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Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

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Published on October 06, 2010 with No Comments

After four flights and an over 30-hour journey, I finally arrived in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Although physically exhausted, I was excited about my short visit to “The Land of a Thousand Hills” as this country is also known.

As I got off the plane, I felt the heat of the burning African sun.

I walked towards immigration, giving the entry form and the passport to the officer. He looked at the form and then at me, then again at the form. I was afraid he would be suspicious about my one night stay in Rwanda. Although I was mostly in town to do interviews, I was traveling with a tourist visa. I thought of a friend’s advice before I came:

“The government will not appreciate anything negative being written about the country as a big part of their efforts is in “re-branding” Rwanda. You’d be surprised at how sensitive they actually are.”

This sort of warning didn’t discourage me. It did the opposite. It intrigued me to learn more of what was happening in Rwanda and its reconstruction process. But I would write about it as I experienced it not as a government would want me to write about it.

At that moment though, in front of the immigration officers, I was worried he would suspect about the real motives of my trip. Fortunately, the officer didn’t ask and let me go.

Outside the terminal, a tall man with glasses stood with a sign displaying my name. His name was Innocent and he was going to be my driver for the day and a half I would be in Rwanda.

“Daniela, welcome to Rwanda!” said Innocent with a big smile and taking my backpack off my shoulders.

“Nice to meet you Innocent. We have two busy days ahead!” I replied.

Exploring Kigali with Innocent

Exploring Kigali with Innocent

We jumped in his old navy Mercedes Ben and went straight to the Kigali Memorial Centre.

As we drove into the center of town, the city showed its lush hillsides, new buildings, modern infrastructure, boulevards and dozens of constructions on the way. The streets were remarkable clean. It seemed hard to believe that those same roads were covered with dead bodies just 16 years ago, when the genocide took the lives of over a million people in the course of 100 days.

Since the end of the slaughter, Rwanda has -under the presidency of incumbent Paul Kagame- achieved stability and economical growth¸ attracting international investment and being considered an African success story. However, the current administration has been accused by international organizations of oppressing the opposition. Having said that, Kagame just the elections with 93% of the votes. So what’s going on?

As ambitious as it may sound, I hoped my short visit would help me understand better that. You can read all about a country, but there is no better way to learn about it than being there and talking to its people… at least that is my believe.

“Innocent, I am very impressed by how modern Kigali is. It is almost surreal to think what happened here in 94. Were you in Rwanda?” I asked.

“No, I was in Burundi with my family. I came back to Rwanda after. Now Rwanda is good, better than the other countries. President Kagame is really good. Now everything is ok. City is growing, tourism growing. Very good, good man” he responded.

Innocent was 47 years old. He has met his wife, also a Rwandan, in Burundi, with whom he has seven kids -“It is African way” he pointed out. He spoke seven languages and dialects, which has helped him to work as a driver for 20 years.

We parked in the Kigali Memorial Centre. At the entrance two armed men with grave faces checked our bags and let us in. This was more than just a memorial of the genocide of 1994. It featured information of genocides that have taken place around the world.

Kigali Memorial Centre

Kigali Memorial Centre

Innocent joined me during the walk around the complex. We first stopped at some gardens where about 250,000 victims were buried. Inside the centre, images spoke for themselves. Videos and testimonies explained the best it could what happened during the genocide, but the slaughter of Rwandans started years before 1994.

This tiny landlocked country in Central Africa has a history of ethnic tension. The disagreements and animosity between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis have existed since the colonial period. Both ethnic groups are very similar. They speak the same language and have the same culture. The differences were established by Belgian colonists, when they made the distinction between Tutsis (often taller and thinner) and the Hutus by issuing identity cards that specified their ethnicity. The Belgians considered the Tutsis superior than the Hutus.

In 1959 the resentment resulted in riots in which 20,000 Tutsis were killed and many more others flew the country. In 1962, the Hutus took the power of the country after the independence from Belgium.

