Day 10: A Quiet View of the Lake

So today is the first day in a while that I have been able to make a post on the blog. During our stay at the Women’s Opportunity Centre just short of Akagera National Park we had no real access to Wi-Fi. Thus, the adventure continued in the papers of my journal, scattered about in messy scribblings and perfectly defined calligraphy.

I finished the book Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut and something overcame me. The plot of the book was so outlandish and its science fiction theories so dense that I almost thought that I became Kilgore Trout. For those unaware, Mr. Trout was a science fiction author in the book who once wrote a story about somebody who was the only real conscious and feeling being in the universe. Everybody else was simply just a robot, placed there so the Creator could study his reactions. I always had problems looking people in the eye growing up. After putting that book down, I was making eye contact with everyone. Weird.

Today I am sitting near a beautiful Lake Kivu overlooking the sunset near the border of Rwanda and the DR Congo. Life is great. I am alive and well in Rwanda. The deep and darkest thoughts of my imagination have receded, leaving me with longer and longer periods and feelings of inner peace.  We’re not quite there yet, but we’ve made  amazing progress toward that goal. We’re coasting down now from the intense action of the trip to a few relaxing days here at Bethanie Guest House. After tonight, we will head back to Kigali where we will have one more full day at Good News Guest House and then it’s back to London. In all that I have gained or felt different about during this trip, the paradoxical feeling of normalcy has reached its peak. I honestly do not feel much different anymore from when I was in London.

I expected a magnificent return where my behaviour was totally different and I came back a changed man. This may be true, although I no longer feel the gusto of such a change. Rather, I am simply a smarter, wiser, and more compassionate form of the same old guy. The experiences I have had so far have been mindblowing to say the least. I’ve seen unspeakable horrors here in Rwanda but also powerful stories of humanity and a sober reminder that there is a “meat-hook” reality that we need to remember exists. But overall my perspective has widened and I do not take these sober reminders as a fuel for cynicism but rather a motivation for deeper compassion.

Anyway, about what we did today.

We woke up at around 8:00. I had been drinking with a few friends on the trip the night before and I should have felt bad… but I didn’t. We drove for about an hour to Bisesero Genocide Memorial where a group of Tutsi had managed to defend themselves and fight off the Interahamwe militia for about two months. Unfortunately, and largely due to French involvement, they ended up being killed after surrendering their position on top of the mountain. We headed through halls of skulls and bones on tables. I was caught with the thought of imagining that each one of those skulls was somebody that I knew, which helped me to internalize the feeling of brutality and loss. It really goes to show the limitations of our perceptions. I was walking up a very steep hill and I should have felt exhausted but I didn’t.

Later we headed back to the Guest House and went on a beautiful boat ride. It sure was relaxing. The view was indescribably beautiful. It reminded me of my cottage in Northern Ontario and also of Heaven On Earth if such a thing is attainable in our lifetimes. I reflected on my own lack of awareness, understanding, and inability to feel emotional connections to those I did not have direct experience with. This was certainly not my image of Africa when I lived back home.

It made me think about the political forces and hatred which led to the genocide and how dangerous anger can really be. How human beings are capable of such kindness and such brutality. The thing about genocide that really shocked me and resonated with me in the past few days wasn’t the fact that “it was unthinkable” but rather that it made perfect sense. It wasn’t a case of “How did this happen?” but “Of course it happened”. We were simply too blind to see it. And that knowledge must be carried forth into our everyday lives because these things can and will continue to happen unless the causes and conditions which create them are extinguished.

Take a look around the world today and think about countries where a genocide could potentially happen. Now compare it to the history of Rwanda. It always starts slow. We need to be attentive and awake, for any signs of hatred, because although hatred against a specific group in contemporary times does not seem to warrant comparisons to Hitler or Habyarimana, that hatred must exist for genocide to be possible. It is always the first stage.

