Myanmar a chance for hope, optimism and renewal

Poverty, ethnic tension and authoritarian rule have defined Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, for more than six decades, yet today as the world waits with abated breath, these words are slowly being replaced with hope, optimism and renewal.

No where is this more obvious than in the country’s urban centers namely Yangon, the country’s former capital, and Mandalay, the second largest city, where it seems buildings go up over night.

The construction boom, and the subsequent flood of commercial goods from shoes to cell phones, is a direct result of the political and economic reforms implemented over the past two years by the ruling military junta under the leadership of former military strong man, Thein Sein.

Buoyed by the military junta’s willingness to liberalize the economy, allow the participation of political opposition parties and the release of hundreds of political prisoners, including opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, countries have begun to lift long-running economic sanctions and reestablish diplomatic ties with the country.

With Myanmar no longer isolated from the outside world, the country is playing a 21st century game of catch up that can at times make your head spin.

Here are just a few examples of the drastic economic changes that have taken place since 2010.

  • Prior to the economic reforms a Sim card for a cell phone cost an equivalent of $US 1,000, making it virtually impossible to own one. Today it costs $US 3.
  • Three years ago a school teacher would earn about 30,000 Kyat a month , equivalent to $Us 3,000. Today a teacher now earns 70,000 Kyat or about $US 7,000 per month.
  • In January 2012 the country’s first ATM’s arrived, opening up financial services to Burmese who have long mistrusted the country’s banking system. It has also allowed tourists to withdraw cash in the country, something that previously was impossible to do.
  • To purchase a motorcycle three years ago it would have cost the average consumer approximately $US 600 now it costs about US$ 400, while a government issued license has dropped to $US 100 from $US 200.

Some of the more obvious signs of economic change include the large number of international companies beginning to open up shop in the country. These companies include, Samsung, Toyota, Coca-Cola (which resumed business in 2012 after a 60 year hiatus) and General Motors.

While these companies are only beginning  to make inroads into this untapped market, the fact that they have arrived says enough, paving the way for other multinational corporations, including of course, the inevitable arrival of the country’s first fast fast-food chain.

With the country making leaps and bounds economically, many human rights activists are concerned foreign governments have moved to quickly rewarding the government for it’s good behaviour.

While there is no doubt that Myanmar still has a way to go in addressing  various human rights issues, including the ongoing ethnic violence towards the country’s minority Muslim population, democratically it has come along way in just two short years.

No where is this more apparent than the number of Aung San Suu Kyi posters, paintings, and calendars displayed openly in restaurants, hotels, and businesses.

Three years ago people would have never dared to speak openly about politics let alone display their political leanings with image of Suu Kyi.

The few instances where I engaged with local Burmese it was clear that people are no longer afraid to talk about politics. The most blatant example is the number of newspapers, both in English and Burmese, that openly criticize the government.

While Myanmar should be commended for what it has accomplished in such a short period of time two big questions remain:

Will Myanmar’s economic recovery have the intended trickle down affect that will pull the vast majority of Burmese out of poverty? And will the government uphold and respect the results of the country’s democratic elections in 2015?

The answer to those questions of course, remain to be seen, yet it is with hope and optimism that I believe Myanmar will reclaim its rightful place in the world.

Surrendering to the power of fear

On Friday I tried to meet Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga Rugerero, leader of the notorious M23 rebel movement in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, but I failed.

What I did manage to accomplish was spending $300 and getting within 15 kilometres of my final destination, before abruptly pulling the plug on the entire plan.

Blinded by my romantic image of journalism and living on the edge, I jumped at the opportunity, eager to prove I could be that journalist.

Ignoring my own personal safety and with little regard for others back home, I chose to put my life in somebody else’s hands on the promise of breaking what could have been the biggest story of my life.

In my mind, meeting the leader of an armed group known for summary executions, recruiting child soldiers, and displacing more than 250,000 people since April was the story I had been waiting for.

I saw it as my moment to prove to myself and others that I have what it takes to be a conflict reporter.

I thought if I could do this I could do anything. Fear would never be my weakness.

And wow, was I ever wrong.

Hours before I left for the final leg of my trip from western Rwanda, north across the Ugandan border to the small staging town of Gisoro, I received two last-minute phone calls that woke me from my sweaty sleep.

