08 July 2008

More Famous than Ben Affleck

On Thursday a delegation of VIPs from the Congo and UNHCR came to talk to the refugees. I asked if I could bring the bub and the Cripple along in the afternoon as we would just be sitting and listening to people talk (and I’ve learned that in Rwanda people really like to talk, so it would probably be quite a long event). The camp director said sure I could bring her, but we would be mobbed so it was my decision to make. I didn’t quite believe her.

See, everywhere we go crowds of people come to wave and shake and the bubs hand. She loves the attention! The first time I took her into the camp she probably drew a crowd of about a hundred children, and she was a bit scared (she was also not feeling very well and had just had a nasty shot), but she went in again the next day for a check up and just waved when all the children came up to her. Every day the Cripple takes her out on walks and she draws crowds of children from the nearby school that come and shake her hands and stroke her head. She blows kisses and raspberries at them. When the Cripple takes her into church she sings along with the music and spends all her time trying to get to the other children. So I figured she’d be happy to get the attention.

As soon as we arrived I realised I’d vastly underestimated the scale of the event. I think virtually every refugee (and there are about 18,000 of them) had come to hear the speakers. There were so many hoards of people small children had climbed up the basketball basket – I really can’t imagine how – and were sitting on the hoop or hanging off the net in order to get a better view!

The delegates were just beginning to talk so we were quickly ushered around the side to the benches behind them. Though there were a few, mostly older, refugees sitting behind us on the few seats provided for VIPs, the vast majority of the many thousand attending were standing in front of us. Behind us a refugee who I’d met the week before was sitting. He offered to translate the proceedings for us and sat there diligently writing what was said. After a good hour and a half the talk finished and we thanked him profusely for his kindness. Apparently the delegates had come to try to talk the refugees into going back the Congo. They were promised their houses and property back and told the situation is secure enough for them to go. We asked the refugee what he thought of this and he gave a rather neutral answer (I should point out, all the delegates were still sitting in the row in front of us).

As we were a bit distracted talking to the people behind us we didn’t notice all the VIPs leaving. Suddenly I realised there was just us and a few thousand refugees left. As we came round the side of the shelter a huge wave of children surged forward. I suddenly realised what the camp director had meant.

Oh dear.

The Cripple and I made our way, as best we could, in the direction of what we thought were the NGO vehicles in the medical centre. The children, absolutely fascinated by the bub, screamed in joy and threw all their weight into getting close enough to touch us. Some of the refugee guards stepped in and tried to keep the children back by hitting their legs with switches. We were appalled, but really, there seemed to be no alternative. We finally get through to a space in the crowd and groan when we realise we’ve come to the UNHCR boarding point, not our own. The medical centre is back around a long fence that literally thousands of children seem to be hanging off and squashed up behind.

Starting to get a bit frantic I ask the single police officer if there is a back way to the medical centre. He says no and turns his back on us. Not two seconds later the fence starts to collapse and dozens of children fall off. The police officer rushes over and says yes, there is a back way. We follow someone as fast as we can away from the hoards.

After ten minutes of speed walking through a maze of locked gates we’re back in the medical centre. The camp director laughs at us and says “see I told you you’d be mobbed.” A couple of months ago Ben Affleck came to visit the camp. As hundreds of children squash their faces up to the fence to get a better look, I ask the camp director if they acted the same way when he visited. “No, no, no. She’s more famous than Ben Affleck!”

While waiting in the security of the compound, we thought about the talks we’d just heard. We wondered how, twelve or thirteen years on, authorities could know which house belonged to whom, and even if the houses were still standing. I asked some other refugees in the medical centre what they thought. One of them said “How can I return? The Interahamwe have taken our village. They live their now.” That night one of the staff at the NGO we’ve been staying with commented that there was conflict in the region they fled from last week. Over the weekend an NGO worker in North Kivu (the area the refugees fled from) said with astonishment “But the Interahamwe are in their villages!”

07 July 2008

A weekend break

The Fourth of July is Liberation day, a public holiday here, so we were blessed with a long weekend. We spent Friday in Kigali at a really lovely guesthouse and heard that the holiday was a very big deal for the manager of the guesthouse. He had hidden under a bed for five weeks during the genocide and was freed when the capital had been liberated fourteen years ago. It’s the kind of story you hear fairly frequently in Rwanda and makes you realise how incredibly resilient the people are.

