Travel: Three Days in Rwanda (Part Three)

The Finger Post Travel (August 20, 2017)

(Kigali, Rwanda, July 25-27, 2017)

“No! I don’t want to touch Mobutu’s painting!”

It had become a running joke, but unlike “Get ‘er done” or the original “yes guy”, it actually was funny with each telling. I was touring the Presidential Palace Museum in Kigali, the one time residence of former Rwandan dictator Juvenal Habyarimana.  And with me were a Finnish guy, an elderly Rwandan woman, and four young men from Cameroon who made it quite clear that they wanted nothing to do with the numerous trinkets and gifts given to Habyarimana by the former dictator of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko. With each stop there would be some tacky painting or display that Habyarimana had received over the years (his reign lasted from 1973 to 1994). And it quickly became a running joke: the tackiest pieces in the museum seemed to always come from Mobutu. We discovered that Mobutu gave Habyarimana a pet python (because why the hell not) and Habyarimana went so far as to build a pond for Mobutu’s python in his back yard (I won’t lie, if I ever start a heavy metal band I may just call it Mobutu’s Python).

But with each joke I found myself appreciating the simple fact that, at least in some small way, there was justice in the world. I had to appreciate the fact that Mobutu Sese Seko’s legacy was firmly entrenched in the minds of Africans. Time was not going to rehabilitate his image. He would not be forgotten as one of a long line of corrupt post colonial dictators. No. He was so much more…and history wasn’t about the let him off the hook.

But maybe things were a little different in the Democratic Republic of Congo when you talked about Mobutu. I doubt anyone really misses him, although if the Republic of Georgia taught me anything it was that anything is possible. But I wondered if the memories of his brutal rule were a little more…raw to the Congolese. And from what I could tell Mobutu wasn’t exactly a subject of humor to Rwandans either. Sure we (and by we I mean the Finnish guy and the four guys from Cameroon) were laughing at the idea of a crackpot dictator giving another crackpot dictator a python as a gift. It was humorous to us: the most absurd gift ever given to an African leader. At least until this happened earlier this year:

That’s the face of a man who would have rather have been given a python.

But like so many things in Rwanda, laughter often masks the pain. The elderly Rwandan woman never once cracked a smile during the tour. Not once.

I suddenly felt guilty. Sure Mobutu may have been a joke to these folks from Cameroon. But he was just one more piece of the puzzle in Rwanda: a puzzle that ultimately made up a picture of pure carnage and genocide. I almost even started to feel bad for Mobutu’s python. After President Habyarimana was assassinated on April 6, 1994, an event that triggered the Rwandan Genocide, Mobutu’s python disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to it, although considering how bad things ended up being, one can imagine life was probably hard for an orphaned 300-pound python in Kigali. But our guide did mention that there were rumors that Mobutu had sent some men to recover the python and bring it home to Zaire. Oddly enough, that just made the story more depressing. Sure, I was sort of glad that maybe the python might have lived a life of relative luxury after being uprooted during the Rwandan Civil War…but didn’t anyone care about the rest of the country? It just added to the absurdity of the tragedy that was Rwanda. After the murder of ten Belgium peacekeepers the UN decided they didn’t want another Somalia on their hands and abandoned the nation. Soon Western nations sent soldiers to evacuate foreign nationals, all the while many Rwandan Tutsis begged for their lives. At a technical school in Kigali, some 2,000 Tutsis sought refuge. The school was guarded by Belgian peacekeepers and they knew that as long as the Belgians were there they were safe.

Strike that. They thought they were safe.

The murder of the ten Belgians prompted the Belgian government to withdraw the remaining peacekeepers. And as they fled those same 2,000 Tutsis tried desperately to prevent the Belgians from leaving. They knew once they left they would be massacred. But the Belgians fired into the air to disperse the desperate Tutsis (priorities, right?) and left the 2,000 Tutsis fend for themselves against a growing horde of genocidal monsters that began to congregating outside of the school grounds. The Tutsis decided to try and walk out of the school and reach RPF controlled territory, where they would be safe from the genocidal militia called the Interahamwe. But they never made it. The Interahamwe intercepted them and led them to a gravel pit, where they were butchered with machetes.

But don’t worry. Someone sent an elite team of soldiers to rescue that snake.

