31 May 2012

Uganda {Part I}: Lake Bunyonyi

During my trip to Rwanda, we set the weekend aside to head over the Ugandan border and pay a visit to beautiful Lake Bunyonyi.  Until a couple of months ago I'd never even know that the lake existed, but now that I've been I'm already scheming up ways in which I can get Jurg to go back with me.  It must be one of the most breathtaking places I've ever had the privilege of visiting; the whole weekend the three of us just kept going on and on about how green everything was, and how friendly everyone was, and how we wished we could extend our stay from a couple of days to a couple of weeks {or months for that matter}.  It was so so pretty - and it really and truly was as green as it appears in the pictures below.  

Literally translated, Lake Bunyonyi means "place of many little birds".  Anyone who's visited will assure you that while the lake is indeed a very popular place for avid bird watchers, it's also quite famous for the rustic wooden canoes used for transportation and the hundreds of little islands scattered throughout its waters.  In fact, there's so many islands everywhere that it's almost impossible to catch an unobstructed view of the lake.  These little islands are home to locals, schools, orphanages, and Rastafarians, but also house quaint backpackers and hidden-away island bungalows, making it one of Africa's best kept secrets when it comes to expats and travelers.

First glimpse of the lake!
We made it! {Not an easy feat, I tell you}
So, so pretty!
The building in the background is an upscale hotel - we were told that Idi Amin had the owner killed because he was intimidated by his wealth.
One of the pretty little birds that the lake is so famous for
An early morning view of the lake from our bungalow {paradise, people, paradise...}
It looked like rain, so on our first day we opted for the motor boat rather than risking it with a canoe.
The next day we tried the canoes though!
They were fun at first, but after about10 minutes the novelty wore off and then they were just plain work ;)
The lake is also known for the beautiful terraces found all over its surrounding hills
Taking a break from rowing
Back on dry land!

Aside from its obvious beauty, what I loved about Lake Bunyonyi was that it still really felt like untouched, undeveloped Africa.  And, it was quiet.  The kind of quiet where the only thing you wake up to is the sound of birds chirping and at night you cozy into your bed early because it's so dark that you can't even see your hands when you hold them out in front of you.  Everything is natural and organic and raw.

One morning I woke up much earlier than Amber and Katie, so I took my book out onto our patio to watch the sunrise.  There wasn't another soul in sight and in the distance I could hear the faint drumming of drums and the voices of a group of locals engaged in some sort of song or chant.  As I sat there I took a  few minutes to just try and soak it all in because I knew I would never want to forget that moment - alone, watching the sun rise over the lake, in the middle of beautiful untouched Africa.  It was so peaceful - the kind of peaceful that is so difficult to find these days, and I found myself wondering, "will there be anywhere like this left on earth for my children one day?"

I'm not sure, but I sure do hope so :)

- - - - -

Tomorrow we are off to Sun City with Jurgen's parents for a weekend of fun and relaxation.  We decided to take my new Fiesta, so it will be a chance for me to really "show off" my manual driving skills ;)  Wish me luck!  Next week I'll be back with pictures!

Hope everyone has an amazing weekend!

{Next up in the travel re-cap series is our little island and bungalow on the lake!} 

29 May 2012

Life Update.

I've been so caught up in trying to share all my travel photos from Rwanda/Uganda that I feel like I haven't given a good old general life update in quite awhile.  And, a lot has actually been going on lately so I decided to give the travel re-caps a break today {I literally have months and months worth of photos to share} and catch you guys up on what has been happening in South Africa outside of my travels.

First things first, a couple of weeks ago I bought a new car!  It's a shiny blue Ford Fiesta and I love, love, love it.  It just so happens to be the very first car that I've had to pay off in monthly installments {which I'm not so in love with}, but it also feels nice to know that it's 100% mine and that it's in my name and all of those other adult-like things.  I wasn't planning on buying one until at least the end of the year, but then my old car conveniently decided to die on me and I was really left with no other option.  

What do you guys think?  

Have Fiestas made it to the United States yet?  For some reason I don't think they have.  

Ford needs to get on that.

