May 20, 2013
During the last two weeks of April, I was lucky enough to travel to Ethiopia for a Fulbright Enrichment Seminar. The Seminar lasted the better part of a week and I spent the week before traveling to the North of Ethiopia to explore a place coined “The Eighth Wonder of the World”. Both travel and seminar were absolutely refreshing and reflective experiences. Fulbright researchers and English Teaching Assistants from all over Sub-Sahara Africa were brought together to share our personal struggles, our intellectual triumphs and to be reminded of our purpose.
The conference and the trip, in general, allowed me to reconsider everything that I had been doing for the last 7 months in Rwanda. This place is a hard place to live in, but not in the conventional sense of being without creature comforts. The culture and the history have weighed on me, and other short-term travelers, even if its not always thought about in the forefront of our minds. Going to Zanzibar before and now Ethiopia, I felt a sense of release as if my psyche had been forced underwater for months and could take a big breath of air.
In fact, I have tried to ignore that weight in an effort to get to know people, not just memorials. And yet, that’s impossible. A history and its people coalesce organically and the separation of the two creates an even more stunted view of a such a unique, bewildering culture.
Upon returning to Rwanda in late April, I had a new understanding of, well, just here. My views of this place will be skewed with every passing day and it will take years after to grasp a mildly objective view. The people I met at the Seminar were an amazing bunch who were too intelligent and worldly to accept any superficial explanation of my experience, and I am greatly indebted for their patient listening. Vice versa, a banal conversation was nowhere to be found the entire week.
Ethiopia itself was a mysterious and wonderful place that I suggest everyone goes, whether they are in need of new eyes or not. Architecture, history and self-reflection were the themes of this quick trip; probably not a coincidence.
“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”
― Mary Anne Radmacher
May 7, 2013
Unfortunately due to some problems with our house, Olivia and I have had to move back to Kigali for the last 6 weeks (!!) of our contract. The move was quite abrupt and I was very sad to move from my home for the last 8 months. I will continue to work in Kigali on the literary journal and commute once a week to do some English program training for the staff at INATEK and it was the right decision to make. Nevertheless, it won’t be the same as living in Kibungo. Below, I’ve posted a few more pictures of the beautiful East Province.
April 26, 2013
As a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, part of my responsibility is to spend time outside the classrooms (or in my case, our Language Center) contributing to community projects. The project that walked into my life last December was a literary journal with one of the few academic language and linguistics groups in Rwanda. With the help of one of my INATEK colleagues, I was put in contact with the Language and Linguistics Student Association of the National University of Rwanda and told a bit of their story. A literary journal had been tried there several times including a promised attempt by travel writer, Rick Bass (see his recently published book In My House, There is No More Sorrow: Ten Days in Rwanda for a terribly inaccurate, guilt-ridden, narrow view of Rwanda). So to say the least, I was frustrated for the group and embarrassed by another American’s false promises.
Literature has always wriggled its way back into my life, no matter how often I try to deny it out of a falsely practical standpoint. And today, I find myself in a project that encourages the study of literature in myself and others. The journal has been much of a success logistically: it has its own ISBN and is funded by the US Embassy of Kigali; but also in how it has affected the writer’s to see an actual product come from their efforts.The Language and Linguistics Student Association of the National University of Rwanda wrote and edited all the works in the literary journal and I have watched their excitement and enthusiasm for the project grow over the last few months.
The book will be circulated through secondary schools to encourage the study of literature in university (pending approval by the National Curriculum Development Center). It will also be available as an ebook. Below is an excerpt from the Foreword that I prepared for the journal (some of it is repeated info FYI).
April 7, 2013
Today marks the 19th anniversary of the genocide. Every year on April 7th, the Rwandan government sanctions a week-long, reflective holiday on one of the events that questioned the integrity and capacity of humanity. This period is, as I’m told, a time for discussion of genocide and the trauma that it has caused.
During this period, Rwandans have been asked to return to their villages of origin to reflect and discuss the events that traumatized and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. In theory, those with formal employment are meant to continue ‘business as usual’ during the mornings with community discussions and conflict resolution sessions in the afternoon. However given the emotions that envelop each citizen, I can’t imagine that work would be neither conducive to individual’s mourning nor productive. This is a new strategy for Rwandans to cope with this period. In the past, many people attended large scale events in Kigali with speeches and testimonies from prominent members of society. Colleagues have told me that this event was the cornerstone of the week’s program, often complemented with the media showing real footage of the genocide.