“This is like that movie,” one of the Cameroonians exclaimed as we were led into another bathroom, the seventh or eighth we had seen on the tour. “Coming to America!”

We all laughed as we pictured Juvenal Habyarimana walking on rose pedals towards the extravagant toilet, followed by a team of royal wipers.

Well, almost all of us. The elderly Rwandan woman only glared at the toilet.

It was a fascinating tour since we also saw Habyarimana’s paranoia on display. He had everything from his secret torture room, motion sensors on the stairs leading up to the master bedroom, hidden doors and escape routes, and not so hidden compartments with money and guns. In the master bathroom he kept a file cabinet full of American dollars open for everyone to see. The file cabinet was full of tens of thousands of U.S. dollars and was meant to distract an assassin who actually made it that far into the compound. The theory was that they would be distracted by the money, giving Habyarimana a chance to escape. It probably seemed to him like there was no way he could be assassinated at the Presidential Palace.

But in the end it didn’t matter.

Habyarimana would in fact die just a few hundred feet from his motion sensors, gun cabinet, secret witchcraft room (yeah, he had one of those also) and the open file cabinet full of Benjamins in his master bathroom. In the end his assassin would never even see the file cabinet or need to worry about his motion sensors.

The assassin would just wait until President Habyarimana’s plane was landing.

The airport was just a few miles from the Presidential Palace, and on April 6, 1994, an unknown assassin would wait until the President’s plane was in its final decent. Moments before reaching the airport Habyrimana’s plane was shot down from the sky with two surface-to-air missiles and crashed in the garden of the Presidential Palace. The crash ended up killing twelve people, including both Habyarimana and the President of Burundi who had the misfortune of being in the wrong plane at the wrong time.

After twenty three years most of the wreckage is still there. We were told that we couldn’t take photos of the plane from inside the gardens, but I was able to get a wide shot of part of the tail from his BBQ pit, which was located next to his swimming pool and tennis courts.

By the end of the tour you can’t help but feel depressed. Not just because almost everything in there was probably at one point touched by Mobutu. No, it was because this place, this shrine to opulence, was where so much suffering would be born. Not just in Rwanda, where 800,000 were killed during the genocide. But even in Zaire where the country would be destabilized by the presence of hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees who fled to Eastern Zaire after the end of the Rwandan Civil War. These refugees would in turn trigger a chain reaction that would lead to two brutal wars in Zaire/Congo: two wars that would lead to the death of over 5,000,000 people. I can’t help but wonder if the unknown person who fired that SAM at Habyarimana’s presidential plane knew how much suffering would follow as a result of that act. The Rwandan government, the U.S. State Department, Mi6, and a majority of neutral observers felt that the evidence strongly pointed to Hutu extremists opposed to the proposed peace deal with the RPF as the perpetrators. A French anti-terrorist magistrate claims that the evidence points to Paul Kagame and the RPF, although to be fair the French have about as much credibility when it come to Rwanda as the guy you sort of knew in high school who is always posting links and rants on Facebook about chemtrails and FEMA camps. Ultimately we will probably never know; it will go down as one of history’s great mysteries.

Right alongside the question of what ever happened to Mobutu’s python.

By the time the tour ends the day is coming to a close and I need to head back to the hotel. Alex picks me up from the Presidential Museum and takes me to a place I really wasn’t expecting to find in Rwanda: the Inema Arts Gallery. I’ve been to a lot of art galleries over the years, and although I consider myself a fan of good art, I also realize I am in no way an art coinsure. But I like to think that I’m savvy enough to spot good art from bad art…and this was damn good. But more than just being good, it had a vibe to it that I wouldn’t have expected to find in Rwanda. This art gallery reminded me of visiting an art show with my aunt and uncle, both art professors in Geneva, New York. This place was legit, and it had the vibe to go with it. Numerous Westerners wandered around with glasses of wine, looking over the paintings carefully. It was a scene right out of New York or San Francisco. But as I was to discover, there was a thriving art scene in Kigali and the city was quickly emerging as the most cosmopolitan city in Africa. After meeting with one of the artists, Emmanuel Nkuranga, who also was a co-founder of the Inema Art Center, I discovered that this gallery was not alone in Kigali. Although I enjoyed the gallery, I decided it was time to go and Alex and I soon left. I wanted to stay but I was hungry and this place only was serving alcohol.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel this trip was feeling more like a trip to Napa Valley or Bar Harbor then Africa. This was the second spot of the day that I felt had been transplanted from a nice neighborhood in the States, the first being the coffee shop Shokola, where we stopped for lunch. Shokola billed itself as a “storyteller’s café” and had the location to go with the the theme. It was located on the top floor of the Kigali Library, right across the street from the U.S. Embassy. It actually was a really cool little place, and would have felt right at home in Seattle.