On Saturday we went to Gisenyi, on the northern side of Lake Kivu, and crossed over to Goma (DRC) for the Cripple to get her visa renewed. Despite making several promises before leaving that I definitely wasn’t crazy enough to go into the Congo with bub, ahem, when it came right down to it, it was definitely the simplest option. The thought of spending nine hours on a bus – twice – in one weekend in order to get to Kampala was just too much. So the Congo it was, though in all actuality it was a very simple crossing. The closest we were to getting in hot water was when the Rwandan immigration official noticed the Cripple’s visa had expired two days beforehand. Thankfully everyone in the line behind us spoke up and said the date definitely looked like a 5 – not a 3 – and after a severe tongue lashing we were through.

We cruised around in Goma for a couple of hours and saw the destruction caused by the volcano erupting. There’s a ban on taking pictures of almost everything in the DRC, and the few things you are allowed to photograph you need a permit for (which we didn’t have) so we hid our picture taking as much as possible. The greatest excitement occurred when we (the Cripple being a photographer it’s rather hard to resist) took a picture of some fishing boats and were shouted at by the people nearby (who thought we’d taken pictures of them) so at that point we thought it was high time we went back to Rwanda. The return crossing was without incident and the Cripple’s visa is now valid for the rest of her stay here. Woohoo!

Gisenyi was gorgeous and a lovely break from reality. The bub enjoyed playing in, and eating, the sand and was delighted to meet another baby around her age who was happy to play with her too. We spent the evening at the nicest hotel in town and spent far too much on a couple of drinks and dinner. But it was tasty, definitely.

The journey back to Kigali was a bit torturous – I had a headache, felt travel sick, was squashed in an uncomfy seat with people sleeping on me on either side and the bub sleeping on my lap did nothing to ease the pressure on my bladder for three hours or so. I was feeling a bit sorry for myself until we passed an accident on the road. A crowd of people from the nearby village had gathered round a bus that had collided with pedestrians (I think)… seeing a body wrapped in cloth on the side of the road sent shivers down my spine and made the small inconveniences I’d been grumbling silently about seem like nothing. When we reached Kigali I found out four people had died in the accident, not just the one I’d seen.

In yet another example of people’s incredible generosity here, on the way back we were offered a place to stay by someone I had met during my first week here. He has a baby born a week before the bub and we’d bonded a bit over baby stories. When we arrived back in Kigali he arranged collecting us, finding us dinner (and amusing the bub while we waited), taking us to the house (a brand new just finished building in the suburbs, one of the nicest places we’ve seen), hot water, a guard and sorted a taxi for the morning to get our lift (at 6am!) back to Byumba. As we were driving down the back roads to the house I had a moment wondering if we were perhaps being abducted. I just couldn’t work out why someone would be so kind. To be honest, I still can’t quite get my head round it. The level of kindness and generosity I’ve experienced on my travels always astonishes me, especially when I consider the way foreigners are treated in my own country.

05 July 2008

Mazungu na Bebe

Friends will know that as much as I’ve enjoyed coming back to Rwanda again and again, I’ve found the people much more reserved than in other parts of Africa and being here long term can be a bit lonely.

Travelling with a baby has completely changed that.

From the moment we stepped off the plane – when someone from immigration saw me crushed under the weight of bub and luggage, asked me to sit down, took our passports to be stamped (in front of the massive queue), came back and carried all my suitcases through the exit – people have gone out of their way to help us. Frankly, I’m not sure I would have managed, especially that first week on my own, without all the kindness we’ve received from strangers.

At ten months the bub learned to crawl and became much more difficult to “manage.” Unfortunately this coincided with the beginning of the trip and brought on a new desire to do everything by herself. On the plane, she insisted on practicing this new crawling trick up and down the aisles for at least half of the 16 or so hours we spent travelling. Virtually everywhere we go here she adamantly demands to be let down to explore. Instead of tutting at her filth, people here laugh and wave and talk to her constantly.

She’s now feeding herself proper adult food, but oh boy is it messy. As we have no highchair, generally I scoop some of what we’re eating into the pocket of her bib and she picks out what interests her and eats it. She pops it in her mouth. She spits it out again. She holds it up to examine it. Then she might pop it back in or she might throw it on the floor. The Cripple and I have wondered (very gratefully) at the extraordinary amount of patience and indulgence she is met with everywhere we go. It is impossible to imagine going into restaurants in the “developed” world and being met with the same genuine happiness and good will we do here. Even on repeat visits! At the guesthouse in Byumba we’ve stayed in for a couple of weeks (that’s a couple of weeks of at least two meals a day throwing grub on the floor) the waiters know her by name and call to her gleefully when we arrive, often picking her up (grubby mitts and all) for cuddles.

