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Ramblings from Rwanda
Monday, 04 January 2010 Written by Douglas Shaw

I finally have a bit of time to catch up on some writing. Here are assorted observations and stories from our travels.

The Genocide

In Rwanda you are never far away from a reminder of the 1994 genocide. A while back we went to Kigali for the day and stopped at many of the sights from films such as “Shake Hands With the Devil”, “Shooting Dogs”, and “Hotel Rwanda”. We also stopped at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. It was a sobering experience to say the least. The horrors of the genocide are truly unfathomable. We know a couple of people who lost every single member of their family.

Kigali Memorial

An interesting study that I can across recently from UNICEF had surveyed Rwandan children a year after the genocide. The survey found that:

  • 99.9% witness violence 
  • 80% experienced death in the family
  • 91% believed they would die
  • 70% witnessed someone being killed or injured
  • 62% were threatened with death
  • 88% saw bodies or body parts

Over the last few days we were reminded once again of horrors of the genocide. We visited the town of Kibuye on the shores of Lake Kivu . It is a beautiful, tranquil, laid-back part of Rwanda – in direct contrast to its recent history.

We stayed at the Home St. Jean. It is next door to the Genocide Memorial Church. In 1994 over 4,000 Tutsi took refuge in the church. A mob drunk on banana beer lobbed grenades through the windows and doors and then rushed in with clubs and machetes to finish the job. It took three hours.

Kigali MemorialKigali Memorial

A short walk down the road leads to the sports stadium. Next to the stadium are the mass graves of over 10,000 people.

The area around the town was the scene of some of the most horrendous slaughters of the genocide. Previous to 1994 the prefecture of Kibuye contained  Rwanda's highest proportion of Tutsi – about 20%. In a few short weeks whole communities had been wiped out leaving not even one witness to the crimes.

Gacaca Courts

On Tuesday afternoons everything stops. Stores cannot open. Businesses must close. Only essential services are allowed to operate. The school here in Kivumu remains open only due to a special governmental dispensation.

The gacaca (pronounced ga-cha-cha) genocide courts were set up in 2001 to clear the prisons of thousands of genocide suspects who had been held in captivity awaiting trial for up to seven years. Eight years later some of the original prisoners have yet come to trial. However it is estimated that it would have taken the normal justice system 100 years to clear the backlog.

250,000 men and women were elected by their local communities to serve on these courts. They received training in conflict resolution and judicial ethics. They receive no salary but do receive free medical care and schooling for their families. There are about 11,000 courts set up across Rwanda with panels of 19 judges per court. A minimum of 15 judges and 100 witnesses must attend each session for it to be valid.

The courts first identify victims of the genocide. Suspects are then identified and categorized according to the degree of their crimes. Suspects attend court in their local area where witnesses either speak for or against them. Suspects who fully confess and plead guilty receive lighter sentences. The courts are authorized to try and then sentence anyone suspected of carrying out crimes during the genocide. More serious allegations such as planning and implementing the genocide are tried in the regular courts.

A Cup of Coffee

Up to a few months ago I thought that Rwandan coffee grew in bags or occasionally tins. Well not quite.

Around Christmas we had been given a bag of Rwandan coffee by Ivica. It was the nicest tasting coffee that we had ever had. Up until a few weeks ago I had a very poor understanding of the work that went into coffee production and processing. That in spite of the fact that I have been buying fair trade certified coffee.

Discounting the planting and growing of the coffee bush and looking only at the harvesting and hand preparation of the beans I was surprised at the work that went into the preparation.  First, coffee berries are hand picked. Then they are sorted by ripeness and color and the flesh of the berry is removed individually and again by hand.

coffeecoffee treecoffee

The coffee seeds—or beans—are soaked in water and fermentation rapidly occurs. The soaking and fermenting help to remove the slimy layer of mucilage from the bean. The beans are rubbed and washed many times with large quantities of fresh water to remove the residue. Finally, the seeds are dried on a sheet. The coffee beans are raked by hand so as to dry evenly.