Yep, we drive on the other side of the road and also sit on the opposite side of the car.

If I look terrified in the above picture, it's because I am.  

That's me getting ready to drive manual for the first time {my previous car was an automatic} - and let me tell you, my stomach was doing somersaults.  Most of the cars here are manual, so when you're looking to buy if you aren't in the range of a BMW or Mercedes, manual {stick} is basically your only option.  You can get automatics in some less expensive models, but you pay substantially more than you would for a manual and I figured that I'd have to learn how at some point anyway.

While the first two or three days of driving were terrifying, after being forced to get over that initial hump, I can vouch that driving manual isn't that difficult.  Dare I say that it's even sort of fun? :)  I'm still not perfect and stall every once in a while, but over the past couple of weeks I've gotten pretty confident with my driving skills and no longer feel my stomach doing flip flops every time I get behind the wheel.

It's one of those things that I'm really glad I learned, but would have never done if I hadn't been forced. 

The other awesome thing about my car - the windows are "Smash & Grab" proof.  

One of the few not so nice realities of living in South Africa is that some people have a nasty habit of walking up to your car when you're stopped at a traffic light {we call them robots here, isn't that funny?} and smashing in your window with a brick, grabbing your purse, and then running away.  It's why you will never see South Africans driving with their purse sitting on the passenger seat - it's always either sitting on the floor or is stowed away in the trunk boot.  Lucky for me my Fiesta's windows smash and grab proof which means that on the off chance that someone does decide to throw a brick at my window, it should just bounce right back off and leave the window unscathed.  Pretty cool, huh?  Totally 007 if you ask me ;) 

Aside from the car, Jurg and I have been getting really excited for his parent's visit this weekend and for his graduation next week.  They are flying in from Cape Town this Friday and then we will be heading to Sun City for the weekend to celebrate Jurg's Phd.  Neither of us have ever been there, but we've heard it described as South Africa's Las Vegas so it should make for a great weekend.  Early the following week, a lot of his other family will be arriving for his graduation and then we're planning another celebration after the ceremony. 

 So many good things to look forward to over the next couple of weeks!

While you're here, please take a second to fill in the poll on the upper right-hand side of the blog.  Every once in a while I like to check in and see what you guys enjoy, what you want to see more of, and what doesn't really suit your taste.  Your opinions really help me in terms of gaining a better understanding of what you find most interesting/useful on here and really assist me in constantly working to make my blog better.  I really appreciate your input!

{Up next in my travel re-cap is Uganda!}

25 May 2012

Kigali {Part 4}: Genocide Memorial Centre

I seriously debated whether I even wanted to share about the Rwandan Genocide on the blog for several reasons.  Still, after thinking about it, I finally decided that I would because it represents such a huge piece of the country's history and also represented a substantial part of my visit. Topics such as these are never nice to discuss or reflect on, but as human beings I think we are all compelled to empathize with fellow human beings regardless of race, religion, geographic location, ethnicity, or gender.  In the act of acknowledging, we also take a stand against acts of violence, hatred, and blood shed and take a small but invaluable step towards ensuring that history does not repeat itself.

So... here goes...   

On the afternoon of our second day in Kigali, we hopped on motos and headed to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre.  The Centre sits on the grounds of a massive burial site and also houses a museum that  tells the story of the genocide from start to finish, contains scattered remnants of the victims, honors some of the children who were lost in the tragedy, and also pays tribute to many of the other major genocides that have taken place throughout recent history.  

The inside memorial is very thoughtfully done and is also very informative.  It probably takes between two to three hours to see everything and entrance is free although they do recommend that visitors contribute by offering a small donation.  It is an absolute must if you ever find yourself in Kigali.

They asked that we pay a $25 fee if we wanted to use our cameras inside the centre, which I decided against.  However, visitors are welcome to snap away as they explore the outside grounds for free and I took a lot of photos as we walked around the graves and outdoor memorial sites.

You also have the option of purchasing an audio tour for a small fee.

