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Friday, January 27, 2012

#1 - Returning to Africa - January '12

Five days into our journey and here it is already, Friday morning in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo.  We are a much smaller group this year, reminding us all that it is a long way to travel when you decide to come to the City of Joy.  I am traveling with eight others from the Bay Area, three of us returning almost to the day a year ago when we traveled to be here for the opening of the City of Joy.  We crossed the border traveling from Kigali, Rwanda this time, but still traversing the same short rickety single lane bridge at the border.  You wait your turn as vehicles from Congo make their way into Rwanda, and then we crossing into the Congo in our land cruiser.  Holding our breath that the bridge will hold and being swept away as there is nothing like the natural beauty of the Congo.  You see it and somehow everything feels different.

Where to begin?  We flew out of San Francisco on Sunday late afternoon through Brussels, where we had a restful overnight in the old center of the city.  All in our group have read King Leopold's Ghost, and we couldn't help but see the sights through a more informed lens.  If you haven't read it, I can't recommend it highly enough to help you understand the roots of slavery, the brutal rape and colonization of central Africa, and the cruel reign of this king.

We left Brussels on Tuesday morning on an eight hour flight to Kigali, Rwanda.  I won't get too deep into the luggage story, but suffice it to say our group of five women left SFO traveling with our carry-on bags, which we will live from for 12 days, and checking 26 very large duffel bags stuffed with goods to take to the City of Joy and our dear friend, Masika, whose center I visited last year outside of Goma.  Those bags weighed in at roughly 65 pounds each.  (We didn't manage to meet the 50 pound weight limit and the simple extra bag charge.  Instead, we opted for the not-to-exceed 70 pound weight limit with extra fees.)  Thanks to the generosity of so, so, so many of you, we departed with nearly a ton of very-much-needed goods. 

We arrived in Kigali at 8pm on Tuesday night, met by Human Rights Watch staff who were kind enough to play host to us for our two nights and one day in Kigali.  As is typical in central Africa, you step off the plane, walking down a flight of steps that have been rolled to the plane, and you are struck by the smell of wood burning, cooking fires, and a big dark night sky coated in stars. 

It took us a while to get all the bags (we did lose one along the way, but alas, the bulk arrived) and load them tightly into a van.  We squeezed into a couple of cars and made the short drive to the Serena Hotel in the center of Kigali.  Kigali is a very safe place.  Extremely low crime rates.  A benevolent dictator.  But I am no fan of the Rwandan President, Paul Kagame.  He has ruled since shortly after the genocide of 1994.  I think at one time he started with good intention, to somehow build a more stable peace between the ethnic "tribes" of Rwanda, but power can also corrupt.  I will say Rwanda is a safe place to bet your philanthropic dollar.  The rate of development here is astounding, and bribes are mostly non-existent.  But at the same time there is no free press, no space for dissent or opposition to Kagame and his party.  The "peace" and security come at a high price. 

HRW has operated in Rwanda for nearly 20 years, but our senior researcher is often followed, as he was (and we were) on Wednesday morning when we left the hotel.  This is not a country that wants the truth to be told or its human rights standards monitored.  The Gacaca courts that ran in every community around Rwanda affected by the genocide (it is estimated that 10% of the population lost their lives in the 100 days it took to start and end the terror in 1994) have just ended after running weekly for over 10 years.  The Gacaca justice system was developed here to try to address, in some way, the reconciliation so that the country might be able to move past and go on.  I don't think any of the victims that survived can ever forgive, but it is very important to find a path just to be able to move forward, so that the generations to follow might not have to re-live history.  If you want to read a brilliant account of what happened in Rwanda in 1994, read Romeo Dallaire's Shake Hands with the Devil.  He was the head of the UN mission sent to Rwanda to manage the tension shortly before the genocide began.  His account is clear and moving and really helps you understand the many mistakes made by the international community and missed opportunities to prevent the massacre.  When the UN packed up and left at the start of the genocide, Dallaire refused to leave. 

We spent Wednesday morning at the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum.  It is very well done.  The tour ends with two rooms that are unforgettable.  One takes you through the past 100 years and the genocides that have happened, from Armenia to Bosnia, Cambodia to the Holocaust, and Rwanda.  One is just shocked at how this practice is allowed to continue and left to wonder when or whether civilization will learn.  It isn't one person killing a few people; it is thousands of people killing hundreds of thousands of other people.  Each story, each time is horrific.  The second room is dedicated to the children.  It is filled with photographs of children who were killed in 1994 in the Rwandan genocide.   It tells the child’s age, favorite hobby, favorite food, favorite belonging, and then it tells how he or she was killed.  I think this is the most difficult part of the memorial.  Why does "never again" still look like "again and again?"

We moved on after that museum for a long lunch with Louis, the senior researcher for HRW in Rwanda.  Louis briefed us on the work he is doing in the country currently.  HRW's purpose in Rwanda is to make sure that when basic human rights are violated, the violations are investigated, documented, and published, and then those responsible are held accountable.  HRW does everything from briefing the US Ambassador to Rwanda on policies that they want the US State Department to push for, to lobbying the Rwandan government to allow a space where dissent can be expressed, where people have a right to free speech and protest.  The US is second only to the UK in aid to Rwanda.  Hundreds of millions of dollars come to Rwanda every year from the US.  We cannot in good conscious not hold President Kagame accountable to respect human rights.  If there isn't a space created for free press and for dissent to be heard and surface, then you create an environment that simmers and will at some point boil.  Again.  History.

Our full day was capped off by a dinner at Heaven Restaurant*.  This restaurant was started by a Bay Area couple that wanted to help create jobs in Rwanda and promote local, sustainable, organic food production and service.  We had a lovely dinner by candlelight.  Even Rwanda does not escape the power outages so prevalent in this part of Africa.

Tomorrow morning we will wake very early to meet in the lobby at 5am for a 7am flight to Kamembe, Rwanda. From there, it will be a short 20 minute drive to the Congo border.

*Editor’s Note:  Believe it or not,

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