Of course all these hills make for a rather dramatic bus ride. We had more than our share of heart-in-the-throat close calls at hairpin turns, compensated by an ever-changing kaleidoscope of spectacular views. Everywhere, through this fantastical landscape, people are walking: bundles on heads, babies on backs, uphill and down, around and down and up again. I wonder if the see the beauty, or is it a luxury for tourists on plush-seated busses?
Third impression: It’s a bit scary. Our first night at dinner we sit at an outdoor patio and eat tilapia masala, fajitas, spaghetti marinara. A small pebble sails in, hitting Annamartine on the back of the head. Streetkids outside, lurking in the shadows. A man with a stick (is he employed by the restaurant?) makes halfhearted, vaguely threatening motions in their direction. They scatter, but when he settles back against the wall they re-circle. More pebbles, periodically. No casualties. After dinner we walk out into the night and the kids swarm around, pleading with outstretched hands and big eyes. We set off walking, with vague ideas of finding a cab. We’re surprised to see the restaurant staff sprinting off in the other direction returning within minutes with a taxi for us. As we get in the begging intensifies: kids sticking their hands pleadingly through open windows. Then, suddenly, as the taxi begins to drive off, the strategy shifts. A hand shoots in fast as lightening and grabs for my purse. More hands grasp the door handle. We bang down the locks and fumble with window levers as the taxi driver slams on the gas. The kids continue running abreast with the taxi, first jogging and then sprinting, pulling the door handles, grabbing the bumper, climbing up on the back of the boot. The driver accelerates again, and the last few hangers-on give up and fall back to be reclaimed by the night.
Other impressions: A plaque at the entrance to the genocide museum announcing the museum’s sponsorship by the William Clinton Foundation and the Government of Belgium. I wonder if their consciences are clean now. The museum itself, explaining the history of the ethnic strife, how the Hutu/Tutsi categories were created by the Belgians who placed the Tutsi (those who had a certain number of cows) over the Hutu to be able to control the country more effectively. Noticing in the museum, and even more blatantly in a newspaper article commemorating the national day of remembrance, the liberal use of the passive voice:
Gorilla trecking (the preliminatires): It took a Herculean effort to get ahold of the permits. Only about 20 are available per day, so our choice of weekend was based on when permits were available. After paying broker fees, bank transfer fees, currency exchange fees… we ended up spending over $400/pop. Getting to Rhungeri took an absolutely harrowing ride: screaming around curves on two wheels, the little matatu straining to break the bonds of gravity and take flight over the edge of every cliff [I may be exaggerating slightly]. Finally we arrived as dusk was settling in. Our hotel was also some sort of religious institution and was packed with young chruchgroups. Blonde shaggy curls, hemp necklaces, and bad teenage moustaches on the boys; long conair-straightened hair, awkward fleeting beauty and ridiculously short shorts on the girls. Hormones in the air, inappropriate urges channeled into religious fervor. Approximately point two guitars per capita, and frequent kumbaya circles breaking out like pimples on adolecent skin. We also had several amusing moments when the hotel staff kept appearing in Tammy and Cara’s room to enquire whether were *quite sure* they didn’t need their double bed separated into two twins. God forbid (literally) any homoerotic sleeping should take place under their roof. This was actually a welcome change to the hotel in
The gorillas themselves: Incredible. We woke at the crack of dawn to assemble at the base camp. Racing other cars because we were told first come first served. Thanks to some tricky driving and Tammy’s take-charge attitude, we manage to secure a dream group of gorillas to visit: the one furthest away, with over forty members including about ten babies, three silverbacks, and a pair of twins. The hike itself took us through mysterious bamboo forests, led us clambering straight uphill at times, squeezing though narrow gaps in the groaning and creaking stalks. Mosquitoes, like good and bad angels, buzzing in both ears and around the soft belly and lower back areas for good measure. Then, after a patch of stinging nettles with sharp pharmaceutically-laced teeth, suddenly we came out of the forest and saw… a gorilla, just sitting there in a patch of spongy vegetation, blinking in the sun. We stopped and stared and whispered furiously, “Is he real?” “He looks kind of animatronic.” “I can’t believe we’re this close!” Then he scratched his arm and turned his head a few degrees to the left. The paparazzi went nuts. After the first gorilla was saw about 20 more members of the troupe, as they lolled about in the sun and munched juicy stalks of what I can only say approximates marsh reeds. We also followed some of them into the deep shade of some jungle trees where we watched them climb, groom each other, and eat eat eat. It was, to quote Lonely Planet, a “humbling, awe-inspiring, life-altering experience”. Well, life-altering in the sense that now I can say “I’ve seen the gorillas,” whereas in my previous, what I like to call my “before” life, I could not. But seriously, it was amazing to see them and definitely worth the effort.