Mass graves
The history leading up to the Rwandan genocide is long and complex.  The country was previously colonized by both Germany and Belgium and both countries played a role in encouraging the distinct separation of races.  Under Belgian rule, Tutsis and Hutus {the two main tribes in Rwanda} were provided with separate ID cards and this later made it easy for Hutu extremists to positively identify Tutsis and exterminate them.  Initially Belgium supported the Tutsis {who were known to be of a higher social class} and essentially forced Hutus into forced labour positions.  However, towards the end of their rule their support shifted towards the Hutus.

Flowers left by friends and family members
When the genocide broke out, tensions were already running high between the two groups.  On the 6th of April 1994, an airplane carrying the President of Rwanda and the President of Burundi {both of which were Hutu} was mysteriously shot down and all passengers were killed.  There is still speculation today as to who is responsible for this with both the RPF {a majority Tutsi group} and Hutu Extremists receiving speculative blame.  The genocide had been well planned and a "Death List" was circulated by members of the Hutu government shortly after the crash.  By that evening Hutus had set up road blocks around the city and houses were being searched.  Within a few hours the first shots had been fired.  The genocide was underway.

Throughout the genocide the media was used as a major propaganda tool by the Hutus and served as a means of broadcasting violent messages and instructions, encouraging Hutus to turn on their Tutsi neighbors.  In the days that followed, Tutsis were systematically tortured and killed regardless of age and gender.  Thousands of Tutsis rushed to schools and churches for safety, only to realize that this was no protection as they were barricaded in and the buildings were burned to the ground.  Children witnessed their parents being violently murdered by machetes before being grotesquely tortured, mutilated, and murdered themselves.  Tutsi women were systematically raped by Hutu men who were known to be HIV positive and today thousands of survivors suffer from the disease as a result.  The whole country was completely turned upside-down within a matter of hours. 

The genocide carried on until the middle of July 1994, and resulted in the death of close to one million Rwandans {90% of which were Tutsi}.  This represents the largest amount of people ever killed in such a short time span with more than 10,000 people being murdered each day.  By the end of the genocide, around 20% of the country's population had been wiped out and the Hutu extremists had succeeded in exterminating 85% of the Tutsi population.  400,000 children became orphans, with 85,000 being forced to become the head of their household.  Rape was used as a systematic weapon of war and between 250,000 and 500,000 Rwandan women fell victim to this tactic.  Around 70% of these women are now infected with HIV.  

The western world, and particularly the UN, has been largely criticized for its lack of intervention in the genocide.  The UN Security Council was very reluctant to become involved in any direct way.  Belgium was the only country to advocate a strong peace keeping mission, but after the murder of 10 Belgian peace keepers and a failure to act on the part of the UN, Belgium withdrew their support.  The United States has also been criticized for ignoring information presented to them just before the genocide broke out.  UN Peace keepers who were on the ground were instructed to not intervene in the violence unless another Peace Keeper was in direct danger.

wall of names
In the midst of the tragedy UNAMIR directed the bulk of its efforts at evacuating foreign nationals, some of whom were stationed outside of Tutsi-filled schools and churches.  As the Peace Keepers were removed, Hutus stormed the premises and massacred everyone inside, including hundreds of children.  Foreign relief workers were forced to evacuate while Rwandans who were working beside them were left behind and eventually fell victim to the killings.

Throughout the entire genocide, the United States contributed 50 armored tanks.  These, however, arrived way too late due to arguments surrounding the cost of their transportation.  President Clinton has since expressed open regret in the way that the government handled the crisis, noting that he believes that 5,000 US Peace Keepers could have saved approximately 500,000 lives. 

Following the genocide, around two million Hutus fled to Rwanda's bordering countries in anticipation of Tutsi retaliation.  Many of them eventually died due to the poor conditions in the refugee camps and to this day there is still tribal fighting amongst Hutu and Tutsi groups around the bordering regions.  The neighboring countries of the DRC and Burundi are especially well known for prevailing ethnic violence. 

Today Rwanda itself has returned to relative stability and is attempting to somehow come to terms with the tragedy and massive injustices that took place.  They've established a Criminal Tribunal which is still in the process of sifting through cases.  Initially some major players in the genocide were sentenced to public execution, but as of 2007 Rwanda has abolished the death penalty so extreme measures such as these are no longer taking place.