We’ve received invitations into people’s homes, we’ve been given lifts and dinner; we’ve had people offer help, and extend friendship, almost constantly. I’ve noticed a big difference in the way that I’ve been perceived and the way people have responded to me both professionally and personally. Being here as a mother rather than an eccentric single traveller seems to have increased my standing and trustworthiness. Each time I go into the camp women ask after the little one and many of them give me their own babies to hold. They’ve dubbed me “mazungu na bebe.”

03 July 2008

What AM I doing here?

I'm in Rwanda doing my PhD research on the refugee camps here. I haven't been to camps in other countries, but I think the ones here are particularly hopeless. The Congolese refugees have been in the camps for more than 12 years and there seems to be no solution - there is still conflict in the region they fled from in the DRC and Rwanda doesn't want to integrate them into the country here. So they are just sitting stagnating with very, very little opportunity to improve their lives in any way. Very depressing.

I really wasn't prepared for how much more difficult having a baby with me would be, and how much more emotionally vulnerable it would make me. I knew it would be hard, but I wasn't quite prepared for the actuality of how hard, if that makes sense? She's usually a very content baby but being here has made her much more clingy and leaving her to do work is much more emotionally wrenching than I'd imagined... and then I feel doubly guilty for leaving my screaming child for the poor Cripple to comfort.

Early last week the bub had a high fever and I thought she might have malaria. I'd waited a few hours for a meeting with someone who was busier than expected with the bub sitting on my lap. By the end of the day the person still hadn't been able to make it and all the while the bub's temperature had seemed to get higher and higher. I finally asked the receptionist if she might know how I'd contact a doctor.

I had no idea the reaction that would get. Immediately panic ensues. The doctor is unable to be reached so we have a vehicle take us to find him. Doctor located we scream off to the medical centre in the camp. As we zoomed up the hill of the camp in the land rover the Cripple turned to me and said "I can't imagine being anywhere else and going *to* a refugee camp for medical care." Turns out the bub didn’t have malaria (and is fine now), but contrasting the instant help and tons of attention she got to the way I've since seen the refugees are treated has made me feel quite guilty and useless.

My first full day "working" in the camp was spent mostly in the health centre. I met a woman that was paralysed from shrapnel in the DRC conflict and had been lying in the same bed for over six years. I met another man that had been paralysed recently when a building collapsed on him - he was hoping an operation in Kigali could restore the use of his legs, but a dr told me it was unlikely. I met a mother who's eight month old baby was so emmaciated from malnutrition the baby was about half the size of my baby. Then I realised why the Dr and nurses had told me not to worry about my baby - she was crying so strongly she couldn't possibly be really ill. Watching this eight month old child barely muster the strength to whimper broke my heart.

At the moment going into the camps and talking to people is making me feel like I'm kind of a voyeur and rather than helping I'm taking time from people who can actually be useful. I know theoretically that unless what goes on is documented and reported no change can possibly happen, but it's hard to remember that when faced with such overwhelming deprivation. Watching babies barely able to make any noise in pain is quite literally heartbreaking. Agh.

02 July 2008

Back in Byumba

It’s been an awfully long time since I’ve blogged. I have always thought quite carefully about what I’ve posted on here and tried to keep the focus on the wonderful people I’ve met during my travels and perhaps have less of a personal focus. Last August my daughter was born and now, at almost one, she’s with me in Rwanda. Life has changed enormously and it seems only right to include more of my own thoughts and reflections now.

I’ve been back in Rwanda for three weeks. There are many things that have happened over the past few weeks that I’ve been too busy to write about; I’ll try my best to catch up a bit in the next few days. When I signed up for this trip, with bub, I knew it would be bit trickier than traveling on my own, but really, I had no idea. No idea.

For starters, I have ten tonnes of luggage. 95% of it is hers. The logistics of moving from place to place are a bit of a nightmare. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have befriended the brilliant people at the American Refugee Committee who have helped a lot with getting us (and luggage) from place to place, but traveling is *far* more stressful than as a singleton. Last weekend we (that would be me, the bub, and The Cripple, a friend and former au pair who joined us 8 days into the trip to help look after the bub and see some of Africa) took a trip to Kibuye which involved local buses. Thank goodness we were the first to load on the bus otherwise there would have been no room for our (small, weekender) suitcase.

Then there’s the problem of keeping clean. Even staying in Kigali (the capital), with hot running water, there is an awful lot of washing to do. Instead of being able to get away with wearing clothes a few days and then washing, virtually everything must be washed each time it is worn as the lovely little miss has a habit of grinding food into my leg while she eats.

