Author Archives: Brynn Muir

Casual Chats With A Murderer

Before the genocide, there were approximately 8 million people living in Rwanda. After, the conditions were strikingly different. One million corpses. Four million people in exile. One million murderers. Rwanda was dead. It is absolutely incredible to look at the conditions immediately after the genocide (90% of Rwanda’s budget depended on the generosity of foreign aid, for example) and compare them today (45% is now comprised of foreign aid, not even two decades later). Rwanda has done an astonishing job of rebuilding, its accomplishments due in no small part to its strong governmental leadership. Though President Paul Kagame’s political strategies have recently been criticized in the international community, this country has advanced to a point of incredible development in spite of its tender age of 16 years (if you count only the peaceful years…and they do).

It was 1994, and Rwanda was in tatters. Paul Kagame, the new leader of this broken nation, was faced with astounding challenges – healthcare, education, infrastructure, proper burial of the dead, and prosecution of genocidaires were only a few of his problems, and each one was the MOST urgent issue. One of the most pressing issues was manifested in the country’s need to take murderers off its streets to the safety and satisfaction of the surviving public. Where would a country roughly the size of New Jersey incarcerate one eighth of its population? And where would the country go from there? The United Nations’ program, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, was formed to help prosecute the organizers and leaders of the genocide. (About damn time, UN! Food for thought: was the United Nations’ eagerness to participate in prosecution of genocide crimes too little, too late for Rwanda, or was it right for them to step in when they neglected to before? Form your own opinions on that one…and if you’re curious, there are several books from various viewpoints which assess the effectiveness of the UN on matters of genocide and other crimes against humanity. It‘s fascinating, frustrating, messy stuff, but well worth looking at.) The downside (one of several) was that Rwanda was left with everyone else. This included murderers, looters, rapists, and vandals – anyone who did not happen to be a mastermind fell to the jurisdiction of Rwanda’s local governments. It was obvious that if every perpetrator were tried formally, it would take well over one hundred years to finally finish the process. In the meantime, families of victims would be receiving no justice, the country would be allowed no peace, and the genocidaires may never even see legal consequences to their crimes. It was a system too inefficient and small for a catastrophe of such magnitude, and it left the country divided once again. Kagame’s solution? An old Rwandan fallback method of working out disputes which allowed the entire community to participate, give input, and see justice served to a restorative end (in lieu of retribution): Gacaca.

Gacaca, pronounced “Gah-cha-cha,” is a kind of grass which grows under trees. When there was ever a problem or dispute between members of a particular village or community, the entire group affected would meet under the tree to mediate, be honest, and resolve the situation to the satisfaction of all who observed. This is how the fate of the perpetrators of genocide would be decided. Imagine this: The court is held outside. A few men and women sit at a table in a row. They wear sashes that designate their authority as Gacaca Court justices. They have earned this title simply by being able to read and write, and by being “honorable citizens” approved by the rest of the community. A few men (and sometimes but less commonly women) are seated in a row wearing pink jumpsuits and handcuffs. Often an entire village will be seated on the ground, including survivors, family members of victims, and witnesses. At these trials, the defendants in pink will have an opportunity to speak to their innocence or to confess their crimes, and anyone in the community who wishes to speak either way – witnesses, family members, anyone who knows anything – is allowed time in front of the court. They will stand amidst the sitting crowd and speak what they know to be the truth. This is an effective trial strategy for a society whose entire frame of reference is one which is communal, as well as cathartic for victims and witnesses to be able to have a hand in justice for those people who have hurt them so badly. The judges find perpetrators innocent or guilty and sentence them with more leniency if they tell the truth of what they did. In exchange for information about where bodies are buried, details of murders, exposition of other names of genocidaires, and a request for forgiveness, genocidaires may receive a number of different types of leniency, including a sentence to a work camp called TIG.

Pronounced “teej,” this organization works exclusively with genocidaires who have admitted to their own guilt in the perpetuation of genocide. I visited these guys the other day with my fellow genocide nerds and we had the opportunity to ask these guys some questions.

We hiked a little ways down a mountain to where some men and women were working. They work all day every day doing some old-school rock breaking with sledgehammers and fire pits. It is definitely backbreaking stuff. At first, I didn’t feel bad for these guys at all. They killed people. Brutally. Ten or twenty years of this is a cakewalk, a handout. I found myself actively hoping that they suffered under the hot equatorial sun, that every time they got splinters of rock in their eyes they would remember why they were there, experiencing such bad conditions. I found even less pity for the women – it takes some crazy groupthink give-in to kill people in the street with machetes as the men did, but it takes a special kind of irreverence for human life to participate in what these women did. When I found out what they had done, why they were here 16 years later, I had only rage for them. In my mind, someone who takes Tutsi children and suffocates them by throwing them into latrines and holding them under until they suffocated in shit, or who takes Tutsi babies and swings them by their feet against trees and the walls of church buildings deserves a heck of a lot more than ten years of pounding rocks for gravel in a place where there’s sweet-smelling trees and a nice breeze to tickle your face. After seeing Murambi (see post: “Genocide: Everybody Loses”) and the fruits of such labor, it was incredibly hard for me to see these people are human beings instead of soul-less, evil killing machines.

We approached one of the men who was working on this hulkish rock, pummeling it into smaller chunks that would be used to gravel or cobblestones for the roads. We watched as he swung the giant hammer over his head and let gravity take it down. It is difficult not to think of how these very people used tools in the same way 16 years ago, save for the fact that instead of a rock beneath the force of the hammer there would be a human being. That’s not fair, and I realize that…but the mind sometimes associates what it wants. He stopped his work and came over to us at the beckoning of another man who had been chatting with my advisor. The man’s eyes were averted to the ground until he came face to face with us. When he lifted them, I saw exactly what I thought I would never find at this camp: sadness. There are defiant eyes, there are dark, angry eyes, there are emotion-less eyes…and, apparently, there are sad eyes. This man’s despair was obviously profound, in spite of the fact that he was actually to be released forever that very day. He was not excited to be going back home to his family, and he was not confident that his community would accept him, but it was the reality of his situation and he was going to accept that. We asked him several things – how many people did he kill, has he been forgiven by his family and by the families of his victims, why did he do it, has he forgiven himself? His answers were honest and candid, and he accepted responsibility for his actions, which is not as common as one would like to think. “The radio made me do it!” and “The government pressured me!” are not acceptable defenses for this behavior in my book, but they are the most commonly used. In a way, they are somewhat valid. The masterminds of the genocide knew that Rwandese people are extraordinarily obedient, and they capitalized on that as well as the attitudes fostered by the Belgians about the oppression of the Hutu.

