Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Denial is considered one of the primitive defense mechanisms. Just like repression or acting out, denial is one of our brain's ways to micromanage emotions we cannot process rationally or intellectually. It is a defense mechanism I have come to know well in my time in Rwanda.

Denial was how I handled my home sickness when I first arrived in Rwanda: "No I don't mind cold showers, warm drinks, or the gecko that share my bed. No I don't miss my friends or family or life at home." Now that I am approaching the end of my time in this amazing place denial is again taking hold of my thoughts" "No I won't miss the sunset over the thousand hills, the fresh pineapple at the end of a two-hour meal, or the laughter that accompanies the idiosyncrasies of living in Africa. No I won't miss my friends, my adopted Rwandan family here at PSF, or my Kigali life." Concurrent with this denial that my time here is coming to an end is a concerted effort to check things off my East Africa to do list.

Last weekend I put my energy to good use as I boarded an overnight bus in Kigali with my roommate Yvonne to make the 10 hour drive to Kampala, Uganda. This trip across the border has been something I wanted to do not necessarily because Kampala is an amazing metropolis, but because of its close proximity to Jinja, the reputed source of the Nile. So, after arriving in Kampala at 4:00 AM we took a power nap in time to be picked up at 6:00 AM for our day of rafting. The ride to the countryside showed us that though Rwanda and Uganda are similar, but there are subtle differences between the countries. Street food, which has been virtually banned in Rwanda for hygiene purposes, is prevalent in Uganda and its hills are lacking compared to those we enjoy in Rwanda.

After the bus ride we arrived at the rafting company for our six-hour trip down de’Nile. Brilliantly, the rafting company offers two options, mild or wild, and recommends that people of similar adventure-seeking level pile in the boats together. Taking the “mild” option left Yvonne and I in a boat with four Dutch girls, 2 Canadians, and our Ugandan guide. Truth be told, the mild option was at first more than I bargained for as we jetted off down a class 3 rapid. Some safety training eased some of my fears but I knew that bigger rapids were in my future.

We jetted down many class 4 and class 5 rapids that were also listed in the guidebooks as “waterfalls” that other tourists can visit on the Nile. And though the adrenalin rush was great, the real excitement of the trip was on the peaceful bits between rapids during which time you could swim in the Nile eye level with the birds or sit in the boat watching locals clean their clothes with rocks or bath and play in the river. Though the rapids were, in my mind, an interruption to the peace of the raft, by the end of the journey I was actually enjoying going over the water.

After a quick brochette, chipati and drink by the Nile we left Jinja headed back to Kampala for a night on the town. Though we were utterly exhausted I denied my tiredness as we headed out for dinner and some of the Kampala nightlife. Despite the recent tragedies during the World Cup Finals the nightlife in Kampala is still remarkable. There are delicious restaurants to enjoy, music booming out of every corner, and plenty of street vendors selling food for hungry late-nighters. Following our taste of dinner we got a brief taste of the nightlife before heading back to our hostel for bed.

Above is a picture of the room we stayed in at our hostel in Kampala--what it lacked in electricity and running water it made up for in atmosphere. The rafting company took photos of our journey down the Nile which are currently in route stateside on a photo disc. Hopefully I can share some of these images when I return.

Our early 1:00 AM bedtime was in part due to exhaustion after being on the river all day and partly due to another early morning in Kampala. We arose before sunrise yet again to take a cab to some of the more scenic sights in Kampala. Our first stop was at the Nyamirembe Cathedral that conveniently coincided with sunrise mass. Though it was disappointing to not see the inside of this large hilltop structure. The gospel music pouring out of the church was a lovely background sound for the sunrise over the city.

Following our trip to the hilltop cathedral we headed to another precipice to see another religious structure—the Kampala Mosque. Situated on the top of Old Kampala Hill, the mosque is the biggest in East Africa and was funded by Libya in cahoots with Idi Amin—the right hand man of Milton Obote and former president of Uganda. Amin served under Obote and orchestrated many mass murders before overthrowing Obote and taking over Uganda to rule as a dictator with an iron fist. Visiting the mosque was an amazing experience in and of itself, but it was particularly harrowing realizing that the money for this structure came to support Amin’s effort to gain control over tribes in Northern Uganda.

Despite the Mosque’s sorted past it was a monstrous structure on the inside and it gave us beautiful more beautiful views over Kampala. Leaving the mosque we hit the streets for some morning craft shopping and a view of the hustle and bustle that accompanies this East African metropolis. We had time for a quick chipati made on a road-side stand right before our eyes before boarding the bus for the trip back. The ride home was long but gave us more gorgeous views of the countryside and allowed us to see the border in the light of day.