For the last couple of weeks we’ve been staying in Byumba, the nearest town to one of the largest refugee camps in the country. Since we arrived here there has been no running water. We are given a bucket of hot water in the morning (and if we’re really lucky in the evening) and have a big container full of cold water. I feel as though only now do I have *any* idea of the difficulties in managing water usage the women here have. With my bucket of hot water, first I mix some of it with cold water. Then I bathe the bub. She hates me for it and screams blue murder the entire time. Then I bathe myself – face first, then smelly bits, then feet. Then I soak the clothes that need washing while I get the two of us ready. Then bub crawls about on the floor, puts dirty things in her mouth and tries to come into the bathroom while I get down to washing. The dirty water is poured in another bucket to flush the toilet. The rest of the bucket of hot clean water is used to first wash up the baby bottles then to wash the clothes. Then the dirty water is poured into the bucket to flush the toilet. I use some of the cold water to rinse the clothes, wring them out and try to find places around the windows to hang to dry. The remaining cold water, already used for rinsing, is left to wash my hands in for the rest of the day.

Did I mention the bub is using four or five washable nappies a day? Plus muslins for cleaning her, plus both of our clothes for the day. It's an awful lot of work. No wonder I haven't found the time to blog until now!

Comparatively though, I’m very lucky. I have hot water (on occasion). I have just one child (not 7-9 as is average here) and no husband to keep clothes clean for. And I have no cooking to do. I have no idea where the women here manage to find time, energy and ability to keep going with such grueling responsibilities.

28 March 2007

Kibuye and Kiziba camp

I didn't realise the buses ran so infrequently to Kibuye (every two hours) and only just caught the last one on Saturday arriving after dark. Kibuye is quite small and there were no taxis about, only moto-taxis, and as I was travelling with my suitcase the only possibility of getting to the guesthouse was on foot. After a few minutes walking I was joined by a young man who offered to carry my suitcase for me. Being somewhat paranoid I turned him down but he kept walking with me asking some questions in English and French, both of us struggling to communicate. When I arrived at the guesthouse about half an hour later he said au revoir and turned around and walked back up the hill we'd just come down. I realised too late he'd been walking with me just to make sure I'd gotten there safely.

In the morning I was so glad to have a full day to rest before going to the camp. The views of Lake Kivu were beautiful and I spent several hours walking around the village exploring. Eventually I found a small beach used by the residents to bathe and fish from and spread out my towel to sunbathe. Every few minutes different groups of children would come and talk to me or passersby stopped to stare.

On Monday I met up with some of the NGO staff and set off for Kiziba refugee camp. It was then that I realised Kibuye is small: when I was introduced to a couple of the workers they told me they'd seen me sunbathing the day before! The camp is about half an hour from Kibuye down a road which at times is incredibly bumpy and you can easily invision slipping over the edge in a downpour. It was without a doubt the worst road I've seen in Rwanda, the workers laughed when I said that and told me it used to be much worse.

The stories I heard in Kiziba were similar to those I'd heard in Gihembe: the refugees didn't have enough firewood, food or sheeting and other materials to build houses. They often had to sell the few things they were given so they could provide more nutricious food, clothes and other things for their families. Kiziba also has a severe land shortage and is housing the seventeen and a half thousand refugees that live there on less than half the amount of land they should have for that number. In addition to overcrowding, it means that latrine and shower facilities are stretched thin and there was a real concern of a cholera outbreak in the camp should it be brought in from outside (there are reports of cholera at the moment in nearby Gisenyi so this is a very real threat).

While I was at Kiziba, I met the handicapped women's association (above) who, with the help of a microcredit programme in the camp, make lovely colourful bags and sell them. Since they began they've expanded from just a couple of members to training more than twenty who are now able to supplement their provisions with income from the association. It takes two women a whole week to create the bags which they sell for 6000 Rwandan Francs (about US$12).

This morning I ate breakfast and said goodbye to Kibuye while enjoying views of Lake Kivu and the Congo in the distance.

24 March 2007

Gihembe refugee camp

Many people don't realise that Rwanda is the home of many thousands of refugees stemming from different conflicts in the region. This week I visited one of the largest refugee camps in the country, Gihembe, which is about an hour north of Kigali quite close to Byumba, a Rwandan town with a fairly large population in the middle of a tea growing region that provides jobs for about 60,000 people. Gihembe is home to about 17,500 Congolese refugees many of which have been living there almost ten years now.

Ten years.

