he has this beautiful house and he is very happy. The house is grey concrete with a dirt floor and small openings for windows, but it is beautiful to him. The kitchen is a separate building with just coals on the floor in the corner for cooking. The bathroom is a pot in the diagonally opposite corner of the kitchen.
There was a dedication and celebration planned the day after families had moved into their new homes, but several of the new residents refused to come out of their houses. Every family had been given a mattress, something they had never had before, and they wanted to stay inside on the mattresses. Some feared that, if they left the house, they would not be allowed back in, or perhaps their mattress would be taken.
More Aegis Trust Stories
Monday, before we started our trek home, we met with essentially everyone from the Rwandan Aegis Trust group, as well as four genocide survivors who had restarted their lives with the help of Aegis programs. All of the stories were powerful, and I would like to share two here.
One young woman described perpetrators who invaded a school in 1994 and demanded students be separated into Tutsis and Hutus. It was a Catholic girls’ school, during the 100 days of genocide. During that incident, all of the teaching Sisters and all students refused to separate themselves. No Hutu would identify a Tutsi student and they were all killed. Even after the “official” genocide was over, however, there were still groups of men who roved the country determined to eliminate any Tutsi still living.
Then, like in the school a few years earlier, perpetrators invaded a school where she was personally present in 1997 and they refused to separate themselves. They were terrified and some were hiding under desks, but they were eventually herded outside where grenades were thrown at them. Most of the students died and the woman, then 14 years old, was knocked unconscious. Later, as bodies were being taken away for burial, she was found alive, although missing a leg. She has since finished college, and is a wonderful ambassador for Aegis and the country.
Anne Marie, in whose house we were meeting, is an extremely beautiful woman in her mid 40s, and she took a very long time to tell her story through an interpreter, giving explicit detail and often pausing to collect her thoughts and wipe her tears. She started by saying that she had a very good childhood and did not even know if she was Hutu or Tutsi–her parents did not tell her. In 1994, she was happily married and had two children.
In short, Anne Marie suffered everything possible during and after the 100 days. Her husband, considered a traitor, was arrested and then released. He went in hiding, but was arrested again and, ultimately, killed. She was turned away by neighbors who feared for their lives, and was told to kill her baby, an act she obviously refused. Anne Marie had nowhere to go, nothing to eat,and hid under trucks. Eventually, her baby was literally killed in her arms. She was raped and became HIV positive.
When “found” by Aegis Trust, all Anne Marie wanted was to live a few more years–just long enough for her teenage son to be able to take care of himself. With medicine, emotional care, and food, however, she grew strong enough to work and now has a job with the UN. Aegis built a lovely house for her in Kigali, which she is proud to share for community gatherings.
Follow Up Notes
The Food: When we returned home, one of the first questions we were all asked was “How was the food?” Tourist and business hotels provide a wide variety of food. Breakfast at the Serena Hotel in Kigali was very good with many hot and cold items, although dinner was mediocre. All meals at Gorilla’s Nest were very good. Food at PIH hospitals was not much different from that at the Village, but included a few more interesting choices. Anywhere we found chicken, however, it tended to be stringy and tough, and fish, when available, was always farm-raised Tilapia. Green bananas called "mutoki" must be cooked, and if mashed, look and taste just like white potatoes.
Maize: This grain, which I thought incorrectly was another word for sweet corn, is grown all over Rwanda. It looks like sweet corn, but is not sweet. It is sometimes cooked on the cob and eaten like sweet corn, but most often, is ground into flour and used for baking. It is not animal feed–it is people food. Also, the biggest avocados we had ever seen were readily available in all restaurants and served daily at Gorillas Nest. They were super delicious!
Beverages: Rwanda grows coffee beans, but primarily for export to major American buyers most notably Starbucks and Costco. Most Rwandans drink tea, and other than major hotels and restaurants, coffee was not available for us. Fanta is the main soft drink, and while Coke Free is available, Christy and Alice report that it did not taste like it does in the U.S. We did very much enjoy Mutzik Beer, however, when away from the Village. South African wines were the ones most readily seen, albeit fairly expensive, as are almost all packaged imports.
Fruit: Rwanda has the best pineapples and small bananas that are very sweet. There is also lots of mango, passion fruit, and tree tomatoes. Tree tomatoes grow on trees and the little leaf at the top of the fruit looks just like a regular tomato plant. They are burgundy in color, however, and shaped like a plum. Some people cut off the top and suck out the fruit, but at Gorilla’s Nest, they were sliced and served with other fruit. I thought they tasted like slightly sour plums. Bill thought they tasted like very sour plums and gave his to me. Tree tomato juice was available at Serena Hotel, although I did not care for it. Banana trees grow very close to the ground and are cut down each year after they yield one bunch of bananas each.
Potatoes: The white sweet potatoes were very tasty, but do not have much in the way of nutrients. Most soil here is not good for growing yellow sweet potatoes, which are much better nutritionally, but the PIH agricultural program is working on a variety that will grow, and plan to introduce it throughout the country.
Farming totally dominates the Rwandan economy. At least in the northern half of the country farms are rarely flat, but rather they run in terraced plots high up the sides of the ever-present hillsides. They seldom looked as though they could possibly be managed except with inexpensive labor. The products most frequently sown included bananas, pineapples, “Irish” potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize and beans. We saw some rice in the valleys, some peanuts, and also lots of beans.
