Tag Archives: kigali

Welcome home.

Wednesday, November 9.

[N.B. – In the usual messy spirit of this blog, I’m fast-forwarding a few weeks, as I still try to cope with the terrible backlog of things I’d like to write about Kenya. Below are some thoughts since arriving in Rwanda this week. In the days and weeks ahead, I’ll continue to fill in the blanks from Kenya in my typical, shitty, roughshod way. Thanks for bearing with me.]

You know you are back before you’ve even hit the tarmac, because the hills outside the window are green and seem to go on forever. You remember the phrase you heard before, how they called this place “God’s country.” Kenya is far behind you now; if you flew over the endless tree-freckled plains of the Maasai Mara, or the great silver saucepan of Lake Victoria, you can hardly remember. The world beneath you is lush, abundant, and you’re flying close enough now to make out the tiny figures of motorbikes and bicycles moving over dirt roads, the flash of sunlight on tin roofs. Banana plants, palm trees, the little hilltop shambas of manioc and taro and maize. The green quiltwork of a land cultivated to within an inch of its life. The pilot announces your first descent, into Bujumbura: the flight is a puddle-jumper, passengers hop on and off along the route from Nairobi to Buja to Kigali and then back to Nairobi, like a matatu. Lake Tanganyika, fingers of land jutting into it, the mountains of eastern Congo like a man who took his last tired steps and slumped onto his side. On the tarmac you pick up a WiFi signal. The second “u” in Bujumbura hangs crookedly from the terminal. There is a door for departures and a door for arrivals and a door into the salon d’honneur, for VIPs. A dapper man sits beside you, he has an Afro and a pair of flared plaid pants, a spiritual descendant of Fela Kuti, some Highlife legend. His accent is posh, he is visiting from Oxford. Family? Friends? The rural health clinic he founded? He doesn’t say. You try to place this man in your mental geography of the region. Perhaps his parents fled the ethnic pogroms of the ‘60s. Or were killed: he was raised an orphan in the UK. Some sympathetic, church-going retirees took him in, gave him the best of everything. He’s come back to discover his roots, to find some lost sibling, long thought dead. Or is visiting the parents who are, in fact, still alive. They had fled to Kigali, to Zaire. His father had worked in the Belgian consulate. His father was a prince. You cannot imagine this black man with a BBC accent being a casual tourist. To Burundi, of all places. This little forgotten country in the troubled heart of a troubled region. Last year the opposition parties boycotted the presidential elections; Agathon Rwasa, the leader of the last of the rebel groups, just went and disappeared. Rumors that he is hiding out in the dense, lawless forests of eastern Congo, that the FLN is regrouping, planning to reignite the civil war that destroyed this country. A few weeks ago there was a massacre in a border town, more than 30 people shot dead by soldiers in Congolese army uniforms. A witness said they were given instructions, “Make sure there’s no survivors.” To leave not a trace, no eyes to bear witness and record and remember. Memory in these parts is a dangerous thing.

We lift off again, adieu, adieu, Burundi, à la prochaine fois, dear heart. It takes 30 minutes to pass through the looking glass, to cross the imaginary line that divides two countries which share so much and so little. Dysfunctional Burundi, slouching toward another war, its great open-hearted people held hostage by kleptomaniacs and thugs; and now Rwanda, the West’s darling, the land of a thousand hills and a million miracles, of 8% annual growth, a marvel in boardrooms, on spreadsheets, a land that when I close my eyes to picture it resembles a clenched fist. The sky is blue, dazzling, as we coast onto the runway: the very heavens seem to be smiling on Kigali. A battalion of blue-capped peacekeepers, South African flags stitched to their fatigues, is waiting in single file on the tarmac. They’re holding flipcams and pointing cameras at us, maybe getting some cheap, prosaic thrill out of the simple fact of our existence, their senses scrubbed dull by long, hard months in the Congo. A Europair plane is waiting for them. Their very souls seem rumpled, worn. Off they go, homeward bound, back to Johannesburg and Nelspruit and Port Elizabeth, to the families who have sung Sunday hymns for them, to mothers who have bent on creaking knees, Lord Jesus, please, bring that one back in one piece. A man beside me, his suit double-breasted, his face double-chinned, carries a leather bag with a nametag that reads, Hon. J.B. Dauda, Foreign Minister, Sierra Leone. Another, fedora’d, speaking elegant French into his cellphone, holds a garment bag that says Francesco Armmani. Inside, the terminal has hardly changed. The immigration official is lean and frank and cheerless. The woman at the forex bureau is reading the Bible. A Rwandair billboard on the street outside says, Ikeze Iwacu: Welcome Home.

I am told that I once spent nearly six months living in Kigali, though this seems hard to believe. From June-December 2009, I rented a room in a beautiful house in Remera, a three-bedroom with a small garden and a lovely hillside location that faced the morning sun. The house had high ceilings and the common rooms were flooded with sunlight; of the grainy memories I have of that time, what I remember best is writing at the dining room with my morning coffee, the garden full of birdsong, the cries of children floating up from the valley. The mornings were tranquil, but it was a busy house: turnaround in Kigali is especially high, and every few months, there seemed to be a new face smiling at me in the kitchen as I wiped the sleep from my eyes. We’ve mostly stayed in touch: Lydia, an American, her laugh like automatic gunfire, now mulling a move to South Africa; Kari, who returned to the great wild wilderness of Alberta (me, qua New Yorker, imagining all of Canada between Toronto and Vancouver as great and wild); Francesca, who had come to Kigali with her boyfriend, whose compass poles never quite aligned with African life, now back in Italy, safely on the other side of the Mediterranean. I remember the musical sound of her voice as she and Pietro chattered over coffee in the evening, rehashing the day’s highs and lows. For a long while it was a strong conviction of mine that every house should come with its own pair of Italians.