There are still regular reports of violence in the border areas of the DRC from which they fled. Despite massive funding cuts and UNHCR's (UN High Commission for Refugees) hope that the refugees will voluntarily return soon, stability doesn't look promising across the border. Especially after yesterday's reports that there has been fighting in Kinshasa and Jean-Pierre Bemba, the runner up in last year's election and the DRC's opposition leader, has been accused of treason. The Rwandan government wants the refugees to return, but after one attempt a few years ago which saw the refugees attacked as soon as they arrived in the Congo and back at the camp within a few weeks, it seems unlikely that they will be convinced as long as their home continues to experience regular outbreaks of violence.

The camp itself is a few kilometers from Byumba, set high on the top of a nearby hill. From the distance you can make out the white sheeting the refugees are given by UNHCR to constuct their houses. Byumba itself is at a high altitude and quite cold at night, the refugees in Gihembe are all the way at the top of the hill and only have the sheeting to insulate them from the rain and wind and thin UNHCR issue blankets to block out the cold. It's rainy season and every night I spent in Byumba the pouring rain woke me up repeatedly. Sleeping under plastic sheeting, most of the time torn plastic sheeting, wet and cold must be virtually impossible.

There were many, many children in the camp, crowds of them followed me around all the time I was there. Some of the camp workers told me that one of the biggest problems in the camp is the lack of food. Refugees are only given very limited supplies of maize and cooking oil and often must sell some of their ration so they can supplement their diet with fruit and vegetables and buy clothes and other necessary supplies that aren't provided. Some lucky refugees have found low-paying jobs within the camps, but many more have to search outside for work and find that their status affects the positions they can take and reduces their pay considerably. Family planning efforts are having virtually no effect in the camps as families purposefully increase the number of children to increase their food rations. A six month old baby is given the same monthly food ration as an adult, many refugees see only the short term food gain in having another baby and not the long term consequences of even more mouths to feed and backs to clothe.

The staff I spoke to at the camp were quite amazing - in the face of hard and depressing working conditions and wages that with inflation get lower each year they are trying their best to help the people under their care. One of things I was told repeatedly was that the scarce resources and status of the refugees within Rwanda makes it very difficult for them to adequately provide for families and that the biggest losers tend to be adolescent girls. Sexual exploitation becomes almost inevitable when the girls aren't given clothing within the camps, their parents can't afford to provide it, they can't work and they have no other way to dress themselves than to find an older man who will buy them things or otherwise prostitute themselves.

A lot of sexual abuse occurs when women and girls leave the camp in search of work or firewood in remote areas. Counsellors told me that in Congolese culture rape is taboo to discuss and therefore many women don't come forward and talk about what has happened to them. They have been working hard to sensitise the community and encourage women to come forward, but this hasn't been help by the refugees status. Because they are not Rwandan, refugees accused of rape will only face jail for a few days before they are let go and return to the camp. There seems to be no way to hold prisoners indefinitely no matter what the crime.

On Thursday, I had my own rather frightening experience of this. When I first arrived at the camp a guy in handcuffs came up to me and shouted a bit and staff led him away telling me he had gone crazy after experiencing the war in Congo. They seemed resigned to him and treated him as if he was harmless so I didn't think any more about it. Thursday morning one of the refugees was leading me through the medical area to find someone I had a meeting with when suddenly she ran through the gate to the compound and it was locked just in front of me. I turned around and the crazy man was running at me shouting "Why are you afraid of me" as I tried to back away from him. He pushed me and kicked me before security managed to grab him and take him away and I slipped through the gate. I thought after that he would have been locked up, but in the evening when I was about to leave the camp he appeared and chased after me again but this time there were more people around that took him away before he could get too close to me.

The next day, after he had been sent to the mental hospital in Kigali, the camp director told me that the guards were afraid of him because he had killed both his parents. The prisons wouldn't keep him because he was a refugee and not Rwandan. He had been sent to the mental hospital in Kigali many times but they always discharged him after a few days and returned him to the camp, she hoped that this time he would be kept there but the prospects were slim.

19 March 2007

my weekend in Goma and Gisenyi

After quite a busy (and thankfully successful) week doing my research in Kigali I decided to take advantage of the weekend and explore the country a bit. I caught the last bus on Friday to Gisenyi, known as a gorgeous retreat town at the top of Lake Kivu, and arrived about four hours later well after dark. Being a bit of a spontaneous decision I had no idea where I was staying and jumped on the nearest mototaxi (the back of a motorcycle) sans helmet and flew off down wet and mostly dirt roads in search of a room. Gisenyi is so close to the Congolese border I found my limited Swahili very useful to ask the cyclist to slow down - pole pole! - which he thought was funny (but he did slow down!).