While Hutus ruled in Rwanda, the refugees in neighboring countries formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by Paul Kagame the current president. In 1993 a peace accord was signed between RPF and Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana, but when Habyarimana’s plane was shot down in 1994, the effects were catastrophic and immediate. Within hours recruits, including an unofficial militia called the Interahamwe, were dispatched to all over the country to initiate the slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Three months later, in July 1994, the government collapsed after the RPF launched a military campaign, captured Kigali and declared ceasefire. A multi-ethnic government was formed with a Hutu as a president and a Tutsi (Kagame) as his deputy. Later Kagame became president and has remained in power since then.

Innocent looked at the videos and the photos with me. He seemed as astounded as me by the brutality of what happened to Rwandans. The testimonies of the victims were heartbreaking. Seeing the photos of the babies and children that were killed by machetes was hard to see.

After, Innocent and I drove to another memorial located in the outskirts of the city. About 30 kilometers from Kigali, Nyatama is a former church in which some of the most horrendous crimes happened. Victims looked for protection in holy temples, but not even that could protect them. Today the clothes of the victims as well as their bones and skulls are displayed in the inside the church, which remained intact. The stains of blood are still visible, as so are the bullet holes. A Virgin Mary still stands in the altar, and a wooden cross is over the mountain of bloody clothes.

Nyamata Church

Nyamata Church

A girl in her late 20s walked me around the church and showed me the identity horrendous cards that contributed to the division of Rwandans, clearly identifying the ethnicity of the holder.

The girl said she still remembered those days but she preferred not to think about it. I wondered how she could avoid thinking about it if she is daily face to face with the evidence of the genocide.

Innocent and I drove back to the city. He took me to One Love Project guesthouse, whose income goes direct to an organization that helps disable people in Rwanda and which I would interview the next day.

David, at the reception, gave me the keys of my room. The whole complex was eerily dark. I locked myself in my room, which was very basic: a small bed with a mosquito net, and a bathroom. It only had one light and a broken telephone that served as a decoration. Although I probably could have gotten a better room for the same price somewhere else, I felt happy the money I was paying would help Rwandans directly, and that was enough reason to stay there and support this cause.

I went to bed around 8pm, jetlagged and exhausted. Despite the mosquito net, a powerful mosquito (I couldn’t see it but I could clearly hear it) seemed to have found its way under my blanket and I could felt it sucking my blood. The silence, the uneasy darkness and the mosquito attack made me woke up several times throughout the night; but my heart jumped at 2:16am with what it sounded like a mortar. I sat down quickly, got dress and took my passport just in case. I didn’t know what I had just heard but I needed to be ready. Although Rwanda is stable, elections had just took place and anything could happen… the streets looked as business as usual but there was a heavier military and police presence than usual across the city precisely due to the recent re-election.

Fortunately it became silent. I closed my eyes and felt asleep again…

At 6am I was already awake and dressed. As I always do while traveling, I wanted to see the city waking up. I left the complex of One Love Project and started walking on the streets of Kigali.

The sunrise was coming out of the lush hills, fulfilling the valleys with its rays. The cool morning breeze was refreshing.

There were already a lot of cars and people on the streets. But something felt wrong. People stared at me intensively. I obviously looked different. I smiled at people and said hello, but no response just more stares. It was as if they seemed suspicious. When I took my video camera from my bag and started filming the sunrise, it got even worse.

I pretended I was doing nothing wrong and continued filming the horizon. I didn’t dare to film people.

While filming I turned left and a man stood closely to me, looking at the screen of my camera. He said something I couldn’t understand but his face wasn’t the friendliest. I played silly tourist and walked away.

I finally found a lonely spot behind a building to record my cameras, but tension was in the air. Three shots and I was ready to go back to the guesthouse.

Again, inquisitive stares overwhelmed me, but I showed no fear and walked with confidence. When I finally arrived in the guesthouse and was behind its walls, I felt safe again.