Fond memories, but perhaps I’m mentally varnishing that period of my life, giving it an unnatural shine. In many ways, those were low months for me: I was broke, anxious, my career was going nowhere. Just a couple of months ago in Cape Town, visiting an old Kigali friend, I was reminded just how unhappy, how unsure of my footing, I was. (This was long before Harper’s and Conde Nast Traveler, before The New York Times.) It is hard to remember now how the days and weeks passed, the mileage I accrued on the backs of motos whisking me from Remera to Kimihurura to UTC. Little writing survives from that time; no doubt my Gmail archive is crowded with the futile pitches I sent to countless editors, emails that were sent and resent and always unreturned. Struggling to recreate those months, I’ve consulted a certain Delphic document, known only as “spent.doc,” in which I’ve been filing my daily expenses for the past three years. But here my cryptic notes leave few crumbs; whole days are recorded as little more than moto, moto, coffee, moto, beer, beer, moto. Perhaps this is revealing in its own way. But what fears, what abiding passions guided me through those months, grasping toward some distant fulfillment, have been buried by the steady passage of time.

And here is Kigali now, the hills knuckling under a cloudless sky, the airport road smooth as a pool table. The median is planted with palm trees, a long, leafy colonnade, as neatly manicured as Versailles. (Later in the week, briskly crossing one such median at night, I’ll be tsk-tsk’d by a Rwandan woman: walking on the grass, she says, is against the law.) The city has been growing, new construction projects flank the road, the rickety wooden scaffolding, the blue reflective windows much-loved in this part of the world. Sun Rise House, Agaseke House. The distant skyline of the city center, the swooping necks of construction cranes, new office buildings which could’ve been transplanted from Dubai. The phallic thrust of City Tower. “You can see it is changing,” my taxi driver says, chuckling, no doubt attuned to the Western platitudes we whites always utter upon setting foot in this, the great “African success story.” (Remembering here the memorable story about President Kagame, after a speech to a crowded auditorium in Boston, snapping at the young man who had praised him for the safety and cleanliness of Kigali. “What did you expect?” said Kagame. “That we are dirty and live like savages?”) Passing through Remera, Chez Lando, the Ndoli’s supermarket I trudged up the hill towards, shopping bag clinking with empty beer bottles. And then clinking again as I walked down the hill, the bottles now full.

There seems to be more traffic now in the city center, though perhaps it’s just my imagination: Rwanda, more than any country I know, breeds a certain kind of indoctrination. You believe in this country’s rapid growth and development partly because you see it, partly because you’ve been reading about the “Rwandan renaissance” for years. Past the Union Trade Centre another skyscraper nears completion. Then a corridor of bank towers, acres of blue glass, and a new city hall, still under construction, which looks roughly the size of the U.S. Capitol. In the afternoon, after I’ve checked into my hotel, after I’ve griped about the shitty value-for-money that, more than anything else, tells me I’m back in Rwanda, I have a coffee at the Serena Hotel. A peacebuilding symposium is in town, a UN-backed summit in which conference delegates look for ways to import the Rwandan-miracle model into their own shattered post-conflict countries. (Thus the morning’s tarmac’s Honorable Foreign Minister from Sierra Leone.) In the lobby, I manage to get my hands on a slick piece of propaganda for conference attendees, touting the 17th anniversary of Rwanda’s “liberation.” Glossy pictorials, fawning column inches. And then the obligatory tribute to the country’s Vision 2020, a computer-generated image of a futuristic downtown that looks less like Kigali than Kuala Lumpur. An American woman in a pantsuit, heels clicking briskly across the lobby, is calling out, “Ambassador! Ambassador!” Pragmatic faces at every table, a sense of handshake agreements, details to be ironed out, bold new partnerships being forged.

Above the reception desk, that familiar glower. His Excellency. The honorable and venerable P.K. I can think of no other country which has been so totally and swiftly forged in the smithy of one man’s will. You can imagine him sitting at his executive desk beneath a picture of himself; his face is hard, frank, practical. Consultants, advisors, multi-national supplicants come and go, bent at the waist, obsequious, bearing contracts and promises and opium visions, like Coleridge’s Kublai Khan. I’m reminded of stories I heard about apartheid South Africa, an isolated nation whose people were nevertheless eager to adopt any new technology, tinker with it, try it on for size. Yearning to be a part of the wider world. And so it is in Kigali, where a sign outside the Kenya Airways office in town touts the latest fares to Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Dubai. Bureaucracies have been trimmed and streamlined. Starting a business in Rwanda is roughly as expensive and time-consuming as ordering a cup of coffee. (An informative exercise is to compare that same process in other countries, such as, say, Nigeria.) A friend, a health care worker, tells me how a study had been brought to the Health Ministry’s attention last year, showing the causal relationship between bare feet and certain species of worms. Within days, the government had passed legislation requiring all Rwandans to wear shoes; it was around this time that I, much mystified, noticed the proliferation of cheap, plastic, primary-colored sandals around the countryside. “If we do a study, and we can prove something works, the government will pass legislation next week,” my friend says to me.