As this man spoke, he showed an immense amount of shame and remorse for what he had done. He said that he had made peace with God for his actions, but that he still experienced guilt. He gave a faint smile at the mention of his release, and I was struck by the fact that this guy was nervous to see these people. Yes, he should be, and he should feel remorse and regret and all of those lovely things that go along with mass murder, but this guy was just pitiful. He was swept up (by choice, we must remember) into this serial-killers-r-us effort, and he must live with that for the rest of his life. He has a wife and children and those people, the people that many of us depend on for our love and acceptance, will always see him as a man who killed several people out of hatred. He missed his children’s childhood. He missed out on his own younger years. He took away entire lives. Now, having realized the gravity of what he has done, he must live with this reality for the rest of his existence. It really was pitiful to watch this man speak of his shame and guilt and the fact that he would have to face these people today. I found myself caught between hatred and love for this guy, and I realized that the President had put these guys in this camp because he knew that abiding in hatred was not going to unite or heal his country. He put these people to work to rebuild the country they had worked so hard to destroy, and sought to reintegrate these people into their home villages.

The survivors of this genocide have been faced with the hardest decision a human being must make: They must live side by side with these killers. Do they forgive them and love them and show them the mercy they could not show their victims, or do they give them the hatred and the ill-wishes that they have earned? Forgiveness means different things to different people, but it seems that Rwanda has chosen forgiveness in its varying degrees over a life of hatred. They have said “enough is enough” to the cycle of disgust and violence that began so many years ago, and now they seek a united front in which they can work together for the good of their nation and their children. So many of these people know that if they are to survive and see their grandchildren live in peace, they must stop the hatred here. They have shown mercy, and so far, have not been disappointed. I envy them that ability. I don’t know if I could love these guys, and I wasn’t even here to see the results of their efforts. It had nothing to do with myself or my family, and I don’t know if I can get there. But after seeing the way people forgive, I can promise to try.

We might just take a lesson from these merciful, compassionate, loving human beings. If they can forgive their neighbor for killing their child, and if they can hold no ill will for the people who made their families suffer in this red dirt, then what are we doing holding grudges against one another for small offenses, for political disagreements, for differences in perspective? This world will continue to be built on love and destroyed by hate. If both forces are at work at all times, then our contributions surely must make a difference. Which side will we support as human beings with one shot at this life? This choice is one which we must make constantly, and as we choose we fulfill our responsibility as members of this amazing human race to take care of one another. When we forgive, we live lives of grace and allow one another to do the same. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”


Posted by on November 18, 2010 in Uncategorized


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“If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.” – Aristotle

Perhaps a little background on the genocide might be nice. I haven’t put too much of the history of the genocide up here, and it is entirely relevant (and not at all boring, so stick with me on this). The Tutsi Genocide was not just a random event that happened to wipe out almost an entire population of people; it was a carefully calculated, astonishingly efficient, ruthlessly executed plan that had been in place save for a start date for years leading up to the killing. In fact, this genocide was not the first, not the second, and not the third time that Tutsis had been slaughtered for the simple fact that they had “Tutsi” stamped on their identification card. How did those stamps appear? Well, my friend, the answer to that is where we begin our quest for our answers to all of the “But, why?” moments that this situation has fostered.

The answer? Belgians. I know, you’re probably thinking, “But Brynn! How can Belgians be bad? They have a cool shape, they’re great with syrup OR fruit and thus quite versatile, not to mention they are served at IHOP, which is an international organization!” Got me there. However, there is more to Belgium than its waffles. In fact, Belgium’s main contribution that we are concerned with today has less to do with breakfast glory and more to do with colonization.

When the Belgians arrived in Rwanda, there were three groups of people: The Tutsi, the Hutu, and the Twa, which is really the only group that can even be remotely classified as a tribe or race of people. The Tutsi and the Hutu were not ethnic groups, but were instead economic classes and were associated loosely with profession. The Hutu were crop farmers who tended to be poorer and the Tutsi were cattle farmers, which resulted in a wealthier place in society. Hutu and Tutsi were never tribes. Ever. That is, until Belgium came and revealed to the Rwandese people the fact that they were, in fact, different ethnicities. Imagine not knowing your own identity until a nice European enlightened you to it only moments after the first time they set foot on your continent! They measured the dimensions of people’s noses, looked at wealth as they perceived it, and decided that based on appearances there were two distinct races apart from the Twa. (If I’m being unclear, this is all Belgian fairy tale. In no way is the Belgian assessment legitimate.) Some characteristics of the Hutu, according to the Belgians: Short; ugly, big head; thick-set; flat nose; thick lips; low forehead; rough; nose with a width of 43.16mm; inferiority complex; simple; childlike; passive; less intelligent; spontaneous; shy; lazy; dirty. In contrast, some characteristics of the Tutsi, according to the ever-observant Belgians: Beautiful features; intelligent; refined feelings; natural-born leaders; polite; clean; diplomatic; clever; hard-working; light color; tall; well-proportioned; fine lips; thin nose; wide brow; beautifully shining teeth; nose dimension of less than 38.71mm. Some characteristics of the “pygmoid Batwa” according to the Belgians: a quickly disappearing race; monkey-like face; “not different from apes, they hunt in the forest;” very big nose with dimensions of 45.56mm. The Belgians registered and recorded who was in which group and issued identity cards which were to be carried on one’s person at all times.

Wow. Now if that weren’t enough to create some hostility, the Belgians made sure there would be division by offering the Tutsi minority all of the employment and educational opportunities, as well as governmental leadership positions. When the Tutsi leadership eventually tried to get more independence, Belgians retaliated and mobilized Hutus to take power from the Tutsis. The Belgians encouraged political parties based on ethnicity and groomed the Hutu through propaganda and even church sermons that the Tutsi were the ones who were oppressing and exploiting them, not the Belgian leadership itself. Tutsi children were even asked to identify themselves in classrooms and publicly shamed by Hutu teachers in an effort to dehumanize them. Clever strategy, and something we’ve seen before in every instance of the classic divide-and-rule strategy. When the Hutu oppressed majority began to become embittered by their circumstance, they proceeded to mobilize into political parties and foster a genocidal groupthink.

There were several times from the 60’s after control was grasped by Hutu extremists until 1994 in which Tutsis were slaughtered for no reason other than what seems to be economic retaliation as a result of Belgian manipulation. (It should also here be noted that most Hutu people are not extremists with genocidal ideology, and that there were several of what are called “moderate Hutu” killed in the ‘94 Tutsi genocide. Extremists are loud and tend to brand an entire group, and here, as anywhere, the “Hutu” subgroup is not homogenous.) The genocide was being practiced under several different Hutu regimes, and the government did nothing but support the efforts. Many Tutsi families fled to places like Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and the DRC. When the exiled Tutsi forces had organized into a rebel group and had attempted and failed a few times to reinvade Rwanda, they got themselves under control and were led by Paul Kagame (current Rwandan president for the second time and former acquaintance of Ugandan president Museveni during his campaign in the Ugandan bush – I know, it’s a lot of info and it’s all very confusing, but this little tidbit merely serves to show connections between the conflicts in the region). In 1990, the newly formed Rwandese Patriotic Front under Paul Kagame invaded Rwanda.

