Sunday, June 28, 2009

Buj and back

Wow, Bujumbura was an amazing idea, and an even better trip! Who says US State Department travel advisories should be trusted? Actually, Burundi can be a very dangerous country, but we were very careful and made sure not to put ourselves into any unnecessary risks. Well, for the most part…

There are many adjectives that one could use to describe the bus ride to Bujumbura, but I believe the best one is TERRIFYING. Take the usual Africa roads (filled with all sorts of vehicles, bikes, pedestrians, animals, potholes, etc) and worse than usual driving and add that to narrow, winding mountain roads and you’ll get some sort of idea. I spent much of the ride staring out the front window of the bus as we careened towards a cliff then swerved away from it, usually into the path of an oncoming truck which we’d then swerve away from back towards the cliff, and so on. Eventually, however, the mountains ended (rather abruptly, actually) and we came into Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, situated on the shores of beautiful Lake Tanganyika. Really, the only real problem we had with the transit was the Burundian border guard who tried to force us to bribe him by almost denying us entry. Much arguing, some harsh words, the help of the other bus passengers and shear stubbornness got us through the border sans bribe. There was no way that we’d support corruption!

We found a pretty nice place to stay for only a little more than we had hoped and in the process met several extremely nice and helpful Burundians. I was a little nervous, due to our experience with a “nice and helpful” Ugandan, but fortunately, they were good people. One important thing in Bujumbura is to stay off the streets at night (take taxis if you do need to go out), so the first night was spend enjoying our hotel, street bread and Burundian Primus (tastes the same).

Interesting fact: automatic weapons and grenades are not allowed in Bujumbura. At least that’s what the sign said. One of the first things we saw upon entering the city was a giant banner in Kirundi (very similar to Kinyarwanda) with a No Grenades and No Automatic Weapons picture (silhouettes of both x’d out). Apparently this didn’t apply to army, police or security guards, because they were everywhere and were always touting weapons.

On the second day we took a trip south of town to the spot where Stanley uttered those famous words “Dr. Livingstone, I presume”. Actually, this was not the real spot. All evidence points to their meeting taking place in western Tanzania, but seeing as this is really all Burundi has in the way of touristy things, I’ll let it slide. The spot was marked by a large rock just off the highway, with names and dates carved into it. We took some pictures, talked to the soldier with the huge automatic weapon that appeared out of the bushes, then headed off to the beach, blowing past cops who tried to flag us down for more bribes.

Let me say, I always enjoy swimming, but there is something quite special about swimming in the Africa Great Lakes. Maybe it was the warm water, maybe it was the possible threat of schistosomiasis or biharzia, maybe it was the beer that I’d had, but jumping off the boat into the water felt amazing. If you are keeping track, that is the 3rd boat I’ve jumped off so far this year, the 2nd being into Lake Kivu and the 1st being onto the sandy beach of Lake Victoria. Unfortunately, I doubt I’ll be able to make it to Lakes Malawi, Turkana, Edward, Albert or any other African Great Lakes. Then again, I’ve never really been to Lake Superior either. Anyway, I’ll be swimming in the Indian Ocean at Zanzibar in November, so I shouldn’t complain.

The bus home combined the same terrible driving and windy roads with an intense smell of vomit. Strangely, the vomit smell permeated the bus before any of the passengers actually started vomiting, and it certainly didn’t get any better afterwards. With the help of some incredibly cheap oranges and strong will power, none of the four of us puked and we all made it safely back to Rwanda.

Like last time, I was glad to make it home. It could be said that Rwanda has less character than it’s neighbours, and there is some sort of forced orderliness and discipline here, which makes the country seem less “African”, but it really is much safer and cleaner, and despite all the complaining I’ve done in this blog, it’s a pretty darn good place to live!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

To Buj!

I’m back in Kigali for the night. After an expensive weekend in the
city last week, of course I decided to spend more money and head off
to Bujumbura, the capital of neighbouring Burundi. It’s just a
weekend trip, but I’m going with a couple of other volunteers and it
should be fun! Plus, it’s another country to explore! If I spend a
year living in Rwanda without visiting each of the countries it
borders, I’ll feel like I wasted an opportunity. Let’s hope the next
post is filled with delightful stories of a wonderful trip, not woeful
ones of getting robbed again.

This last week I was invited to take part in a football match with the
other teachers. (Remember all you North Americans, football is what
the rest of the world calls soccer.) Since I understood it to be just
a friendly match between the teachers and the students, I of course
refused. I also refused the next day, and the next. However when the
day of the match arrived, somehow I had agreed to play and was frog
marched down to the pitch. The start of the game was delayed for some
time due to the fact that the other team had not arrived, which
confused me, until I realized that we not playing students, we were
playing staff from the local hospital. For those who may not be
aware, my athletic talents are marginal, and limited to badminton,
ping-pong, croquet and lying to strangers about being a hockey player.
I was due to play in the second half, and as I watched the start of
the game, I realized that when the teachers said they “weren’t any
good either”, they obviously meant that they would not have been able
to beat Manchester United. Liverpool maybe, but not Man U.
Fortunately, the players decided they didn’t really want to switch off
at halftime, so to the disappointment of the other substitutes and to
my relief, they continued to play, leading to a 2-0 win for Rusumo
High School over Partners in Health/Kirehe Hospital.

