Tag Archives: death

“If you’re not first, you’re last.” – Ricky Bobby’s dad.

My mother – Angel of Grace and Tolerator of Her Eldest Son’s Irrepressible Verbosity – always told me I’m a winner. And when pressed, my wife – whose womb bore me a tiny sliver of Heaven and who, indeed, is also a Suave Putter-Upper of Her Marido’s Loquacity – will likewise admit her station in life improved at least somewhat after having hitched her wagon to my locomotive. Though I didn’t get promoted at work on the first go ’round, I did pick up tenure as soon as I was eligible for it. So this tells me I’m slugging at least .500, well above the baseline Hall of Fame batting average. The significance of this sports metaphor: the cosmos lines up occasionally in my favor, and I reap a concurrent bounty.

And yet this morning when I embarked on what was supposed to be a bland weekly grocery run, little did I anticipate hitting the Brazilian jackpot. What transpired at the cash register, as I pulled forth my debit card to pay for the goods, was the supermarket equivalent of a game-winning, goal-scoring reverse-bicycle kick with three milliseconds seconds left on the clock.

There was something in the air this morn, and my mood was uncommonly uppity for a domingo. Perhaps ’twas due to spending last night jamming metal songs on dual guitars with a buddy at his apartment in Copacabana; and my levity of being ’twas aided in no small measure by the weather being 10 degree cooler today in Rio. Thus I set foot inside the Horti Fruti humming random tracks from Exodus’ “Bonded by Blood” and Death’s “The Sound of Perseverance”, even playing air guitar in the cart-infested aisles. I grabbed Tabasco sauce and a box of Choco-Krispies for my soon-to-arrive wife, a bag of frozen French fries, and enough fruits to eliminate a small nation’s worth of scurvy. Then I approached the cash register and placed my intended purchases onto the conveyer belt, striking up convo with Patricia, in whose line I always seem to end up.

About to pay, a woman with a microphone materialized before me. Her nametag bore the moniker “Sandra”. And indeed, Sandra represented the Horti Fruti Prize Patrol. Flanked she was on the right by a man toting a plastic Christmas tree adorned with folded pieces of paper on all sides. Another man to her left held aloft a box with a hand-sized hole in the top, and colored pieces of paper contained within its depths.

Sandra announced to the now-gawking assemblage of customers that I was selected at random to participate in their holiday contest. I was asked, first, to pull a piece of paper from the box and present it to her. Sandra would then open it and read the number written on it. That number would correspond to the number of one of the cash registers. She would then approach the customer in line at that specific register, and that person would snatch a paper from the plastic Christmas tree, open it, and read aloud his/her prize contained with it to the whole store.

This is where the Brazilian “jeitinho” enters the picture. I’m not a naturally competitive man, but do we not all enjoy winning something once in awhile? Even Ralphie’s toiling blue-collar dad netted the leg lamp in A Christmas Story. My winnings are of the Haley’s Comet variety: exceptionally infrequent, but slammin’ when they do roll down range. And so when I selected a paper from the box and opened it, it appeared to contain a 6. Or maybe ’twas a 9, depending on which end you thought was up.

It was not lost on me that I happened to be standing at register 6.

And so felt I a victory close at hand!

A look of understanding was then exchanged bewteen Sandra and I. My eyes spake unto her, “Sandra, oh with Rio’s inflation forever on the rise, my creeks are rising, for now I buy for three mouths!” And Sandra’s eyes responded to me, “Gringo, I live in Rocinha, and well I know the difficulties of purchasing for an entire litter of mouths.” This shared moment lasted no longer than two fleeting nano-seconds, but ’twas sufficient to turn the tide in my favor. And so Sandra announced that ’twas register 6.

Proclaiming me the winner, Sandra let me pick a piece of paper from the plastic Christmas tree. Upon opening it, elated was I to discover that I’d just won half off my next grocery purchase at Horti Fruti. I turned around to face the crowd – a covetous bunch of shoppers applauding in a muted fashion, a rotund player hate springing from their eyes – and pumped my metal-horned hands skyward, declaring myself “ganhador”. Sandra passed me the mic, that I might comment on the senstation invading my entire soul as the realization dawned upon me that I’d just beaten the odds. Clutching the mic in a triumphant right fist, I raised it to my mouth, took a deep breath, and loudly extolled the virtues of Horiti Fruti’s quality produce, reasonable prices, and above all else, righteous business model.

