Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Times (Last Day in Kigali!)

My time in Kigali is coming to an end. People ask me whether I feel like I have achieved a lot while I was here. Personally, I have learned a lot, not just in a sense of personal growth and overall life-lessons, but even about my own topic. I think I am leaving with a pretty good sense of how things are around here, and what kind of delicate situation survivors are dealing with, both politically and emotionally. I was influenced, heavily, by people who have quite critical position regarding government policies and the current state of survivor organizations (forgive my taciturnity, as long as I am here, I have to exercise the discretion of a Rwandan). But the more I learn about what kind of obstacles they were facing, my position has mellowed—a lot. Things that are wrong are wrong, but sometimes the choice is not between right and wrong, but better or worse. It is too easy to sit on the pedestal of distance and say, you can have it so much better, when here, it is hard to be so optimistic. Let me correct myself—optimistic, yes, but dramatically so, no.

Reconciliation programs here are very controversial—some think Rwanda’s ingenious program of gacaca, or community-based justice, is the new-best-thing in terms of transitional justice in impossible situations, while others think, indiscreetly put, a big sham. My research is not directly on this topic—I am most positive that I will have nothing new to say on this over beaten subject—but inevitably the conversations wander to this territory. Whatever my interviewee’s political position, or temperament, the soft spoken answer I get is, despite everything one could point out that is wrong about the program, it is still a compromise that they could live with. Or have to live with.

This sobering view, especially on the question of justice after genocide, is, often surprisingly, coming from a lot of the survivors themselves. Of course, not everyone agrees with this—I am sure still quite a few people want all killers locked up and out of sight. And even those who quietly and reluctantly agree to the compromise situation of today, where justice is slow and often incomplete, deep down inside they would want, well, unbridled vengeance.

One of the past presidents that I interviewed gave an almost hopeless sense of resignation as he said, perhaps the only thing that can ‘solve’ the situation is time. However cleverly designed the policy, he said, without the necessary objectivity and ability to abstract oneself and criticize to execute it sufficiently, the policy becomes hollow. How could we, he asked, in the 1990’s, just a few years after seeing our parents, siblings and friends slaughtered, sit back and say, okay let’s think this through. We tried, he said, but we were too much involved in it, too deep in the thick of the event, and taking a step back to think would have been betrayal to ourselves. His words had the danger of sounding self-apologetic, especially as a leader of the survivors who may feel like he has not squarely met the challenges of the position. But what does ring true is, even if he is just spewing out self justifications, is that this in it of itself is reality—the combination of an extra-ordinary situation with ordinary self interest. Even in an apocalyptic time, could the success of a policy rest on the exceptional devotion and heroism?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Fiztgerald over African Tea

I think I drove home the point that I have a lot of alone time in this town. Lol. Although it would have been absolutely pragmatic of me to study for the LSATs, pragmatism is far less alluring than wallowing in self pity, and spicing it up with the absolutely romantic activity of reading people like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Garcia. Just finished This Side of Paradise and wanted to share a few insights:

A)For anyone who is contemplating the absurdity and complexity of the social scene at Harvard, with its archaic divisions and bizarre insularity, read the chapter ‘Spires and Gargoyles’; Amory Blaine’s (protagonist) first two years at Princeton. His dreams to ‘make it’ and ultimately get a bid (punch, tap, rush, whatever the right terminology is) from one of the more prestigious ‘eating clubs’ made me slap my knee with laughter, ironic laughter—so little has changed (for some people, though) since the 1910’s. For heavens.

