Thursday, June 19. Kigali, Rwanda.
Just returned from the Ministry of Education and an incredible interview with Odette Mukazi, a great woman who coordinates the Rwanda chapter of FAWE (Forum for African Women Educationalists). It’s a pan-African organization that encourages girls to stay in school, where they often drop out after primary school and in general are intimidated by boys. Tuseme (Swahili for “speak out”) is their major initiative, aimed at empowering girls and focusing on their specific education issues. They’re partnered with Orphans of Rwanda, which gives scholarships to a lot of their girls.
Odette’s not as animated as Mary Balikungeri, but she’s a force nonetheless. She grew up in exile in Uganda, returned to Rwanda soon after the genocide. When I ask if she lost a lot of family, Odette pauses and goes silent. “Yes, so many,” she says. “I have no idea how many.” I have to clench back my tears. It’s as if everything I’ve heard or learned in the last weeks, the horror of ethnic cleansing and its persistent legacy, comes rushing at me in a flood of emotion.
Odette cries and for a few minutes neither of us can speak. I grab a Kleenex. “I am so sorry,” I say, barely able get the words out. It’s a powerful moment. I wonder if my reaction surprises her. Are African men taught not to cry?
Gradually Odette composes herself and speaks about FAWE and the results she’s seen in young women. When I ask about her two daughters she brightens and says, “Yes! They are very empowered!” Matilda, the one in law school, recently confronted a Rwandan man – a former genocidaire, living in exile to escape prison – who spoke on her campus and claimed the genocide never happened. According to Odette, Matilda stood up and said, “Excuse me! I am Rwandan and there absolutely was a genocide.” He blew more steam and Matilda walked out. “He didn’t expect there would be a Rwandan in the audience,” said Odette.
Late in the afternoon I taxi to see Todd Schafer and Molly’s Brostrom, my Oakland, California neighbors who are living in Kigali for the next three years with their three children. Their temporary home is Caisse Social Estates, a development of gated homes with small front yards and a sterile, boxy feeling inside. They’re nice people and Todd’s knowledge of central and East Africa is huge – in part because he lived in Zaire (now Congo) from 1982 to 1984. He describes a harrowing train ride in third class, crammed so tight that people started to smell and some climbed up on the luggage racks to stretch out.
Todd just spent four days across the Congolese border in chaotic city of Goma. When he arrived Todd found that his colleagues weren’t there to greet him. He was taken into a private room for what seemed like a fleece-the-foreigner shakedown. But Todd surprised the guard by speaking Lingala, the national language, and got off with a $35 fee.
He said Goma is completely dominated by humanitarian groups like the United Nations and Red Cross. They’ve come to relieve the refugee problem with food and band-aid remedies, but they’ve done nothing to alleviate the disaster of four rebel groups – one of them the bloody Hutu interahamwe – battling each other and the Congolese military. As bad as the Congo’s pillaging dictator Mobutu Seke Soso was during his 32-year reign, Todd said, the chaos in the wake of his 1997 expulsion has been much, much worse.
Todd and Molly’s 9-year-old Sophie and 5 year-old Nell are cheerier than the night we dined at the Indian restaurant, Kwanza, the week before. Their son, 18-month-old Gus, is funny and adorable. T & M mention something I’ve noticed: that this is an extremely clean country with almost no litter on the streets. In the city center, scores of women in blue smocks clean the streets and sidewalks with short-handled whisk brooms.
They hope to move out of the McHouse soon and find something in Shirley’s neighborhood, Kiyovu. Todd’s driving a company car but they’ll need to buy their own. Amazing what it costs: a mid’-90s American model runs $20,000 what with taxes, shipping and overland transport. Rwanda is landlocked, and that jacks up the price.