28 June 2008

The first few days in Kibungo

This entry doesn’t necessarily flow in any logical direction. Consider it my rambling vignettes. Just words I’ve typed as the thoughts have flowed.

I’m hardly able to express what life is like here. Kibungo is not Kigali. It’s the weekend and many we know have vacated this rural community for a weekend in the city. Being a city girl, I completely relate.

Knowing a few Kinyarwandan words reminds me that I am in fact a “mizungo”. And that means I’m rich, I’m interesting, I’m different. And it means I’m not a common fixture in this region of the country. Because I am white, I am often greeted in French (the other main language utilized). Here’s how it goes as we walk the main road to the university (about 5 minutes or so from our house):

Bonjour. Comment ca va?
Ca va bien.

Children are especially fearless and stare at us incessantly. It’s actually cultural to stare. Some will inevitably come up to us and watch or even wait beside us while we shop in the local stores. Conversation may or may not occur.

To get anything done here requires much patience. Because we are mizungos we are often, as I call it, “a liability” to Lama getting the best price for something. On one level, we are adding to the economy. On another level, I’m struck by how I am seen as something possessing power. Buying power. Something not to be taken lightly in a poor country like Rwanda.

There isn’t really such a thing as a day off. With Rwanda being primarily a Christian nation you can hear church services going on for hours on Sunday. But otherwise, people work and live hard. Women carry goods on their heads while also carrying their babies in swaddling blankets strapped about their backs.

Internet is incredibly slow in comparison to my high speed back home. The university where we will work has 256k bandwidth and even that has been temperamental. It really makes the idea of web design somewhat curious for me. I met Clemente who will work with me on this project and I’m grateful for his computer science background (and html skills) that will assist in this project. He is keen to learn more about design software and I look forward to Monday when I can share it with him and upload it onto a computer in their lab. I’ve been approached many times about web design as there are not many designers in Rwanda (and by default web trained ones).

Transportation for me has come in the form of walking, moto taxi, bike taxi or car. I must say that it’s fairly invigorating to get on the back of a motorcycle and ride down the main street of Kibungo. They even have helmets for you to wear (that note is for my mother!).

I’ve met Solange, a survivor of the genocide. She speaks French but since mine is still limited to brief exchanges we do our best to communicate. Lama translated some of her stories to us. It’s hard to believe that any of the atrocities we’ve heard about in the media actually existed now that we’re here. But when someone opens up about it then you realize how far people have come since ’94.

Solange started to play with my hair one night. I quickly found out that she is a hairdresser. I believe I may have the chance to get some braids done during my stay (she was testing my hair texture to see if she could do it). I figure it’s a cultural opportunity! So watch for photos in the future. I may look silly but I’m happy to support Solange’s business. And since we have no hot showers it might simplify my morning rituals.

We’ve had to take a few days just to get ourselves established as the guest house we’d planned to stay at is undergoing renovations. This meant locating a home we could live in. But here that means we have to set it up from scratch. We had originally thought that we’d get our beds from the prisoners but it turned out that they were swamped with orders. Instead we went to ETO, a local furniture factory, to get our beds, desks and chairs. The ordeal of sorting out these details was incredibly slow. The boss wasn’t there (indicating that there is still a top down hierarchy of decision making). Lama found out that the factory had halted work due to a death in the community. We had witnessed a funeral the day we arrived in town. We found out later that it was for a young man (30s) who was a survivor of the genocide, had a high ranking position at the bank, owned other businesses but committed suicide. This is not typical behaviour in Rwanda so needless to say it has shaken the community more than we might have anticipated. But because people are less likely to tell you the truth about such things, we are told other stories like “We didn’t have wood to make your furniture” to compensate. Lama has told me that telling the truth can cost you more. So people lie to protect themselves from reprimand or negative consequences.

Beds in Rwanda are really firm. And my back and neck are not yet in agreement with this fact.

I still feel sort of “packed in a suitcase” but we’re getting there. I realize how much I value the sharing of food, the sense of home that helps make life feel full and the way emptying and closing a suitcase changes my headspace. I feel like I’m planted somehow. By next week, that should be sorted.

Louise is our cook/cleaner who prepares our daily staples of beans, rice, bananas and sombe (a leafy green dish that is much like spinach and very tasty). I brought some Bean Around the World coffee (with my French press travel mug) so we indulge in fresh coffee each morning. I was surprised to find that even with Africa’s high coffee exports many drink Nescafe.

Once a month, the community (by mandate of the government) engages in a community day. This is happening today. Everyone is required to perform some form of improvement to their home/neighbourhood area. Of note, every day starts at about 5 or 6 am here. So the wood chopping started bright and early. Which means my aims to get a bit of a sleep in was found wanting. Next month, we plan to participate. Our improvement will likely be a garden in our front yard.

I wish I had more picture to show the specifics of life here. I feel so obvious already that it becomes difficult to pull out the camera. But we are finding that when we do and show people their picture it becomes a great way to bridge the various gaps (language, perceived class distinctions, etc.). While I am a designer, I am also a photographer and this part of my experience is truly powerful. Lama has great hopes that digital storytelling will help build the community and the economic opportunities in Rwanda so anything I can do to help show people the power they have in a camera is exciting. I’m grateful that Mitch also has a Nikon so we can share images (and lenses!) in this internship we’re sharing.

Next week, we hope to travel to the COVAGA women to get a sense of the reality of the project we will develop here. In discussions with Sigfried (one of our contacts at UNATEK and a ecology scientist), we began to get excited about how art and science will intersect to communicate a new perspective on the water hyacinth and its environmental impact on the lakes region of Africa. We envisioned how we could bridge the gap between the researcher and the local Rwandan to engage outcomes of the work being done in this country (and objective of the RSRC). I personally got really excited about how this research could affect more than just Rwanda (and in turn put Rwandan research at the forefront of this significant environmental issue).

Rwandans celebrate July 1 as it marks the official end of the genocide. We hope to attend a Canadian event to celebrate Canada Day together. I find it amazing that of all the times I could possibly visit Rwanda it falls during the victory celebration of the end of their hostile existence. Not sure I have the words for all of this. But it’s notable for me.

Here endeth my ramble.


shuffle pappa said...


I am very much in awe at your lucid writing and your questioning mind and eye. I just read your blog to Jen and shared the pics with her. Mum is in town shopping, but i will share the Blog with her as well!


Meghan said...

I feel like every time I comment all I'm saying is stuff like,

"Wow. That's cool!"

And that simply doesn't do it justice.

You RAWK the Casbah.

If I can figure out a way to come visit you, I'm totally doing it.

karaink said...

okay, how much fun would that be? i have no high expectations (since it's costly to get here) but i think you'd be blown away.

le' said...

It leaves me humbled to be reminded that as we've just celebrated Canada Day here and have been complaining incessantly about the high price of gas, our government and the price of real estate, that on the other side of the world are a people marking the end of a genocide that killed over 900,000 men, women and children.
You're telling a much bigger story with your pictures than you can imagine.