Both calls were from Canadian friends I had told of my not-quite-complete plan.

Citing the obvious, including that I’m 23 years old, inexperienced, and going to interview a warlord, they pleaded with me not to go through with my plan.

Being too proud to accept that what I was about to do was extremely dangerous and fraught with unexpected consequences, I told them I “appreciated their concern,” and left it at that.

I tried to forget they had called and get back to sleep.

After lying in bed for about 15 minutes with my mind racing, I decided to get up and take a walk.

Everything in my body was telling me not to go, but for whatever reason I couldn’t let it go.

I wanted it so badly that I couldn’t accept that I had come this far only to give up.

Was I really going to let this opportunity slip through my fingers?

Fortunately or unfortunately, I made a decision to pull the plug after crossing the Ugandan border.

It was perhaps the hardest, yet most logical choice I’ve ever had to make in my life.

In my heart I knew I had made the right decision, but my mind was telling me I had let fear guide me. I was being a pussy.

For years I have idolized war correspondents who report from the frontlines of history. And there I was, a day and a half away from where I started, $300 deep, with the opportunity of a lifetime only kilometers away. And I was backing out.

In hindsight, I probably did make the right decision.

After listening to my friends, I started to digest what they had told me. I realized I couldn’t answer important questions, such as why I was doing what I was doing. Nor could I tell them what the exact plan was, because I didn’t know myself. It also hadn’t occurred to me until then that if something went wrong I would jeopardize the entire Carleton program.

At that moment I realized I was not only being selfish.  In many ways I was being reckless.

My decision to hire a fixer I had met only briefly before boarding the bus in Kigali should have been the first signal.

Prior to leaving we discussed the plan over breakfast. However, there were many holes in the plan I was uncomfortable with, and I chose to ignore them.

For example, I had secured a single entry visa into Uganda, but I didn’t have a visa into the DRC or a plan for how to get back into Uganda. The plan was just to bribe the border guards, which probably would have worked—but for how much money, no one knew.

The second alarm bell I chose to ignore was my fixer himself.

After boarding the night bus in Kigali, he decided to sit at the very back while I sat three rows in front of him with nobody in between us and a seat beside me. I found this very strange, as we had barely met and it would have been a good time to get to know one another.

Not wanting to overthink things, I convinced myself it must have been a cultural thing. There was room to be had, so why wouldn’t he take advantage of it?

Upon arriving at our hotel for the night in Muszane, in western Rwanda, I tried to start conversation about family, friends, anything over dinner, but he seemed uninterested. So we ate more or less in silence.

At that point I was more than just a little concerned, but I thought maybe I was just overreacting, so I went to sleep.

After receiving the phone calls the next morning I decided I needed to get some straight answers before leaving. Again he avoided the questions and hurried us to the bus station.

At this point, I knew something was wrong. Things weren’t adding up. I still had too many questions left unanswered.

That’s when I decided to pull the plug.

After arriving in Gisoro, Uganda, I told my fixer about my concerns and that I was not willing to go to the DRC at this point. I asked him if the leader would be willing to travel to Uganda, which he has done numerous times, to be interviewed. I knew the answer would be no, but it was at least worth a try.

Defeated and disappointed in myself for giving in to fear, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had overreacted. Did I just miss the biggest journalistic opportunity of my life? Would I ever get a chance to do something similar again? Would I let fear stop me the next time an opportunity like this makes itself available?

The answers are no, yes, and no.

While I did miss out on this opportunity, I listened to my gut and took the advice of my friends, and to be perfectly honest they said what I needed to hear. They said everything I was thinking, but nobody in Rwanda was willing to put it out in the open like that. That’s what I was missing.

Perhaps if somebody had talked me through my plan, weighing the benefits against the risks, I would have but the brakes on the plan before even leaving Kigali.

In any case, it took me to within 15 km of no return to stop myself from making a choice I might have regretted for the rest of my life, if I even made it out alive.

I may never know what would have happened if I had gone into the DRC. But I made a decision I’m willing to live with, even if it meant swallowing my ego and accepting that I may not be as brave as I thought I was.

Umuganda – community service with a catch

Many things make Rwanda a particularly intriguing place to visit, but perhaps one of the most interesting and overlooked aspects of the culture is Umuganda, a mandatory community service day on the last Saturday of each month.

