Exposures


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The Pygmies – The Tua

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
Rwanda

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We travel down a bumpy, muddy clay road going through smaller and poorer villages until we see a barefoot woman sitting outside of a mud and clay hut, making a pot. The Tua (or pygmies) comprise only 1% of Rwanda’s population. They are the poorest in the country and JP told us they will want money. This is such a dilemma in traveling.

We do not encourage “begging”. JP once told us when boys were asking for money that if we gave them something, it would not only encourage more “asking”. They would quit going to school. He said little children show off their cute smile and get coins but as they grow up, their cuteness wears off and their only recourse is to turn to stealing. They end up in prison. JP told a great story about when he found one of these boys. He coaxed and threatened and even fed him breakfast everyday to get him to school. The boy is now finishing secondary school and has a scholarship for college!

So, back to the Tua. I use my IPhone to video the pot making. Hand built. They use the broken bottom of a round fired pot to turn the clay. No fancy wheel. As I video all the children start watching the camera as if it is a movie and all they need is popcorn. Once they figure out they are on film, the kids create a choir and the young women begin to chant and dance. They get Alex and me to dance and JP starts taking our picture. Quite funny! By the time we finish, we have attracted a huge group all expecting a “gift”. What to do? JP suggests giving to the head of village so he presents $50 USD – a small fortune! They cheer, and then bicker. Will there be a fight? Uh oh! What have we done? JP gets out of car and sets them all straight. Ah, a happy ending… We think!

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Leaving Rwanda – well, almost

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
Rwanda

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I woke up this morning sad to leave Rwanda. Sad for many reasons. I have been reading Philip Gourevitch’s book about the genocide. In it was yet another horrific description of barbaric behavior – using machetes the “genocedaires” would chop off each foot, each arm just to watch the suffering of the Tutsi. Think about Dian Fossey’s favorite gorilla named “Digit”. He suffered the exact same fate from the poachers. I put that fact together as I was laying in bed. I believe the gorillas have fared well with its $18 million revenue brought in by 25,000 visitors each year. I wonder if the Tutsi’s have done as well. I believe they have because of Kagame’s leadership and pragmatism. I read that Kagame was a Rwandan refugee in Uganda since the age of four so his wish was a sense of belonging for every person in Rwanda.

So my sadness around the genocide will always be a part of me. Today we visited JP’s family where I learned that his wife went back to her hometown to be with her parents only to have them murdered. She ran and hid in the forest for months. These families all carry so much loss… too much sadness hangs in the air like the mists hanging around the volcanoes.

I am sad to leave this landscape and its people. Ah, the countryside. Everyone is outside. Everyone is going somewhere. Everyone is carrying something – a baby on their back, a load of firewood on a child’s head, a mattress, a sack of potatoes, a plastic bowl of pineapples, a yellow water jug, and a hoe balanced just so. Most walk for hours long distances and others who have a source of income bicycle, take a motorcycle taxi or public buses. The men shake hands and the women shyly smile. The country is spotless because two years ago they banned plastic bags. Now they just need to work on car pollution. The politeness is impeccable. The “muzungu” (white person) curiosity everywhere. There is a mix of blue jeans and kanga cloth.

Rwanda is a tiny jewel of Africa with great leadership. If the hate can disappear then it will have a bright future.

I must end with another quote by JP, “My generation has to die of old age before we can be rid of the memories of murder.”

Oh, “the almost”? We made a huge mistake not confirming our flights. As punishment, we get to airport only to find out the flight doesn’t exist. The next flight is tonight at 1 am! Ugh! But we had a great day!

 


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Gorillas

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
Rwanda

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Our guide for the gorilla trek, Frances, tells us we will be visiting the Amohoro group of 18 (which means ‘peace’ – befitting Rwanda’s thinking for its future).  The largest gorilla group, called Susa, has 35 members. There are 10 habituated groups and 4 or 5 others. The park divides visitors into groups of 8 people. We trekked with a Canadian, Australian and a Brazilian couple. To get to the trailhead, we have a 4-wheeler that goes on the worst rocky road ever with villagers everyday watching the rich parade up the volcanoes. There are 25,000 visitors a year @ $750 per person for permits. This is not counting paying porters and tips for guides and hotels, drivers, food and buying handicrafts. One has to feel good about this because it supports the economy, protects the gorillas and proves that Dian Fossey’s work and murder was not in vain. There has been no poaching for ten years.

