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Africa Travel

Rwanda

“Timothy”

“Claude!”

“Timothy!”

“Claude!”

“Timothy!”

“Claude!”

They are drunk on the tequila I bought that costs half their rent for a month, and we are all laughing so hard we can’t talk. The game has devolved into random name calling, which is now more fun than the game itself.

The game seems simple. Everyone takes the name of someone else in the group, and then when your new name is called, you answer with someone else’s name in the group. As with so many things in Africa, what seems simple is borne of brilliant, ancient, and evolved wisdom. It’s very difficult to dissociate from one’s own name, especially while drunk and high. And, in this game: there are two winners to each round, as it makes no sense to continue with just two. This cooperative win is also not the way of the White Man.

The pregnant woman and I win every round.

It’s Saturday night and I am leaving Rwanda tomorrow.

I still can’t believe that they let me in. The pandemic rages on. It took three Covid tests to visit Rwanda. One before arriving, the next on arrival. Then quarantine in a designated hotel for 24 hours until my negative results grant me access to the country.

And on that morning: Kigali locks down. The week I’m in Rwanda accounts for more than half the deaths from Covid-19 that the country has had in the year since Coronavirus began picking apart the world. Not that anyone believes the numbers. They are lower or higher depending on who you ask.

The day that lockdown begins, I take a walk. I don’t realize that it is in lockdown. The police ask me for my papers, but I just tell them I took the Covid test, and they shrug and let me go. There are two policemen on every corner, and two mid-block. They are brutally enforcing State policy. The police wear masks that say “Join the fight against Covid-19” on one side, and “One Rwanda” on the other, in Kinyarwanda. They all have automatic weapons pointed at their own feet.

They are so young, I feel so sorry for them and don’t want them to shoot their feet off.

Rwanda

My hosts tell me that those that enter the military or police force have limited rights in Rwanda. They often are not allowed exit visas or national IDs. It doesn’t pay well. Many are separated from their families. 

A young man runs behind me and claims to want to practice his English. I oblige until I realize he’s a tour guide and I’m wasting his time, I won’t be taking any tours because I’ll be staying with locals. He shows me a tattered piece of paper that gives him permission to be out during lockdown. He beams with pride over it.

I move to the local neighborhood, couchsurfing with a couple of soon to be dear friends, as well four of their neighbors. We weather lockdown in Rwanda together.

Sort of. 

Tourists are exempt from lockdown. So my host helps me navigate the Orwellian totalitarian bureaucracy to get “Permission to Move”.

I use this permission first to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial. It’s heartbreaking. 

It’s also propaganda. The museum and memorial make claims that there was no revenge after the genocide. Those that came forward to apologize were forgiven. That isn’t true. The current government was involved in the revenge. Hence the erasure of this portion of genocidal history.

Most USAmericans learned of Rwanda’s recent genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus from the movie “Hotel Rwanda”. Most USAmericans don’t realize that in August, 2020, the real life hotel concierge that the movie was based on was captured by the current government. They lied and re-routed the airplane he was on. 

He’s now ostensibly in one of Rwanda’s prisons. No one knows where the prisons are located. Many people are ostensibly in prison in Rwanda. Many never come back.

I discuss the museum with my Rwandan friends, who refer to themselves as Rwandese friends. In accents thick with Kinyarwanda, they explain to me that no one under the age of 30, including them, knows whether they are Hutu or Tutsi.

Before the arrival of the Belgian colonial forces, Hutu and Tutsi were social classes. They were mutable. If you obtained more cows, you could move from being Hutu (commoner) to Tutsi (aristocracy). Colonizing forces needed strict hierarchy to maintain control from afar, and so they created it wherever they touched Africa. When the Belgians arrived they declared anyone with over a certain number of cows Tutsi. Over their reign, they morphed poliit into a racial description, using phrenology. Just like the Nazis.

Leave it to Europeans to be just like the Nazis.

