Saturday, April 12, 2014

Happy Birthday to My Little Sister!

Reflections On Rwanda

[Trigger warning: there are some horrible things discussed in graphic detail below. If you are inclined to avoid that type of stuff, I suggest you stop reading here.

April 6th, 2014 was the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide, a 100-day campaign that saw the slaughter of 800,000+ people and was only halted when an invading militia successfully stopped the carnage. As anyone who has studied modern African history knows, or even anyone that has just watched Hotel Rwanda knows, the Rwandan genocide was fast, calculated, and unbelievably violent, the culmination of years of hateful vitriol spewed by the Hutu majority at the Tutsi minority. I’m not going to discuss the genocide in great detail in this post; it’s well-documented, and many people have discussed the events with more eloquence that I can. Ive included several links throughout this post for further reading by those with more expertise on the subject at hand. But I do feel compelled to share some thoughts and relate a few personal stories from my visit to the country.

Katie and I, along with Katie’s dad Garry and stepmother Holly, visited Rwanda in July 2013. Let me say first and foremost: Rwanda is a beautiful, welcoming country. The people are not monsters; they are just people, albeit people with a terrible history. I loved Rwanda, but it is a country of great paradox: astounding beauty intermixed with this tragic legacy. I posted pictures of the gorillas and the landscapes, but I kept mum on anything that dealt with the genocide. I needed to process it more. I just didn’t know what to say. It was a lot to process.

I have personally done a lot of research on the Rwandan genocide. But reading about the genocide pales in comparison to seeing the bones of the victims in front of you. Or to seeing picture after picture of the victims displayed in exhibits, the photos brought to be part of these memorials by the survivors so that their family members would not be forgotten. Or to hear the wails of a woman pierce the walls of the Genocide memorial in Kigali, full of a grief that two decades had yet to heal. It is hard to imagine, as we walked down the city streets of Kigali, greeted by friendly passersby, that less than two decades before the same streets were filled with the bodies of innocents slaughtered simply because of an ethnic rivalry that wasn’t even a salient difference a few decades before that, created and exacerbated by colonial meddling.

To Rwanda’s credit, they do not whitewash their painful history. There are genocide memorials in pretty much every town we visited, and these memorials drive home how wide-spread and far-reaching the genocide was. Katie and I were fortunate enough to visit four memorial sites during the week we were there. We visited the the Kigali Genocide Memorial in the capital city, the most formalized museum to address the event. It is one of the most potent and powerful museums I’ve ever seen. As I said earlier, I'm familiar with the events and the atrocities, but holy hell there were some images in that museum I hadn’t seen before, images and stories that I will never forget it.

In the days leading up to our being joined by Katie’s dad and step-mother, we had some time to sight-see, so we hopped on a bus and headed out to some memorial sites. We cruised about a half hour out of Kigali, then hopped on motorcycles to visit the two church sites where massacres occurred. These two churches are still filled with the items and belongings of those that were massacred. At the Nyamata site, a church where people sought refuge from the killings, it was 10,000 people killed as they huddled inside; at the Ntarama site, another church, 5000 people were killed. At these sites there are rooms displaying skulls and piles of bones, as well as glasses, old clothing, pots, pans, anything that people brought with them assuming they would return home in a few days time. The walls are full of bullet holes, one wall at one site had holes from grenades, and one site had a big black stain on the wall that we were told was made by brains and blood of children. All these things serve as physical reminders what happened. One day these items will wither up and be gone, but for now, they just sit there, unmoved. Photographs were not allowed in the buildings, but you could photograph the outsides.
A few days later, Katie and I and her parents visited a site called Murambi, a site where approximately 40,000 people were murdered as they sought refuge on the compound of a technical school. This site is one the country’s most shocking and powerful memorials: 24 rooms full of mummified bodies, preserved and bleached white by lime. There’s no glass case or velvet rope separating you from the dead; the rooms are just full of tables with the bodies spread out on top of them. You can tell what some of them looked like. Some still have hair. Some are babies. I went in 6 rooms and decided that was enough. At this site, our guide was a man who survived the genocide, though his father, mother, and several younger siblings did not. He calmly recounted his memories- I will not repeat them here- and we just listened in stunned silence. Katie’s stepmom, Holly, finally asked if he ever got angry about hat happened to him. He simply replied that his surviving younger brother now had a master’s degree, that he himself was married with children and was living on the land where his parents were murdered. “The best revenge is success,” he told us. “I’m alive and my life is good. There’s no reason to be angry.” Astounding.