After bumping along, we arrive at the start and hire 2 porters dressed in blue jumpsuits. They very politely introduce themselves. In true ‘You are Loved’ form, my porter is named Valentine. He was so very sweet, holding my hand on the steep ups and downs! We are given a well-worn walking stick and start!

We begin by going through fields of daisies used to make pyrethrum insect repellant. It was heavenly. Potato blossoms and children yelling “hello, hello”!

We are joined by 3 guards with guns to protect us from buffalo and the occasional elephant. But the real threats are not animal but vegetable… stinging nettles taller than me and giant thistle (along with bamboo) are the favorite foods of the gorillas. We climb for 2 hours. Our guide stops, tells us we are here, leave backpacks and get out our cameras. The first one appears. I am so overwhelmed by this experience, I start crying. To see this giant, healthy and happy, in its true environment and not trapped in a cement cage behind bars is quite stunning. Funny enough – I find myself not scared at all. They ignore us. I shot a lot of video. What did we see! A silverback pushing a tree trunk toward us to show who is boss.  A mother and tiny baby frolicking in the grass. Juveniles doing the monkey thing – swinging from branch to branch. The best was a huge male and female climbing and totally debarking a tree (for lunch!)

We were 5 feet away… Just watching for the allotted one magic hour! And like Cinderella, it was over! As we were going down, a guide asked “Are you satisfied”? I answered, “A thousand times yes!!!” These gorillas represented all that is possible… Especially in contrast to the rest of Rwanda’s past.

 


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Finding The Monkeys

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
Rwanda

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Nyungwe Lodge is literally plopped in the middle of a tea plantation. Early morning brings the pickers, wearing pieces of plastic used as an apron, plucking handfuls of the youngest light green leaves from the top of each plant. The young men and women throw the leaves behind into a woven basket. Sometimes the bottoms of the baskets are worn out and patched with red or green plastic netting.

We see all this as we are eating French toast with honey and fresh banana, and of course, Rwandan black tea!

We arrange to go see the Colobus monkey – shiny black with whiskers of white fur around the face and running down each arm. They have long tails that are used for balance, not to hang from branches. They never drink water… only eat leaves.

The babies were adorable – miniatures of their parents. The newborns are all white and cling to their mothers for dear life. The families spend their time eating and playing with each other, which sometimes lead to skirmishes of bared teeth. Eventually they swing from tree to tree to move on. (If the young are too small to swing through the canopy, they jump to the ground and quickly run to the next grove of trees.)

We watch for hours as if it is just another lazy afternoon laying in the tea fields with a women trekker nearby. It is one of those magic moments of travel. Not moving, just “being” with the landscape and what it has to offer… in this case, beautiful Colobus monkeys.

We get close and watch a juvenile pick leaves and chew them up. Sometimes they stare at us and give us a photo opportunity and sometimes they all have their backs to us. What must they think of us?

After getting a great view of the white baby with its mother and seeing eye-to-eye through binoculars, we head back to the lodge for a beautiful lunch. I take a swim in the infinity pool set next to the forest and then join the family to watch  “Gorillas in the Mist” – preparing for what everyone says is the highlight of our time in Rwanda.

Merry Christmas to All from Rwanda!


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Kamembe – Nyungwe Lodge

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
Rwanda

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Four minutes to the Congo. Armed, camouflaged guards at every block. A young pilot from US working for Doctors Without Borders was on our plane. He is in Democratic Republic of Congo where he said 10,000 foreign troops are stationed. JP lived there going to school for many years and said the country is in chaos and corruption.

We arrive to a dream of a place. Beautiful, very well run and perfect for Christmas!

 


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Learning About The Genocide

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
Rwanda

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“How can I ever Forgive? Really, it is absurd and anyone who says they can forgive is not being truthful to himself!” said by our guide and now friend, JP, after spending many days with him visiting the place he was shot, hid for almost 3 months, where his father was murdered, where they found his bones, the house the rest of his family died in, the church in town where 11,000 were killed with the blessing of the priest and the group grave where we paid our respects.