We are eating pizza and drinking magnums of Rwandan beer at Sol e Luna. My old house is just down the hill, a five-minute walk. The lights on the hillside are winking; somewhere far below us, we can hear children’s laughter, a stray dog howling at a near-full moon. The night air is bracing, and I feel a brief, sharp pang for the tidy little autocracy I once called home. How lovely and simple life can be here, for those gifted and blessed enough to have forex in their bank account. Around us the tables are full of white diners (another, less flattering, reminder of South Africa creeps into my mind). I wonder, often, about this Rwandan renaissance. The country’s leaders are certainly speeding ahead; often, though, you get the sense that Rwandans themselves are struggling to keep up. I recount at the dinner table a conversation I’d had earlier in the day, with a journalist friend and a young businesswoman from Kenya. She was looking to start an IT firm in Kigali, but had found the country still lagging far behind its glossy reputation. It was easy to start a business here, but there was still a terrific shortage in qualified manpower. In all likelihood she’d have to bring skilled workers from Nairobi, then hire and train a Rwandan manager who could help bridge the language and culture gaps. The much-lauded ICT infrastructure was still primitive; even the power supply was terribly unreliable.

Almost on cue, the hill across the valley goes dark. “Like a Christmas tree,” my friend says. We sit there staring out at the darkness; closer to us the houses glow like pearls of light, cars curve along bends in a road lit like a seam of gold. For a few moments I remember the frustrations of living in Kigali, the cursed Remera house where the power was spotty, where we would often go days without water. But the reverie doesn’t last; the lights are back on almost as soon as they’d vanished. The city is back in business.

The weather is not good for them.

Editor’s note: This is the twelfth in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 12 – April 1

Coffee, again, at the Hotel du Lac. After yesterday’s catastrophic failures at the border, I’m oddly at peace with myself this morning. I’ve faced, I think, the worst of my demons. Today, my fate is in the hands of Etienne and Justin – both of whom had promised to lobby on my behalf throughout the night. For this first hour of what will turn out to be a grand April Fool’s joke on this particular April Fool, I can tell myself I’ve done about as much, so far, as I can possibly do.

In the deep end, in Cyangugu.

Justin calls just a few minutes after ten – he is on his way to Cyangugu. Soon we’re sitting together on the terrace of the Hotel du Lac, and he’s sharing the bad news. “I do not know what the problem is in Bukavu,” he says, shaking his head. South Kivu’s internal politics have been simmering; the province is a mess. The governor has been summoned to Kinshasa to explain himself. In Bukavu, the opposition is agitating for power. “They are trying to get the commandment of Bukavu,” says Justin. His uncle – some low-level cog, I suspect, in the ruling party machine – is afraid to cause trouble at such a critical moment for the party. Justin sighs. “The weather is not good for them,” he says. His uncle can’t step in on my behalf. Justin has done all he could.

When bad news comes, I prefer to take it all in one dose. By half-past ten, with still no word from Etienne, I decide to play what I suspect is my final card. Etienne’s voice is strained when he picks up the phone – I know the news is not good. The director in Goma has been trying his colleague in Bukavu throughout the night – still no answer. The message, for Etienne, is clear. “I think he is working with those men,” he says. His voice is deflated; my spirits sink. With the failure of this powerful maneuver, I know I’m out of options. Etienne wishes me luck with whatever I decide. “I’m sorry I have failed on my side,” he says.

Justin can see my mood has soured. He, too, is out of advice for me. With the door in Bukavu having slammed in my face, though, I’ve shifted from despair to resolve. It is hardly eleven; I can still make Gisenyi by nightfall. The day would be wasted – a grim daisy-chain of bumpy bus rides through the Rwandan hinterlands – but there’s nothing stopping me from strolling into Congo tomorrow morning. I share my plan with Justin. It’s clear this is the only way. Now I find myself trying to console him. He’s taken these past few days awfully hard. Though he knows better than I do the headaches and hurdles of life in the Congo, his pride in his country has been wounded. “It is a problem with Kabila,” he says. “A guest comes to knock on your door, you have to open first. This is not good politics.” He is not surprised, but still: the Congo has let him down.

With Justin, at the Hotel du Lac.

We embrace with great warmth – it is humbling how hard he and Etienne have lobbied for me – and say goodbye to the Hotel du Lac, to Cyangugu. I promise to keep him posted on my progress – despite the change in plans, I should still be in Bukavu some time next week – and off he goes, his bright white sneakers beating a path up the hill.

Now I’ve shifted into travel mode. It’s close to eleven: if I want to reach Gisenyi by nightfall, I probably should have left two hours ago. My mood is brisk. Money is exchanged – my stack of U.S. dollars has been dwindling all week – sweet loaves of ndazi bread are bought for the long journey, and soon I’m on the Horizon Bus to Kampala, by way of Kigali, the seats all but empty as we chug up the hill toward Kamembe.

Leaving Cyangugu, the bay glittering, sunlight glinting off the roofs in the slums of Bukavu, a powerful feeling catches in my throat. This has been a memorable week, and I’m oddly at peace as Bukavu disappears behind a bend in the road. For all the moronic waste of today’s journey, I don’t regret having come all this way only to be turned away at the border. Yesterday was educational; these, the border official might have said to me, are the facts of life. (Thinking of that legless man, the force of his shoulders, the short brisk strides and the powerful thrust of his walking stick. Thinking of the shrewd old woman wheeling her way uphill, the effrontery of that much put-upon face, the indignities of age, of her handicap, of the flesh.) A week from now I’ll be looking across the same bay, from the other side. A certain sense of dark comedy is, I suspect, a necessary survival skill in the Congo.

