The World is a Book: A Page in Rwanda

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine Lydia Hsu comes from the 10-square mile patch of green in upstate New York that calls itself home to Cornell University – otherwise known as Ithaca, New York. Since middle school, she has wanted to pursue a career in teaching English, but after taking her first class on Africa at Northwestern with Professor Glassman, she decided to major in both English Literature and African Studies and pursue a Secondary Teaching Certification through SESP. Outside of classes, she divides her time between work, student groups, and play. She is a teaching assistant for the Center for Talent Development and a Jumpstart Corps Member at Howard Area Community Center. She serves as the Events Coordinator for the African Students Association, the leader of the Undergraduate Africa Seminar, the African Studies Representative on the Weinberg Student Advisory Board, and the Publicity Chair for TOMCats. Outside of all of this, she enjoys nighttime walks on the lake fill, Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony Orchestra performances, days spent at the Art Institute, and spontaneous Red Mango runs. This summer, she will turn another page and go to Rwanda to teach English at Network for Africa’s Learning Centre in Kigali. This project unites all three of her academic interests – English, African Studies, and Secondary Education – in the goal of creating and implementing an ELL curriculum for students at the school. She will not only have the opportunity to take what she has learned about Rwanda and English education to develop an ELL curriculum, but she will also have the chance to challenge and supplement what she has learned to enrich her understanding of Rwanda and expand her experience as an English teacher – both of which she hopes will give her a glimpse of what she eventually plans to do for the long-term. GRANT: Lydia is travelling on an Immersion Experience Grant given by the Office of the Provost. This grant offers $2,000 of support for students engaged in intensive summer experiences, whether based domestically or internationally. For more information about the grant, go to:

The Importance of NETWORKING > Being Earnest

I’m sitting in Bourbon, per usual, sipping on my daily cup of African tea and munching on deliciously sumptuous forkfuls of warm banana cake as I respond to emails, update this blog, and do other necessary internet work (i.e. facebook). Bourbon Coffee at the Union Trade Center (UTC) is the unofficial hub of umuzungu activity in Kigali, and all around me, there are other umuzungus doing the exact same thing. But do you know what the best part about my arrangement is?

African Tea at Bourbon Coffee 🙂

It’s completely free. All of it.

Sure, networking is important in the United States and everywhere else in the world, but here in Kigali it is absolutely crucial to have connections if you want to get anything done. And, of course, there are always the added perks that come with knowing people – like free African tea, cake, internet, drinks, taxi-moto rides, meals, ice cream, earrings, etc. I never would have thought that in two months, I could walk into Papyrus and immediately be served a complimentary steak or grilled tilapia dinner and a cup of fresh passion fruit juice. Papyrus is a classy restaurant bar by day, and the most popular club at night where Kigali gathers every weekend to dance until 6am. The moment I walk into Papyrus on Friday or Saturday night, the DJ puts on my song (“Stereo love”) and I find a glass of Malibu Pineapple waiting for me at the packed bar where dozens of people are impatiently clamoring for their drinks. If I step into the patisserie next to the bar, I have warm buttery croissants, lemon cake, samosas, cookies, and sandwiches to choose from as I please.

It’s pretty fantastic. However, aside from having wonderful friends all over Kigali, the most important connections have been those that have provided the means for me to do research and help my students.

As I discussed at length in my previous post, attempting to do research here has been frustrating and nearly impossible without the right connections. I’ve learned to remind people of scheduled appointments a day in advance, the day of, and an hour before, and still expect that they will be an hour late. I’ve also learned to schedule seven interviews for one day to ensure that three will actually happen. However, even with all those steps, research would have been impossible without the help of others in powerful positions. For instance, I was told that I needed signed authorization from Gasabo District to visit public primary schools. One contact was able to put me directly in touch with the District manager and physically hand him my petition. I was assured that my petition would be approved the next day. One day passed, I called and was told it would be signed the next day; I called the next day, and was promised that it would be signed the next; I called the next day … and so on. After four days, my call wasn’t even picked up.

It was time to bring in a connection even higher up in the power structure. Over coffee at Bourbon, I complain to my friend about my research woes. He laughs and assures me that everything will be fine. One text message from him and ten minutes later, I receive a profuse apology from Gasabo District accompanied by clearance to do research in all the public schools in Rwanda. No need to have signed authorization. Go figure.

It’s all about who you know. Seriously. One of my friends came to Rwanda to research horticulture (which is anything but controversial), and she was also told that she first needed to draft a petition to research and have it authorized. She waited over four months for approval and encountered many other obstacles that made it very difficult to conduct her research.

Last weekend, I came into contact with several interesting figures. The first, an American member of the UN Security Unit who is in charge of arresting war criminals and escorting the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon at public events. From him, I learned more about the unpublished details of the August 11 bombing and the recent UN report. (I’ll discuss this in more detail in my upcoming Politics post). In the United States, I think the general perception of the UN is positive, but in Rwanda, UN workers are among the most hated people in the country. Why? Well, first there’s the history of the UN’s role (or lack of a role) in the 1994 genocide; it’s failure to recognize or do anything to stop the massacre of hundreds of thousands. Second, the majority of Rwandans I’ve spoken to see the current UN presence as a useless organization composed of people who are qualified to do nothing. Unfortunately, my encounters with two UN workers confirm these views. The Security Unit worker that I met has been in the country for almost a year, but does not know the names of any of the districts in Kigali. He imports fancy cars from the US and drives around Kigali in a flashy red sportscar. However, it wasn’t his ignorance about the country that appalled me, so much as his attitude toward local Rwandese. He generally refrains from interacting with Rwandans, but when he does, his manner is patronizing. He wanted his cook to prepare lunch for us and when the cook didn’t understand his specific instructions, he started yelling, “What are you smoking? Are you on dope?” When his cook left, he turned to me, shaking his head. “These people,” he muttered.