B)“[…] These quarter-educated, stale-minded men such as your friend here, who think they think. Every question that comes up, you’ll find his type in the usual ghastly muddle One minute it’s the ‘brutality and inhumanity of these Prussians’—the next it’s ‘we ought to exterminate the whole German people.’ They always believe that ‘things are in a bad way now,’ but they ‘haven’t any faith in these idealists.’ One minute they call Wilson ‘just a dreamer, not practical’—a year later they rail at him for making his dream realities. They haven’t clear logical ideas on one single subject except a sturdy, solid opposition to all change. They don’t think uneducated people should be highly paid, but they won’t see that if they don’t pay the uneducated people their children are going to be uneducated too, and we’re going round and round in a circle. That—is the great middle class!” - pg 255
The second quote tickled my fancy in so many different ways. First, in my defense, I am not as quite as sardonically elitist as the Amory Blaine who uttered those words. Or so I hope. In fact, my fear is that I am, unwittingly and clearly unwillingly, becoming one of the quarter-educated, stale-minded (wo)men in the aforementioned quote. I do not see myself as someone who instinctively goes against change, but I do see myself falling into a vicious cycle of criticism-for-the-sake-of criticism. Criticism, warranted or not, is the easiest way to earn distinction, and prove cleverness, albeit shallow. It is hard to get recognized by agreeing. Simple example: in section, how many times have I criticized the author, simply for something intelligent sounding to get through the day? Intelligent in the sense of intellectually gimmicky, definitely not wise.

But what is so wrong about being the great middle class. I mean, nothing, if you are asking me about being part of the middle class, income-wise. Hell, that is still a pretty good life, especially in a country like America. But what is personally unacceptable for me is resulting in a ‘stale-minded’ person after the sort of education I was fortunate enough to fall upon. My scholarship pays me around 50,000 dollars a year (…I think that’s about right) to go to Harvard. That would probably be enough money to help irrigation in the dry Eastern Province in Rwanda, and therefore help children get three full meals a day. The trauma counselor/psychiatrist in Bugesera District would finally be able to prescribe the medicine she wants to, and make all the housecalls she needs to for thousands in her area who suffer from acute PTSD till this day with that money—for years. When your education alone costs more than the money people require to simply function as an individual, whether it be physically or psychologically, it is hard not to wonder, if you are turning out to be your money’s worth. If the invisible hand of, well, the universe, had a way of redirecting resources to something more lucrative, would I still be a good investment?

The struggle to not end one’s story, with the exclamation: “I know myself, but that is all—“

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Overheard in Kigali

Actually, more like a collection of hilarious T-Shirts I saw in Kigali.

"My Wife Stinks"
Marital bliss all the way.

"Go TROJANS" (in all orange)
I mean, no one was really rooting for lifestyles...

"Will be Single for a Long Time"
This is the new-age chastity ring.

"I'm Popular"
Good to know.

..I'm not sure he was trying to say that he likes Jesus, he is Jesus, or just a
random exclamation (Jesus!)

Nature Call(ed)

Oh hay, so I had a few first-in-my-life experiences yesterday.

One would be, well, I had my first moto ride. Moto being the motorcycle taxi that is ubiquitous in Kigali. I know, I know, how they HELL did I manage to stay in Kigali for so long without taking a moto? That’s like saying I walked without legs. Or swam without water. Answer is: the analogy is both and poor and apt, because you CAN walk without legs (per se) and swim without water (per se). There are only a few neighborhoods I need to go to on a regular basis in Kigali—one would be downtown (ville, or mumugi), which I usually walk to, the IBUKA office, which is a little too far to take a moto (in my experience, as I don’t really want to show up to an interview covered in red dust), some neighborhoods where my friend’s live (like Nyamirambo and Kimihurura) where I either take the bus to (which is pretty cool too), or need to take a taxi because I don’t know exactly know how to get there, and thus can’t really explain to the moto driver (this mostly applies to Nyamirambo. Since I usually end up going there for dinner, I have no idea how to get anywhere in that area, so a taxi driver who speaks English/understands my broken French is essential). So yeah, bottom line is I never really needed to. On top of that, I am not so good with speed, and hills, so combined, it was rather scary. So unless it was absolutely necessary, I was going to stay away from it for the time being – besides, NOT riding a motorcycle was part of my grant contract anyways. Law-abiding citizen at your service.