I didn’t know how many more locations would make me think of American college towns, but Alex had another surprise in store. We then went to another location that almost seemed like it had been transplanted from a posh suburb of Seattle: Heaven Restaurant and Boutique Hotel. The restaurant was founded by an American couple, who documented their relocation to Rwanda in the book A Thousand Hills to Heaven. Alex swore it was one of the best places to eat in Rwanda, but I wasn’t convinced at first. It seemed too americanized; burgers and pasta seemed to make up the foundation of the menu. Nonetheless I found something that sounded traditional. I ordered the kuku paka: Swahili spiced chicken curry. I wasn’t disappointed. The curry was excellent, although I couldn’t help but wonder if this really was an authentic Swahili dish or just an awesome bowl of curry that was given a back-story.

But by now it was after 10 PM. I had hired Alex for the day and felt bad that I had keep him over well past the hour he expected to be done. I had to fly back tomorrow, part of a comically long journey back to the United States that involved five stops and two layovers in excess of ten hours. But the fight out of Kigali wasn’t until after midnight. I had all of Friday to spend touring Kigali. I still had one more day in Rwanda.

And I was going to take advantage of every minute of it.

 

Click here for more Finger Post travel stories.

Travel: Three Days in Rwanda (Part Two)

Finger Post Travel (August 13, 2017)

(Kigali, Rwanda, July 25-27, 2017)

I had three days in Rwanda , not nearly enough time to give the country the attention it deserved. And one of those days was spent in recovery, nursing what felt like a mild case of food poisoning but was probably just a natural reaction to eating raw meat from a street butcher in Addis Ababa.

My plans to go on a gorilla trek was derailed by the $1,500 gorilla permit, and my plan to do the canopy walk at over the Nyungwe Forest was derailed by the loss one of my three days due to illness.

Hell, even my quest to meet Paul Kagame had hit a roadblock.

But in the end, you can visit Rwanda and skip out on the gorillas and the canopy walk. But any trip to Rwanda will most likely involve coming face to face with the one thing that defines the nation in the eyes of Westerners: genocide.

That is, unless you don’t want to.

You can ignore the dark pages in Rwanda’s history, and Rwanda will even help you do that…if that’s what you really want. Kigali is funny that way. You can make a pit stop at the Hotel des Mille Collines, with its friendly staff and awesome breakfast buffet, and then head west to find mountain gorillas or south to do the canopy walk over the Nyungwe Forest and then fly back home. And you’d be none the wiser that anything bad ever happened in Rwanda. If you haven’t figured out from my last post, Rwanda cleaned itself up nicely.

But despite the fact that Rwanda is willing to let you forget that it was a nation that sadly hosted the most horrific incident of genocide in modern history, they also aren’t willing to brush it under the rug either. They don’t want the world to forget, and if you are willing to step out of your comfort zone, they will make sure that you become witness to the scars of the 1994 genocide.

So after my quest to meet Paul Kagame ended in failure, I decided that I would do a cultural tour of Kigali. In the end that would mean I would go and visit the places that, tragically, would forever be associated with the mass slaughter of over 800,000 innocent Rwandans over a period of three months in 1994. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but at the very least I was hoping to maybe understand how a country full of the warmest and friendliest people could ever become a breading ground for such carnage. This desire became only more pronounced after I arrived in Rwanda. Tragically the West saw the genocide in Rwanda as African tribalism at its worst in 1994. “There was nothing that we could do to stop the slaughter”, or so we told ourselves as we justified our inaction. But once you go to Rwanda you realize that isn’t the case. Once you meet the Rwandan people you come to an uncomfortable truth: if it can happen to them it can happen to anyone. They aren’t barbarians. They aren’t monsters. They aren’t even jerks. They are warm, friendly, people who are probably more relatable to Americans than just about any nation Africa.

