Monday, June 15, 2009

Rwandan Genocide, Happy Boy with One Arm, Taxi Kidnappings, and Meeting the Head of State—A Week In the Life

Written Sunday night

I’m going to try and sum up what has been happening since I arrived in Kigali. Side note-watching a riveting documentary right now on Burkina Faso at my new hostel, the Hilltop country club. As I type, everyone else is watching the Confed Cup, drinking beers.

So I arrived in Kigali exactly one week ago today. We arrived at dusk, but even then the hills, valleys, and mountains of this breathtakingly beautiful country were evident thanks to the lights that illuminated their peaks. I smell diesel and campfire, where locals burn charcoal to cook peeled corn and banana, a fruit Kigali’s eat more like a vegetable staple. But we (at the hostels) get beef.

As I type, the internet connection is very shoddy and I have difficulty accessing Gmail and YouTube; also had to hang up on a Skype conversation with my dad because of the instability of the wireless. This is to say that I am aware the video tease of the youths playing soccer was nothing more. Indeed, after over an hour and a half of waiting for the clip to download, the page froze. Trying to re-scale the image in Final Cut to a smaller resolution was also fruitless. It is a pity I cannot—yet—share the beauty of the OLPC project, the country, and the youth with you.

Other memorable aspects of the first night is the abundance of motos, or cheap dirt bikes that act as registered taxis and zip around the city with local human cargo, and as of late, many of the OLPC corps members. The price of the motos is 400 Franks instead of about 1,500 for a regular taxi, one of which had a driver that locked the doors to our taxi and began to drive off after we refused to give him the absurb 3,000 Franks he incoherently demanded. Luckily, my male group member John opened his door before the driver locked ours and we were able to leave the car in one piece. That happened 2 days ago. Excuse the lack of fluidity in this blog, as I’m trying to recall the events of the last 7 days from a discombobulated set of memories in my mind.

My room was comprised of a bed, a desk, and a bathroom. The bathroom has a regular toilet and an enclosed area comprised of a ridge to prevent water from spilling out on the floor from the showerhead, which only works when it wants.

For me, Sunday night ends around 12 30 AM when the dogs, wolves, or coyotes bark at the full moon and Monday morning begins around 3 AM when the rooster begins his relentless cock-a-doodle-doo.

Monday through Friday went by fast, as we were so busy working at the Kigali Institute for Science and Technology (KIST) on configuring our servers, taking apart our XO’s, getting to know each other, and eating up the words of Nicolas Negroponte, the CEO of OLPC who spoke during the gala events with government officials commemorating the Rwandan government for their multi-million dollar commitment to laptops. Since 2005, the Rwandan government has purchased millions of laptops and hope, by 2020, to achieve literally one laptop per child in the country, a strategic move aimed at jump-starting the Rwandan economy by making it IT, intelligence, and knowledge-centric and by investing in the densest human capital of the country: the children, a demographic that makes up an astonishing 66% of the country, that figure partly being aided by the thousands of orphaned children left behind after genocide. The events of were meant to celebrate the opening of the tentatively-named ‘Center for Laptops and Learning’ at the KIST and the continuation of OLPC in Rwanda.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame was there. I met him. He’s an articulate, serious, warm, and sophisticated man who was the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front that fought the Rwandan military death squad during the civil warm in 1990-1994 before the April genocide.

After the event, we watched a traditional dance and some of use spoke candidly and under the influence about the ‘constructivist’ OLPC philosophy that Negroponte so fervently preached: give each child a laptop so they can teach themselves how to learn, revolutionize the way learning is taught. Although we know we are lucky to be given such a tremendous opportunity, we also realize that we are a trial, a group of guinea pigs, the workers who teach after Negroponte preaches that education in Africa—and the rest of the developing world—is fundamentally flawed. Despite the colonial parallel, this program is miraculous. Free laptops to children in rural areas and a focus on acquiring internet allows means that students work with local NGO’s to establish electricity and internet connectivity in these areas, as well as work on basic needs such as plumbing and irrigation. In some small and are developing Africa.

