Friday, June 20, 2014

HPU Summer Study Abroad 2014


 My name is Jason Bunderson. I am a graduating senior in International Relations at HPU and am finishing my program during a 6-week study abroad program in the Lake Victoria basin. As part of the study, I will be involved in a peace and conflict seminar focused on the 1994 Genocide and the ongoing Northern Uganda NRA-LRA conflict. I will be based in two major cities: Kigali and Gulu. My program began on June 11 2014, and for the past week I have been settling in to the city. I am also furthering my own personal study while in the country, and will reference my work occasionally. However, the majority of these posts will be focused around the program itself: how it functions, what we learn, and how peace and conflict can be defined in the context of the East African community.

Part I - Kigali

Kigali is like no city I have ever had the chance to visit. Large, modern skyscrapers surrounded by typical wall-to-wall shopping centers dominate downtown, but 10 minutes away you are surrounded by cornfields and adobe huts. There you are jostled by all sorts of people carrying large woven baskets of vegetables on their heads, but well-dressed university students wearing headphones and texting on their iPhones walk on the same streets. The city itself is built on a series of red hills, with marshy wetlands in the valleys between. The roads switchback up one side and down the other, and while many are paved with wide sidewalks, there remain neighborhoods connected by nothing but dirt tracks.

The people themselves are friendly, open, and a usually speak a little English or French. Everybody speaks Kinyarwanda. There are police stationed at every corner, and they are very helpful and good with directions. The military is also very good at patrolling the streets and keeping things safe, and Kigali hasn’t had any public attacks for over a year. The government has an ambitious plan set up for the city – they want to be wired for high-speed internet by 2020, and 4G wireless is already in place for some networks – and as a result, Kigali is one of the fastest growing cities in East Africa. The RPF rebuilt the country from ruins less than 20 years ago, and it has already created an efficient, well-maintained system of governance. Not everyone is happy with it, traditional landowners are being forced out of the city to make way for modern infrastructure (corn fields don’t work well in an urban environment) and the authoritarian government has some people on edge, but the vigor in the city is impossible to ignore.

Since I arrived in the city on Wednesday night, I have started my school program and have begun to acclimate myself a bit to local culture and mannerisms. The program is rigorous—school every day from 9 to 5—and I have little time to do my own work. This weekend, I hope to have time to put together my pre-conflict work and set up a study for this country. So far, I have focused mostly on the anthropological side of the country, and on getting to know the people and the local economy. Things are relatively inexpensive here. The bus charges 200 RWF (about .30 cents), a new phone and phone plan is about 7300 RWF (about $10), and you can get a buffet for about 2000 RWF (about $3). They eat the same thing for every meal, at least it feels that way. Everywhere I go, dinner is beans, rice, boiled potatoes, and either beef, chicken, or goat. Breakfast is untoasted bread, eggs (scrambled or fried), and/or cibati (a kind of deep fried pancake).

The next few weeks will be key to helping me understand the local climate and culture. My program is structured to give us until the beginning of July in Rwanda, and I will be living with a host family most of that time (starting last Sunday). The family is nice and the family environment is similar to most of the world. Both parents run a small phone shop downtown and are gone for most of the day while hired nannies take care of their four children: helping the girls get to school, cooking meals, and occupying the young twin boys. They have running water and electricity (most of the time), and their house is well kept.

As for the program, after orientation, the director of the program introduced us to the subject by taking us on a tour of the Genocide memorials in the country. The museum, built at the mass burial site for Kigali which still sees regular use, is unique. Apart from history, they have rooms dedicated to photos of the victims. Parents who lost children have created a room to honor them. Each child's photo is set on the wall, with a plaque underneath detailing their habits, favorite food, and cause of death. The number of children killed or forcefully aborted during the genocide is staggering, and the number of orphans, numbering in the tens of thousands, is impossible to comprehend. About 85,000 households were headed by a child under the age of 18 after 1994.

Following the museum, I was able to visit the churches in Ntarama and Nyamata. During the Genocide, the Tutsi population of these villages fled to the church for sanctuary. In the past, during the genocides of 1959, 1963, 1973, and the 1980s, these sanctuaries saved thousands of lives. In 1994, they offered no protection. It is estimated that at Ntarama alone over 5000 were killed. The churches were left undisturbed for several years as a memorial, and about 10 years ago the bodies were cataloged and their skeletons were set in endless rows as a gruesome reminder of those 100 days. In both sites, the cracked and bloodstained bricks where small children and infants were repeatedly thrown against the wall are still horribly visible. I took no pictures of these sites; the photos are freely available for anyone interested.

After this introduction, the class was visited by a local history professor who briefed everyone on the history of the country and the Arusha Peace Accords. I won't go into it here, but it is a fascinating study on internalizing a constructed external identity and speaks volumes on the nature of conflict and self-realization. This next week, the class will focus on Rwanda's response to the Genocide, their recent development, and their amazing recovery that ranks them among the most stable sub-saharan states in Africa.

To summarize, this first week has been hectic and harrowing. Rwanda is an endlessly fascinating country, and the people, culture, and history have me more engaged than any classroom could. I have learned more outside of class talking with locals than I have in the lectures, and the director is smart enough to bring that into play. As a study abroad, there is no place I can recommend more for understanding the nature of peace and conflict, and I can't wait for Uganda.

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