Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Rambling Afterthoughts

Last night I watched the Rwanda genocide movie, Shooting Dogs.   Having just returned, I obviously found this film provocative as I searched for familiar images in scenes  - as if I needed proof I had actually been there.

Throughout the film I found myself increasingly drawn to the emotional struggles of the American main character. Prior to departing for Rwanda, I watched Hotel Rwanda and 'tsked' at the westerners who allowed themselves to be whisked away from harm by UN Peacekeepers. My heart cringed as I saw them board the buses, snapping the last -if not only existing photo- of those about to be slaughtered by machete.  Foreigners collecting souvenirs for their scrapbook to show their friends as they sit comfortably in their living rooms, boasting of their time in Rwanda. I clearly remember speaking to my mom on the phone and saying that I would not have left - that just because I was born into privilege - I would not turn my back on my Rwandese friends and colleagues.  

Shooting Dogs made me revisit my convictions.  Watching Joe sheepishly board the UN cargo truck - avoiding the looks of his students awaiting their fate to the Interhamwe who stood outside the fence brandishing their machetes. I found myself relating to the westerners who fled despite their full understanding as to what would happen to their colleagues, parishioners, students, or friends within minutes of their departure.  My self-righteous answer to the question, would you leave - now wavers….and that is an incredibly difficult admission to make.    

Since returning I have also given much consideration to, 'how did this happen?'.  A question that has been asked by the world over, but still one I wrestle with.  Many blame Belgium for the genocide.  However, I cannot myself believe the genocide came to exist because of this one intervention.  

Main stream discourse on the Rwanda genocide often neglects to acknowledge that prior to colonization, Rwandese had their own well developed hierarchical classification system. Whether you were Hutu or Tutsi was dependent on the number of cows you owned. There are different historical versions of what it means to be Hutu or Tutsi, but there seems to be some agreement that at one point the genetic origin of each tribe was different. Historians believe that Hutu's and Tutsi intermarried prior to colonization and then initiated the classification system based on economic status. I am not dismissing the role the Belgians played in fueling the genocide, but it should be more widely discussed that this classification system existed prior to colonization. The Belgians did fuel the genocide by encouraging the Hutus to fight for power on the eve of independence, initiating many decades of tribal murders in Rwanda. 

Perhaps this genocide also stemmed from more than an economic classification system that the Belgians were said to have exploited. Jared Diamond in his book, Collapse, applies the Malthusian theory of development to provide an alternative explanation of the genocide. His argument is based on the theory that population increases exponentially while food production only increases arithmetically. Rwanda is a country with a very high population density. Driving through Rwanda, you can see that very little  land is left unused. Diamond argues the genocide resulted from decades of mounting tension between an increasing population and decrease in available land. He sites areas in Rwanda that had the highest population density, smallest Tutsi population, but one of the highest death rates of both Hutu AND Tutsi.  Hutus were killed, based on the pretense of their support for the Tutsi, by fellow Hutu most often in areas where land and food were scarce.

It is difficult to truly pinpoint what fuelled the genocide. I believe there were many factors, which  when combined with economic and resource disparities, lead people to commit terrible acts fueled by propaganda and promise of riches. I am not sure that we will ever know, and by not knowing we will not be able to efficiently prevent future attempts of genocide. 

As a last note - Paris Hilton is going to Rwanda to increase the world's awareness of the region....has anyone told her she is 14 years too late? Neighbouring Congo continues to have internal violence (by both military and civilian members of the population) which results in rape, mutilation, and death on mass levels. Why are we and the media not interested in the DRC? Does it take 800,000 people to loose their lives in 100 days to make the news?

Friday, September 14, 2007

My last Butare posting

This is my last posting from Rwanda. We are leaving for Kigali tomorrow and then we fly out Sunday afternoon.

The last three months have gone by so quickly – yet when I reflect on our first week here – it feels like a year ago.

