PEACETALK: Reading new pages of the book: My sojourn in Africa


GISENYI, Rwanda (MindaNews / 03 April) — It is said that, if we do not travel, it is as if we are only reading one page of the book. Indeed, it is true. Travel to places, far and near, opens for us some newer and wider perspectives of life and society. This is even truer when we make a sojourn in Africa.

To leave the country at this time when the campaign for the extension of the term of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) has taken a momentum and the fate of the peace process hangs in a precarious balance creates within me some sort of an internal revolt, even if I know that my contribution to this campaign is too insignificant to create an impact.

My internal revulsion is compounded by the fact that, as I leave the country, there is completely no looming sign that President Rodrigo Duterte and our Senators and the members of the House of Representatives (HoR) will do anything necessary to save the peace process as it navigates towards its final phase.

However, I was comforted by the fact that the new reawakening that I may derive from my sojourn here in Africa, which I partly discuss herein, may strengthen our collective view that it is of great imperative for our government officials to seize every pillar of opportunity necessary for the building of a strong edifice of lasting peace in the troubled Islands of Mindanao.

If otherwise, God forbid, their complacency might transform these Islands into a powder keg and, eventually, into the state of social conflagration.

Anyway, I and Tita proceeded with our travel to Rwanda, East Africa, in the pursuit of our selfless parental obligations. Our daughter, Christine, lives in this part of the Great Lake Region in Africa, and we came here to lend her company.

We are very glad to note that, as we started our sojourn in this Country of Thousands Hills, all our friends in the Philippines did not falter to remind us: “Ingat!,” “Keep safe!” We heartily thank them for their thoughtfulness.

But, of course, deep in my heart, I feel that I am safer here in Rwanda, especially in the rural town of Gisenyi where we have temporarily settled under the strength of a three-month free travel visa granted to Filipinos by the Rwandan government.

The town of Gisenyi is located adjacent to the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is here where most expats, volunteering with humanitarian and peace missions, usually live. It is adjacent to Lake Kivu which has a vastness of approximately 2,700 square-kilometers and a depth of 800 meters (The whole of GenSan is only 573 square-kilometers).

The rate of crime incidents in Rwanda is so negligible to become our concern, and this is constantly travelling along descending spirals. It is even lower in Gisenyi. But, I am very sure of one thing here: There is no incident of extra-judicial killing or “tokhang” in Gisenyi and even in the whole of Rwanda.

Our travel to Rwanda was an exciting one, but emotionally bursting, at times. While at the airport, we were prevented from flying to Africa, unless we present our return tickets, which we did not have. It was a very agonizing moment for us. The wait was excruciating. Fortunately, Christine was able to secure our return tickets right in the nick of time.

After our frantic and nervous-laden wait for our return tickets which were required of us by the Bureau of Immigration (BI) in Manila, we were able to fly via Ethiopian Airline from Manila to Bangkok, Thailand, where the plane made a stopover.

While in the departure counter of the BI in the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) – Sorry Atty. Larry Gadon, Ninoy is really a hero – I and Tita were subjected to various forms of searching questions. But when one of the lady BI officers saw our US visas, the grilling suddenly stopped. “Meron pala silang US visa,” she told her co-officer. There and then, we were made to pass through. Wow, colonial mentality is still at work in the BI!

As I struggled hard with Tita in the BI in our desire to fly out of the country (Ang mahal pa naman ng ticket!), the Pastillas Scam suddenly flashed fast in my mind. What is this scam all about (?), please ask Senator Risa Hontiveros.

While in the Ethiopian Airline (Thank, God), we were put under the care of African stewardesses, whose stunning beauty reveals the un-paralleled artistry of the Divine Omniscient. As they are so beautiful, they are also so kind and so polite.

Within our twelve-hour flight from Manila to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, we were served full square meals for six times, each one comprised of different varieties of foods and drinks, depending on our choices, in a quantity we can hardly consume (Calling CebuPac flying from Manila to Dubai!).