After hitting the breakfast buffet at the Hotel des Mille Collines (which incidentally was excellent, and not in an “I just ate raw meat and got sick and all I want is some raisin bran and a piece of toast” sort of way. It really was a great breakfast) I called Alex and told him of my plans. I deferred to Alex’s expertise to a certain extent but I made clear that I wanted to go to the Kigali Genocide Memorial and the Camp Kigali Memorial, where ten Belgium peacekeepers were brutally murdered in the opening days of the conflict.

“And parliament?” Alex asked.

I was indifferent to visiting parliament, but Alex quickly informed me that the country had launched a new museum inside of the national parliament of Kigali: The Campaign Against Genocide Museum. Needless to say I was intrigued. I wondered what a museum inside of a functioning parliament would look like. Especially considering how the national parliament was the scene of some of the fieriest fighting of the war in 1994.

However we kicked off the tour with what would be the least impressive sight I visited in Kigali: The Kandt House Natural History Museum.

I would discover that tickets for the museum weren’t particularly cheap. Don’t get me wrong, in the big picture 6,000 Rwandan Francs (or about $7 USD) isn’t outrageous. But compared to Ethiopia, where their Natural History Museum cost a mere $0.42 and put Rwanda’s to shame, well, $7 did seem a tad bit high. I had been warned about Rwanda on Wikitravel, that it was a surprisingly expensive country. But even with that being said I found that prices in Rwanda were not necessarily unreasonable, and there was a fairly large strike zone when it came to prices in Kigali. They ranged from the extremely cheap to the slightly expensive. But nothing like you’d see in Japan…or Venezuela if you didn’t know about the black market exchange rate. For a ticket to two museums, this one and the Presidential Palace Museum, I coughed up 9,600 Francs (this after a 20% discount for buying both tickets at once), but I quickly found the gift shop at the natural history museum to be one of the best places to stock up on souvenirs in Africa. One large carved wooden statute set me back a mere 13,050 RWF (about $15) and had I had more space in my suitcase I would have bought several more.

But again, the museum was a letdown. It was mostly a collection of basic exhibits ranging in subject to the geography and minerals of Rwanda to the wildlife. Interestingly enough there was a room displaying a exhibit about the European who built the house: Richard Kandt. The exhibit was in German, so needless to say I couldn’t read any of it. But I could tell this exhibit was nonetheless unusual. There seemed to be genuine affection for Kandt, both from my guide and from the display. Again, I couldn’t read any of it, and when you don’t know what you’re looking at and just have to go with the general vibe of things, well, you can miss the mark.

Oh look, it’s Santa Claus!

Still, I left feeling under whelmed, and was also slightly irritated that photos were prohibited inside the museum. Nonetheless, things looked up once I got outside: the view of Kigali from the back of the museum was extraordinary, and the outdoor display of a stuffed gorilla gave me fond memories of a obscure Saturday Night skit from 1989 involving Leslie Neilsen being chased by a guy in a gorilla suit through London (funny the things you think about after eating raw meat in Ethiopia).

But it was time to move on. Alex then took me to the first stop on what I guess I’d have to call the “genocide” tour. The Camp Kigali Memorial, the sight of one of the most shocking moments of the 1994 genocide: the murder of ten Belgium soldiers on April 7, 1994 in the opening hours of the genocide. The Belgians were sent by Canadian General Romero Dallaire, head of the UN Peacekeeping force in Rwanda, to the home of the Rwandan Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana.

Agathe Uwilingiyimana

Uwilingiyimana was a political moderate who supported the peace accords with the Rwandan Patriotic Front. This sadly made her a prime target for the genocidal Interahamwe paramilitary organization in Rwanda. Initially Westerners saw the Rwandan Genocide as tribalism run amok in 1994: anarchy coupled with ancient hatreds leading to an indiscriminate and disorganized slaughter. But it soon became clear that this was not the case (to be honest, it should have been clear three months before the genocide occurred when an informant emerged to tell the U.N. that the Interahamwe was planning to kill 1,000 Tutsis every twenty minutes) . This was a well planned and well executed system of human extermination. And tragically for the Belgians soldiers, they were part of the plan. In 1999, after an independent inquiry into the actions of the UN, it was revealed that the Interahamwe had planned to kill the Belgian peace keepers from the start. They knew that Belgian blood would be the surest way to drive the UN out of Rwanda. The Interahamwe also needed to remove “moderate” Hutus in the government, which put a target on the back of Uwilingiyimana. In the chaotic opening hours of the Rwandan Genocide General Dallaire ordered ten Belgian peace keepers to accompany the Prime Minister to the radio station where she could call for calm after the assassination of Rwanda’s then president Juvenal Habyarimana on April 6th, 1994. They never made it. After the Rwandan Presidential Guard turned on the Prime Minister and the U.N. Peace Keepers, Uwilingiyimana and her husband would be executed at the Kigali U.N. volunteer compound.