After hearing about my research project, he insisted on driving me to the different primary schools for my interviews. He said that he had the next four days off and he had nothing to do except plan BBQs. Although I was hesitant about enlisting the help of someone I barely knew, since I figured he’d have a better idea of how to navigate around Kigali than I did, I finally accepted. Boy, was that a mistake. We drove around in circles in his little red sportscar, and whenever I insisted that we stop and ask for directions, he would roll down his window, rudely beckon over people and ask for directions in slow ungrammatical English as if the people were idiots. Currently, he also has a side project to create a security company in Rwanda, except since his job with the UN does not permit him to start such a venture, he tells me “oh yeah, the company is run by my cook and security guards” and gives me a knowing wink. Before coming to Rwanda, the perception I had from the media prepared me to expect rampant corruption among government officials – instead, I find the most corrupt individuals working for NGOs and outside organizations like the UN. The second UN worker I know is even ruder, if that is possible. I don’t even want to repeat his treatment of my Rwandan friends here on this blog.

The second person I met last weekend was an Indian businessman aiming to expand his England-based company into Rwanda and Burundi. Over the course of a three hour dinner, we talked about our projects in Rwanda, our goals for the future, and our perspectives on purpose and life. He is now a sponsor for the Learning Centre, and last Friday, he transferred funds to me to give to the LC. Now, we are working on a project to provide a means for the students to make enough money to pay for a university education. Currently his plan is to ship cell phones to the school (which would be free of charge for his company) and for the LC students to keep the money from the sales. I’m looking into the legality of such an arrangement, and I’m still not sure if cell phones are the best idea for sales, but regardless – I’m excited about the opportunity to do anything to brighten my students’ futures.

I’m also looking into the possibility of finding my students jobs with the Masaka Farms patisserie at Papyrus, and a local ice cream shop in Kigali. Without degrees or connections, my students don’t stand a chance of finding jobs, but through the connections that I’ve forged, I can potentially do something for my students while I am still here. That’s why I’ve extended my visit for another week and I’ve rebooked my plane ticket for 9/18 instead of 9/11. It means that classes start the day after I get back and I won’t really have time to adjust, but I really can’t leave right now just when all the doors are opening. So that means another week of blogging! Thank you for reading, and stay posted for exciting updates in the days ahead 🙂

The Legacy of the Silenced

Not too far from Kigali, down a long stretch of dirt road that winds past farm fields and vast expanses of green, there are two small churches that stand as reminders of the horrors of the genocide. Behind the twisted metal doors of Nyamata Church, over 10,000 people were brutally murdered in 1994.

The tour guide, a graceful young woman with a quiet voice, greets me and beckons me inside the dark sanctuary. One step inside of the shadows and I’ve stepped into history. It’s not just the musty smell of clothes covered in dried blood, its the heavy silence, the thin beams of light filtering through the bullet holes in the ceiling, the rotting cloth on the altar. The bodies are gone, but everything else has been preserved and I am surrounded by death. Everywhere around me on rows and rows of pews are the clothes of those killed.

But immediately, there is an obvious question: The church is so small – how did 10,000 people fit into such a confined space?

The tour guide nods, this is a familiar question. “It seems impossible, but you have to believe it,” she says, “They saw the soldiers coming and they fled here. If they had not been massacred, they would have died in a couple hours from suffocation.”

She leads me to the altar, on which several of the weapons of the killing remain. A machete, a bullet, a spear. Traditional weapons were the tools of choice since they were abundant and inflicted the greatest pain. Overlooking the altar, a statue of Virgin Mary stands with hands clasped, eyes looking up toward a ceiling peppered with bullet holes. The tour guide directs my attention to the splotches of black stains on the ceiling just above the altar. “They lay the victims on the altar to kill them,” she says, “You had to pay for bullets. Otherwise, they killed you with the machete – she slashes her hand through the air and points at the ceiling – so that the blood reaches up.”

In both churches, there is one wall that is completely stained with dried blood and the clothes that lie on the floor are much more compactly assembled than elsewhere in the churches.

Here, they murdered children,” she tells me, “They killed them by taking them and hitting them against the walls.”

We walk downstairs into a small memorial that was constructed after the genocide. There, one coffin sits behind glass enveloped in beams of white light.

The most beautiful woman in Rwanda,” she says, “She refused to marry Hutu, so in the genocide, they raped her, tortured her, and cut her from genitals to face. On both sides, front and back.”

We walk back upstairs and out of the church to the back. There, lie the mass graves of over 40,000 – the bones of the 10,000 from the church and the bodies of 30,000 more from the surrounding area. There are two structures: one for the bones of those whose bodies had already rotted away, and one for fresh bodies found in streams, latrines, etc. that could not be laid with the bones.

I see steps leading down into the graves and question the guide. She says that I may enter but suggests that my friend accompany me in case I get scared. He says no. I enter alone.

As I descend the steps and lose sight of the world outside, once again, the sense of history overwhelms me. I am part of the shadow. In the darkness, I can make out the skulls lined on shelves just a couple feet away. I step down from the last step and walk in.

All around me are rows and rows of skulls and bones on shelves that extend deep into the chamber far past my line of vision. The light from the staircase barely outlines the tens of thousands of round surfaces, some of which bear the marks of machetes, others with multiple punctures from bullets.

I suddenly cough and gasp. I realize I had stopped breathing.

I fumble with the clasp of my purse and reach in for my camera. I hesitate. What am I doing? I am standing in a mass grave, surrounded by the bones of people who were massacred just sixteen years ago, and my first response is to take a picture?

Nausea hits me and I reel.

I can’t allow myself to have emotion, can’t allow myself to think. I have to save that for later. I take the camera out, and before I can allow myself to further contemplate the morality of my actions, I take a couple pictures, close-up, then farther away, with flash, without flash.

In the meantime, the skulls remain silent, lined on their shelves, sitting still as I apply the rule of thirds and try different angles to maximize the lighting.

The last click. I take my eye away from the camera and place it back in my bag.