Since colonial times, Rwandans between the ages of 18 and 65 have been clearing their schedules once a month to help clean streets, cut grass, and build or repair infrastructure in their communities. Enshrined in law, businesses are closed and public transportation is limited from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.

The day is intended to build community involvement and strengthen national cohesion, an issue that remains sensitive after the 1994 genocide against Tutsi and moderate Hutus.

After skipping Umuganda in September because of a heinous hangover, I decided I couldn’t miss it again and made sure to take it easy the night before.

Sure enough, on Saturday morning I awoke to a very quiet city. Businesses, such as the small convenience store across the street from my house were closed and street venders were no where to be seen.

The night before, I asked my house boy  Samuel where I should meet people. He gave me a puzzled look and told me just to walk outside and I’d find people doing work.

Not sure what to think, I took his advice and headed straight into the poorer part of my neighbourhood—a place I’d avoided until then because I was a muzungu (rich, white person).

Fortunately, it was early and the few people I did meet along the way had their own plans and didn’t seem to pose any danger.

After walking for about 10 minutes down the rusty red road, full of potholes and knee-deep ruts, I decided my best chance to actually find what I was looking for would be to stop every few metres and ask people. So in my friendliest voice I asked stranger after stranger, “Umuganda?” “Umuganda?”

Most of their responses included some explanation I didn’t understand followed by a pointing gesture to keep walking, so that’s what I did. As luck would have it, I eventually ran into a group of guys around my age leaning against an old car. I asked again and they immediately called their buddy Mebel, whom they’ve nicknamed “teacher,” to come over and translate.

As it turned out Mebel really was a former school teacher in the community, and he immediately took me under his wing and showed me around.

As many Westerners who visit Africa know, when you enter a new neighbourhood it’s crucial to know a local leader who is respected by the community. I was lucky to meet Mebel, because everywhere we went people greeted us.

After waiting nearly an hour for people to arrive in the baking sun, it was finally time to get down to work.

Today’s job was to dig out a drainage ditch that had recently been filled by erosion. With about 60 other people, we worked for the better part of two hours clearing the ditch. I worked with a few men, sharing the single shovel we had and gradually moving farther and farther down the road.

It was nice to finally break a sweat from working, something I haven’t done since I worked as a landscaper. But I think for most of the people it was extremely entertaining to watch a muzungu work with a shovel. In Africa white people almost never do physical labour, so I can only imagine what people were thinking.

After we finished the task, it was time for the monthly meeting. Mebel had told me this would take place, but I had no idea I was in for a two-hour gathering in the increasingly hot sun.

From the bits and pieces of it that Mebel translated for me, the meeting seemed quite fruitful.

Recently, there had been a spike in crime in the neighbourhood, so the community decided to pool its resources and hire three security guards to patrol 24/7. Since then, the number of reported crimes had drastically declined.However, certain people owed money to pay for the initiative.

To collect outstanding money, a leader of the community and the MC of the meeting read a list of people who had a balance to pay. Mebel told me they did this to embarrass people in front of their neighbours so they would cough up the money. To my surprise, it worked.

Near the end of the meeting there was also discussion about the government’s new AGACIRO Development Fund, established last month after Western countries suspended foreign aid to Rwanda.

Citizens have been bombarded by commercials to donate money to the fund, which aims to wean the country off of its dependence on foreign aid and make itself-sufficient.

While extremely successful, the “voluntary” nature of the program is in some ways being used by local officials to test people’s loyalty to the regime.

The leader of the meeting used the same tactic again to pressure people into donating to the government. He walked around diligently with a clipboard in hand asking people to give, knowing full well that everyone could see the list of who donated what.

After the meeting I decided to invite Mebel as well as another man I’d been talking with for a beer. I watched with interest as Mebel asked for permission from the head of security to take me to the local bar just down the road.

The notion of asking for permission to drink at a local pub was totally foreign to me, but then again, the whole concept of Umuganda, and the AGACIRO Development Fund, completely bewildered me.

I tried to imagine how Canadians would react if the federal government implemented similar policies. Would you give up one Saturday morning every month to do community work? And how would Canadians react if the government suddenly started to deduct pay from people’s paychecks for a development fund?