But yesterday, covered in dust, tired, sweating like a pig, I started to walk and three steps after, I was like, eff this. I am not moving another step. So I hopped on a moto, and somehow decided I had picked up enough kinyarwanda to haggle the price in kinyarwanda (oh fatigue inspired delirium!), and miraculously did. Hilariously, the driver was delightfully mislead to believe that I understood kinyarwanda, so he proceeded to talk to me non-stop throughout the drive, and I just politely laughed when I thought appropriate and chimed in a few ‘yego’(yes) here and there. I’m not sure if he totally bought the act, but he kept on patting my back like ‘good job’ after I got off, so at least he enjoyed my fake-fluency.

Did I love it? I can see how I would enjoy such a ride after a long day. But I definitely do not want to show up to a senators office with matted hair from the helmet and dust all over my shirt. And I had visions of somersaulting over the driver every time he hit the breaks abruptly. (For the record, I’ve been taking them quite frequently after the experience, but mostly POST interviews where I don’t have to see anyone. Still really not into the slightly-coated-in-dust look. Does not work for me).

The other first-time experience: Safari. Rwanda is not known as a safari hot-spot, because well, it is not a safari hot spot. Mountain gorillas, yes, but this tiny country can’t compete with the vast, diverse beauty of Tanzania or Kenya (not that I’ve been, but so I’ve been told). But considering the last time I saw animals, save a few pigeons, cats and dogs, was say, when I was about 10 (you all know how much I love nature. I revel in the wilderness of the cities, and homo sapiens are totally my favorite species.) it was super exciting for me.

The Akagera National Park is about 2 hours away from Kigali, so totally do-able as a day trip (especially the kind that you kind of hop on after getting a call from a friend of a friend you’ve never met in person). It is a not-so-vast expanse of dry savannah (is that even the correct term? Matt Bird I need your help) with acacia trees, populated with antelopes, bush bucks(?), fish eagles, hippos, baboons, monkeys of different sorts, zebras, warthogs and lots of giraffes. Oh the giraffes. I loved the funny looking creatures too much I think, and I got to see them up THIS close (‘this’ being like 30 cm distance. NO JOKE.) I had the constant urge to narrate the event in the National Geographic channel-esque voice, but considering I had never met any of my safari-friends in person before the trip, I kept the narration internal.

After a few super super hot, arid hours of safari-ing, I returned to my reality that is Kigali. I have actually not been able to eat much since my minor bout of food poisoning (I am all better now), so the Indian food I had for dinner was pretty much heaven. Well fed, well entertained, and finally NOT tearing my head apart because I have no idea what I am doing in terms of research, I had a pretty good nights sleep. Thanks for the diversion, pumba & co.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Yet another introspective rambling, but I have few friends here.

July 30th, 2009

Dates kind of evade me now, as I sort of live by the day. But some interesting things, to say the least, have happened in the past few days. Interviews have been going relatively well, I still have my freak-out moments of WTF am I exactly doing and am I doing enough and holy crap is this ever going to materialize into a thesis, but I mean, I figure this is all part of the process. I better get a grip of myself when I get back to school, otherwise I would be rather insufferable. Don’t worry, working on it. New goal in life: write a thesis while still being chipper. I refuse to let my undergraduate thesis turn me into a train-wreck. Now if this is my PhD disseration…

I always thought the moment of violence was the rare moment of clarity. To kill or not to kill, regardless of all the motivations one may consider in retrospect, is an absolute decision—you can’t half ass it or compromise with the situation. Morally, maiming a person with the initial intention of killing him is as reprehensible as killing someone. You either agree with it or you don’t.

More and more I am realizing, perhaps this is not the clarity of the violent moment, but simply a reflection of the way I think—as much as I like to talk and think about the gray area of life, I feel like I am a quite straightforward person. I go for it or I don’t. To me the split second decision to commit is a decision nonetheless, and I have very little patience for people who oscillate visibly or retract their decision. Retracting it does not undo the decision; you are simply making another one—shouldn’t one just own up to the first (mistaken) decision, and take responsibility of it? (Maybe that’s why I used to firmly believe in the moment of clarity that comes with violence—you can’t hurt a person and be like, whoops, my bad, I take that back. It doesn’t come with a return policy, like that exorbitantly expensive BCBG dress or unnecessary extra spatula. You do it or you don’t.)

