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Archive for the ‘Life in Kigali’ Category

One of the most visible differences between the developing and developed worlds is the abundance of labor and labor-intensive processes in the developing world. Nearly every day in Rwanda I observe someone doing a job that was mechanized or automated at least one or two decades ago in most parts of the developed world. The abundance of cheap labor and the unreliability of electricity here combine to create employment in tasks that are menial and sometimes downright comical. I suppose the bottom line is that when you can’t rely on machines, you rely on people. Here are some examples:

- All buses around Kigali are staffed by a driver and a conductor who collects the bus fares from passengers. The conductor also functions as the bus route display screen by shouting the bus destination at every stop.

- Every morning Kigali’s streets are full of women employed by the city to sweep the sidewalks and the streets.

- Instead of parking meters, the system of paying for parking is much more entertaining: once you have finished your business and you turn your car on, someone in a yellow vest will chase after you flourishing a ticket whose price correlates to how long you were parked. Some people believe it’s optional to stop backing up and pay.

- Cell phone airtime is prepaid here and not on a monthly plan. To reload airtime, you physically purchase a scratch card from one of the brightly-vested airtime sellers found at nearly every corner of the city. If you request, the sellers will even scratch off the gray covering to reveal the code for you.

- I believe I have seen a lawnmower once or twice, but I still want to share this example because I’m sure it wasn’t the only time this happens: I once watched a man cutting a sizable plot of grass with a pair of office scissors.

- Instead of alarm systems (or sometimes in addition to), nearly every big office and well-to-do home employs a security guard to keep watch (read: sleep) at night. Guards for homes are rarely armed, while guards for offices are from official security companies and have a night stick or gun with them.

- And now for a hybrid situation: At the airport there is an automated ticket machine where you press a button at the entrance to take a ticket. Since the machine is too far from most cars, there is often a person there to press the button for the driver and hand over the ticket. I find this hysterical for some reason.

Now I must say that at times I appreciate and enjoy the benefits provided by the human over the machine. Instead of fumbling with a MetroCard on the bus and getting flustered if I don’t have enough credit, here I can wait for the conductor to ask me to pay and sometimes I even negotiate a cheaper fare if I’m going only a few stops. Then again, if I’m transferring to another bus line I don’t get the discount that my MetroCard would accord me.

It will be interesting to see if and how fast these jobs become phased out to machines and virtual systems as Rwanda progresses towards its goal of becoming a middle income country by 2020.

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After a month+ hiatus, I’m back in Kigali – and with lots of updates. I have a new job and a new house, and the city has several updates itself. It’s remarkable how many visible changes can take place in one city in a short six weeks. It reminds me that there are developments happening every day and week that I have become subconsciously acclimated to on a daily basis. Here’s a short rundown of the changes and developments I noticed upon my return:

- Kigali Bus Services has a new fleet of buses capable of triple the capacity of their former buses. They even have digital screens on the outside to theoretically project the bus line (for now they only display random flashes of Arabic or Chinese lettering).

- At least five major intersections have brand new electronic crosswalk and traffic light systems that not only count down the amount of time remaining for pedestrians to cross but also the amount of time until the red or green light changes for cars. New York doesn’t even have that. Pretty revolutionary!

- A major shopping plaza downtown called the Rubangura House now has a metal detector at its entrance. (Not sure if this development reflects positively but it is noteworthy.)

- There are three new storefronts in my neighborhood of Nyamirambo, one down a dirt side street made of fancy-looking glass.

- A major construction site in the center of downtown Kigali has added two more stories and is well on its way to becoming a shopping plaza.

 

- Another major construction site downtown that is slotted to become an insurance building is almost finished (the second highest building in the header picture of my blog, taken about 3 months ago). It now boasts a new triangle/spire on its top that definitely changes Kigali’s skyline.

Updated and almost ready for business

- A fence around a construction site in Nyamirambo that was made of corrugated metal and bottle caps (I believe they were covering nails but I’m not sure) is now made of brick. And the construction site transformed from a skeleton (which was ambiguously in the process of either being built or torn down) into a near finished plaza-looking building with shiny reflective tiles and windows.

- Construction broke ground for Kigali City Hall, an ambitious project downtown that had only been an empty lot 6 weeks ago. Now it has two stories and the structure isn’t too far off from the projected plan posted on the wall.