Crossing the border was the usual blend of excitement and stress as we got our entry stamp and made the walk into the “no man’s land” between Rwanda and Uganda. There was the usual mix of moneychangers and stow-away bananas on the bottom of trucks that you see at any border. And though we were leaving Uganda we felt photos of the signs in no man’s land welcoming us into the country were important to have since we missed them on the way into the country due to our late night bus ride.

As we had our passports stamped to enter Rwanda I reflected on my weekend trip to de’Nile and the usual feelings of the other denial crept into my head. “No, this won’t be the last time I cross the border to come back to Rwanda, my last weekend road trip, or the last excursion filled with the surprises only East Africa can offer”. “No, I don’t wish I experienced this amazing weekend with my friends from home, look forward to sharing pictures with my family as soon as the bus arrived, or long for a warm shower to wash off the Nile water”.

And it was in this moment I realized that de’Nile is best left as a river in Uganda. The truth was I will leave Kigali soon and I will leave a bit of myself here. The moments I have experienced have changed my perspective on life and how I want to live it because that’s what travel does to you. At the same time, I will continue to miss my friends and family and the comforts of home—and that is okay too. After all, as I reflected on the bus ride home, the best part about going away is coming home to appreciate all you have. And whether in Uganda, Rwanda, or home sweet America I am blessed a great deal of friends, family, and opportunities. That is one fact there is no denying.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Other Side

Despite the terrors encountered in this country in 1994, Rwanda is a model of post-genocide reconstruction. The country is gearing up for an election, public health and education infrastructure are universally strong, and anti-corruption/pro-finance campaigns are heavily promoted by the Kagame government. Even though there are many critics of President Paul Kagame’s limits on “free speech” and “free press” the reality is that the policies he has instituted during his first term have made Rwanda an incredibly stable place with a bright future.

The terrible and wonderful thing about living in a resource-limited setting is that it doesn’t take much to remember how fortunate you truly are. Walking down the street you encounter constant reminders that your levels of hunger, fatigue, and stress are relative compared to others walking by your side. For Rwanda, and its western neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), this distinction between “haves” and “have nots” is magnified on a geographic scale.

This weekend hopped in the car and returned to Gisenyi, the town to the north of Kigali bordering Lake Kivu, for a beach party featuring local artists as a part of FESPAD, an African music and dance festival. We had the pleasure of staying at our same lakeside bungalow and enjoying the same stunning views as the fishermen returned from a night of catching sambasa on the lake. Our primary objective for this trip, however, was in stark contrast to the rest and relaxation of getaways of weekends past.

We were joined by our friends from Kigali who work as UN Security here in Rwanda. They were making a run across the border to the PX at the UN military base in Goma DRC. Though the thought of duty-free creature comforts from home was appealing, the chance to see a UN base and travel safely to the war-torn Congo was an opportunity I felt I could not miss. So, after the beach party on Friday evening we woke up early Saturday morning and left our lakeside paradise to drive the 2 km to the other side of Lake Kivu.

After crossing the no man’s land between Rwanda and the DRC and standing in the queue at the border for our visas, the Congo was apparently similar to Rwanda. The view of the lake was still stunning and the women were still trying to sell you the produce they were balancing on their heads while successfully pacifying the babies they have tied onto their back. Shortly after leaving the customs area with our unofficial UN escort, I realized that there was a huge distinction between these neighboring countries.

The countries comprised of the former Zaire—the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo—have a long and sorted political past. The blood diamonds of these countries cause a great deal of political unrest throughout the areas around Kinshasa and Brassiville. However, the eastern regions of the DRC, including Goma, are subject to different pressures. The DRC was a major base for Tutsi rebels in exile who crossed into Rwanda to attack the then-Hutu dominated government during the mid-twentieth century. When the 1994 genocide happened many more Rwandans fled to the DRC as refugees, only to be attacked by the Interhamwe who had taken a strong hold in the Eastern Congo. And even as Rwandans return to their homeland from exile in the DRC, the Interhamwe military presence remains strong in the DRC and orchestrates many ethnically motivated killings, rapes, and village burnings on a regular basis.

This complicated past and unstable present are what forces the United Nations presence to be so strong here in Goma. The base we came to visit in Goma is actually the largest UN base in the world—a reflection of the level of conflict that plagues the people of the nation. As we entered into the country the majority of cars we saw were Land Rover Defenders marked with large UN letters on the side to indicate the diplomatic status of the passengers. The massive UN base ran through the middle of town and was lined with razor wire with armed guards in posts at 50 meter intervals. It was clear within a few kilometers that we were not in Rwanda any more.

