Month: July 2011

Forgotten films

Just got these films developed – they’d been forgotten in a draw for a year or two.

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Rwanda 13: Confessions of a genocide tourist

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Firstly, these photos are from Nyanza/Nyabisindu, which is where the Rwandan royal family used to live. The Rwandan government had officially launched ‘Cultural Tourism’ there the day before we visited.

Secondly, I feel like I need to write about why I went to Rwanda.

Hopefully I’ll be able to link these two things together, so stick with me.

I also need to qualify a lot of what will follow by pointing out/admitting that I’m white, middle class, a hand-wringing liberal and that I studied postcolonial culture to MA level. These things are all relevant.

A lot of people asked me why I was going to Rwanda. People don’t tend ask you that when you say you’re going on holiday to Turkey, Spain or Cornwall.

So, why does a person go to Rwanda, a country that’s (rightly or wrongly) best known for a genocide?

Well, most people who do go to Rwanda, go to see the gorillas and the volcanoes.

But I didn’t do that. I didn’t see a single gorilla and I didn’t climb any volcanoes. I didn’t do any of the ‘tourist’ stuff that Rwanda has to offer, other than visit the royal palace.

And here’s the bit where I admit something I’m really uncomfortable with – I think I went to Rwanda because of the genocide, not despite it.

I don’t like what this says about me.

I hate the idea of people visiting a country with something dramatic like this in its recent history and then using the experience as an anecdote – something to impress or shock other people with, just another thing to tick off on the traveller list. (“Yeah, I did the Serengeti, did Kilimanjaro, did Rwanda, yeah Rwanda, that was pretty fucking mental” etc etc.)

I went to Bosnia a few years ago too (because it was close to Croatia where I was going on holiday and I’d heard it was beautiful – I knew very little about the Balkan conflict before I visited.) and spent a lot of my trip spitting venom at other tourists who were poking about in the ruins looking for bullets and bits of shrapnel to take home as some kind of sick souvenir to prove just what an ‘adventurous’ tourist they were. Something to show to friends to impress/shock them, without any appreciation of that fact that that little souvenir could have killed someone.

Anyway, here’s how my trip to Rwanda came about.

Years ago, I read Gil Courtmanche’s Sunday at the Pool in Kigali. It’s a tragic love story with a weird and slightly troubling racial and cultural perspective. It’s also a really graphic description of the genocide – it made me throw up. I’d still recommend it though.  I’m being cryptic about it, I know, but I could probably write a 2000 word analysis of it, but this isn’t the time or place. Anyway, after I read it, I lent it to my friend Laura.

Then last year, Laura and her boyfriend Joe
l went out to East Africa for a year, and I wanted to visit them. She suggested I meet them Rwanda – I meant to ask Laura if the suggestion was anything to do with the book, or just the way the timing worked out, but didn’t. (Laura, if you’re reading this, maybe you can enlighten me? X)

Even if that book wasn’t the reason I went to Rwanda, I definitely went there with the genocide at the forefront of my mind.

It’s hard not to think about the genocide when you’re there – it was 17 years ago, which isn’t that long ago and we were there in the three months each year when the genocide is officially commemorated, with purple banners in every town, marches and ceremonies.

The scale of the killing is hard to stop thinking about  – it’s just more than you can comprehend. In We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families Philip Gourevitch gives the statistic that for the 100 days the genocide lasted, 5.5 people were killed every single minute. That doesn’t take into account all the people who were injured but kept their lives. Rwanda was a country of about eight million people back then. One million people were killed, 12.5% of the population.  That’s like the whole population of London being killed. I can quote more statistics, but they’re utterly meaningless, aren’t they? You can feel shocked at the numbers, but they’re too big to fathom.

We wish to inform you…is an incredible book, so I’m going to borrow from it again to try and explain myself. Gourevitch writes this about his and his readers’ motivation in looking at the genocide in such detail:

“I presume that you are reading this because you desire a closer look, and that you, too, are properly disturbed by your curiosity. Perhaps, in examining this extremity with me, you hope for some understanding, some insight, some flicker of self-knowledge – a moral, or a lesson, or a clue about how to behave in this world: some such information. I don’t discount the possibility, but then it comes to genocide, you already know right from wrong. The best reason I have come up with for looking closely into Rwanda’s stories is that ignoring them makes me even more uncomfortable about existence and my place in it. The horror, as horror, interests me only insofar as a precise memory of the offense is necessary to understand its legacy.”