I quickly concluded that it would never fly in Canada, yet here in Rwanda it seems people have quietly accepted these policies under the notion of nation building.

While the basic concept of Umuganda is great and all, I couldn’t shake the idea that community service be voluntary. From what I had seen and been told, Umuganda was more about being seen by your neighbours than it was about the work you did.

Sure, there are tangible benefits, but at the end of the day it was important that people saw you participating so that they could not accuse you of being hostile to the regime’s policies.  Mebel, told me that he had come to participate because he had not been in attendance since July, and was worried what people might think if he skipped another month.

Like the AGACIRO Development Fund, Umuganda in many ways has been hi-jacked by local officials to keep an eye on the local population, through what has been sold  as an “altruistic” nation building exercise.

With only a week left in this tiny East African country, to say I have learned a lot is an understatement. Every day I encounter something new and as I’ve learned what you see is often only a fraction of the truth.

Dear Mr. President

If you could ask the leader of your country anything, what would you ask?

That was the situation a stadium full of Rwandan university students found themselves in last Friday during a TV event dubbed “Meet the President.”

As I watched it with a group of friends, from the comfort of a couch, we were all shocked at what we saw.

Not a single student asked an insightful or remotely challenging question of President Paul Kagame.

What began as a promising moment with 2,000 young people directly engaging Kagame turned into a 30 minute schmooze-fest where they praised him for everything and anything.

Those that did try to engage the president with a well thought-out question failed miserably to get past their blabbering preamble. It was as if they’d never asked a straightforward question in their lives.

Before the Q&A the president told the crowd to shape their own destiny and be the drivers of their future, yet despite this challenge, the students squandered the chance to start shaping their futures right then and there.

In a country that faces more questions than answers, the students failed to ask the president about multi-party democracy, the government’s poor record on human rights and support of rebel groups in the DRC, the suspension of foreign aid for Rwanda, the freedom of the press…the list could go on and on.

Instead the students either praised the president for what he’s done, or asked such broad questions that at one point Kagame referred a student to the government’s website for information.

At first I thought the students might just be nervous, tongue-tied, and unable to get out their questions, but after a while I realized they were pulling questions out of thin In many ways it was disturbing.

Why didn’t students get organized ahead of time? Why did they allow it to descend into a  PR event for the president? Do they not have the same burning questions I do for my Prime Minister in Canada?

To me, having the opportunity to ask the leader of my country any question I want would be like winning the lottery.

How many people have died in the world trying to voice their opinions or question their governments?

And here these students were, with the entire country watching, unable to seize the moment and hold their government accountable, even for just a few minutes.

So I began to wonder: why?

Maybe it had to do with a general lack of caring—but no, that couldn’t be it. All around this country, I’ve seen Rwandans who are very proud of who they are and where they have come from.

Then it had to be political apathy, but that couldn’t be it either, because they seemed to love Kagame and everything he stands for.

Then it dawned on me.

The majority of these students come from the upper class. They’re the benefactors of Rwanda’s development and booming economy. Yes, they and their families struggled to survive during the 1994 genocide, but 18 years later they’re on top, led by Kagame, with a promising future ahead of them.

No wonder they had very little to ask their president, because for many of these students, the problems of the country are simply an eyesore. The President came good on his promises and improved their lives, so why risk asking him about the lives of others?

Unfortunately, this is the attitude I’ve found among many Rwandans.

Kagame, who is often called the “benevolent dictator,” is considered a national hero by most Rwandans.  His authority and rule go largely unquestioned by the people and the media.

I can only hope the economy continues to grow and people continue to see an improvement in their lives, because the day things begin to look bleak I worry about how this country will respond.

Establishing a free and fair press in Rwanda

Why am I here?

It’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and I’m not really sure why. Don’t get me wrong, Rwanda has been fantastic to me so far. I’ve met a lot of intriguing people and shared some wonderful experiences. It has kept me on my toes and pushed me to talk to strangers. To put it simply–it’s exactly the type of adventure I was looking for.

So isn’t that enough of a reason? I mean, this trip has exceeded all of my expectations and there’s still another month of adventures ahead. I couldn’t have imagined a better experience as a solo traveler. My friends are great, my host family is awesome, and my job has opened my eyes to a side of Rwanda rarely seen by the average tourist.