- A huge construction site, slotted to become the New Century Hotel under Marriott management, has made visible progress by adding several stories and also looks closer to the projected plan posted on the wall.

- A construction site on one of the main arteries leading to downtown is now about 90% finished, with new white tiling and reflective blue windows. It turned into an architecturally interesting building with a little wave extending from the roof.

Coming back to a place after a month and a half away certainly makes the contrast of past and present more noticeable and palpable – especially a place undergoing such rapid development in its infrastructure and business environment. As for my own developments, namely what my life in Rwanda Part II entails, stay tuned for next time!

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Even after ten months of observing Rwanda and Rwandan culture, there are still many things that I will never understand or that will never cease to entertain me. Here they are…

1. Many Rwandans, like many Africans, have a perception of time that is different from westerners and tend to be late.  “African time” is not just a stereotype; it’s based on reality. However, drivers here always seem to be in such an incredible rush that they can’t stop for pedestrians and in fact often pull out of parking spots while pedestrians are right behind them. Drivers gun the engine even when they are approaching a traffic light, pass each other all the time – no matter how treacherous the turn, and generally speed like NASCAR racers.

2. During the rainy season, household water is less reliable. In fact, whenever it rains heavily there’s a pretty high chance that the pipes will be empty. After months of bewildered frustration, a friend told me that it’s because the heavy rains wash mud into the pipes, clogging them.

3. As I mentioned in my post about culture, it is a serious taboo to eat in public. However, public urination (for men) and nose picking are not taboos at all. It’s hard to go a few days without spotting someone digging for gold or a man peeing in bushes in public sight…Hence the importance of Purell.

4.Meeting a member of the opposite sex for a drink at a bar is considered very serious and gives people the impression that the two are a couple – even if it is a work-related meeting or catching up with a friend or neighbor. However, inviting a member of the opposite sex into one’s home is less serious. (Because people can’t see and so they won’t start spreading rumors.)

5. It is not typical for men to give flowers to women. In fact it is more appropriate for women to give flowers to men. Go figure.

6. Cows play an important role in Rwandans society, having influenced the development of different social classes based on the number of cows one owns. Milk is abundant and delicious here. However, there is a serious lack of variety in cheese options and very few good cheeses.

7. Rwanda is known for growing delicious coffee, yet most people drink Nescafe. This is because most coffee is exported and the remainder is served at expensive cafes or sold at a premium at grocery stores.

8. Rwandan men and women alike are notoriously soft spoken. I often have to strain to hear people when they come to my office and whisper a message to me. However, there is no concept of “noise pollution” when it comes to other sounds: music and radio are blasted at painfully loud levels at any hour of the day – in public, at home, on buses, in shops, etc. I guess people need something to fill the silence.

9. Most Rwandans don’t eat sweets or dessert and say that they don’t like sugar. However, based on my observations, Rwandans put on average 3 heaping teaspoons into their morning tea and drink Fanta and other sodas to diabetes-inducing levels.

10. People in Kigali, both Rwandans and expats, consider the poorer neighborhood of Nyamirambo as unsafe. In reality, I think it is the safest neighborhood because there are always people on the street at any time of the day or night. I actually find Kiyovu, one of the wealthier neighborhoods, to be the least safe because the streets are empty and people are always behind their walls and cars. If someone tried to mug me on the street in Kiyovu he would definitely succeed; however if someone tried to mug me on the street in Nyamirambo he would be apprehended and beaten up by more than one passerby.

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Yesterday, April 7th, marked the 17th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide, in which around 800,000 Rwandans lost their lives within 100 days. The mourning period lasts for one week, during which there are memorial services, candlelight vigils, televised documentaries and radio broadcasts about the genocide, and public billboards about remembrance and commemoration. As purple is the color of mourning here, people can be seen wearing purple ribbons throughout the city. Businesses are closed, music is not played loudly, and the streets are virtually empty to observe the first day.

A somber time, this is the week when the entire country reflects upon, discusses, and relives a painful history that is generally kept out of public discourse the rest of the year. All of the Rwandans I know have been affected by the genocide in some way – losing close or distant family members, being displaced, fleeing into exile, having their schooling disrupted, or being traumatized from seeing horrors that no one should ever have to witness, let alone young children. However, despite all of the suffering Rwandans have endured, it is not what defines them.