The first 'moderate' guesthouse I tried was closed. The second had no bednets (not something I'm willing to go without in rainy season). The third was completely full. Eventually I ended up in a Presbyterian church run hostel which was quite basic but clean and much cheaper than the others I'd looked at. It was too late to get something to eat at the hostel, so after stumbling around in the dark nearby I came across a local restaurant serving an almost finished buffet dinner and helped myself to the scraps before going to bed.

In the morning I woke up to rain, rain and more rain. Now, I know this is rainy season, but rainy season usually means a downpour every day or every few days, not all day without stopping! As sunbathing was clearly out I asked around and heard that the situation across the border was stable... I don't think I need to tell you what happened next do I?

I knew Goma was close to an active volcano (it errupted in December and covered the town in lava) - but it was quite amazing being able to see the smoke rising from the top and see just how small it looked because we were essentially on part of it. The hardened lava was piled up all over the place and roads on one side of the town were completely destroyed by the lava flows and the consequential road scraping to clear them. I was only in the DRC a very short time, but it was long enough to get a bit of a feel for the place. Even in a few hours, the sense of chaos across the border was palpable. Rwanda has a large police and army presence, but in Goma men in uniform swaggered all over the place. One of the reasons why I have so few pictures from my visit is my strong desire not to be "interviewed" by one of them and forced to pay a "fine" for being caught photographing something forbidden (and that really could have been anything!).

After a (surprisingly) uneventful border crossing back into Rwanda I spent the rest of my time in Gisenyi walking alot and enjoying the gorgeous views of the lake. On Sunday morning I was lucky enough to catch about two hours of sunshine. So far on my trip every single day I've put on sunblock it's been overcast and the few bright days I've forgotten to do so. Yesterday was not an exception to this and in two hours of sunshine I managed to turn a pretty crispy red colour.

My trip back to Kigali yesterday afternoon turned out to be the most exciting few hours of the weekend. Shortly after leaving Gisenyi the rain poured down in what seemed like sheets of water. Despite passing dozens of cars, buses and transport trucks that had crashed through the occasional guard rail and off the side of the mountains, our driver didn't seem to slow down, let alone stop. The three and a half hours back to the capital were spent almost completely in tense silence on the bus, marred only by shouts from passengers when it seemed we were about to careen into something!

13 March 2007

a short diversion to Butare (Huye)

Over the weekend I went to Butare (now renamed Huye) in the South, a town known as the intellectual centre of Rwanda where the main university is located. The journey took a good two and a half hours squished in the minibus, but the views along the way were well worth the discomfort.

At one point during the journey the driver screamed to a stop, the fare collector jumped out and chased after two kids disappearing into the brush. Eventually he caught up with them and dragged them back to the bus: everyone on board shouted at them for a good ten minutes while they hung their heads in shame. The person next to me explained they'd been caught trying to chip parts of the road off. I have a feeling if vandals were treated the same way in England there'd be an awful lot less graffiti and trash in my neighbourhood!

Though still the third largest city/town in the country, Butare is vastly different from Kigali and feels really relaxed and sleepy in comparison. Butare was the administrative capital of the country for the Belgians before Independance and there are many brick buildings, such as the Cathedral (above), that were built during this time. I spent a peaceful morning in the beautiful National Museum and many hours happily wondering around the town enjoying the lovely views.

08 March 2007


Today was a public holiday in Rwanda. As all the offices were closed I thought it best to take the day off and venture out of the capital to Nyamata about 30 kms away.

On my way to the main bus station a little boy came up to me and asked me for something to eat, so I popped into the nearest shop and bought him some peanuts and chocolate milk. Within seconds about a dozen more streetkids appeared from nowhere and I had to go back and get food for them all - some of them wanted a picture taken so I snapped it quickly and kept walking before any more streetkids could arrive and I would have no money at all left!

The bus station was quite a bit further than I anticipated from the centre, but eventually I arrived (with a few new blisters). I quickly found the right bus thanks to some helpful strangers who thought a pregnant muzungu was one of the funniest sights ever, and climbed in ready to go. The minibus (same as a dalladalla for those that followed the Tanzanian adventures) didn't leave until it was full a good forty minutes later, but the trip to Nyamata was mostly smooth and took less than an hour passing gorgeous scenery along the way.

About half way there an old man got on the bus and says "How are you today young lady" quite loudly to me as he sat down. It's the first thing that anyone on the bus had said to me other than confirming it was the right bus, and everyone turned towards us to listen. He tells me he spent 33 years in Uganda so he has good English and starts chatting to me, asking what I think of Rwanda, and then talks mainly about the genocide and how difficult it is for people to learn to live together now, though they are trying very hard.