The hand washing process produces a white bean that is highly prized as the seed cannot be cleaned by mechanized processes and the residue left from mechanical processes imparts a somewhat bitter taste.

Those That Can Do....

It has been said that: Those than can … do,

And that those that can't ... teach.

Perhaps then it follows that those can do neither will teach teachers. Or will they just become administrators?

For the past couple of weeks all of us have been working with the teachers. Jayne and Estee, when she was here, have been teaching English. As of next year a minimum of 50% of all classroom instruction, teaching material, textbooks, and the like have to be in English. In the very near future all classroom instruction must be in English only. Last year French and Kinyarwanda was the language of instruction. Almost none of the teachers have had any formal English instruction and most have just picked up a bit of English in passing or learned from listening to music on cassette tapes or CDs, and sometimes by watching the church's Sunday afternoon video tapes.


Timmy has been helping the teachers learn some basic computer skills. Very basic computer skills in most cases. Some teachers have progressed remarkably and Google Sketchup has been a big hit with a few.

I have been working at introducing some of the newer teaching techniques to help with the transition from a traditional authoritative “teacher-centred” system to a more “learner-centred” system. We spent a lot of time discussing and practicing alternatives to the lecture/blackboard lesson delivery. We looked at may techniques including various forms of co-operative learning strategies and the use of discussions in a classroom. Also, we took a look at the need to plan for each lesson and how to make up lesson plans for each lesson (I'm feeling real guilty at the moment about this last part!)).

All the teachers here are very dedicated and hard working. Some teachers have to walk over two hours to get to the school. We work from 8:00 am to 4:30 or 5:00 pm. daily which means that some of the teachers start and end the day walking in the dark. Water might be another half hour walk and then you still need to light a fire and cook you meal. The teachers keep asking us why we don't have classes on Saturday and Sunday . We do teach classes on weekends occasionally, but not usually.

I should mention that for the last two weeks have been the term break and the teachers are on holidays and not paid.

Adventures in Driving

Since arriving in Rwanda I have been doing quite a bit of driving. Sometimes it is errands to pick up parts, sometimes driving people to various destinations or to pick up or drop off someone from Kigali. At other times it has been to visit people or to sight-see.

On our first arrival to Kigali I was somewhat awed by the seemingly utter chaos that I observed on the streets. I could not begin to imagine driving through that  wonderfully confusing pandemonium. However, the strangeness of that first view has gradually changed to normalcy and for an appreciation of just how the system here works. Works, in its own way that is.

KigaliKigali streets

First some background information. Driving initially was somewhat awkward in that Ivica's car is right hand drive and the road system here is the same as in North America and continental Europe. Secondly road signs are almost nonexistent, either you know the roads to take or you don't. Thirdly, forget almost all that you know about driving back home in Canada.

While Rwandans drive on the same side of the road as we do this is in theory only. Perhaps this is why it only took an hour or so to feel at home in a right hand drive vehicle. Centre lines are guidelines at best and as often as not seem only to serve as a line for which large semi-trailers must straddle as they lumber down the highway. In the case of serious potholes the solid white centre lines serve no real purpose and more than a few times I have passed oncoming traffic when both of us have been in opposing lanes. Just as the grass always looks greener on the other side, potholes must look smaller.

Actually, the condition of Rwanda's main highways is impressive by African standards. In Uganda we seemed to spend as much time driving in the ditch as on the highway. Much of Uganda's roadways could best be described as a pothole with intermittent patches of asphalt. The Congo I hear is worse and road, goat-path, and washout (dry season) or river (wet season) are equivalent and interchangeable terms. In Canada we have the concept of right-away, whereby the vehicle to the left of the must yield the road. Rwanda uses the concept that I could best describe as “might-away” whereby the biggest and mightiest of the vehicles gets to go first and for that matter do any other thing that he wants.

Further differences are that if you have the right or “might” you must be actively using it before anyone (usually at the last possible second) will yield to you. In practice this means that if you are driving through a traffic circle in the inside lane and want to exit and there are cars in the outside lane they will not yield to you unless you give them no choice. Ideally driving is done with the philosophy that if you slam on the brakes to avoid an imminent and very serious accident you should be able to avoid trouble by 2 to 3 inches at most.