The bus is barreling now from Kamembe. Adieu, Faustin, Lazare! There are only five, six of us onboard, and I suspect this is an unscheduled journey – that the driver of the Kampala-Kigali line, in cahoots with some associates, has tacked on a side route for his own benefit. Why else would Horizon – a shuttle service between the major East African urban centers – Kigali, Kampala, Juba, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam – why would Horizon extend its route to Cyangugu, of all places? We stop along the way – sacks of charcoal, of potatoes, are tossed under the bus. Small money changes hands. Yes, this is probably a profitable racket. We stop in small towns – a solitary passenger, an old man with a battered suitcase, boards, smiles, looks around, settles fussily into a seat. In Ntidenzi, schoolgirls are skipping rope outside a primary school. They stop, smile, stare. Some classmates join them, everyone laughing and waving vigorously as we leave little Ntidenzi behind.

We pass for miles with nothing but tea plantations on either side of the road. Then a forest of blue gum trees – tall, slender, silver-barked, rocking in the wind. These you’ll find now all across Africa – non-indigenous, as native as yours truly. The blue gums grow quickly – it takes just five years, a man once told me, for a tree to reach maturity. In Rwanda, as in much of Africa, with its forests taxed by a rapidly growing population, these blue gums are planted to counter the effects of deforestation. In just a few years, a barren hill will be covered with trees – these become charcoal, firewood. But the effects, I’m told, will be disastrous. A South African farmer once described how quickly these selfish trees drink the water from the soil. The earth here is being depleted. But what else do you tell the villagers, who only know that they need these trees for survival?

Now we are entering Nyungwe Forest, the national park – the road cuts through one of Rwanda’s last pristine places. The mountains are covered in dense forest, lit by patches of sunlight. The climate changes. The clouds are low, rain begins to fall. Through the thick jungle cover we go, the trees draped with liana and creepers, vines hanging from the branches. It is a picture-book jungle, Curious George – the kind you see in cartoons with swinging monkeys and apes. It’s rare to see such wild places in Rwanda, with its carefully cultivated landscapes, its terraced hills. Thousands of years ago, the whole country must have looked like this. Our ancestors beating their chests and howling violently in the treetops. We stop. Villagers gather on the roadside, waiting for a lift. Somewhere in all that forest, still you find some settlements. They board, small bills clutched in their hands. Some wait – for a free ride, maybe, a passing friend. Others sell oranges, rough-husked fruits. In places we slow: a landslide has blocked part of the road. Piles of rock, mud, branches, sediment. A lorry passes, huffing slowly uphill and dragging a second trailer behind it. Across the windshield are the words, “Jesus is Life.”

Now the trees begin to thin, here and there you see hilltops denuded and trees stripped bare. Suddenly, more of those alien blue gums, and you know you are close to human populations again. The forest vanishes. Villages, small vegetable plots, farmers in their fields. The sunlight is bright – the clouds seem to hang over Nyungwe. Then more towns, bigger, rows of shops, banks. We are approaching Butare, and now we pass tourist hotels, cars, new constructions on the side of the road. You are impressed, coming out of the forest, to see the freshness and vitality of these towns. So much development along the road from Butare to Kigali. A difference from the neglected backwaters on the rough lake roads.

The day is growing long, too long. We are four, five hours out of Cyangugu – the landscape is monotonous. I read, doze off. We stop – dozens of secondary school students board. Suddenly the bus is full. Laughter, flirtations, the smell of body odor. The girl beside me reads from a book of hymnals. I close my eyes, open them, begin to count the mile markers. We pass rice paddies – scores of gacaca convicts, in their pink shirts and shorts, bending, working. More rainfall. The scene of an accident. A bicyclist, a prone body, on the side of the road; a bunch of bananas. My seat is hard, and I can’t find a way to arrange myself comfortably. Someone in front of me leans her head out the window and vomits. I close my eyes. When I open them, we’re in Kigali.

The city continues to grow on me – a place so sleepy and scrubbed that a friend once dubbed it “the Morgantown, West Virginia, of Africa.” But after two weeks upcountry it seems livelier, fresh, more boisterous than I remember. The streets are crowded, buses and motos, bodies dodging traffic, the rush-hour swarm. We reach Nyabugogo – craters, puddles like vast inland seas. It seems remarkable that a government which can lay hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cable across the country can’t build a decent fucking bus station. Women clutch at the hems of their dresses, step daintily. People waving, calling, an ecstasy of partings and reunions. The bus has finally stopped; outside, an angry crowd. They are going to Kampala – the bus, I suspect, is way behind schedule. We made terrible progress through the rain. Now they are thirsty for blood; we have to push our way through the crowds. I flag down a moto. On the back of the bike, weaving perilously through the traffic on my way to the Virunga Punctuel offices. The duffel bag is perched on my knee, my arm strains to keep it from pulling me off the bike.

The first bus is at half-past six; I have half an hour to kill. I am, in fairness, glad for the extra time. I stock up on samosas and congealed pizzas for the ride, make a bathroom run at the UTC. The place is packed – the crowds look so prosperous here. Cufflinks, sunglasses, high heels, earrings. Men who, if asked, would describe themselves simply as “businessmen.” So much noise and commotion, after the silence of the lake. As charmless as this place is, I realize how much I’m going to miss it: my thrice-weekly visits to Bourbon Coffee, my late-night runs to the 24-hour Nakumatt, the tall, slender university girls and preppily dressed boys strutting on their Friday-night promenades.

