Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Morning in Rwanda

Morning in Rwanda
Originally uploaded by tomgivemeaning.

I arrived late last night into Kigali International Airport. The day of driving took it's toll on me. About an hour away from Gulu, the luggage rack on the top of our Land Cruiser buckled from the pressure of the bags and the force of the numerous potholes on the road. We had to pull to the side of the road to investigate the damage and find an alternative way to transporting 7 people's bags in an already full and crowded car.

An army patrol truck pulled up within minutes of us having to pull over. The flat-bed truck had 6 soldiers all with AK-47's and MMG's (Medium Machine Guns) slung lazily over their shoulders. These machine guns just hang on their sides pointing outwards and straight at us. I'm just hoping that everyone remembered to safety their weapons. The soldiers had volunteered to take our bags and looked at Mike who was standing at the back of our group, pointed at him and said "come with us" and patted next to where this solider was sitting in the truck. Later in the afternoon we were all laughing at Mike's reaction to being invited to sit in the back of the truck in the middle of two machine guns and 4 AK-47's. This moment became one of the funniest in our day but It's difficult to convey the humor of the situation. Suffice it to say, we're still laughing about it this morning.

I hadn't felt in any kind of danger but as the soldiers took up sentry positions on both sides of the road, I realized that even in this cease fire, sitting on the road with a bunch of luggage makes us pretty vulnerable. As luck was most certainly on our side, the next to stop was a UN truck. The UN people agreed to take our bags to Gulu in their truck.

The difference between Gulu and Kitgum was quite noticeable. More infrastructure, more cars, more shops, more pollution. We repaired the luggage rack, grabbed a bite to eat and continued on to Kampala. Janet (a Canadian from Vancouver) who had been our host in Kitgum was driving the entire time. We have now nicknamed her "Janeti" because she drove more like an Italian race-car driver than anything else. Driving between 100-120kph weaving across the entire length of the road to avoid as many potholes as possible was something I was getting used to driving with Janeti but as we approached Kampala her driving took on a whole new intensity. Vehicle congestion was getting worse by each kilometer closer to Kampala and Janet's solution was to drive head on to oncoming traffic and lean on the horn, hoping/expecting/knowing that they would yield in time. I eventually gave-up looking at the road.

I should mention that just before crossing the Nile, I saw my first Baboon (I've uploaded the pictures to flickr) and then right after the crossing, my brand new camera stopped working. The dust in Kitgum must have gotten into the camera and while I can return it for a refund in Vancouver, this would mean being without a camera the entire rest of my trip.

Having spent the week in such a rural, relatively quiet place like Kitgum, getting into Kampala was a total culture shock. It is a sprawling, bustling city complete with Times Square like big-screen TV advertisements hanging on the sides of buildings. We were planning on having dinner in Kampala but traffic stole the time away from us and we had to drive directly to Entebbe airport where our flight from London landed earlier in the week. My exact same camera was being sold in the Entebbe airport. The salesman in the duty free shop was very friendly and strangely, loved my beard. He said (much I'm sure to my wife's shagrin) "you have a magnificent beard!" and then almost pleaded to me "never shave it!" I'm quite sure my beard was what facilitated me getting the salesman to ease his absurd price for the camera. One more story about the beard. When Mike, John and I went shopping in Kitgum this past Saturday, I noticed the men outside the store laughing at me. I asked them what they were laughing at and they said "You look like Jesus Christ's younger brother!" This should be particularly funny to my friends who were laughing at the picture of me in the Globe & Mail recently.

Back where we started, we flew from Entebbe into Kigali. Kigali is a beautiful city with a population of about a million people living here. We drove to the guest house, dropped our bags and raced to a nearby hotel to eat at the Chinese restaurant called the Flamingo that is on the top floor of the hotel. The meal was really great. Though I ate well in Kitgum, it was cathartic to have a familiar meal and a familiar drink (they served Heineken!) After the meal, I just totally crashed. Driving all day yesterday really took its toll on me.

I woke up at about 5:30 this morning and took a shower. It was nice to have a little bit more water pressure and a little bit warmer water in the shower though the pressure was still little more than a trickle. I then dressed and came out onto the balcony where this photo was shot and where I am currently writing from. I'm sitting here eating a locally grown banana, sipping coffee and listening to the songs of small songbirds. I realize now that it's important to pace a trip like this. My eyes, ears, heart and brain were so open, so active in Kitgum that I need the day's rest before going into Burundi.

This morning I received a briefing from Dwight Jackson, Food For The Hungry's Country Director for Rwanda/Burundi. I sat with him at dinner last night and got some good overview statistics but this morning his briefing was really detailed. I will sit with this information and contextualize it into my blogs from Burundi (providing of course that I have access there). What I will say about Rwanda is that it appears to be a wonderful example of the transition from relief aid to development. The government has proven itself financially reliable and accountable and it is increasingly receiving direct budgetary support from the international donor community. What this means is that the need local NGO's are now focused on bidding for contracts provided by the government instead of focusing entirely on their own development projects. In Rwanda, more than 50% of the population live under one dollar a day of income and so there is still much work to be done to lift Rwanda up the ladder of economic development. Certainly Kigali is no reflection of the poverty here.

Furthermore, there is much work to be done in empowering and building local economies within the country. As Dwight pointed out, in order for a community to prosper, money needs to circulate several times within the community before leaving. In the local communities here, money leaves for Kigali, comes back and circulates maybe once or twice and then returns to Kigali. Social enterprise investment is critical to Rwanda and there are numerous opportunities here.

I'm being told that we're deploying forward soon so I have to cut this short. I am very much hoping that we will have access to internet in Burundi but I really have no guarantees.

If any of you have any questions/inquiries or would like to direct my topics to address certain issues, please leave a comment.

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