My friends tell me that at school, when they learn history – it’s taught wrong. They say none of them know their designation, but in school they learn exactly what body measurements the Belgians used to distinguish, and after that lesson, schoolchildren question themselves and one another.

After all, these friends were all alive during the genocide. But too young to remember, and their parents don’t talk about it. It’s not that people don’t talk about it in general – there’s still three months of every year devoted to remembrance. They spend the same duration as the genocide itself remembering every year in order to bolster the current government. This government has painted itself the saviors that ended the genocide (partly true), and it’s by reminding everyone of their heroic deeds that they maintain their iron-fisted power.

Rwanda is the most police-y police state I’ve been to, including Turkmenistan. Everything is tightly controlled by the government.

Including the number one tourist activity in the country: Gorilla Trekking.

My “Permission to Move” covers this. I’m allowed to make the three hour drive to Virunga to sweatily hike up into the mountains for two hours just to spend one hour with the aptly named mountain gorillas. 

Virunga

When I arrive, I find out I’ve made an error in timing. I thought I’d be able to use my entry Covid test to access the park, and that’s true, I can. But the gorillas require a Covid test taken 72 hours before, whereas the park requires it 120. I’ve paid $1500 USD for this. I text my host in a panic.

Silverback Gorilla

I’ve already taken the test I need to take to leave Rwanda, and so my host calls various boards of development and tourism and manages to get my results expedited so I can see the gorillas. Due to this, I leave late, and have a private tour with one of the few female guides in the park. 

Two trackers and a porter also come along, as well as another that watches my vehicle. These are former poachers that have been rehabilitated and trained by the Rwandan government to be trackers and porters. Rwanda has achieved 0 poaching within its borders. Considering it shares borders with Uganda and the DRC, both of which have poaching, I wonder how this was achieved.

The gorillas are amazing.

Silverback Gorilla

I rent an SUV from a friend of my host, privately, to get to the park. I leave at 4:00am to be sure I reach the park on time. It’s here that I see one of the tragedies of lockdown.

Public transportation has been shut down for lockdown. The roads are lined with humans carrying their goods to market. Agriculture has been declared essential, transportation has not. Now they walk all night through the mountains of Rwanda, most carrying goods on their heads. For hours I see strained faces and strong bodies doing what they need to survive in a place that has removed all options from them. It’s heartbreaking. 

And here I am, in an SUV with “Permission to Move”, paying $1500 to see gorillas in their natural habitat. I am ashamed.

I meet four young men outside the park. They’re desperate to practice English. They are desperate for money for school. I organize a fundraiser and send all four of them to university. The shame subsides.

The guide teaches me to speak the gorilla language. She’s also the first person I hear make the joke that driving on red, rutted, unpaved roads is called “The African Massage”. I chuckle at this.

Rwanda road

My host’s roads are also like this, in the capital city of Kigali. Kigali is separated into locals and expats/tourists. The expat/tourist/government officials area of Kigali is paved, spotlessly clean, and very green.

Rwanda sidewalk

Though all restaurants are currently closed for lockdown, they are offering takeout food. I go to one just to see what it’s like. It blows my mind, the difference between expat/tourist places, and local places. Rwanda is balkanized.

Kigali restaurant

I sit eating my food by the side of the road in the same neighborhood as the restaurant. This side of Kigali is all gated mansions and security cameras.

In the locals area, many of the houses have no running water. I see Rwandese walking down and up steep hills with yellow plastic jugs on their heads. Their country is being sold out from under them to any buyer that won’t look too hard at what local life is actually like.

Rwandese carrying water

The Rwandan government tries to showcase Rwanda to the world, specifically Europe. Rwanda is the only African country on the EU green list for the virus. Currently, Rwandese can visit Europe, but USAmericans cannot.

Of course, few Rwandese can afford to visit Europe, and even if they could there’s no guarantee of an exit visa. The Rwandan government is focused on attracting business and expats. The quality of life in Rwanda is superior to most countries in Africa, even if achieved with an iron fist.

