Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Automatic Ugali Cooker

At 0008 Amajyambere Street, Kimihurura Hill I meet my African Friends. I think that it was really through them that I began to understand about Africa. There were three of them in the beginning: Ali who was from Nigeria and approached all tasks as though meditating; Bernard, the loquacious one who always had something to say with a smile and Patrick who was solid and reserved at first but opened up willingly once one gets to know him. The other two were from Kenya.

They came to Rwanda as volunteers, to teach Microbiology for Ali and Radiology for my two Kenyans. My education into African culture and life came at the stovetop. Like any good Malaysian I was interested only in food. Braving the inyenzi (roaches) I would enter the kitchen at supper time, when they cook. I never really saw Ali cook because he tended to all his tasks with solemnity and a look of prayer. However, I saw Bernard and Patrick cook many times. They inevitably would cook a meat stew, beans and of course the staple Ugali.

They Kenyans cooked Ugali using corn flour. They could not purchase the corn four they were used to in Kenya so they got a special import from a friend who grew up in the same village as Patrick. He worked within the transport industry and would bring goods from Nairobi to the Congo via Kigali. When he came to Rwanda, the boys would meet him. He would bring their Jugo brand corn flour. It came in a white paper bag emblazoned with a green and yellow cock on it. They used huge quantities to cook Ugali.

First you boil the water (or as Bernard would say "WAh-tar") then you added the flour until one gets the right consistency and one stirs furiously with a very large wooden spoon with a long handle. Vigorously.

Watching the boys, their intensity, their concentration, Patrick usually with a frown and muscles digging in, Bernard losing his usual wide smile to place even humourous effort into this important task of mixing the Ugali. This is serious work. They don't add anything else. Sometimes Ali adds salt to his Ugali.

"What? No spices?" I ask in disbelief, where was the fiery heat, where was my intricate balance of flavours, was this not just plain starch?

"No, you see, African's do not like spices."

Then I begin to understand, Africans like consistency. Their meat stew or with Matumbo (intestines - yes, you see this is not restricted to only the chinese), beans or some other vegetable that looks like kale, ugali. It is the constant sameness that comforts. Sometimes, the boys tell me, when they are at hotels, or in different restaurants, they seek the comfort of what they know: bananas, beans, ugali (if not present, then rice) and meat.

"You know, we do not like going to these places" - they refer to different restaurants.
"Eh, you never know" says Patrick, he clicks his tongue onto the roof of his mouth and tells me with disbelief about his father who was once served frog's legs. I tell him that I love frogs legs. They are horrified, even Africans don't eat frogs.

We talk about many things my African Friends and I. They tell me that the first child is never counted as the first born unless it is male, that women don't usually bring capital into a marriage so that these bachelors have to save up for years before getting married. They teach me to be patient at the heat, the slow pace of Philbert the houseboy and the transport. They always state with seriousness when I protest: "This is Africa". I only thought that line existed in movies. We talk about the higher pain threshold of Africans. "It is because Africans are used to famine, drought, heat and discomfort" states Ali matter of factly. We laugh over the lack of variety in their diet and at my search for chameleons in the garden. They laugh at how I bathe, with a basin and another bucket to throw the water over my head. It is Malaysian style not African style.

"What is African style?"
"We beat the water like a duck" laughs Bernard and in a concerted effort with Patrick, tries to get John a maxillofacial surgeon from Uganda to describe in a fantastic effort of verbal and physical action exactly how one "beats the water like a duck".

They teach me a few words of swahili, and we joke that Bernard should invent an automatic Ugali cooker when I tell them that I cook rice in an automatic maker. Bernard thinks this is a great idea until Patrick pricks his bubble of enthusiasm with the fact that most people in Africa are unable to afford an automatic Ugali maker but could hire a cook and general caretaker which would be cheaper. I take this all in, I try to taste it in my mouth, the consistency of this regular diet. The constantness must be comforting, to know that despite the irregularity of electricity, water, the temperamental weather, feast, famine, drought, pain and laughter, at the very end of the day, there would at least be Ugali, beans, vegetables, stew and no spice.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

To Listen

I thought it was unspoken. So I decided to search a little to try to comprehend the Genocide. I've read several books, dissertations on the subject, ruminations, opinions, thoughts, seen the pictures and the Genocide remains controversially an enigma to me.

I should have been truly listening.

I went to visit two genocide memorials last week with David. We were told to take a minibus but we don't know the system, so we weren't even sure that we would be going. In our guidebook it is a mere paragraph.