Silence. Darkness. Stillness.

I walk back in and stand close to the shelf, my face just an inch away from a skull. Who are you? What was your story? How old were you?


I stare into gaping holes that once held eyes that embraced life, absorbed experiences. But the eyes are gone. There is only darkness. Once a subject. Now an object. The unrecognizable abject amidst rows of identical thousands.

My friend calls. I tear my eyes away from impenetrable darkness and remember the light from the staircase. I walk back, ascend steps toward the sun and the living.

Stop. Take a look back down.

Silence. Darkness. Stillness.

I can barely make out the outline of the skull nearest the stairs.

My friend calls again. This time I don’t look back.

I leave history in its grave, but take with me the legacy of the silenced – a reminder for the future, a command of Never Again, a hope for harmony and peace in a new Rwanda.

Later, I hear the story of the guide. She was in this church in 1994. When the soldiers came, she fled with her sister and sought refuge inside a nearby creek. For two months, she hid waist-deep in the water, skin rotting, but too afraid to emerge for fear of being seen. Her parents did not escape; their bones lie unidentified within the depths of the mass grave. She was seven years old.

Now, she works at the Genocide Memorial as a volunteer. She has no job. She lives off of the funds that the government gives to Genocide survivors. Everyday, she sits at the site of death, telling the story of the church to those who will hear it. Her single occupation in life is to preserve the story, preserve the legacy of its victims, of her parents, of horrors that can never be erased as her country steps forward – forward into a brighter future that she hopes will never forget the lessons of its past.

Politics and Freedom of Expression: PART I

It’s been a while since I’ve discussed politics on this blog – not because I haven’t been thinking about it (because I have been thinking about it constantly) but because I’ve needed time to formulate my thoughts.

Many of you – friends and family – have asked me about the controversy of the elections, the bombing on August 11, and the recent U.N. Report claiming a double-genocide in Rwanda. I have my own thoughts on all three of these topics, but honestly, I think that it’s more important for me to share with you the perspective of Rwandans I have spoken to rather than detail my own barely formulated opinions.



Upcoming Inauguration Ceremony for President Kagame

I will do this in two parts – first, I want to discuss freedom of expression in Rwanda. Second, I want to examine recent events and the current political situation. To preface both posts, I want to emphasize that the perspectives outlined here by no means represent the views of the entire country or my own views (although my presentation may obviously be biased). I also want to note that I will not be naming names for the privacy of the individuals with whom I have spoken.

The goal of this blog is not only to document my experiences in Rwanda but to also inform and challenge existing perceptions, and invite dialogue on controversial topics. My hope is not only for you, my Readers, to learn something new about Rwanda from reading my posts, but to also encourage you to question your former conceptions of Rwanda – and maybe even of Africa – and reexamine these beliefs and the means by which you arrived at them.

Why Does Rwanda Need Freedom of Expression?”

It is Friday night and we are at QQP (Quelque Parts) sitting around a table of Fantas and Primus beers. The setting is laid-back and chill – there’s some lively music in the background, you can hear soft laughter from the other thatched huts, and the only lighting is the soft glow of lanterns along the stone walkway. But the silent darkness in our hut is anything but relaxed. A couple uncomfortable shifting chairs break the heavy tension as I clear my throat.

Er … I don’t know,” I say. My chair contributes its own awkward squeak as I shift away from the question. “I don’t really know how to answer that. That’s a good question.”

A conversation that began as a simple introduction and a couple questions about my stay in Rwanda, turned into a discussion of the August 11 bombing, which quickly exploded into a heated debate about freedom of expression in Rwanda.

How did we start talking about the bombing? I don’t quite remember. I think that I was talking about my evening class and I mentioned that I would temporarily be teaching the class of the teacher who had passed away in the attack.

The first response: “Wait. Someone died in the bombing?”

The second: “Yeah, one person.”

My response: “No, three people died.”

Everybody else’s response: DISBELIEF. “No.” “Impossible.” “Really?” “No way.”

When I assured them that yes, I knew for a fact that three people had died in the bombing and I had attended one of the funerals – to be honest, I expected shock or indignation.

The actual response? Most people just shrugged, nodded their concurrence with my statement, and continued their conversations with lit cigarettes, beers, and fantas.

I became very indignant and (perhaps because I was a tad emboldened at the time) rather out-spoken. “Wait a moment,” I said, “How is that okay? How is it okay that a bombing happens and the government can choose to not report the accurate number of deaths?”

Well, that got the fantas and beers back on the table.

My incredulity at the lack of freedom of expression was matched by the incredulity of my peers who overwhelmingly saw the rationality of the government’s restriction on “negative reports” on Rwanda. Why bother publishing a larger number and inciting more fear among the people, and further marring international perceptions of Rwanda when you could easily avoid all the trouble by reporting just one death on the second page of the newspaper?

So ‘Ignorance is bliss‘?” I asked. And ‘what you don’t know won’t hurt you‘? As Rwandan citizens, you’re totally fine with not hearing the truth about events in Rwanda?”

The answer? Yes. Given the history in Rwanda, where the radio and newspapers were used to fuel hatred, retribution, and violence – many Rwandans believe that the Rwandan government has every right, and in fact it is the duty of the government, to take the measures that will ensure that the media won’t be abused again. These measures include removing all negative content about Rwanda from the media and, in some cases, shutting down the newspapers that do not conform to these measures.

I’ve briefly mentioned The New Times before as the sole English newspaper in Kigali. It is also the newspaper of FPR (although in America, I guess we call Kagame’s party “RPF” for Rwanda Patriotic Front?). Open up any issue and you will see pages of praise for Kagame’s party; any information about the activities of oppositional candidates is either omitted or included in the form of scathingly vicious editorials. There is absolutely nothing negative written about Rwanda – and by “negative,” I mean articles that expose poverty, corruption, or suffering. There’s no doubt about it, The New Times is a joke of journalism and even Rwandans acknowledge this and laugh at the blatantly biased newspaper. If Rwandan citizens buy daily issues for their coffee tables but dismiss The New Times as government propaganda, certainly it is understandable why the international community also doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the newspaper?