Signal lights seem to be used for many purposes over here. Indicating lane changes are one of the rarest uses. I am still confused as to how to interpret the use of signal lights but here goes. The left (driver's) signal indicates: It is OK to pass me, It is not OK to pass me, I want to turn left, I want to turn right, Hello, Goodbye. Likewise the right signal indicates: It is OK to pass me, It is not OK to pass me, I want to turn left, I want to turn right,  Hello, Goodbye. Being a good Canadian driver I initially signaled each time I turned. Being a Canadian driver and not used to driving right hand drive vehicles where everything is reversed, I turned on the windshield wiper each time I signaled. The other drivers did not even notice nor care.

Kigali streetstown street

Headlights serve a more mysterious purpose. Sure they are used to light the roadways as there are not many streetlights in Rwanda, but they too are used in some sort of secret ritual. Undecipherable to me be but clear to those initiated into the secret society, these flashes from various high and low beam headlight combinations convey a myriad of messages.  Usually the headlight flashes are combined with secret hand signals. Most are about the exact location of the next police check-point. Headlights are, it seems, the modern version of Africa's talking drums.

One of the unique features of the Rwandan highways is the 65 km/hr speed limit.  While 65 km/hr seems rather conservative one must keep in mind that the road grade is considerable and the windiness impressive due to the thousands of steep sided hills. Cargo trucks travel out of necessity in first or second gear much of the time, often going uphill at walking speed only. All in all, the road system is quite an amazing engineering feat.

Highway laws are strictly enforced. Every few kilometres you encounter pairs of police ready to write out tickets for speeding violations. (In the 42 km trip from Kivumu to Kigali one pass between 6 and 12 police checkpoints.) At about $300.00 US per violation speeding can become very expensive in a land where you can hire a labourer to work from dawn to dusk, 7 days a week for $20.00 a month. Worse for the driver is the fact that there is no recourse through the courts to fight a speeding ticket. It is the police's word against your word and as such once the ticket is written, you must pay. Nonpayment equates to a jail term. Rwandan jails are extremely overcrowded to the point were you sleep in shifts and supply your own food. You don't want to go there. Oh, I forgot to mention, none of the police have radar. Your speed is just a “guesstimate” at best.

There is however recourse to the state's formal judiciary system. An apology and a few dollars discreetly placed in the right hand will usually circumvent the formal channels. The number of speeders the police catch each days is impressive. It is said that just before a policeman (or woman) gets married he or she is transferred to the traffic division for a at least a day. As a European I am not stopped often.

Most of the time when I have been stopped it is by the local policemen who recognize Ivica's car and just want to say hello or as once, stopped and asked very politely if it was possible to give a ride to some friends.

A few nights ago I was flagged down by the police. I was going about 60 km/hr. The policeman asked where I was going and I replied Kivumu. He asked if I was one of the Franciscan padres. I said that I wasn't but that I worked with them. “Padre.” he said obviously not quite understanding my answer, “Padre, you must slow down on the rest of your travels or I will be forced to issue you a ticket of contravening the speed laws.” Deciding that agreeing might be more effective than arguing the finer points of law (such as  how could they possibly prove I was speeding by just watching the car), I apologized and said that I surely would drive slower the rest of the way home. “Padre, do you think you could buy me supper because I did not write a ticket.” “I do not have much money.” said I. “You know us Franciscans, we all have taken vows of poverty.” He laughed as I handed over less than one Canadian dollar.

I am starting to get a bit worried about my return home. Driving in Rwanda just seems normal now. I fear that when I get home I will try to drive by sitting in the passenger seat  ignoring all traffic laws and when I do get stopped by the police will try to slip them a loonie!

Airports and Lost Luggage

at the airportWe received word that Estee's bags  arrived safely back in Calgary. She arrived about two weeks before. Her bags enjoyed an extended visit with the Entebee airport.

Lost luggage has all but been the norm for our family when we return home from overseas. Thankfully we have never had any problems with lost luggage when arriving at a foreign destination. It is challenging enough dealing with airline bureaucracy from home. Our flight to Africa was spectacularly normal.