Last night the University held a “surprise” going away party for us. It was surprising as I really thought we would slip quietly into the night. I did not expect such fan fare over our departure. However, about 60 staff and students were at the party hosted at the bar conveniently located across the street from our house. Such gatherings complete with speeches, hugging, and tears, always make leaving more difficult. But it is good to leave with such fond memories…

During the party last night I had an interesting conversation with one of the students. He is an economics student at NUR and is interested in doing international work. He has great pride in his people yet is saddened by how little value Africans see in themselves. Eddie spoke about how many Africans see a foreigner and believe that the foreigner is better than them, but he sees a foreigner and believes that there can be an equal exchange of ideas. We discussed what it means to be “developed” and how the west, through out cast offs, are keeping Africa from progressing. He sees education as an essential role in the “development” of Africa - however they choose to define it - in order to teach people to be proud of their country and culture, value themselves as individuals, and recognize what they as a country/continent can contribute to the world.

I must admit that I was blown away by what Eddie was saying as resonated with a book I am reading right now that provides a critical analysis of development. I had just finished a chapter which spoke to the fact that by identifying a group of people as “underdeveloped” we are “deepening the disability” of that group of people. We cannot expect people to see values in themselves, or empower themselves, if the label the western world gives them is one that devalues their lives. When reading this chapter, I had thought about the role of critical pedagogy in such areas – of how essential it is for the empowerment of 2/3 of the world…..

And here Eddie, someone living and breathing something I am trying so hard to understand, reaffirmed my thoughts.

I will likely produce one more posting once I have landed as tomorrow morning I am going to watch the former prostitutes in their basket weaving training. I have a Polaroid camera and will take pictures of the women with their children. Many of these women are HIV positive and will not see their children grow. Maybe I am making assumptions about their values, but I think it might be nice for the families to have pictures of themselves with their loved ones – something they cannot afford on their own.

One final note before signing off – today the consultant gave his presentation of the business plan we put together for the University. In a previous posting I spoke about the deadlines the consultant had put on different tasks. Today was the University’s first deadline in a 5 year strategic plan….the task was to produce a list of names for the Project Management Team. Had the University done anything about this task?…..No…..I can’t even begin to start writing about this – it would open Pandora’s Box – and I don’t have the time right now. I need time to digest and reflect as I just cannot wrap my head around it…

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Parting is such sweet sorrow....

This is our colleague/friend's wife and two children. Englebert's wife gave birth to their third child two weeks ago. The eldest boy is on my lap and the baby in Claudine's arms. This baby has been named Kalisa, apparently after me. Englebert had said they wanted to give the baby my name; however, were having a boy....guess they were lucky that my name is gender 'transferable' in Rwanda. The baby is absolutely beautiful. After holding Kalisa for some time and watching him in his perfection; I found it hard to say goodbye. It is always difficult to leave a place after an extended period of time, especially when you know that the chances of seeing eachother again is very slim. It was especially difficult to leave Kalisa - a new soul I have been tied to by name. I will not get the opportunity to watch this child grow and the likelyhood of knowing what this child's future will bring is limited. As with most of my goodbyes abroad, myself and my new friends throw around the idea of my return, but we all know that this goodbye is likely for good.

How often do 'locals' experience this? How many muzungo's come into their lives for short periods of time, force friendships with the locals and then leave...often without maintaining communication, let alone the return visit they promised? I know I am guilty of this. Is this difficult for them? And if so, how are they able to continuously open their hearts and homes as they have done for us?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Last Day of School

Today kind of feels like the last day of school before summer holidays...when you are expected to be present, but not really expected to do anything productive....I find that my heart and brain have disengaged from the University and the work we have been doing.

In order to prepare for our departure, we  left the consultant to work with the faculty and staff, collecting the necessary data for us to assist tomorrow in creating the business plan. As such, I have taken some time to do some reflecting - as is evident with the next two postings.

Through working with NUR staff on Phase II of the Strategic Plan, I found myself continually throwing the consultant questions about his role, as a western consultant, in the "development" process of the University. Often my thoughts steer to the relevance/importance of local cultural values in this planning and development process.

I place hope in the process I have witnessed this week at the University as it is likely one of the most inclusive processes in creating a business plan for strategic development at such a high level of institution.