For the ten young Belgium peace keepers, the horror was only beginning. After surrendering to the Presidential Guard, they were soon transported to Camp Kigali, and visiting Camp Kigali you can’t help but think of those frantic final hours for those Belgium peace keepers in 1994. But as is often the case with civil wars, the truth seems to be somewhat clouded. The 1999 UN independent report simply states that the ten peacekeepers were brutally murdered after surrendering. This account seems to be backed up by author and journalist Scott Peterson, who said the men were castrated and choked to death with their own genitals. But the building seems to want to tell another story. Of a few men who fought against impossible odds. According to this account, which is backed up by Wikipedia (a source that unfortunately has considerably more credibility when it comes to the Rwandan Genocide than the United Nations) three Blue Helmets would fight their way through a mob of hundreds of armed Hutus. One, Srg. Yannick Leroy, actually managed to disarm one of the armed Hutus and seize his AK-47 (I know we Americans are somewhat dismissive of our Belgium allies when it comes to their military prowess, but there is a special table of honor for that soldier in Valhalla). Sadly, by 1 PM, nearly eleven hours after he was sent to the Prime Minister’s home, Sergeant Leroy was dead. The last Belgium Blue Helmet, out of bullets and tragically abandoned by the United Nations, was killed by the mob at Camp Kigali.

The place is quiet now. Other than Alex and I the place is deserted when we arrive. But the bullet-hole riddled building tells its own story.

The Rwandans put up a plaque commemorating the ten soldiers who lost their lives, and also a monument to the men.

The strange thing is, even though the place is empty, I can’t help but feel claustrophobic while walking through the compound.  You can’t help but feel how trapped those men must have felt when visiting Camp Kigali.  Even if you are the only one there.

We then hit our next stop on the Rwandan “genocide history” tour: The Kigali Genocide Memorial.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, I had already been to the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum in Addis Ababa earlier in the week, and I also had been to Auschwitz some twenty years ago. But despite seeing the Red Terror Museum and Camp Kigali, the museum was still a gut punch. Early on you see a sign saying that over 250,000 people are buried at the site. That small sign hit harder than anything else on the trip. The entire population of Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, and North Dakota were buried in an area smaller than Central Park…and this was less than a third of the people killed in only 100 days in 1994.

The museum inside gave a powerful account of the events that led to the genocide, from the colonial era all the way to the “Hutu Ten Commandments”, which really should have probably been taken more seriously than it ultimately was.

Seriously, warning bells should have been ringing in the U.N.

Also included were hundreds of haunting photos of the victims of the genocide, photos that carried even more of an impact then the ones I saw in Addis Ababa or Auschwitz.  Because these folks were children of the 90s.  They may have been of a different race and from a different country, but looking at the photos I could see myself and my friends In these pictures.  This didn’t feel like history, this felt like my high school yearbook.

The Memorial also had a room where they discussed other instances of genocide that the world witnessed and ignored: Armenia, Nazi Germany, Yugoslavia, Cambodia, and Namibia. (I couldn’t find Rios Montt’s display, but I’m sure it was there somewhere…probably next to the Biafra display).

There was also a powerful display in the “Children’s Room”, with photos of some of the children killed during the genocide.  As with Auschwitz, the image of children so senselessly murdered for no reason other than race was a shocking one…and a stark reminder of what manufactured hate and fear can do to ordinary people.

By this point the day was coming to a close and I decided to hire Alex to take me to Parliament the following day. I needed to absorb what I saw, and there were quite a few stops left that night and for my final day in Kigali.

 

Read more Finger Post Travel stories here!