As we traveled on British Airlines missionary/aid worker airline tickets we were all allowed three bags of 23 kilograms or about 51 lbs. We collected, and were given school and medical supplies for Kivumu. We were also over weight on each bag by a couple of pounds and the airline attendant told me that there would be a surcharge for being overweight. We had anticipated that this might happen but were determined to take full advantage of our weight allotment and to cram every item we could possibly take for the school. Our personal items, clothes, toiletries, etc. would have fit in our carry-on bags. One bag was exceptionally heavy and I explained that that one was filled with books and teaching material for Rwandan school children and orphans. I offered to make each bag comply to the weight requirements by taking out items destined for the orphanage. After a moments reflection and a big sigh the attendant said that that would not be necessary and instead attached a “Caution – Heavy” tag on each bag.

Where the Heck is Bujumbura?

Last week we, Jayne, Timmy, and I along with Fra Ivica and Magdelena,  enjoyed a three day trip to Burundi.  Magdelena is in her last year of Medicine and is a citizen of Austria. Magdelena's father and Ivica are childhood friends.

Lying just to the south of Rwanda Burundi is sandwiched between Tanzania to the east and south, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west. It is about the same size as Rwanda just under 28,000 km² with an estimated population of almost 8,700,000. Its capital is Bujumbura on the shore of Lake Tanganyika.

BujumburaTanganyika - Bujumbura

Burundi is one of the very poorest of countries in the world. Burundi has in fact the lowest per capita gross income in the world due to ongoing civil wars, corruption, poor access to education, and the effects of HIV/AIDS.  Its principal exports and source of foreign exchange is coffee and tea.

Burundi is a sister country of Rwanda and shares much the same tragedy of conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi. In 1993 Burundi seemed poised to enter a new era in its history with their first democratic elections and their first Hutu head of state, Melchior Ndadaye. However within months Ndadaye had been assassinated, setting the scene for years of Hutu-Tutsi violence in which an estimated 300,000 people, most of them civilians, were killed. In early 1994 parliament elected another Hutu, Cyprien Ntaryamira, as president. But he was killed in April alongside the president of neighbouring Rwanda when the plane they were traveling in was shot down over Kigali. This event precipitated both the Rwandan genocides and an ongoing Burundi civil war.

The civil war has just ended a few months ago with the surrender of the last  rebel leaders and a new power sharing agreement. As recently as last year the capital Bujumbura was bombarded by rebel forces and there was much fighting and heavy causalities in the area. The border areas of Burundi have been until the recent end of fighting, notoriously dangerous. The end of fighting too has brought the return of about 450,000 refugees and property conflicts have now started. Many refugees still await repatriation from Tanzania.

Despite Burundi's recent problems we found it to be a very pleasant place  to visit. In most ways it seems less tense and freer than in Rwanda where everything is so controlled. Perhaps repression of rights is the price of security in central Africa. While statistically poorer than Rwanda there seemed to be much more food available in Burundi and at lower costs than in Rwanda. I suspect that due the 15 years of civil war and lack of foreign and domestic investment the upper echelon of society has moved money outside the country to safer harbours and thus the per capita statistics are skewed towards the low end. For the average person there seems to be more opportunity, more food, and certainly more personal freedom than in Rwanda. Certainly the per capita land base is much higher and the population density seems about half of Rwanda's. This may change soon as Burundi has an extremely high birth rate.

southern source of the Nilesouthern source of the Nile

One of the side trips in Burundi that we made was to the southern source of the Nile. I'm not sure exactly how many “true” sources of the Nile there are (Rwanda has at least two), but this one has to be the truest source as we found a pyramid at the site. We also made a truly amazing discovery and found the really true source of the Nile.

While we were not the only muzungu (whites) in Burundi we were one of the very few non-UN employed foreigners. The beaches were all but deserted. I was told that things get busier during the weekend when the wealthier Burundese come to the beaches but I still think that the beaches, hotels, nightclubs, and the like are still pretty empty.