Of course any discussion of freedom of expression would have to tie into my current project with the film industry, which has the priority of accomplishing the very opposite of censorship. I spoke with one of the members of the Cinema Centre who told me about how many of the Centre’s writers have tried to publish articles in The New Times but were rejected for “exposing poverty or negative situations” instead of focusing on Rwanda’s progress and many achievements. My friend said, “In Kampala, people talk about the president. Here, if you want to say something [negative] about the president, you whisper.” Last year, this same friend was commissioned by a Belgian(?) company to shoot a documentary about the slums in Rwanda, but was immediately denied permission. “A lot of business you can cover in Rwanda,” he said to me, “but not the poor.” Now, the film has been recommissioned to examine slums in Kenya.

Both my peers and my Cinema Centre friend acknowledge that “there is no freedom of expression” in Rwanda, but unlike my peers who accept and embrace this, my film friend sighs and shakes his head. “It is not good,” he says.

Ironically though, the government frequently relies upon the Cinema Centre to produce propaganda material for the RPF. My friend’s thoughts on this: “The government comes to you. You are not paid well but you cannot complain. You have to promote the president. We did a lot of free works because we need to contribute.”

Returning to the original question voiced by one of my peers at the meeting: Why does Rwanda need freedom of expression?

Historical context matters. As does an acknowledgment of the many strides Rwanda has taken since 1994 – the fact that there is a rising film industry, a Rwanda Writers Association, a growing music industry, increasing recognition of the arts, and the reintroduction of Rwandan history into the school curriculum. As an American who has never known life without freedom of expression, do I really have the grounds to assert that Rwanda needs to be like America? How necessary is freedom of expression especially when it has the potential to undermine stability and security? Is there a line that has to be drawn when freedom of expression works against the peace and unity the country has tried so hard to build between its people? But then again, are these merely excuses for those in the government to control and preserve their power? Is freedom of expression limited for the good of Rwandans and the good of the country, or is the censorship used for the good of those in power?

Food for thought.


Remember that time I told you that I had FORTY STUDENTS?

Well, turns out I now have sixty.


Screening "Pursuit of Happyness"

It’s pretty incredible. I can hardly believe it myself. But I did find out why last week. On Friday, the LC director interrupted my class and took 10 students out into the hallway. It turns out the other English teacher had zero students and all her students were in my class! No wonder – I couldn’t figure out how it was possible for me to have new students trickling in everyday…

Anyway, that’s why I’ve been sort of M.I.A. with my blogging. The past two weeks have been draining on many levels – one of them being lesson-planning, grading, and teaching – but, of course, teaching is still very rewarding. I love all of my students dearly, and I am so thrilled to see them every morning. However, aside from completely veering from my original curriculum and developing new lesson plans on interview questions, job applications, and business letters; I have also started to stay after class to offer support to students pursuing project ideas and seeking advice on finding jobs. I’m far from being an expert on starting new businesses, but I listen and advise them where I can. I am careful not to make promises, but I always assure them that I will do what I can to help them.

This afternoon, three of my brightest students visited me at my house. I finished class at noon, met with the Statistics specialist at MINEDUC, visited the 2010 Expo in Gicondo, and arrived at Kimihurura at 5 PM with time to spare when one of my students, Emmy, called to let me know they had arrived.

I invited them in, served them some light refreshments, and asked them what they had been up to since noon. They looked at each other, confused. I tried to rephrase my question: “What did you do after class?”

Ezechias raised his eyebrows. “Teacher, we started walking,” he said.

My jaw dropped.

Eric, Emmy, and Ezechias (yes, my three brightest students have names beginning with E) do not even have 100 RWF to spend on a minibus, so they walked nearly four hours to visit me. 100 RWF is less than 20 cents USD. In addition, I learned that all three wake up every morning at 6 AM to walk to class by 8:30 AM, and make the long trek back home after class finishes. “It is not good for the shoes,” jokes Eric, laughing as he gestures at his worn dust-covered sneakers.

I wake up at 8 AM every day and I pay 400 RWF for a taxi-moto to take me to the LC by 8:30 AM.

Not only that, I also discovered that many of my students only eat one meal a day. And not a large meal at that. For Friday’s test, I assigned the following composition question: “If you could have any three wishes granted, what would you wish for? Why?”

In his composition, Ezechias’ first wish was “not to see a genocide again, because a genocide is very bad, kills everybody according his race.” Then, he wrote the following: “Secondly, I would not be hungry, because when I am hungry nothing I can do. So that my vision can be ended.”

I didn’t understand the second sentence at first, but after talking with him, I think he meant something more along the lines of “If I cannot do anything when I am hungry, my vision for the future becomes impossible.”

My students are hungry. Not just hungry for sustenance – they are also hungry for knowledge. Hungry enough that they physically push themselves to walk two hours to school every day to sit through class with growling stomachs, and still, they force themselves to learn the material.

I can’t grasp it. And I really can’t process that I only have two weeks left.

Sometimes when I think about these things, I get a strange hollowness in my chest and I suddenly feel tired and old. I’m not sure why. I can’t identify the feeling, nor can I pinpoint its cause. Sometimes I get it when I remember that many of my students are my age but the problems we face in life are vastly different. I get it when I realize I cannot do more to help them, and that I do not know what their future holds. Other times it comes when I see Jacqueline’s missing ear and Cecile’s missing arm, or when I read compositions such as Theophile’s that discusses what “adversity creates opportunity” means to him – in 1994, the priest of church denied sanctuary to him and his mom; that very same day, everybody in the church was massacred.

What is the meaning and purpose of all of this? Why am I here?

I really don’t know and I don’t expect to know until I get back. But until then, I’ll be making the most of my time here. Enjoying, breathing, hungrily savoring every last minute I have left in Kigali.