The feeling swells as our bus leaves Kigali, the lively streets, the constellations of lights strung across the hills. All day, since leaving Nyungwe, with the sun pouring its blessing on the hills and town after energetic town scrolling by, I’ve had an odd sense of faith in this country. In Kigali, too, with all the optimistic bustle, it struck me that maybe, for all my skepticism about reconciliation in Rwanda, this country really can pull through – that with enough jobs and development, enough growth trickling down to the collines, this country might actually get past the politics of genocide, divisionism, hate.

The optimism, this high feeling, catches in my throat. Along the road to Gisenyi, thinking about these past two weeks, I realize that I’ve never felt as strongly about Rwanda as I do right now. After all these months – stretching back to my first visit two years ago – Rwanda has finally grown on me.

Silently, I pour out my heart. The honeymoon is brief. An hour from the city, on a high backcountry road, the bus begins to rattle, a flat. This day – fittingly, April Fool’s – will never end. A lesser or more superstitious man might have gotten the cosmic hint and headed back to Kigali. We stand on the side of the road; the lights of the city cast a luminous dome over the hills. Together eight, ten of us stand in the mud, pushing against the side of the bus so the driver can remove the flat. The night is brisk. Men and women, villagers, appear, briefly passing through the headlights. An old man, short, friendly, greets me, shaking my hand. “Me hungery, me hungery,” he says, still smiling. I tell him I’m sorry, I have nothing; he laughs, shakes his head, wanders off. The road is pitched in darkness. I stand 20 feet behind the bus, staring at the stars, imagining myself all alone here, lost in the world. What a strange thing, this 21st-century soul. Bound to the earth. Wheeling around on our curious revolutions. Lassoed to an indifferent galaxy. Confronted on all sides by cosmic laughter. And believing ourselves somehow noble and brave and good.

Soon two bright headlights – an empty bus, sent to retrieve us and take us the rest of the way. We transfer our bags, settle into our seats. Everyone has arranged themselves in the same order from the first bus, and for some reason, this surprises and impresses me greatly. My window seat is vacant, waiting for my tired behind. I sit, bury my head in my hands, try to will the day to completion. There are too many twists in the road to nod off. Dark, silent towns pass in the night. We reach Ruhengeri – hotels, cheerful and welcoming; bars strung with Christmas lights. The moon comes out from behind the clouds. Mist fills the valleys. Mountains silhouetted against the light of the sky. This day has had some magic, too. The bus stops in villages left off the maps. People depart, walk stoically into the darkness. Men tug at their collars. Women kick off their heels, hoping to catch some sleep. Finally, Gisenyi.

It has taken close to twelve hours to get here from Cyangugu. Looked at differently: after nearly two weeks, I’m right back where I started. I slog down the road, surrounded by street kids – they are more aggressive, more demanding after dark. At my cheery little auberge, a group of young ex-pats, aid workers, most likely, looking blonde and convivial by the bar. A beer and a good lay – did Stanley have such simple hopes on his great African expeditions? But then the day’s final indignity: the rooms are all booked. As if Rwanda has prepared one last kick in the ass to send me into the Congo. I haul my bags back down the road, ignoring the catcalls of the street kids, thinking uncharitable thoughts about these goddamn orphans. A shifty youth greets me at the door of the grim Gisenyi City View Hotel, as disreputable a place as you’ll find in this lakeside resort town. We have to wake the manager, asleep in what will soon be my bed. He emerges from the room, sleepy, shirtless, smelling of booze. I am prepared to sleep in the garden if I have to. Then the lights go out.

I take out my flashlight, muttering, bickering, insulted that I’m paying close to fifteen U.S. bucks for this stuffy, wretched room. Briskly the sheets are changed, tidings for the night – good or otherwise – are exchanged. This long day is finally over. It’s approaching midnight as my head hits the pillow. It’s practically tomorrow already.

Springtime in Kigali.

It was the start of the rainy season, the days of wet-blanket heat finally broken by the first showers. The clouds blew in one evening – low, brooding, churning with distant thunder – and soon the storms followed. Broad curtains of rain draped across the hills of Kigali, shaking the blossoms from the trees and paving the streets with bougainvillea and frangipani and hibiscus.

This was two years ago, and on my first visit to Rwanda, I was struck, as most visitors are, by the capital’s loveliness. Anyone familiar with Africa’s great clamorous cities – the Nairobis and Lagoses, apparently designed to maximize chaos – quickly finds Kigali, with its orderly roundabouts and quaint green hills, to be an agreeable place. The rain only seemed to heighten its beauty. It sharpened the air, giving off a smell of earth and new life.

On a rainy afternoon I ducked into a small restaurant for lunch. After a few minutes a man gestured to an empty chair at my table and, introducing himself as John, asked to join me. He was a stocky thirty-something with a thick head and paunchy stomach. He ordered a coffee and leaned back in his chair, casually striking up a conversation. It seemed, at first glance, like the rote exchange you grow accustomed to as a traveler in Africa: questions about siblings, and the health of one’s parents, and one’s allegiance to a particular soccer club in the English Premier League. We talked about America – “I have good friends in Texas, and the Bronx,” he insisted – and then John began to twirl a spoon in his coffee and tell me about his life.