So the lesson today is to look out for everyone, no matter who they are. Inclusion, not exclusion. It is not enough for us to simply be intelligent. We need to have intelligent hearts as well.


Day 7: A Weird Halftime Show

Today was just one of those days where you can’t control your moodiness and it seems to outpour itself into a quasi-logical way of thinking. It all started with five hours of sleep.

In the morning we met with a genocide survivor who had saved 500 lives during the genocide. His story was remarkable and I was certain that he was a national hero in Rwanda. Coffee at the mall didn’t help with my mood though. Despite the one hour break back at the Good News Guest House in Kigali, I still couldn’t sleep.

In the afternoon we headed to the FERWA headquarters to learn about the national football league in Rwanda. That’s when I think the terror hit me. It’s hard to describe, but I could see all the abject poverty around me. Rwanda was probably the least developed country I have ever visited in my rich Canadian ways. Even the headquarters of the professional football association looked slightly run down, and you saw this around memorial sites and government buildings and everything else. Holes in the walls, non-functioning washrooms, etc.

I started to question whether or not I was hearing authentic experiences from these people or whether they were simply putting on a face for us foreigners. It wasn’t an easy feeling at the time, though in retrospect it feels a bit silly. Still, there are differences, and I started to feel a bit off coming here to visit. Surely being poor it’s difficult to empathize with rich Canadian students coming over to study your life.

I almost felt like I was in a strange limbo because I was halfway through the trip and all of a sudden I felt like it was over. Like I should have left the previous day. There was a long drive after all of this to the countryside where we were going to be staying in our next hostel, the Women’s Opportunity Centre. I put my head against the window and thought about what real authenticity is.

Is this trip authentic or just a rich people playground? Will I return with great depths of new knowledge or having simply experienced a country and heard similar stories to things I already read in journal articles? Emotionally I feel like I’ve learned more about reconciliation and renewal although intellectually I don’t believe I’ve picked up any new facts, other than the coffee is good here, lots of people roam the streets and Rwandan vehicles are limited to 60km and hour.

At the W.O.C. things were starting to feel better. I think. We were briefly locked out of our room though eventually the key came through. Finally I sweated all of the terror out and now I’m left with a paradoxical feeling of normalcy. Everything is normal.

Day 6: Last Night in Kigali

Today was a great day for me finally. After waking up I felt a sense of relief, as if I had just got to the end of a horrible, yet enlightening experience. Now I’m left with a feeling of normalcy, which is interesting given the fact that the trip is going to continue for about another six days. The picture I have included here is of me on a trail to a house in rural Rwanda in which a former Gacaca court judge currently resides. For those unfamiliar with what the Gacaca is, it was a type of court established in communities across Rwanda following the genocide to handle the massive load of cases that the ordinary courts could not. The system was based on a traditional form of community justice in Rwanda, literally translated to “justice among the grass”, as in pre-colonial times Rwandans would resolve disputes by sitting outside on the grass.

We started the day by heading to the CLNG, which is the government agency in Rwanda, the National Commision for the Fight Against Genocide. We watched a presentation analyzing the causes of genocide as well as the current challenges in the government and the prevalence of genocide deniers. One thing that stood out to me was the fact that academics in France are highly involved in genocide denial due partially to their involvement in Rwanda before and after the genocide.

We then headed to the Women’s Community House where I learned how to weave baskets, albeit very poorly being a beginner. This went on for two hours, and I managed to create a circular pattern about the size of somebody’s eye socket. I look through it and pretend it’s the all-seeing eye.

Afterward was lunch, which was all vegetarian this time (I think). The lawyers who accompanied us were great companions and loved talking to me. Maybe because I’m still a reckless youth just like them. I ate two full plates of food but had no time to go to the gift shop unfortunately.

Then we headed to the house of the Gacaca court judge, who was actually the mother of one of the law students accompanying us all day. We hiked through muddy trails for about 20 minutes to get there, and on the way back we were faced with a spotty downpour which left our shoes covered in mud.