But honestly, besides my own selfish reasons, why am I here? What is the purpose of my time in this developing East African country? Is it simply to experience another one of those life changing moments, or is there more to this journey? What’s the real reason I’m in Rwanda, working for nothing, for a company that makes journalism feel more like a hobby than a job?

What am I giving back to this country?

Truth be told, during my first week in Rwanda I wasn’t really sure what the purpose of my trip was. Sure, I knew I was expected to write stories, but what could I, a lowly inexperienced journalist from Canada, do for journalism and the media industry in Rwanda?

All I really knew prior to my departure was that Rwanda had been ravaged by war, thanks in large part to the media, which spewed hatred leading up to and during the 1994 genocide. Before leaving I was told by colleagues and professors that the Rwandan media was now tightly controlled and journalists are not free to go about their business.

However, after spending a little over a month in Rwanda, I am beginning to understand my role in this country, even if at times it seems very tiny and insignificant.

Nearly 18 years after the genocide, the press’ inability to report freely and fairly is still a subject few people talk about in Rwanda. In my experience, even as a journalist, the lack of press freedom wasn’t discussed until I brought it up two weeks into my internship. That’s how it seems to be in Rwanda. People are well aware that the major media outlets in the country are pro-government, but few openly criticize it. Instead they treat the issue as an open secret.

In my opinion, the silence is partly a reflection of where this country has come from. Since 1994, the country has not only revived itself under the leadership of President Paul Kigame, it has become a shining example other East African countries are trying to emulate.

I’m proud of everything Rwandans have achieved, but I believe the progress is coming at a severe cost which has yet to be fully felt. Economically and socially speaking, Rwanda continues to beat expectations, including achieving many of the United Nations Development Millennium Goals well ahead of the 2015 deadline. But politically it remains painfully underdeveloped, having one political party that continues to dominate the political arena and a parliament that suffers from a serious case of groupthink.

For those unaware of the dangers of groupthink, here’s a quick-and-dirty explanation from Wikipedia:

“Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people,
in which the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic
appraisal of alternatives. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a
consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints.”

Single-party rule has been a double-edged sword for Rwanda—the government has been able to efficiently push through impressive development initiatives, but it has also clamped down, unopposed, on criticism from the press. So why does this matter, and where do I fit into all of this?

Well, over the past couple of weeks I have had the opportunity to listen to some of my colleagues talk about the challenges of doing journalism in Rwanda. I’ve been told about the dominance of pro-government media outlets and the lack of critical voices in newspapers, radio, and television. I have been told about being interrogated by government officials for reporting the “wrong” stories and about journalists who are currently in jail or self-exile.

I’ll be honest: after hearing stories like these, I’ve thought twice before publishing certain stories. But this is also the reason I’m here: to support fellow journalists in their desire to report free and fairly, and to lead by example — by taking calculated risks — that there is another way to do things.

Take for example the lack of media coverage this past week about Victoire Ingabire, a jailed opposition leader who is challenging one of the laws that is being used to prosecute her. In my opinion, this is a very important story that could have huge consequences for the future of the country. Yet only a few journalists are covering the story, and had I not mentioned it to my boss, we likely would have ignored it as well.

Another good example was my experience covering a parliament retreat (known as a political party retreat in a multi-party democracy, but since there’s only one party, it’s more or less the entire parliament.) In an effort to appear transparent and accountable, the government shuttled about 12 journalists to cover the event. Upon arrival we were soon told we would only be able to cover the opening and closing remarks of the daylong meeting. In other words, we were stranded 30 minutes from Kigali and expected to wait around the entire day.

During the opening speech by Rose Mukantabana, the speaker of parliament, she stressed the importance of government transparency and accountability. I found this ironic considering that we would be barred from reporting during the meeting. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only journalist in the room thinking this.

As we waited outside the room for the next four hours, we decided we needed to stand up for ourselves and request interviews when the members of Parliament took their lunch so we could get back to Kigali at a decent time. We also decided someone would need to raise the issue about being barred from reporting during the meeting.