It was, by the region’s strange standards, a typical East African tale. Born in Burundi, after his family left Rwanda during the ethnic pogroms of the 1960s, he had spent much of his young life doggedly shuttling around the region. It was a time, after all, when many ethnic Hutus and Tutsis were fleeing ethnic violence, finding new homes in Tanzania and Uganda, in Kenya and Zaire. John told me that after studying in Uganda he came back to Rwanda in 1994, and then the year sat between us, gathering silence. Finally I asked, with strained innocence, what made him come back.

“It is very complicated,” he said, laughing nervously. He looked quickly over his shoulder – a look I would grow used to in Rwanda – and said, “You people, it is very hard to understand how it was for thirty years, before ’94.” He said it without malice, almost warmly – the way a father might sigh over the questions of a naïve son, knowing there are years of hard-earned knowledge between them.

He folded his hands on the table and started with the Belgian colonists, then the rising tide of anti-Tutsi sentiment, the violence – ’59, ’62 – and then the panicked flight. Suddenly he skipped ahead: it was 1994, and a tentative truce after three years of civil war was broken when President Habyarimana’s plane mysteriously crashed one April night. Hutu Power officials blamed the RPF; the RPF, in turn, suspected a Hutu plot to eliminate the president – his pursuit of peace was widely opposed by militant Hutus – and blame them for his death. Within hours Tutsis and Hutu moderates were targeted. For 100 days, the slaughter was relentless and widespread. John rapped his knuckles softly on the table.

“We came from Uganda,” he said, again jumping ahead, not giving any clues as to who “we” were or when “we” came. It was only as he described his movement south into the country that it became clear “we” were the RPF. I interrupted him.

“So you were a soldier with the RPF?”

“I was sort of like a teacher,” he said. “No, that’s not the word. I was telling people about the RPF, what we were doing.”

“You were a propagandist,” I offered.

“Yes,” he said. “That is the word.”

He jumped forward again, to the months after the genocide. Exiles who left Rwanda in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s – some, the sons and daughters of exiles, who had lived their whole lives abroad – come pouring into the country from across the region. Rwanda is devastated. Houses, businesses are vacant.

“If you came here in 1994,” John said, gesturing to the restaurant, “and the door is open and no one is here…” He chuckled, shaking his head. “Now it becomes your restaurant. And this happened all across the country. People came and took the first house they found.”

He described the chaos and confusion of those first post-genocide months, the manic scramble to reclaim a nation, and then his voice trailed off and he settled into silence. We sat and watched the sky beginning to clear, patches of blue shining through the clouds. It was impossible, in the short time since we met, to ask most of the questions I had. And then John, as if following the trail of my thoughts, leaned across the table. His eyes were bitter, but his voice sounded sorrowful, resigned.

“These people you see here,” he said, gesturing to the traffic on the sidewalk, “most of them have killed. It was everyone, so many people involved.” He shrugged his shoulders and placed his hands on the table, palms up. “What can you do now?”


Two years later, I still think of that encounter – a great stroke of luck, in retrospect; you don’t usually meet such candor at a crowded Kigali cafe. In many ways, John’s question – “What can you do now?” – has framed everything I’ve thought and written about Rwanda since. And it cuts to the heart of the question all of us – journalists, diplomats, do-gooders, and, ultimately, Rwandans themselves – continue to ask. Sixteen years later, we’re still collectively responding to the genocide. When I think of the spectacular growth around Kigali, or those miles of trenches laid with fiber-optic cable across the country, or the latest signs of a growing crackdown against the opposition, they all seem to be different ways to answer the question – for better or for worse – of how to deal with the legacy of 1994.

I’m writing these words – my last from Rwanda – on the sort of morning I’ve grown used to in Kigali. The air is cool, the birds are chattering in the trees; somewhere across the valley, the sounds of plows and earth-movers, pushing this country along toward Vision 2020. For all the troubling news from Kigali in recent weeks, it will always be these mornings I remember. (Funny and sad, too, to think that my fondest memories of Rwanda involve me, a sunny morning, a cup of coffee, and a laptop.) So much has changed in the past two years – Rwanda, and how I interpret and relate to it, is a very different place. And yet these mornings are a constant. It’s always springtime in Kigali.

Ten hours from now I’ll be arriving in Joburg – off we go, Rwanda, on our strange, separate journeys. Take care of yourselves, and the house you’ve built. And think of the words I had once heard in Burundi: “The future depends on how we treat each other.”

Things to do while your body falls apart.

A few weeks ago, just days before leaving Bujumbura, I lost a crown during an otherwise innocuous meal of stewed bananas and rice. It seemed like a dire omen. You know you’ve been in Africa too long when your first thought, upon spitting what looks like a tooth into your napkin, is, “Whose tooth is that?”

It was remedied easily enough with a visit to the dentist here in Kigali – the same dentist, incidentally, who treats His Honorable PK himself. Sadly, I couldn’t get a comment on the state of the Presidential Chompers. I was assured, however, that the president is “a very good patient” – no surprise to those of us who have endeared ourselves to the man’s winning smile through the years.

This kicked off a surreal three-week stretch where, instead of preparing for my impending trip to DRC, I’ve been in and out of doctors’ offices and pharmacies, having electrodes suction-cupped to my chest, offering up my plump juicy veins to the nearest needle, and searching for strange cocktails of prescription meds. This was not the triumphant, valedictory tour of Kigali I had in mind.

'What do you mean, do I have my insurance card on me?'

