To begin at the beginning, Public Health Border Control.  Yes, fresh off the plane from Amsterdam, before customs even, our temperatures were checked by hand with something aimed at the forehead of every arriving passenger.  Can’t trust those Dutch, you know.  All of Africa is taking Ebola very seriously right now.  We passed, were admitted into Rwanda through the shiny and very new Kigali airport, and were met by our friend Jimm who has been teaching there.  Most conveniently, he had just finished his contract and was free to be our semi-local guide.  He took great glee in gaining the locals’ discount, declaring himself to be Rwandan and showing his residence card.  Rwandans are, as you may surmise, black.  Jimm is as white as we get.  Everybody gets the joke and finds him amusing.  And gives him the locals’ price for his trekking permits.  Even at that, most Rwandans couldn’t afford to do many of the things we did in their gorgeous National Parks.

Local Wheels

Local Wheels

We chose to rent a car from a friend of a friend of our friend (cash and a handshake) and drive ourselves, being the middle ground between inexpensive, reliable but not entirely convenient, and mighty uncomfortable public transit and a wildly expensive but comfortable organized tour.  Mzungus ~that is, white people~ almost invariably arrive at the airport, are collected into a Land Cruiser by their tour guides and drivers, and are seen in them exclusively.  Yes, like our last safari.  Don’t get me wrong; that is an awesome way to go.  But we were up for a different sort of adventure this time.  The kind that earns double-takes, stares, and frantic waving and smiling from nearly every child we passed.

The first morning we spent visiting Jimm’s school, learning about Rwanda, and having lunch with the students.  In the afternoon, we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center.  As I’ve written about previously, it’s a hard thing to understand.  The museum is very well-done, very informative, everything posted in French, Kinyarwanda, and English.  There is a memorial room where people are welcome to post photos of their loved ones killed in the genocide.  The piece that touched me the most was a written note, from a girl to the aunt she never met.  It said she knew the woman had dreams she was never able to fulfill, but the girl herself has so many things she intends to accomplish, she hopes one of them will be her aunt’s dream as well.  Rwandans are a people looking to the future.

After a lovely dinner at the highly rated Heaven with a colleague and two fellow hockey players, we were back to Jimm’s for the night.  The Hollywood-romantic mosquito netting over the beds is absolutely necessary.  Jimm says they arrive in unpredictable waves, annoying but as of currently, non-malarial within Kigali.  We’re taking the Doxycycline nonetheless.  And burning mosquito coils.  <lightbulb> The downstairs renters at home who burn incense like freaking hippies? Not incense, mosquito coils!  #3rdWorldSimilarities

Oh, here’s a curious thing.  Electricity is prepaid by a scratch-off card with a number which is entered into the meter in some fashion.  Jimm was never privy to that process, it being someone else’s job to do it.  Internet can be bought the same way.  Used in conjunction with a cellular modem, the hidden code is entered on-line.  It’s a bit unclear how one does this for the first time.  Jimm did say the “unlimited” internet is good for a week… unless you use it up.  He got nowhere debating the meaning of “unlimited.”  The real trouble was his inability to commence a new week’s service from a new scratch-off card because the seven days of the old one had not passed.  Having learned that lesson, he became more watchful of his data usage, much less YouTube.  Another interesting facet of ex-pat life there: when foreigners take up residence, they are expected to employ a certain number of staff ~cooking, cleaning, security guard, that sort of thing~ to support the local economy.  For a bachelor working full-time, having someone do the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and laundry for a reasonable sum is a pretty good deal.  However, his first ‘girl’ had married and moved to her husband’s family home, never to be seen again.  The new ‘girl’ seemed aware that he was leaving soon and was beginning to slack.  She normally kept the kitchen stocked with fruit, but having been given the usual money, there was no fresh fruit in appearance.  Nor was she, even without the knowledge that he would not be needing her to cook for him this week.  Good help is hard to find everywhere, I suppose.

1000 Hills... at least!

1000 Hills… at least!

So, we packed up the car and Jimm performed the full-contact driving to get us out of the big city.  But after that, traffic was light, the roads excellent  ~thanks to the Chinese investing heavily and sending their engineers overseas to oversee, the highways are better quality and more pleasant to drive than the autostrade here~ and the kilometers rolled by, taking us into the jungle of Nyungwe National Park in the south-west corner of the country.