During our stopover in Addis Ababa, I ordered a cup of coffee from one of the stores in its airport’s pre-departure area. What were delivered to us were a cup and a kettle, containing three cups of brewed coffee with three sachets of sugar and three sachets of cream. We discovered later that this is also the rule (kalakaran) in the whole of Rwanda (Hello, Star Bucks and BOS Coffee!).

By the way, it is in Ethiopia where the main office of African Union or AU (a counterpart of the European Union or EU) is located. The AU also has offices in many countries. It is now emerging as one of the world’s foremost economic powers (Be good, EU!).

Speaking of EU, not AU, I was once invited to the EU embassy in the Philippines where I was made to report on incidents of extra-judicial killings in the Socsksargen economic corridor before Caucasian-looking individuals. I did not hear anything from them after that, not even a whimper. I suspect that they called us just to provide data for its own reports (Users din pala!).

Within that grueling meeting that lasted for more than four hours, EU officials served each one of us only a cup of semi-hot coffee (Mga kuripot pa!). Atty. Tony Salvador, consultant of Sentro, knows this; he was there.

Going back, from Addis Ababa, we were made to take a smaller unit of the Ethiopian airlines which flew us to Kigali, Rwanda. For that two-hour flight, we were again served a sizzling hot full meal and drinks, again, in a quantity that we can hardly consume (Calling PAL and CebuPac flying from GenSan to Manila!).

As soon as we arrived at the Rwanda International Airport, we were immediately ushered to the Passport Verification Office (equivalent to our BI). After asking our purpose in going to Rwanda, the Rwandan airport authorities immediately let us pass in a joyfully welcoming gesture.

Strangely enough, the Rwandan airport authorities did not ask for our return tickets, which contrastingly the BI imposed on us strictly, when it is supposed to be in the best interest of their country to demand return tickets from alien travelers. Really, our BI has very confusing, if not questionable, travel policies.

Located few meters from the Rwandan Passport Verification Office are various COVID-19 testing booths where we submitted ourselves to RT-PCR or swab testing. The RT-PCR testing took only about ten minutes, and, after that, the airport police guided us to the baggage center, and, ultimately, to the parking space where the car which brought us to a hotel was waiting for us. There is no hassle travelling to Rwanda even during the pounding of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Interestingly, while in our country, a swab test could cost us P7,500.00 and an antigen rapid test could cost us P2,500.00, here in Rwanda, the swab test costs only 48,000 Rwandan francs  or an amount equivalent to P2,500.00, while an antigen rapid test costs  only 9,600 Rwandan francs or an amount equivalent to P500.00.

Submitting ourselves to RT-PCR and antigen rapid tests in Rwanda is just like buying food from a drive-through food center.  For ten minutes, we could already have the results of the tests. Why these tests are made so complicated and so expensive in the Philippines is a million-dollar question. Is it made to appear complicated to justify an extravagantly and unnecessary cost? Is this because health is a business and not a right in our country?

The COVID-19 pandemic is not really a big issue here in Rwanda. At present, the country has only 1,610 active cases. One of the biggest private hospitals which we visited in Gisenyi is only half-full. Patients are not queuing in hospitals or medical clinics. Both the public and private schools are holding physical classes.

Our brief stint in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, gave us the opportunity to have wondrous encounters with what are beautiful in the eyes. Scenes of Rwandan women (some with their toddlers neatly tied at their backs), men and children, walking, sometimes in throngs, on the streets in their colorful traditional outfits are so fascinating that my belief on the majesty of the Divine Creator becomes even much stronger.

All the magnificent paintings and posters displayed in almost all expensive corridors found everywhere in the world, I saw them all here in Africa in flesh.

Now, my realizations: How great thy God for making us multi-racial and multi-color: black, red, yellow, brown and white. But, we only have red as the color of our blood. Clearly, this is a signification that, while we have differences in our skin, in our faith and in our culture, we are all equal in rights and dignity.

That we are made different from each other, except for the intrinsic value of our humanity, God has His purpose. He does not want us to live in doldrums. He wants us to lead an exciting life, free from the mechanization of a material world.

