Tag Archives: Rwanda

Trekking in Rwanda Take Two

I’ve had a lot going on with my day job, which isn’t going to let up until June (but there is an end!), and I have some freelance projects due. So, when something has to give, it’s the blog. I will have some posts throughout May, but I may not get to leave comments for you in return. I will be back eventually – I promise.

 My intensive project at work has made me reminisce about Rwanda, so here’s a post from August 2009 which is based on one of my happiest memories in Rwanda.

It all starts by climbing through cold, misty potato fields in the early morning toward a thick bamboo forest.
Scrambling across slippery nettles, I accidentally touch a leathery leaf and get stung.  I climb farther between massive, moss-covered East African rosewood trees (hagenia) with reddish bark and a wide canopy of foliage that blocks out the sun.

Virunga cloud forest

photo credit: VB Tremper, 1995

I am in the Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda, a central African country smaller than the state of Maryland. And I am about to meet the inhabitants of the park’s rainforest.

For an hour or so (it may even take as long as four hours) my Rwandan guide, fellow trekkers, and I follow nests made with nearby vegetation, such as hagenia branches and bamboo leaves. The damp earth smells spicy from nettles and leaves. Eventually our guide will point out the nests constructed just the night before. That means we’re getting closer.

The forest is so dense that I can’t see very far in any direction. I can’t see the town of Ruhengeri below. I can’t see the six volcanoes of the Virunga chain that make up the national park. And I can no longer see the potato fields that I walked through earlier.

photo credit: VB Tremper, 1995

photo credit: VB Tremper, 1995

Then I hear twigs snapping and leaf-munching. Right in front of me is black fur, long arms reaching to the ground, and an expressive, almost human face. I’m looking at a mountain gorilla, an endangered species of great ape.

I hear more noises to my right and realize that there is a whole family of gorillas within feet of me. This particular family includes about ten individuals, and is led by one dominant male gorilla, called a silverback because of the silver streak on his back.

The silverback gorilla watches me.

“Don’t get him angry!” the guide says. “He is the defender of the family and will roar and beat his chest, and possibly charge at you if he finds you threatening.”

“I thought gorillas are very tolerant of people,” I say.

Me at the end of a great trek, 1995

Me at the end of a great trek, 1995

“Sure, just don’t look him in the eye, and move slowly and carefully. Don’t give him any reason to get mad.”

Too quickly my hour with the great apes is up and I must leave the forest. Sliding back down the mountain through the cloud forest, fragrant bamboo trees, and potato fields, I smile. I may be sweaty and aching, but I will never forget the trek that brought me face to face with a mountain gorilla.

What animal would you travel halfway around the world (or farther!) to visit?

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Places that Inspire Us

I heard a news report the other day that disturbed me. The Tanzanian government is planning to build a road through the Serengeti.

Why? Lake Victoria is the source of minerals used in cell phones. The government wants a faster way to get the minerals from Lake Victoria to the capital, Dar es Salaam. The quickest way is across the internationally-famous wildlife preserve known as the Serengeti.

The upside for Tanzania is that the government would make more money, presumably to care for the people of Tanzania. The downside is the impact on the wildlife of the Serengeti, which in turn could affect tourism.

Not only will a highway disrupt life on the plains, it will affect the migration of two million wildebeest (also known as gnus). Such disruptions will affect the life, death and growth cycles of the wildlife and plant life of the Serengeti, and the Masai Mara to the north, just across the border with Kenya. Additionally, trucks traveling the new highway could drop foreign seeds, thus changing the ecosystem.

Map of Tanzania by World Atlas

Tanzania, like Kenya, is a former British colony in East Africa. It is bordered by the Indian Ocean to the east, Kenya to the north, Lake Victoria to the northwest, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west, and Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique to the south. The two main languages of Tanzania are English and Kiswahili. In addition to the Serengeti, tourists flock to Mount Meru and Mount Kilimanjaro.

Now, why do I care?

  • Because I’ve been there. I’ve been inspired by the Serengeti – by its beauty and its wildlife.
  • Because I’ve used the Serengeti (and the neighboring Masai Mara) in my writing.
  • Because my friend and critique partner, Brooke Rousseau, also writes about the wildlife of that part of the world (*Shameless Plug Alert* Check out Brooke’s publisher’s site and their Facebook page for more info on Brooke and her Savanna Stories for young children.)
  • Because the Serengeti is a natural resource that cannot be replaced. The flora and fauna there deserve to be protected. Wild lands are disappearing around the world thanks to deforestation and desertification and the world would be a poorer place without the wonders of the Serengeti.

Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox – for now. At this start of a new year, let’s remember the places that inspire us, the tools that allow us to reach our goals, and the people who support us in our dreams.

Happy 2011!

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French Interpretation

My cousin asked me last week if I would be interested in working for her facility as an occasional translator/interpreter for French-speaking families.  She is a social worker at a facility for adolescents with emotional, psychological and behavioral problems.

First, I remembered some of the stories she has shared about her work, and I thought, I can’t listen to that kind of stuff and translate it and not be emotionally affected by it myself.  It takes a special person to be a social worker, counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist who works with such people and such issues.

Then I remembered the time I had to interpret on camera the atrocities that had occurred at a church in Rwanda.  Yup, on camera.  That was one of the hardest things I have ever done.  I hope the people of Michigan coughed up a lot of dough after seeing that report, but I wouldn’t know.  The potential donor and his ABC-affiliate cameraman had me tour them around our trauma center, drive them to the memorial church, house them in our Kigali house/office.  At dinner that night they apologized for putting me through the emotional strain of that church.  But I never heard from them again.  Neither did my Rwanda branch of the organization.

To give you an idea of the “atrocities”, during the genocide hundreds of people sought refuge in this particular church (and others like it across Rwanda).  They were all massacred.  And their remains were left there to serve as a memorial.  Outside the church, tables held skulls of all sizes, protected by blue UN plastic sheeting.  Inside the church, well, I’m going to leave it there.

So my point here is that, I can do this.  I can translate and interpret for French-speaking families whose teenagers are in trouble.  And maybe I’ll find another book idea in it.

When I first started writing, I didn’t think of myself as an issue writer.  But I have always had an overdeveloped conscience.  I can’t write something I am not emotionally connected to.  Hence, Kwizera.  And even Sophie, which on the surface seems like a romantic time-travel romp, has issues of social justice, and personal and religious freedom at its heart.

Will such stories ever get me an agent, book deal, financial success?  Who knows?  [insert Gallic one-shoulder shrug here]  But I will keep writing the stories that speak to me and haunt me and we’ll see what happens.

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Beautiful Rwanda

I am so busy writing and revising Sophie that I don’t have a new post ready for y’all.  But I leave you with a repost about one of the inspirations for the book I’m currently querying:  Kwizera.  It never hurts to be reminded what a beautiful country Rwanda is.

This is part of a series of posts discussing the real-life places, people and events that inspired scenes and characters in my young adult manuscript, “Kwizera Means Hope”.

II.  Volcanoes

One of the Virunga volcanoes loomed on the western horizon as I trudged up the hill from the tea plantations in the valley to the tarmac road in the weak early morning light.

Virunga Volcanoes in RwandaThe Virunga volcanoes lie at the conjunction of three central and eastern African countries:  Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire).  They are home to mountain gorillas, made famous by Dyan Fossey and the movie, Gorillas in the Mist.

The volcanoes are sometimes visible from Byumba, the town in Northern Rwanda where “Kwizera” is set.  It depends on the clouds and the sun. Strangely – unless you’re familiar with meteorology, I guess – you cannot see the volcanoes on bright, sunny days.  Only right after it has rained.

Obviously, the closer you are to the volcanoes – in Ruhengeri or Gisenyi, perhaps – the more likely you are to see them, as in the above picture.

What are some beautiful countries that you just can’t get out of your head?  Tell me where your heart lies in the comments.

 

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Repost about the oldest profession

Below is from a post I wrote about a year ago. I chose to repost it now because I’m in the middle of revising the new and improved, rewritten Kwizera, which now includes a character who made a choice that may seem quite foreign to many of us, and is related to what I wrote a year ago.

And since I’m in revision-mode, I’ve made changes to the post inspired by my new character, Odette.

Prostitution and AIDS

Well-dressed young women hanging out at bars and nightclubs frequented by foreigners. An English mechanic’s housekeeper-cum-girlfriend. What do they have in common? The foreign men who pay them for sex.

Oh, and did I mention that the mechanic had a wife and children back home in England? I don’t mean to pick on the English. I saw the same thing happen with Belgian men, and heard about plenty of other expatriates enjoying the company of pretty Rwandan girls, then paying for their clothes or food for their families.

So prostitution has been around forever, right? Yes, but now AIDS has entered the picture.