Kigali, Rwanda

But maybe not right now. During lockdown. When the iron fist has crushed all opportunity for everyone. Of the friends I make, only one is still working, as a web designer. His company has cut his salary by 50%.

Returning to Kigali I pass many checkpoints, which are spike strips laid down on the road and Rwandese police checking paperwork. I flash back to the images of the genocide, which was also carried out through roadblocks. I am waved through each one as soon as they see the color of my skin.

When I return to the local neighborhood in Kigali, my Rwandese friends jump to wash the car for me and drive it back to the owner for me. I try to help but they shoo me away. There I stand, a white-skinned person overseeing four black-skinned people wash my car. I’m so uncomfortable.

Local neighborhood, Kigali

I pay their rent for a month. I pay their electricity, ending the incessant beeping from the boxes in the courtyard that are all overdue and at minimum acceptable to keep the juice on.

And I buy some weed. The weed is from the DRC, and it is terrible. Total ditch weed, compressed, brown, and oily. But it gets us high.

Rwanda weed

One of the Rwandese and I almost fuck, but don’t. It feels as though it would harm the community balance, everyone is sharing all resources to try to make it through yet another lockdown. Instead we smoke weed and share stories and laughter in his apartment. He cooks for me. Rwandan food quality is amazing, it’s probably the highest quality I’ve encountered in all my travels. 

But there are missing pieces. There are no coconuts in Rwanda. No one I meet in Kigali has ever tasted one. Every country around Rwanda has coconuts, they’re sold on the street. I still don’t know why they’re not in Rwanda. My host takes me to a store and I see the strange mix of imported and local products. There are things missing. It reminds me of the stores I’ve seen in communist countries.

There’s only one kind of pen. There’s no rolling papers for the weed. The Rwandese use the wrapper from the one kind of toilet paper roll in Rwanda. It’s waxy and clearly not something one should smoke. There’s no tin foil to make a pipe. 

But there is fresh passion fruit and bananas and beans and beautiful, beautiful produce. The farmland is tightly controlled. Terraced into permaculture. Farmers are assigned crops.

Unlike all other African countries, there are no street sales in Rwanda. However, pressure from lack of economic opportunity due to lockdowns has forced people into a desperate state. There are people illegally selling their goods by the side of the road. I try to buy my vegetables from them whenever I see them.

By the time we are drunk on tequila and playing fun games, my new friends are closer than most I’ve made couchsurfing.

They try, each of them, to get “Permission to Move” for various entrepreneurial pursuits, and are denied at each attempt. Even if they did get the permission, they would then need the licensing for any of the business ideas they have (food delivery being one). The licensing costs money. I help them run all their errands. Stock their fridge with food. 

I’m distraught, knowing that no matter what I do, it’s not enough.

My hosts have a baby on the way. Conceived during lockdown. They have decorated their room with stickers and cut-outs from the few cheap Chinese children’s products that are imported. They beam with pride and love. My heart sinks, wondering how it is that they will be able to have a child in this absolutely rigid place with zero opportunity for money. 

Rwanda’s stimulus consisted of one bag of rice, and one bag of beans during the first lockdown. Everyone has lost count of which lockdown we are on. There’s simply no way to survive. Most people live on ugali, which is a starchy paste made from maize and cassava. It goes by many names across Africa. It’s usually used with some kind of sauce, which it soaks up well. Here, though, it’s a side dish.

“Ugali never lies”, says one of my new friends.

He says if he eats rice before bed he wakes up part way through the night, ravenous. The rice has lied to his stomach. But ugali gets him through the night. Ugali never lies.

It also doesn’t have the nutrition necessary to sustain human life. Despite having wonderful, cheap, available food – malnutrition is rampant. The education to support nutritional balance isn’t there, and all traditional knowledge around food has been destroyed. Rwandese have an average lifespan ten years shorter than the United States.

My friends are slowly starving to death.

Kigali airport

I leave Rwanda. It doesn’t leave me.


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