I think he hits the nail on the head – my curiosity about Rwanda (morbid though it may be) is driven by wanting to understand how the fuck something like that can happen. How can people kill their neighbours in those kinds of numbers? Why didn’t anyone intervene and stop it? How can life go on afterwards?

Gourevitch also recounts a story that I think bears repeating: he was visiting a church in Rwanda where thousands of people had been murdered. The bodies had been left where they fell. As he walked around the church, another visitor trod on a skull, crushing it. Just as Gourevitch was cursing the man’s thoughtlessness, he heard a sickening crunch under his own foot.

It’s a fairly perfect anecdote for about visiting Rwanda – no matter how hard you try, however good your intentions, you end up doing violence in one way or another.

Rwanda is an incredible country – less than two decades on, it feels safe and peaceful and its economy is thriving. Yes, there is a huge police and military presence everywhere you go. Yes, there are definitely issues with human rights abuse and a lack of freedom of speech. It’s still incredible.

You can see why the Rwandan government want to herd tourists to see gorillas and volcanoes, why it wants people to go its new museums – it wants the country to move beyond the genocide in people’s imaginations.

I’m not saying that they want people to forget about it. That’s clearly not true. There are poignant and visible genocide memorials across the country and there were posters all round Kigali promoting awareness of the genocide saying: ‘Upholding the truth; preserving our dignity.’ No one is trying to sweep it under the carpet.

However, I felt that there was a reticence or fear in many people when it came to talking about the genocide. Of all the people we got talking to, only one man mentioned it, and only when there were no other Rwandans around. By contrast, in Bosnia, every person I got into a proper conversation with turned the topic to the war and the genocide – they wanted to tell me about it. The man who did talk to us about it said that he feared speaking his mind about the genocide, and about politics in general.

I don’t think it’s my place to look at why this is – I don’t know enough about Rwanda. My own weak take on things might be that, as a nation, Rwanda feels like it has to let go of a lot of anger, swallow the desire for revenge and keep a lot inside to be able to move forward. I’m probably wrong.

So, what’s my point?

In short, genocide wasn’t the only reason I went to Rwanda, but it was a big part of it.

Rwanda is a beautiful and unique country – it has a stunning landscape and biodiversity and a rich ancient history.

It’s also a country with a violent and incomprehensible recent history.

You can’t separate the two.

It would be just as bad for a tourist to zoom in, see the gorillas and not think about the genocide as it would be to come and only think about the genocide, without looking at everything else Rwanda has to offer as a nation.

I had a great, fun holiday in Rwanda doing things like visiting museums, swimming, sunbathing, sight-seeing etc. But visiting the country has also fundamentally changed the way I think about the human race in ways I don’t fully understand and definitely can’t explain.

I can’t say that about any other holiday I’ve been on.

Rwanda 12: eat, drink and be merry

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  • Primus! Rwanda’s finest beer (except perhaps Turbo King, but after a bottle of that I was too drunk to take a photo. Even my teeth felt drunk.) Primus was also running its ”Guma Guma Superstar‘ competiton while we there, which is a bit like X Factor. I wish I knew who won. My favourite was Riderman.
  • Avocado tree. I don’t think I will ever be able to eat a normal avocado again; the ones in Rwanda were so good that all other avocados will seem rubbish in comparison.
  • A banana dog. My own invention. Patent pending.
  • Beans, lots of beans.
  • Trangia cuisine.
  • Before and after shot of a gargantuan Rwandan lunch. I didn’t make much of a dent.
  • Lunchtime G&T. My colonial shame.

Rwanda 11: Lake Burera

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Lake Burera was mentioned in ‘The Guide Book’™, saying that you could have a DIY adventure there if you were an adventurous traveller, up for a bit of wild camping and happy to catch a ride from a fisherman across the lake. ‘That’s us’ we thought, tightening our rucksack straps, stocking up on supplies and practicing our best Kinyarwanda in preparation for having to negotiate with the elders to pitch our tent in their village.

The reality, of course, was totally different.

We got a minibus to Kidaho, the village nearest to the lake and walked down to the shore. That was an experience in itself. To say we were conspicuous doesn’t really do it justice. The attention we got was all friendly, welcoming and good natured. We’d been rehearsing how to say ‘Hello’ and ‘How are you?’ (Muraho, amakuru?) and I reckon must have said it about a fifty times in the first thirty minutes alone. It was a nice ice breaker, and seemed to make people laugh. By the time we actually made it down to the lake my face hurt from smiling.