I have watched the consultant work with the staff of NUR and it has been like watching a teacher set up a grade 8 class for an independent project in a student-centered classroom. With participation from staff, the consultant has established deadlines for decisions to be made and communicated with the project co-coordinator at CIDE, names were assigned to various tasks, locations for new offices were assigned, and detailed lists of necessary ICT equipment were created. Although I am optimistic, I am also conflicted as to what I think about this process. I was embarrassed for the staff at NUR as I saw them being treated like children, yet I recognize that this step was necessary to prevent the "shelving" of the Strategic Plan that it took a painful 3 months to develop. As the consultant asked the staff, "how many foreign consultants have stood before you, how many development plans have been shelved, and how much donor money has been spent on creating these plans?". And that is the reality...not only at NUR.

I am incessantly questioning what "development" means, what role I think I can morally and ethically play in the processes, what good existing projects/plans are doing, how the "systems" can be changed, how we can redefine development....and I am leaving with more questions than when I came.

However, I can make the following statements about development based on my very limited experience:

  • the intricacies of the of the cultural context are pertinent to any type of development project
  • human nature cannot be ignored
  • all processes must be inclusive of those who will be affected by change
  • language plays an integral role in understanding between the foreign and local institution/organization; even if both parties speak English, it does guarantee the same understanding of what words mean and this can greatly impact communication
"The idea of development stands today like a ruin in the intellectual landscape. Its shadow obscures our vision."

"Development is much more than just a socio-economic endeavour; it is a perception which models reality, a myth which comforts societies, and a fantasy which unleashes passions. Perceptions, myths and fantasies, however, rise and fall independent of empirical results and rational conclusions; they appear and vanish, not because they are proven right or wrong, but rather because they are pregnant with promise or become irrelevant."

~Wolfgang Sachs~

I have an affinity for these statements as it has been made evident time and time again that often imported development projects do not work yet, we (the west) continue to pour our guilt money into Africa without reflecting on whether or not what is being practiced is working. Our world seems to be at a loss for 'solutions' yet, does not take the time to stop and think. We pay for consultants to land for two weeks, impose a development plan, and fly out - all the while deep down having an inclination that the plan likely will never create the change intended.

Return to Faith

**I hope you don't mind D.V - but I decided to share my email to you because I had a couple of emails about my previous postings on Christianity and it is something I believe deserves to be addressed to all who raised questions. I also realize that is a personal entry to which some might take offence; however, I am choosing to post my emotional/spiritual journey in Rwanda because I think it is important to my growth as a human being**

I consider all of your responses/emails to my postings an important part of my personal analysis of my experiences here. Thank you for taking the time to reflect and add to the dialogue on the issues this journey has raised or reinforced in my consciousness.

I fear sometimes I offend people who have CHOSEN to be Christian. I believe there is a difference between those who have blind faith and those who take the time to consider - well maybe not consider- but, respect other religions. My thoughts on religion are quite basic - if it brings you comfort and permits the souls of humanity, of any faith, to belong to your "heaven" based on the merit of being a good human being - please, believe. I find it difficult to be told I am going to hell because I do not believe in Jesus when I know I live my life according to the ten commandments, perhaps more faithfully than some Christians I know.  To me - the values espoused by the commandments are reflective of my beliefs in what it means to be human, moral, and ethical. I do not mean to pick on Christians - it is simply the context through which this discussion began.

The reality is that I am envious of those who have chosen to believe - those who find comfort in one particular religion - whichever one that is. I sometimes wish I had faith in a system that was more concrete than the abstract collection of beliefs I have gathered from the different religions I have come across in my travels and life experiences. As  many,  I have experienced moments in life when I have had to examine my own mortality and I found it terrifying that I did not have a place to go - physically, mentally or emotionally - where I felt safe to really think about our purpose on this planet and selfishly, my own afterlife.

My life experiences have been such that I realized at a young age I could not believe in the religion in which I had been raised. I had too many questions and could not bring myself to accept the solutions my religion provided. Since, I have searched for answers in other religions and have not found one that fits my values/beliefs. So, I live my life with the comfort that my 'stolen' beliefs from many different religions/spiritual scholars, quilted together in my soul, may not be shared with others but they are mine and I know that I can remain true to them.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


I realize that I have not written in a while. My apologies. After a couple frantic emails from home I decided to write something, if for no other reason than to let the world know I am a.o.k.