Four years later, after fighting and tension and a clamp-down by the government on Tutsis had resulted in some peace talks between the then-President Habyarimana and the RPF leaders including Kagame. For the previous few years, some pretty intense “Hutu Power” stuff was being propagated. One example of such shenanigans is manifested in The Hutu Ten Commandments, which are as follows:
The Hutu Ten Commandments
1. Every Hutu should know that a Tutsi woman, whoever she is, works for the interest of her Tutsi ethnic group. As a result, we shall consider a traitor any Hutu who
-marries a Tutsi woman
-befriends a Tutsi woman
-employs a Tutsi woman as a secretary or a concubine.
2. Every Hutu should know that our Hutu daughters are more suitable and conscientious in their role as woman, wife and mother of the family. Are they not beautiful, good secretaries and more honest?
3. Hutu women, be vigilant and try to bring your husbands, brothers and sons back to reason.
4. Every Hutu should know that every Tutsi is dishonest in business. His only aim is the supremacy of his ethnic group. As a result, any Hutu who does the following is a traitor:
makes a partnership with Tutsi in business
invests his money or the government’s money in a Tutsi enterprise
lends or borrows money from a Tutsi
gives favours to Tutsi in business (obtaining import licenses, bank loans, construction sites, public markets, etc.).
5. All strategic positions, political, administrative, economic, military and security should be entrusted only to Hutu.
6. The education sector (school pupils, students, teachers) must be majority Hutu.
7. The Rwandan Armed Forces should be exclusively Hutu. The experience of the October 1990 war has taught us a lesson. No member of the military shall marry a Tutsi.
8. The Hutu should stop having mercy on the Tutsi.
9. The Hutu, wherever they are, must have unity and solidarity and be concerned with the fate of their Hutu brothers.
The Hutu inside and outside Rwanda must constantly look for friends and allies for the Hutu cause, starting with their Hutu brothers.
They must constantly counteract Tutsi propaganda.
The Hutu must be firm and vigilant against their common Tutsi enemy.
10. The Social Revolution of 1959, the Referendum of 1961, and the Hutu Ideology, must be taught to every Hutu at every level. Every Hutu must spread this ideology widely. Any Hutu who persecutes his brother Hutu for having read, spread, and taught this ideology is a traitor.

Children were asked to stand in classrooms if they were Tutsi and were shamed and humiliated by their teachers and fellow students, and more importantly, were led to believe that being a member of their own ‘ethnicity’ was a negative thing. People were disgusting simply because they were born to parents whose own ethnicity had been created on the basis of nose shape and size. Not to state the obvious, but this is absolutely deplorable.

The “Hutu Power” extremists had been preparing for some time, and violence was inevitable. It was only a matter of time until this hatred came to a head. While propaganda was being spread and machetes were being purchased and support was pouring into the Hutu army and Interahamwe (army of young men trained specifically to kill Tutsi) militia from France, ideology was being spread to make common Tutsi people believe that they deserved to die. When the genocide did finally begin, some Tutsi even accepted death without much of a fight. The odds were stacked against them, and it was no surprise to many when death came for them at last.

The genocide lasted from the beginning of April until mid July, 1994. A minimum of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered. Recent figures have even claimed that it was actually 1,074,000 people who died in 100 days. The remarkable thing about this genocide in comparison to other events of a similar nature is the efficiency of the killing, as well as the fact that the organizers of this genocide made sure to implicate as many people in the killing as possible. They knew that if they killed every Tutsi (as was the goal) and left no witnesses, not to mention implicating every single person in the atrocities, there is no way they would be able to be punished. In some ways, they were right. Tomorrow I’ll post on the justice systems that took care of the killers of the Tutsi genocide, numbering well over one million.

This genocide was carefully crafted, meticulously planned, and executed with shocking speed. Let us take care to remember that those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it. We need to pay attention to current headlines and know that our attention to these events does matter – our attention as Americans, as Westerners, as people of influence, as fellow human beings, can do so much. If we are to make any sort of difference, however, we need to first open our eyes to the realities of this world, and as Winston Churchill said, “Never, never, never give up.”


Posted by on November 17, 2010 in Uncategorized

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The world is hard.

Not just made of rock, not just difficult to figure out, but honestly hard. It’s seen its fair share of tragedy. It has been embittered and fatigued by the endless bombardment of human suffering. It has been worn to its raw nerves by the constant barrage of the failures and inadequacies by organizations meant to stop the violence that plagues this planet. I guess I have heard things and seen things in the last two months that have left me a little hard, too. Giving up seems like the best option when the whole world is falling apart. It is so seductive to throw up one’s hands and abandon everything that stresses us out in favor of a life lived in blissful ignorance. We can easily step back from this huge hunk of rock and realize our happiness as human beings, never bothered by the inconvenience of unsavory experience. We gladly (on a daily basis) leave this space junk to its own devices.

But you know what? The world we know and need force ourselves to remember is made of so much more than geology and geographical features. It is made of flesh. Living, breathing flesh that begs for the opportunity to live a life like the one we all want. Unfortunately, most of the people with whom we coexist on this planet may never have the opportunity to live in the peace and freedom we take for granted every single day.

Now, my friend, before you go and think that I’m about to make some self-righteous case for American self-loathing, give me a shot. I’m actually doing nothing of the kind. I am asking you to think about your life. Although you are a wonderful creation in yourself, you are more than that. You are more than an important member of your family, of your neighborhood, of your hometown. You are more than an American, more than a Westerner. You are part of the only race on earth able to choose to live peacefully or go to war with your fellow members. You are part of the only group to have the ability to drastically change the circumstance of your neighbor, or to assist in efforts to marginalize and ignore the suffering of those who live in uncomfortable circumstances. You are human, and being so, you have immense power: Power to influence, yes, but we all know that life isn’t perfect and that bills take a place of higher priority than the ambiguous plight of a distant stranger. It’s understandable, and not wrong. I am not, however, speaking of the power of influence directly. I am speaking of the power to pay attention.

I can not tell you how many times in the past couple of months I have heard excuses by the United Nations, by American political leaders, by other International talking heads about their lack of involvement in the Tutsi Genocide, LRA War, and other conflicts. You would think that the general consensus would have something to do with resources or a desire to preserve troops. Those are there, yes, but the most common and by far the most frustrating excuse is the one which claims ignorance. Clinton’s visit to Rwanda after the genocide yielded one such excuse: “All over the world there were people like me sitting in offices who did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.” The evidence to refute this statement is overwhelming, and is not generally perceived here (by my observations) as an acceptable statement. It is unacceptable to me (and please keep in mind that I would head the list of people ignorant of global conflict and political turmoil) that this would even be a plausible explanation for allowing a million innocent people to be ruthlessly slaughtered. It is not the first time that the sheer volume of humanity’s ignorance has filled mass graves to overflowing, and it will not be the last, unless we do something about it. If the problem really is exacerbated by the fact that no one is aware of what is going on, we need to get informed. I know. I know the world is going to hell and that there’s too much to pay attention to. I know many people who don’t even watch the news because it’s so depressing. We’ve become hardened by the pain of an imperfect world. But let me make this plea: These people cannot afford our hardened hearts. Survivors of the Tutsi genocide, the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide, and every other genocide that has happened in this world largely unnoticed need us to know, to pay attention. How can we claim never again to genocide when most of us have no idea that some of these conflicts even happened? Right this second, my current neighbors are engulfed in bitter struggles. The Democratic Republic of Congo and the Sudan are both in the throws of some pretty heinous stuff. Guinea, a country in West Africa, is experiencing a serious internal displacement problem due to upcoming elections today, right this second, not 16 years ago. (Here’s the link if’n you happen to be curious: Uganda itself has been involved in some anti-homosexual assaults and public humiliation as a result of its recently considered homosexual ban. ( Please, please, don’t let these things happen unnoticed. This is the stuff of nightmares, folks, and we need to be aware. Don’t look at this as thousands are displaced, or the genocide killed a million people. Look at it as Aegis Trust (for prevention of crimes against humanity) illustrates in an awareness video: The genocide killed one person. A person with hopes and fears and people who loved them. Then it killed another. And another. One man was displaced in Guinea, one with opinions and ideas and ambitions and hope. Then another was displaced. And another. This happens to individuals, not statistics. Our hardness of heart serves no one, and the world cannot afford to turn a desensitized eye to the suffering of our sisters and brothers.