Shortly after, exactly at 8am o’clock, Innocent arrived in his old navy Mercedes at the complex to pick me up. We had a long day packed with interviews.

“Good morning! Sleep well?” asked Innocent.

“Yes, very well,” I lied. I didn’t want to worry Innocent. He was a good hearted man, proud of his country and eager to show the good part of it.

We again drove around Kigali, passing through some upcoming neighborhood with beautiful houses and even mansions.

The city was much bigger than what I expected.

Out first stop was Akilah Institute (, an ONG operating since February 2010 that strives to empower young women.

Innocent hadn’t heard of the organization, so we stopped in a bunch of NGOs focused on women to find out the exact address.

It seemed Innocent was driving around but not sure to where. Suddenly we ran into a sign that read “Akilah Institute”. A dirt road took us to the school, built in a hill overlooking the city.

Innocent walked me to the entrance and said he would wait in the car.

I overheard the voices of the teachers and young girls, divided in two brand new classrooms.

I glanced at the classes on my way to the main offices.

“May I talk to Monique?” I asked

“She is there,” a foreigner woman told me.

I knocked the door and Monique welcomed me.

Monique Schmidt is the Program Director of Akilah. Although born and raised in America, Monique has worked extensively in Africa, teaching in universities and serving in the Peace Corps. After returning home, she missed the continent so much, she looked for a way to go back and is thrilled to be working for Akilah. Being women -whom grew up with opportunities and the freedom to reach our dreams- must be really rewarding and inspiring to help other women to feel empowered and have dreams of their own.

Akilah was founded by Elizabeth Dearborn Davis and Dave Hughes, both were working as volunteers in Rwanda and were very moved by the reliance of people, but also shocked by the lack of opportunities for young women.

Currently the school has 50 students enrolled.

“The students came here very shy and traumatized; we taught them to believe in themselves and who they are. We show these young women that they do have choices and options, and the potential to fulfill those options,” explained Monique.

Monique invited me to listen to the classes. As I walked in, the girls looked surprised to see me filming. I tried to be as low profile as possible, but the young students still would look at me with curiosity and smiled. I first checked leadership course, one of the most important classes taught at the institute.

The teacher challenged the young women with questions.

“What would you do if that was your business?” “How can you succeed?” “What are the advantages of having your own business?

The questions may sound simple, but for those young Rwandan girls who never imagined they could be leaders are not so easy questions to respond. Their hopes and confidence were crushed by the difficulties they have gone through in their lives, but Akilah encourages them to speak out and believe that “yes, they can”

Girls raised their hands to express their opinion, still with low voices, but feeling free to say what they think and believe.

The classroom was impeccable and well equipped. Photos of the covers of different National Geographic Magazines decorated the walls. In one classroom the portray of Oprah was displayed, in the other was the photo of Michelle Obama, both as role models of powerful women with leadership and confidence.

Hospitality was taught in the other classroom.

I asked Monique why leadership and hospitality classes.

“Hospitality is the fastest growing sector of the economy. The government expects to create 5000 new jobs a year,” she said. “The leadership course is to build confidence because leaders must have confidence,” she added.

Rwanda earned above $200million last year from tourism, and the demand from qualified personnel is increasing. Akilah brings a lot of leaders of the tourism industry to talk to the girls and they are so impressed with all of them that many of them have already got part time jobs.

One of those girls is Noella.

Chatting with her outside the classroom and overlooking at Kigali, this tall and slender 25-year-old Rwandan with soft voice told me that her name means “Someone who comes from heaven”. She said that she was born in a difficult time and that’s why her parents named her that way. But the life of Noella hasn’t been easy after birth.

With Noella, student of Akilah Institute

With Noella, student of Akilah Institute

She was only 9-years-old when the genocide happened, and she still remembers clearly the horrors of those days.