I found myself walking the streets in Kigali and the villages around some of the parks we visited and looking at each person I passed and thinking “They’re old enough to remember. I wonder how many loved ones they lost?” These thoughts continued for several days, until suddenly a switch was flipped in my mind and I realized with a chill that these people smiling at me as I passed might not be survivors, but perpetrators. Maybe they didn’t kill someone themselves (but maybe they did?) but perhaps they aided and abetted the “genocidaires” in the rampage. How do they rationalize what they did? How can they live with themselves? And how can survivors again become neighbors with those that treated them as enemies?

Well, that’s the big question, and one that is providing remarkable stories of forgiveness. As this is the 20th anniversary, there are a number for stories about how both victims and perpetrators come to terms with their shared histories. Here are a few articles that address the process of reconciliation and the enduring trauma from which many survivors still struggle. Obviously, the aftermath of an event a traumatic as this is difficult and takes time and energy to recover, to heal from wounds both physical and mental, to turn neighbors that became enemies back into neighbors. To even attempt this type of social recovery from trauma is impressive. Time will tell if the process can truly heal old wounds. Twenty years or not, these wounds are still fresh and deep. Below are several articles addressing this issue:

Portraits of Reconciliation, by Susan Dominus, New York Times Magazine, April 2014

How Rwandans Cope With The Horror of 1994, by Lauren Wolfe, The Atlantic, April 2014

Unreconciled Rwanda, by Katie Magiro, for, April 2014

Regardless of what the future holds, the turnaround of Rwanda is an amazing story. When the genocide ended twenty years ago, around one million were dead, and several millions had fled to neighboring countries such as Zaire and Tanzania, meaning almost half the country’s population was either dead or in exile as refugees. The government was non-existent and had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Today, Rwanda has had steady growth in its GDP, Kigali is a safe city with excellent infrastructure, and many people will tell you that the past is behind them and that the future is promising. It’s an amazing reversal of fortune. And a lot of that has to do with the leadership of Paul Kagame, the current president. But that leadership is a complicated story.

Kagame has been described as a “benevolent dictator.” Make no mistake: Kagame has a tight grip on his country. And while his accomplishments are impressive, making him one of the West’s most favored African leaders, he is not without his critics who make some pretty serious charges against him ("benevolent" is not a word they would use). Below are two articles that critique his time as President as well as delve into his involvement in other regional conflicts. He’s a complex figure, and these articles are worth a read.

The Global Elite’s Favorite Strongman, by Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times Magazine, September 2013

The Case Against Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, by Howard W. French, Newsweek, January 2013

A few final thoughts: One of the major criticisms that is (rightfully) lobbed at the major players on the world’s stage is that the United Nations (and especially the West) did not intervene when there was clear evidence of what was to come. Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the UN Peacekeepers on the ground in Rwanda in the momths prior to and during the genocide, repeatedly attempted to spur the UN and other nations into action because he had reliable information about a planned extermination; the United Nations took no real action based on the information Dallaire provided. (Again, the genocide was a long, calculated undertaking, starting years before the actual killing began with the training of the interahamwe, which were essentially murder militias).