Violence, here at least, seems to leave behind a trail of complicated emotions—no moment of clarity here. What is always the most difficult to come into terms with is when normally ‘good’ emotions or results are intermingled with the ‘bad’ ones. For example, forgiveness out of indignation. Peace through restraint. Or, reconstructing one’s life as vengeance.

“Survivors have to succeed. Do you know why? Because the best revenge to the person who tried to kill you is to be more successful than them, and then help them. Being in a position to help your killer, that is the best revenge a survivor can do.”

I’m still baffled when I hear things like this. What do you say to that? Good luck, keep it up? Glad you are channeling your anger to something constructive? Hope you get your revenge? I am left speechless and clueless. You know, when I tell people that I am studying about Rwanda, many are quick to ask: “so I guess they are not all about forgiving and moving on?” or “I guess they haven’t really gotten over it yet, right?” I want to introduce Paul (the author of the aforementioned quote) to all of them. How do you ‘get over’ the death of one’s parents, loved ones? The metaphor of a wound is insufficient here—wounds heal, and often without a trace, so it’s hard to figure out where that childhood boo boo was and how much it used to hurt. But regardless of how much time had passed, people who died will still be dead, and till a certain point, people who are alive will still be alive alone. You don’t ‘get over’ such events, you simply transform it into something else. Like how you can transform vengeance into success. A new chapter in life, but not without reference to the one before that.

Researching in Rwanda, I feel like I have more (too many) opportunities to think about what the death of my own father has meant to me in my life. It was something that was part of my reality for a long time, the girl without a dad, but it wasn’t something I thought of consciously that much. I rarely mentioned the fact that my dad died when I was young to my friends, even just a few years ago, not necessarily because it was too painful or I was somehow ashamed of it, but because I just didn’t really feel the need to. What’s the point if all it’s going to do is kill the dinner table mood? Besides, it was a long time ago, I had ‘gotten over’ it. But my encounter with Rwanda has made me more vocal about my life as well. I don’t ask for sympathy, I had a pretty good life that wound me up at Harvard, and other wonderful places in the world, so I don’t feel like I am some damsel in distress of a tragedy. It is just I think, a realization, listening to people who lost everything in a short 100 days, that we don’t really get ‘over’ it, un-touched and un-scathed, but we simply get ‘through’ it, transforming what we are and what we do to fit the shape of the wound. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Research, someone once told me, is ultimately about oneself. I think that is the most accurate thing I have heard. Despite our alleged objective distance, understanding others often end up being more of understanding oneself. So forgive me if this blog turns into an internal dialogue – pretty much every time. ☺

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Belated Kudos, or Missing the Ugandan Vegan

So the days go on, and I almost feel pressed for time as more and more interviews come in. I'm still not 100% sure what I am exactly doing, but you know, that seems to be the theme of my life. I'm really good at whipping shit into shape (Ivy league education= improvise with style) (or just weird vanity) (both sound about right) but anyways, I guess the more I learn here the more I will be able to write about once I get back. Bueno!

I just wanted to leave a short post (for the few that still read this silly ramble) about my friend's blog. My friend is the Ugandan Vegan, or Robbie Jay Ross, or the crazy person that used to live upstairs and also was in Rwanda with me last year. Robbie's blog chronicles his adventures and misadventures in Uganda last year and the year before that, and I have always found insights and advice from his posts. For example, as I half accidentally happen upon his blog today, I am confronted with the question: is everything really here with a purpose? Even if I don't know it? Maybe that's the only answer I can give myself, when (which is everyday) I am sitting alone in my bedroom at the Okapi, thinking, what am I doing here? What place does a Korean have in Kigali?

I always admired Robbie's ability to laugh and bring humor into the most dire situations. Believe me, we've seen shit together, we've been in shit together, all
in the short span of 2 weeks in Rwanda (and the subsequent year we spent on top of each other). But Robbie always managed to finnagle a joke somewhere or anywhere. I think I was falling into the trap of thinking too much, and thus digging deeper into the pit of sarcasm and melancholy - maybe everything does have a time and purpose, and perhaps there was a reason why I decided to re-open the ugandanvegan today.