After hopping on the bus, we headed back to Kigali where I sit in the hotel room right now. Dinner is in three minutes and we are leaving tomorrow morning to go to the Eco-Lodge. I hope they have Wi-Fi there to continue this blog. But until next time, it’s your piece of clunking carbon machinery live from Kigali, Rwanda.

Day 6: A Time to Build, and a Time to Destroy

This is a picture of me with a Rwandan law student. He’s a cool guy, and you should go meet him. This was during the hike in Huye to go meet a Gacaca court judge.

The wonderful thing about basket-weaving is it’s one of those simple, mindless activities that can quickly pull you into a trance and make you forget completely about the outside world. Such was the case when I started knitting at the Women’s house in Kigali. “Mike is everything okay? You haven’t said anything in like 15 minutes.” I’m not just okay, I’m doing magnificent actually. Where am I?

Today was a 7:15 (late for us) morning. The first stop for the day was the CLNG, the National Commission for the Prevention of Genocide in Rwanda. The presenter was one of the most charismatic people I’ve seen so far there. Our primary takeaway was how the genocide is viewed in Rwanda. Here in Canada, we’re familiar with the words “Rwandan Genocide” which people in Rwanda actually disagree with. Here it is referred to as the “genocide against the Tutsi”, re characterizing it as an attempted elimination of an ethnic group rather than something “Rwandan” in nature. I do agree with this renaming in general as there isn’t exactly anything “Rwandan” about it except for the fact in happened in Rwanda. We don’t refer to the Holocaust as the “German genocide”. Do we use these words to describe genocides that happen in third world countries primarily? There was a clear target in Rwanda, hence the “genocide against the Tutsi”

Another mind blowing activity that really showcases the difference between Western and African points of view. We really have no clue what happens in Africa. I’m pretty sure this happens to do with power, rather, African perspectives and events rarely effect our everyday lives.

Later at the Women’s Centre, I learned how to knit a basic shape. It was refreshing. I thought about creativity. Perhaps this is the building after the destruction. My mental state was frought with images of terror, death, and helplessness. This was something that reminds you of what’s good in life, being in a state of flow where you are so incredibly focused on an activity or idea that the regular zip zap of your mind completely shuts off. This is being completely immersed in reality, neither experiencing pain nor pleasure, just everything in your mind being concentrated down to a single point.

Afterward I ate a good deal of food at their restaurant-thing (I think that’s what it was?) and then we went on an epic hike to go see a Gacaca court judge’s story of being a judge in the court.

Her story was typical, she recounted how she was chosen due to being a person of “trust” in the community and how sentences were typically handed out.

One of the interesting points of contention was when one of our fellow students asked if the Rwandan government had provided any type of support to help her deal with it emotionally. Her answer made it seem like she hadn’t, but I almost had a feeling that “mental health issues” aren’t really considered a thing here. We are in a very different place and I’m certain “suck it up, Sherlock” is probably part of the program here. Of course, I could be completely wrong about this.

We got rained out on the hike back to the bus. It was fun walking in the grass to try and prevent mud from getting on my shoes. Either way we got the bus nice and dirty.

Finally at dinner it was someone’s birthday and she got a cool cake.

Day 5: Renewed Confidence

This is a picture of the memorial that depicts genocide inside the former base where 10 Belgian soldiers were killed during the onset of the genocide. I chose this picture because to me it encompasses the prevalence of genocide across the world, and it’s highly central to theme of the trip. A close runner-up was the curses directed at Romeo Dallaire on the nearby chalkboard.

Today was a late morning for the group. Our bus left at 10:00 and we ate breakfast at 8. I got into a really interesting political argument with my prof and a few other students, which remained highly civil in spite of political differences. London Free Press comment sections take note. I had a chance finally to transfer some photos to my computer. The first place we travelled to was the memorial where the ten soldiers were killed as I mentioned. They were murdered as they protected the opposition Prime Minister in the early stages of the genocide.