Hindsight is 20/20 and numerous world leaders (from President Clinton to Kofi Annan at the UN) have stated their remorse at their lack of action. (And let’s not talk about France’s complicated role in the events; Rwanda  has a very bad relationship with France, as France armed and trained the Hutu military prior to the start of the killings). But I’m not really sure that major international intervention would have stopped the killings. It definitely could have saved hundreds or thousands of lives- of that I am sure- but I cannot imagine that simply putting peacekeepers on the ground would have erased the level of hatred that had been bred in the country. An intervention years before could have made a difference, but by the time outsiders realized what was happening, the damage was done. When I was visiting the genocide museum in Kigali, I was struck by just how deeply the “rot” had penetrated the entire culture of Rwanda by the early 90’s. It makes me wonder if there was any way to truly reverse the course that the country set for itself without the explosion of violence that happened, or if the only way the country could purge itself of its illness was to tear itself apart and then take a hard look at itself in the mirror and recognize the horror it sees in its reflection.

Luckily, with these genocide memorials in every town across the country, for better or not, there’s quite a lot of mirrors into which people- both victims and perpetrators, as well as the rest of us- can gaze.  

Monday, April 07, 2014

Saturday, February 22, 2014

There and Back Again

As I write this, I am sitting at Gate 16 of Terminal 8 at JFK International Airport waiting to load up for the flight that will take Katie and I on the first leg of our trip back to Tanzania. We’ve been in the States for the last 5 weeks for a trip that saw us spending time in 8 states and traveling somewhere just shy of 3000 miles. We saw numerous friends and family, ate lots of good food, ate lots of bad food, played hours of Rock Band, met several new babies, and gave countless hugs and handshakes to those who we had the chance to see.

This was my first trip “home” to the States since we left on December 27th, 2011. Two years is a long time to be away, and I have a lot of mental unpacking to do about the experience. But I do have a few initial thoughts on the type of expatriate life we’re currently living. Indulge me a moment.

First of all, the idea of “home” is skewed. Visiting the USA was a “trip home”, but when people asked me if we were ready to return to Tanzania, I commonly said that after a month away I was ready to “go home.” I have 2 homes, but feel slightly out-of-synch in each of them. Not an unusual sentiment for folks living between different cultures. It did strike me how easy it was to settle back into old rhythms; at times it was hard to believe that we actually ever left. Thoughts of Tanzania felt like a dream.

My last 2 years have been rough for me. That’s not news to some of you, but maybe it is for others. I have struggled with several issues, and there have had periods where I very much regretted the decision to move to Tanzania. But with moral support of friends and family, reliance on faith,  and sheer force of will, I persevered and stuck it out. And I’m glad I did.

In my humble opinion, for my own mental health I think stayed away from the States too long. I’ve needed this chance to reconnect with where I’m from. Living in a culture that is different, where you cannot communicate well, where you aren’t necessarily operating at a level of any real competency at anything, where friendships are different, etc- it will wear on you. And it wore on me a lot. And one of the greatest aspects of this trip was to be reminded that I do have friends and that I’m not an idiot and that I do have things to offer, etc. Now, I don’t want this to get too much into the “call-the-wambulance” territory, (WAH-wah-WAH-wah) so I won’t belabor this point. But this trip hit the reset button in a very big way, so much so that I am looking forward to getting back to TZ because I know I can do it better this next year. I am feeling like a more complete person better able tackle the challenges of daily life in Mwanza.

The other interesting thing I have noted is how it has helped me to better observe and analyze both the cultures of the USA and Tanzania. For anyone that knows me, for years leading up to our departure in late 2011, I was obsessed with getting to Africa, some way, somehow. I always felt that I didn’t quite fit in in American culture and that I would really gel with my soon-to-be-adopted new home. But I got to TZ and realized just how utterly American I was, and was shocked to see how ethnocentric I could get. I was so out of sorts that my generally friendly nature would get ANGRY when faced with difference. I was angry at feeling like a moron all the time, angry at feeling anchorless and unnecessary, I was angry at not fitting in. A lot of that is natural culture shock, common to many ex-pats. But my feelings lingered a lot longer than I expected. The feelings passed, but these issues sadly dominated a lot of my first two years.