We were shortly escorted through the heavily guarded gates to the other side of the razor wire where the setting seemed similar to what we were accustomed, but still remarkably grim. The UN military base is situated along the edge of Lake Kivu, at a point where we could actually see Gisenyi and the location of our lakeside bungalow from the night before. Looking out over the lake it was hard to imagine that I was staring at the same body of water as the razor wire that sits on the lava rock obstructed my view towards the horizon. The base was filled with tanks, heavy-duty land vehicles, and tents for the soldiers—quite different to the lakeside hotels that are on the Rwandan side of Lake Kivu. Though the setting was other-worldly to me, the soldiers on the base seemed accustomed to their surroundings. They were friendly, welcoming, and eager to answer our questions about their role as peace keepers in this war-torn land.

As I stood their with the lake in front of me and the tanks to my back I questioned whether or not this experience could get more surreal. And in typical Africa style, the DRC shocked me once again. Walking into the site of our original mission objective (the PX) I was taken aback by all of the muzungu comforts lining the walls with reasonable prices in American dollars. There was cereal for less than $20 a box, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and the treat of them all—cold Dr. Pepper. I used as much self-control as possible in purchasing my loot but I could not resist my favorite sugar-filled treat from home. After I checked out at the PX and put my bags in the car, I cracked open the cold beverage and stood there in the middle of the UN base, in the middle of the war-torn Congo, looking at the boats in the middle of methane-filled Lake Kivu drinking a Dr. Pepper.

With the sugary aftertaste of the delicious drinkable delight on my breath, we left the base for lunch at a nearby hotel. We enjoyed the usual lunchtime spread of fish and chips to which he had grown accustomed in Rwanda, with the usual suspects that populate our mealtime tables. However, on the other side of the border, the conversation interrupted at fifteen-minute intervals by the sound of helicopters or jets taking off from the landing strip down the road. The UN Security guards fit in with the locals who didn’t flinch as the aircrafts buzzed the restaurant, but for those of us on other side for only a day, it was quite the shocking event.

After lunch we set off to fill our other objective for the day—to see the lava field. Aside from the political unrest that plagues Goma, in 2002 it was subject to a devastating natural disaster courtesy of the Mount Nyarigongo. This active volcano that dominates the skyline of Goma has the fastest flowing lava in the world, and in 2002 it directed its rage at the town of Goma. The volcanic eruption covered streets, burned houses, buried vehicles, and killed hundreds of citizens destroying an already devastated country and leaving Goma as a wasteland of lava. Despite the fact that this event was nearly 8 years ago, the natural disaster worked synergistically with the already unstable political climate to damage the city to a degree from which it has yet to recover.

Though we knew that Goma had faced its challenges part of me hoped that its proximity to the Rwandan resort town would leave it with some relief relative to the rest of its fellow war-torn provinces. As we set off to see the lava flow site I quickly realized that this thought was only a desperate attempt at wishful thinking. The city is shrouded in a dismal gray and even the brightly-colored gitenge fabric of the women was made dark by a thick layer of ashy dust. The main road was made gravel by the solid lava and as we drove across it the only thing we could see was volcanic rock. Some of the rock had been quarried in an attempt to re-build the torched houses that lined the streets. Most of the rock, however, was littered with trash or served as a seat for local children. The activities were the same—people carrying supplies on bicycles, mothers balancing baskets on their heads, and children sitting by the side of the road. But the gray backdrop overshadowed everything leaving a sense of sadness and hopelessness I have seldom encountered in Rwanda and never experienced on such grand scale.

Though the distance between Rwanda and her neighbor is short, the disparity between my African home and the DRC serves as a giant abyss dividing the two nations. As I crossed back into the other side I was filled with conflicting emotions of immense sadness and extreme gratitude. It is devastating to see people in such poverty with such little hope for relief in their lifetime. At the same time, knowing the similarly conflicted history of Rwanda, I am incredibly grateful for the progress and the stability that the country in which I now live enjoys. On the ride home we drove past one of the UN camps that homes mainly refugees from the Congo. The UN tarp against the beautiful landscape was a juxtaposition of the emotions I had felt all day when comparing the DRC to my Rwandan home. In this moment, again characterized by sadness and gratitude, I promised myself not to care if the shower at home was cold, or the power was out, when we arrived. Instead, I vowed to be continually vigilant about being grateful for all I have here in Rwanda out of respect for those Congolese men and women and UN soldiers on the other side.