I cannot fault the lookers-on for believing that, somehow, the fix was in. They will doubtless contemplate this next week, when all of them are paying full price for their groceries. Let them eat cake, though sadly not a discounted one.

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The Macabre Cottage Industry of Rwandan Genocide Tourism

SAM_3420Though I can’t attest to it being a national policy, my hunch is that Rwandan authorities correctly reason any money made on tourism from the 1994 genocide ought to fall into Rwandan hands. This is fair. After all, it wasn’t gringos who bore the cataclysmic and population-decimating brunt of that tragic national bloodletting. 800,000 dead in 100 days; innocent and hapless men, women, and children sliced to ribbons with machetes or pulverized into sawdust by the crazed men’s frantic bludgeoning; entire extended families vaporized from existence; the Tutsi ethnic group nearly relegated to the annals of history, dinosaurs for a post-modern era. And despite all its robust mountaintop proclamations of “Never Again” during the latter half of the 20th century, the West pulled out and played spectator while it happened. So if Americans and Europeans visiting Rwanda now want to see where it all went down, doling a few bills into local rice bowl for the privilege might best be understood as a justifiable tax for past inaction and omission.

Beyond ethical considerations, that Rwanda ought control its own genocide tourism industry is economically sound. Genocide tourism injects money – in the aggregate a considerable amount, depending on the time of year – into the local economy, directly and through forward/backward linkages. For example, a taxi driver takes you to a memorial site, you pay the fare, and then he stops for gas and lunch at a convenience store on the way back. He later uses the remainder of the fare to feed and clothe his kids, maybe even hits a local bar for a beer with the fellas. You were only responsible for the taxi fare, but the cash bleeds into follow-on purchases supporting local business. It is worth mentioning that this also relieves the Rwandan government of what would otherwise be an exacerbated unemployment conundrum. Jobs are good for stability, and stability is one concrete way to begin finally making good on cliché phraseology like “Never Again”.

All good. No reasonable person doubts that Rwanda controlling something so vital to both its history and economy is the right thing. But at the juncture where profit eclipses every last official statement about how the sites, memorials, and museums dotting the country exist to raise awareness, I’ve got a problem. Everyone knows nothing is free, and governments are hardly strangers to using feel-good public declarations as a loincloth veiling bottom-line motives. But still, it cannot always be about money. There’s a legitimate need for outsiders to know what happened in Rwanda, and crowding them for cash every step of the way will ultimately frustrate their appreciation of the experience and what they learn while having it.

SAM_3554I saw firsthand how the cottage industry of Rwandan genocide tourism functions, both its positive and negative aspects. My first morning in Kigali, I delicately informed hotel reception I wanted to see the local genocide history sites. A trusted taxi driver soon materialized. His name was Gabriel. I told him I wanted to go to Kigali’s international genocide museum. Like an apple pie with your McDonalds value meal, he upsold me to a few hours’ worth of visits to an assortment of macabre locations, including the Nyamata church massacre site (the infamous one former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited shortly after the cessation of hostilities) roughly 30 km outside the capital. Gabriel would act as tour guide as well, being a Tutsi male 11 years old at the time the killing happened and whose entire family, minus an aunt, was wiped out along the way. He would provide a narrative that was both equal parts informative and bone-chilling. For this he charged $50 USD, a steal when you consider the profoundly personal narrative Gabriel would provide.

SAM_3406We first visited the Nyamata church, a 40-minute drive from Kigali proper. A minor pseudo-strip mall town with a population now less than a tenth of what it was when the genocide began, there is nothing really to see here, with the obvious exception of the church itself. They allowed photos on the outside, but not the interior. This was a shame, since the outside is entirely unworthy of snapshots: it bears no resemblance to a church now, certainly not to the location where one of the most sickening displays of gratuitous violence in human history transpired. The exterior of the building now bears the resemblance of any renovated, sterile museum structure. But the inside is nearly as it appeared in 1994 when the slaughter abated, the walls streaked with dried blood and the filthy clothing and dust-caked shoes of the vilely murdered littering the floor and pews, all ironically overseen by a wall-mounted statue of the Virgin Mary.