Now that I’ve been back in the States, I feel I have a stronger affinity to my fellow Americans. I was always proud to be where I’m from, but now I really grasped the ways that we are unique. I still can cast a critical eye on our own culture and politics, but I definitely appreciate my homeland in a way I did not before.

The same goes for Tanzania. Now that we’re away, I have had a chance to sit back and think on the place. I’m very analytical and often need time and distance to really process things fully. I was too close to be able to cast an objective eye on the place, because honestly it had pissed me off too much. But I’ve been able to appreciate my adopted home more since we've left and am quite looking forward to getting back. Again, I think I’m going to do better this next year as I approach things with a clearer head.

But I have loved being back “home” in the States, in a culture that I understand, and one that understands me. I’ll end this with a quote from Victor Hugo, written about his country of France, but applicable to all of us who have approached our homelands with clear eyes and a fresh appreciation.

"So long as you go and come in your native land, you imagine that those streets are a matter of indifference to you; that those windows, those roofs, and those doors are nothing to you; that those walls are strangers to you; that those trees are merely the first encountered haphazard; that those houses, which you do not enter, are useless to you; that the pavements which you tread are merely stones. Later on, when you are no longer there, you perceive that the streets are dear to you; that you miss those roofs, those doors; and that those walls are necessary to you, those trees are well beloved by you; that you entered those houses which you never entered, every day, and that you have left a part of your heart, of your blood, of your soul, in those pavements. All those places which you no longer behold, which you may never behold again, perchance, and whose memory you have cherished, take on a melancholy charm, recur to your mind with the melancholy of an apparition, make the holy land visible to you, and are, so to speak, the very form of [France], and you love them; and you call them up as they are, as they were, and you persist in this, and you will submit to no change: for you are attached to the figure of your fatherland as to the face of your mother."

-Victor Hugo, from Les Misérables

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Vikoi, Coming to a Town Near You (IF You Happen to Live in a Town We Are Coming Near)

This post is part advertisement and part ministry update.

Waldie and I will be heading to the States in a few days for a 5 week trip that will have us staying in 7 different states. Along with our smiling faces, we'll be hauling around a few items that will be available for purchase. By doing so, you will directly be supporting a group of women with whom I work.

In the last year, the focus of my work has really been around one group called Chanua, comprised of both children (watoto) and their caregivers (walezi). We meet twice a month with the children, who are either orphaned or just living in very difficult circumstances. At least once a month, we meet with the caregivers. Additionally, we offer various types of support to members of this group. Several women from this caregiver group joined together to start a cooperative, and they have really gelled together as a group. The group has learned to make several different types of products to sell, but by far the most successful- and beautiful- project has been making vikoi (or kikoi in singular form). Vikoi are basically tie-dyed cloth with tassels on the end, commonly used for shawls, skirts, decorations, carrying babies, etc. Here is a sampling of what we will have available to sell.

Various patterns and colors of vikoi.

Thanks to the generous donations from our friends, family and supporters, in the middle of 2013 we were able to sponsor the training for the women, which brought a facilitator in to teach them how to dye the fabrics. Here are some shots of that seminar. The women in these pictures come from 4 different women's groups.

The teacher showing the women how to prepare the fabrics for dyeing.

The women practicing folding the fabrics.

In addition to folding the fabrics, they tie it around bottle caps, which makes a nice pattern once dyed.

Dyeing and setting the fabric. It's very caustic, which is why they are wearing scarves over their mouths. Also, it seriously smells like farts.

Most women were very happy with their final products.

Since then, the women have been working with a few other teachers to learn more, practice their dyeing techniques, learn about quality control, sell some of their inventory, and build up money to increase their stock.