Arriving back in Rwanda we stopped in Butare. My already high opinion of Rwanda immeasurably improved as I found that a cold Guinness Stout could be obtained at one of the old colonial hotels for about $1.25 Canadian. Cold beverages of any kind are now a pleasant surprise and indeed a bit of a shock since we have neither refrigerators nor electricity in Kivumu. In an embarrassingly poor showing of my preparatory research about Rwanda I had failed to discover that Guinness was produced under license in Kigali. Quick to make amends to this transgression I placed an order for a cold one.

For our evening meal we ordered Frog Legs, Escargot, and Steak Tartar and salad. Just in case you may think ordering raw beef, frog legs, snails, and salad in Africa was not the wisest  thing one could do  keep in mind we were eating our meal with Magdalena  and Ivica - a doctor and a priest. We had all eventualities covered!

After dinner in Butare Ivica left for Kivumu and we headed to the friary just south of Butare.

The Congo is “Very Broke”

After spending the night  near Butare with Fra Innocent  and the other Franciscans brothers we took the taxi back to Butare to look for an express bus to  Cyangugu on the Rwanda and  Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) border. After running around for an hour or so looking for empty seats on the express bus to we gave up and went on one of the local mini-bus which we affectionately call the chicken buses. The advantage of the express bus  is that you are guaranteed a seat to yourself. In theory that is. Kids don't seem to count in the seat-taking-up equations, nor do packages, boxes, bags, goats, chickens, etc. Also there is no isle as that is occupied by  very hard and uncomfortable folding seats. About 30 people fit in an express bus. (Notwithstanding those that fall outside the seat-taking-up formula.) They tend to be relatively new and for the most part in good working order. Price is about $6.00 for a four hour trip. You pay when you buy the ticket.

road in Congo

In contrast the mini buses are about one half the size of the express buses.  You are not necessarily guaranteed a seat to yourself. While there are very stiff fines and strict laws that prohibit taking more passengers than there are seats, the enforcement of the laws are dependent upon local arrangements between the drivers and with those entrusted with enforcing the traffic laws. (See my section on driving in Rwanda for more information on alternatives to the federal judiciary system.) Of course, kids don't seem to count in the seat-taking-up equations, nor do packages, boxes, bags, goats, chickens, friends, anyone who flags down the minibus, jerry cans of kerosene, mattresses, etc. Again there are no isle as that space is occupied by  very hard and uncomfortable folding instruments left over from the Spanish Inquisition. About 20 people fit in an express bus. (Notwithstanding those that fall outside the seat-taking-up formula of course.) These buses tend to be old and for the most part belch huge quantities of smoke if and when the engine starts. Tires are WWII vintage retreads. Breaks are optional. Exhaust systems and functional doors and windows are not required. Price is about $1.50 for a four hour trip. You pay if you make it.

Goma - CongoBukavu - Congo

The trip from Butare to Cyangugu is magnificent. The road itself is decent, a bit potholed, but serviceable. The scenery is absolutely spectacular for the trip takes you through steep-sided hills painted with a patchwork of colours. After an hour's drive you come upon one of Rwanda's jewels: The Nyungwe Forest. This is the largest track of mountain forest left in east Central Africa. For over 50 kilometers the road hugs the sides of the hills reaching over 3,000 metres elevation.

The area's biodiversity is outstanding. Over 1,050 plant species – over 200 species of orchids alone- are found here. 85 species of mammals including 13 primate species, 300 bird species and over 120 species of butterfly.

As suddenly as you come upon the forest you leave it and enter the tea plantations. Here it is monoculture that reigns. Slowly the road descents towards Lave Kivu. Running over 100 km in a north south direction Lake Kivu forms a shared border with the Congo. It is nowhere near the size of Africa's Great Lakes such as Tanganyika or Victoria. However if one considers the depth of Kivu (up to 480 metres) and total volume it is in the world's top 20 freshwater lakes by volume.

teatea woman

Cyangugu is the most southerly of Rwanda's Lake Kivu ports. It is also one of the most time-forgotten of Rwanda's towns. Looking like a set from seedy spy novel the very faded colonial glory of Cyangugu is mixes with the new more brightly coloured adobe shops and is at least intriguing if unappealing. There are many abandoned skeletons of buildings. Whether these were the results of one of the many conflicts that occurred in this area or through long neglect I cannot say. Across the bay is the Congo where an unending civil war has left untold millions of civilians dead. The Congo now holds the distinction of having had the bloodiest conflict since the Second World War in terms of civilian deaths. I had read that last year the Congo's conflict surpassed the Korean Wars casualty figures. It is relatively quiet now in the Congo at least in this area.