Monday, July 26, 2010


Those of you who know me best realize that there is perhaps only one thing I love more than a good vacation, and that is planning a good vacation. My personality is suited for creating travel itineraries, reserving accommodations, and designing plans that maximize exposure to the sights of the places I visit. I get a lot of pleasure out of planning trips and I consider my passion for all things organizational one of my stronger assets. But again, those of you who know me best realize this can be a detriment as well. Often times, I spend so much time preparing the vacation that I forget to relax and enjoy the peaceful rest that should accompany a holiday.

Over the past few months in Rwanda I have had the opportunity to travel to many parts of the country. These weekend road trips have allowed me to learn a great deal about the topography and culture here in East Africa. One of the lessons that my road trip experiences have taught me is that Murphy’s law has an especially strong presence here in Rwanda—anything that can go wrong absolutely will. Despite the challenges that accompany traveling here, I always enjoy myself. So this weekend as we set out for Kibuye I resolved to enjoy a peaceful road trip, no matter what occurred.

Early Saturday we set out to Kibuye, another lakeside town further south of Gisenyi that offers a very different view of the same methane-filled Lake Kivu from prior trips. Rwanda is known for its excellent infrastructure and is touted by some to have the best roads in East Africa. The road to Kibuye is quite the engineering feat due in part to its recent completion. Kibuye had traditionally been a town dominated by Tutsis. In the pre-1994 Hutu-dominated government, the resources required to build a reliable road to the lakeside town were not deemed to be a good use of money by the ethnically-biased powers. Now, however, the road offers stunning views into the hillside patchworked with crops before peaking onto breathtaking views of Lake Kivu.

The interaction between the lake and the land is quite different than the beach-front town of Gisenyi. In Kibuye, the water intermingles with mountainous peninsulas of land and offers a different vantage point at every turn. Stopping for a traditional ex-pat lunch of brochettes and chips we found ourselves with a side of breathtaking views of our weekend destination. We quickly found accommodations at a local Presbyterian-run hotel and with that calming views of the lake and the impending sunset. An impromptu swim in the crystal-clear waters of the lake left us happy to settle in for cards and dinner—quite the peaceful start to our weekend away from the city.

The next morning I awoke before sunrise and set out on the one-way loop with my new roommate and colleague Yvonne to attend the local sunrise mass. We realized that the service would be primarily in Kinyarwanda, but the local church in Kibuye was a massacre site to more than 11,000 Tutsis and Tutsi supporters during the genocide, and stands in stark contrast to many of the other genocide sites. As opposed to holding the remains of the victims, the survivors in Kibuye chose to refurbish the church, replace its stained glass, and make it a living memorial to those who lost their lives within the sanctuary’s walls. Though Yvonne and I were eager for the experience of the service, we weren’t terribly disappointed when we arrived at six in the morning to realize that the Sunday service began at eight. As opposed to fretting about our spoiled plans, we took this opportunity to explore the church in peace and even climbed the campanile to take in sunrise views of Lake Kivu.

Deciding to take advantage of the early morning and the light, we began walking down the one-way loop road that winds throughout Kibuye to see the sights of the small but busy town. Chickens, goats, and a variety of birds greeted us along the way, but the highlight of our stroll was a chance to see the fishing boats come in from an evening of catching tilapia and sambasa on the lake.

We returned just in time for breakfast and our own boat ride to Amahoro Island. Amahoro means peace in Kinyarwanda and this island is a relaxing thirty-minute boat ride away from the shore. Aside from the stunning lake views, the island offers its visitors food, volleyball, and the chance to swim freely in what is one of the largest lakes, by volume, in the world. Shortly after arriving on the island I couldn’t resist hopping into the lake and swimming around the perimeter of Amahoro’s peaceful shores. The hour-long swim offered another perspective and vantage point of the mountains of Rwanda and the bordering DRC that punctuate the lakeside skyline. After drying off we relaxed on the beach and walked around the island before taking the boat back to the mainland.

Though we were sad to leave our lakeside destination we felt rested after our day of peace on the island of the same name. Of course we encountered a few bumps along the way, but overall the road trip was characterized by a relaxed attitude that is often a challenge for me to adopt. Part of our relaxation was undoubtedly due to the beautiful vistas and calming sounds of the lake lapping against the volcanic shoreline. But a part of me couldn’t help but think that this sense of peace came from a realization of the conflict and turmoil that characterizes Kibuye’s past, and the stark contrast of the calm that characterizes the city present day. Though no one will ever forget what happened in Kibuye in 1994, the present-day calm that permeates this scenic lakeside retreat is only rivaled by the inner peace it brings its visitors. For in Kibuye, even the most tightly wound individuals (namely myself) can find tranquility within the moment along its peaceful shores. Amahoro.