Miss you, bro! And for the others, check this out: www.ugandanvegan.blogspot.com

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Everything goes right 'round?

July 26th, 2009
Yesterday was umuganda- I’m not entirely sure how to translate it accurately into English (now I sound like I am fluent in Kinyarwanda or something, but actually I have absolutely no clue what’s going on beyond “how are you” “I’m fine”. So even if I am NOT fine, I’m doomed to this single answer), but in any case it is something like a community service day. Last Saturdays of each month, everyone has to contribute to some community project, like cleaning the roads, weeding public grounds, etc. By everyone I mean everyone who is Rwandan. Or, if this was 2008, everyone who is doing research in local communities with a professor who wanted everyone on his team to show respect to community by participating in umuganda would also be included. (This is how there are multiple photos of me wielding a large hoe and sometimes a machete on facebook. Yeah, I know, WTF).

I had never experienced umuganda in a city before, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect – are there going to be hoards of people cleaning up the streets downtown? Perhaps that was the case in the morning, which I pretty much conveniently missed by sleeping in. But in any case, when I finally got out of my room around 11, the city was a ghost town. No one was moving along the streets, and most of the stores were closed. No buses, no taxis, just a few motos in the streets.

Technically, everyone is supposed to participate in umuganda, so until a few years ago, I believe you would get in trouble if you were meandering around, ie, not where you were supposed be working, that is of course, if you were Rwandan. I don’t think the law changed recently, but I have heard the regulations were getting a bit more lax, hence the few brave motos driving around. But in general, when I arrived at Bourbon café to get breakfast and internet, the café was ENTIRELY muzungu. In fact, anyone moving in the city was muzungu (or the occasional Rwandan-looking person I would stare with suspicion. Are you just ballsy, or are there loopholes in the system?)

Even if I try to avoid generalization, or the instinctive tendency to draw parallels with one’s own experience, it is hard to miss the correlation between Korea’s past and Rwanda’s present. During the 60’s and 70’s, as we were experiencing the height of both economic development and military dictatorship, Korea had a similar project called the ‘new village movement’ (and it sounds as silly as it does in Korean as it does in translation). I used to hear stories from school, from older relatives, about how people used to participate in this from time to time, doing their bit to help the country ‘modernize.’ (and modernize we did from rubble to one of the most wired countries in the world.) I’m not sure if I heard this from my mother or just from school, but I distinctly remember hearing about how the government encouraged/forced all households to switch from the thatched roofs to tin roofs for the sake of sanitation and fire safety. This all happened within the framework of the ‘new village movement’ (although I’m not sure if the actual villagers were asked to do the work themselves). And last year, when I was roaming the countryside in a 4x4, I remember seeing mud huts, which should have thatched roofs with shiny tin roofs. Government decree, someone told me. Coupled with the umuganda-imposed silence of the city, I felt like I was walking back into the past, reliving my parent’s childhood bit by bit.

History, perhaps, repeats itself. Or, whatever your tradition, culture, or skin color, options given to humanity are limited – there are more similarities to be found than differences. But if history does repeat itself, the trajectory of development here is troubling – South Korea, for a long time, suffered from the inadequacies of rapid development, and is still suffering from the lack of maturity in the political system. Will Rwanda end up in the same place if it chooses the same past? Even if it does, should we tell it to stop, think, and reconsider? Because in the end of the day, how does one explain to a person who is barely avoiding starvation and generally swamped in abject poverty that despite the glittering sky scrapers, mind boggling speed of fiber optic technology and the 11th largest economy in the world (all contained in a tiny country the size of a New England state, if lucky a little bigger), life isn’t so good after all?

Maybe we all worry too much. Maybe we are just indulging in the privilege of self criticism without even knowing it. Or, maybe, I should just focus on my research and stop day dreaming. But that is waaaay too difficult ☺