Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Some travel philosophy

“In a way all explorers are journalists. Reporting from places others can’t go, speaking from experience and not fiction. Blessed with no special powers or skills, often simply able to make the sacrifices needed to live and experience things others cannot or will not.” Henri Coetzee


Sometimes I like to flatter myself and think that I’m an expert when it comes to a country just because I lived there a month. If I do that, pinch me. Hard. Because obviously, 1-3 months is just enough to skim the surface. I research the heck out of the places we go; I learn the recent history and the type of government and the language spoken and the population: and when we arrive I record my first impressions and the conversations we have with locals, and between the two I come to some kind of conclusion. If it’s about Uganda, it’s not going to be the conclusion a Ugandan would draw. It’s the conclusion of an American LDS girl who has traveled a fair bit, who tries to be unbiased but who may be very wrong about certain things, and who may change her mind from time to time.

I don’t intend to represent the situation of an entire country when we witness such a small part of it for such a short time, or at least understand if I do, the representation could very well be flawed.

However, we stay longer and more casually than most travellers have the opportunity to do, we travel independently as opposed to with a tour group or service organization, and for that I can offer a small glimpse into what it’s like for an American to live like a regular person would in the 20 or so countries we’ve spent time in so far. What it feels like, most of all, beyond the news reports with agendas and the fiction novels. How the people, food, sightseeing, and religions rate in comparison to other places. And how each country has changed my perspective on what I previously held to be true.


Murchison Falls, Uganda

Friday, March 25, 2011

African Realization


Riding Kampala Coach bus service into Uganda

It was in Church in Uganda that I had my realization about Africa.

The lady next to me in the Kampala Kololo Relief Society said this:

“We Africans are lazy! And God knows this about us. A long time ago I went to Europe. And I looked at the thermometer and it said it was –10 degrees outside! I called my sister and I said, “I’m bout to freeze here just like a chicken!” So God hasn’t given Africans winter because He knows we’re too lazy and we’d just die…Life in the village is so wonderful. We can sleep as much as we want, and when we’re hungry we just climb a tree and get some fruit. God has blessed us. We don’t have problems with earthquakes and tsunamis like Japan. We have everything we need.”

And I realized:

Wait a minute. It’s true. The land here is so green and lush. There is no winter. There are no natural disasters.

It is, or could be, a blessing to be born in Africa.


Africans have a wealth of resources right underneath their fingertips. The animals, the vegetation, the diamonds etc. It is up to them to capitalize on them—it’s not up to America or Europe. We’ve “helped” (and damaged) them enough already. Africans must learn to help Africans.

Living in Africa is an awakening. It’s seeing lives lived with problems that seem insurmountable. Where to start? The governments are unstable, the police are corrupt, 3/4 of people are unemployed at any given time, there are droughts, famines, AIDS and malaria outbreaks, child soldiers and prostitution, alcoholism (Uganda has the most alcohol consumption per capita in the world), illiteracy, lack of neighborhood cohesion, witch doctors for healthcare, no pride in one’s country, violent crime, war.

Most surprising of all, though perhaps it is to be expected: the family is broken apart. Some stats say that 90% of Kenyan men are unfaithful to their wives for example.

I asked a Canadian girl who had lived in Africa for years:

“Why do you suppose Africa is always at war?”

She replied, “That’s a very difficult question. I don’t know the answer.—But then, America is always at war, too, isn’t it?

I paused, taken aback: “True.”

Anyways, the question of why Africa is so besieged with problems could take years of discussion.

Jacob believes it’s the lack of winter—winter forces development.

I believe it’s lack of entrepreneurs—almost all the people who own businesses that we’ve seen in East Africa are actually Indians. For all the people we see just sitting around, it’s really amazing that more people don’t try to start a business. The hotels we stay in are foreign-run, and often even the tourist activities are headed by foreigners, not Africans. Economic problems breed hatred here—hatred toward leaders and toward people who are successful.


A preacher we met in Kigali genuinely believes that Africa is cursed. It certainly feels that way, let me tell you…

But these problems are created by the Africans and they must be solved by the Africans. I don’t believe we can be the saviors of the world, though Americans sure try to be… We can, of course do what we can to help. But---

We cannot force on people what they do not want for themselves.

African people must want development and must work for development. They must vote for leaders with integrity. They must build their own schools and not chase away talented and intelligent people with wrongheaded policies and low quality of life. They must stop allowing corruption. They must build businesses. They must plan for the future so when the drought or famine comes they have stored food. They must learn from their mistakes. They must get married and stay married. They must stop practicing witchcraft on one another

(Jacob has been hexed already. He thinks it was a joke. Let’s hope. He cast a spell on them in return.)

