November 29, 2009

My Kinyarwanda Glossary (with some Swahili)

* = ones I actually know

beete = hi*
nibgeza = response to "beete"
amakuru? = how are you?*
meza = I'm good*
sawa = I'm good* (Swahili)
mwatamutse = good morning
murakoze = thank you*
namway = you're welcome* (colloquial)
karibu = You are welcome* (to my home, etc) (Swahili)
Seka! = "Smile!"* (for the camera)
mumuji = downtown*
umusoze = a mountain
imisoze = plural mountains
umuduri = traditional stringed instrument; sounds like an Irish fiddle
umupira wo kwambara = T-shirt
umupira gukina = soccer ball
ambara = to wear
umwembe = mango
safari = trip, journey* (Swahili)
safari njema = have a good trip (Swahili)
inga = cow
ikiyoni = crow
ignoko = chicken
koko = really
ariko - but
amahoro* = peace
ikyayi = tea
itasi = cup

and of course...

mzungu = white person* (Swahili)
They sell sweatshirts with that word on them in the Nairobi airport. I didn't buy one.

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November 27, 2009


Dateline: Flipnotics

Well, back at my desk I find I have relatively little new to say, old chums, except that I'd like to get out of here again. You know, I work in the same place I live -- in the same room I sleep -- and it surprises me, or not, to discover, after half a century, that being inside for too long drives me flukin STIR-CRAZY. Has this been the problem all along?

I have an absolute need for breezes, just as I do for solitude and for daily exposure to good prose.

In addition, within 24 hours of the heat coming on I start getting congested and unless I get out of there fast I cough all winter.

There are several places I'd like to drive or fly in the near future.

Meanwhile,I have belatedly discovered the secret method of leaving the house: open the door!

I do, however, have a lot of paying work in December to keep me sitting but not awakened, so I'm thinking I probably won't post very much this coming month. I type too much already.

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November 18, 2009

Photos You Can Hear

Mt. Horeb Holy Church Choir, Kigali, Rwanda. These should cheer you up a bit after the previous post. Photos by the gifted and adventurous Christina Syndikus.

The woman in purple was totally, I mean totally. I wanted to either marry her or steal her life force, assuming those are two different things. The woman in glasses next to her is her sister, and also a rocker.

I sometimes think that if you knew you'd be singing this music at the end of the week, you could stand almost anything during the six days prior. Plus there are rehearsals.

A singer in the choir, she just walked to the front and did that once in a while. Wait, what do I mean walked to the front?

It was a privilege to be there.

Okay, here are some more. I took these.

waiting for church

Christina outside church (Paige in foreground)

choir strutting

in purple


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November 15, 2009

Murambi Genocide Memorial Center; Church of Ste. Famille

At Murambi, about 40 km from the Congo border, there was a vocational school with many small classroom buildings. In 1994, Hutu militia herded thousands of Tutsis into the buildings and killed them with machetes or spiked clubs. The breakage pattern produced by each kind of weapon is easy to distinguish on the skull.

The classroom buildings are now a memorial -- room after room of skeletons. The perpetrators doused the bodies with lime immediately after killing, to hasten disintegration, but the skeletons remain and some of them have patches of black hair on their heads, and even shreds of clothing.

The memorial rooms stink of death, still. On the pelvis of each skeleton there are two or three camphor balls to ameliorate the smell.

I'm including as few details as I can. I feel it is important to give you a glimpse.

Below, a mother holding her child. The red ribbon was placed there by a visiting relative.

The man below lives at the Murambi site and serves as an unofficial guide. He is standing outside the building where we saw the skeletons of his wife and five children. He does not leave the site. On the left side of his bald head you can see a round indentation where a bullet struck him but did not penetrate.

French soldiers used bulldozers to cover the mass graves at Murambi, then built volleyball courts on top. The French had commercial interests with the Hutu leaders at the time.

It's a pretty country.