Returning to home to consider the effects of the genocide is significantly different than in past years. Those who were not able or willing to travel to Kigali before are now able to participate in the community events. In reality, it forces victims and perpetrators, sometimes neighbors, to face each other and acknowledge what happened. This decentralized way may encourage face-to-face reconciliation rather than simply provoke emotions as in the situation of a large-scale stadium event. Either way, the debate is still very present as to whether a week of commemoration actually encourages victims to relive the traumatic experiences after nineteen years, rather than create the intended reconciliation within the nation.
My role as a foreigner is glaringly evident during this week of commemoration. Repeatedly, I’ve been asked the same question: “Will you be here with us?” Many of my Rwandan colleagues and friends have encouraged Olivia and I to stay and participate in a few events as a way of sharing their reality. But there’s an ever-present conflict, am I not just a tourist to all this grief? This is and has not been my issue, so why should I stay for some voyeuristic observations?
And after thinking about these questions on my own narrow individual level, I realized that these are similar questions asked to the international community those 19 years ago. As I have been reminded sometimes, my country and the rest of the world refrained from acting out of a fear of self-preservation. Why should we send in some soldiers if they may die for a cause that does not pertain to our own country? This is and has not been our issue. And so, the genocide continued unhindered for a hundred days after its bloody commencement on April 7th.
I write this post to my American friends and family not to incite guilt, but to encourage a willingness to educate ourselves on events outside our front door. The genocide has become an infatuation for outsiders who are unable to look past this single event to see a people with a rich culture. The genocide was not just a ‘tribal’ conflict within a troubled African country, it was a human conflict. Our best interest lies not in the fear of emotional or physical self-preservation, but in our own education and shared experience. Even though most of the world may not be in Rwanda or have its problems, we can understand and acknowledge their past because it is also ours.
I will attend several of the community meetings this week because I was invited and encouraged to be a part. My role will be none but to show some small support, a hand to hold, as needed. This non-partisan role is the same for the rest of the international community and media. Take time to understand what happened (there are a few links to articles found below to start with) and offer the same prayers, thoughts or moments of silence that one would offer to a neighbor in crisis. My hope would be to divert attention from celebrity’s weight gain and that, instead, we can admit that we once had a role as passive bystanders in this piece of history. Because in the end, the world’s hope is united against all acts such as this; never again.
February 4, 2013
Everyone harps about the amazing security of Rwanda, particularly in the hoppin’ capital, Kigali. The police force is strict and well-obeyed. I feel much safer walking here with a friend than in most US cities. Traffic runs with a fair amount of order, even with the daredevil motos that frequently weave through sluggish cars. I have never heard of anyone having their house broken into or being mugged. Of course, life is not perfect here and there are the occasional incidents but they are definitely few and far between.
One such incident happened about a week ago in which my camera was briefly stolen. I was out dancing and had just walked my friend to her car. On my walk back up a winding staircase to join up with the larger group, a curious man walked up to me. He repeatedly touched my shoulder and slurred some English and Kinyarwanda jargon. His proximity to me was the first red flag: as stated before, Rwandans are incredibly reserved and often do not confront a muzungu, physically or otherwise. I sped up my walking pace while another man grabbed my accoster’s hand. A few minutes later, I saw him creeping near my friend’s purse and coat. I finally checked my own purse and discovered that my camera had been taken.
Immediately, I reported the theft to the bouncer. We searched around the club but to no avail. The man had disappeared, of course, and after about fifteen minutes had passed, I knew that I would never see my camera again. I went back to dancing, mostly miffed that all the pictures that I had taken were now gone. After a little while, I looked up and saw the funny man from the stairwell approaching me. I immediately motioned to my friends and the bouncer appeared behind the man. He took him outside for some “deliberation” (that in itself made me afraid for the man, given the size of the bouncer and my lack of understanding with how such things are dealt). Much to my surprise, the bouncer came up to me with my camera in less than an hour. After changing hands with six different people, the bouncer and later the police were able to track the camera down by checking the last dialed number in the thief’s phone. And somehow, they were able to lure each one of them back to the club. I would have never conceived that the return of my camera would have been remotely possible and yet, there it was. A similar, albeit more violent incident, happened several months ago with nothing but a small soap taken and even more quickly (with the help of a market full of vendors), returned.