I let Gabriel know I wanted to get photos. I’d spent 20 years hoping to make it to this exact venue, and now that I was there, I’d be damned if the opportunity to capture the moment passed undocumented. He told me it was not a good idea. He was not personally opposed to it, but should the guards or minders in the vicinity catch me doing it, they’d confiscate the camera or, minimally, demand a manual review of the pictures and delete anything taken inside the church. I asked him why all the fuss. Even KISS – a machine that guards its copyright and any money-making ventures attached to it rabidly – allows you to take handheld and cell phone photos in its concerts now. If Gene Simmons can relax, what’s with the Rwandan authorities? Gabriel told me authorities feared photos taken could later be sold for profit, a profit that would remain outside Rwandan.



I asked Gabriel if he could think of a way around it. He spent the following hour making calls to people he personally knew in the ministry of tourism, but the best he half-solution he could muster was an unreasonably gargantuan bureaucratic hurdle: I’d have to personally visit the ministry… Seek exceptional audience with a particular staffer… Fill out a special permission slip… Submit it for approval… Then wait for approval… And they didn’t open ‘til Monday, two days later. At any rate, there was no way to tell how long it would take to obtain approval. In a system seemingly designed intentionally to filibuster and thwart photographic endeavor, I didn’t fool myself that even the most articulate and heartfelt explanation would meet with understanding and a speedy resolution. Really, this seemed a torturously long avenue to obtaining blessing for a handful of personal pictures. I took the added measure of speaking directly with the guards and offering to make a grander-than-average “donation” to the site if they’d let me take photos. They refused. I offered to put the “donation” directly into their hands for, of course, onward passage to the ministry. Still they declined. I explained in detail to them my plan to educate and sensitize peers, colleagues, and family back home about Rwanda’s history. And thrice they denied me. I squeezed off a few shots while no one was looking anyhow, and made a mental note of the ones I’d get if afforded a serendipitous return trip to Nymata.

SAM_3547I returned the next day. This time, though, I flew solo. I took a local bus to Nyamata then walked the two miles to the church. This was no small feat, given the haranguing I withstood once in Nyamata, assailed by every moto-taxi driver and unoccupied tour guide within what felt like the national radius, all of whom made compelling – but ultimately failed – arguments about not only why I needed a ride to the site, but sadly predicting that my second-hand experience of the Rwandan genocide would never be complete unless I were accompanied by someone speaking to me broken English and charging another 50 dollars for the luxury. I politely declined. Once I made it to the church, I was relieved to find no guards or minders. The gates were open and I was free to enter. I spotted one tour guide with two white women, otherwise the facility was abandoned. My lucky day. But as I made it to the church’s busted rusty gates, the sole guide present intervened, stepping into my path and testily interrogating, “Excuse me, but don’t you need someone to help you?” No thanks, I don’t. He would not let me pass. “Don’t you know the rules here? Why don’t you want a guide?” I asked him if he was the police or site authority. He answered no. I asked him if there was a regulation against me touring the building alone. He again answered no. So I asked him what the problem was. He said there was no problem. I asked him why he was blocking me. He said he wasn’t blocking me. I informed that he appeared to be, and that this suggested there was a problem. Through very clearly gritted teeth, he stepped aside and I passed.

SAM_3423Once inside, I found an isolated vantage point in a corner of the cathedral and starting snapping way. I had perhaps a two-minute window in which to accomplish this, as the guide was hung up outside completing his initial tour of the exterior for the tourists under his auspices. Once they entered, he fixed a hostile gaze upon me the remainder of the time we were both there. He knew what I was doing. Now, was this on the same criminal level as pilfering nuclear secrets, and did I have anything serious to fear? Not even close. But did I want to stick around too long and risk being confronted again or, even worse, guards actually showing up and demanding to review my camera? Absolutely not. So after getting what I came for, I exited the building with all haste and returned to the Nyamata bus terminal and ultimately Kigali.