Afterward, we headed up a hill to a memorial for slain politicians and political figures. For those that are unaware, Rwanda has several “divisions”, and naturally would have political and party leaders from the village level, to the cell, to the province, etc. Many of the people killed here were politically active in some way, and were killed either because they were Tutsi or would have stood in the way of the massacre of Tutsis. I don’t know how we got into the memorial because I was sure that only a few people are allowed in and with special permission.

Lunchtime was great. I realized I was about $100US in the hole now. I already spent half my money on trinkets. Great, I thought.

The last major event of the day was after a long drive up a mountain. We visited a refugee camp close to the border. It was beautiful. Swarms of children were chasing after our bus calling us “Muzungus” (word for white person or ghost). We learned about what went on at the camp and it was fascinating. Apparently each person in the camp lives off of $7 U.S. per month (that is their monthly allowance).

The drive back was another tiring one and I retired early tonight. We got back so late we didn’t really even have time to meet with the CEO of the local sports association we had seen the day before. He told us a fascinating story about how he survived the genocide, lived in the Congolese forest for years and then finally made his way back and reunited with his family. Then became a successful entrepreneur, because why not.

I suppose having absolutely nothing builds your character for when you do have something. I don’t think I’ve ever reached that level. Either way, I envy him. I really do.

Day 4: Paint it Blue

The days started getting more emotionally easier following this point. Although this led me to start questioning myself, why am I even complaining about this? This is the daily reality of a lot of people. I need to toughen up.

That’s what this trip has been so far, a sobering reminder. I feel like I need to take things very seriously now.

But today wasn’t serious. Far from it.

We woke up a the usual time, 7:30am, and ate breakfast at 8. We wore our brand new Huron College Leaders with Heart shirts to begin the day of painting. We took the bus to a genocide survivor’s house in Kigali to paint her house. It was decently sized by Rwandan standards although many Canadians would probably consider it small. Although it had everything you needed. The paint was cut with gasoline but that’s not too much a of a bit deal.

Afterward, we headed to the Printemps hotel for lunch. We then headed back to the hotel where we had a choice to either meet with a survivor or go to a soccer game. I went to the soccer game. It was crazy. V.I.P. tickets were $3.50 US. Talk about cheap. The C.E.O. of the local sports association accompanied us there. The game was awesome. The fans were rowdy. I almost got pick-pocketed. It was a good time.

Day 3: A Glimmer of “Hope”

7:30 was the time we were to be up in the morning. I stumbled out of bed, only finally beginning to feel adjusted to the new Rwandan sleep schedule I was assuming. The shower didn’t want to release any water today, and so my hair didn’t get cleaned very deeply. I arrived at breakfast at 8:10 and left at 9:00.

Our first stop today was in Kigali where the former U.N. base staffed by Belgian troops was situated. This was a location where around 10,000 people were massacred following the withdrawal of the troops. We had learned about this the night earlier watching the film “Shooting Dogs”, adding to the disgust I’m certain we all experienced.

The difficult thing to think about is the scale of the mass violence being perpetuated. I struggle to imagine what it must be like to have thousands of people die, yet it happens all the time across the world. First world blinders I would say.

After picking up our tour guide outside a liquor store (haha), we travelled to Ntarama genocide memorial, located in what used to be a church and Sunday school. While feeling a little bit less shocked after visiting Murambi yesterday, it still blew my mind how people in Rwanda could present death so openly and honestly. There were human skulls lining the table on the back side of this church, and it wasn’t as if families were asking for it to be buried (or if they were, it wasn’t everyone). There was again no glass case or anything separating the (sometimes mangled) human skulls from those that walked in. It was just right there in front of you.

