A day in Kigali

Trip Start Sep 06, 2012
Trip End Oct 09, 2012

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Flag of Rwanda  , Kigali City,
Wednesday, September 12, 2012

I slept pretty well and pretty late, since my first pressing business was at 10:00.

Innocent had assured me yesterday that he would love to drive me today, and that he only lived 5-10 minutes from Chez Lando. So at 9:30 I asked the front desk to call him (much less expensive than me calling him on my US cellphone or even from my room. He was apparently waiting for my call and said he'd pick me up in 15 minutes.

I waited in the brick parking lot, enjoying the pleasant coolness under a bright blue sky, a perfect African morning like I wish they all could be. As I watched Japanese tourists periodically load into 4WDs, speaking accented English, 15 minutes came and went. So did 20 and 30. Finally as we got close to 10:10, 40 minutes since my call, I asked the front desk to call me a hotel taxi. A fellow named Enoch arrived promptly. He preferred French to English, I learned as we haggled over a price for the morning's run.

We drove first to the Burundian Embassy. I didn’t want to relinquish my Blackberry to the guard again, so I put it in my camera bag. As I entered, the guard, who wanded me (yes, wand proliferation is occurring in Africa) looked at my belt for a cellphone. "No phone?" he asked. I raised my arms so he could look at my belt, and shrugged non-committaly and non-verbally. He waved me through.

As I entered, the employee at the desk asked me if I had brought the newer bill. I handed over the 2006 Franklin and she whipped it into a pocket under her sweater in a way that seemed overly proprietary. I took note and waited on the alert. "You can wait over there" she said. I went to sit down on a couch and leafed through an English language Rwandan paper. One of the front page article, complete with arrest photo, was the story of a gang of young men who had set up a makeshift roadblock on a bridge and coerced passing women into sex to avoid being throw off the bridge into the river below. Sordid. But the register of language was bizarre. The women were always referred to by the journalist as “babes”, and sex became “casting in their river” (this is from memory). The writer was obviously trying to be trendy and interesting but I found it just strange. At least the rapists has all been arrested.

After making me wait a few minutes, the attendant came back. She owed me 110 dollars, since I had left a 2003 hundred dollar bill overnight and the visa was to cost $90. She asked if I had change for a 20; would I give her back 10 if she game me 120? I said I didn’t have a 10 but that she could give me change in Rwandan francs of Burundian francs if that would help. This was not the response she was seeking which, if became increasingly obvious, was that she should just keep the change. I held firm, politely and with a smile, and continued reading the paper to signal that I was prepared to wait a long time for her to arrange change. As it happened, it didn’t take long for her to find 10 dollars. I took the passport (which had been ready all along), thanked her and was on my way.

Those of you who read this blog regularly will recall that I have several times mentioned the “pen game” where people ask to borrow one’s pen and then temporize and manoeuver to keep it. The game can take half an hour or more. After reading my blog, someone asked my wife, “why does he worry about a cheap pen?” My answer is that, around here, one must be constantly on guard to avoid being taken. Sometimes the amounts in play are very small like the price of a pen. Sometimes it’s 10 or 20 dollars. But at other time it can be a thousand dollars or more (I’ve seen it happen several times), depending on the scam. So I subscribe to the belief that (to mangle the Bible a little) “he, who is careful in little, will be careful in much.” Or to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson: “the price of not getting ripped off is eternal vigilance…”

As we drove along I began a conversation with Enoch, about the recent history of Rwanda. I mentioned that my first visit was in 1996, 2 years after the genocide, or as French-speakers here often call the period: les évènements: the events. We started talking about that terrible time. “I was here in Kigali” he told me, “I spent two whole months at the sainte famille”, the holy family church. This large Catholic Church in the center of Kigali was thought to be a refuge by people fleeing the genocidal murders. But Enoch told me that patrols came in regularly and took people to slaughter. “One day they came and took 200! 200 people in one day taken to be killed.” He was, he explained a Seventh Day Adventist, but that even clerics behaved badly in those terrible days. “You think someone is your friend, and then he turns you in. If it were someone you didn’t know, you could understand and forgive him, but when it is someone you know and believe is a friend, and he betrays you, that is very hard. My three young brothers went to a pastor, a pastor! And he turned them away – no you cannot stay here. He turned them away to their deaths. My three young brothers were all killed because of an Adventist pastor!” What does one say?

I told him that I was not an Seventh Day Adventist but that I observed the Sabbath too. “That is good” he said, intrigued, “I work six days a week, anytime, but not on the seventh day.”