To be continued…

Roadside Greeter: L'Hoest's Monkey

Roadside Greeter: L’Hoest’s Monkey

Rwanda: 1st Impressions

We’ll get to the gorillas later, and the Golden Monkeys and the chimpanzees and the mangabeys and the Colobuses… Colobi?… I want to start with the people.

Rwanda has another horror story to be filed under “If it happened to them, it could happen to you,” like the story of Nazi Germany.  I recommend you google and read a thorough account of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.  It’s difficult to wrap the mind around.  500,000 – 1,000,000 Rwandans were slaughtered by their fellow citizens in 3 months.  It’s a story of favoritism, propaganda, paranoia, xenophobia, and pack mentality.  Also mass insanity and almost indescribable blood-lust.

It happened.  It was horrific.  But the beauty of the story is Rwanda today.  The perpetrators ~ les genocidaires ~ who fled the country in fear were forcibly repatriated.  The worst stood trial and were sentenced.  But the rest were expected to rejoin society, to be Rwandan with the rest of the nation.  It was too expensive and pointless to attempt to punish everyone who participated.  People live and work, side by side, with those who put the machete to their parents, siblings, and children.  It was only twenty years ago.

Right now Rwanda is a shining star in Africa.  President Kagame’s emphasis on communication and education, in conjunction with international aid, is building Rwanda for the future.  The monthly day of service (clean up) for all citizens in the capitol builds community and pride.  They are constantly sweeping and mopping homes and businesses to keep the dirt streets’ dust at bay.  The national ban on plastic shopping bags makes a remarkable difference in the cleanliness of the land.  Perhaps those awful decaying bags which festoon the trees and fences in other emerging countries are gateway garbage.  It’s noticeable.  Trash stands out rather than composing the background.  Rwanda is clean.  Maybe cleanliness is indeed next to godliness.  The genocide drew acute attention to this country over the chronic needs of its neighbors.  Christian organizations do tremendous amounts of good work.  Rwandans see them as the ones who come to stay, to really help.  The desire to thrive in peace is so very evident, businesses from hair salons to guest houses called Peace in both English and Kinyarwanda are in every town.  While there is plenty of sittin’ around, watchin’ the day go by, the roads are lined with people, everywhere, walking somewhere, pushing heavily laden bicycles or carrying burdens up on their heads.  Curiously, bicycles are strictly for boys and men while top o’ the head carrying is almost exclusively a thing done by girls and women.  Out of necessity, their posture is amazing.  I’m thinking of taking it up myself, as if the locals in my own town don’t stare enough already.

The people we met were invariably friendly and curious.  Also beautiful, strikingly so.  The underwater hockey team, which our friend started in Kigali, was so tickled to have us turn out to practice with them.  Those big, bright smiles will stay with me forever.  The students at our friend’s school were like teenagers anywhere, yet maturely focused on their precious opportunity to go abroad for university and bring that education back to Rwanda.  The national language was changed from French ~left by colonial Belgium~ to English in order to prepare for interaction with the larger world.

P1020903 P1020924 P1020929 P1020933 P1020931 P1020949 P1020958

Currently, Rwanda is lead by a … strict father in President Kagame.  Some would use less generous descriptors for his style.  But he has accomplished great things for the country and the people when such leadership was necessary.  Of course more freedom is good ~I’m American, after all~ but they needed that leadership then and may need it still.  It would break my heart to see this growing, emerging, beautiful civilization fall to ruin if put into gentler hands too soon.

Into the Mist

She is a hero to me.  Obviously not for being a loner, a so-called racist ~I suspect she was just a misanthrope~ or possibly mad (some would say I’m well on my way to all of these myself), but for having found her calling and giving her whole being to it.  She made a world of difference.  This world, our world, has mountain gorillas surviving in it only because Dian Fossey lived for them.  Died for them.


Ms. Fossey told her story in the book Gorillas in the Mist, which was made into a compelling movie starring Sigourney Weaver.  I watched it again recently.  It’s heart-breaking and shameful how close we came to destroying them.  They still exist on the razor’s edge.

But now, almost 30 years later, Rwanda values its gorillas just as they are, wild and free.  Tourism is allowed, tightly controlled, and expensive.  Each family group is visited by one small group of tourists daily.  For one hour, no more.  The traditional naming ceremony of human children ~Kwita Izina~ is performed annually, publicly, and officially sanctioned, for each new gorilla infant born in the wild.  In 2014, there were 18.  Represented by a human child in costume, the infant is introduced to the citizenry and named.  The psychology of this is profound.  It takes gorillas from being distant creatures, with no greater purpose than exploitation through poaching and sale, to individual beings… with names… living in families like our own.  And the children who stand-in for the young gorillas, symbolically bearing those names?  Woe betide the poacher who wants to butcher their gorillas.

