Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Rwanda, Part 1

I landed in Kigali the day before Rwanda’s election with only the faintest idea of what I was going to do. I had been emailing some contacts there about getting a press pass and calling some journalist friends of friends; I wanted to do some sort of radio thing if I could swing it, and the guy at the media office had made it seem like getting press credentials would be a cinch.

Apparently, however, even in distant Rwanda people have somehow cottoned onto the New York City News Service, and they weren’t impressed with my press pass. I couldn’t get a clear answer from anyone as to whether credentials were necessary to do any reporting, period, or just necessary to get access to the big election events. Since I didn’t want to get arrested or deported and thus banned from covering events in Rwanda for life, and seeing as none of the media organizations I had contacted seemed interested in a story AND since I was stupid with exhaustion after three of the last four nights spent more or less sleeplessly nights on buses, I decided to let myself off the hook and just enjoy witnessing the day.

This being election day, everything was closed. The genocide memorial museum, all government buildings, even most restaurants. BUT! Hotels are always open, and so I suggested checking out Hotel des Mille Collines – better known to most people in the wider world as Hotel Rwanda.

So while Rwandans were lining up to cast their ballots all around the country, I found myself sipping a beer with a couple of friends by the pool of the swanky hotel where Paul Rusesabagina famously smooth-talked the Interahamwe, bribed them with top-shelf liquor, and generally bad-assed them into sparing the lives of more than a thousand Rwandans during the genocide. It was all kinds of surreal, watching the smartly-dressed waiters serve chilled lagers to pasty foreigners while children laughed and paddled in the bright blue serene water, all the while wondering what the scene might have looked like fifteen years ago to the man with fierce facial scars who gave me my change.

After a delicious dinner of Indian food at the first open restaurant we were able to find, my new friend Elizabeth (who I met at the hostel where we were staying) and I hopped motorbikes to head uphill to the national stadium, where I estimate at least 20,000 Rwandans had gathered to watch the election returns come in.

It was huge. In between massive cheers as the regional results were announced, people went nuts for what seemed like every DJ and musician of note in Rwanda or Burundi, and save for the podium of journalists near the stage, we were two out of maybe four wazungu amid the thousands of people on the stadium floor. It was fantastic. Rwandans seemed nearly as elated to see us there as they were about the election. It was great to really engage with people and hear what they had to say about Kagame and the election. It’s fascinating to me how, with everything that’s been in the news lately about the regime (slightly sinister assassinations, brooking no opposition, etc.) a massive majority of people truly do seem to genuinely like, even love, their president. When he finally came out, the screams reminded me of being at Invesco in Denver when Obama made his entrance.

I’m also pretty sure I’ve never been groped so much in my life. C’est la vie.

We called it a night then, but not before Elizabeth had provided me with a business card whose value over the next few days I cannot possibly overstate, because that’s how we met Emmanuel: scrappy Congolese fixer, connected-up-the-wazoo tour operator, and general go-to badass extraordinaire – all five feet zero inches of him.

Next up: GORILLAS!


  1. Gorillas?! Can't wait... pics too? Just found your blog and I love it - the name is great too! Suggesting a mutual blog link...

    Me - Holli, a Canadian living in West Africa for the past 14 years. Blogging about it... :)

  2. Oh Emi, you _would_ spend your internship time in Rwanda :)

    Where are you now dear?