Imagine. Had the Divine Providence committed a mistake of making all humanity across borders to share only one color and sing only one song, how drab our world could have become. Really, God is all knowing as shown in His omniscient works of art: Us!

Rwanda, this country of thousand hills is in itself a beautiful work of art, delicately engraved in a canvas known as the Continent of Africa. Mother Nature is so kind to the people here. The sky is cloudy most of the time, and the rain pours almost every day. But, when the rain falls, it falls gently.

Thus, every month of the year is a planting season and a harvest season, all at the same time. Planting and harvesting are regular daily activities the whole year round here in Rwanda. As we could see here, agricultural lands are all planted with food-based plants. Even backyards are teeming with food plants and vegetables.

Farming and fishing may be said to be still in their backward stage. But, I believe that they are intended to be such in order to ensure availability of work for the wider segment of the population in the countryside. In the Philippines, the mechanization of agriculture and big aqua-fishing ventures in the lakes had caused massive unemployment in rural communities.

Rwanda’s capital city, the City of Kigali, based on its present physical attributes, is clearly a product of careful, insightful and futuristic rural planning. Its buildings, houses, roads and bridges, drainage canals, lampposts and other infrastructure are built perfectly in accordance with the rhythm and harmony of its natural landscape.

There is a great social premium for Rwanda’s environment-friendly policy in terms of human convenience and in terms of reduction in the cost of business operations and in the family’s per capita expenses. There is no more need to install any air-conditioning units in office buildings, sports arenas, hotels, business establishments and residential houses in order to make them comfortably habitable or usable because the whole country, in itself, serves as a gigantic air-conditioning unit for all, as it is now. A room without an air-conditioning unit in Rwanda is colder that the room with an air-conditioning unit in the Philippines.

Moreover, we can find no garbage on the streets of Rwanda, not even a garbage container. Its drainage canals are well-paved and tiled with carefully sliced boulders of different colors, making the drainage very attractive. We cannot also find garbage in the drainage canals, only gently flowing water.

Rising from genocidal strife which killed about a million people during that 100-day carnage, from April 7 to July 15, 1994, Rwanda now becomes a home of happy and kind people, with the culture of non-violence and justice strongly entrenched in their consciousness. The prevailing dominant culture of non-violence in Rwanda is a product of effective and efficient processes of re-acculturation, with both public and private schools, from kinder to college, as potent instruments, which its sitting government immediately implemented right after the carnage.

The main educational thrust of both public and private schools in Rwanda is embodied in a simple but meaningful slogan: “Science and Conscience.” This means that, while the country is working hard for advancement in science and technology, the nurturance of the people’s conscience which focuses on the development of desirable human values – integrity, simplicity, humility and humanity – in every individual is also its primordial concern.

As we pursue our campaign to save the ongoing peace process in Mindanao, it behooves upon all of us to study the Rwandan experience and draw precious lessons from how Rwanda, as a country, has been able to rise quickly from the ashes of social conflagration to what it is now: a peaceful and livable country.

But, above all, we need to realize by now that it is foolish for us to wait for the carnage to happen and lose millions of lives in the process before we would be convinced that, indeed, peace is the common and ultimate goal of humankind. We should realize by now that it is not true that the seeds really need to die in order to grow.

Finally, let me state this. I consider myself very fortunate to be given a chance to make a sojourn here in Africa, with all the magnificent panoramic vistas it perpetuates in my memory. But, as time passes by, I have come to one very important realization.

Really, there is no place, no matter how beautiful this is, like home, the Philippines!

“To thee I give my heart and mind. Philippines, My Philippines!”

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Ben Sumog-oy is the Action Officer of the In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement , General Santos City Chapter (IDEFEND-GenSan), Volunteer Head of the Para-legal Unit of the Sentro ng mga Progresibo at Nagkakaisang Manggagawa-SOCSKSARGEN (Sentro-SOCSKSARGEN) and of the Local Mass Struggle (LMS) Unit of Akbayan-GenSan]