One of the best things that has happened to them was the bungling of their second batch of vikoi. We we working on producing a batch of vikoi for a craft fair in December, one that largely focused on a ex-pat customer base. Their patterns were slightly off, and the handiwork around the edges was a bit sloppy. I stressed how they needed to pay more attention to the details and that the quality craftmanship could really set them apart in local markets. They agreed and clearly took the advice to heart, because the latest batch is beautiful and the quality is excellent. I commend these women for really committing to their work.

We are so pleased to be able to bring some of these fabrics to the US to sell. If anyone is interested in purchasing any of these vikoi, we're selling them for $10 each (or more if you'd like to make a larger donation). All of the money will be given directly back to the women when we return to Mwanza. Seriously, I'll convert it from USD to TZ shillings and literally hand it to the treasurer of the group to be divided up among the women. This is a great way to directly support a disadvantaged group of women who are working hard to better their families and improve their lives.

We'll also be selling some  hand-crafted goods made by Sister Peg Donovan's project in Kalabezo. Sister Peg is a Maryknoll Sister who lived in Tanzania for 45 years and just returned to the States. In her time here, she started a pre-school for kids and a craft school for adults in a village, which we were fortunate enough to visit a few months ago when we attended her going away party. The women at Vema (the craft school) make purses, change pouches, computer bags, glasses cases, etc. We are bringing home some materials to ship to Peg but she gave us the go-ahead to sell any if anyone is interested.

Assortment of purses, coin pouches, glasses cases, computer bags, etc. made my the women at Vema.

Head over to Waldie's blog to see more pictures of Peg's items and some nice photos of Peg's goodbye celebration.

We have limited quantities of all the items featured above, so let us know if there's something specific you want and we'll do our best to set it aside for you. Let me know either in the comments below or via email at creid(at) Remember, everything is one-of-a-kind, so if you see something you like, it may be the only one like it. Get it while supplies last and support great causes in Tanzania!

Asante sana!

Monday, January 06, 2014

Victoria Falls, Christmas Day 2013

As many folks know, Katie and I spent Christmas at Victoria Falls in Livingstone, Zambia. We wanted to take advantage of a few leftover vacation days, so we decided that our presents to one another this year would be a trip to see what is arguably one of the most beautiful sites in the world. The trip down there was long (it's around 2500 kilometers from Dar es Salaam, and that doesn't include the flight we took from Mwanza to reach Dar) and we used planes, trains, and automobiles to get there. But the effort was totally worth it. The Falls are magnificent. Here are few selected pictures. They won't do it justice, but they're still purdy nonetheless.

Katie had a good write-up of the whole trip on her blog, so go there and see pictures of the train adventure, walking with rhinos, Christmas Mass, and a lively rendition of a Zambian take on "Happy Birthday."

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The Rainy Season, Illustrated

So I was talking to one of our soon-to-be-arriving new missioners earlier this week, and she had some questions about the rainy season. After talking with her, I thought I would describe the rainy season to you, my dear readers.

It does not rain all day during the rainy season, nor is it gray and overcast, like I imagine Seattle to be for long stretches of time. We have very few days that are actually like that. In reality, during the rainy season, it is NOT raining for about 98% of the day. But when it DOES rain, it rains an incredible amount of water in a relatively short time. It is shocking sometimes how much rain comes down in these violent storms that appear out of nowhere and then blow over just as fast. And then it is super hot and sunny and humid again for until the next rain (which is not unlike a lot of summer storms in the southeast USA). It can actually cool down the temperature a bit when the rain comes at night, as it often does, but those storms are just as quick.

So here's a nice simple illustration of the rainy season.



Do note that Mwanza is very hilly, so the amount of water flowing downhill and gathering together causes some pretty gnarly flooding post-storm. About 45 minutes after this was taken, the stream was passable again for those on foot. It's pretty crazy. All this water collects and often floods roads as it flows into Lake Victoria. It can be so much and so strong that cars could be washed off the road. Luckily that hasn't happened in our neighborhood since we've been here.

Katie previously wrote about the water flooding due to garbage clogging the drainage passages, but that was nothing compared to the sheer amount that flowed past today.