Of course, because I was leading the conversation, it was decided that I would ask the tough question. It was an interesting moment, to say the least, when the question to the speaker came out of my mouth. She looked stunned and a little thrown off, as if she rarely had to answer a hard question. Her response was predictable, “It is a formal procedure … we have nothing to hide.” Had I not been in Rwanda I would have immediately responded by asking, “If you have nothing to hide why did you bar the media from a public meeting and turn off the sound system?” Against my better judgement, I decided to not push the matter any further, as I had already made my point, and to be frank, I wasn’t planning to use it in my a story anyway. At this point it was more about the principle of the question and the learning experience for both myself and my fellow colleagues.

I realized then and there that I’m not only here for selfish reasons, but to share, learn, and grow with my colleagues. Whether it’s by publishing unpopular stories or leading by example, I am here to support my Rwandan journalists in their mission to establish a free and fair press in Rwanda.

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Edited by Genna Buck

Observations from afar

After publishing my last post I thought I’d lighten things up a little bit and share some of my rather amusing observations about Rwanda so far:

• When the taps are flowing you better grab a bottle and store some water, because chances are the next morning you will wake up and there won’t be any, as was the case today, which is why I washed myself with a jerry can.

• Celine Dion is a musical legend in Rwanda, so don’t be afraid to sing along the next time you hear it. In fact you should, because when else will you ever have the chance to?

• Lunch buffets that cost RWF 1,000, or about $1.30, are a one-time deal. You better load up your plate with as much food as possible because if you want seconds you will have to pay again. Also don’t think that just because you are at a buffet you can grab as much meat as you want, the price usually only includes one piece of meat. I learned both these lessons the hard way.

• Just because things are cheaper in Rwanda than in Canada, doesn’t mean you become loser with your money. In fact, you bitch and complain just as you would in Canada every time something costs more than expected or you feel like you’re getting ripped off, even if it’s only 25 cents.

• Don’t be surprised if you pass a lot of people while walking, the average Rwandan generally walks at a much slower pace.

• Jamming 20 people or more on to a bus designed comfortably for nine is common, as is the general stench of body odor mixed with perfume and the smell of diesel fuel.

• In Rwanda it is quite normal for two men to hold hands while walking in public, or to grab the hand of your friend while crossing the road. It’s all about the buddy system.

• When you order a beer it’s assumed you want a litre bottle.

• Having mayonnaise with your salad instead of “salad dressing” is normal and delicious.

• Get use to seeing a framed picture of President Paul Kigame in every conference you visit. His picture hangs over head just to remind you whose boss.

Even in the Bourbon Cafe, considered the most “western” of cafes, President Paul Kigame hangs ominously above the decor.


• Kigali is the cleanest city I have ever seen, despite the lack of public garbage cans. The country’s efforts to ban plastic bags and enforce strict environmental laws have made this city spotless. It also helps that people are constantly sweeping the street and it’s a taboo to liter.

• Don’t try to jay-walk across the grassy median. It’s illegal to cross the road at points that are not designated as cross walks; it’s seriously frowned upon and I’ve been told they will arrest you.

• Enjoying a free lunch buffet after covering a conference or meeting as a journalist is common, don’t feel bad or that you are being unprofessional, it’s expected.

• Don’t think you will remember to take your daily malaria pill, because you won’t, it’s a fact of life.

• If you didn’t think black women are attractive try being surrounded by them 24/7, you’ll start to find your eyes wandering and your head swiveling.

• Almost every man in Rwanda has their head shaved. I wonder what they think of me with a head full of blond hair?

• Remember to constantly save your work because chances are if you don’t the power will go out.

• Almost no one smokes in Kigali, there really isn’t any need to because the biting smell of two-stroke engines is enough to make you never want to smoke again.

Rwanda: Turning the page on its tragic past

Four years ago I made it my goal to work as a journalist in Rwanda. It was the reason I applied to Carleton University’s school of journalism and it is the reason that I find myself in this small East African nation today.

When I first applied to Carleton in 2008, working in Rwanda had the markings of an adventure that I just couldn’t ignore. It appealed to my desire to see every inch of the world and answered my calling to step off the beaten path and push my boundaries. I saw it as the climax of 18-years of education and a challenge that I knew would change my understanding of the world forever.

To fully appreciate my burning desire to work in Rwanda I have carried a news paper clipping in my wallet for the past two years to remind myself of this incredible opportunity. Published by the Toronto Star, the story was about Michaelle Jean’s, Canada’s former governor general, trip to Rwanda in 2010 where she publicly apologized for the world’s failure to stop the 1994 genocide against Tutsi and moderate Hutus.