We ended up taking a taxi, very expensive but cost appprox $25 US per person and I'm glad we did. My rationale was that if we came then we should give the respect that such a site is due. It was very troubling. We went to Nymata first. Its a small town and the church there was the site of a massacre so large in scale that it is mind boggling. Thousands of people (estimated 10-20 thousand) went to the church for sanctuary, they were slaughtered there. The thing that touched me most was that by chance we had chosen to go on the anniversary of the massacre and there was a memorial service being held. Our presence after the interesting ride along red roads and marshes that lead to the Nile was not by chance. I do not believe in coincidences.

Thousands of people came to commemorate the memory of their loved ones. It was really poignant, the looks on some peoples faces, ranging from resignation to extreme silent grief. There was a room piled to the ceiling with clothing of the dead. Dark and musty, it was all that they wore. There were so many people milling around. You brushed those that survived and those that wish they didn't. My hands, elbows, shoulders, thighs, they were enveloped by people. There was a room with a glass cabinet full of skulls and femurs. Beneath this a coffin draped in white with a purple cross on it. A lady who was impaled. There was a guide who took us around, she only spoke Kinyarwanda and spoke to our driver, Patrick, who by chance happened to speak good French so he spoke to David who translated for me. The guide had short hair, a face that looked solemn and she walked with a fortitude that I found beautiful. In the church she pointed out the pulpit, the blood stained alter, the light that filtered through lacy holes in the aluminum roof made from raining bullets. She guided us to the alcove that would likely have been used for baptism. Against the wall, a dark stain, smooth rounded bricks and she illustrated with action how the interahamwe had taken babies and children and bashed their skulls and bodies against the very site. With grace, she took us down to a room, down steep stairs that were all uneven, peoples faces close by, more bumping and an underlying smell of dampness and something sweet which permeated the air. When my eyes adjusted to the dark it was like a living horror film. I had not expected it, I thought the glass case in its white trim and fluorescent lights were all there was to the memorial. That itself was horrific enough.

Rows and rows of grinning skulls, small, large, half missing. I had enough knowledge to be able to distinguish a bullet entry point, depressed skull fracture from a club, machete chop: coronal, axial, partially both directions. You name it. It was so hard, the sheer numbers of it overwhealms. The smell, the filtering light, the swallowed bitterness of the people, it made for an atmosphere that I can only describe as tragic. I choked on it and tried not to cry. How could I cry when the brave that surrounded me were praying for their loved ones and looked with eyes wide open? My heart physically hurts.

My comfort, my solace, the children. Beautiful, beautiful boys and lovely girls. Dark shiny skin, smiles that penetrated the occasion and uplifted me. They circled around us, called us muzungu fondly, and fondled my hair. It is useless explaining that I am half Chinese and all Asian. They only know black and muzungu. That is our only difference.

Patrick took us to another site, Ntarama. It was close by, there another 5-10,000 killed and their artifacts left in the church. Bibles, a childs book, clothing, the picture of a loved one, Bic pens, rosaries and the statue of a crucified Christ. My heart, my mind, my soul, it was crying in incomprehension. I took pictures, it was very difficult to do it at first because I had to get close. Patrick wondered why we were not taking pictures. There I took one of a skull with a metal arrow head still in it. I found it difficult, I could not focus through my tears, but after a while, it filtered the tragedy and my fingers stopped shaking and I could see through the lens a type of clarity. If the children and the sister, and brother and sons and daughters and mothers and fathers could forgive then what was there to understand? Perhaps it is not as simple as that. Perhaps one cannot call it forgiveness. All I see is that these people live together, beside each other, drink the same water and grow the same food. All there is to understand is only that love exists and persists and through sadness and anger and bitterness, it continues on. With these people, I see hope embodied.

Saturday, May 12, 2007


Sitting on a beach at Koh Samui 5 years ago I saw a man running across the white sand from one end of the beach to the other. He carried two baskets connected by a bamboo pole on his shoulders. He wore a conical hat, no sandals, shorts and a white shirt. He had food. I chased after him and managed to stop him in time. He comes over to where Troy and I sat and opened up his portable stove. He had grilled chicken, catfish with chili and my very favourite, Som tam. As usual, I asked for the papaya salad, spicy hot. He made it in front of my eyes: shredded papaya, some sauces, chili, lime and tiny dried shrimp. I sat intently and watched. While he was mixing the concoction in a mortar, I reached over and tried some, it was absolutely delicious. It only cost me 30 baht. Emboldened I asked, how much for the catfish?


