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TiTi Talks in Rwanda

Ms. Titi | October 22, 2019

About 3.5 yrs ago I was supposed to be flying from Entebbe, Uganda to Lagos, Nigeria. I missed my connect through Nairobi (long ass story) and the next flight with seats available was 3 days later! I wasn’t having that so the airline worked with me and found out that the next day a flight was available for me to fly from Kigali, Rwanda to Lagos direct so I hopped on the next flight from Entebbe to Kigali. I was in Kigali maybe 30 or so hours at the most, but I realized a few things 1) The folks were pleasant and very helpful, looking out for me at the airport and guiding me to close by eateries 2) I witnessed one of the most beautiful sunrises through the airport windows. (I now understand why that golden sun is a part of their flag)  3) This was a place that initially had not been on my radar, but I quickly had a strong desire to return.

(Sleep deprived in Kigali Airport 3.5 yrs ago)

I didn’t know much about Rwanda. Like most people, all I really heard about the country was always in reference to the genocide in 1994. I was only 12 yrs old when that happened and hadn’t heard much else since. Being a self proclaimed Pan-African, history buff, now almost 37 yrs old and very leery of how African countries are portrayed by the west, I knew I had to take it upon myself to investigate this country in a deeper, more meaningful way. Just as African-American history did not begin with slavery, the history of Rwanda did not begin (or end) with the genocide in 1994. In fact, I see it more as interrupted Rwandan history. There are some superficial things that I love about Rwanda. The landscape is breath taking (check out this Beautiful Day in Kigali), the weather is delicious, and Kigali is indeed the cleanest city I’ve ever been to in Africa. But there is so much more……..

Prior to coming, a friend of mine (Hey Krysten), reached out to me and let me know that she had a friend (Hey Autumn) who was living in Kigali and encouraged us to link up. I did link up with Autumn for dinner at a cozy hilltop restaurant called The Hut. The food and drinks were delicious and Autumn and I played the best game of 6 degrees of separation, LOL! We had so many mutual friends and acquaintances that its a wonder how we never met until then. Even though we only met up once, she kept in contact with me giving me restaurant recommendations, sending event fliers, and even guiding me through a last minute fabric run (cuz a sista needs her fabric). I truly appreciated all of that! We will have to link again soon!

(Autumn and I before hopping into our respective taxis after dinner)

I’m a physical therapist (PT) by trade. I treat all ages and ailments, but I have a special affinity for treating babies and children. In PT school (s/o to Florida A&M University School of Allied Health Sciences, Division of Physical Therapy) I was grad assistant to a therapist and professor who specialized in pediatrics. I took a liking to it and she helped to inspire to me to take it more seriously. Once I became a licensed clinician she would call me on occasion to do some guest lectures for her classes so when she called me last year I thought it was for the same. The call this time was about going to do some physical therapy volunteer work in Rwanda. I was excited and honored to be asked to do this.

(Me working hard in the clinic with the chirrun in Kigali)

I kept the information in my pocket for a while, but when I started to tell people, the phrase “mission trip” kept coming up. It made me cringe. I have an extremely visceral response to the word/concept of mission/missionaries. I’m not necessary talking about on an individual level (although there are some major issues with that as well), but more an institutional level. Missionaries are used as tools of the oppressors to soften up the people so that the powers that be can exploit the natural resources of the land. Also, my plan was never to go to Rwanda to “save” anyone. My aim was for an exchange and a chance to interact with clinicians from another part of the world. There is an AWESOME tweet thread by @nowhitesaviors that explains why that word and concept makes my neck itch. Put some castor oil on your edges for this here read……. 

