2014 in review: I ate a frog in Beijing and it was delicious

As I say “goodbye” to 2014 and “hello” to 2015, I want to look back at this year and appreciate it for what it was, an ‘Annus Interesse’ (an interesting year). Yes, it had its challenges, but on the whole, it was a year that was full of learning experiences. And I largely blame (and thank) China for that.

Bull frog stew. Yummy

Bull frog stew. Yummy

Ever eaten something that you thought you’d never let pass through your mouth? Well, I happily munched on a spicy frog, dripping in spice and oil. And to my surprise it was delicious; the Chinese were on to something here. I did however refuse to take a bite of sheep’s penis; my masculinity simply wouldn’t let me. Others who tried it however found it delightful and oddly crunchy.

Eating the frog was huge for me. As all of us know, Rwandans are extremely conservative people. We like what we like and don’t tell us different. I mean, look at our national cuisine, boiled sweet potatoes and beans; it is as bland as bland can be.

Living in Asia opened my palate to new tastes and flavors. Don’t get me wrong though, I still have the food preference of a villager. Give me my starch, meat sauce and legumes and I’m happy.

Yes, thats me, eating a frog

Yes, thats me, eating a frog

I went hiking. Yes, me. Hiking. I spent half the day trekking up a mountain and the Yunmeng Mountain Forest Park, sweating profusely and wishing death upon the person who convinced me to come with them. And guess what? Standing close to the summit (I never made it to the top, I won’t lie) and looking at the breathtaking view, I realized that it would be one of the memories that I would keep to my dying days.

Mind you, there were some memories that were deleted as quickly as possible. The pollution, the cold dry winter, the hot dry summer, the crammed subway system, the unsanitary restaurants and the people who shamelessly pointed at me and giggled. But all in all, the experience opened my eyes and helped me embrace further the differences that make us, human beings, so interesting.

Hiking in majestic Yunmeng

Hiking in majestic Yunmeng

Beyond China, 2014 was the year that reiterated to me the power of the pen. I will not bring up the noise pollution debate because there is no point flogging that horse any longer, it’s long dead. However, through a few blog posts I was given the opportunity to meet and discuss the issue with Kigali’s highest official.

On countless occasions people have walked up to me and thanked me for writing a piece on topic ‘such and such’. “Thank you for speaking for us”, they often say. What I often wondered was, why were they waiting to be spoken for? Social media is free. Blogs don’t cost a thing.

So while 2014 has showed me that my voice counts for something, perhaps 2015 can prove to be the year that hundreds more voices are heard as well. More Rwandans need to be talking about the issues that are important to them.

New Year’s Resolutions are a huge deal nowadays but I try to avoid them like the plague. They are usually impossible to attain and the entire exercise makes one feel like a failure in life. However, if you do make one, I wish you the very best of luck. Have a great, and safe 2015 and may you enjoy all the blessings in life. And please, don’t drink and drive tonight. Let no one lose his or her life or suffer harm right on the cusp of the New Year.

Find your voice in 2015, don’t be a victim

Over this weekend I gave myself an early Christmas present and spent the weekend in our very own resort town, Gisenyi (or Rubavu if you want to nitpick) with a few friends.

Stand up!, Speak up! Fight for your rights!

Stand up!, Speak up! Fight for your rights!

Other than the torrential Saturday afternoon rain storm and the early Sunday morning disco music that annoyingly started at 6 am and ended at eight (perhaps the Gisenyi-area police hasn’t yet jumped on the noise pollution bandwagon; methinks they should) the trip was uneventful. That is, until it was time to get back to Kigali.

The Kigali Coach bus ride from Gisenyi to Musanze was as scenic as usual and as we entered town a light drizzle started coming down. It was then that I noticed something peculiar, the driver wasn’t engaging the bus’s windshield wipers.

I didn’t think much of it as we stopped at the bus park and dropped off and picked up more people. By this time the light rain was coming down a bit harder.

As we were about to embark on the second leg of the journey, and with dusk settled in, I saw someone working in the bus company’s employ do the strangest thing. We took a handful of washing detergent and spread it liberally on the windshield. And without much ado we were off and still the wipers didn’t work.