During her visit to the National University of Rwanda, she spoke about press freedom saying journalists must not be “captives” of the country’s genocidal past, pledging $20,000 on behalf of the Canadian government to support the Rwanda Initiative – the very program I dreamed of doing.

A year later after sending dozens of students abroad funding ran dry and it looked as though the Rwanda Initiative would fold; I was devastated.

Fortunately, Allan Thompson, a senior professor with the school of journalism and former Toronto Star reporter who reported from Rwanda during the genocide, launched a new organization called the Centre for Media and Transitional Societies (CMTS). With a broader mandate, the organization secure enough funding to once again send journalism students abroad not only to Rwanda, but across the continent of Africa.

This is all to say that after having spent more than a week already in Kigali, the capital city, I have made a conscious effort to “buy in” and enjoy every moment of this surreal experience, whether it’s jamming myself onto an over crowded bus to get to work everyday or having cold showers; this is what I came to experience.

While it’s easy to experience the daily grind of life in Kigali by just walking out your front door, it’s been a challenge for me to relate, let alone imagine, that 18 years ago, more than 800,000 people, or about 20 per cent of the population, was brutally murdered in the very country I currently call home. I think I find it difficult to comprehend because of the resilience of the people.

Remnants of shelling during the 1994 Rwandan genocide in the court yard of the parliament building in Kigali, Rwanda. Powerful reminder of its tragic past.

To put the cost of the genocide into perspective the Statistics Department of Rwanda’s Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning estimated that 99.9 per cent of children witnessed violence during the genocide, while 79.6 experienced death in the family, including 69.5 per cent who witnessed someone being killed or injured.

Take a moment to digest these statistics.

Now try to imagine that the very people I jam myself onto the bus everyday with are those same children who 18 years ago witnessed those horrible events. To say it puts my life into perspective, I think is an understatement.

A few days ago I had the opportunity to discuss the tragedy with one of my closest colleagues. He told me he witnessed many people being murdered as a teenager and was forced to hid in a swamp for more than two weeks before he was able to flee for safety. I can only imagine that what he told me was half of what he saw, never providing any details, but ensuring I understood the severity of the conflict.

Since the terrible events of 1994, Rwanda was come along way, becoming a beacon of hope for many in Africa. As you drive through the city, you can’t help but see and feel the vibrancy of a city that is turning the page on its dark past. The roads are paved, the street lights are on and everywhere you look a new high rise is being built. The city is teeming with so much economic activity (Rwanda has had an average annual GDP growth rate of more than 7 per cent over the past five years) it’s hard to believe that what happened took place less than two decades ago.

So as I pile into that over crowded bus tomorrow and for the days to come. it’s important to remember that the small inconveniences of my life, even here in Rwanda, are nothing to that of the people I am sharing a ride to work with.

Tanzanian nuns, cold showers and rolling blackouts

It’s hard to describe the exact moment you realize you’re in Africa.

For some, it’s the moment the wheels of the Boeing 737 hit the tarmac, for others it’s the official stamp from the customs officer that declares your arrival.

In my case, I’m not sure when it really hit me I was in Africa and it’s quite possible it hasn’t hit me yet, but I sure as hell know I am not in North America anymore.

As I got closer to Kigali, my final destination and the capital city of Rwanda, I began to notice subtle changes about the world around me.

The first sign was my neighbour, a Tanzanian nun, who sat next to me for 12 and a half hours from Washington D.C. to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. While meeting a nun on a bus in Canada is always a possiblility  – albeit an extremely rare possibility  – I think it was the realization that 75 per cent of the plane was entirely black, and I was, for the first time in my life, a visible minority.

Despite our brief interaction that consisted of me telling her the only two facts I knew about Tanzania: Arusha is the capital city and that I once visited Serengeti National Park with my family when I was seven-years-old, I think we got along well. Hopefully she’ll put in a good word for me.

Anyway, at this point I knew things were going to be different, but how different I still didn’t know.

As I neared my final destination, little-by-little my new reality was slowly revealing itself.  I was now one of a handful of other white people waiting to catch my flight from Ethiopia to Kigali. People smoked freely in the airport waiting room, in a building I was sure was built in the 60s. And my Scotia Bank card refused to work to pay for the drink I had ordered while I waited three hours for my ride to pick me up at the Kigali airport.