Part of me feels like I’m atoning for some forgotten sins committed on a booze-filled night in Bujumbura. Yet today, finally, I’m in good enough, patched-together shape to get the Chris Vourlias Fun Train back on the road. The only difference, of course, is that instead of enjoying a few weeks of free-spirited adventure in the wilds of eastern Congo, my top priority is to find a local witchdoctor who can work his juju to reverse whatever curse has been cast upon me.

So it goes. T.I.A.

My last thought before trundling off to the bus station comes from C.P. Cavafy, that beloved Hellenic bard, who always inspires me, after a prolonged spell of foot-dragging, to hit the road in search of my own Ithacas. The bags have been packed; the Chris Vourlias Memorial Traveling Library will be entrusted to the capable hands of my Honorary Custodian in Kigali; the laptop will be shut down for a well-deserved, 3-4 week sleep; and I, with just a few pens and pads in my backpack and a bundle of American bills wadded against my genitals, will be off in search of adventure. Kigali, it’s been swell. See you in Gisenyi.

by C.P. Cavafy

When you set out on the journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road be long,
full of adventures, full of knowledge.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
the raging Poseidon do not fear:
you’ll never find the likes of these on your way,
if lofty be your thoughts, if rare emotion
touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
the fierce Poseidon you’ll not encounter,
unless you carry them along within your soul,
unless your soul raises them before you.

Pray that the road be long;
that there be many a summer morning,
when with what delight, what joy,
you’ll enter into harbours yet unseen;
that you may stop at Phoenician emporia
and acquire all the fine wares,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
as many sensuous perfumes as you can;
that you may visit many an Egyptian city,
to learn and learn again from lettered men.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your final destination.
But do not rush the voyage in the least.
Better it last for many years;
and once you’re old, cast anchor on the isle,
rich with all you’ve gained along the way,
expecting not that Ithaca will give you wealth.

Ithaca gave you the wondrous voyage:
without her you’d never have set out.
But she has nothing to give you any more.

If then you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
As wise as you’ve become, with such experience, by now
you will have come to know what Ithacas really mean.


A few months ago I wrote about my friend Richard Soko, whose faithful postcards from Malawi had been inducing guilt-ridden heart palpitations in me for the better part of the past 18 months. Three weeks ago I received an email with the subject line above – an unexpected reply from Richard, who’d received the letter I sent from Burundi some three-plus weeks before. All things considered, it was an impressive showing by the central African postal networks, whose donkeys were undoubtedly whipped into high gear to ensure my letter made it to little Likoma Island before the solstice.

An unexpected hitch on the way to Malawi.

Below are the tidings from Richard:

Hie Christopher,
firstly i want to thanks our almighty father for keeping both of us fine

your letter kissed my palm on 23rd Feb 2010 evening and i was very excited to receive one from you my beloved one, thank you. fishing now is difficult since my fishing net is rotten, so am just doing some piece work to earn my family leaving.

likoma is having heavy rainfall that my thatched house is leaking only one bedroom is good which is used for my children, myself and a wife just standing untill the rain ends. chri, Likoma will have a community radio soon, since all equipment is available and hoped to have some internet cafe close to our markert. i have also a mobile phone and my number is +265 xxx xxx xxx

Receive greeting from my family wishing you all the best

Yours honestly


To read about the letter which “kissed [his] palm” almost reduced your intrepid reporter to tears. It has made me, too, look forward to hitting the road again in the weeks ahead, having indulged in the expat circle-jerk of Kigali nightlife enough since returning from Burundi to warrant a few long weeks in the bush. (For curious Rwandan security operatives: be sure to email me for the full itinerary!)

Hopefully, I can do enough triage blogging in the weeks ahead to give some real-time updates of my travels and travails in the Congo.

Lastly, I asked a Burundian friend how to say “I’ve done nothing wrong” in French, in anticipation of all the impending shakedowns from crooked Congolese cops. The best he could come up with was Je suis juste! To my francophone friends, I urge you to send some better suggestions.

How free is free?

In the latest misstep by opposition candidate Victoire Ingabire – whose political blunderings I commented on last week – the UDF-INKINGI is apparently backing down from its protests over the arrest of her assistant, Joseph Ntawangundi. Ms. Ingabire issued a press release over the weekend in which she seemed to confirm some of the troubling accusations made about Ntawangundi in recent weeks.

Since the arrest of Joseph Ntawangundi on 05th February 2010 and the subsequent incommunicado detention, UDF-INKINGI is conducting its own investigations. At this stage, troubling details about his curriculum vitae raise a certain amount of questions on the information he volunteered before the arrest. This has resulted in regrettable errors in our press release dated 05th February 2010.

Therefore we dissociate ourselves explicitly from the earlier records of his occupational environment, and call on serious investigations.

The press release in question, from February 5, strongly disputes the accusations made in the New Times, about Ntawangundi’s alleged crimes committed during the genocide, which it dismisses as “sheer lies.” So has new evidence come to light about Ntawangundi, prompting Ingabire to severe her ties? Or is she simply calculating that her former assistant is political dead weight? And really, if you’re a Rwandan opposition candidate with alleged FDLR links who’s returning to your country after 16 years in exile, shouldn’t you do a better job of vetting your closest aides? Anyone ask Ntawangundi for references?

Is Ingabire as harmless as this gay-ass campaign poster would have us believe?

The more I hear about Ingabire around town, the less credible I find her as a viable opposition candidate. (At least one reporter who has interviewed her described her to me as an “idiot.”) Her persistent refusal to answer questions related to her alleged links to the FDLR – including just who’s bankrolling her campaign – seem like the sort of politically expedient obfuscations of someone with something to hide. On a knee-jerk, free-speech level, I agree that her harassment by the Kagame government has been a bit unfair. But if she turns out to be the monstrous, ethnically divisive figure Kigali makes her out to be, is this really someone we should be defending?