We were hoping to get a canoe across the lake to Butaro, which is where we hit our first snag. There was a little bar by the lake, run by a lovely girl who told us the price for a boat across the lake was an eye-watering RWF 50,000 (£50) which didn’t sit well with our RWF10,000 a day budget. (Joel and Laura are budget freaks. Joel in particular got very excited about ‘rollover’ days where we hadn’t spent all the kitty from the day before. Sorry for outing you guys!) We found out later on that the high fee was intended to put us off because they didn’t want to take us in the boat – as unlikely as it seems, the fisherman are terrified to take passengers because they don’t have any insurance.

While we were umming and ahhing about what to do, the lovely girl gave us a handful of fish food each and showed us where we could feed the fish in the new fish farm they’d built, explaining that they didn’t actually have any fish yet. This won us over, and we decided to camp there.

This turned out to be a brilliant choice – it’s a stunning place. It’s so lush, with flowers, avocados, sorghum and a load of other stuff growing in overabundance, African kingfishers chasing one another over the lake and the volcano towering over you in the background…it’s like nature is just showing off.

We were lucky on the company front too – as well as the lovely girl running the bar, we met two blokes who insisted on feeding us (rabbit and chips – I didn’t eat the rabbit, naturally) and watering us (vast quantities of banana beer, which tastes like sherry). One of them also came back to buy us breakfast and help us with the next bit of our journey. He also told us his frankly astonish life story, which I can’t do justice to here (it involves rebel armies, peacekeeping missions, mining, tragedy and crocodiles).

The next day we got a bus to Butaro and then walked the 12km to Kirambo. This was just stunning – super-steep terraced hillsides, and wide, flat valleys breaking up the landscape. Every inch of land was being farmed, nothing is wasted. I can’t get across just how steep these hills are – you see people working on them, and you can’t believe that they’re not falling off.

It’s easy to idealise that kind of life, because it’s such a beautiful place. You find yourself dreaming the stupid Western dream of a simple rural existence. Then you see a ten year old boy carrying a huge bundle of firewood up the hill, or a two year old with a tiny scythe cutting grass and you realise just how hard it is. It’s not an idyll; it’s hard work that everyone in the family has to join in with.

Lake Burera was pretty much my favourite part of the whole trip.

Rwanda 9: Gisenyi

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I didn’t take many pictures in Gisenyi – the weather was pretty diabolical and I was nursing an injury after falling in the big hole.

It was an interesting place though. It’s a holiday resort of sorts (on our way in on the boat we’d passed a man on a lilo who had floated a disconcerting distance out in the lake) by the lake, tucked near the bottom of the volcanoes. The earth is blackish-grey from the ash and lava, in contrast to the bright red earth you seen in the rest of the country.

The beaches by the lake are a bit of a magnet for Rwandan and Congolese hipsters, and we spent our first night there drinking beers in the TamTam Bikini Bar, sheltering from the storms and watching the lightening in the distance over Congo. Naturally we spent about an hour counting (one elephant, two elephant, three elephant) the time between the lightening and the thunder to try and work out far away the storm was. It was totally futile, because there were about five separate storms.

We went to a little bar near our hotel too, where we managed to totally silence the entire room when we walked in. There was a fairly unpleasant atmosphere and lots of muttering about ‘muzungus’.

If you don’t know the word, it’s what some Africans call white people. Apparently the literal translation is something like ‘one who wanders about aimlessly’ which is a pretty accurate description of colonialists back then and tourists like us now. You get it yelled at you everywhere you go. It can be annoying – being referred to by a word that alludes to the colour of your skin feels derogatory, even if that isn’t the intention behind it. I’m totally aware of the irony of this – when I talked about it with my friends, we wondered if this might be part of the reason behind it, a little bit of sweet and well-deserved revenge perhaps?

Anyway, some people on the table next to us stopped talking about us, and started talking to us instead, bought us vast quantities of Primus and we all got pissed. It was a lot of fun. We tried to buy them a drink, but they wouldn’t have it, saying it was an insult to their hospitality. So we introduced them to the good old English concept of ‘leaving one in the bin for later’.