When we arrived in Nyamata the bloke next to me asked if I knew where I was going and offered to show me the way. As we walk along he tells me a bit about himself - he's 25 and studying at the university in Kigali. Next week he will defend his thesis and hopes to do well enough so that next year he can begin a Masters programme in Kampala at the big university there. He tells me he has family in the area so I asked if his brothers and sisters lived there.
He replies "No, they're all dead."
And then I said "and your parents...?"
"They are dead too. They were all killed in the genocide, there's only me and my aunt left."

The memorial used to be the church in Nyamata. When the president's plane crashed Tutsis from all around Nyamata gathered in the church thinking it would provide them with a refuge, instead they were slaughtered.

He walks me round telling me about what happened: pointing out the bullet holes in the ceiling, the machete wounds on the skulls, the clubs used to kill people that were left in the vault as a reminder, and the entire time I'm thinking to myself - this is where his whole family was killed.

He showed me the orphanage where he grew up behind the church and the schools he went to. I asked him how he felt about people coming to look at the memorials from overseas and he told me it made him really happy that people were learning from it so it wouldn't happen again.

...sadly, it is happening right now in Darfur.

03 March 2007

a Sunday by the Pool in Kigali

Since arriving back in Rwanda two days ago, I've wandered round Kigali to work out where things are, tried to get back to feeling normal and well rested after not sleeping at all on the long journey here (just about there!) and spent a fair bit of time doing as much research as I can on the NGOs I'm going to try and talk to this week. This afternoon I thought it was a bit too nice to spend the day inside on my computer so I went down to Hotel Milles Collines (of Hotel Rwanda and a Sunday at the Pool in Kigali fame) and spent a couple of hours relaxing and watching the kids swim. It was really surreal to think that almost thirteen years ago the pool I was sitting next to was drained bit by bit to provide water for all the people that had crowded there to seek refuge.

21 January 2007


On Tuesday we had a wonderful day being pampered at the spa and set off for Essaouira Wednesday morning(ish!). After many dodgy African bus rides between us we were expecting to show up and see a piece of crap that would make the journey a bit of a religious experience, but no, the bus looked like a National Express (nicer than Greyhound for the US folks)! We climbed in and two and a half (pretty comfortable) hours later we arrived on the coast.

When we clambered out the bus we were greeted by men with wheelbarrows trying to grab our bag and take us to the hotel. Thinking ourselves wisened and well travelled we refused their 'help' and hailed our own cab which dropped us off about 100 yards down the road at the entrance to the medina (the old part of town surrounded by a wall and off limits to cars). We asked for directions a few times, but found pretty quickly that in Essaouira virtually noone knows English and our French (ok, really Gillian's) was no match for the rapid fire instructions we were given.

After walking up and down the same bloody road about three times we gave up and asked the police, who then asked the pesky guy with the wheelbarrow if he knew where it was and told us to follow him. We couldn't quite explain to them why we *really* didn't need his help, so off we went. About five minutes later we arrived at our riad, and handed over about $4 for the pleasure of the escort, by that time feeling a bit ashamed of snubbing the poor bloke at first.

We dropped off our bags and noted quite gleefully we were the only guests in the place. As a result we got an amazing room - practically two floors with beds on opposite sides of the giant room with a full floor with living room below and step ladders to climb up.

Keen to investigate we climbed the town walls and found amazing views. Gillian was much braver than me and scaled up the wall to walk on the edge and was quickly joined by the kids in the picture.

We found the old square just in time to watch the sunset, it took only about a minute to completely disappear.

In the mornings we had breakfast on the sun terrace of the riad - in one direction you could see the sea crash into the wall, in the opposite the outline of the mountains. It was pretty incredible to watch all the people around carrying on with their lives on the tops of these really tall buildings - construction, farming, relaxing - just about anything you can think of.

One of our best meals in Essaouira was in one of the tiny stalls on the quay. We chose our brunch from the freshly caught fish shown in the picture and they barbequed it for us right there. We loved our time in Essaouira and would happily go back again!

The Essaouira coast

17 January 2007


Last Sunday my friend Gillian and I took off for Marrakech. We didn't really know what we were heading into - just looked forward to warmer, sunnier weather than miserable old England.

The first sight that greeted us was the fantastic mosque (left) next to the amazing DjemaĆ¢ el Fna (below) square. The picture doesn't really do the square justice - there seemed to be a million people and a million stalls selling everything you can imagine.

