Tag Archives: Rwanda

Being back in the US, I seem to have found myself in a myriad of conversations about the nature of what it means to be American, US foreign policy, and whether we should become more isolationists. I struggle with these debates because I can see where the isolationist argument comes from, but it is so far from my own views on what makes life fulfilling that is hard for me to comprehend.

Recently, after a number of these conversations, I was at a conference. Paul Farmer was giving the keynote speech and he said something that perfectly summed it up for me. “There is no ‘us and them’. Just ‘us’.”

Just us.

It was such a simple statement and yet it summed up so much of what is wrong with the current debate in the United States. We tend to put everything in the context of us vs. them. But who is “us” anyway?

Take a trip from New York, to Minnesota, to L.A., to Louisiana. Really pay attention and you’ll see just as much difference as you would if you flew from Paris, to Libya, to Rwanda, to Nepal. You would see people of every color, hear just as many varying dialects and languages, and encounter just as many religions. (In actuality, I’d put money on the fact that a Parisian would be more comfortable in Rwanda than a New Yorker in the Deep South.)

Ask anyone, anywhere, what are the most basic things they want in life, and I bet whether they’re Palestinian, American, or African, you’ll hear the following: access to food and health, a safe place for their family, and dignified work.

Food. Health. Safety. Dignity.

Once we realize that these simple things are what we are all fighting for, maybe then we can stop fighting about “us and them”. Maybe then we can realize that the boundaries that create “us and them” are simply constructed by ourselves. Maybe then we can change the conversation to be about just “us”.


Rwanda has a prolific supply of religious lodging options for tourists and pilgrims alike. They have pretty consistently been our place of choice considering they tend to be clean, well run, and inexpensive. In Kibuye, we lucked out when we found Home Saint Jean tucked away at the end of a peninsula behind the Genocide Memorial Church (many churches in Rwanda became massacre sights as people flocked there for security and instead became sitting ducks for the genocidaires – in the region around Kibuye this was definitely the case).

The hotel offers 270 degrees of views over the lake, a restaurant and huge balcony for sitting under the stars and debating the meaning of life. Ask for room 14 and you get a corner room surrounded by water. In the evening the moon rises right over the balcony. And from the doorway you can watch the storms roll over the hills and down into the lake.

It is approximately 7km from downtown Gisenyi to the Hotel Malahide Paradis, but it feels like a world away. The walk takes you along the Congo Nile Trail, down the coast, over a large hill, and back down to the brewery and a small inlet.

The road out of town is relatively free of 4 wheeled traffic, but full of moto taxis and so much life. As you start up the hill, the trees along the coast are coated white as flocks of sea birds take over their trunks. The birds give way to houses and shops. Kids in flip flops and hanging laundry line the street. If you’re lucky enough to time it right, you’ll meet the whole town on the top of the hill as church gets out.

Head down the hill and keep your eyes open for just finished tie dye hanging out to dry. Towards the bottom breathtaking views of the lake will greet you, and as you veer right along the peninsula you’ll have your pick of small barber shops – just in case you need a pre-lunch shave.

1km further and you’re there. Find your way through the bougainvillaeas to a cozy table by the beach.  Order a Primus beer. Let the adventures from your walk soak in and take your time as you look out over the border with the DRC.

To suggest that I have a problem hiding amongst the crowd in Africa would be an understatement.

In India, with a little dirt under my nails and hand washed, sun dried clothes, I can at least pass as a hippie tourist. People assume I have been there a while and that in place of a bulging money belt I probably only have a crumpled 500 rupees in my pocket.

Rwanda and Tanzania have provided me no such luxury. The extended conversations that eventually turned into a selling opportunity in Senegal have given way to a more blunt, “Hello. Faranga!” (or “Hello. Money!”); of which I was never sure if the structure was one sentence or two.

As I left for this trip I made myself a promise to remain open and never cynical. Trying to balance being both a curiosity and a commodity has made this promise ever more important.

I have lost count of the number of children to come running after me, yelling “mzungu!” (‘foreigner!”) as I walk by their home. Some just want to wave from afar. Some shake your hand and ask for money. Some have held me in an embrace so tight I didn’t think I would be able to peel them off. And some have simply walked up, grabbed my hand, and proceeded to walk blocks with me, even though we only shared a half dozen words in common.

These interactions seem to happen daily and are completely unavoidable as long as my skin remains the color it is. So long as “western” equals money it also equals opportunity.  Every time a person walks up to me and asks flat out for money, I remember each person that has sat and talked with me, and then walked away, having wanted nothing but a little of my time.