They must learn to serve one another, the main focus of all successful businesses.

And they can do it, but they must want it and they must do it—the African way.


We can’t do it for them.

What the West-aiding-Africa culture  has engendered, though idealistically it sounds humane, in real life, is Africans literally expecting things from us just because we’re white. If we go grocery shopping the guard of the mall, armed with a gun, naturally, says, “Even this one I want” pointing to the drink Jacob is drinking. Children follow us and demand, “Give me money. Give me pen.” Not so much as a please or thank you. The shipping of free clothes to Rwanda means that everyone wears US brand clothes instead of buying clothes from Rwandans, destroying the clothes industry there because why buy clothes from Rwanda when you can get them free from America? Everyone in Ghana assumed I worked for an NGO, because why would a white person visit a black country without plans to “help”--

Just because we’re white and they’re black. We’re American, and they’re African. It sucks and frankly, we’re getting tired of it. If anyone comes here to work in an NGO, I wish it could be African Americans, to show that it’s not skin color that marks success. But the African Americans I know don’t even know which country their ancestors come from. They are remarkably separated from their history, and the NGOs that I have seen are run completely by white people.

The president of the United States of America’s father came from Kenya. The most powerful person in the world is black.

Anything is possible for the people here too, but I don’t know that they have that kind of vision.

Another Sunday in Rwanda, I sat through a testimony with tears dripping down my face as a youth spoke of his conversion to the Church. He said that he was starving and he asked his family for food and they didn’t have any and he asked his neighbors and they didn’t have any and so he started begging on the side of the road. And an American girl came and told him that his Heavenly Father loved him, and to come to Church with her. And he is now an English teacher and he’s not hungry anymore and he lives with hope for the future.

I will never know what it is like to go hungry. I will never know what it is like to grow up a poor African child and see wealthy, well-fed white people come visit my city.

I’m glad to know that I can still be affected by the misery that we see, and I don’t want to become jaded, but I can’t help but feel this:

Africa, it’s time for you to take some accountability for your own.

Friday, March 18, 2011


So I have to admit: Since coming to Uganda I have felt homesick.

Can I indulge in some things I am missing?


I know I have a Kindle, but I miss exploring the shelves and flipping through books and smelling the pages and seeing the typefaces. I miss library computers where I can look up any book I’ve been interested in and read it, for free.

There’s a bookstore in the mall next door and I settled into one of their cozy armchairs with some books and spent a comfortable hour reading about Rwandan and African problems. Surrounding me were other Africans sitting in their respective cozy armchairs, reading as well. However, when I left, a store employee said: “What did you buy?” Me: “Nothing this time.” Employee: “I saw you reading over there, and you didn’t buy anything? That’s bad. You should buy at least one.” I felt discriminated against as the only white (therefore, wealthy) person. Maybe all the other Africans bought a book, I don’t know. I haven’t gone back to that bookstore.

~Shopping with girlfriends.

I’ve complained about shopping in the past, but it’s not shopping that I don’t like—not really. It’s shopping alone that is boring and a nuisance.

~Good internet.

Without good internet, it’s difficult to communicate with friends and family—Skype goes too slow. Furthermore working becomes a chore when every 5 minutes the internet goes out.

~U.S. holidays.

We’ve been traveling for nearly 2.5 years now, and we have missed a lot of holidays and celebrations. I’d love to decorate Easter eggs, or make an Irish dinner for St Patrick’s day, but our situation makes those things difficult.


I would really love to cook for Jacob. He would really love it, too.

~LDS Church, American-style.

Church is different in Africa. The speaking style is very straight-laced and rote for the most part. Interesting anecdotes or critical thinking discussions are absent. Instead, questions are asked like, “How should we fast?” and then people answer it for 30 minutes in very typical ways. Then the next question is “In what ways should we fast?” and the answers are exactly the same, and it seems to go over the teacher’s head that it was the exact same question just phrased in a different way. Sometimes the discussions are so weird. For example, in Ghana we spent an entire 3rd hour talking about blood. “What is blood?” “Why do we need blood?”

~Salads, cheese, Mexican food, and no worries about Delhi belly.

Anyone who’s lived abroad for an extended amount of time knows that food can be a real heartbreaker. America is the best food destination in the world, Jacob and I agree. (Italy comes in a close second). African cuisine isn’t varied or creative or even tasty on the whole, although there are options for other cuisine—usually Indian. I’ve had food poisoning in 5 places over the last 2.5 years: Turkey, Morocco, USA, Thailand, and Uganda.