Ntarama was where 5,000 victims were massacred as they sought refuge. Traditional Rwandan culture would suggest that nobody dare attack a church or they would face damnation in the afterlife. And thus thousands of Tutsi headed toward the church seeking refuge only to be massacred by guns, grenades, and machetes. It was horrifying. Their possessions were also being kept in a wooden box where our guide pulled out an old government I.D. card where it displayed your ethnicity. They simply held it in their hands, like it was any old piece of paper, not a relic or anything. Afterward we headed to what used to be the Sunday School on the property, which was horrifying and I don’t even want to begin to describe what I saw there.

As the Nyamata Genocide Memorial was closed for the day, we never ended up actually visiting it. Instead, we drove to the Burundian border to check out a zebra crossing. Unfortunately, it started to rain, and so our plans were derailed. It must have seemed weird to the officer there that we had proceeded on and then turned right back immediately.

We headed to the Lakeside Fish Farm for Lunch at a restaurant now owned by a former American Silicon Valley dude and a woman who was Rwandan. It was decent fish. I probably took more than I should have, because I was really hungry.

The last visit of the day was probably the most extraordinary of all, and the turning point of my mood on the trip. From tiredness, not wanting to socialize, and doom and gloom, there was a glimmer of hope. When we arrived at the “Hope Village” we were greeted by about 50 people singing and dancing around like crazy. The atmosphere was absolutely electric. We quickly joined in and afterward sat in the classroom as they told us their stories of reconciliation. This was the most powerful display of recovery and it was directly connected to the course material as the things described in the readings were unfolding right before my very eyes. I watched a woman say the following:

“This man killed my father and my three children. I have forgiven him now. We now live together.”

And then she shook the man’s hand and patted him on the back. Amazing.

Another session of dancing cured me, even though I was still tired. The world is a good place.

Later at reflection after dinner some of the girls had a bug problem in the meeting room. We discussed the role of anger and forgiveness and whether or not such a thing is organic or not. Is forgiveness necessary in a communal society like Rwanda compared to a more individualistic place like Canada? It would be strange here to expect a murder victim’s family to forgive the perpetrator, yet many religious texts almost demand that type of behaviour. Personally, I think forgiveness is something to be aspired to, but that comes from my own view of human emotions and human nature. I think that anger really doesn’t serve and positive purpose, even if it is seemingly justified, and that comes from a very scientifically-minded view of the world in my opinion. People are still mammals, they are going to behave in certain ways, and anger can fuel a lot of negative emotions that don’t make you happy in the long run. Our desire for revenge is not always a good one. It is like a quick pleasure that leaves you trapped in emotional bondage for a long time.  Some members of our group mentioned that they hold grudges often and it seemed meaningless in comparison to what some people in Rwanda had done, and I was happy that I did not hold many grudges, although some things from the past still occasionally haunt me.

It certainly reaffirmed my commitment to caring and trying to be aware of what I am thinking day after day.

Day 2: A Long, Long Day

Today we headed out of the capital Kigali to visit some rural areas. We drove for hours and hours after picking up some people from the Kigali Genocide Memorial. We were probably on the road for about an hour when we drove past a river that bodies were thrown into, some alive. That is what the above picture is about.

Later we headed to a school where we met with survivors of the Rwandan genocide and perpetrators who had learned to reconcile. I found this experience to be very powerful.

However this soon led to shock as we visited our last stop of the day, the Murambi genocide memorial. Here I saw some of the most shocking sites I had ever seen in my life. After visiting a mass grave of some 50,000 people, we visited a series of rooms which contained the preserved human bodies of victims. There were hundreds of these. I could not contain my state of absolute shock. You could even see how they were killed in the positions of their bodies and various fractures. There was room after room of these things, one even containing children.

The drive back was around four hours and by the time we returned, it was late, around 9:30pm. At this time I was extremely exhausted. My body had not yet adjusted fully to the new sleep schedule and jet lag, and I was about to snap, both mentally and physically. Inside, we still needed to complete our reflection, which we did, but afterward we headed straight to bed, which I crashed on hard. A long day of disturbing sights, travelling and not being able to use the bathroom completely exhausted me. Although as many say, no pain no gain.