I leave you with a quote by Martin Niemoeller: First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me. I’m not asking you to uproot your life and move to a third world country. I’m asking you to remember that humans across the world are just as deserving of our attention as the celebrity you follow on Twitter or your favorite sports hero. I’ve said it early, I’ve said it often, and I believe it is very true: We are all in this together.


Posted by on November 4, 2010 in Uncategorized


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Genocide:Everybody Loses.

A warning in regards to this blog: I will be describing my experiences at the Murambi Genocide Memorial.  There are no images, but I feel it is necessary to convey the gravity of the genocide through the eyes of this particular memorial site.  As a result, the description may be disturbing. I will be posting again soon – something not so upsetting – so be sure to come back if this post isn’t for you.
For the last few days I have been in Butare, a town that was and remains, as everywhere else in this nation, a place effected greatly by the genocide of 1994.  While there I visited Murambi Genocide Memorial, a place that is unique even among memorials here in Rwanda.  There is not much history to be learned, nothing to be read, and there barely exists a narrative to describe what happened here.  Nestled in some of the most beautiful hills this country claims (which is saying something, as the whole country is one gigantic group of rolling hills) lies a small group of buildings containing the painful memories of a not-so-distant tragedy.
On the grounds there are three buildings with a total of 28 rooms.  As I approached the first room, I was first struck by the distinct smell.  There was no mistake that real death hung in these rooms.  In this first room, as in each of the rooms, there is a series of traditional Rwandan beds – lightweight wooden strips of wood on a frame that sits high enough to allow people to sit comfortably beneath it. On each of these beds, laid neatly in rows, is a series of corpses.  They have been bleached white by the limestone  used to preserve them, but they are eerily recognizable.  Their preservation has locked them in the exact position in which they died.  Facial features are still distinct, and there is still hair attached to some of the skulls, a personal representation of the person this skeleton used to be.  There are bodies of children, of teenagers, of elderly women and men, of people my parents’ age.  There are corpses of babies clutched in the arms of their helpless mothers.  There are bodies whose faces and mouths, frozen in a stretched scream of anguish display clearly the true horror they experienced as they died. There are bodies whose arms are raised evidently in vain to shield themselves from the attack which would end them.  Each body displays graphic evidence of how they died on this hill.
These people were the residents of those living in the villages surrounding this hill. The French ill-fated effort to create a supposed safe zone for the locals called “Operation Turquoise” attracted these visitors to this hill under the impression that the French would protect them.  Instead, the villagers congregated on this hill which was so easily accessible from every direction to the people who ended up killing them while the French (unwittingly? No one is sure.) provided an escape route to the DRCongo for the perpetrators.  The genocidaires, those who killed during the genocide, attacked from all angles of the hill and threw grenades at, shot at, and hacked to death with machetes almost every single person of the 52,000 who had sought refuge there.  The bodies bear witness to the mode of killing they experienced in horrific detail.  One of the bodies in particular sticks out in my mind:  there was a small mass of flesh and bone laying on a bed, almost unrecognizable.  It took me some time to realize that it was the body of a toddler who had been the victim of a grenade attack and that he was missing his head.
What is all of this for?  This exhibit highlights the fact that this genocide took lives, and not just hypothetical numbers in a statistical report.  This was an utterly senseless loss of life, and it is truly a tragedy.  There are more bodies in many of these rooms than there are people who I feel truly close to in my life, and just like that, they were gone.  I could fill half of these rooms with all of the people I know.  These people were destroyed.  As I walked from one room to the other, I experienced an overwhelming feeling of shame and regret.  The West could have and should have stopped this.  In one of the rooms I entered, I saw that most of the bodies were those of children.  What purpose does it serve to take the lives of innocent adults in a village who have no political power or aspirations or wealth, let alone the babies and toddlers and middle school-aged children of those adults?  It is horrifying to imagine that people are capable of such an act at all, let alone an entire nation becoming involved.  As I entered this room, I felt a consuming urge to apologize to them.  I said I was sorry and that I didn’t know why we abandoned them. There isn’t much else to say.  It was only after I said these things aloud that the presence of these bodies became accusatory.  The silence of their replies and the hollow echoes of a useless apology rang in my ears.  I took my scarf from my nose.  The smell was almost overpowering, but I didn’t care.  It was not the choice of these people to become what they now are, and I felt the obligation to acknowledge and not shy away from every gruesome, true, consideration-worthy aspect of their reality.  This is what genocide is, what killing produces.  We will do well to remember this when we see a ten-second blurb about violence happening somewhere in the world. That could be your family if you were not born into your circumstance; it could be mine.
As I sat on the hillside after I viewed the seemingly endless rooms of corpses, I raised my eyes to the hills.  Mountains have always been a source of inspiration for me, a source of life.  I tried to imagine what it must have been like to come here with my family – with my parents, my sister, my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and every person I loved in the entire world. Put yourself in their shoes. You’ve come to this hill because of the promise of hope, of life.  You look to the hills for a someone to come, anyone, who will save you from this fate.  Every day you hear of more killings and desperately hope that the safety you have been promised will be steadfast; that you’ll live to see your kid sister go to college; that your parents will live to see your kids grow up; that you won’t have to endure the pain of watching your friends be chopped to death, or that they won’t have to endure the hopeless horror of watching you die in the dirt.  Every morning to wake and pray to your God to come and save you, having total faith that He loves you enough to save you from this.  You hope for life every day until the day you wake and see that where you had hoped there would be soldiers advancing to protect you, you see nothing but young men with machetes, eager to cut your body until it simply stops.  I cannot imagine the hopelessness, the betrayal, the despair they must have felt.
In Joseph Sebarenzi’s book, “God Sleeps in Rwanda,” he recounts his experiences throughout his life and political career in Rwanda.  I found myself asking the same questions he asks in a part of his book in reference to his family being slaughtered in the genocide: “I thought of the ancient Rwandan saying, Imana yirirwa ahandi igataha I Rwanda, meaning ‘God spends the day elsewhere, but he sleeps in Rwanda.’ Where was God when men, women, and children, the old and the weak were being mercilessly slaughtered? He was asleep, it seemed to me.  My mother and sisters and all of the other people who were killed had prayed for protection – was God listening to their prayers? Or was He in a deep slumber, oblivious to the suffering of nearly a million people?”  The whole things seems absolutely senseless.  These people put every ounce of faith they had in the West and in God, clinging to life with anything they could grab on to, and it feels much like they were betrayed by us both.  Where was God? Doing more important things? There is nothing, nothing, nothing more important than this.
As I sat there in disbelief, I watched as a man came up and talked to one of my program directors.  They spoke as old friends do, smiling and prolonging their handshake.  Our director told us that this man’s entire family – his wife and all six of his children – had been murdered here but that he had hid among their corpses and somehow survived.  He told us that over the years he has seen this man in his process of dying.  Working at this place every day of his life has been slowly killing him, but that he feels it is so important that he will continue until the genocide claims his life years after its conclusion.  Victims of this horrific violence are not limited to those now at rest – the deaths continue.  It feels so helpless to come here and know that there is so very little that we can do as Westerners, but it also seems silly that the survivors of such events are the ones on whom the responsibility is placed to maintain and create these memorials. They have sacrificed their families for awareness – isn’t that enough?
The next day we traveled into a village to a women’s cooperative which is comprised of the wives of men who died in the genocide, as well as the wives of men who are in prison for committing those murders.  These women coexist, work together, live together, and work for peace in spite of their husbands’ hatred.  They have asked for forgiveness and given it to one another, and they strive to raise their children without an awareness of ethnic affiliation; those kids are more passionate about peace than many people in this nation.  One of the women asked us to bring a message back to America for them, and so here is her message, and so the hope that we can see in this fog of death.
“Tell them our story, but then tell them to love.  Live your lives for love.  Listen to one another.  Be with one another.  Understand one another.  Do this, and love will come.  If you love, this will never happen again.”
So now it is upon us to decide.  As we live, we decide which story we let win and in doing so decide who we are as humans.  We must let the truths of death through hatred and life through love both be remembered, but only one may triumph at the end of the day. Which truth will YOU live by?

