Travel Essays

Suggestion Box

 

This shot was captured in an abandoned train station in Moshi, Tanzania. A weathered wooden box, which once collected anonymous input now swings uselessly from a rusty anchor. A small, thought-provoking relic of a bygone colonial era. When I saw it, I imagined the human faces of foreign powers who descended one-by-one in please take a number fashion upon this corner of the world. Continue reading

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Travel Essays

Out of Genocide

Jenocide

As expected, Africa once again challenged my perceptions and highlighted both our Western cultures and my own individual shortcomings. Actually, it is more akin to complete ignorance, if we can be frank here. She has an unwavering knack for that.

When I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, I came bearing twenty year old memories of an unspeakable genocide against the Tutsi minority, international apathy and my recall of a searing conversation, which temporarily sealed my fate as a middle-class American white girl. I carried with me baggage in the form of unfounded fears and judgmental notions of just what kind of people could be capable of such an violent history. I will admit I fully expected to see people walking around with bloodstained machetes in the streets. I had no idea of just how affected I would be by my short, but profound visit to this small land in the heart of East Africa.

Rwanda is a phoenix catapulting from the ashes by learning from its violent past. Beyond the tremendous economic and social progress made since the dreadful 100 days that marked the pinnacle of the violence, Rwanda helped me to understand just how easily unspeakable hatred can be ignited and inspired a faint dusting of compassion for some of the perpetrators. But, perhaps more significantly, I wonder why had I never heard one word about this success story?

In June 1994, this country stood in tatters, after almost complete destruction of its society, economy and infrastructure. In this home to 7MM people, Tutsi blood ran through the streets of her cities and villages and not one corner of this small nation was spared. And, to think such violence began so benignly. As most stories go on this continent, colonial roots are once again to blame for sowing the seeds of this “final solution”.  By grouping the population of Rwanda into Tutsi, Hutu or Twa, issuing of national ID cards according to these groupings and supporting the notion of Tutsi superiority, a land which had never before seen division was being keenly separated along ethnic lines. As colonial rule ended, the pressure cooker created by these actions inspired a backlash that would play out over forty years, but would ultimately end in the 100 days of intense and unspeakable violence we now call the Rwandan Tutsi Genocide. A murderous campaign in which 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus died at the hands of Hutu extremists and 1MM others were displaced. That is almost 2MM of a total population of 7MM.

What do you think our country be like if the residents of every 4th house on each street from Boston to San Francisco were brutally murdered or vanished into Canada or Mexico? All gone within 100 days, while the rest of the world did – NOTHING.

And what about the residents of the other 3 houses on each street? They may have survived the torture, hacking by machete, clubbing, among others, but they watched the blood flow and live with such traumatic memories. Some were maimed, some orphaned and some raped with the weapon of HIV/AIDS and left to die a slow death. Some weren’t even born yet. Some are one of the more than 200,000 perpetrators themselves inspired by and who acted upon the racial propaganda that filled the airwaves before the massacring began. They explain it as though a “demon” had possessed them. But, what I saw were a people unwaveringly and unexpectedly united, and the result is miraculous.

I don’t have any dramatic photos to share of the people of Rwanda sobbing, broken and beaten; I’ll let the AP handle that. But I will tell you that it is the past and, while it must always be remembered, what I saw is a country united and running swiftly towards a prosperous future. “Tutsi” and “Hutu” don’t exist anymore, they are one identity now – Rwandans. Working together towards a shared future. Kigali is a shining capitol with not one piece of trash on its streets adorned with formal gardens, coffee shops and elegant restaurants. Smooth roads meander through an emerald green countryside boasting 1000 beautifully terraced hills, which are dotted with houses bearing new metal roofs, never to be burned again. Conservation of natural resources is paramount and plastic bags are now banned. Active teaching of the genocide and what led to it is taking place in Rwandan classrooms.

These observations are so very surface level and are only a few small examples of the fruits of a vision set forth by this small, vibrant country. During this 20th anniversary of the genocide, my message of progress may not be as dramatic and “newsworthy” as the traditional western media’s images of brutality and poverty, but I hope it helps tell a new story of Rwanda. I also hope that it inspires you to learn more about this beautiful place, its people and what it has to offer. And, if I am lucky, you will seek to learn more about what leads to genocide and view your own past, present and future a little bit differently.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Travel Essays

Critically Observe

I wake to the sound of a nearby imam singing the early morning prayer. As I pull back the mosquito net, a moth flies past my face and I suddenly realize I am as far from home as I have ever been. A rooster crows.

We leave the lodge in the early morning light and I can barely see. We turn off the main road, down an escarpment and are now in Queen Elizabeth National Park, on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I feel like I’m dreaming.

So it is.

I look out the window of the van to my right and see the sun peeking above the horizon. I am now on the floor of the Eastern Great Rift Valley and iconic acacia trees lie frozen in silhouette against a mahogany and coral hued sky. I am in a place teeming with life both past and present.

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Miles away from my concrete home, I am in the wild.

Our guide Martin says to look closely, there is a single elephant just off to the right. I squint to see, but the morning light is a thick haze and it all looks the same to me. Thicket, bush, grass – hues of brown, green and yellow all running together to my unseeing eyes. We continue west in the direction of the glacial Mt. Rwenzori. As we move slowly on, we pass a man on a bicycle heavily laden with enormous bunches of green bananas.

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I think, where could he be taking these bananas so deep into the bush?

Martin points to three Egyptian geese in the tall grass.

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I see nothing.

Then, we come upon an area dense with trees and Martin says to look closely to see the velvet monkeys and baboons. I strain to see what he sees, but I only see traces. Why can’t I perceive what he does? I strain again and purposely try to quiet my racing mind. Then he says, “you must look, but then critically observe.”

Look, then critically observe. Then I remember that this is the wild – not at all my territory so it seems. My eye is untrained to see in such a setting. I look again, then critically observe with the utmost intent and concentration. Something only possible in this moment free from the daily distractions of Western life.

Then I begin to see, they are all there.

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I had to use my senses, not my intellect. Once I did, what was here all along came into focus. It was as if a veil had been removed from my eyes.

And I could see.

A warthog far in the distance among the grass.

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Hippos waiting just below the surface.

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A child in a fishing village on the shore of Lake George, to whom the man on the bicycle is bringing those bananas.

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A monitor scurrying along the banks of the Kazinga Channel.

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And a green mamba easing into the water.

Now on a boat, my head rests upon my hand and my eyes scan the banks of this shallow channel that links the two lakes of Queen Elizabeth National Park. I look, critically observe and turn my head slightly to the right.

And there they are.

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A bachelor herd of adult African elephants in silhouette against the afternoon sky and not-so-distant shore of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I watch them without moving, completely in their wild, and the beauty overtakes me.

We linger for a while longer and watch teams of local fishermen depart for their overnight shift, their nets ready to receive their bounty. I wonder if one of them is related to the baby girl or the man bearing bananas we passed on the bicycle.

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As we ride back up the escarpment and rise out of the valley, I look out the window from where we had just come, but this time my eyes serve me well in this exotic land. As the sun sets over the teeming valley, I think of my father.

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I am so far from a life I know, but I am not alone. I take one last look, critically observe and feel him dancing on the blowing winds of East Africa. Completely and utterly in the wild.

 

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