I got more and more nervous until I couldn’t hold it any longer. “Why aren’t you using the wipers”, I asked the driver loudly. “Their fuses blew”, he said, “but don’t worry, I’ve talked to one of my fellow drivers and he told me that there is no rainfall in front of us”.

To say I was shocked would be an understatement. I ordered him to stop or I would call the police. He parked by a nearby petrol station and then, amazingly, tried to convince me that everything was okay. What made it even more amazingly shocking was the behaviour exhibited by the bus’s other passengers.

The majority of them remained mum and one even had the guts to tell me stop complaining and to get off the bus. “Stop spoiling it for the rest of us”, he sneered, “why are you imposing yourself on us”?

Finally the driver, in a huff, drove back to the Musanze bus park and we disembarked and got on another bus. During the entire five or so minute exchange, only one woman actually spoke up in my defense.

Interestingly enough, it rained cats and dogs the entire journey. It would have been impossible, nay suicidal, to drive without wipers. This driver was willing to risk not just our lives but his own, as well, in the hope that his friends understood meteorology. The loud-mouthed fellow? Nary a peep from him.

This got me thinking, why did no one else raise an alarm? I know I wasn’t the only one who felt uneasy. I believe that this was an example of two character traits that many Rwandans exhibit; an unhealthy respect for authority and the fear of raising one’s voice and standing out from the crowd.

If we look back at our history as a people, this national trait has caused us nothing but pain and heartache. We see what is wrong, but we then hide our heads in the sand and hope that whatever storm is on the horizon will leave us whole. But as our history has shown, those storms rarely do. You’d think that we’ve learnt our lessons, but something tells me we have a long, long way to go.

We should feel hopeless however, for we are the change we have been looking for. 2015 can be the year that we, individually, make a change. 2015 should be the year we find our voices.

It should be the year we stop accepting poor standards. It should be the year we stop meekly accepting policies that are thrust on us without proper consultation.

We always talk about how ‘we deserve better’. But we often forget that unless you agitate and fight for the rights you deserve, they will not be handed to you on a silver platter.

Black in America: an African’s view

black-lives-matter

I’ve never been to the United States and I honestly have little desire to. Yes, a lot of Africans think that its streets are paved with gold and life is so much better over there; but the truth is, to live the American Dream as a black African and especially as a black man, certain trade-offs will have to be made. Trade-offs that are not mentioned in US embassy brochures and Hollywood movies. And if you turn a blind eye to these trade-offs, you will be in a whole lot of trouble.

For example, as a black man you must embrace the fact that you will be deemed a criminal by most of American society. It doesn’t matter if you are an honours student in Georgetown University, come from a well-respected family back home and mind your own business. As long as you are walking in the wrong neighbourhood, which is honestly any neighbourhood that isn’t minority-dominated, you will be seen as a potential criminal to be avoided and feared.

Following the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the US race-relations conversation was dominated by African-American voices. And although the voices of the African diaspora were not heard on mainstream media, social media platforms gave them the opportunity to air their views.

Commenting on why he loved jogging in Rwanda, as compared to the US, a member of the African diaspora wrote on Facebook that he didn’t have to deal with the spectre of irrational white fear.

“Firstly, I can jog at night and not be confused for a thug running away after a crime. Secondly, I can wear a hoodie if I want to and not seem like a threat, and thirdly, people don’t see me coming and simply decide to cross the street and walk on the other side.”

Commenting below the first post, another member of the diaspora went even further. Talking about what he had to do to overcompensate for his blackness, he sounded frustrated.

“I realise how hard I try to make it clear I’m educated and non-threatening. EVEN IN THE OFFICE. Like my peers worry at some point I’ll break out and be ‘black’ – because my behaviour is predetermined and I have to be educated out of it. Phrases like ‘You speak so well’, ‘Well, you understand because of your background’, ‘I’m not racist but you’re different’ and ‘You make me proud’ are heart-breaking.”

What I find interesting about these two comments is that both commentators take it for granted that they will be racially profiled and discriminated against. And that is what I think is the major difference between African-Americans and Africans, both at home and abroad. African-Americans on the whole want to fight the racist system, while Africans in the US often just want to survive the racist system.