“Charlie,” our main driver, seemed to enjoy showing off a bit, and he actually caused one woman walking along the side of the road to jump into a ditch. Bill gave him what for!! After that Charlie called Bill “the boss” but his driving improved. He also used a ruse, trying to charge us double one day, costing himself a good tip. At $200 per day in Kigali, and $250 per day elsewhere, he was above the market rate of about $180/day, but otherwise he was very reliable and gave us lots of good information during our four days with him.
People walk everywhere – there would be hordes of people walking in all directions, and most women and many children would have bundles on their heads. Bicycles are also a major mode of personal transportation too, but they were most often used more to transport fruits, vegetables, bundles of wood, water, etc. than to ride.
Transportation from most of the remote farms to the village markets was only by bicycles, usually with loads of 200 or more pounds strapped onto old bicycles Produce was then ridden or wheeled for many miles to the nearest real road, where it was then sold and trucked off. Vehicles on the farms never seemed to include any sort of tractors, pick-up trucks, or any other mechanized equipment.
We consider ourselves widely travelled, but have never before seen unpaved roads as bad as the ones in Rwanda. We promise to never complain about pot holes again! Bill wants to send them bulldozers and graders to smooth out the roads and crown them properly for the rainy season. When he is complaining about roads, believe me they are BAD!!
Weather: Weather in Rwanda was lovely, ranging from mid 70s to low 80s in Kigali and nearby villages. Gorillas Nest, at elevations up to 10,000 feet, was a bit cooler, and so a light jacket was necessary at night. It rained two times, but we were not caught outside either time. We were prepared with rain gear and moderately heavy jackets, but neither was necessary. With Rwanda immediately below the equator, sunrise is daily at 6:00AM and sunset at 6:00PM. Temperatures are very comfortable in the 70's almost every day, because of the mile high (plus) altitude.
People: White people plural –Wazungu... white person singular – Wzungu Twa – Pygmies – they are small but not minute. Not little midgets, and if we had not been told they were pygmy I would not have thought about it. Cigarette smoking seemed virtually non-existent.
Shopping: We did very little – no time! Alice bought a necklace in a Kigali market. I didn’t see anything that I hadn’t seen in Egypt or South Africa. I bought two CD’s and a book at the Village and tee shirts for Sonia and Nate. We stopped at a school for deaf children on the road to Gorillas Nest. Jill has a son who is deaf and told us about the school. Almost next to the school is a cooperative where crafts made by women and some of the students are sold. I also bought a few note cards made by kids, and Bill bought a walking stick to get me up the mountain. We didn’t know they were available at no charge at Gorilla’s Nest, but that’s fine because now, I have a very nice stick with a gorilla craving at the top. We spent the few francs we had left at the airport on coffee, tea and a pair of earrings.
Money: Rwanda is a cash society! Only better hotels and restaurants accept credit cards, and in 2012, only VISA cards. Hundred dollar bills are preferred over smaller denominations because the exchange rate is better but they must not be older than 2006. Therefore, we were carrying wads of $100 bills in billfolds, secret pockets, etc. Our hotel rooms in Kigali were the only place with a safe, so we were happy when we were able to pay Freddy for trekking passes. That got a substantial amount of money out of our hands. We were a bit tight for cash at Gorilla’s Nest because we thought they took credit cards but they stopped taking them after the fire.’We pooled our resources and no one had to stay behind and wash dishes.
Hotel Milles Collines – how could I have forgotten about Milles Collines? It is the Hotel Rwanda movie hotel. Jill and Christy were there either on their way to or from Kenya. We and the Fullers ate at the rooftop restaurant, Le Panorama, Sunday night, our last night in Rwanda. It is a lovely hotel with a sad but heroic history. It was kind of eerie looking at the swimming pool and remembering it was used for drinking water when water to the hotel was shut off. We had a very nice dinner – a lovely server and thought it an appropriate way to wrap up not only our day of PIH and the Pygmy Village visits, but of our whole time in Rwanda. Mutzig beer once again was just the thing to sooth our soles and souls.
Aegis, PIH and Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village all have very good web sites if you are interested in learning more about any of the programs, please look for information there. We also highly recommend Tracey Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains, Paul Farmer’s story and the founding of PIH in Haiti, as well as Kidder’s Strength in What Remains. Baking Cakes in Kigali, a novel, is easy, delightful reading and touches on many topics included in the journal. I liked reading it before I went to Rwanda, and am loving reading it a second time. Most readers have likely seen Hotel Rwanda, but if not, you should. It and, Beyond the Gates, another movie about Rwanda are available at the library. And, of course, Gorillas In The Mist, is practically a classic. Fortunately, we saw lots of Gorillas but no mist – it was sunny and warm for both treks.
Our air journey was certainly a long trip, albeit very comfortable, mostly on Lufthansa. Watch out for enormous variations in round trip economy class fares, ranging from about $1,800 to more than $6,000 depending in some cases just on the day of the week! Direct flights into Kigali from Europe seem to leave only from Brussels, but there were no direct flights to Brussels from Boston in January. Our connections outbound were just under 22 hours, but returning, with stops in Entebbe and Addis Ababa was close to 33 hours. We played a lot of bridge during an otherwise unfortunate seven-hour Frankfurt layover, but were able to do it in the Lufthansa lounge, thanks to Alice’s persuasive skills at the lounge door.
Victoria Falls, Zimbabewe
P.S. Bill and I returned to Rwanda with Alice and Arlan Fuller in August 2013, but on the way we stopped off for a few vacation days in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and to top off the "Zs," we spent time on the Zambezi River. Click here to see Bill's e-mail about their extremely memorable experience swimming in the Zambezi at the notorious Devil's Pool at the exact edge of Victoria Falls, and then peering over the top of the roaring falls.