Likewise, this otherwise excellent piece about Ingabire in Canada’s Globe and Mail misses a very important point by making her out to be some heroic, embattled figure, without acknowledging how controversial her candidacy is within Rwanda itself. How can you breezily write a sentence like this – “Ms. Ingabire says she doesn’t know how many Tutsis died in 1994, how many Hutus died, or even whether the number of Tutsi victims was larger than the number of Hutu victims.” – without mentioning that such a revisionist opinion contradicts a very large body of genocide scholarship? Should a journalist accept a statement like that at face value?

Our last bit of news today comes from the Ugandan Observer, which takes a few pot-shots at renegade Lt.-Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa, last seen with a hot hand at the craps table in Sun City. There’s little in this very one-sided piece to shed new light on the swirling conspiracy theories involving Kayumba, Col. Karegeya, the FDLR, the Elders of Zion, and the CIA, but at the very least (the very, very least), it offers a cogent reminder that you reap what you sow.

In desperation, Kayumba would turn to any ol' doofus for help.

Kayumba was one of the first architects of the RPF; according to a journalist I spoke to tonight, he continues to attract the loyalties of many in the Rwandan army, and is perceived as a definite threat to the Kigali regime. Yet for many years, he was as much a part of the Kagame junta as anyone in Rwanda. If the country has veered toward autocracy – “benevolent dictatorship,” if you prefer – under President Kagame, it was with Kayumba’s help. So whether he has indeed plotted against the state, or is simply being accused of the same by his former RPF buddies, it goes without saying that he’s had a hand in his eventual undoing. The state that he helped create is the state that now looks to devour him.

Q: How many masterminds does it take to plan a grenade attack?

The AFP reports that Rwandan authorities have “arrested a suspected mastermind of recent grenade attacks in the capital which injured 16 people this week and killed two others last month.”

Deo Mushayidi, a former member of the then rebel group Rwandan Patriotic Front that ended the 1994 genocide, was arrested in neighbouring Burundi.

“Deo Mushayidi, one of the main perpetrators of these acts, was arrested in Burundi and is currently in the hands if the police,” [Attorney General Martin] Ngoga told the state-run Radio Rwanda.

He said the police had “sufficient evidence” against the alleged mastermind, though he refused to speculate on what, exactly, qualified as “sufficient.”

In a disappointing twist, Mushayidi was not filmed by state TV in media plot, as with last month’s failed, er, “coup” in Bujumbura. But his arrest is a new wrinkle for those of us who have been following along with our grenade-attack scorecards at home.

February’s attacks, you’ll recall, were initially pinned on FDLR rebels, before the focus switched to two renegade RPF malcontents this week. Mushayidi now enters the picture as the latest arch-fiend who, as the government would have us believe, “belongs to a ‘network’ including fugitive Lt. Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa and exiled Col Patrick Karegeya which wants to cause ‘state insecurity,'” according to reports in the Rwanda News Agency.

Mushayidi: Is this egghead behind the recent Kigali attacks?

Though a late-comer to the recent unrest, Mushayidi is no stranger to the political scene here in Kigali. Allan Thompson, writing in The Media and the Rwanda Genocide, offers the following biographical snippet on Mushayidi, during his time as a journalist with the newspaper Imboni.

After Joseph Sebarenzi, the popular Tutsi speaker of Parliament, was forced to step down Imboni revealed the RPF’s behind-the-scenes role. The government then seized the journal and banned it. Following President Kagame’s attack on the paper, its two Tutsi journalists left the country: Deo Mushayidi (also president of the Rwandan Associations of Journalists) and Jason Muhayimana.

It was at that time, according to AFP, that Mushayidi “fled to Belgium in 2000 and joined several diaspora opposition groups and last year formed his own party.”

At this point the narrative splinters, depending on just who you want to believe. Mushayidi in exile was a vocal critic of the Kagame government, and became a frequent guest on both the BBC and the VOA. You can hear some of his criticisms of the Kagame regime here (in French, with half-assed English translations).

But the Rwanda News Agency reports that “Mr. Mushayidi allegedly fled with his partner Jason Muhayimana – who was publisher of the same newspaper, after members of the association management team started agitating for accountability of a yet-an unknown amount of funding from the UN agency UNESCO to support the Press House.” In effect, Mushayidi was said to be a crook. (President Kagame allegedly said of him at a press conference, “Don’t you know that Mushayidi ran away with money of his colleagues in the media”)

The report goes on to make more strenuous accusations.

In August 2007, Mr. Mushayidi took his campaign to another level. As regional Tripartite Plus army chiefs were mapping out strategies end the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels in D R Congo, Mr. Mushayidi and other political opposition parties in Europe announced a plan to cooperate with the rebels.

Mr. Mushayidi teamed up with exiled Defense Minister Gen. Ben Habyarimana, ex-Prime Minister Rwigema Celestin and other exiles – announcing that they were merging with the guerrillas to oust President Kagame from power by force.

And there you have it: a former Kagame stalwart, now teaming with FDLR rebels and RPF cast-offs, conspiring to disrupt the president’s cakewalk this August through a series of attacks – coordinated, it seems, from three separate countries.

Oddly, it seems no less plausible than any of the other theories I’ve heard lately.