Social justice and a sense of citizenship appears to be prevalent throughout this culture. Patrons and customers are well-protected by the everyday citizen, not just the police. Whether this ‘coming together’ is purely cultural or encouraged by the government (such as the community service day, umuganda, in which the country stops running for the last Saturday morning of every month to perform civil works) is probably impossible to know, but it certainly contributes to the general security here. In fact after my camera was stolen, I felt more at ease with the security in the country. Rather than being completely lulled into a false sense of security though, I am more conscious of the possibility of theft or other crimes. But if strangers were so willing to help me with such a problem, how could I not feel safe?
January 13, 2013
A fellow Fulbright ETA in Austria and Albion College alumnae, Sarah J, just nominated for this spiffy “Liebster Award”. I take this to be an honor and a pseudo-interview of all my favorite bloggers. The rules for nomination are as follows:
-“When you receive the award, you post 11 random facts about yourself and answer 11 questions from the person who nominated you.”
-“Pass the award onto 11 other blogs (make sure you tell them you nominated them!) and ask them 11 questions.”
-“You are not allowed to nominate the blog who nominated you!”
-“Make sure the blogs you chose have 200 or LESS followers” (Yay for the little guys!)
Here are my questions for my nominees:
1)Where in the world would you live for 3 years if you could (job and logistics aside)?
2)What is the most overlooked flaw in American culture?
3)Has a specific relationship (platonic, romantic, teacher-student or otherwise) changed the way you look at other people? How?
4)Is there anything that you want to change in your current situation? What’s stopping you?
5)Are you a cat or dog person?
6) Is there a person or quote that you live by/revisit frequently?
7)Name a good movie that you watched lately.
8)If you are in a bad mood, what’s a foolproof way to get out of it?
9)What thing that makes your life more comfortable could you not live without?
10)If you have the choice, do you prefer to stay in for the evening (usually decked out in pajamas) or to socialize out in the world?
11)Is there one thing that you use daily that you think will become obsolete in the next 10 years?
So! Here are the answers to Sarah J’s questions:
1) What is your greatest accomplishment, to date?
My greatest accomplishment? I really don’t feel like I have accomplished much except to try and get myself more educated through travel and figure out exactly what I think is feasible for me to accomplish in the future. I’m only planning my life for 6 months in the future, at this point, with the hope that I can find a niche and REALLY accomplish something.
2) What is the best book you’ve read recently?
I am midway through “The Shadow of the Sun” by Ryszard Kapuściński, a polish journalist. The book is an excellent chronicle of ‘real journalism’ (wait, there’s a major conflict in Kampala? Let’s go!) during the independence period of most African countries. His writing style includes a wonderful mix of reporting actual events and Walden/Thoreau-style description of culture and place during the tumultuous post-Independence epoch. His chapter on Rwanda is particularly informative and offers one of the most concise and clear writings of one of the main theories concerning the historical conflicts of the country.
3) What is something you wish people understood about you?
This is always a tough question that involves a lot of self-understanding. I think more often than not, I can come across as cold or unfeeling when people divulge certain sensitive things about themselves to me. I don’t mean to come across as such, I am constantly over concerned with pushing or asking too many questions in such situations. I also know that often, I just want someone to listen to my own silly issues without trying to fix them. So, I try to listen and mull the problem in my own head before letting out useless advice. Unfortunately, I think I stay silent for too long and seem as though I am not listening. This is quite the opposite and I hope my friends who have opened up to me, realize this.
4) What is your favorite holiday memory as a child/as an adult?
My favorite holiday memory occurred in my late teens. Per usual, my immediate family gathered round the living room on the morning of Christmas day. One of my baby nephew’s gifts had been mislabeled with my name and placed under the over-decorated tree. As a quite snarky, and know-it-all teen, I was quite hoping to unveil some trendy shirt or cool electronic device. Instead, a light blue one-sie appeared out of the well-wrapped package. My initial dismay turned to horror as I thought my parents were hinting at a certain future that I was not ready to take.
My family got a good laugh out of my reaction.
5) What was the most odd or interesting topic of conversation you’ve had lately?
I recently had a conversation (or rather, I listened) about Agroecology, an organic and much more sustainable approach to producing nutritious and environmentally friendly food. It’s approach serves two purposes: to revitalize lost nutrients in the soil and to also re-enforce the self-confidence of impoverished farmers who often already use these practices. The practice is attempting to be established by an NGO in Rwanda but could be well-used in the US and other agro-giants.
6) Where is your next dream vacation and what would you do there?