Years of civil war and and fighting over the Congo's rich natural resources have  destroyed much of the Congo's infrastructure. What bullets and bombs could not destroy, corruption and greed finished. The Congo, as one Congolese I talked to put it, “The Congo is very broken”.

The border itself consists of the Rwandan checkpoints, a bridge over the river separating the two countries, a long steep section of no-man's land controlled by the Congolese and the checkpoints of the DRC. The river that serves as the border is lazy and clear. From what I observed it is used on the Rwandan side for bathing and swimming and occasionally fishing, and on the Congolese side a a transportation hub for dug-out canoes. At one time a network of river boats must have plied the river as the Hotel de Lac where we stayed has a riverboat access and some sort of mechanized weir system to aid in the boat's docking.

The process of leaving Rwanda and entering into the Congo was easy enough. It took but a minute to fill out the exit forms from Rwanda and answer questions from the Rwandan immigration official such as: “To which country will you be entering when you leave Rwanda?” Basic deductive reasoning seems to be an important job qualification in the Rwandan civil service! The walk across the bridge is a fascinating cultural experience for  this part of Africa is home to the Batwa or pygmies.

The Batwa people suffer m some of the most extreme prejudiced imaginable. The are marginalized socially and economically. About 30% of Rwanda's Batwa population was killed during the genocide. Even today less than 2% of Rwanda's Batwa even own land, very few Batwa children attend school, and most are well below the Rwandan poverty line.

Crossing the bridge we walked up a steep hill and proceeded to the DCR immigration checkpoint. We were ushered by one of the officials into the private office of “the boss man”. After a somewhat cursory look at our passports he declared that we did not have a visa for the Congo and could not enter unless we had a letter of invitation from someone who lives in the Congo and a visa. I told him that we were told that we could purchase $35.00 US visas at the border and that we had been invited by a group of Croatian nuns. He would hear none of that and sent one of his minions to escort us back. Magdelena phoned the Croatian Sister who was waiting at the border for us and explained what happened. The Sister told us to wait on the bridge and she would try to sort things out. We waited and watched the traffic on the bridge.

Local wheelbarowstransport

Porters strained under 300 kg loads of flour loaded on home-made steel wheeled wheelbarrows. Batwa women carried great sacks of vegetables and fruits on their heads. UN refugee vehicles crossed back and forth and occasionally offering us a lift. (Did we really look that disparate?) After a couple of hours we got to “know” the Congolese police stationed on the bridge. The male police spent most of their energy talking to the young single, and attractive women walking past. The lone female police officer spent most of her time professing her love for Timmy.

Having little success resolving our problem at the border post the Sister drove back into the town to talk to the people at the DRC Immigration. Office. He suggested that if we paid  $350.00 US each  we may be able to get visas. She would at any rate have to come back the next day.

Walking back to the other side we walked a few more metres to the Hotel De Lac, had dinner, slept, had breakfast and waited to see what would unfold. When the sister returned in the morning she was told that a male would have to come in, a female wasn't acceptable. After arranging for a local priest to come and present our case the official declared that for $250.00 US each our problems would be solved. Disheartened we gave up and booked the express bus to Kigali. We still hope to try again at the Goma crossing.

According to information off the Internet, visas to the Congo are often denied if you have stamps or visa for Uganda, Rwanda, Or Burundi. We have all three. According to the official Congo government website there are many differing visas for differing lengths of stays and multiple and singular entries for quite a variety of prices. Sometimes there is conflicting information on the same page. The Congo is indeed broken, at least for us at this time.

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