With poor planning on my part, almost all the clothes I packed were pink. Then, the day I said to myself, “I am tired of wearing pink!” I washed an Indian skirt which was pink and new and it dyed Jacob’s clothes pink too! I had to laugh. We are still washing pink dye out of our clothes. I’m ready for some new colors.

~Convenient transportation

It’s difficult to get around here. The traffic is bad, the drivers reckless and boda bodas are the easiest way to get around but I refuse to use them because they are dangerous. They’re motorcycles with bad track records and no helmets. To cross the street is an act of daring with no crosswalks and endless streams of cars.

~Distance from loved ones

I’m missing a lot of milestones in friends and family members’ lives.


This is our choice to be here though.  Africa is a difficult place to live—that’s one reason we’re here, to see how a large majority of people live and maybe get some insight and empathy into the Dark Continent. The other reason is because Jacob is training athletes here and actually he has been offered to play on the professional Division I team so this is an exciting opportunity. He doesn’t know if he’s interested, but –Jacob just showed up in a foreign country and got offered a professional basketball position! That is pretty dang incredible. So please excuse my homesickness, I don’t think it will last long and we are definitely grateful for the experience thus far.


Uganda has the wackiest birds I’ve ever seen and they live just outside our window.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Final thoughts on Rwanda

One of my favorite travel websites doesn’t have a country summary of Rwanda. So here’s my version:

Intro: If you tell anyone you’re planning a trip to Rwanda, most people will think you’re absolutely mad. That goes to show the news hasn’t talked about what’s happened since the 1994 genocide. That is: it’s pulled itself together and actually put to good use the aid money that came in in the years following. For example, they have a goal to be completely internet-wired throughout the country by 2020. Yet there is still an undercurrent of paranoia, much like in Israel, thanks to the armed guards that wait on every corner of Kigali. There is peace right now, but my feeling is that it’s fragile. There are grenades that go off at the bus stations every few months, for example. And the anti-Tutsi movement is still alive and well just across the border in the DRC—the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Rwanda is a country full of surprises. It’s the cleanest, most orderly African country I’ve visited. You can eat its salads with no worries of future indigestion. It’s stunningly beautiful, and infrastructure is paved.

There are also more white people in Kigali than in Accra.

Nevertheless it’s the last country I would want to live in all of our travels. Because of its lack of healthcare—it’s strange to never hear ambulances—and for the unsettling feeling it gave me (for Jacob Morocco is the country that ranks dead last—Rwanda at least has basketball),DSC01490 but I’m very glad we visited it. It’s a heartbreaker. No other area of the world, as far as I can tell, has seen the sorrows that Rwanda, Burundi, the Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda—where we are now—have seen.

Highlights: We only visited Kigali, the Hotel Des Milles Collines (Hotel Rwanda), and its genocide memorials and the gorillas, both of which are important to see. There’s a Mother Teresa orphanage with really adorable, very normal seeming young children.



Lowlights: In typical African fashion, there’s just not a whole lot to do. Rwandan service isn’t quite up to par, and they are notorious for taking your food before you’re finished if you’re not watching. Jacob had an Indian make mishti doi (sweet curd) as a gift for him. Jacob left it on the table, untouched, to go look at the scores on the TV in the same room for one minute. In the meantime, a waiter came and whisked it away! Just one example of many.

How to book the gorilla safari: Go with any tour company in town. We used Jamba Tours and Travel. They will arrange everything, including transport ($200 unless you can find someone to share with) and picking up the $500 permits. Doing it last minute like us, you will need to use a company anyway, because the official tour office will tell you they’re booked solid, but somehow tour companies can always find extra permits. Be sure to bring a rain coat, rain boots, and a change of clothes because you WILL get soaked. It’s a rainforest. And it’s not hiking. It is trekking—the roughest hiking I’ve ever done in my life. There are no footpaths at points, the mud can go up to your knees, there’s stinging nettle, and hail. There were 75 year old grandparents on our trek though, who run an NGO in Liberia. I want to be like them when I grow up Smile

Visa strategy: No visa necessary for Americans for 3 months.

Getting around: Regular taxis can be so expensive ($20 for a simple roundtrip around town) that the moto taxis become the most logical answer. From 200-1000 francs per ride. They are actually quite safe and though you can’t tell because of the picture, passengers are legally required to have helmets.

DSC01542 The matatus (shared vans) are very cheap if you can find someone to direct you which one to take. Nyabugogo is the major bus stop, and from here you can reach Ntarama, one of the churches that was a scene to some of the most tragic episodes of the genocide. I did not see anywhere to rent a car or motorbike to self-drive, though I did see an ad to rent a bike.

