Blog: Life and Danger in Rwanda

By: Marina von Stackelberg

Every morning I head into work and check Twitter to see what has happened in the region. There is always something. But I would probably not know about it if I didn’t go out of my way to check. Most people here just go about their lives. They get up, they drink coffee, they go on Facebook, they go out to the bar on Saturday night.

BY: MARINA VON STACKELBERG

Marina von Stackelberg is a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University. She writes from Kigali, Rwanda where she is working as an intern with the country’s first private television station, TV10.

East Africa has changed my understanding of danger.

Since being here, I have lived with regular warnings about the conflict in neighbouring Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

In recent months, things have flared up in the region and Rwanda is becoming increasingly involved.

When I first got here, there were two mortar bombs launched into northern Rwanda from the DRC, but no one was injured.

Then at the end of July, two grenades were set off at the bus station here in Kigali, killing three people and injuring over thirty. Just today, The New Times reported that members of the FDLR are taking responsibility for the attack. The FDLR is labelled by the U.S. and UN as a terrorist organization. The FDLR has been widely blamed for the 1994 genocide.

And then today, the U.S. temporarily closed its embassy in Rwanda, along with 18 others diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Northern Africa, over concerns of a potential terrorism attack from Al-Qaeda.

What I have learned from this is that danger is a relative thing.

When I told people back home that I was travelling to Africa, many were totally bewildered that anyone would want to come here.

But now that I’m in Rwanda, it’s really interesting to see how people view danger here. The day after the grenade attack at the bus station, the place looked the same as always: a swarm of people, buses, and dust. Someone is killed in one spot, and the next day there is a new person standing there, selling juice and magazines.

Every morning I head into work and check Twitter to see what has happened in the region. There is always something. But I would probably not know about it if I didn’t go out of my way to check. Most people here just go about their lives. They get up, they drink coffee, they go on Facebook, they go out to the bar on Saturday night.

It’s not just Rwandans who have this philosophy. I met a couple from the U.S. a few weekends ago who were travelling to Goma, despite it currently being a major conflict zone with hundreds of refugees spilling over into Rwanda and Uganda.

The Americans were headed there to see some friends. “The media exaggerates the situation there,” the guy told me. “Our friends there go salsa dancing at night.”

Driving by a refugee camp south of Kigali. Most of the refugees here are from the DRC.

Driving by a refugee camp south of Kigali. Most of the refugees here are from the DRC. Photo by Marina von Stackelberg

I’ve also changed my ideas of what a border means. Coming from a country that is as massive as it is calm, the concept of a border didn’t mean much to me. But here, a single line that some dude drew can be the difference between relative safety and absolute danger. Not long ago, Rwanda and Burundi were very much the same place. But during the genocide, the line between the two countries literally meant the difference between life and death. The smallest distances also make the biggest differences. A bus ride from Kigali to the violence in Goma takes less than three hours. In Canada, that wouldn’t even get me from Ottawa to Toronto.

It’s important to note that many agree that Rwanda is one of the most stable countries in Africa right now. This is in large part due to all of the international influence over the last 19 years. I think in many ways, Rwanda became the trendy country to give international aid too. It makes sense that the international community would want to support Rwanda, considering how it failed to help out in 1994. I feel quite confident that the Western world will not let anyone touch Rwanda. (This in itself is troubling considering the state of Rwanda’s neighbours.)

The calm and quiet streets of Musanze, a town less than an hour from Goma.

The calm and quiet streets of Musanze, a town less than an hour from Goma. Photo by Marina von Stackelberg

All of this has got me thinking for the first time about the relationship between risk and experience. Is it better to live a life where I am comfortable and safe, or one where I really see the world, even if it means I put my safety at risk? I think of the statistics. I am probably more likely to die in a car accident in Ottawa than I am by a grenade here.

I don’t know if I could become an international journalist, since it would probably cause both my parents a premature death. I’m pretty sure my mom is losing sleep and my dad is losing hair from me being here.

But I have gained a whole new respect for the storm chasers— those who go to the places everyone else is leaving. Those who go for human rights and relief work, and those who go for journalism.

I know one thing. I will not be afraid of much in Canada anymore. I also know that when I leave Rwanda, I will always care about what happens here.

And I don’t necessarily think that living in complete safety is really living.

Sorry mom.

You can read more about Marina’s life in Kigali at her blog: marinainrwanda.wordpress.com. Follow her on twitter @mvstackelberg.

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