Trip Start Dec 09, 2006
49Trip End Apr 12, 2007
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I knew the second I agreed to go on this trip with my sister that my journey would take me to Africa. I mean, if I'm going to be on that side of the world anyway (not really as it turned out), I might as well stop in to see an old friend.
This trip would have been just an Australasia one, much like my sister's, had it not been for Danny. Not that I didn't want to visit Africa, but having my good friend in Rwanda definitely moved it up a few notches on my destinations list.
Danny works for the U.S. State Department as a diplomat and as such, his tours of duties only last about two years in each embassy/consulate. So my window of opportunity to visit him in Africa was getting slim.
My first impression of Rwanda was much like that of entering a grand opening of a new mom and pop restaurant. It was clean, relatively new, and there was a nervous excitement in the air. But like a new restaurant, it was a work in progress and you can tell whoever owned the place beforehand didn't take great care of the place.
To give you a very brief history, in its most recent past, Rwanda is known to the outside world for the infamous 1994 genocide that resulted in the deaths of up to 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers, adults and children alike.
I remember when it happened I was in college and I thought it was just another tribal war in Africa (as if tribes were always at war out here). I think most of the world thought this same way too, and thus no one ever came to their aid.
I've come to learn that though Tutsi and Hutu were originally tribal names, today they have evolved to become not much more than just that - a name to describe an archaic class system. Tutsis were historically more educated and made up the aristocracy, while Hutus were the remaining majority.
Prior to the genocide, however, the two "tribes" were very much integrated (I refrain from saying culture because Hutus and Tutsis shared the same Rwandan culture) so during the genocide, this meant neighbors were killing each other and even families were killing each other. This was not civil war. This was madness.
To give you some perspective, the urban capital city of Kigali was the site of most of the killing, though the genocide spread throughout the rural countryside and all over the nation. Kigali has many suburban neighborhoods with homes much like America. So, imagine your long time neighbor who borrowed your weed whacker just a few months ago coming over to kill you with that same weed whacker because some crazed lunatic on the radio said so.
Current President Paul Kagame led the rebellion that ended the genocide. According to Danny, he has since done all the right things to help heal Rwanda. He did away with the Tutsi and Hutu designations (it's actually impolite to speak of it), and instilled a culture of national pride. I believe his job to be tougher than that of Abraham Lincoln.
It still boggles my mind to think about what happened here. I wish I knew more of this history before I arrived. Alas, like much of the rest of this trip, I was flying by the seat of my zip-off pants. I did feel fortunate to have my history class set in the middle of where it all happened. I bet kids in Boston and Washington D.C. feel the same about American history (riiight).
My first lesson in Rwanda was that there were no ATMs here. There was one machine in downtown that looks like an ATM, but it's really just an empty machine in a strip mall waiting for a bank to come be its owner. The only way to get money here is by cash-advance at a bank. You put your credit card down they give you Rwandan Franc.
Luckily for us, we were staying with two local big wigs who were, how do you say, rolling in it? (well by Rwandan standards at least) Though Danny and Aimee spotted us a few thousand francs for our first day, we ventured into town the next day to find this cash-advance place so we wouldn't have to use their money.
Danny's house was originally a ridiculous gazillion room mansion when he first arrived. It was way too spacious for him and his girl Aimee and they both described the place as haphazard as Shelley Long's Money Pit (probably to obscure a reference for most of you).
They eventually moved into a more reasonable 3 bed/2.5 bath ranch-style estate (though still complete with gate, gardener, security guard, and housekeeper). Don't be too impressed. Every expatriate and government official here has a gated home and guard, though it's more for privacy than security.
Kigali is not a dangerous place by any means. You can thank President Kagame for that. Aimee told me a story of one day when her purse got stolen. She reported it to the local police and when they discovered she was a government official, her purse was returned with everything intact. This case had more to do with Rwanda's public image than with Aimee or Danny's place in the government.
Since the genocide, they have become very concerned and diligent about presenting a positive image to outsiders here. Men walk around in slacks, and long-sleeve button-ups even on the hottest days. And unlike other developing countries to which I've been, aside from one or two postcard or phone card vendors I was hardly harassed at all.
Their new house was a 15-minute walk to work but they still drove. Too hilly I guess. The house looked as if it was built in the same period as the Brady Bunch home and it rested on a hill with the backyard overlooking the Rwandan countryside. It was a nice neighborhood and only two doors down from the Canadian embassy. Take off, eh!
Sure, it wasn't as lavish a place as most diplomats are accustomed, since they are expected to entertain dignitaries after all, but Danny was never one to give a rat's ass about such luxuries.
He does care about his job though. As a U.S. diplomat, he is an advocate for American foreign policy charged with protecting American citizens abroad, and bolstering American business throughout the world.
He's already served two years in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and will be done with two years in Kigali at the end of this year.
I think I picked about the worst week to come visit Danny. On top of his normal hectic duties, he had some kind of coffee conference to plan, a big foreign official in town, some baskets import/export deal to set up, a tennis tournament to play, and by the time I was scheduled to leave, Danny was also leaving for his own vacation back to California and Mexico.
For most, seeing the gorillas (made famous by Sigourney Weaver in her movie about the apes in some kind of mist) is THE thing to do in Rwanda. You spend all day searching for the gorillas and when you find them, you only get an hour before you have to turn around and go home.
At roughly $500, it's by far the most expensive thing to do in Rwanda and I decided my money was better spent on Mutzig (Rwandan beer) and beef brochettes (the only truly delectable dish served in central Africa).
Many of my favorite times on this trip haven't cost me a penny. One of my fondest memories from Kigali was the four-mile trek back to Danny's house from the Genocide Memorial in Gisozi. I could have taken a taxi but I wanted to get lost - the best way to really discover a new place.
Over hills and through the alleyways of mud hut neighborhoods, I crossed busy streets with no names full of bustling locals either staring at me or walking in countless directions seemingly aimless. And when I say, "stare" I mean these folks really know how to hold a gaze. Aimee tells me they're not trying to be rude, that it's just a culture thing.
Luckily, it didn't take too long before I found myself in unfamiliar territory. I knew the direction I needed to go, but many hills, neighborhoods and tangent roads stood in the way. I was officially lost.
In my perplexity, one little schoolgirl took special interest in this wayward foreigner. She couldn't have been more than seven years old, and I think she was by herself on her way home from school. She decided to follow me for a few miles. I guess it's OK for kids to walk with strangers here, because the locals didn't seem to think too much of it (though I'm sure they don't see an Asian dude walking around with local school girl too often). I do know I'll never forget her curious smile.
I tried to strike up a conversation with her but we settled to walk around aimlessly in silent company instead. I shared my orange with her. I called her my guardian angel because by the time she waved good-bye a good hour had passed and I had my bearings again. I waved back to her and went on my way back home.
Home. That's such a relevant term these days. Thanks for having me, Dukes. I'll see you at the next embassy/consulate.