“I had lost my hope. I asked myself how I would succeed. My dad died during the war. My mom had no job. I had no money to pay school fees. I had no job. How can I live? I asked myself I would make myself to die,” she lowered her voice.

Then she talked about Akilah, and her eyes and all her face glowed with hope.

“Since I came here, I have improved my confidence. I believe I could be a strong woman. I can interact with people from all over the world who teach me how to be strong in difficult situations. Through Akilah I got a part time job. I work in a hotel and I can practice what I learn,” she smiled.

But Akilah is more than just a school, it is a family for young girls like Noella. They can express here their joys and concerns.

“Before I came here, I didn’t talk to anyone. Akilah is a family. The way they treat us… they listen to everyone, and every problem you have, they can help you. Someone who can listen to you and who believes in you,” said Noella.

I listened to Noella’s story, and my heart shrank. Despite her fragile frame and soft voice, she has such strength and determination.

“I am proud because I am alive and my hope has grown,” said Noella.

I have talked to other victims of genocide in Cambodia and Bosnia, and I have seen the power of the human spirit to overcome pain and embrace life. I cannot even imagine myself going through what these victims and Noella have gone through, but their courage and desire to live life the fullest have always inspired me.

“What’s your dream Noella?” I was curious.

“To have my own hotel. I know it is a big dream. I have to work very hard, but it is possible. I can do it,” she smiled.

“I have no doubts that you have what it takes to make that and many more dreams come true. Just keep on working hard,” I said.

“Thank you,” Noella smiled and with her soft walk, she returned to the class.

I went back to the car to meet Innocent and started telling him about my conversation with Noella, still amazed by the maturity and confidence of her words.

A truck was parked in the left lane of the road in a curve and as we were passing a young girl carrying water ran from behind the truck crossed the street in a run.

Innocent pressed quickly the brake but it was too late. We had already hit the tiny girl with the front of the car. She was bleeding from her mouth and head, her small hands were covered in red. She stumbled until she dropped flat on the ground.

Innocent and I got off quickly off the cars. People from the nearby slums came to check out. A man speaking French said the girl was dead. I couldn’t believe this was happening.

“This is the first time in 20 years as a driver,” said Innocent in disbelieve. He is actually a very careful driver, sometimes so careful that I felt I wouldn’t make it on time to the places I needed to be because of his slow driving. I knew for a fact that it wasn’t his fault. The girl was impossible to be seen coming from behind the truck. But at that point, it didn’t matter whose fault was. We needed to rush the girl into the ER!

The same man that first said she was “done” was a friend of the family. He helped us to carry the young girl’s body to the back of the car and drove with us to the nearby hospital while the mother came.

The hospital was actually better than what I expected. It was clean and it was decently equipped. The young girl was laid on a stretcher. She was in shock. Two male nurses started checking her visible injuries.

The mother arrived in tears, but a few minutes later left with Innocent to take care of the paper work.

“How relate to her? You did it?” asked one of the male nurses.

“No, I wasn’t driving, but I still worry about her. She is so tiny. I was hit by a car too a few years ago, so I know the pain and the shock she is going through,” I replied.

As the nurse cleaned the injuries, she cried out.

“Be strong, be strong,” I told her while holding her tiny hand covered with blood. I knew she couldn’t understand English, but somehow I wanted to make her feel everything was going to be OK.

Fortunately all the cuts were superficial. It really looked worse than what it was. Some stitches were sewn in her lower lip, and the injury in her head was cleaned and covered.

“She will be OK. You no worry. We will leave her today for observation,” the nurse smiled.

Innocent and the mother returned, and the doctor told them about what he had just performed on the girl.

Innocent gave the mother some cash to take care of the girl’s needs and medicines.

We left again, still in shocked of what had just happened, and drove back to One Love Project ( .Established in 1997, this ONG’s objective is to aid the handicap society of Rwanda, which surpasses over 800,000 disabled people due to genocide, landmines and accidents.

Although I was staying in the guesthouse, I only knew the founders of the organization by email.

