Monday, February 13, 2017

Experiencing Kigali

Monday, February 13

Today was one of those days where I just learned so much it made me tired.  I knew coming to Rwanda for the first time that there would be a learning curve, I just didn't know how much of one.

First things first, however.  I think both Kim and I slept the sleep of the dead last night.  I took the Ambien at 10 and the next thing I knew it was 5:25.  Not bad.  We dozed a bit until the alarm went off at 7.  A quick shower and breakfast downstairs, which was quite good.  I had an omelet with onion, cheese and red pepper and a couple of breakfast rolls with some mango and pineapple.  The coffee is really good here too, as I think we've come to expect in Africa.

On today's agenda was a city tour of Kigali.  We drove around what is "new Kigali" (built after the genocide in 1994) and old Kigali, which existed then.  The contrast is ridiculous.  The newer section is more modern and richer feeling.  It's obviously built with new money for new money.  When I asked, I found out that it's mostly foreigners who either work here or want to retire here that are buying up the new properties.  The older sections have seen much better days but really aren't too much different than other urban parts of Africa I have seen, like Nairobi and Arusha.  A lot of open storefronts, a lot of roadworks with mostly manual labor.

Rwanda is looking to the future and it seems as if there are a lot of initiatives to replace "old Rwanda" with "newer Rwanda".  There is a lot of hope and expectation that that will happen in the next 10 years or so.

One thing I can say is Kigali, the capital city, and everywhere else we drove today, is insanely clean.  As we deplaned last night, we were warned by the airline staff that plastic bags are forbidden here, so get rid of them before you leave the airport.  That is pretty representative of the country's approach to litter generally.  There just isn't any.  The sidewalks and roads are immaculate, to the point where you could almost eat off them.  Much of newer Kigali is exceptionally manicured with lush green grass and palm trees that Beverly Hills would envy.  Everyone is compelled by law to spend three hours on one Saturday a month cleaning up the country.  Everyone does it, including the prime minister and/or his wife.  That forced service in turn means that people take ownership of how the city/country looks and thus won't litter if they know that one of them is going to have to clean it up.  Tim told us that it wasn't an easy transition to learn to do the service, but now that they've been doing it, it's old habit now.  I think it's a fascinating idea.

Our first stop was at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center.  I knew this would be on the itinerary and I had studied up before I came so that I wouldn't be a total ignoramus.  I don't consider myself easily rocked, but one point here really got to me.  I knew there was a genocide here in 1994 between opposing tribes (Hutu and Tutsi) but I didn't know that it had been brewing since the 50s and that there'd been a "first" genocide in the 60s.  In between genocides, friction between the tribes just grew.  Tutsi were required to register as such with the government, and jobs were limited to a certain number for them, based on their representation in society (sound familiar?).  In 1994, an order to kill Tutsis came from the top (day after the president was killed in a plane crash) and Hutus took it seriously, killing any Tutsi they could find.   Neighbors were turning in neighbors, friends were turning in friend.  Worse still, they were killing them too.  It was incomprehensible.

So I stomached the personal commentaries, the graphic photos, the tools of the trade (machete was the weapon of choice).  I saw photos of the mass graves and the decomposing bodies.  But nothing, absolutely nothing, got to me like the Children's Room.  Here, they honored about 15 children who were victims of the genocide.  They listed their names, favorite food, favorite play thing, who was their best friend and how they died.  Most were by machete or by hand grenade.  But one little girl, one beautiful little girl with the biggest, brightest smile, loved her chocolate sweets and playing with her big sister.  She died by being "slammed against a wall."  Slammed against a wall.  Are you fucking kidding me?  Who does that?  I honestly don't think I'll ever be able to wipe her face out of my head.  Or how horribly she died.  Or what level of coercion, or bad judgment or mental incapacity someone had to have to do that to her.  All over being a different ethnicity, having a bigger nose or a narrower face.  Sick.

After that we visited the mass graves in the garden.  All of these are unknown bodies.  2 million people died in the three month genocide, and not all were found and/or identified.  The bodies that were recovered were buried in mass graves here.  There are a few cement slabs that could be just about anything under them, but as Tim said, to convince the non-believers, they left one open with a glass covering, so that you can see coffins and flags with crosses on them over them.  Yes, that's a mass grave.  Apparently as with other genocides, there are a fair number of non-believers here.

We passed by Hotel des Milles Collines  which was the location where Paul Rusesabagina harbored many Tutsis who were looking for protection as the genocide happened.  I was struck by how big the hotel was.  I'd watched the movie (Hotel Rwanda) recently and remembered it being smaller there, but this was good sized, yet still not big enough to harbor 1268 who would have otherwise been killed.  There is a pretty fountain outside the hotel that honors the 10 hotel employees who were killed in the genocide.

Our last stop before lunch was the Belgian Genocide Memorial, which remembers the 12 Belgians who died in the genocide.  Ten were Belgian soldiers protecting the First Lady of Rwanda as the genocide began.  12 were aid workers who were there.  All of this is unbelievable, more so when I consider it was just over 20 years ago.  I'm dumbstruck.

Tim told us that many people served time for their role in the genocide and some got early release if they admitted their wrong doing.  He said that two things came out of the early release:  first, the wrong-doers had trouble reintegrating into the society where they had killed (no, really?!?) and second, a LOT of killers ended up marrying victims' family members.  That is just incredulous.  Throughout the memorials we saw and through Tim, I've learned that this country has a very high capacity for forgiveness and moving on, whether it's so they themselves can survive and carry on with life, or for the betterment of the country.  It's admirable, but makes me wonder if I'm capable of the same.  Some of these people lost their entire family at a very young age.  How do they not harbor intense distrust and bitterness?

Lightning the mood, Tim and Cyrus took us to the Heaven Restaurant for lunch.  Tim had done his research to find one with good vegetarian options for me, and this was delicious.  We ate outside on a beautiful, quiet deck and I had a mojito and a beet risotto which was wonderful.  We got a chance to chat with Tim and learn more about him and about Rwanda.  He is a delightful host.

Over lunch, Norbert, the local director for Treks2Rwanda showed up and chatted with us.  Turns out that our originally booked accommodation for gorilla trekking is overbooked and we have been moved next door for one night.  So we're at the Da Vinci Lodge.  It's cute; we have a little thatch roofed cabin.

From there, the drive to Musage, where the gorilla trekking is, was about 2 1/2 hours.  Most of it uphill, most of it pretty slow.  Cyrus is a great driver and he's ably dodging people walking in the streets and the many motor bikes that dodge through traffic.  The drive reminded me of a combination of the Mohawk Trail out in western MA and Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, with lots of twisty turns and a lot climbing and fence-less edges.

I will note that as my compatriots in Boston deal with another foot of snow, it was 91 here when we left Kigali, and as we climbed up the mountains toward the gorillas, it dropped to low 60s.  At least we won't be hot hiking the next three days!!

Dinner tonight was a pumpkin soup and spaghetti pomodoro.  It was ok.  We did get a free bottle of Merlot though, which is good!  Hopefully we sleep well and are in good shape for the trek.

Finishing up the blog tonight and then off to bed.  Up at 5:15 tomorrow for breakfast at 6!

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