If the available literature, both from the government itself and independent sources like Lonely Planet, say a specific museum or memorial site is free and open to the public, then it should be so. One ought not have to explain to aggravated, over-zealous minders why one has arrived without the services of a tour guide if not required. One should not be barred from taking photos of a non-professional variety, should not be forced to pay (or feel compelled to offer a “donation”) for the opportunity, and should not live in fear of a camera being confiscated. You have invested significant time and resources to get there, you are clearly using a handheld point-and-shoot non-industrial digital camera or cell phone, and you’re hardy a professional photographer anyway. The lackluster and uninspired quality of your ceaseless array of martinis-with-cheesing-colleagues photos on Facebook is testament to that fact. So it’s hard to imagine you converting your genocide memorial keepsake photos – admittedly macabre though they are – into anything beyond mere educational tools for friends and family back home. Though I could never possibly relate to what happened to the Rwandan people, I’m truly sorry it did.  I’m sorry we in the West did nothing to stop it (though whether we could have, short of a full-scale invasion, will remain a question of history). But, please, reconsider the obstructionism and occasional bullying. It’s unnecessary, leaves a bad taste in the mouths of well-meaning visitors, and considering the billions of dollars Western governments consistently contribute in aid to the Rwandan people, a few photos is little to ask in return.

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The Rwandan Machete Excursion: Definitely Not Living Brazilishly

…wherein we learn how the throwing of metal horns broke the ice and led to a memorable encounter between a wayward American and machete-wielding Rwandan possible genocide perpetrators; and a brief treatise on how collectivist cultures have been unfortunately usurped by governments to instigate the commission of unspeakable horrors.

I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda on an exceptionally late-night Ethiopian Airlines flight out of Kampala, Uganda. Pulling into the cheapest hotel I could muster (and by cheap, I mean it has Wi-Fi yet, in a seeming contradiction in technological terms, offers not a solitary power outlet in my room) and slept until 8 AM. I awoke to the sound of straw brooms, dozens of them in the aggregate, their syncopated brushing cadence crooning a soft chorus on the streets below, the melody wafting thru my open window and, for some reason I can’t explain, giving me the ticklish feeling of a Q-tip digging deep in my ear.

Chatting up hotel reception before heading out a few minutes later, they informed me that on the final Saturday of every month, all Rwandans are compelled to clean their public spaces. They mandatorily labor from 7 to 11 AM in a government-mandated program known as muganda, taking to the streets and tidying the sidewalks, parking lots, common gathering places like plazas, and anything else not considered private spaces. Local commissars oversee (read: compel) the participation of members of every community. If they sleep in, feel lazy, or for some other reason simply aren’t particularly civic-minded, community members are fined 5,000 Rwandan Francs (roughly 8 USD); and if too poor to pay, the commissars see to it that a make-up cleaning session is rapidly arranged, and again local authorities are there to ensure compliance. Indeed it is true: gas or grass, but nobody rides for free.

Rwandans are quite serious about this cleaning business. Nothing was open, there were no cars roaming about, no moto-taxis whizzing thru the melee and haranguing me to take a ride, no casual strollers, nothing. Just people cleaning, dutifully and diligently. I began walking up the street, marveling at the silent industry of it all, when I came to an embankment at roadside. It overlooked a vacant lot that was full of people, around 40 Rwandan men with machetes striking down a considerable overgrowth.

They labored, their faces adorned with supreme concentration and submission to the task. They perspired, striated muscles tensing with every downward blow, knuckles knotted like stones atop fingers airlessly clutching their instruments. The men were bringing down their machetes with a fury and vengeance I would not normally have associated with removing weeds from a vacant lot. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to take things like yard work with less gravity. But these men, no. They didn’t fatigue, and what’s more, their movements were in perfect union: the wavelength of their brutal and incessant synchronized rhythm was not dissimilar to heart cells coming together in a petri dish and gradually assuming the same beat.