Posted by on October 22, 2010 in Uncategorized


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To the Rwandan backcountry!

I’ve been struggling through my Rwandan homestay this week, employing my limited people skills and broken French and Kinyarwanda, as well as the Spanglish sort of gobbledygook that comes from their marriage (the languages, not my parents).  My two younger sisters (neither of whom live at home but rather at boarding school) speak pretty good English, but my parents speak almost none.  It makes for an easy transition to the awkward-silence-dominated dinner company for which the Rwandese are so popular.  It is not that there is nothing to say, just that it is sometimes pleasant to simply occupy space with another human being, no conversational strings attached.  This, if you know me (and I suppose if you don’t) is not something to which I am accustomed, but it is definitely something to which I am quickly warming, especially since I couldn’t communicate complex development theories or socio-political debate if I wanted to.  There is a chicken here who I have made friendly acquaintance with, but I know from my last late friend that I shouldn’t grow too attached, as its next stop will probably be on our family dinner table.  Of all of my homestay experiences both here and in Gulu, however, what happened yesterday was simultaneously the most unexpected, angering, serene, beautiful, and despairing experience I’ve had yet.
My family woke me up at 7 in the morning my time (11 pm yours) and informed me that I must be showered and in my best clothes in 20 minutes.  We were going to see the cows and the family’s grandmother/mother/matriarch.  This is a pretty big deal in Rwandan society.  I’m on the same day meeting essentially the elders and the source of family pride and wealth in one fell swoop.  The catch?  (Yes, of course there’s a catch.  T.I.A. – this is Africa.)  I would be riding for two hours to Godknowswhere Rwanda with about 10 family members I’ve never met before who may or may not speak my lingo to preach the word God to said remote village’s Apostolic inhabitants (more on my perceptions of the Rwandan manifestation of this religion which is so blatantly different from my own in a later blog).  That is one big, ugly, behemoth of a catch.  We rode around Kigali (pronounced Chee-GAH-ree in the local accent) for about an hour, picking up my (thank the God of the Apostolics) mostly-English-speaking relatives.  I was mildly annoyed at this forced family bonding, mostly because meeting your new family and getting settled and learning the language is pretty stressful, and I wanted a day off.  As we drove the road to Gitarama, however, (you may remember this road from the movie “Hotel Rwanda” as the place where they inadvertently drive over the bodies in the fog) I was more and more pleased that I had come, but for opposite reasons, of course.  We climbed up the hills on those classic spiral roads (up one hill cork screw style, down the next, and so on) into the misty haze that blankets the whole country.   Eventually when we reached Gitarama we turned onto a road reminiscent of the roads in Uganda (or the Boulder, if that’s your particular frame of reference) – red dirt, “bush” all around, only scattered white smoke every few miles from coal stoves in the distance.  We drove for almost three hours in total, which is an impressive trip when you consider that driving from border to border in any direction will not take you longer than 7 hours at maximum, so I am told by my family.  We arrived in the village and stood waiting for 11am to roll around and for church to start.  What I had definitely not anticipated, however, was the fact that the entire village had somehow gleaned from drums on mountaintops miles away and smoke signals that there was a muzungu in the village, just begging to be inspected by a large group of people.  Literally the entire village showed up to stand in a closely huddled group of about 70 to stare at me, the boundary of the mass of humanity a mere 3 feet from my face.  I asked my cousin why they were so intent on checking me out and he told me that for all except perhaps some of the very oldest people there, I was the first muzungu they had ever seen.  Talk about a mental kick to the gut.  I suddenly felt like such a jerk for being irritated at their close inspection of my white skin.  My cousin also told me that these people were talking among themselves about whether or not I had skin – they thought my lack of pigment was because they were actually seeing the “meat” instead of the skin that I had at one point, and were amazed at my ability to survive what seemed like a pretty thorough kiln firing.  Amazing in so many ways.  It was nice to be able to practice my Kinyarwanda with them.  “Amakuru?” (What’s your news? Or, how’s it going?) was met with mutual giggles at my terribly American pronunciation.  I asked a little girl how old she was, and she hid her face in embarrassment and shifted to the back of the crowd.  It is absolutely terrifying to talk to a total freak of nature, it turns out.  I stood awkwardly in front of this crowd for almost an hour before church began.  To be totally honest, I don’t know how much attention the late great JC received that day – I felt every pair of eyes burning holes in the back of my head the entire time.  After church, some Lutheranish mingling minus the potluck ensued, providing even further endless opportunities for scrutinizing the stranger.  What’s even better?  African time.  This process could last all day.  Luckily, my cousins whisked me away after only and hour and a half, but not before the aforementioned little girl could push her way meekly to the front of the crowd and be the first to offer me her hand.  We shook hands and she stood decidedly taller as she sauntered back to the group, who examined her hand just to make sure all was well.  It was a fascinating experience, and I hope I haven’t created too awkward of an impression for muzungu who may follow me in the future.
After church we drove some 6 kms out of “town” and parked our van by a burned out mud house.  We then literally hiked on a trail in the grass up to the top of the mountain we were on, carrying water and a crate of soda, a common home warming-type hospitality gift.  We walked probably a little less than a mile when we arrived at a little cluster of mud and brick structures.  This is where the grandmother of the family makes her home.  My cousin told me that this is the house he grew up in, and then proceeded to show me some piles of bricks overgrown by plants.  He told me that different branches of his family lived in these homes long ago, but that they were gone now.  I don’t know why I had assumed that they had just moved on peacefully, or that the genocide would not reach even this village, but I was genuinely shocked when he went on to bring me to the exact spots among the bricks and grass where he found his murdered family members, including his father and three of his nine siblings.  They came for everyone, everywhere, without exception.  We sat on a hill, discussing the genocide and how it has affected his family, all the while a man watching us from atop the hill only 150 yards away.  Eventually, my cousin gestured dismissively at the man.  “Do you see that man there?” he asked me.  I said I did.  “Yeah, he’s my neighbor.  That’s actually the man who killed my entire family.”
Yup, welcome to the realities of post-conflict reconciled Rwanda, my friends.  In a policy of reconciliation and with the understanding that prosecuting every genocidaire is impossible in a formal setting, Tutsi and moderate Hutu families who have been victimized by Hutu Power extremists are forced to live side by side.  Retributive violence?  Prepare to be locked up.  Threats?  Jail time.  Coexist or move, says the government.  Gacaca (pronounced Gah-cha-cha) courts have made up for some of the past patterns of impunity, but it cannot get everyone, especially when families like mine will not turn in those they know to be guilty out of a desire for peace and for healing, or when said killers flee to the DRC.  (DRC again – I’m sensing a theme.  Are you?)  They just want to move on with their lives.  While still keeping their family members close to their hearts and always on their minds,  they  make an honest effort to put their suffering in the past.  I was both surprised and not to find that almost all of the strength they claim comes from their religious practices and beliefs.  When there was so much despair here, many more conservative or fundamentalist churches took advantage and propagated their message to those who needed something, anything stable on which to stand.  Form your own opinions on that one.
The drive home, though eventful (we got lost, mislead by the police, ended up stuck on a log bridge in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the darkest night of your life, surrounded by nothing but dark hills and the light of one fire in the distance), was amazing in a different way than the same drive in the opposite direction.  The view from atop the hill where my grandmother lives is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.  Until my cousin told me that these hills ran with his family’s blood not too long ago, it was easy to forget the atrocities these people faced.  The faces of those killed, though burned in your mind forever once you’ve seen them, are sometimes swallowed by the sheer beauty of the hills.  It was not until our ride home once we reached Gitarama that I realized that this beautiful road was the one which was impassable because of the dead.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to see the light through the clouds here in life post-genocide, but we must persist.  We, as fellow human beings, owe it to the people of Rwanda to share in their grief but to also assist in the process of moving forward.
As I left, my cousin said to me that all that they can do now is to tell the story, and that now that I have seen the dead it is as much my responsibility as it is theirs.  Now that you have seen it in your mind’s eye, the responsibility is yours as well.  We have a choice as informed individuals.  Do we keep these people locked in a period of murder and despair, or do we help them liberate themselves by associating their faces and their nation with the thirst for peace they so vehemently work toward?