Wash over me, Rwanda, wash over me.

Immerse me in your people, your culture, your history, your politics, your DJs and bakers, your wealth and technology, your hunger and poverty, bananas, passion fruit, music and art.

Wash over me, Rwanda, wash over me.

And as you immerse me in my final days here, I will do my best to digest the experiences in the hopes of preserving them for the day I return.

I will return.

The Project that Failed (and the Lesson that Succeeded)

I am sitting at the National Curriculum Development Center waiting for the Inspectorate General. My appointment was at 2:00 PM. I got here at 1:00 PM. It is now 3:00 PM. I have a class to teach at 4:00 PM.

Am I disappointed? Yes, very much so. Am I surprised? No, not particularly.

This is only one more instance out of a series of failed attempts to obtain information about primary education from the Ministry of Education (MINEDUC). As I mentioned at the beginning of the summer, I hoped to research primary education in Rwanda to examine the ways in which the government has implemented policies to reach its goal of universal primary education. I started researching in June but quickly discovered that: 1) there is almost no published information about primary education in Rwanda, 2) the MINEDUC website does not work and I have no one to contact for more information.


So clearly, I could not begin my research until I arrived in Rwanda.

Fast forward to my first week in Rwanda. I meet with an adviser to President Kagame who has several important contacts in the government. He places me in touch with someone in MINEDUC and assures me that she will be able to answer all my questions about primary education. So far, so good. I call the contact and tell her about my project. She tells me to schedule an appointment for the next week. Okay, done.

Second week in Rwanda. First appointment at MINEDUC. I meet the contact and, after reminding her about my project, she tells me that she cannot help me. What? I learn that there is currently no one in charge of primary education at MINEDUC. Instead of providing me information, she gives me a list of more people to contact and shows me the door.

Okay. So not what I expected, but surely one of these people will be able to give me a list of the public primary schools in Rwanda. How difficult could that be?

Very difficult, apparently.

Ministry of Education (MINEDUC)

First person to call: the Permanent Secretary of MINEDUC. If she does not have the information, she will at least know for certain who I need to contact. I dial the number and reach her secretary.


Hi, my name is Lydia,” I say, “I’m a student from the United States and I would like to research primary education. Would it be possible to schedule –”

The line clicks.

I look at my phone. Did she hang up? Must have been a glitch.

I dial the number again and wait. The secretary does not pick up. I try again. No result. I decide that something must have happened at MINEDUC and I will call tomorrow.

I call the next day.


Hi, my name is Lydia and I called yesterday. I’m a student from the United States and I was wondering –”


I glance at my phone. She hung up? That’s when the suspicion starts setting in. I call three more times and no one picks up.

For the next week, I call every day, and every time the same thing happens. I introduce myself and before I even say the words “schedule an appointment,” the woman hangs up.

Well, at least I have other contacts. I call the other two – one at the National Curriculum Development Center, and the other in charge of statistics at MINEDUC – and schedule appointments. Unfortunately, they cannot schedule appointments until two weeks later. Sigh. Nothing I can do about that.

In the meantime, I stay busy with lesson-planning, teaching, and grading. I attend FESPAD, campaign rallies, the elections. I meet the members of the Cinema Centre, visit the construction site for the new movie theatre, and connect them to Africana. One of the teachers at the LC tells me about a school run by her friend. I visit the school (more about Hirondelles later) and interview the director.

Visited one school in Kigali. Check.

Which brings me to week four. Only three and a half more weeks left before I head back to Evanston, and I still don’t even have a list of the primary schools in Kigali. And now, my first appointment has also failed.

How did this happen?

Yesterday, I spoke to another American about my research woes. She has plenty of experience under her belt as a former volunteer and employee for the Rwandan government; now, she works for an NGO. After patiently listening to my long list of grievances against MINEDUC, she tells me to be careful not to extend my negative experience over an entire population. Yes, what happened was extremely frustrating, but it is a special case, not the rule. I bring up “African time” and my frustration with Rwandans who come two hours after they say they will meet you, and when they finally show up, they shrug and say, “Sorry, it’s African time.”

How is this acceptable? I ask. How is it okay to recognize a negative stereotype and reinforce it?

She tells me that if I look more closely, I will see that punctuality is also an issue in the U.S., just maybe in different areas and situations. In Rwanda, it is true that people are often two hours late to social appointments, but the buses always run precisely on the dot and teachers show up to class on time. Do the buses run on time at Northwestern? she asks me. I immediately think of the Intercampus shuttle and the excruciatingly cold half hour that would tick by in December with still no bus in sight. No, I answer.

She’s right. I had taken my frustration with several members of MINEDUC and applied it to the population of an entire country. I was ashamed. So this is how stereotypes start.

At this point, I am fairly certain that my research project has failed and I will be unable to visit all the schools and conduct all the interviews as I had hoped. But, in at least one respect, this failure has turned out to be a success. I have realized my own unconscious inclination to typecast people and take individual failures and apply them to a whole group. I am glad that through these trials, I have been able to learn a lesson that is well worth the failure. To have continued in my thinking without that additional perspective would have been a failure indeed – and a larger one, at that!

August 30, 2010 – UPDATES:

I received an apology from the Inspectorate General and have rescheduled a meeting for tomorrow morning. I also paid MINEDUC another visit and preempted a second failed appointment by giving the Statistics specialist a call in the morning and half an hour before the appointment. He still showed up one hour late – but at least he showed up! It’s so interesting how things work here – the information about primary education is unpublished, but if you track the right people down, they can hand you all the information on a USB. So now, I have all the stats on primary, secondary, and higher education in Rwanda on an Excel spreadsheet. It wasn’t easy to track the specialist down, but I couldn’t believe how easy it was to attain the official information. Also, I paid the Permanent Secretary’s secretary a visit, and introduced myself, “Hi, I’m Lydia. You might remember me – I called every day last week to schedule an appointment?” Yep. Have an appointment scheduled at 11 AM tomorrow. I think I’m starting to get the hang of this…only two weeks left, but we’ll see what I can do 🙂


I’ve received so many queries about Rwandan cuisine that I figured I should dedicate an entire post to food. Enjoy!