Life abroad looses it's sense of excitement and wonder after a short period of time - when life becomes routine. It is not that I am not enjoying my life here - quite the opposite - I have come to fall in love with the town, country, and people.

The consultant for phase II of the University's Strategic Plan arrived on Monday. We have been contracted by CIDE to assist the consultant develop the business plan for the strategic plan. As things go here - we had been emailed an itemized list of information required for the second stage of developing the plan weeks ago. Despite attempts to facilitate the process, none of the information was gathered by Friday and most of it is still MIA (part of the problem being that a lot of the information doesn't exist). The entire process of preparing for this stage was part in parcel with what I have been saying since phase I of the strategy plan....the culture of business in Rwanda or at NUR is such that it is not prepared to initiate a 12 project strategy plan for development. The reasons for this are....many....some examples are that the University is essentially controlled by the government of Rwanda - it is very centralized, nationalized, .... dare I say communized (is that a word?). Even if the business plan mandates the creation of a project management unit with newly hired staff, it is next to impossible to implement because a. all NUR staff are paid by the government b. these salaries are dependent on an organizational chart determined by the government. Any extra staff or departments must be paid for by the University. However, to accompany this problem is the fact that 90% of students are publicly funded. The university has very little income generation and are essentially dependent on the government and donors. The university is expecting a double cohort next year due to the first year of language studies being cut - but there is no funding formula that states if student enrollment increases so does government funding to the university. I could go on and on and on...The only plus is that the consultant has heard these issues and is hoping to initiate change in the university over the next three months that will facilitate the implementation of the Strategic plan in January. However, there is so much here that has to be addressed to make this plan work...Regardless, again - it has been an interesting experience and I look forward to learning more about the economic end of development - I think it could integrate well with my research on culture, education, and values.

I wrote a while ago about the old soul - the little girl I pass each day. I went a few weeks without seeing her, but much to my delight - we seem to have matched our timing again. Our interactions have become longer. Starting a week or two ago, whenever we crossed paths on the side of the road we both stopped - she would play with something like my ring, bracelet or a hook on my bag....there isn't much conversation...but last she was walking towards me she opened her arms and came in for a big hug....tears immediately welled in my eyes. It felt like something very pure and innocent had reached out to me - almost like she was cleansing parts of my soul. One thing they forget to tell you about being "away"  is how much you will crave human contact.  This precious child seemed to reach out to me, as if she knew my soul needed to be reached out to. I really wish I could bottle the moment and pull it out for times when I feel alone, sad, or overwhelmed.  The thought of leaving Lulu in 10 days tears my heart apart. I think that of all I take with me from Rwanda - I will forever feel connected to her soul and she will always be a part of me. Below is a picture of Lulu - she is on the left.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Cry Freedom

Last night we rented the movie Cry Freedom, based on the story of Steve Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa during apartheid and who died a suspicious death in the hands of the Afrikaan police. I found the dialogue in this film provocative as it concentrated on language to convey the struggle of the black people in South Africa (or anywhere colonialism existed) against their foreign oppressors. During the film Steve Biko asks the white reporter Donald Wood, who becomes his comrade in the struggle, whether or not he has black domestic workers. This question comes moments after we have given our Rwandan house guard a cup of coffee and a monthly salary that is the equivalent of four meals, six taxi rides to work, or one of the “antique” masks I bought in the market.

We were yet again reminded of the privilege our birthplace has provided when going to the bank this morning. Each time we enter the bank we pass a guard with a scanner (for weapons)….we pass the guard….all of the local people, men, women, and children are stopped and their bodies scanned. This morning I wanted to stop directly in front of the guard and force him conduct the same service me…but of course I didn’t…how far have we really come?

"Apartheid — both petty and grand — is obviously evil. Nothing can justify the arrogant assumption that a clique of foreigners has the right to decide on the lives of a majority" — Woods.