Posted by on October 17, 2010 in Uncategorized


Rhymes with “Schmawanda”

Today, my friends, was indeed the most glorious day of my entire life thus far.  Did I win a new car? Nope!  Did I achieve a world-record high jump?  Please.  Did I finally accomplish the one and only abiding dream I’ve ever had? You betcha!  At approximately 12:10 pm local time, I crossed the Ugandan border into Rwanda.  It was quite the process, passport stampings and whatnot, but the feeling of passing into this misty nation was worth any kind of language barrier-ridden international relations I could imagine.
I cannot even hope to adequately describe to you the immense beauty of this place.  These hills are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and I can’t wait to get some pics up here so you can see them as well (just until you fly here yourself, naturally).  They terrace the hills and grow mostly tea from what I’ve seen so far, but there is a definite culture of coffee exportation.  Rwanda is the most densely-populated country in Sub-Saharan Africa, so they need to terrace the hills so they can maximize the farming potential of every inch of space that they can.  You’d think that so many fields would make things feel a little less like “Africa” and a little more like Minnesota, but you’d be delighted to find that the mist covers the banana trees in real life just the same as it does in your mind.  The lush green hills are dotted with the dark forms of women bending to tend their crops, and it is stunningly quiet.  In contrast to the constant hustle and background chatter of Uganda, you can almost hear the worms in the dirt in Rwanda.  The hills hang steep and rippling, curtains which shroud memories of the beauties and terrors that they have seen.  It is astounding to imagine that such a horribly tragic event could happen in such a breathtaking place.  It is incredibly difficult to picture these roads lined with bodies, the rivers flowing with evidence of genocide.  Eight hundred thousand people, maybe a million died in these hills.  How do we overcome this as outsiders, Westerners, fellow human beings?  Rwanda is striving to become well-known for coffee exportation and not its follies, but it is a formidable task.  Just as nearly everything of note in Northern Uganda will facilitate a conversation about the LRA war, the genocide here is just plain relevant.  I hope that in my time here I’ll be able to really see a new Rwanda;  one where not only 800,000 people were killed, but where thousands more are born; where love is borne from the ashes of tragedy, and where humanity grows stronger together with every effort it makes toward real and lasting peace.

Posted by on October 12, 2010 in Uncategorized


Countdown to Rwanda

As I reflect on my time in this beautiful country with these incredible people, I can’t help but get just a wee bit misty.  My Ugandan family has taught me so much in such a short amount of time, and I am forever in their debt.  I have come to love them very truly, and I will be more than a little upset to leave them.  They’ve invited me to stay with them and work at an NGO for the education of girls after my graduation in May, and I am ecstatic…but I also know that life changes, responsibilities get in the way, and student loans need to be repaid.  I hope against all odds that I will be able to come back here and add something to this community…but I sometimes get caught up in the thought that perhaps I won’t ever make it back.  I wonder what my family’s lives will be like.  I wonder if my sister will always have to kneel, or if one day she will stand with the dignity that she deserves.  I wonder if they will always live in peace, or if this country will not always afford them that ability.  I wonder if they will ever know how much they have truly moved me, how they’ve changed me.  All I can do as I leave this place tomorrow is pray that they experience only the good things life has to offer and that our paths will one day cross again.

To catch you up on the last few days, we left Gulu in the North, crossed the Nile to the part of the country which has been less affected by the war, and returned to Kampala.  Although I’m excited to soon be starting the next leg of the trip in Rwanda, there remains even now so much to learn and see in Uganda.  Today was spent our day seeing the beginning of the Nile River at Lake Victoria in the town of Jinja.  Literally, the mouth of the Nile, like the visible current.  It was actually one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.  I’ll try to get some pics up when I have some more time.  Until then, you’ll have to revel in the recesses of your own imagination.  Some imagery to assist your creative process: dark blue water that flows down triumphant rapids  to a calm bayou where skilled men standing in long canoes net fish as storks and egrets fly overhead and cormorants bob up and down with the current.   The answer is yes, you should see this yourself.  The trip was a really excellent way to begin our Uganda sign-off, and I cannot wait to get to Rwanda early next week.