A fighter to keep an eye out for in 2017: cruiserweight contender Olanrewaju Durodola

 

Finger Post Boxing (July 22, 2017)

 

After the Isaac Dogboe v. Javier Chacon WBO International Junior Featherweight championship in Accra, Ghana we had the opportunity to see a walkout bout featuring heavy hitting Nigerian Olanrewaju Durodola (25-4, 23 KOs), the #10 ranked cruiserweight with the WBC. Durodola possesses what seems to be the defining trait with Nigerian boxers: bone crushing power. But at 36-years old time is not nessesarily on his side. It was hard to gauge how he would do against a Tony Bellew considering the fact that opposition he faced in Accra was minimal. And to be honest, he sort of fought down to the level of his opposition. But what was undeniable was that he was a fighter with tremendous power and power sells tickets and makes things happen in boxing. I’d consider Durodola a fighter to keep an eye out for in 2017…and if he gets world title fight don’t rule him out.  Power, after all, is a great equalizer in this sport.

Travel: Three Days in Kigali, Rwanda (Part One)

The Finger Post Travel (July 25-27, 2017)

The moment I stepped off the plane into the Gregoire Kayibanda International Airport in Kigali, Rwanda I could tell that this wasn’t going to be your typical African vacation.

It was just shy of one AM and I was suddenly feeling the effects of eating raw meat from a butcher in Addis Ababa (read about it in my “One day in Ethiopia” update).  I was tired and I still had a visa to buy and immigration to clear.  Then I saw the first sign that Rwanda was pulling no punches in trying to change it’s international reputation.

The option to pay the $30 visa fee from a tablet at the airport was really my first introduction to the new Rwanda, the nation eager to establish itself at the “Singapore of Africa.”  I assume there are some airports in the United States that have free iPads for public use, I just never saw them.  But I am pretty sure this is the only airport in Africa that has one of these, and I couldn’t help but feel this was not just about offering a convenient service for those who just arrived in the nation. It was an opportunity to make a statement.  It was an opportunity to tell us that whatever preconceived notions about the country we had, that they were most certainly going to be challenged.

I declined the opportunity to use the tablet, paid my $30 for the visa, and then saw the first introduction to on of Rwanda’s most famous pieces of legislation.  The ban on plastic bags.  A sign greeted those of us stepping off from Ethiopian Airlines flight 821 that plastic ban were prohibited in Rwanda.  Next to the sign was a woman at a table offering cloth bags for those who needed them.

I quickly picked up my luggage and took a cab to my hotel: the Hotel des Mille Collines.  Booking on Hotels.com I got a room for two nights for about $125 a night (including tax) and I was told this was a unusually good price.  However I had been scanning the price on Hotels.com for a month before hand and that seemed to be the going rate.  Regardless, I wanted to stay there.  The film Hotel Rwanda burned in my memory and as morbid as it may seem, I felt a certain obligation to stay at the hotel that helped save so many innocent lives.  Ramada would get my money back in the States, but in Kigali the Hotel des Mile Collines would have my loyalty.

The drive to the hotel was notable in how…unspectacular it was.  In Africa every drive is a dose of sensory overload.  The sounds.  The chaos.  The energy.  The insanely bad drivers.  All are powerful messages to the Westerner that they are now in Africa.  But Rwanda was different.  Sure, it was 1 AM, but still…this was positively Swiss in it’s appearance.  The streets were meticulous and trees decorated the side of the road in perfect rows.

Arriving at the Hotel I was greeted by friendly staff and quickly decided to call it a night.  I had been surviving off three hours of sleep a night since arriving in Africa and the food was finally starting to catch up to me.  I would have tomorrow to explore the city, but tonight…I needed to recover.

Of course, my stomach wasn’t done protesting the raw meat in Ethiopia just yet.   My first day of Rwanda was spent mostly in the hotel, nursing an upset stomach and severe fatigue.  It wasn’t until my second day in Kigali that I was able to contact Alex, who was recommended to me by a guy working the front desk of the hotel.  I hired Alex to drive me around all day to whatever sites I wanted to check out.  I had an unusual request and I wasn’t sure if he could help me with it: I wanted to meet Rwandan President Paul Kagame.  I actually met him once before, when he spoke at my law school in 2004.  I knew he was campaigning and so I figured maybe I could use my press pass and somehow get an impromptu interview set up on one of his campaign stops.  No idea if I would be able to, but I figured I could try.