Just to underscore how different life is here from back home, remember
that my high school has no electricity, and now that the rainy season
is over, no water. This doesn’t mean that we have no running water
(ha, obviously) but that we actually have no water. The school was
built on top of a hill with no source of fresh water besides the rain.
For the first year of operation there was a large pump down in the
valley that sent water uphill to the school, but sometime in the
second year (2001) it broke. Since then, the school has used a large
tanker truck to cart water up from the valley a couple times a week,
but this year, like our generator, it too broke. The only remaining
vehicle at the school is a tiny pickup that has to make quite a few
trips a day into the valley in order to supply the school with enough
water for drinking, washing and cooking. On Tuesday, the pickup broke
down. I did not realize this until lunch was effectively cancelled
because there was no water with which to cook the rice and beans. The
students were finally able to eat around 5:00 (almost 12 hours after
they had breakfast) when another truck showed up with a couple tanks
of water. I am continually amazed how things like this are allowed to
happen, by school administration (who despite being deeply in debt and
stuck with broken equipment and a poorly supplied library and
laboratory are having hand-made wooden furniture crafted for the
headmaster’s office), by the District (who also recently sent us
hundreds of Senior 1 biology, chemistry and physics text books – in
French!) and by the Ministry of Education (I shouldn’t share my true
feelings about the Ministry online for fear of being deported, but it
has something to do with being able to find its own ass with both
hands). Anyway, the water situation has stabilized, at least until
the new truck breaks down.

Hmm, I wonder; this post just might be seditious enough for me to
actually be deported…

Saturday, June 13, 2009

It’s that wonderful time of year again…

The sun is shining, the dust is flying and the smell of the hand crank photocopier fills the staff room. That can only mean one things: exam time! Yay! Ok, it’s not quite exam week, but it’s coming up. I’ve got one more week of teaching, one week of review, then a week of exams and a week of marking. That’s all that left in Term 2! And I am ready for the vacation! It’s been a busy and productiveish term – the library is up and running (and we’re on our second librarian already), I’ve started a debate club with the first debate to be this Sunday, I’ve finally visited Rusumo Falls (three times, plus setting foot in Tanzania, geographically if not legally), I’ve visited all of our volunteers in Eastern Province and have generally been my usual rabble-rousing self (like teaching my students the concept of civil disobedience, hehe). This time around we get three weeks of va-cay, with the slight exception that I might have to be teaching some classes during the second week (not a problem, it’ll probably only be about 4 or 5 hours tops). For the first week, Dad and Sara are visiting, for which I’m EXTREMELY excited about! I can’t wait to show off my home and country to people from home. Oh, and I’m excited to see you two… For the rest of the break I’ll probably just travel around Rwanda, especially the West, which is hard for me to get to on weekends. There’s a pretty cool rainforest which chimps and monkeys, some tea plantations and some beach resort towns (on Lake Kivu). Two weeks should be enough time to not really see everything, but to pretend I did.

I only have to get through the next 4 weeks. I’ve already got 3 out of my 4 exams written, so I just have a bit more teaching and some review, then I have to mark 330 some exams. Thankfully I have my computer back so music can soul my tortured soul as I drive myself crazy with the grading.

Also, this next week marks the mid point of my time here (or it’s close at least). Hard to believe I’ve been here for 5 and a half weeks and that I’ve got about 5 and a half weeks left. I’m working on planning my final month of traveling after 3rd term and have to have the flight home booked in about 2 weeks, so soon I’ll know when I’ll be back in North America (coming soon to a couch near you?) If anyone knows of must see attractions in Zanzibar (besides the beaches), Dar es Salaam or Addis Ababa, let me know.

On a sad note, I’ve had my first major illness of the trip: a cold. It’s been about 5 days and I think I’m just starting to get over it! And now I’ve just jinxed myself. Worms, amoebas and other parasites here we come!

I’m currently in Kigali for another weekend of errands and partying. My hunt for a key shop was much more successful than my computer charger quest and I explored a new suburb of the city with some great clothing stores and a movie theatre! Everyday I’m here I find another new gem! Or dusty sh*thole, depending on the day.

Oh, and Alison, I'm definitely coming to the wedding! I'm glad to hear that it won't be until after I get back. I'm missing Mark and Leslie's wedding next week and I'm pretty sad about that. BTW, congrats again Mark and Leslie! I'm sorry I can't be there!