“Hi, is Mami here? I have an interview with her at the orthopedic workshop,” I asked a woman at reception.

“She is busy now, but can talk to you at 2pm. You can go now to see the workshop though,” she responded.

I had a flight to catch so I couldn’t waste time and went to workshop to do some filming.

I entered the orthopedic workshop, and besides chair wheels, there were prosthesis of all kinds.

One Love Project

One Love Project

Five men, all disabled, worked as technicians to make the prosthesis that would help other people who also lost their extremities.

A disable man with a Rastafarian look -showing his dreadlocks and carrying a crutch- approached me. He introduced himself. He was Gatera Rudasingwa, one of the founders of Milindi Japan One Love Project.

“I have an interview with your wife at 2pm,” I told him.

“Oh, you can come now, she is at the office,” he replied.

A Japanese woman shook my hand and invited me to sit. It was Mami Yoshida Rudasingwa.

They sat up next to each other for the interview.

Mami and Gatera met in Nairobi in 1989, when the war in Rwanda made him escape to Kenya where Mami was studying Swahili.

“When I went to Naoribi, I never imagined I would live in Africa. He is a strong guy. I have never met someone like him. Every time he has an objective. He was born in Rwanda which had a lot of tribal problems, but every time he has hope in his mind,” her face lightened up as she looked at him while talking. “He gave me the power to live with an objective.”

And that objective was to learn the art of making artificial limbs in Japan so that knowledge could be used to help thousands of disabled people like him.

“Almost 6000 people have gotten prosthesis, crutches, wheelchairs and this is all free of charge. This program decided to give it all for free,” pointed out Gatera.

“We have a workshop to make prosthesis, a guesthouse and a restaurant to generate income, a conference hall that can be rented for parties, a camping site and a gallery where we sell handicraft made by disabled people,” said Mami.

All the money earned goes back to the NGO to provide help to the disabled people in Kigali and Burundi, where they have another workshop. But they also reach the countryside with van that carries the prosthesis.

This NGO doesn’t only provide missing limbs, but it also gives disabled people economic competence, training them in orthopedic technicians and encouraging sports activities among them.

“It is very important not to beg. Disabled people need to make money and be independent themselves. We strive to reintegrate them into society,” said Gatera.

Mami was right. Gatera is a strong and ambitious man, committed to expand the aid for the handicapped people beyond the borders of Rwanda and Burundi. He has opened recently the One Love Project USA. He hopes to bring awareness to the needs of the disabled people, and to get all the help he can to keep on helping his community.

“If you can’t bring money, you can donate a crutch, second hand prosthesis, or material to make artificial limbs,” he added.

“Visit our warehouse in Miami,” Mami wrote the address on a paper.

Now the original radio-drums and handicraft made by the disables are being sold in Florida.

“Thank you Mami. Please let me know when you guys are back in town and I will meet you,” I said.
I walked away blown away by the love story of Mami and Gatera… the strength of a man whose disability hasn’t stopped him to have a fulfilling life and making the difference in the lives of thousands of other people affected by disabilities.

Gatera walked me to the entrance, and I walked back to Innocent’s car. We still had a few things left to do.

We made a stop at “Hotel des Mille Collines “, famous for the movie “Hotel Rwanda” based on the real life story of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, who used the installations of the 5 star hotel to protect his family and more than a thousand Tutsis and moderate Hutus from the genocide.

While when we were on our way to the hotel, I told Innocent about the movie.

“That movie is a lie. Rusesabigina is a criminal. If he comes back to Rwanda, Kagame would jail him,” he sounded completely convinced.

“How come Innocent? What did he do?” I asked completely shocked by Innocent’s comment.

“He raped women in that hotel. He is a criminal too. That movie is not accurate,’ he assured.

It was surreal to imagine that someone who was trying to save his family, including his Tutsi wife would do such thing in such horrendous circumstances.