Only problem was Kagame was not in Kigali or anywhere near Kigali.  He was campaigning several hours away and I had already lost a day due to my illness.  So Alex instead took me to a tent where they were selling campaign swag.

It was at this campaign stop where I got my first weird vibe about the election.  Kagame was legitimately popular, but I also noticed that there was not a single opposition sign to be found anywhere.  Not one.  Alex and others explained that Kagame simply had overwhelming support, and although I retain a healthy skepticism about claims like that I couldn’t deny that he was in fact immensely popular with…well…everyone.  Nobody had a bad word to say about him, and not in a North Korean newscaster sort of way.  They all saw how their lives had improved over the last twenty-three years and they all wanted him to continue to lead the country.  Rwanda had gone from being the worst place to live on the planet to being the jewel of Africa, all in 23 short years.  All this despite the fact that the nation lacks natural resources and had the stigma of anarchy and genocide on the world’s collective memory.  All of that had been accomplished due to good government and a determination to lift the country out of poverty.

But I’m sure even in San Francisco there was one guy with a Trump sign in his front yard.  At least one.

I asked Alex about the opposition candidates and he admitted that he didn’t even know their names.  This wasn’t a Democrat curb stomping a Republican candidate in Berkley, California.  This wasn’t Clinton v. Trump in San Francisco.  Hell, this wasn’t even Clinton v. Vermin Supreme.  This was something else: an opposition campaign that was dead on arrival.  The opposition candidates, one from the Green Party (Frank Habineza), and two independents (Philippe Mpayimana and Diane Shima Rwigara) have complained about intimidation.  But what the foreigner can see is not evidence of intimidation: rather we see evidence of…disproportion.  In the airport it’s the billboards and posters all proclaiming “Tora Paul Kagame.”  On every roundabout are RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) flags and on the back of busses are more campaign posters supporting Kagame. Public areas are painted with the colors of the RPF.

 

And nowhere to be seen is a single Green Party sign.  Hell, you could probably find a Green Party sign in Utah if you really looked for one.  But not in Kigali, where the message was clear: you can’t stop Kagame so you might as well get with the program.  But it is not out of realm of possibility to imagine he is in fact that popular.  Sure, he’s going to win 93% of the vote (or more) but let’s not forget that Mitt Romney won 90% of the vote in Cimarron County, Oklahoma in 2012.  90% doesn’t automatically mean this type of thing is going on.  There is a visible difference between Rwanda today and pretty much any other African nation and the legitimate lack of corruption was something that even his staunchest critics would grudgingly give him praise over.  And in any democracy there comes a point where the opposition starts to lose people not due to policy but  due to that fact that people want to be on the winning team.  There comes a point when the opposition becomes so weak that nobody wants to support them, even if they agree with their policies.

But still…not one Green Party sign anywhere.  Not one.

I buy a few t-shirts from the stand nonetheless, and this weird vibe hits me about the shirt I just buy, although I can’t place it.

Alex gets a sticker placed on his hood and I see a sight that lifts my spirts ever so slightly: a guy selling fruit on the side of the road.

It’s not the fact that I’m hungry (I am) or that some oranges sound great right now (they do).  It’s the fact that I have found my first plastic bags in Rwanda.  

The street vendor is clearly skirting the law as he sells his fruit, something I mention to Alex.  Alex seems a little embarrassed but I try and tell him I don’t mean this as a negative.  In Singapore nobody dares sell gum out in the open. In North Korea nobody dares sell South Korean television shows out in the open.  In Rwanda the rules are in place, but there is at least a little visible pushback.  That’s a somewhat reassuring sign.  That’s how we roll in America.  Speed limit 45?  Everyone goes 50.  No Big Gulps in New York?  Screw that, I’ll bring my own cup/bucket.  Please don’t bring your guns to Chipolte in Texas?  Hold my beer.   I found it slightly reassuring to see a guy skirt the plastic bag ban in Kigali because it told me that maybe things were as good as they seemed.  Maybe Rwanda is a legitimate, albeit slightly dysfunctional, democracy.  Maybe Rwanda is really the African Miracle.

But I never could quite shake that lingering feeling I had about the t-shirt I bought for myself and a friend in Kigali.  Until I got home that was, and it dawned on me.

 

Read more Finger Post Travel stories here.