Over the last 15 years, though not a farmer myself, I’ve developed somewhat of an expertise on the art of the machete. I’ve been to enough places and seen enough folks in action with this most ancient of cutting tools that, indeed, I can distinguish chicken crap from chicken salad. And let me say here and now that I didn’t even see machetes move so fast in El Salvador over a decade ago, when the country was still largely agricultural and folks there, even the ones choking the country’s too-densely populated urban centers, toted machetes around as a matter of daily course. The Rwandans had practically taken flight, their rusted gray blades a helicopter propeller’s blur in the crisp morning air.

I don’t have to spell out for you what the sight brought to mind. I’d assess that most of the men there were between 30-40 years old, which means the ones on the greater end of that spectrum would have been sufficiently old enough in 1994 to participate in the three-month enduring Hutu genocide of the Tutsi ethnic group, which killed roughly 800,000 people while permanently disfiguring and displacing scores more. This extermination campaign effectively cut Rwanda’s population by a full tenth. In Kigali alone, mass graves hold the mortal remains of 259,000; and I use the word “remains” loosely, since in many cases the corpses were first so brutally hacked, then left to rot so long – accordingly subject to the rapacious appetites of stray dogs and birds of carrion and a quadrillion predator insects – that by the time the killing came to a halt and the bodies were recovered and catalogued, little often remained but a femur or cranium for a man, woman, or child who just three months prior had been a breathing human being. I will also add here that while I’m not an expert in tribal or ethnic distinctions on the African continent, my understanding is that Hutus are shorter and darker than Tutsis. Quickly glancing over the lot and the men slashing about in it, I concluded that they certainly fit this admittedly stereotypical description. And so it was entirely likely, therefore, that a number of these men were low-level genocide perpetrators.

I observed them for five minutes collectively bludgeoning the ground (if this sounds like a short period of time, then I invite you to have a go at five minutes of unabashed machete work yourself) before one of them stopped and looked up. He didn’t even say a word. Yet he did not need to make a sound, for I clocked off a mental “3 Mississippi” before all 40 had stopped and began staring at me as well. It was like a human version of a YouTube video going viral, a meme spreading thru the group, without a word being spoken betwixt them. So if the rhythm of their machetes was locked in unison, so too were their stares a group endeavor. It was so sudden that I barely had a chance to register that I now had, from my vantage spot on the embankment, the absolute and undivided attention of this entire lot of machete-wielding men. I didn’t feel threatened; that’s not my point. They were merely stuck in a bout of compulsory labor and braking to gawk at the muzungu, who was likewise gawking back at them.

At an impasse, and cognizant that one of us had to blink first in this impromptu staring contest, I did the first thing occurring to me: took off my shades, threw up metal horns and greeted them with a hearty, “Hey dudes!!!” And I was greeted in return with a friendly whoop that exploded from the group all at once. A few of them tried throwing metal horns back at me, even, and I saw one of them gingerly correcting another who was doing it with the wrong fingers; he’d given me an Aloha sign instead. And so channeling the late Ronnie James Dio, the ice was broken by metal for this brief and alien moment, a wayward American and a band of machete-wielding possible genocide perpetrators. They did not return to work. They waited – as did I – for what would come next. So I threw them a “thumbs up”, and the whole group threw one back simultaneously. Both their timing and delivery were impeccable, evincing the same group cohesion they did with the chopping, staring, and metal horns.

Officially out of hand gestures, except for throwing up my middle finger (and I was NOT going to do THAT), I shrugged. One of them, near the middle of the mass, held up a garden hoe and said something in either the local language or Swahili – I’m unsure which – and his gestures and broad grin suggested he was asking me if I wanted to clean at their side. I’m in. I sprinted down to the lot, seized the hoe, and began. But they were chuckling; I was not sure why at first, since though I’m certainly no master gardener, I’m sure I know how to handle a hoe. After a moment, one of them spoke to another in French and I thought I heard the word “woman” in the mix. So now this had become a yardstick for masculinity, with a hoe being a lesser tool and the machete being the surefire barometer of a man’s fortitude. So I put down the hoe and pointed at a machete, and they commenced SCREAMING with what I could only describe at a sort of joy; did I pass the test, whatever it was? I bade them back up, and began hacking for all I was worth at the grass in front of me, praying to God that I didn’t cut off my own foot in the process of illustrating the size of my my macho. A few men who were coalesced in my most immediate vicinity scrutinized my technique and began offering advice. Though I did not understand a word they spoke, they touched my right arm, used their hands to attempt correction of my striking position, and made me go slower, guiding my motions. One of them, his own fearsome machete resting on his shoulder whilst he smirked, finally intervened, making me step aside and observe him as he hacked the bejesus out of the brush before us, demonstrating how it’s done. Just standing there, I could feel the wind generated by the force of his machete strikes raining down. At that precise second, a single thought occurred to me and it was this: can you imagine being on the business end of that? And the second thought that occurred to me was that, sadly, it’s quite possible a number of people found that out the hard way.