A few days ago I went with other students to a school here in Africa that has had laptops for a year but has had little success in integrating them into the school system. We went as a trial run for our individual country deployments and also to re-train the teachers with the laptops so they can use them in class. This is challenging and rewarding. Upon arrival, I noticed the blackboards were full of English-language lessons, from how to be a disciplined brother or sister to how to protect the environment, to paying taxes as a good citizen. The schools introduced English only last year from the Ikinirwandan ethnic tongue (the only in the country—a lonely statistic in the rest of the continent) and French, which the teachers speak fluently (Belgium colonized the country after Germany until independence in 1961) but the children do not. We had to speak very slowly.

After the workshop, where I taught the teachers, aged 22-46, how to use the mesh network, record and video functions, and chat, I couldn’t resist playing ball with the kids outside, who were so sweet and welcoming, despite our conversation being lost in translation. That is the video I am still trying to upload. One of the children wh was running around with a smile from ear to ear had no arm. I didn’t ask. Another local passing by on his bike with donuts spoke to me in broken English. He had to peddle 5 more hours to his destination. These people are so resilient.

Yesterday we went to a few museums, the exiled King’s hut, and to a restaurant where we ate traditional food and played chicken fights in the swimming pool after a Ghanaian was the first to jump in. It was a lot of fun. During the drive, we got to see rural Rwanda, a country with a 60% unemployment rate, more people on the street than in cars, women carrying products on their heads, and very traditional clothes still adorning people who are most likely very poor. Aesthetically, the country is marvelous and plush, the people warm and welcoming.

Today was the genocide museum in Kigali and a ride by Hotel Rwanda, which is the hotel that the Hollywood blockbuster was made in honor of, but doesn’t actually go by that name. The museum experience was so evocative. Commemorating the one million Tutsi Rwandans and moderate Hutu’s who were slashed, murdered, raped, and piled atop each other in ditches and mass graves like in Nazi Germany, the museum sits atop graves of a quarter million of those people, surrounded by a garden so beautiful and vivacious that it’s hard to imagine how many skulls lie beneath.

There was a childrens room that had about 60 case studies of infants and children who were killed during the genocide. That, along with the bones room, was one of the most difficult parts of the museum tour because it had the child’s favorite food, most prominent characteristic, age, and cause of death, which acted as a gruesome juxtaposition to the sweet facts.

The rest of the museum was broken up into subsections of the history of Rwanda, how the Belgians separated the Tuti and Hutu and created the legacy of hate, segregation, and ethnic tensions in the country beginning in the 1920’s. Many of the other examples we saw of genocide in that museum (such as the Germans in the last part of the 19th century in Namibia) were also a consequence of ‘the white man.’ The most frustrating part was obviously the West’s complicity with evil: the Rwandan genocide. France’s involvement of supplying arms and training to the radical Rwandan militias was also appalling. But most of all, the blatant ignorance of a chilling warning cable sent to the UN by Canada’s UN armed forces General Romeo Dellaire with knowledge of the genocide thanks to an informant days before the atrocities is most despicable. He deserves a Nobel Peace Prize of his compassion for humanity and the psychological torment he now suffers because of his 'responsibility to protect'. Seeing a memorandum of the Cambodian, Yugoslav, and as recently as Rwandan genocides was evidence to the fact that all people came behave like animals, and even worse; what kind of animal species tries to obliterate their own race? It is also depressing that despite all the ‘Never Agains’ uttered by Kofi Annan and Madeline Albright, a genocide is happening right now in Darfur, with only recently the name of the Sudanese President being cited for crimes of genocide. Until very recently, Sudan continued to hold a deceptive and offensive seat in the UN.

Moments of goodness came with moderate Hutu’s who sheltered as many as 100 Tutsis from slaughter and the brave and resilient Paul Kagame.

It is now Monday morning. Half of the Africans on the corps team have malaria and combat fever and chills for days on end.

The group of students from all over the world—Quebec, US, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Namibia, Tanzania, Senegal, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Europe, Madagascar—is phenomenal and the people I've met along the way, Rwandan and other--you know who you are--are remarkable and have left an everlasting tattoo on my persona. Thank-you. This is just the beginning.

Today I go to teach the kids. Will write more tomorrow.



1 comment:

  1. What you write is amazing, astonishing and i guess, heart warming. It makes me happy to hear that there are truly people like you, who put others first.

    -Chris from Cambridge Eye [:-P]