For those of you whose acquaintance I have yet to make, the Rwandan genocide has, for some time now, touched a part of my heart that nothing else has been able to affect.  A few years ago I began reading everything I could get my hands on about the events of that fateful 100ish days in 1994, and the interest never subsided.  In all honesty, the prospect of seeing Rwanda with my own eyes was my primary reason for signing up for this trip.  I was always fascinated and horrified at the way people were convinced to kill their neighbors, as well as at the fact that many of those who died were convinced that this was just what needed to happen, even months before the killing actually started.  For anyone who wants a fantastic perspective on this conflict and on the people involved, I strongly urge you to reach Philip Gourevich’s book, “We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.”  My biggest struggle with this conflict (and part of the reason I am here) is my inability to imagine 800,000 dead people (some say as many as 1,000,000) without just making them statistics.  These were people similar to the ones I know.  They had interests, they had favorite soda flavors, they cherished real joys, and they experienced real terror.  Gourevich helps one step past this mental windbreaker and get to the living, breathing soul of these people.  I hope that you, my friend, will not judge my desire to “catastrophe tour” – but I need to see this.  And so do you, if not in person than in your heart.  We need to stand among our fallen brothers and sisters and realize that we are part of this grand scheme.  These lives were lost, and so are we unless we take care to never let this happen again.  How do we ensure this?  We never let ourselves forget the events that these human beings lived, and we in turn never let ourselves define these people solely by their traumas.  I know it’s been said, but these people are more than the genocide they suffered through.  Instead, let’s see one another for who we are today…because we really are in this together.

Until my next post, wish me luck.  There’s been some tension as a result of threats by the terrorist group Al-Shabbab, which was behind the July 11th terrorist attacks here in the lovely Kampala.  They have threatened another attack like the first which killed 79 people, and these jerks are obviously taken quite seriously.  Uganda’s Independence Day is tomorrow, complete with parades and demonstrations which have already been worked into a pretty thick lather by the upcoming elections.  I’ll be avoiding all of the fun places tomorrow, but I’ll be in touch again soon.


Posted by on October 8, 2010 in Uncategorized

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Attiak and my visit to Sudan

It is amazing how much one can be desensitized to suffering through constant exposure.  Living here in Gulu has afforded me many opportunities to see some things which really pull you kicking and screaming from your comfort zone, but after living here for a few weeks, I forget that I am living in a city that was war-torn and saturated in fear until less than 5 years ago.

Excursions help to remind us why we are here and that the suffering of which we learn is real, is ongoing, and is relevant.  The other day we spent the entire day at a place called Attiak, then went to the no man’s land between Sudan and Uganda.  There was an incident there in 1995 when the LRA killed between 250 and 300 people in a single morning.  They were brutally slaughtered, and having seen this very small community, that must have been absolutely devastating.  It’s so weird that my initial reaction to the news of 250 people dying somehow feels like not that big of a deal after so many people have died in the war altogether.  How would an incident like that be received in America?  We would consider going to war over something like that.  All these people can do is bury their sons and daughters in a mass grave and hope for foreign funding for a modest memorial because everyone else is too busy fighting their own battles and burying their own dead to help them.  I cannot imagine how hopeless that must have felt- your siblings or your kids or your friends dying and having no one to help you seek justice.  Fifteen years later, they are just now placing the tiles on the concrete steps of the memorial which is about 6 feet tall and will eventually have all of the names of those who died on it, though the list of names is still being compiled.  The mass grave is located about 4 miles from town and is inaccessible.  I wonder if the parents and siblings of all of those people can access it…or if they ever want to.

It is strange to live in such a dichotomy between seeing the beauty in these people and in their land, and still remembering that these tragedies are part of who these people as a nation have become.  Above all else, I find myself having to make a conscious effort to remember that the Ugandans are not only what they have seen and how they have suffered – they are people who live in hope and who strive to look beyond the pain they have experienced.  They want a peaceful world and are working hard to achieve that for their children.  I hope that the conflicts arising around Uganda will not inhibit their efforts for development and peace, but it seems that Sudan’s impending conflict and Rwanda’s issues with the DRC are going to have an impact.

The gift and curse of East Africa is that it is so connected within itself – each country is so intertwined with the next that conflicts overlap borders and follow along tribal lines rather than national borders.  It will be interesting to see how the East African Union plays out with the different levels of conflict that are rearing their ugly heads.  For those who are not aware, Sudan is enjoying what most Ugandans and those in the international community believe to be the calm before the storm.  A vote in January will most likely divide Sudan into two separate nations, splitting them into Northern and Southern halves.  This will cause conflict because of the fact that almost all of the natural resources are in the Southern half, but the Northern half has most of the conflict.  A resource/land war is on the horizon, and there is definite concern here in Northern Uganda that this will cause problems once again.  Though the conflict with Joseph Kony and his LRA has migrated to the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo for the most part, people here do not believe that the conflict is totally over.  For them, this peace is tenuous.

One wonders whether or not a permanent solution to the conflicts arising from the LRA war will be reached in our lifetime.  In the meantime, kids go to school, youth play football, people get married, parents go to work, and the world continues to turn.  I hope that by understanding this conflict and the people affected by it, we can eventually develop some theories to help their world to turn more peacefully.


Posted by on October 3, 2010 in Uncategorized

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Beauty, Ugliness.