Our first evening we spent enjoying the freshly squeezed orange juice and taking in the square. Watching the sunset on the mosque was a highlight of the trip - that first evening was easily the nicest sunset we saw all week!

Our riad was tucked into one of the tiny streets in the medina (old town) and one morning we found these donkeys resting just around the corner.

Our last night in Marrakech we spend wandering around the street food stalls in the square. Hassan (right) came up to us and said he was hungry, so we stopped and got him a chicken kebab and chips. He was digging into the food with gusto when we looked over and saw Lissan and Wassan (left and middle) looking hungry on the side - turns out they were with Hassan. We invited them over and all of them had their tums filled, though the guys on the stall thought we were a bit mad!

01 December 2006

Today is World AIDS Day

I'm sure at some point today you'll hear the stats (there are over 40 million people living with AIDS, most of them women, most of them in developing countries, most of them poor) and you'll think that's awful and move on with your life and not think about it too much. The numbers seem so huge you can't put a face on it and you probably think it can't happen to me.

I just spent about 6 months researching and writing about AIDS. A long the way I met Grace, a woman with eight children lying in a hospital ward in rural Tanzania. She told me her story in bits and pieces, her voice a whisper and stopping often, in obvious pain. She had come to the hospital a couple of years earlier for an operation on her stomach which had never healed. Grace had many children and was poor; she couldn't afford to come back to the hospital so suffered at home for a long time by herself. Finally her pain became so bad she had returned a few weeks earlier. She only ate when one of her children brought food as the hospital can't afford to feed the patients. Although she had been given drugs for her sores they hadn't healed and she felt the same as when she arrived. The doctors told me she had AIDS but didn't know: they hadn't told her and didn't seem to be in a hurry to do so. There was no way to treat her, so why tell her she was doomed to die?

I know a lot of you are thinking "but that's in Tanzania, it doesn't happen here," but actually, it does. HIV/AIDS happens everywhere, and the numbers affected are only increasing. Washington, DC has a higher HIV rate than Tanzania: the highest HIV rate in the US. 1 in 20 people in DC are HIV positive. It also has one of the worst records on treatment, and the highest AIDS mortality rate in the US. AIDS is the leading cause of death among young black women in DC.

Please take a moment today to think about the enormous impact the disease is having all over the world. Think of Grace, who will slowly get sicker and die, suffering needlessly because any drugs that could help her are scarce. Think of her eight children, who will watch their mother die slowly, then most likely their father. Think of the older girls, who will drop out of school (if they haven't already) to look after their siblings. Sex work may be the only way they can support the younger ones, increasing the chances they too will become sick and die. The family, already poor, will become destitute.

AIDS can happen to anyone at anytime. One of the reasons the disease is spreading so fast (and it is spreading all over the world) is because women are biologically, socially and economically at greater risk of HIV/AIDS. Traditional prevention efforts have ignored women's vulnerabilities and focused on techniques that require men's compliance, it's no wonder they have had little discernible effect.

Without treatment, millions of familes around the world will crumble, just like Grace's. Without treatment, there is no hope. Without hope there is no reason to be tested. Without getting tested, there is no way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Debt relief, more effective aid, and fair trade will give developing countries funds to invest in HIV/AIDS interventions and fight poverty. Comprehensive and efficient health systems are vital for the poor to access treatment in developed countries. Governments will only support these measures if we, the average citizens, demand that they do so. Through protest, media and civil society action we must force our politicians to fully support effective prevention and treatment options for all, not just those that can afford to pay, and an end to the root cause of the spread of HIV/AIDS: poverty. We have the opportunity to stop the spread of AIDS: we must not let it slip away through inaction.

Please write to your legislators, your newspapers, or talk to your friends about what you can do to help. Think globally and locally: demand more AIDS funding, support local services and protect yourself. You can find some ideas to get you started here (US) and here (UK).

26 September 2006

Torture, part 2

I've just received an email from Amnesty International on the new torture legislation being negotiated between the US Senate and White House. The legislation allows sexual abuse such as forcing prisoners to strip and dance naked as part of interrogations and redefines rape and sexual abuse:

the new bill could make prosecution for rape and sexual assault more difficult by requiring proof of specific intent to commit the crime, something generally hard to prove in cases of rape or sexual assault

I know that governments have secretly sanctioned all sorts of horrible things in the past (and present) but that doesn't make it right. I find it terrifying that the wealthiest most powerful country in the world is taking away the shame that would have previously been associated with torturing prisoners. How can we claim to be 'fighting the war on terror' when we are instilling it?