I finished teaching the class on Wednesday with extremely mixed feeling. They are so grateful. But I’m getting on a plane and off I got back to the
My speech (practice at countless goodbye ceremoines in Japan has finally come in handy...):
I also want to share two poems written by John, one of the students in my English class. He performed the second poem at our farewell party. It was fabulous: he stalked up and down the floor, delivering the lines like a poetry slammer extraorinarie. I was often frustrated at RLP: lack of substantive work, terrible facilities, power trips and pettiness, little use of my legal skills. But but but... I got to teach. Was it worth it? A million times over. "
"When I came to
I SHALL EXPLAIN TO YOU SOME THINGS
You’ll ask what happened today?
And the orphans dreamy with poppies?
And the bad guns which kept beating out
The dreams of prophets uncompleted
With Nyiragongo – specks and stones?
I am going to tell you everything that happened to me
I lived near Rwanda in Goma town.
Quarter of good trees and paths
From there you could see
Christians: Protestants and Catholics
But, now like a volcano eruption
Our house was exploded
It was among the beautiful houses in Goma
Where all were Christians and students.
John, do you know?
Are you still getting ready?
Come back home and see
Mother, Sister and Brother’s death
Sergius, do you remember?
Mgwati, do you still remember in Virunga park?
My father assassinated
Do you remember how our house was?
Loud voices weep
The town is smoking
My quarter is exploding
RCD/PM and MaiMai are fighting
Unfortunately for my family:
Killing people. And for my misery:
It was all of them.
Then tomorrow flames
Came out of my quarter
Dissolving human beings
From then on fire
Gunpowder from then on,
From then on blood.
Bandits and soldiers in convoy
Bandits all over the province
Came across the border to kill people
And through the roads all over the streets
The blood of people
Ran simply, like my family’s did.
Now, I am in exile
My country and university I left
And I am destitute because of….
How many are refugees today?
How many orphans in this world?
See what they are going through
Why this tribalism and ethnic conflicts?
General Aamsi TF
Look at our dead home
Look at broken Mabanga
Houses were burned
From every street in N-K
From every dead child a rifle with eyes will rise
From every crime bullets will be born
Which will one day find a place in your hearts.
You ask why my poetry
Speaks to you of dreams and safety
Of the great life.
See the death and blood along the quarters
The blood along the town
The death along the roads
See the blood
Come see the blood
Along the street…
- John B,
II This poem relates the joy of refugees, clients of RLP in
He thanks RLP for their defense, advice, research, legal assistance, and their offer of education because without education refugees will become nothing in the future.
I dedicate, he says,
- Sarah his beloved teacher and to Genevieve, English first level teacher
- To RLP
- To the Education Ministry of RLP, and
- To his beloved lawyer PETER.
I SHALL SHOW YOU MY JOY
Longtime ago refugees asked themselves
How will they know English
Where will they go to learn from
What direction to take
And by the end
Who will be that volunteer?
Fortunately, in April 2006
Meeting volunteers at RLP
Sarah and Genevieve American ladies
Do you know?
I know what? I do not
Oh! We have found!...
Yes, the milk of our eternal sciences lives
English course, and after: computer class.
It is also for us our right here?
But, I don’t think so!
Exactly, they already told me about RLP
We go there not only for rights
But, also to learn for our knowledge and futures
For us in exile.
Go there everybody you will see
You will meet them…
Sure, we can now speak English
But class! What do we say?
May God bless them
SARAH may God bless you
RLP may God bless all of you.
Do never abandon this career
Do never forget refugees in need
We also never forget you!
Teacher, go back to the
Volunteers wherever you go
Back in peace
But, never forget us…
For all those who defend refugees
And human rights
I say –
Thank you! Thank you, thank you so much
Merci, merci, merci beaucoup
Pluros, multos, pluros mercis
Koko, koko, koko bwenene
Mwebale, mwebale, mwebalire dala
Aksanti, aksanti, aksanti
May live RLP and RLP’s staff
May live Sarah’s family
May live Education Ministry at RLP
May live, may live, may live!....
I thank you!
From John B.