Traveling has been on my mind a lot lately, given my new African home for the past few months, but I still would love to travel and go hiking in New Zealand. It looks like a magical place (with or without Hobbits) and seems like a great place to do a low budget hiking trip with some pals (I’m excluding airfare, of course)
7) Answer this question: “if you wanted to spoil me rotten, you would…:”
Give me your Star Alliance miles or an Around the World ticket so I can travel to more cool places.
8) What five words describe you best?
9) What would your perfect night out look like?
A perfect night out would include: my close group of girlfriends from home, really good, filling food paired with large margaritas, and some sort of debauchery; be it dancing the night away, climbing places we shouldn’t, camping in beautiful places, or taking over a public establishment with our loud eccentricities.
10) What is your favorite post/piece of writing?
“A Letter to My Son, Thom” by John Steinbeck. I don’t remember where I found this letter (and this is not the original form that I came across it in) but I’ve always found the honesty of this letter fascinating. Here’s a link posted by The Atlantic:
11) What made you laugh today?
Yesterday (sorry, today has been a bit slow and reclusive), I met with a group of Peace Corps volunteers here in Rwanda. I discovered that one had graduated from my alma mater in 2004 and had majored in English (one of my majors). We also discovered that we knew exactly where each other lived in Southwest Michigan. The world is a small place indeed!
January 2, 2013
Happy New Year, friends!! I feel like I owe you all a little longer post, so here’s a synopsis of my holidays:
I returned two days ago from the above beautiful landscape of Zanzibar! It is still hard to believe the whole vacation actually happened, given that every morning and evening it seemed like we were surrounded by postcards or doctored photos from National Geographic. The island is located just off the East Coast of Tanzania and has a tumultuous history with the mainland country. A main route for slave and spice trade, the small island was (and still appeared to be when one walked the streets of the largest city, Stone Town) ruled by Arab sultans many years before German and British colonizers reached this Eastern shore. Kiswahili is the most spoken language (similar, but much easier than Kinyarwanda) with English serving as an administrative language. Arabic was also seen thoughout the island due to a large Muslim influence.
Nowadays, the island’s coasts are covered with tourists. The Tanzanian government owns much of the island’s more pristine coasts while tourism companies own the more “mzungu” areas. My travel companions included 9 Italians, a British/Italian and one girl from the Czech Republic. As the token American, I learned from locals on the island that I actually came from “Obamaland” instead of the United States of America. We traveled fairly cheaply in these areas, living in hostels and eating local cuisine (best calamari that I’ve ever tasted!), but there were many places that presented lavishly over-the-top digs.
Spending time with the Italians was always interesting. The group was fun, adventurous and generally loud. Our communication was often an odd negotiation between Italian, English and French. As most of the group came from a small town near Milan, they spoke a unique dialect that actually had some similarities to French making it a little easier for me to follow their conversations. If all goes well, I want to visit them on my return trip home. I now have a new goal to learn Italian!
Language is always a funny, amorphous part of our personality. Language is probably the most transferable part of each of our cultures and how they mix and blend is a linguistic anthropologist’s dream. But as just an average traveler, it’s also interesting to observe the changes in myself. My English has even changed a little, evening out my strong Michigan accent in favor of a more neutral, internationally-understood one. I often take for granted that a majority of the world invests part of its education in my mother tongue, particularly in areas frequented by muzungus. But as I soon realized, traveling without knowing other languages is much more difficult for my European friends and even more so for my African friends.
And so, I finally come to the beach boys. These local young men patrol the beach, constantly offering their services as guides to the local activities: snorkeling, swimming with dolphins, spice tours and tours of the famed Prison Island. Yes, sometimes they were annoying (“Special price for you, rafiki”) but had incredible language skills. Italian, French, English, Swedish, German and even some limited Czech were frequently among the repertoires of these Rasta/Maasai/Santa Clauses.
One of my Italian friends, Giampaollo, was struck by the bizarreness of hearing your mother tongue spoken fluently in place far from home. As a spoiled English speaker, I had become habituated to such occurrences thoughthe occasional American slip of culture in such a faraway places still surprises me (Rihanna plays on the radio as much as East African singers do; American emblems worn on t shirts everywhere). The thought of it is slightly terrifying, the rest of the world observing my country’s actions and often taking a specific interest in American travelers. The Italians were noticed in the same way on Zanzibar (negative presumptions and all) and their disturbed reaction reminded me of my own country’s international presence and cultural pervasiveness. Escaping my own culture is becoming more and more difficult. The United States has a hand in nearly every nation’s pot, whether we like it or not.