Day 1: A Visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial

Today we traveled to the Kigali Genocide Memorial where over two hundred and fifty thousand people were buried. The first thing I noticed after boarding the bus and heading to the memorial was that the memorial was being guarded by what looked like a soldier carrying a machine gun. We paid our respects outside the mass grave followed by a tour of the museum which followed a storyboard format. We learned about Rwanda in pre-colonial times and eventually how colonization by Belgium led to the division of Hutus and Tutsis, as well as the fascist government of Hutu Power that eventually led to the genocide. I was shocked to learn that the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups were not in fact ethnic groups, they were social classes that become artificial groups following colonization.

The most shocking part of the day was the “Children’s Room” at the KGM. I already saw the rooms full of skulls in glass cases as well as a room with the possessions of those killed however this took the cake. The room showed pictures of children that were massacred, described the details of their lives and their favourite things to do, etc. At the bottom it described how they were killed, and this ranged from being beaten against a wall to thrown alive into a mass grave. It was horrifying.

We then headed to another room at the KGM where we heard a presentation regarding the Digital Archives set up at, and the man in charge of it, Paul. I was tasked with doing the thank you, so I thanked him on behalf of the group afterward and handed him a Western University mug, complete with Canada 150 on the back.

Afterwards we visited the house of Mama Lambert, who was a genocide survivor. She explained her experience during the genocide where she hid in a bush and was led out into an open pit to be massacred with hundreds of others. She narrowly escaped as she had taught one of the Hutus.

At the end of the day we had an option to watch a movie although I was completely exhausted. I went to sleep around 10:00.

I have no words but shock to describe this experience. I find it difficult to believe humans are capable of committing such atrocities but at the same time, I completely understand it.

Arrival in Kigali

Good News Guest House – Kigali, Rwanda

The plane ride over was filled with a lot of confusing emotions. I finally boarded the plane in Toronto and following a 7 hour flight and the clock moving back 7 hours, it was as if time had not moved. Overall I slept about one hour though, and I woke up sweating by the time the plane landed. It was exciting to say the least.

We had a four hour long layover in Amsterdam. I walked around, checked out the airport, and generally reflected on the difference I was already experiencing, which was not much. I had been to a European country before (Iceland), and with the cold climate in Amsterdam right now I felt like I was in a nicer version of Canada. There is no transition like moving from the Global North to the South however, as I was about to experience.

Upon landing in Kigali at around 7:00PM local time I noticed the airport was a) surrounded by barbed wire fences b) significantly smaller and less developed than the ones I had been in previously (we walked out on to the tarmac into the airport, checked in our visas, and then were free to go. Looking around the African sky at night, it reminded me a lot of the time I had been to Nicaragua for example, hot and dry.

Despite being a third world country, there is still a significant amount of infrastructure and “civilization” so to speak. The existence of this really drove home how horrifying the genocide actually was, as you could imagine people going house to house in this kind of environment. It is important to keep in mind the fact that Kigali, the capital of Rwanda is a city of some 2 million people, built upon hills. I encountered many familiar vehicles you typically see in the Global South, old toyota trucks, etc. Our bus driver spoke casually about how he was a genocide survivor, another interesting observation. Driving through the city to the hotel, I was shocked to see how many people were actually walking around at night. The city streets were bustling with energy everywhere you looked. People walking, biking around, driving, mingling with each other in shops and bars. This was a very active social environment, and the friendliness of the staff at the Good News hotel really drove that point home.

I realized very much that being very socially outgoing is common in other countries because people need to to survive and also there is not much to do other than hang out with others. Either way, I feel like I need to de-toxify myself from this first world lifestyle. Unfortunately I need to wake up at 6:30am tomorrow so until next time, it’s Mike Scafe, Kigali, Rwanda.