Eventually, the activity stopped and we all stood around in a circle, awkwardly smiling and making repeatedly failed attempts at communication. A young-ish guy, probably in his early twenties, approached me then, materializing in the group as if dropping from the sky, greeting me in passable English and even using the word “cool” in his opening sentence. He was dressed like any young American hip hop fan; both his brow and clothing were dry, so I divined he was simply a passerby who saw the scene, assumed he’d at least get a chance to practice his English, and came on down. Finally dispensing with formal niceties, he asked me if I needed help, if I was doing okay; I responded that I was fine. Then he, sensing that perhaps I’d benefit from an explanation of everything happening, began. I’m paraphrasing here, but the essence is accurate: “The president said we must avoid what happened in the past. Rwanda needs to be unified. Now we just have one major political party, and the opposition is very small and doesn’t matter. Since President Kagame controls the whole country [note he didn’t say whole government, but whole COUNTRY], he can get things done with no problem. Rwanda is very small and we are efficient people who follow orders well. So when he said we must work, and said we must clean, we know we must do it without question.” I had previously heard that for numerous reasons, Rwandans are methodical about following instructions from authorities. Now I was beginning to see how that manifested in real time.

At this point, two drunken men broke crashed the scene. They were messes, reeking of alcohol, and judging by the unfavorable odors seeping seemingly their every pore, I’m inclined to believe hadn’t bathed in a fortnight. Laughing and staggering, they each took to one side of me, and began jutting their hands into my pockets, saying something that included the English word “money”, for all intents and purposes rifling me for cash. The assembled machetes fell deathly quiet silent at that moment, assumedly sensing trouble. No smiles, no talking, just watching and waiting. I pushed one of the drunks away and stepped back from them both, gingerly smiling to keep things cool but telling them to stop. This was a pucker-factor-ten moment; I didn’t wish to piss off a group I assumed would side with another Rwandan over me. But I also could not let lushes lay hands upon my person and try to yank cash from my shorts, since what good would it achieve beyond showing me to be a lamb, intrinsically vulnerable to other wolves amongst them?

Enter a savior: my new twenty-something friend said but a few quick sentences to the drunks, speaking in hushed tones and, judging by the nodding heads around me, to the general agreement of all present. The two men immediately laid off, backed away, and smiled. I asked him what he said to cause such an abrupt change in their posture, and in his slow and accented drawl he explained, “I told them you are a visitor in our land and they are showing indiscipline. And this is bad.” That was all it took to stop them. Then two cops materialized out of nowhere, grabbed the men by their arms, and hastily led them away. To this, my friend said, “They will spend 3 days in jail to learn a lesson. The police will punish them.”

So I’d been on the streets of Kigali for fewer than two full hours and already felt I’d unlocked the key to explaining the genocide. First, a culture favoring collectivism, with tremendous peer-pressure to act according to specific behavioral guidelines, especially when anything involving the tribe or kin is at stake. Second, a bizarrely uncommon efficiency built into Rwandan culture, by which they are able to achieve results incredibly rapidly. Third, a strong individual work ethic which, when injected into a group context, focuses group members to the extent that they get tunnel vision and see task completion to be the only worthwhile goal, without necessarily questioning the task itself or the methods by which it is being completed. And fourth, a top-down institutional capacity sufficiently robust to compel community members to carry our orders to the letter. The combination of these fou can be applied for social good like collective cleaning, or for social evil like the Tutsi extermination in 1994.

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