These girls know they could die of AIDS by the time they turn twenty-five. And they don’t care. For a few years they are taken care of, well-fed, well-dressed, and they don’t have to work in the fields. They would rather die young than work as farmers.

Add to this what many of these girls suffered or witnessed or survived during the war and genocide, and you have a mind-set of “Life is short”. Why not enjoy life while they can? Why work themselves to the bone at subsistence agriculture to live in mud huts on a hill and to marry a man with no further ambition than to feed his children?

The girls who choose prostitution also choose a life in the city of parties, dancing, restaurants, nice clothes and the dream of a better life. They hope that one of their foreign clients might fall in love with them, marry them and take them to Europe or North America where everyone is rich and always has enough to eat.

What did I learn by witnessing young girls trash every value they had ever learned from parents who are now dead or missing? What did I learn by administering a program that, among other things, poured money into a government agency designed to educate the Rwandan population about abstinence, protection and a disease without a cure?

I learned that the fight against HIV and AIDS in Africa is the longest uphill battle you could ever imagine.

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Kwizera Inspirations: Landmine

This is part of a series of posts discussing the real-life places, people and events that inspired scenes and characters in my young adult manuscript, “Kwizera Means Hope”.

We went out to the living room and watched Teddy run to the door.  How odd.  Teddy usually walked with a long, ambling stride.

He burst through the door.  “There’s been a land mine accident near a school in Kigogo!”

My heart stopped.  My sisters go to school in Kigogo.

“Oh my goodness,” Louise said, squeezing nearly white lips between her fingers.

“Two children were hurt,” he said.

I took a few steps back.  “No, no, no.”  Bile rose in my throat.

Such a landmine accident occurred in Byumba Prefecture in my second month there.  Some villagers found a landmine in a field, built a pyramid of stones around it as they had been taught, and informed their local chief.  The local chief reported the news to the next person up the chain, and so on, until the news reached the regional government in Byumba. 

In the meantime, two little boys found the pyramid of stones and played with its deadly contents.  The six-year-old needed surgery to remove shrapnel from his abdomen.  I visited him in our trauma hospital, his father at his bedside.  The look in the boy’s eyes haunts me to this day.

The eight-year-old had to have his leg amputated and I watched part of that surgery.  Our very able, very calm-under-pressure trauma doctor and co-Team Leader, Dr. Noli, performed the surgery surrounded by nurses and visitors from a foundation located on the Isle of Jersey.  They had donated a Land Rover to us and spent a few days visiting our program.  I got to play tour guide.

Side note:  The photo of me in the sidebar was taken at a Byumba orphanage by the English photographer who accompanied the head of the foundation.  Too bad it was taken with my camera and not his.

Dr. Noli is from Kisangani in what used to be called Zaire.  In fact, the war that caused the country’s name to change to Democratic Republic of the Congo occurred while Dr. Noli and I worked together in Rwanda.  He probably deserves a posting of his own, so you may read more about him later.

The driver who inspired the character of Teddy may have to get his own posting, too.  You will just have to keep checking this site for more.

The landmine incident horrified and angered me.  The Rwandans had done exactly what they were supposed to do, yet two little boys got hurt anyway.  I suppose it didn’t occur to anyone to guard the pyramid.  And why was the landmine there, in the middle of a field in a rural area of a developing country?  It was leftover from the war that preceded the genocide.

Yet another reason I have to get this manuscript right, so it can see the light of day, so it can inform and inspire America’s youth. 

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Kwizera Inspirations: Volcanoes

This is part of a series of posts discussing the real-life places, people and events that inspired scenes and characters in my young adult manuscript, “Kwizera Means Hope”.

II.  Volcanoes

One of the Virunga volcanoes loomed on the western horizon as I trudged up the hill from the tea plantations in the valley to the tarmac road in the weak early morning light.

Virunga Volcanoes in RwandaThe Virunga volcanoes lie at the conjunction of three central and eastern African countries:  Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire).  They are home to mountain gorillas, made famous by Dyan Fossey and the movie, Gorillas in the Mist.

The volcanoes are sometimes visible from Byumba, the town in Northern Rwanda where “Kwizera” is set.  It depends on the clouds and the sun. Strangely – unless you’re familiar with meteorology, I guess – you cannot see the volcanoes on bright, sunny days.  Only right after it has rained.

Obviously, the closer you are to the volcanoes – in Ruhengeri or Gisenyi, perhaps – the more likely you are to see them, as in the above picture.

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