Thinking that the US and other Western societies will ever become post-racial is a pipedream. No matter how many marches and protests. In a few weeks there will be another act of violence against someone of colour. Nothing will change, no matter what we want to tell ourselves. Which is why I always tell friends moving to the States to tiptoe carefully through the minefield that is America, lest they become another statistic. If you want to act normal, I tell them, do it back in Africa.

Media shouldnt blame government for press censorship, they should blame their empty stomachs

African-stories-Kampala-blog-thumprintThe Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a self-appointed media freedoms watchdog, this week published its annual report on the state of the media in Rwanda, and as I have come to expect, they shrilly voiced an opinion that I could not agree with at all.

Reading through the two thousand word summation of the ‘state’ of Rwanda’s media, I couldn’t help but laugh at the manner in which the report’s author, Anton Harbor, twisted himself up, trying to blame the state for my fraternity’s troubles. He grudgingly admits that a major set of media reforms have been enacted, such as the Right to Information and media self-regulating law, that have made it easier to practice our profession. He admitted that there was not a single journalist in jail for doing their work, although it did not stop him from regurgitating old news about killings and arrests almost half a decade ago.

But what he can back to, over and over again, was just how much members of the Rwandan media censor themselves. The Chairman of the Rwanda Media Commission is quoted saying, ““Self-censorship is flowing like blood in the arteries and veins. There is no censorship, but there are things that journalists don’t do because they are not confident of what will happen. We are not valued as a profession”.

Another independent journalist (whatever that moniker means) is quoted thus: “My site has been closed down 10 times, and then they just closed my IP address. I have been taken five times to a secret prison and questioned for hours. So I had to negotiate with them, and we made a compromise. Having some sources in the military, they tell me when they have issues, and when pressure rises I take down my site to break down the pressure.”

I want to examine the latter quote and point out the simple inconsistencies. This journalist wants to tell me that he is driven to a secret prison (lets pretend that there is proof that they exist) and then let off with nary a scratch after negotiating his way out of trouble? I don’t know about the rest of you, but if indeed we have secret prisons, I cannot think of why they would want that journalist in question. Looking at his online publication, I see it dominated by foreign news, local press releases and gossip. For example, if you read his paper, you will discover that ‘Somali women are most beautiful ladies in Africa’ (that’s an actual headline).

I am not calling this particular journalist a liar; however, our profession has been besieged by mercenary-types, looking for a quick buck and a quick visa to the West. So, forgive me if I take his testimony with a pinch of salt.

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Now lets examine the topic that the CPJ report harped on and on about: our media’s propensity to self-censor. I for one don’t think that blaming the State for self-censorship is fair; we need to be truthful about the economics of running a media house. A media house is a business, first and foremost. It doesn’t matter how well- researched your articles and how hard hitting they are; if you are unable to pay your bills you will not survive. Its all about advertising and sales. That’s the nature of the business.

So, if you live in a country where the State is the biggest economic player (such as ours), it is common sense that you gear your content to what your biggest advertiser wants. You cannot spend all day rabidly hammering (often unfairly) the very entity that you then go, cap-in-hand, to get money from.

What some of us have called self-censorship, I call common sense. So, instead of playing for the galleries, let us be honest with ourselves. We CHOOSE to censor ourselves NOT because we are worried about being sent to jail but because we are too dependent on one source of revenue, the government teat.

The image of the state, muzzling the press is simply untrue. All we have to do is look online and see what exactly unfolds in the blogosphere. I, personally, have written hard-hitting posts and I have named names. I have started online petitions and questioned some people’s intelligence. Have I ever received a single threatening call from an irate official (never mind a drive to a secret prison)? No. Actually, funny enough, I’ve often later had great working relations with most of them.

Instead of crying self-censorship and complaining about government ads, why don’t you give the public what it wants? An interesting, well-researched story that impacts their lives. They will then BUY your product. Why don’t you stop depending on the mega advertisers and instead work on getting more SME’s to invest in your product? Why don’t you embrace the online world?

I can bet you all one thing; as soon as there is a large enough private sector that is willing to spend some advertising dollars, we will see the end of ‘self-censorship’.