The Kigali Memorial Centre opened on the 10th anniversary of the genocide in April 2004.  During its first week of operation, more than 1,500 survivors visited the memorial each day.  Roses are sold at its entrance, making it a living memorial in the sense that survivors are able to come and pay tribute to family and friends who were lost.

More than 250,000 victims are buried underneath the concrete slabs seen in the photos throughout this post.  Bodies are still constantly being added as new mass grave sites are discovered.  Family members who have located the body of a loved one are allowed to bury them here and frequently come to pay tribute as they would be able to do in a cemetary.

From a personal perspective, the memorial was very difficult to take in because everything still feels so real and immediate and in your face.  As you walk past locals placing flowers on the graves one can't help but to imagine all that they've been through and are still  continuing to go through today.  It's almost as though everyone knew someone who was a victim - wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, parents, children - all lost in an instant.

Although it was difficult, I'm definitely glad I opted to go to the memorial site.  I feel like I came out the other side a slightly different person and that I now understand a little bit more about what this tiny African country has been through.

While I can't even begin to imagine what it was like to actually witness, I feel that this was my very insignificant way of saying that I stand with the world in vowing to never forget what happened and to always remember those whose lives were so unjustly and prematurely taken away.

we will never forget.

23 May 2012

Kigali {Part 3}: Scenes from Around Town

Kigali must be one of the most attractive little buzzing cities in Africa.  It's perfected the art of mixing third world charm with first world amenities, is relatively safe, is overflowing with beautiful and vibrant green landscapes, has a rocking ex-pat community, is full of friendly locals, and is situated in such a way that you can be in any one of its four surrounding countries {DRC, Uganda, Tanzania, and Burundi} within about a two hour drive.  It's like a little utopia situated in the very heart of Africa - haunted by a tragic past, but so full of contagious hope for a peaceful and collective future.

As a sort of tribute to such a unique and amazing city, today I thought I would share some of my favorite shots taken around town. 

View of Kigali from Katie's porch
Motos, motos, motos... everywhere.
Katie's street
Take note of the cracked helmet ;)
adorable little houses - Katie wants to paint them all in bright, bold colors... wouldn't the mountain just pop? :)
Stopping for a quick lunch at a popular ex-pat hot spot :)
Mountain Dew out of the bottle and delicious bagel sandwiches... yum!
Love all the bright colors in this shot
cutie pies
I was informed that these are plantains (not bananas) and can only be eaten after being boiled. 
Have you seen the movie Hotel Rwanda?  We visited the hotel that the movie is based on.
Looks a bit different than it did in the movie though.  It was quite surreal to see it in person after being aware of what had happened there only 15 years ago.  See more about the hotel's history here.
Today the hotel is still up and running and has a lovely pool and bar area, it's also still an ex-pat hot spot for afternoon cocktails by the pool.
One night Katie took us to a Rwandan Lip Syncing Bar: strangest/funniest/most bizarre experience of my life.  True Story 
Couldn't resist squeezing in one last moto shot ;)

Being in Kigali now, at first glimpse one would never be able to guess its tragic history.  Of course there are small reminders scattered throughout town and a whole museum dedicated to the 1994 genocide that resulted in the death of more than 800,000 Rwandans - and these serve as a means of ensuring that no one ever forgets all those precious lives that were lost not so long ago.  For the most part, however, the country seems to be making a miraculous recovery.  While the world will never forget what happened, there is such a complete and utter sense of hope and optimism that permeates throughout the city.  The feeling is almost contagious.  It's alive and pulsing and fully conscious of the absolute fragility and value of a human life.  It's difficult to adequately put into words.

While I'm so grateful for the short time that I was able to spend  there, one day I would love to go back to Kigali as I know that there is still much to experience and learn and give back.  Until then, I'm so thankful I have these pictures to look back on as a reminder of the three days I spent jetting around on motos, soaking up the African sun {and rain}, and meeting some of the most incredible people.

Until next time Rwanda...