First off, Rwandans LOVE meat. ALL MEAT. I’ve only come across one Rwandan vegetarian and he went to school in the States (so maybe he doesn’t count?). The most affordable meats are goat and then beef – so the steak is amazing here, and you most commonly encounter meat as brochettes (on a stick). Chicken is on the menu at nicer restaurants but it is tough, dry, and more expensive. Rwanda only recently allowed the importation of chickens, so this might change in the upcoming years. Fish is also fairly cheap because of Lake Kivu.

In terms of vegetables, at the local level, you see a lot of maize, beans, cassava, and dishes made with the large green bananas that are cooked (there are 6 different kinds of bananas). Potatoes are comparatively expensive to maize, so fries accompany almost every nice dish at restaurants. I’ve also seen a lot of peas, carrots, tomatoes, and avocados. My cook likes to use eggplant, broccoli, and cauliflower, but I’m not sure if that’s because those are local vegetables or she’s just trying to please us umuzungus.


Goat meat (bottom left), and brochettes (center)

There’s certainly a great deal of Belgian influence in the cuisine. This is most evident in the bakeries which sell many cheeses, yogurts, breads, and cakes (lemon, banana, and occasionally mango and zucchini, too). The big cakes are almost always vanilla, and for the most part, pastries and cookies are dry and sugary – not like soft, gooey American cookies and cupcakes. I’ve attempted to bake here but it’s difficult because vanilla extract, brown sugar, sour cream, and chocolate chips are impossible to find in Rwanda. I think I’m going to try oatmeal raisin cookies, though – I’ll let you know if they turn out well (no need to report a failure).




Pizza: half-beef, half-sausage. The fresh cheese is what really makes this pizza!

One more thing, the fruit juices here are phenomenal: mango, pineapple, papaya, and especially the passion fruit juice. SO AMAZING. I’m going to bring some back to the States, so if you want some, you better stop by my apartment quick before it’s all gone!

An Addendum

I just returned from a small farewell party organized by the Institute Film Family at Sundowner (a bar/club just down the street from my house). A woman named Maggie Williams provided free film classes to the Cinema Centre for a month, and the members of the Cinema Centre invited me to meet her at the thank you event for her efforts. There, I reconnected with Joseph and Apollo, and I also met Eric Kabera, the producer of “100 Days,” the first film from Rwanda after the Genocide. A note on Eric – he has produced several films, three of which focus on the Genocide, but he is now moving toward other genres, such as comedy, to break out of the Genocide mold and demonstrate that there is more to Rwanda than the events of 1994. He will be at a Toronto film festival later this year to promote a new film that he has just produced about three Rwandan men who go to the World Cup.

At the event, Apollo handed me a poem he had written after our first meeting at Bourbon. He told me that he spoke very little at the event because there were so many thoughts running through his mind which he was only able to express later through poetry. I’ve never had a poem dedicated to me before, much less by a Rwandan writer, so it was a great honor. I’ve included it below. Enjoy!

The Hang Out

By Apollo Ndungutse

(A poem dedicated to Lydia Hsu)

It instead turns into a hang up

To me but not anybody else

And no one knows how I am feeling

Because I can see them smiling and requesting for business cards!

Was this the intended purpose of the promise?

An invitation for some good time out turning into a business deal!

Another hurtful is, I didn’t know her mind when she read my short message sent.

She is at the spot 70 minutes before and yet my brothers are playing me around Dallas mall

As if I am there little one when I am the First born of nine and my Mama may add the tenth

It instead turns into a Hang up

She pays for herself and if that is not enough

We are posing with watery glasses while hers is dry

Doing much of the talking and yet I am the speechless MC

Pray is power! It brings Kayi Turner and by surprise they begin discussing N Y C

Meditation strikes and my soul is running to the problem of the promise and purposeful prophecy in it.

The rope has disappeared and Noveltel story forgotten. I wanted to hang myself. This poem is dedicated to you. I will send it by email. My brothers have betrayed me and you’ve saved me. It begs pardon, I am not a designer I would have designed it for you.

My (Unofficial) Side Project: The Film Industry in Rwanda

Right now, it looks like a grass clearing sectioned off with brick walls, but next year, this will be Rwanda’s first movie theater.

Foundation for the first movie theatre in Rwanda!

Joseph Njata navigates me through a maze of rudimentary structures, gesturing with large hand motions the grand scope of the Rwanda Cinema Centre project. Even though there are random wooden beams jutting out of the ground, broken boards protruding through the windows of the “lobby,” you can tell that Joseph sees something very different, something marvelous and monumental. The way that he bounds up the stairs to the lobby, the way he lovingly touches the handrails to the small movie store on the side, you can sense his feverish excitement for the future of Rwandan film.

Established in 2003 by Eric Kabera, the producer of the 2001 film “100 Days” about the 1994 Genocide, the Rwanda Cinema Centre aims to train young film-makers and create a film industry in Rwanda. In 2005, Kabera hosted Rwanda’s first traveling film festival, called “Hillywood” (aptly named after Rwanda’s reputation as the “country of one thousand hills”) with half a dozen films shown each day for seven days. This year, the theme of the film festival was “Africa Celebrated” and the festival took place July 11 through 23.

So, you must be wondering – what exactly does this have to do with me?

Good question.

I found myself asking the same thing when my rendezvous with Rwandan writer, Apollo Ndungutse, was suddenly interrupted by a scrambling of chairs and the addition of four members from the Rwanda Cinema Centre. I had contacted Apollo to discuss the availability of English literature published by Rwandan writers pertaining to the genocide (see, I told you I was working on my other projects! :)). He is a member of the Rwandan Writers Association, and even though he hasn’t yet published any works, he is in the process of finishing a novel. Apparently, after learning of my interest in literature and my broader interest in artistic expression as a whole, Apollo contacted the Rwanda Cinema Centre to see if there were any possibilities of forging connections in the States.