Sunday, June 7, 2009


So, great news! One of my dear fellow volunteers just returned from
North America and brought me a new charger for my computer! In case
you hadn’t heard, my last one was blown out in the Great Generator
Disaster of Nyakarambi, where the whole town was without electricity
for five days and when it came back on, half the light bulbs and one
computer charger had been destroyed. What followed was nearly a month
without access to my computer: no music, no movies, no writing blogs
from home. It sucked. I sort of feel like a whiner for complaining
so much, I mean, you can give me the whole “back in my day” speech and
it’s true, almost no one around here has a laptop, why should it be so
hard for me? Well, it was hard because I’m not from around here.
Everybody needs relaxation time, and for the first four months, mine
involved listening to my music. When that was taken away, all the
little things, the irritants, the annoyances, about living here began
to get to me and I could not just shrug them off like I used to. I
had no escape. Fortunately, it’s not a problem anymore! And just in
time too. With three more weeks until exams, I’ve got a lot of
grading and planning to do, and music makes it that much better.

I’d like to just comment on Rwandese radio for a moment. Not a big
fan. There’s BBC, which is great for world news, but not really for
music. Plus sometimes it’s in French, and it used to have a
Kinyarwanda hour as well (until it was ordered off the air by the
government for supposedly promoting genocide ideology (which in this
case meant a call in show where people questioned the cover up of
reprisal killings), Sketch!). There’s VOA, which can have really good
music, and pretty good world news, but again has other language hours,
plus can be a real tool of American propaganda. Plus, sometimes it’s
broadcast in ‘special English’
I have found a few other good stations, but I can never count on one
actually playing music at any one time. There are a lot of call in
shows, a lot of talk shows, and most of it is in Kinyarwanda. When
they do play music, it tends to be the same 10 songs over and over, so
no matter how much you like them the first time, they cease to be
quite as enjoyable.

Lizard update 1: Sometimes lizards fight on my ceiling and them fall
to the floor, shake themselves off and run away.

Lizard update 2: Sometimes big lizards try to eat the tiny ones. The
sucker for the underdog that I am, I try to prevent this from
happening, usually just in the nick of time. Which means I have a
couple of tiny lizards running around minus their tails.

Lizard update 3: I saw an enormous lizard outside my house the other
day. It was about a foot long, plus the tail. So far I haven’t seen
it inside.

The rainy season has ended! Finally! I can dry clothes on the line
and walk to school without getting covered in mud. The dust is
starting to be a problem however…

So, I kind of blew up at a bus full of Rwandese a couple weeks ago
(notice I I said blew up AT a bus. Sort of a different meaning without
that preposition…) It had been a weekend full of being hassled for
being white, and I was having none of it. I got on a bus to head home
to the usual titters and “muzungu” comments and I started to simmer.
A woman sat down next to me and made even more comments. I laugh
right back in her face, but my tension was reaching it’s breaking
point (remember, no music=much more tense). I was sitting by the
window and had it partially open, with my arm hanging out since it was
a hot day and I decided to keep it open once we started driving. For
all you back home, you probably don’t realize that Rwandese generally
don’t like windows open on buses. So the man behind me tried to close
the window with my arm in it. He apologized but it was almost too
late. Seconds later the woman beside reached over to also try to shut
the window (not asking me to do it) and I lost it. I smacked her hand
away and started yelling in 3 different languages “My name is not
muzungu, that’s so rude, I hate it, I don’t go around calling you all
blacks!” The whole bus (probably even the driver) were staring at me
in disbelief. Finally, I ended my rant, yanked the window wide open
and sat there with my arms crossed, just daring someone to say
something. Nobody did. The next hour was actually quite
uncomfortable with the wind blowing right in my face but I didn’t
care. I felt so good!

Now, this probably wasn’t a good way to handle the situation, but with
the language barrier it was about all I could do, and I had to do
something. I have decided to take a stand against the term “muzungu”.
First of all, categorizing people based on race is not something
anybody should do. It’s not like they are calling us Europeans or
Americans, they are calling us whites (or whitey). Rwanda is
undergoing a massive drive for modernization and investment, and part
of this should be not using racial labels for guests, outsiders and
visitors! Second, Rwandese, of all people, should know better. This
is a country that witnessed the horrible consequences of racial
categorization and it’s forbidden to label people has Hutu or Tutsi.
Why is it ok to label people as whitey?

Of course, the term muzungu is used differently, and it doesn’t
always bother me. Very little kids use it only because they were
taught by their parents to say it when they see me, and they when they
say it you can tell they are just so excited! It can also be used as
a description, like “oh, he’s that muzungu over there.” This doesn’t
bother me. Rwandese will say similar things about other Rwandese,
like “oh, he’s the brown one” or “he’s the black one”, referring to
the different shades of skin colour that exist here. This is fine!
The problem comes when the term is tinged with something else, scorn
maybe, or sniggering. This is when the word becomes Whitey or Honky
instead of white person. I hear this constantly: “Hey Whitey! Where
are you going?”, “Whitey! Give me money!”, “Ha, look, there’s a
freakin’ Whitey on the bus! Isn’t that hilarious?” It becomes a
label, and not a friendly one and it creates division, not the unity
that is such as buzzword here. So, if any Rwandse are reading this
blog, please, don’t call us muzungus. You’re better than that.

Next week I promise I’ll stop talking about such heavy topics. I’ll
go back to silly anecdotes and lame jokes.