We are going to meet some of those gorillas this month, in their wild home.  Ms. Fossey gave them a second chance when they were doomed.  Their numbers have doubled since the 1980s, but 880 mountain gorillas aren’t many at all.  Poaching still happens.  Diseases ravage.  Their rain forest home is eaten away by “progress” and its by-products.  I am honored to have the privilege to see them now, while there is still hope for them.  And if we can manage to share the world with them, maybe there is hope for us as well.


Carefully Taught

There is a family I want to highlight because the little girl is already so compassionate and non-judgmental that she will certainly grow into an amazing adult and probably do remarkable things.  I doubt she would ever point and ask What’s wrong with that man? or turn away from a disfigured face or hate people simply because they’re different.  She is learning to see the heart of an individual and to love without regard to appearance.

There is so much hate, violence, and dehumanization burning in this world.  You can say it’s culture and history and poverty and huge and a juggernaut and institutionalized and irreparable and unstoppable.  But a child must be carefully taught.*  What if they weren’t?  What if a generation said, Enough!  Most of the atrocities committed by humanity are done by individuals following someone else.  Why can we not raise sons and daughters to stop following horrible people? Maybe it’s too complicated or too far outside my experience to understand, but I follow a man who lived in one of these historically “troubled” lands.  He has been described like this:

A radical, non-violent, revolutionary who hung around with lepers, hookers, and crooks; wasn’t American and never spoke English; was anti-wealth, anti-death penalty, anti-public prayer; but was never anti-gay, never mentioned abortion or birth control, never called the poor lazy, never justified torture, never fought for tax cuts for the wealthiest Nazarenes, never asked a leper for a copay; and was a long-haired, brown-skinned, homeless, community-organizing anti-slut-shaming middle eastern Jew    (~John Fugelsang)

Maybe it’s a stretch from a little girl who kisses her faceless cat (yes, Chase is hard to look at the first time, but she’s not in pain and has lived 9 years like this with her wonderful family) to the man Jesus to an outbreak of peace in humanity.  But change will never begin with those who already have the power.  There must be a better way than passing it from those who had the most guns to those who have the biggest rockets.  Society must change; that change can only begin with the character of the individual members of it.  Every one of us.


*You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

We’ve made some progress since Rodgers&Hammerstein penned this in 1949, but not nearly enough.  I’m afraid it’s as true and as sad as ever, even with a catchy tune.

More Stories From the 19th Century

Recently I wrote about the warm-fuzzy quaintness of it all, sun-dried linens and doctors’ house calls.  But there are two sides to every coin.

This first story is laughable only because it ends well (and didn’t happen to me), being a scenario of such jaw-dropping conceit as to leave one bug-eyed and gaping.  It took seven years of semi-annual pilgrimages to a Florentine criminal court, criminal not civil, to resolve the matter, but in the end wisdom and reason won out.  My friend was acquitted of the felony.  Huzzah!  He is not in danger of losing his job, as he could have been.  Sounds quite serious, no?  To begin with, my friend did not do the thing of which he was accused.  Although no one in the civilized world would have blamed him.  If you were riding your bike in a reasonable manner and were struck by an automobile, mightn’t you disparage the driver, his character, and possibly his ancestry?  Fortunately, the complaint included direct quotes in the local ~and antiquated~ dialect, which my English friend would not have had the personal wherewithal to utter in the most composed of circumstances.  Dear Reader, do not suppose my mind is wandering.  I did say felony, yes?  Yes.  To insult a man’s honor is a felony in Italy.  Full stop. <reflect on this for a moment>

The second story is tragic.  It is also quite disturbing because it begins with the most common and joyful scenario in the world:  birth.  A friend, an Italian, younger than we, smart and modern, was married a few years ago.  They were expecting their first child, first two in fact.  They would have twins.  The babies were delivered by caesarian section, not an unusual procedure.  I entered the world in the same fashion over forty years ago with a mother nearly forty years old herself.  But this was in an Italian hospital, in the north even.  One month later, our friend’s young wife and new mother died from septicemia resulting from the operation.

It’s such a shock that I have no words.  Except to honor her life and his loss, to anyone who believes that living here is a gelato-filled dream, I tell you everyone has troubles, but it’s a real kick in the teeth if you believe we’re beyond those of the Victorian Age.

Previous Older Entries


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 100 other followers