You would think after all of my travel experience I would have brought some cash with me just in case, but no, I opted to rely on technology; #fail.  Luckily after some discussion the waitress felt sorry for me and let me go without paying for it.

After arriving in Kigali and meeting my new boss Andre, who  somehow thought I was arriving the next day, I settled into my new house a few minutes away from Gare  Kimironko, the central bus station. After meeting John and Anke, a young interracial couple with two of the cutest kids I’ve ever met, Ryan, 3, and Isaac, 4,  I quickly learned that  cold showers, rolling blackouts and sleeping under a mosquito net would be my new reality for the next two months.

I think this was the moment I knew I was Africa.

Ready for Rwanda

As the sun’s rays begin to wane and the nights slowly grow longer, my mind has begun to wander, dreaming about what awaits me on the other side of the world.

It’s hard to imagine after four years of hard work and determination my dream to work as a journalist overseas is about to come true. 

In three weeks time I will arrive in Kigali, Rwanda to work for the Rwanda News Agency, a private non-governmental news agency.

This will be my base for the next eight weeks and my point of entry into a world I know very little about.

I encourage you to follow my blog where I hope to share my thoughts, ideas and feelings about the things I encounter and the people I meet along the way.

Before I leave you I thought I would share this quote by Benjamin Franklin.

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you were dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.”

No bike lane say Laurier businesses and residents

Laurier Avenue West  residents have launched a petition calling for the immediate removal of the street’s segregated bike lanes amid safety concerns and the lack of on-street parking for visitors.

The petition comes after Orléans Coun. Bob Monette asked city staff during a recent transportation committee meeting to consider making major changes to the bike lanes.

Possible changes include moving one direction of travel to an adjacent parallel street and closing the eastbound lane next winter to minimize the impact on residents and businesses.

Organized by the Bay/Bronson Resident’s Action Group for Fair Access to the Road, the petition has been circulated among businesses along Laurier. Many businesses have placed it on their front counters for customers to sign.

“We do not want to cancel the bike lane system, but we want the city to use common sense to decide how this can be done with the least disruption to both residents and businesses,” says petition organizer, Janine Hutt.

She says the cement curbs separating the bike lanes from the road pose serious safety concerns during the winter months because of snow and ice and are a headache for people with mobility issues.

Richard Asselin, a local resident and petition organizer, says the lack of parking is “killing life on Laurier.”

“Think of your own home. Generally you have parking on your own street.  Now imagine if you had to tell your guests to go park on another street,” he says, referencing numerous instances where guests have had to park blocks away from his apartment.

The lanes, which run on each side of Laurier from Bronson Avenue to Elgin Street, are part of a two-year, $1.3 million pilot project that began last July.

Prior to the launch of the pilot project, the group asked city council to consider a variety of options, including a two-way lane on one side of Laurier, using painted lanes without cement barriers, or only allowing segregated bike lanes from Elgin Street to Lyon Street. All of these suggestions were ignored, says Asselin.

Business owners have joined the petition in protest of the bike lanes because the lack of parking is hurting their bottom line.

“It’s hurting everyone’s business. If you have a delivery or if someone wants to quickly buy something they can’t because there is no parking,” says Jean Elkhoury, owner of Presse Café.

Hussein Yehia, owner of Calvina Gourmet International, agreed and says he now has to open his café at 5:30 a.m., an hour and a half earlier than he used to, in order to receive shipments.

“I am losing 15 to 20 per cent in revenue from customers because nobody can park here. If I lose customers, how can I pay rent?”

However, many bike enthusiasts argue it is too early to evaluate the pilot project, saying the city has already made various changes to the bike lanes to accommodate business concerns.

“I think it is a bit premature to make changes if it hasn’t even survived the first year yet. We should wait until we have more data,” says Hans Moor, president of Citizens for Safe Cycling.

He says there are various other reasons businesses could be losing money, including a poor economy or increased competition and they should not blame their woes entirely on the bike lanes.

Since July, the Laurier bike lane has recorded more than 200,000 trips and is one of the busiest bike lanes in Canada, Moor says.

The petition is expected to be presented to the city by the end of this month.

Last update : 22-03-2012 16:13