I didn’t want to make Innocent uncomfortable so I preferred to change the topic, and talked instead of the new constructions booming in every corner of Kigali.

We arrived at the “Hotel des Mille Collines “, and nowadays is back a luxury hotel, where lounge music is played in the bar of the swimming pool while guests enjoyed their drinks. Yet, it was impossible not to thank of what happened there and what I watched in the movie.

I went back to the car and with some time still in hand, I called another NGO a friend had strongly recommended me to talk to.

It was called the Health Initiative Program (, a local organization founded by a group of Rwandan physicians to improve the health of unprivileged communities across the country.

I met Joseph, one of the board directors, at a hotel for a chat.

“We provide support and counseling, so they can be hopeful instead of hopeless,” said Joseph. ”We need to address different factors in the health issue. If they are not healthy, they can work, they can study. Health is holistic!”

This group of physicians is focused on providing the communities the tools and the knowledge they need to live healthier lives and a cure preventable diseases.

When we finished the interview, Joseph and I started talking about politics and elections. Just as Innocent, Joseph supported fiercely Paul Kagame from the accusation of repressing the opposition and praised all the stability and development he has brought to the country.

“He is good to the country,” he said.

Throughout my brief visit to Rwanda, I only got supporting words for Paul Kagame and his administration. I wished I had more time to talk to some more people and see the different opinions.

There is not doubt that Rwanda has recovered quickly from the turbulent past, but the wounds are still fresh. I could sense it from the conversations I had. Rwandans seemed desperate to move on, but the scale of the slaughter left them severely traumatized.

Before coming to Rwanda I listened to an interview in which Paul Kagame defended his position and himself from accusations of repressing the opposition. He said he was Rwandan and only Rwandans could understand the importance of suppressing any hate speech.

In a country with such recent genocide, history ethnic violence and still tribal divisions (that the government has enforced to eliminate), I seemed to understand the fear of the people and the government when it comes to any comment or speech that deepens divisions and hatred among Rwandans.

Perhaps it is precisely an iron first leader what this tiny African nation needs to consolidate its stability and avoid a future genocide?

I may need to come back to Rwanda to understand this complex and perplexing country.

Before leaving Kigali, Innocent and I went to a local market.

“I know you! Remember me?” a young boy with a big smile said.

Other boys approached us while Innocent parked the car. They all wanted to look after the old Mercedes while we were in the market.

In this bustling covered market fruits, vegetables and all sort of foods were sold. I was amazed by the balance of Rwandan women who managed to carry heavy stuff over their heads with such grace and without dropping it. I wanted to find out how they did it and I decided to take up the challenge.

Learning from the Rwandans!

Learning from the Rwandans!

A woman put a heavy bowl of tomatoes over her head in perfect balance and if it was just a bag of cotton. First I struggled to grab the bowl, and when I finally put it on my head, I felt I was going to drop them all. Suddenly the whole market turned their eyes to where I was. The pressure was on and I couldn’t disappoint!

For a moment, I believed I had managed to keep the tomatoes on my head in balance, and shouted “I became Rwandan”. We were all laughing hard. Later a video would reveal that a sweet smiling Rwandan woman put her hand in the back of the bowl to help me out.

All the women approved my efforts though.

Innocent and I were running out of time, and we headed back to the airport.

“Thanks Innocent. You have been great. I will definitely call you when I return to Rwanda.”

“Call me if you need anything. I will go to the hospital to see how the girl is doing,” he said.

“Please do, and send me an email to let me know how she is doing. See you soon Innocent. Thank you again.”

As I walked inside the terminal, I thought of the intensity of my 32 hours in Rwandan. What a unique birthday this has been! I turned today 33. I was away from home and surrounded by strangers, yet there was not other place that I’d rather be. Meeting extraordinary people like Noella, Monique, Mami and Gatera while traveling is what makes my journeys so fulfilling. These experiences instead of depressing me, they touch my heart deeply, and make me want to live life the fullest…

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