Before I fully committed to this trip I questioned myself in each point made in that tweet thread to make sure I wasn’t being a “missionary Molly”:

1) I was definitely qualified and I had useful training, experience, and specialization 2) It wasn’t a poor use of money, imo, especially since I support organizations in my country and I was also able to financially support and spread the word about an organization in Rwanda ( more on that later) 3) I was very intentional about making it not about me. So much so that I asked that the first few days in the field I observe so that I could see if I even had anything to offer. I then convened with the staff and asked them what they needed from me 4) I didn’t go into Rwanda thinking that people were just walking around “poor”. The way Skid Row and areas in the delta region are looking in the states I have absolutely no room to talk about anybody being “po” 5) I was definitely there for what Rwanda had and not what it lacked. One of the reasons I wanted to go back after my brief stint 3.5 yrs ago. 6) A future TiTi Talks episode will center a young Rwandan activist and entrepreneur. 7) I took a ton of pics and videos. I shared almost none of them 8) These “mission” trips are absolutely outdated. One of the reasons why I wanted to engage in a different way.

I appreciate @nowhitesaviors for this! Even though I’m not white and I’m damn sure not a savior, that blue passport has weight and sometimes yo ass just needs to do a check up from the neck up!

Aside from physical therapy I’m also a content creator. I have a podcast and show called TiTi Talks which has me showcasing black folks doing powerful things across the diaspora. Also sprinkle in a little shenanigans and random musings as a mid-thirties Pan-African woman and voila!  As I was preparing for this trip I knew I wanted to do a podcast. I wasn’t sure what it would be about, but I don’t worry about those things because the way my life is set up things usually work out better than I could have imagined. A few months ago I did a #RwandaPodcast hashtag search on Twitter and I ran across Dominique Alonga’s (@dnalonga) page. I saw that she was the co-host of Breaking Silences podcast (@bsrwanda250) and I was instantly intrigued since I LOVE fellow content creators, particularly podcasters. I listened to an episode and fell in love with the various conversations of 2 young millennial Rwandan women unpacking issues in their society. I then googled Dominique and and fully realized how bad ass this young activist is (GOOGLE HER)! She also started a publishing company called ImagineWe Rwanda and wrote a few children’s books. Ain’t no way in hell I’ma be in her city and not at least attempt to connect. So I did what I often do when I want to meet someone; sent a cold email. Welp, she responded and was excited to link. We kept in touch over the next several weeks until I arrived. In the interim, she released a free short story titled, “The Burden of the Saved”. It was a quick read, took maybe 25 minutes, but it was POWERFUL! And just like the @nowhitesaviors Twitter thread, it made me pause and self reflect to ensure that my energy going into Rwanda was one of mutual respect and reciprocity. The story was about a young Rwandan woman named Kami and how she navigated through the NGO/non-profit sphere often having to bite her tongue and endure embarrassing and demeaning situations from people who were allegedly “helping”. It should be required reading for anyone going into “third world”, excuse me, previously colonized nations desiring to “help”. After I read the story I reached out to Dominique via whatsApp. I expressed how much I appreciated the story. I also shared that I would be coming to Rwanda to do PT work. She more or less encouraged me to connect with actual experts on the ground in Rwanda and assisting them in their challenges. She also said that it is highly disrespectful if I showed up and expected people to listen just because I have an external, i.e. western perspective. “Why is there an expectation to listen just because the person is considered to be coming for (sic) ‘the west’? It’s rooted in White Supremacy and white proximity”. She then followed up by saying, “it’s easier to actually visit them in their office and listen rather than come with the expectation to teach. The sheer disrespect”. I was so proud of her fierceness in that exchange. One of the reasons I LOVE young millennials. They are truth tellers and I’m here for it. This perspective is important and there are times in life where you really need to humble yourself and just listen. Did I see myself as a missionary coming to “save” the people? Hell to the naw! But Dominique shared that its highly likely that I could be perceived as such. I expressed to her that  I am not responsible for how others perceive me, but I am responsible for my behavior once I arrived. She also didn’t know me and has had countless experiences with westerners coming to “help”. As much as I reject a lot of western society, I’m also acutely aware of the power of the blue passport that I wield in these international streets so it was important to be receptive. Anywho, I was inspired by that fire! You are supposed to be fiercely territorial of your country and your people. 

We linked a week after I arrived. Sis was so gracious to invite me to her home. I told her that I reflected a lot on our exchange and applied it to my field work. She seem pleased and even relieved at my approach.  We talked for hours! Some of which was recorded and will be an upcoming TiTi Talks podcast episode😉. The rest is between me, her, and the ancestors. 