Riding on top of a van with the wind in our hair and the bugs in our teeth on an expedition of epic (by that I mean fairly small) proportions was just what the doctor ordered. We have been discussing some pretty heavy topics as of late, and it was nice to get out and see some more of the natural beauty of Uganda. We were not fortunate enough to see lions, but we saw our fair share of elephants and giraffes.  It was amazing to be reminded of the joy this nation has to offer.  There is such immense beauty in these hills, and we need to remember that this place is more than the death it has been party to.  Post minivan safari, we rode a boat down the Nile to see the legendary Murchison Falls, and I was taken aback at how huge and beautiful they were.  It was a welcome respite from the weight of the daily study of a decades-long civil war.  When we returned, it was straight back to lectures. . .ah, such is the world.  We experience 2 or 3 lectures per day, each by a different person from a different perspective.
In all of its beauty which runs as deep and as pure as the sugar cane it grows, however, Uganda cannot hide some ugly things about its history and its culture even today.  One of those ugly blemishes on the face of Uganda is the constant power struggle in the government and non-governmental political groups. The history of power sharing in Uganda has been a bloody one, and the fact that there have been not just one but several governmental overthrows says something about the condition of tribal interactions in this nation.  Of course before colonization the tribes fought amongst themselves and were fully independent of one another, all thriving under regimes of their own tribal Kings and clan elders.  When the British came in and divided up the nations according to resource availability in the late 1800’s, it seemed that they drew lines haphazardly according to which oil reservoirs after which they were lusting.  Oh, you silly Brits!  It turns out that this was really a quite brilliant scheme…if you want to conquer thousands of people and create borders so that you can divide up tribes into separate nations and pit them against each other, then put the split tribes which coexist within each nation at odds according to whom you educate and with whom you do business or form a military. Imagine that all of southwestern Minnesota is one region which several different ethnic groups (you won’t have to work too hard to imagine this) and that one day a government official from Wisconsin comes and lays county borders. Then, said official takes a trip around Murray County and decides that all of the Catholics in the northern half look “war-like,” assign them jobs in the military or police, and deprive them of education.  The Lutherans in the southern half are afforded the ability to be educated, given perennial crops to grow, and are thrust into the infrastructure as business people who are even internationally respected.  How would you imagine the Catholics and Lutherans would feel about their positions in life?  Exactly.  Thank you, Britain.  You have given the world David Beckham’s right foot, the Austin Powers movies, tea time (for which I shall remain ever-resentful) and the ability to find conflict in places where there was none before.  The conflict which thrives today is a result of divisions formed at that particular flashpoint – a point to which the people of Uganda may never return.
Another ugliness is the treatment of women and girls within every tribal context.  Women in rural America may be just as surprised as I was to find my sister (of equal age and education to me) dropping to her knees to wash my hands before a meal. You, my friend, may also be surprised to hear something out of your host father’s mouth to the effect of, “All women who are in politics are opportunistic. They don’t know enough to change anything, and all they want is for men to look at them on the T.V!  Do you really honestly think that a woman could have an idea that would make a difference? They are jokes!” Ouch.  My sister Evelyn shines the shoes of my brothers and father without shining her own.  She makes every meal in the dark among the roaches, and won’t even borrow my headlamp for fear of inconveniencing me, and this role of hers is one which is simply expected in my house. She is not going to University, she has no cell phone, and no friends who she spends time with.  To my understanding, Evelyn has it pretty easy, and home is not the only place where women do not live free.  Only 47 out of every 100 girls who enter P1 (first grade) will last until P7 (seventh grade).  The odds of a young girl becoming pregnant exponentially increase for every year she ages.  Girls here are married quite young much of the time, and before a girl reaches 25 she may not even be her husband’s only wife (Uganda is a place where polygamy is not only practiced but is encouraged sometimes as a sign of more wealth).  This link will take you to a site which is aware of this problem and is using the educate and invest approach to the issue. I can’t help but think about what this country, continent, world would look like if women were educated, allowed to excel, given a value beyond their childbearing and homemaking capabilities, and perhaps even considered in matters of peace building and community development.  In a nation so desperate for peace, it could only help to consider the ideas of the other half of the population.  I apologize in advance for this impending soapbox moment:  My dream is for these ethnic groups to realize that their self-definition as dependent on their cultural practices will not be compromised by allowing women to live as fully-endowed human beings.  See these women as the people they are, treat them with respect and personhood, and pick their brains.  There are brilliant ideas and WOMEN just waiting for someone to invest in them.

Posted by on September 28, 2010 in Uncategorized


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Yeah, so, this one time I studied abroad….

Greetings again, my fellow world-learners!
I thought I’d give you the standard, “I’m studying abroad!  Look at everything that is unique and wonderful about this new place!” entry.  I’ve had several questions about the landscape, the food, the dudes, the dress, the housing, the dudes, the flora and fauna, the dudes…in short, every essential aspect of life abroad.
The simple fact is that Uganda is the most beautiful place in the world.  Straight-up majesty lingers atop every gentle hill, hangs from every greenest-tree-you’ve-ever-seen, and rests in every grain of that beautiful blood-red sand.  The cows are even quite impressive, with their triumphant horns and feral attitudes.  We travel for little excursions quite frequently, and I have never before been so stoked to spend countless hours upon hours in a van unfortunate enough to be birthed without shocks of any kind, crammed wall to wall with people who have showered as little as I.  The landscape is (though it sounds painfully cliché,) truly breathtaking.  I find myself more giddy than should be allowed in a van that cramped when we pass through towering palms, forests of banana trees, fields of tall grass, and red rolling hills as we venture (usually) north toward Sudan. In terms of beauty, however, it would border the criminal to neglect mention of the people.  The women walk as many American imagine African women walk – carrying immense freights of water, banana leaves, baskets of who-knows-what, food, fruit, fabric, whatever one might need in a day or a few days.  They walk with babies straddling them as backpacks, tied on with towels or strips of fabric.  They hold their children close to their bodies at all times, and it is more than a little wonderful to think of the implications of that kind of thinking.  It translates into every aspect of their lives – they take care of their family no matter what, and if there arises an obstacle, they will tackle it together.  The people here are not only beautiful in their countenance and in how they treat one another, but they are just plain pretty humans.  I have not seen one person wandering around Gulu or anywhere else who I would not describe as, well, stunning.  It’s funny to think about skin here, I guess.  I suppose I should clarify for everyone who may be reading this without knowing me so well:  I am decidedly as white as they come.  Ugandans are undeniably not so.  It should also be further explained that there’s not too many Muzungu here, especially the farther you get into small towns and villages.  Needless to say (so why say it? Alas, I am a walking contradiction.), I stand out.  Surprisingly, the first time I actually felt a little self-conscious about that happened almost three weeks in!  Last night a baby came to my house and pretty much just stared at me for a straight hour.  She had this mildly confused, majorly horrified expression for the duration, which was really amusing.  The rest of the 15+ people in the room with us laughed heartily at the thought that they were witnessing this poor child go through a terrifying shock.  They then forced her to shake my hand.  To their wildly hysterical laughter, this little girl shook my hand, backed away, and stared at her hand, then wiped it on her pants and started hyperventilating.  Out of curiosity she touched me again and rolled up her shirtsleeve.  She was afraid my whiteness was going to rub off on her.  Totally reasonable assumption, I would think, and equally terrifying.  This was the first time that I really took notice that I look like just about the weirdest thing to venture into these parts.  I looked around the room at these beautifully dark people and felt sort of cheated, actually.  My aunt said that I shouldn’t worry – even though I look like a mutant, she’s pretty sure my soul is African to the core.  How comforting.
To summarize the rest of the more sense-oriented and experiential aspects of the trip (which will hopefully answer some questions): 1. The food is pretty good.  By good I mean bland.  By bland I mean beans, rice, posho (maize goo), goat, and cabbage.  Yes.  Cabbage.  You’d think I could escape the ‘Kraut by coming to Africa.  You would be wrong. 2.  The dudes are aggressive.  By aggressive I mean friendly.  By friendly I mean I receive marriage proposals by strangers on a daily basis.  “Be my muzungu forever!  I need my very own muzungu! You will be my favorite wife!”  Mmm tempting, but no thanks.  Ask me tomorrow when you’ve built up your wife cabinet.  I need to know the rest of the posse before I sign away my man-choosing capabilities.  3. In regards to housing, I live above the bank my father manages.  I have my own room which is large enough to fit all 9 people staying at my house tonight so we can safari tomorrow.  This brings me to the flora and fauna – I’ll be going on a mini safari tomorrow with the rest of the people in my program.  We’ll be rafting down the Nile River (yes! The real Nile! I know!) for a few hours, then driving through the game park to see some lions!  More realistically, elephants and maybe some giraffes are on the docket, though the wildlife of Uganda consist of wild dogs and cats and these huge trash-eating vultures.  At any rate, wish me luck on my Livingston-style adventure!  Peace to you all until we speak again!

Posted by on September 24, 2010 in Uncategorized