Entrance to the Rwanda Cinema Centre

(Attempting to) join the leagues of Hollywood, Bollywood, and Nollywood

While the Rwanda Cinema Centre has produced several films, it only has a couple copies of each because it has neither the funds nor the right to produce the films en masse.

Cue in the umuzungu from Northwestern University – the university that is home to the largest separate collection of Africana material in the world.

Over several Fanta citrons and a couple glasses of iced African tea, I listened to Pierre Kayitana, the coordinator of the Rwanda Film Festival; Christian Dakombe, a film director and producer; Joseph Njata, the Administrative Assistant; and Apollo, a film writer and actor, as they talked to me about the history of the Cinema Centre and poured out their desires and dreams for the establishment of a film industry in Rwanda. We talked about how so much of Rwanda’s history is told from the perspective of outsiders, and how, even the election of President Kagame generated more media outside than inside the country. “We want people to know about Rwanda now,” said Christian, “We don’t want people to always associate Rwanda with the Genocide.”

The foundations of the new Rwanda Cinema Centre

(As aforementioned, there are those that are not so keen to let Her speak, but I’ll save a more thorough discussion of “freedom of expression” for later).

I listened to these men for over three hours as they poured out their heartfelt beliefs in expression and the importance of establishing a film industry in Rwanda.

I agreed to help.

Over the next couple days, I emailed David Easterbrook, the curator of the Africana Library, to confirm the Library’s support in purchasing the films that have already been produced, and set up a collaboration between the Library and the Rwanda Cinema Centre. There are so few copies of the films that Joseph decided to first give me the computer files to preview while the Centre finds a way to put the films on DVDs. (Can you imagine? I have the files of the first few Rwandan films on my netbook?!) It’s just a small step, but every copy that is produced and distributed is a step toward the creation of a film industry in Rwanda.

Who knows? Maybe by this time next year, the Rwanda Cinema Centre will be up and running. Maybe if I find myself back in Rwanda next summer, I will be able to sit inside the theatre of Joseph’s dreams and take in the splendor of red cushions and towering pillars, the hushed anticipation of an eager audience. Maybe I will be able to sit back to watch a Rwandan film and smile at the memory of the grassy lot beneath my feet.

Or maybe not. Maybe nothing will change. Who knows?

Life is never easy for those who dream,” said Robert James Waller.

We may not know what the future holds, but as it is, we continue to dream because it is only by reaching for the impossible that we can attain the unthinkable.

On Love, Death, and Life – Part II: DEATH & LIFE

On my way home from work today, I saw a young girl passed out next to the sidewalk, her long legs sprawled in the grass and stick-thin arms encircled around an emaciated body. I was with one of my students who immediately crouched down and started to rouse the girl and ask her questions in Kinyarwanda. Slowly, as a small crowd began to develop around the scene, I learned that the girl was an orphan. She was the first child of her family and had to provide for two younger sisters. A couple weeks ago, she was hospitalized for an arm fracture and issues pertaining to her stomach, but she did not like her doctor so she ran away. She fainted by the road because she had not eaten for days.

Kigali Memorial Centre

A woman quickly appeared on the scene with a large bottle of water, a container of milk, and a packaged lunch of local Rwandan food. Two people helped the girl to sit up and relocate to an area of shade. After helping the girl to eat a couple bites of food and drink the water, my student and several others began deliberating what to do. They finally decided to help the girl find her younger sisters, so two of them pulled her up and supported her toward the buses.

All of this happened just a hundred feet from Novotel, where wealthy businessmen and Western tourists sauntered in and out in their flowing sundresses, polished heels and suits, eating chocolate croissants and sipping on strawberry daiquiris. You knew immediately who they were because they were the ones who saw the scene on the sidewalk, stopped for a moment, then took a large detour around the commotion.

Why is it that so often the Good Samaritans of the world are the ones with the fewest resources to help, but still give out of their poverty? Why are the people with money the ones who are least inclined to let go of it to help others?

Life is precious in Rwanda. Given the 1994 genocide in which nearly everybody lost a family member or a friend, people recognize the tenuousness of life and value it highly. As I’ve mentioned before, there is such a strong sense of community here and people welcome strangers into their own homes because they know that they would’ve wanted others to do the same for their children and relatives. I am sometimes overwhelmed by the hospitality and the lengths to which people go to show you their country, their families, and their culture.

Just last week, I mentioned offhandedly to a new acquaintance that one of the things I missed most about home was my piano. In addition to my Bible, the only other two things that I bring everywhere with me are Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 and Liszt’s “Un Sospiro.” I thought perhaps that I would be able to find a piano in a hotel to practice, but even though I visited the nicest hotels in Kigali, I couldn’t find a single piano anywhere. Well, this new acquaintance called me last week to tell me that he wanted to introduce me to a friend that he “loved, but did not know.” Intrigued and curious, I agreed. We had dinner and then he took me to his “friend’s home,” which looked oddly like an abandoned church – and there, sitting in a dusty corner, was a worn but still functional upright piano. I must have played for nearly three hours after going into ecstasies upon seeing it. Apparently, this acquaintance had spent an entire day searching and contacting people to locate a piano, and finally, he heard of a piano that had been imported years ago by a Westerner who loved piano but would only play a couple times a month when he was in Kigali for business. Can you believe it? I was so blown away by his kindness and thoughtfulness.

The beautiful walkway alongside the graves of those who were killed in the Genocide.