"What, do you mean 30 baht?"


Then curious, I asked how much for the grilled chicken.


I wondered how it is that a salad costs the same as catfish and more unbelievably, the same as grilled chicken, and yet, there it was.

Rwanda is not so different from Canada. There are people who smile, some who take advantage and even those who cheat. The house is the same, the needs are the same, the demands...well perhaps more in the west. I am encouraged as I visit the country, there is no difference. The patients are the same, the surgeon's demands the same, the same postoperative concerns and the same look of sadness that persists near those who lay sick and possibly dying. The only difference, imperceptibly so, is the thin air of an unspoken but publically known knowledge - the Genocide. It infiltrates their thoughts, their dreams, their fears and their hopes. We went to the Rwanda Genocide Memorial today and I am struck by something presented there. At the start it is written:

"This is about our past and our futures;
our nightmares and dreams;
our fears and our hope;"

There is so much sadness, so much underlying conflict and a dense humility regarding the past and even with this, great hope for the future.

Be it Asia or Canada and yes, even Africa, it is all "Same-same".

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Journey's Eve

It was one final check before I left. One never knows, there may be an important message or request. So I opened up Mozilla, the page that automatically comes up was programmed in by Troy. He loves the news, checks it everyday while eating a bowl of Kellogg's with cold milk. Its CBC, front page:

"115 feared dead in crash of Kenya Airway's plane"

The plane was leaving from Abidjan on the Ivory Coast to Nairobi. It crashed in Cameroon.

I know that there is no connection, a twist of fate, mere lives blowing in the winds of chance or destiny, whatever way you look at it, its tragic. The second Kenya Airways flight to crash. The first in 2000 was also leaving from Ivory Coast. Apparently the planes are 6 months old.

I can't help but wonder, if this is an omen. A message, a foreshadowing for me. My Kenya Airways flight from Nairobi to Kigali leaves tomorrow. I can't help but take comfort in the knowledge that while I'm floating in a steel, tubular structure thousands of feet in the air, my mother will be at church saying a "Hail Mary" or two for me.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

An Answer

I've kept the trip to Rwanda mostly to myself. It was initially a possibility that was remote, a lot of planning and the likelihood of me going, quagmired with indecision. Recently, I have begun to tell more people about the trip. I'm excited, I feel as though I am on a precipice, a moment of truth, a hiatus in time where I'm at a crossroads and my decision will change forever the course of my life.

"Why Rwanda?"

Its a question that I frequently get asked. Sometimes its with a quizzical smile, others with a perplexed frown of incredulity. Usually, I speak of opportunities and what a great learning experience it will mean to me. Many of my co-workers feel compelled to warn me of the dangers.

"Its Africa....its dangerous", as though Africa truly was the "God-forsaken wilderness” that Joseph Conrad's character Marlow claims it to be. Then if that does not sway me, they add knowingly that "there was a genocide in Rwanda you know". Why this should dissuade me I'm unclear. For their gentle concern I am grateful. However, the simple question of "Why Rwanda?" has also made me truly think about it.

Since my father in law killed himself, I have realized that life is a series of opportunities. One may choose to grasp the good into intangible happiness or one may deny that happiness exists and choose to live in insecure moments of time. I choose to feel that happiness are manifestations of the opportunities that one claims for oneself. I choose my opportunities and I strongly feel that by going to Rwanda I am claiming yet another moment. Of course there is the ability to learn, to share and explore a different culture, to live on the massive continent and feel the rain on my face and the dirt beneath my feet. Yet, there is also a stronger calling, one that goes beyond the materialistic affects of the society I live in.

"It's extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with dull ears, with dormant thoughts."
Joseph Conrad - Lord Jim

There is also a deeper realization that exists. The feeling that one is never alone in this world. Like the theory of chaos, everything is interconnected and the butterfly fluttering at one end of the world can truly cause a hurricane. I feel strongly that my colleagues in Rwanda are not so different from myself. We share a sun, breath the same oxygen and laugh at the same stars in the sky. Should we not also share the same desires and secrets? The wish to learn, to progress and to grow?

"Why Rwanda?"

Here is an answer, I refuse to travel my journey with eyes half shut, with dull ears and with dormant thoughts. If this does not convince you, ponder another saying:
"Freedom is another word for nothing left to lose"
Janis Joplin - Me and Mr. McGee