Below, the church of Ste. Famille, the Holy Family, in downtown Kigali, the national capital. Many Catholic churches were genocide sites. Authorities, in more than a few cases priests, deliberately deceived the victims into thinking they would find sanctuary in a church. Thousands at a time were crammed into the small spaces: 20,000 in this one, which sounds impossible, but the perpetrators were experts at making use of space. Typically the victims were kept inside without food or water for up to two weeks, then shot or slashed. According to Costa, who stands in the foreground of the photo, the churchyard was filled with dead bodies when he arrived with the Tutsi militia on their revenge mission.

Recommended reading.

I promise, the rest of the Rwanda posts will be cheerful ones.

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November 14, 2009

The Masked Neocolonialist

The mask is a public-health measure designed to protect the population, and ourselves, from flu. When we arrived, there had been one confirmed case of H1N1 in the entire country, and a few days later, there were three more, all of them in our little compound. While we were in Muhanga, an hour from the capital, a couple of us felt sick and went to the central hospital in Kigali for tests, which came out positive. A third tested positive shortly afterward, and the public health officials told us to wear masks (we informed them that masks had been shown to be of zero value, but they weren't listening). I kept my mask on for about two minutes, not long enough to learn to put it on properly.

I never developed any symptoms, owing in part to the fact that I belong to the least susceptible age group of Americans, in part to having drunk about a gallon of black elder berry extract over the past weeks, and in part to not giving a shit. I've made friends with my inner germ, and if it wants me it knows where to find me. Otherwise it can go bother someone else.

Most of my colleagues remained under house arrest while Pamela (the other uninfected mzungu) and I traveled north to see some mountain gorillas. In Muhanga, a sound truck cruised the streets announcing that Americans had brought disease, and to keep away from us. When we walked through the streets, children covered their noses and mouths and turned away. The Rwandan newspaper New Times had an article about us.

It was Columbus and the Indians all over again. We came to serve, and wound up bringing a new disease. Except that in this case, we apparently managed to keep the bug away from the natives: Costa was flu-free, and our houseman Gigy, a hip young guy about whom more needs to be said at some point, tested negative despite wandering around in an enervated red-eyed funk, mask securely fastened.

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November 13, 2009

Rwanda photo 1

Hi folks, here's the first photo I'm putting up from the Rwanda trip. There are many more, and I'll try to get some of them sorted out this weekend.

Thanks to all of you who commented on or read my posts from the road, and it's especially nice to get comments from a few new names. Just to repeat for the latter: I went to Rwanda to see a dear friend, Costa, and meet his family, and do some volunteer work having to do with rebuilding traditional mud brick houses and facilitating a self-help inquiry method called The Work of Byron Katie. Costa and his activities are supported by Groundwork Opportunities, a small new nonprofit org whose founders I've met. They're young, hard-working, committed, and knowledgable. A higher percentage of their donations go directly to their projects than just about any foundation's, and they've received funds from the Bill Gates Foundation and elsewhere.

Taken in the front yard of Costa's house in Kigali. Clockwise from top left: Pamela, Isabelle, Denise, Richard, Brenda, Bernadette (Costa's wife), Yves, Gentil, Queen (on lap), Costa (our leader; my brother), Christina, Jon.

I did stick my hand in my wallet pocket, NY style, when in crowds, but the precaution was unnecessary. I have never felt so safe or so welcome. I had no jet lag, no intestinal problems, no flu (though a couple of us had flu or flulike symptoms), no mosquito bites. Just the time of my life.

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November 07, 2009

Gorillas in the Mist, H1N1 in the Guest House, Heaven in the Church, Mud Against the Wall

Help, I have a lot more to say! Here's a very quick recap:

1. I previously opined that the church service was disappointing, but the following Sunday we all went to another one, at the same church, that knocked our socks off. We'd come too late for the choir the first time, but on Sunday we were fully present and armed with the spirit. They sang beautiful African gospel harmonies, dancing to the music, passing the microphone from one section of the choir to the other; and two or three of the women, including a pair of knockout fortyish sisters (alas, I did not get their phone numbers), were possessed with the greatest joy, hopping up and down, pointing ecstatically to the congregation, and had voices to match. The visiting preacher was a visiting bishop from Kenya who oversees 500 churches, and not only the power, but the benignity, of his preaching was beautiful.