During my stay I purchased several books from her publishing company, ImagineWe. As I stated earlier, I am a Pan-African. One of my purposes is to connect black folks all over the world. Some of the books I will donate to independent black schools, and others I will give away to a few of my awesome listeners/followers (stay tuned for that). The internet and social media are so amazing! A simple hashtag search has gained me a new sister, comrade, fellow entrepreneur and friend! Her curiosity, eagerness, passion, FIYA, vulnerability, and HUSTLE are so contagious! Mark my words, Dominique Alonga will be a major force in the continued elevation of Rwanda

During my 5 hr long conversation with Dominique, we spoke a little about the 1994 genocide. Also, a few people who I met along the way in my trip felt the desire to share some things with me regarding that. I never brought it up. I didn’t feel it was my place. Not sure why some felt compelled to share some things, but alas that is the story of my life.  After those encounters I felt the urge to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum so I hopped on a moto taxi and took a scenic ride there.

Once I arrived, I watched a short film that had survivors speaking about their experiences. The energy in the room during the film was palpable. When you leave that room you exit outside and are guided to the main building where the exhibits are. I grabbed a rose and proceeded into the building. The exhibits moved chronologically through pre-colonial times, foreign invasions, and subsequent upheavals forcing out traditional Rwanda rulers who were against the west and replacing them with Rwandans who would easily bend to the will of the west. It then moved through post colonial era and moved into the historical happenings that led to 1994. I appreciate them beginning in pre-colonial times because shit didn’t just pop off in 1994! There were so many pieces at play on an international level. The documentary, In the Name of God, goes into detail on how the Catholic Church was hugely instrumental in the birth and escalation of the genocide. Divide and conquer has always been the name of the game. The exhibits were very intimate and personal. (*TRIGGER WARNING: Violence and mutilation*) Hundreds of family pictures that had been donated gave faces and stories to the estimated 1 million who were slaughtered. Clothes worn on the day of death of victims encased in glass. Skulls and femurs with machete bludgeon marks on them. Chopping up and bludgeoning bodies with a machete was the main mode of murder by the Hutu. It reminded me of orders from Belgium ruler King Leopold II to chop off the hands and feet of the Congolese men, women, and children who did not meet their rubber quotas. It’s no coincidence that the Congo and Rwanda were both Belgian colonies. Suffering colonization and imperialism makes you crazy! The seed for the 1994 genocide was planted 100 years prior on the day the Germans set foot in the region in 1894. That seed was fertilized by the Belgians and cultivated by colonized Africans out of their God-damned minds. As someone who usually has much to say, I left the exhibits speechless. I was saddened, horrified, furious, confused, but also clear. I went outside, poured libation and prayed into the rose given to me when I entered. I prayed a prayer for the continued elevation and progress of Rwanda. I prayed for peace to the bodies still left unclaimed and unhonored. And I prayed another prayer that I would never post in a public forum. I laid the rose down and left that energy there.

The museum had a library, archive, and study area. I spent a great deal of time there reading and researching after going through the museum exhibit. The book, A People Betrayed: The role of the west in Rwanda’s genocide, by Linda Melvern, immediately popped out to me.

Of course I didn’t have time to read it all, but what I read that day was valuable in better understanding what happened, how, and why. I was able to order the book while still in Rwanda and when I returned to the states it had already arrived. I’m reading it now. WHEW LAWDY! All throughout the museum grounds you saw “kwibuka”, which means “remember” in Kinyarwanda. I was deeply impacted by the energetic residue of the genocide, but I was also inspired by this phoenix of a country that has risen from the ashes of such a horrific time.