{Next up.... Uganda!}

18 May 2012

Kigali {Part 2}: Ejo Hazaza & Cocoki

Many of you already know that one of the main reasons I went to Rwanda was to visit two of my best friends, one of which is currently living in Kigali.  Katie's been living in Rwanda's capital since the beginning of the year and is interning at a non-profit organisation called Indego Africa.  Indego is based in New York, but partners with several women cooperatives {co-ops} in Rwanda with the aim of assisting women in furthering their skills, bettering their long-term circumstances, generating a sustainable income, and cultivating feelings of hope, optimism, and empowerment.

Aside from the obvious, what makes this organisation so incredible is that the products these women make are sold by designers throughout the United States with 100% of the profits made on products being re-invested in local co-op training programs.  Currently their merchandise can be found in stores such as JCrewDannijo, Nicole Miller and Madewell {click links to see Indego products}.  How amazing is that!?

On the morning of our second day in Kigali, Katie took us to two of the cooperatives that Indego currently partners with, the first one being Ejo Hazaza and the second one being Cocoki.  It was such a blessing to be able to witness first-hand how Indego partners with these co-ops, and even more of a blessing to be able to meet the amazing women behind the products.  They were so friendly, courteous, and welcoming, I can't remember when last I've see so many smiles in one room!  And their clothes.... don't even get me started... the patterns they wear are bright and colorful and absolutely stunning.  It was just an overall great experience and one that I will not soon be forgetting.

The first co-op we visited was Ejo Hazaza.  They are Indego Africa's most recent partnership and are currently working on their first batch of beaded bracelets for JCrew {keep your eyes peeled!} and have also just completed a bracelet order for Nicole Miller.  On the day we were there Katie and Yves were testing the womens' eyesight for glasses.  It was great to see their faces light up when they tried on a pair that suited them well :)

Again, LOVE the patterns of their dresses!
The women were asked to look at this paper and indicate the direction that each of the symbols were facing.
As a test they then had to poke a needle through the hole of a small bead.

The week after I left Rwanda, Katie returned to Ejo Hazaza and distributed glasses to each woman that was found to be in need of a pair.  She forwarded me this picture she took of Epiphanie {the co-op's president} proudly sporting a new pair of her own:

Smiles are contagious :)

The second co-op we visited was Cocoki.  Cocoki specializes in sewing and currently has products being sold at JCrewDannijo {I want need this bag!}, and Nicole Miller.  Katie teaches English at Cocoki two times a week and as we arrived all the women greeted her with "Hello teacher!" and then quickly turned to inform Amber and I that Katie was, indeed, their teacher and a good teacher at that :)  Their products were amazing and I walked away with no less than four headbands and a wine bag.  If I would have been there longer I would have also had them custom make me a pair of shorts {in a vibrant, colorful African print of course} and a pair of yoga pants.      

Meet Emelienne {Cocoki's founder and treasurer, right} and Therese {Cocoki's vice-president, left}.  They are just about as inspirational as they come and were invited to New York and Washington DC by Indego Africa in 2011 where they spoke on different topics such as social enterprise, development, and their experience of Cocoki in Rwanda.  You can find a more in-depth video about their time in the United States here.  Emelienne also has an amazing story {she lost her three brothers and father in the genocide} which has been turned into a short biography.  If you're interested contact me and I will send it to you :)  

The women of Cocoki busy at work.
Some of Cocoki's products.
2 of the headbands I bought... and literally wear all.the.time.
Katie getting her custom-made dress tailored

The morning we spent at these two cooperatives may easily have been the highlight of my entire Rwanda/Uganda trip.  If I ever make it back to Kigali you can bet that I will try and revisit both Ejo Hazaza and Cocoki and maybe even some of the other co-ops Indego partners with that I didn't get a chance to see this time around.  I think what they are doing is amazing and I would be absolutely thrilled if there was some way I could work for or work with Indego Africa in the future.  They are truly an incredible company.  Having witnessed their work first hand, if you're looking for a social enterprise to support,  I can confidently say look no further.

- - - - -

You can find Indego Africa's website here and their facebook page here.

Cocoki also had their own facebook page, which can be found here.