My students asked me yesterday what I was going to give them for World Refugee Day. I said “um, English class?” I’m under strict instructions not to give them anything, for fear that word will spread and people will come to the class just to get a pen, a piece of paper, or a cheap notebook costing 25cents. So when I began today’s lesson with “this is your day,” they understandably looked at me like I was a bit nuts. So I asked them what the idea of a world day to remember refugees means to them. Not much: “today they are talking about us, but tomorrow they will have already forgotten.” I decided to abandon the day’s lesson plan and give them a chance to talk. I did feel a bit guilty getting them to educate me when I am supposed to be educating them, but they didn’t mind. They said maybe when I went back to my country I could tell people what I learned. They really want people to know that they exist and that they are suffering. So below are a few very random and disjointed notes I was able to cobble together from conversations with my students today, and on a few other occasions.
“We refugees are like animals. An animal doesn’t know when it’s going to die. It can only wait in its pen for the end to come.”
They don’t want to go to the camps. They say
Who are these enemies? It varies from person to person. One student of mine was the son of a government minister in
Who is protecting refugees? One man, in his 40’s (the same man with whom I got into a heated debate about religion and marriage a few weeks ago) was a preacher in
They can’t even really rely on UNHCR to be looking out for them. A related story that I heard from Lucy, one of the directors of RLP: A woman wanted to complain about her camp commandant. He was raping her. She needed his permission to go to
They also don’t trust Inter-Aid, UNHCR’s implementing partner in
“If you go to the police to tell them about an incident, they won’t believe you. They will say you did it to yourself. They say ‘you people cut yourself, you burn your houses.’ Even if you get all the neighbors to say what happened they won’t believe you. But if you pay them some money, then they may believe you. They will write you a letter that you can take to OPM. But sometimes, even if you pay the police, they will give you a letter but then they will call OPM and say ‘don’t believe this man, he is a liar who paid a bribe.’”
I don’t know how much of any of their stories are real. I have heard (again and again) from Noah my intern supervisor that I shouldn’t trust them. That they have every incentive to make up stories. Rumors of resettlement spread like wildfire: they hear that one person got resettled by telling a certain story, and all of the sudden everyone is telling the same story. They know that insecurity is the only way to get resettlement. The whole system seems set up to punish honesty. Noah told me how Inter-Aid, JRS or other relief organizations will help single women before women with husbands because in theory they are less likely to be able to support themselves. But when husbands can’t work because no one will hire them because they are refugees, this is not necessarily true. Other organizations only help AIDS widows; women whose husbands who died of any other cause are ineligible for aid. In this situation terms like honor, honesty, morality, seem bankrupt. When the choice is lie, or let your kids starve, doing the ‘right’ thing seems pretty foolish. You could make the argument that they are only hurting themselves, that a few people scamming the system ruin it for everyone, that if everyone played by the rules, they’d all be better off. But this argument rests on the assumption that the rules are fair, that UNHCR, Inter-Aid, the Ugandan government, all hold refugees’ best interests near and dear to their hearts. That none of these organizations have any vested interest, any financial or institutional stake in remaining in the refugee business.
It is very possible that my students believe they have an incentive to lie to me. Maybe they hope that if I believe them I will be able to pull some strings (imaginary strings I definitely do not have my hands on) and get them resettled. It might only be indicative of the incredible depths of my naïveté to say this, but I believe that much of what they are saying is true, at least on some level. Then again, maybe they are taking me for a ride. Fine. I can live with that. I can understand how some of the lawyers may get frustrated: they work hard every day for clients, putting themselves on the line for them, supporting them and their stories to OPM and UNHCR, and then they are made to look foolish when it comes out that the client was lying. But it’s not like the people who are lying to me are laughing all the way to the bank. They are desperate people, with precious little hope. I’d rather believe them and be proven wrong than not believe them and be proven right. As Lucy said “better they take us for fools than fascists.”
Beyond the dubious value of studying English with me six hours a week, perhaps the only thing I can give my students is a voice. I hope I have presented them as they are: men and women struggling to hold onto their humanity in an extremely de-humanizing situation. Though I have speculated whether or not they are ‘using me,’ I don’t have to speculate, I know, that on some level I am using them, appropriating their suffering and turning it into another colorful anecdote for my blog. Being conscious of this does not excuse it. In writing about my students I’ve tried to avoid anecdotalizing them. I’ve done my best to be faithful to them and their concerns large and small. I apologize if I have been unfaithful to their trust in me, or misrepresented them in any way.