2. We went to work on finishing two traditional houses made of mud brick, funded by Groundwork Opportunities, a nonprofit that helps fund our host Costa's work. No time to link now - I'll do it in future posts so you can donate! What we did was pick up handfuls of coarse wet mud that were poured onto the ground in heaps, and sling them hard against the handmade bricks of the wall. The mud gets smoothed down with a long horizontal stick, and after drying, is stuccoed. The owners of the two neighboring houses are families that were on opposite sides of the genocide and are now close friends. They are delighted with their new homes, into which they invited us with the greatest kindness. Among them was a six-month-old girl, Giselle, who loved to chew my index finger and thumb.

3. A member of our group and I rode four buses and a moto (motorcycle taxi) through rain and mist and bad roads from Kigali in the center of the country to Volcanoes National Park in the north to visit the world's last remaining mountain gorillas. The population is a bit over 700 and gradually rising. It costs $500 a person for admission (mostly applied to conservation and community projects), up to $50 for a guest house room, and $80 for a short jeep ride to the park, and it's worth every penny. We hiked up through the rain forest for about an hour, then reached the area where the trackers said the gorillas were. (There are several gorilla troops, and small groups of up to 8 tourists are assigned to each.) Our first contact was when the silverback rose up before us at a distance of about four feet to check us out. Our lead guide went into a crouch of submission, lowering his head and covering it with his hands, showing the boss that we meant no harm. We spent an hour with our gorilla friends, who included five females and five children as well as Mr. Big. Hundreds of photos were taken; locations were carefully shifted with those of the gorilla troop; the scientifically recommended distance of 7m was maintained. It was one of the highs of a lifetime.

4. We returned to a guest house increasingly full of sick muzungus wearing useless but bureaucratically required surgical masks. Step by step the situation became a farce. A doctor with his driver drove an hour from Kigali to swab-test the First World visitors; shortly afterward, an ambulance with another doctor drove up to the community center where we were doing The Work of Byron Katie with a group of HIV-infected women. The second doctor didn't believe in the existence of the first doctor, but they were put into telephone contact after much crosstalk among many interested parties. Upshot: we do have two confirmed cases of H1N1, but no severe symptoms, and some of us may have other viruses instead. Costa, Pamela, Brenda, and I have no symptoms, and quickly tossed away the surgical masks that were presented to us as solemn necessities when we returned to our home guest house. The crucial goal now is to be declared uninfected so that one can be put back on the plane on Tuesday instead of having to spend seven days in quarantine. We'll see!


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November 03, 2009

Muhanga Days

We're in the very nice small town of Muhanga -- "we" meaning our little group of seven muzungus and muzungettes -- treated with the greatest hospitality by our host Costa's brother Leopold, who bought us a restaurant meal and invited us to his home to dinner, and the mayor, who's paving our way with the prison administration, and a couple of Canadian guys we don't even know who are paying our bill at a guest house for five nights.

We're finally getting down to some serious work here, which may make me feel less like I'm sponging off people. We were supposed to do the Work of Byron Katie at the prison yesterday but the warden was away and couldn't arrange security for us. Then we were supposed to assist in mud-brick house construction in the afternoon, but we had a downpour so we sat at a protected outdoor terrace for a long time having good conversation, assorted brochettes, and the by-now-expectable great, homemade fries. In the afternoon, as a group, we did The Work with five HIV-positive Rwandan women of various ages, perhaps helping open their minds to new, less painful ways of seeing their lives, and it was moving experience -- clearly difficult for the women to think about their pain, and they expressed gratitude afterward.

Today we're booked to work with prisoners again and do the house construction. It feels as if my experience is shifting from travel exploration into community service, and that feels exciting and a little scary.

I haven't had many opportunities to sit quietly in places where there's been Internet access, and at times I've been borrowing other people's paid online minutes, so I don't think I'll be able to post more frequently than I have been, but I wanted to say hello and tell you that everything's fine. Did I mention that there's wonderful camaraderie among the seven of us? I've taken lots of photos and written lots of journal notes, so when I get back to the States I'll winnow through them and post them and give you a much more detailed and thought-out picture of this experience, which I consider to be one of the privileges of my lifetime.

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