I visited the Genocide Memorial last week and walked away feeling more confused about the events of 1994 than when I walked in. Even though I have spent the past three years studying the history of Rwanda and learning about the events that culminated in the genocide, I still can’t comprehend how an entire population was motivated and mobilized to murder over one million people. The stories are chilling – but it’s one thing to read about how people hacked their neighbors to death with machetes, how women were brutally raped by men known to have HIV, and how parents were forced to kill their own children or pay to save their loved ones from more painful deaths – it’s another to know friends who survived the genocide and to recognize the people giving testimonials in the documentaries. No matter how hard I try, I will never be able to understand the experience of so many of my students and the traumatic horrors they witnessed as children. I cannot comprehend the nauseating dread of approaching each check-point and seeing leering machetes covered with the blood of people in the previous car. I don’t understand how a five-year-old can think that each minute might be his last. I cannot grasp the pain of seeing friends and family members mutilated and killed in the most painful ways possible, and then having to return to the sites of their deaths after the genocide to wash their bones to prepare for burial. But even more than this, I do not understand how – after seeing hundreds of thousands of skulls, bones, and graves – people can pick up the remains of their lives along with the remains of their loved ones, forgive the perpetrators of violence, and continue to live. It is within the context of this history, this shared experience of an entire population, that Rwanda’s remarkable advances become all the more extraordinary.

It is impossible to escape the overwhelming sense of death of just sixteen years ago, but that has not stopped people from living, learning, and loving.

On Love, Death, and Life – Part I: LOVE

It has been very difficult to process the events of the last few days.

Traditional Rwandan wedding - bridesmaids!

I’ve kept friends, family, and you – my dear blog readers – posted on the various details and reflections I’ve had on my experiences here. However, I find that it’s been really hard to quantify many of these experiences in words – which is why I’ve spent so many hours uploading and re-uploading pictures over the spotty internet connection . Looking over my blog, I realize I’ve dedicated more time to examining cultural phenomena and politics than detailing the progress of my projects. Forgive me. I promise you I’ve been working hard, conducting interviews, amassing literature – but while these have occupied the bulk of my time here, the stories, the experiences, and the people I have encountered have occupied the bulk of my thoughts. I’m afraid that if I don’t write these down, I will one day scramble to recall or lose forever my reflections and feelings about the various situations that I’ve come across.

That said, I wanted to dedicate the following posts to the lessons I’ve learned about Love, Death, and Life.

Since coming here, I’ve been to two weddings and a funeral. I’ve experienced the excitement of political campaigning, the frenzy of voting, the tense aftermath of election results. I’ve been to extravagant ex-pat events with champagne, imported cookies, expensive evening gowns. I’ve been to run-down neighborhoods of shacks filled with flies and naked, hungry children. I’ve seen the hundreds of graves and skulls at the Genocide Memorial. I’ve experienced the fear that follows a bombing. I’ve watched a newlywed widow bury her head in yards of lace that barely muffle her sobs or conceal the growing bump beneath the fabric.

Traditional Rwandese dancers at an otherwise Western-styled wedding

Sometimes it feels like too much.

And certainly, there are ideas and experiences that I cannot comprehend or even begin to grasp. But then there are also the universal themes that are common to human experience.

On Love

One day, on my taxi-moto ride to work, my driver started telling me about his dreams. “I want to go to America,” he said, “I want to go to America and marry a white girl.”

Slightly amused (and maybe a tad insulted), I asked him why.

Because in Rwanda, all the girls care about is money, money, money. You have to have a good job, build a big house, give her lots of money to spend on clothing, parties, friends. But if a bigger man has more money. Pfffft – she’s gone!” he said, “In America, white girls they marry for love.”

I laughed. “Really? You think so?”

Yes,” he insisted, “In America, the girls marry for love.”

As I mentioned above, I’ve been to two Rwandese weddings since coming here, and boy are they big affairs! For one thing, the “wedding” is really THREE weddings. The first weekend is the traditional wedding where the bride’s family invites the groom’s family to the house and respected elders from both families enact a traditional “negotiation” of marriage that involves the dowry and “cows” (which now just symbolize money). The second week is the more western wedding where the groom’s family hosts hundreds of people (most are not on the guest-list) who show up and drink fantas and eat cake while listening to musical performances and testimonies from relatives and friends who also presents “cows,” or gifts, to the newly-wed couple. The third week is a joint event just between the families of the bride and groom where there is a huge feast. Marriages are large, extravagant, and festive affairs.

Festive Rwandan wedding - look at all those cakes!!

But I’m more concerned with the aftermath. Adultery is rampant here among the men – and now, increasingly among the women. When you drive down the street, you see large billboards warning young women of “Sugar Daddys.” Even though the government has taken steps to empower women, the society and culture is still very much patriarchal. Men go out at night with their friends, leaving their wives at home and do not return until early morning, if at all. The night life is a story in itself. For one thing, people stay out until six or seven in the morning – and not just on weekends – EVERY DAY, and they still get up early to go to work. At clubs, I’d say nearly a third of the men are married or over thirty-five. Many married men have no qualms about flirting with young women. One of my Rwandese friends is constantly accosted by married men – whether it’s her boss, her pharmacist, the husband of a friend, etc. Even when she confronts them directly, as in the case when she told one man, “Look, I’m sorry, I have a boyfriend.” The man responded, “Oh, okay, what’s the problem? I have five girlfriends.”

Many of the women I have spoken to tell me that they marry at a young age in order to guarantee security (i.e. why money is so important). When you go out, you see a disturbingly large number of very old ex-pats who go to the clubs every night to buy girls drinks and take them home. It is disheartening to acknowledge how desperate many young Rwandese girls must be when you see them with seventy-year-old white men. Back to adultery – many women are well-aware of their husbands’ extramarital activities, but such behavior is so prevalent here that they are forced to accept the situation, especially because divorce is very frowned upon in Christian Rwanda and if they separate from their husbands they will be left with nothing except social disgrace. However, it has become increasingly common for wealthy married women to also play the field and you hear more stories of women paying young boys to come over and live at the house as workers, which was completely unheard of in the past.

Where is the love?