Costs: Living in Kigali, Rwanda is unfortunately more expensive than Europe in some ways. Reasonable-standard accommodation comes with its price tag. Wifi is so slow that purchasing a ($100) internet stick at the MTN office in the mall is advised.

Money: The ATM at the aiport literally ate our Visa card upon arrival. We had to return the next day to retrieve it. It then ate it again. There is one international ATM machine at Ecobank at the back entrance up the hill past the mall. To get USD, which is needed to purchase gorilla visas, the bank in the mall takes Visa credit cards to do cash advances.

Guidebook: I read some of the Bradt in Google books.

People vibe: Solemn until you smile; then they’ll smile back. Pleasant, shy, and soft-spoken. We had several offers to hang out which often fell through. Not sure if it was flakiness or just the offers weren’t genuine?

Tourist factor: If all you do is go see the gorillas (which is all many people do who visit the country) then 10/10. Otherwise, you’ll get plenty of attention as a mzungu (European or white person).

Accommodation: We stayed at the only hostel in town, which location was so inconvenient we switched to Hotel Okapi, run by an LDS woman and with excellent food made by a Calcutta chef.

Media: There are books for sale in Nakumatt, the Walmart-style store inside the Union Trade Center. I recommend Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist as well as any books you can get your hands on about the genocide.

Food: Lunch buffets at hotels run only 1500 francs, or about $3. Like most African food, the basis is starchy carbs in many varieties from potatoes to plantains to rice/noodles. But—salads here are safe. I can’t emphasize enough how wonderful that is in a 3rd world country when salads can be deadly to the digestive system.

Hassle and annoyance factor: 5/10 For the most part it’s avoidable, though there are a lot of beggars on the way to the mall. I was pickpocketed here for the first time in my life and people here associate “white” with “freebies” unfortunately. It’s illegal to give to beggars. My advice is, “Don’t do it.”

Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

“Hotel Rwanda” is all lies and other trivia


Gorgeous scenery


We went on a guided tour of Kigali today. Here are some facts:

1. Rwanda is the only country in the world with fewer males than females in Parliament.

2. Many Muslims helped to hide the (Catholic) Tutsis from the (Catholic) Hutus, quoting from the Koran: “To save one life is to save the whole world”

3. President Kagame has been president for 11 years. The tour guide says anyone can say they hate him, but no one wants to because he’s such a great president. Somehow I doubt that…not that he hasn’t done great things for the country, but that there aren’t people who don’t like him…The guy leading the tour was a Tutsi anyway.

4. It is easy to buy land and build a house here. You could get started in one day if you wanted to.


5. People harbor resentment towards the UN for leaving.

This is where the shootout occurred which killed the Belgium soldiers, causing the UN to leave

I think this is understandable for 2 reasons. One is that people stayed in Rwanda thinking they were safe because of the “blue hats”. Two is that the UN purposely avoided the word “genocide” in describing the events because international law says they have to intervene. President Clinton has said America’s response to this tragedy is the greatest regret of his presidency.

6. According to our guide, people here apparently hate Paul Ruessebagina. He’s never dared to come back to Rwanda after the movie Hotel Rwanda, which the tour guide says is 100% fiction. He told me to go and speak with the employees there, some of whom have worked there 20-30 years, and they would tell me the truth—that if Paul saved anyone, it was for money. He doesn’t seem to realize that the movie put Rwanda on the tourist map and without it, many people would never have even heard of the genocide.


The radio loudspeaker from which hate rhetoric used to spew

7. The 1994 genocide was not the first Rwandan genocide. People got along with each other just fine until the Belgians created divisions between them, made them carry identity cards, and introduced racism.


A mass grave at the genocide memorial

8. I don’t know how much I can trust what the tour guide said because he said that Rwandans did not have a propensity towards stealing. I told him the only time I have ever been stolen from personally was here in Kigali. He said it is because of the influx of other East Africans like Burundians and Kenyans. Malcolm X sure came across as Rwandan to me.

9. Tourism is Rwanda’s largest source of revenue.

10. I got my underground information about the government from a friend I made after volunteering at a Mother Teresa orphanage here. She has lived here for 4.5 years. If it weren’t for her suggestion, I would have no idea that there were any problems. Rwanda’s government is stable as far as African government’s go—it’s stable by force of the military.


It’s just not fully democratic yet. It feels safe—but one good thing about the US is, no one doubts that democracy is there to stay. Personally, I see great things for Rwanda on the horizon. I think it’s unlike any country in Africa. It’s clean, organized, and orderly. Education is now free. I’m grateful for how far they’ve come.


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