I just finished reading “Running the Rift” by Naomi Benaron – a novel that depicts this period of history. We had dinner with the director of the Kigali Genocide Memorial and Center and I was able to fact check what I was reading and found it was true down to every detail. I am now reading “We wish to inform you that Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families” by Philip Gourevitch.

As I drive through the countryside or go to a market, I wonder “who did what?” I imagine myself driving at night and being pulled over by my neighbors and friends – the very people I knew all my life and suddenly feeling the machete. Death! Instant… Wiping out my ‘belonging’ to this very country I thought I was a part of. I became a “cockroach” – a hated creature to be slaughtered.

I view myself as someone who can relate to suffering and offer understanding and support. In this country I have met my match! I have asked a thousand whys??? I keep reading about the history, the reasons written, and just like the Holocaust, I cannot relate to the horrific, senseless, violent, overwhelming action of genocide… a systematic plan to kill a “group” of men, women, and children. I told JP it is just too BIG- unthinkable. A human being is not made to process that much death, that much trauma, that much loss, so quickly.

And, so, as optimistic as a I am, as much as I believe in my own Project – “You are Loved – Pass It On”, how can I look JP in his eyes and not agree with him. This kind of murder with intent and ignorance seems unforgivable.

Life does go on! JP says, “I cannot put this aside, I must carry the loss and sorrow always with me… If I see my father’s murderer in the street and he greets me, I simply tell him to go away. I am not your friend or forgiver. Stay away from me as I might hurt you. I do not want to be a killer like you. I have my future and my wife and children.”

All of this talk of the genocide is the unspoken underbelly of the country. President Kagame has outlawed the distinguishing of Hutu and Tutsi and people do not speak of 1994. That is why it was so wonderful to have the opportunity to learn from JP. Rwandans are moving on with “living” – building, educating, and developing. Kigali is clean and modern and bustling!

 


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Leaving Home

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
Boston to Rwanda

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First, I want to explain what you probably will be reading. This will not be a travelogue. What I like to write are essays about concepts, put-togethers, serendipitous moments which help me explain to myself why I’m the lucky one – why I get to travel all over the world. Why me?

It started a few days before the trip began.  The tragic massacre of 27 innocent children and educators in Newtown, Connecticut at Shady Hill Elementary School took place.  The news of all those senseless murders broke my heart. I couldn’t shake it. The suffering of the victims and families was almost too much to bear. How does one’s heart ever recover? I believe this incident was the beginning of trying to understand senseless murder. Newtown would connect me to Rwanda – home of it’s own horrific, useless genocide where over one million died within a three month period.

Laying in bed feeling lousy with a stomach bug put me in a sullen mood and gave me space to think about the suffering in Newtown. It was as if this place led me to where I was going – to a land where I would witness a country trying to move forward from inexplicable hate and violence and loss just like Newtown will eventually do. We are going to be met in Kigali by JP who was featured in the documentary “Earth Made of Glass”, after losing 7 siblings and parents in the genocide. He was almost killed and then hid in a septic tank for two and a half months. His journey in the film is searching for the painful truth of what happened to his father.

So, I got on the plane and sat quietly weeping for Newtown and Rwanda. You see, I seem to understand suffering of others and try to help those who are dealing with pain and loss. Unfortunately, in this life, one cannot have joy or love without the opposite.

Which leads me to another story about suffering.

Dick and I had the good fortune to witness the Dalai Lama at MIT in Boston.

Dick was suffering from a kidney stone so it was quite the undertaking getting him to the venue. By the time I had parked the car, all the seats were taken and there was a moment of panic when I thought there was no place for me. We finally get settled. As I stared at the lavishly decorated stage where the Dalai Lama would be in just a few moments, I was suddenly overtaken by a deep sadness. Tears rolled down my face. Dick asked me what was wrong. I had no explanation. As I set there in a puddle of emotion, I felt as if all the suffering I carried and all the suffering I witnessed in the world finally found a home. I sat there allowing it a space. I felt, just like on the plane to Rwanda, that this was my purpose. As proof, when the Dalai Lama spoke to all of us in English, I could not understand a word he said. It was like the Tower of Babel.  It was as if my purpose with him had already happened.