We drove to the Centre Hospitialier de Kigali or CHK (pronounced in French “say-ahsh-kah” where I hoped to meet Dr. Kamanzi, the head of the dentistry department, with whom Dr. Greg Swartz, my favorite dentist (possibly because he has never touched my teethJ) has had an excellent working relationship and friendship as he has developed Smile Rwanda, the charity devoted to improving dental care in Rwanda. I am honored to been asked to serve on the board. Dr. Kamanzi is a lady of style and class as well as competence and heartfelt commitment to her vocation.

She was treating a patient when I arrived but she kindly invited me into her office and as she worked, we chatted briefly to catch up on news of our families and her work. She invited me to come back later in the day to visit her private clinic, where she works part time to pay the bills when her low-paying public sector job is over. Greg Swartz has very generously helped her obtain some modern equipment (he’s also helped out at CHK and in a number of other clinics, with much of the help coming from his own pockets). I was concerned not to divide her attention while she was treating a patient (thinking of the golden rule fairly made me wince), so I thanked her and we agreed to meet later.

Enoch and I drove to the Nakumatt. This is a small African copy of a European copy of a Wal-Mart. Originating in Kenya (Nakumatt is short for Nakuru Mattresses) they have developed African versions of urban shopping malls in Kenya and more recently in Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. I needed to by some cellophane tape, and a picture frame for the Church hall here, but ended up also buying the best quality tourist T-shirt I’ve ever seen in Rwanda. I felt proud for East Africa as I walked through the well laden isles, with such variety. My shopping done, I found Enoch and we drove to my favorite Indian restaurant in Kigali. It wasn’t yet open for lunch; we were a bit early, so I told him to drive me up the hill to the Hotel des Mille Collines, Hotel Rwanda as people have started calling it after the film came out. It’s been recently updated and refurbished and is once again the height of luxury. It has changed quite a bit since I first stayed here in 1996 when it was still the only place to stay in town; all the others had been thoroughly looted.

I had a small beer at the pool bar and took in the surroundings. All the people around the pool were black Africans discussing business, a positive and hopeful sign for the country and the region.

Down at Khana Khazana, I ordered Tikka Masala, nothing too fancy, and watched a safari group of American tourists with an Italian guide, order their lunch. They were pretty quiet and well-behaved: a good group, obviously having a good time. More and more Americans are careful when they travel now. There was a time when “the ugly American” was likely to be an accurate description. My wife and I often squirmed when in proximity to American tourists during the years we lived in France, but things have gotten much better in the recent past.

I only ate half the rice and Tikka Masala so I asked that the rest be put in a box (they can do that now) and gave it to Enoch as we drove back to Chez Lando.

In the afternoon I called my wife on Skype as soon as I could expect her to be awake so we could share a few minutes before she headed off to teach. She’s always been my favorite French teacher, and one of main reasons I worked assiduously on French in College. When I first met this fascinating woman, she casually mentioned that she didn’t think she could ever really be interested in a man who didn’t speak her native language well. My French professor was amazed by my sudden and notable zeal for the language of Molière….

After our call, I worked on the page layouts of the French version of our Church newsletter, One Accord, and made quite a bit of progress.

At 4:30 Enoch was back to take me to the Faith Clinic, in a large modern office building, where Dr. Kamanzi works on her own account. She was a few minutes late, so as I sat in the lobby, I checked my Blackberry and sure enough there was wifi in the building. It wasn’t yet password protected, though that will no doubt come soon.

When she arrived, she greeted me kindly and showed me her offices and introduced me to her partner and fellow dentist, an obviously competent and talented women from the DR Congo. I told her I would soon be visiting Kinshasa and we chatted about that for a few minutes. Dr. Kamanzi has been very helpful in getting Smile Rwanda up and running. She has a deep care for her fellow human beings and had done and continues to do a great deal of good around her.

After an encouraging look around the facilities, I thanked them for their warm welcome, found Enoch under a light drizzle outside and started out again for Chez Lando.

Tomorrow will be a travel day to Bujumbura, Burundi. I’m very thankful that I have an entry visa. Now I only need one more that I don’t yet have to enter Côte d’Ivoire and that will be a crunch affair of one day, if it works, in Togo a week from now.

At dinner I finished my second book of the trip: A Crime So Monstrous, by E. Benjamin Skinner, about the state of modern slavery in the world. It is a sad but riveting book about a condition many people think ended with the emancipation proclamation, but didn’t. Well worth the read.
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Judy Dane on

What happened to Innocent?

Tess Washington on

Hi Mr. Meeker, fascinating accounts and observations of human nature in action! Good to know about Dr. Kamanzi and her colleagues' work of helping others. Talking about the French language...a hard one for me...thank you for telling us a brief description of the books you've been reading. Good to know that you just have one more visa adventure to go through!

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