While I was in Rwanda, several people reached out to me and asked if I had seen the Netflix Series Black Earth Rising, starring Michaela Coel. I began it when it first dropped, but I was too distracted at the time to pay it the full attention it requires so I don’t think I finished the first episode. I returned to it while I was in Rwanda since so many people were asking me if I had seen it. I have several thoughts about it. Let me begin by saying that the production quality was exquisite. It was visually stunning, well produced, and well acted. It also was extremely frustrating to watch because it dragged at a snail’s pace in places where it should have moved quicker and very important issues and concepts were glossed over when I felt it should have taken more time. There were too many irrelevant side plots and characters. Some scenes should have been cut in half. They were just too long. In my opinion, Netflix blew a chance to shed a different light on this tragic historical series of events. I’d love to hear what native Rwandans have to say about the film (and about those irritating Rwandan accents). Westerners don’t have a good track record (with native Rwandans) in regards to making movies about Rwanda. I asked many their thoughts on the movie Hotel Rwanda. Essentially, I heard several very polite ways of saying that its

but I digress….Black Earth Rising, focus girl! I was hugely disappointed in how it ended. I was hugely disappointed that we didn’t get a glimpse of who the main character, Kate Ashby, was before the genocide. She was a whole ass person before she was rescued and had an entire life prior to that. I don’t even think we heard her birth name for crying out loud!  (*SPOILER ALERT*) And at a pivotal moment at the end while kneeling in a mass grave in her ancestral lands, at a moment of healing, the culmination of so much time looking for answers, the main character wept while saying, “my name is….Kate Ashby”

But what did yo birth mama’nem name you? Why was that not thought to be important? Lawd why couldn’t it have ended how it began? That young black student who scathingly read Eve Ashby for filth after her lecture is what initially pulls you into the plot. And he was right you know. “African problems deserve African solutions”. That opening scene set the bar so high for the movie to fall so short in the end. Even though I felt this way about it, most people really enjoyed it so wtf do I know? I’ve also been told that the film made some folks want to learn more about the genocide. I’ma let them be great, but I really left the film feeling very empty and uninspired. Despite all that let say this, Michaela Coel is a fucking international treasure!

Luckily for me, the actual country of Rwanda left me feeling very full and inspired. In the spirit of “African problems deserve African solutions”, there was a powerful convention called YouthConnekt Africa Summit that was happening at the same time I was there. It’s essentially a meeting of the minds of some of Africa’s best and brightest young entrepreneurs. Dominique told me about it because she was one of the panel speakers. I wanted to attend, but my time was already obligated. She later sent me the link to her panel and it was POWERFUL! Please take the time to watch this panel conversation when you have a chance. It’s such an important dialogue about the economic future of the African world. I guarantee that you will get inspired and get yo ass in gear after hearing what these young people across the continent are doing.

When I returned I essentially hopped off the plane into my therapist’s office and talked non-stop for well over an hour. God bless her! I needed an outlet to process all of the events of just a few short weeks. I had so much to say and I hadn’t really discussed any of this with anybody. I went live on FB/IG the next day and had an #AMA (ask me anything) about my experiences in Rwanda.

There were so many wonderful questions. I talked about everything you read in this blog post. I talked about  “Umuganda,” the community cleanup that is held on the last Saturday of every month. I talked about “car-free day” where two Sundays a month certain areas of the city are car-free from 7am-10am. They encourage being outdoors and participating in physical activities as a country-wide health and wellness initiative. You can also get free medical check ups during this time. Someone asked about the gender dynamics in Rwanda between men and women. I discussed how women make up 68% of Parliament in Rwanda, which is almost unheard of anywhere else in the world. I also was clear that Rwanda is not a utopia. I listen to Breaking Silences podcast, and they serve the real tea and give the low down to what is happening day to day with Rwandans, especially in regards to dynamics between men and women. This edited piece, “It’s The No.1 Country For Women In Politics- But Not In Daily Life”, also sheds an important light to this issue.

People keep asking me if I will return. The short answer is, HELL YES! Y’all already know I’m a global citizen so Rwanda is like a new home to me now. I foresee myself spending a lot of time there in the future. I see Kigali as being your current favorite African city 2.0 in the coming years. I’ve made some awesome personal and professional connections and I have some ideas I’m ruminating on in regards to business and cultural exchange opportunities.

If you didn’t get anything from this long ass story, leave with this: go into countries with an empty cup, a closed mouth, open ears, and an open heart and mind. Rwanda, murakoze! See you soon!

Written by Ms. Titi




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    01. Titi Talks - Intro
    Nostaljiq

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    Episode 35: The Birth of Red Hazel with TK Burtin

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