This week and its commemoration events remind me of what it is easy to forget as a foreigner here: that Rwanda was ravaged by genocide a mere seventeen years ago. Going about my day-to-day events and seeing Rwanda from the surface, genocide and conflict is often the last thing on my mind. I think about a new project I’m working on, the development I see every day in the shape of new construction or repaved roads, or the clever and entrepreneurial ways that people manage to make a living. I find it extremely hard to imagine that the streets I walk every day in Nyamirambo were covered with corpses seventeen years ago. In fact, I rarely hear the word genocide spoken out loud and I only see it written in the newspaper occasionally.

Ironically, from the outside Rwanda still seems to be defined by its past: when people hear Rwanda they immediately conjure up images of skeletons in mass graves and the phrase “Never Again.” However from the inside, Rwanda defines itself as it envisions itself in the future: a peaceful and prosperous middle-income country, as articulated in Vision 2020. While it is important to remember the past and honor the dead, Rwandans have developed a collective coping mechanism of avoiding to speak at length about their troubled past, at least in public. That is, with the exception of during this week and through the government’s National Commission to Fight Genocide.

While it is important for Rwanda to continue moving forward and escape its past, it is equally important to remember and honor its past to ensure that “never again” is a reality.

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Top 10 List: Lessons I’ve learned over the past six months of living in Kigali

10. How to pick out a ripe avocado: It can be green or purple (there are different types) and it should be a little bit malleable – not rock hard but not as soft as the avocados considered ripe in the U.S. The best are when you can feel the pit move when you shake it.

9. How to bargain with stubborn vendors and moto taxi drivers: Once the merchant or moto driver says a price, divide it in half and then give the evil eye like your life depends on it. Do not smile under any circumstances. The price will end up somewhere in the middle, probably still inflated for the muzungu premium.

8. How to dart across the street and weave through oncoming traffic: Think Frogger. Like a moving obstacle course (in which pedestrians have absolutely no rights), the traffic comes in waves. Beginners (those with less than three months of experience) should find a human shield to follow. Imagine yourself as wading through the waves. The median white line provides a rest stop in between two halves of the battle.

7. How to teach English: Speak English, slow down your speech, follow a curriculum, and be creative.

6. How to mop up a bathroom and adjoining bedroom (mine) flooded with two inches of water from an exploded pipe using nothing but a rag and a bucket: Elbow grease and determination.

5. How to get by in Kinyarwanda: Find a helpful book, take notes, practice with friends, and seize every interaction as a learning opportunity. The most common phrases I find myself using are, in addition to normal greetings, “Ndageregeza” (I’m trying) and “Biraryoshye!” (It’s delicious!).

4.  How to get the attention of a server at a restaurant or bar (except for the fancy ones): Hiss at them. I know it sounds weird and offensive, but here it’s like the verbal form of a hand wave. With your teeth touching, hiss like you’re imitating a snake – loud and repeated until a server comes.

3. How to not offend people: This has been a gradual one, with more than a few bumps in the road. Here’s the complete list of cultural norms and taboos I’ve learned. The important ones are: Greet all acquaintances by shaking hands and sometimes kissing on the cheek (the number of pecks varies individually – either one or three). Don’t eat in public. Always share food with friends. Offer a drink to all house guests (not water). Pay for everyone that you invite to a bar. Do not ignore people who talk to you in the street – even if they are drunk or call you muzungu.

2. How to handle frustrations like unreliable electricity, water, and internet: Stay calm, cool, and collected. Light candles, forgo showering, and read a book. Appreciate the many things you do have.

1. PATIENCE. African time really does exist, and is much different from muzungu time. Get used to it and just accept that most appointments (both professional and personal) will start 5-20 minutes late. Don’t rush or you’ll sweat too much. Take the scenic route and enjoy the ride.

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It’s about time I write about one of my favorite pastimes – indulging in the local cuisine and exploring Kigali’s gastronomic offerings. As you might imagine, rice and beans are the staples here. Traditional Rwandan cuisine also includes potatoes (regular and sweet; boiled, fried, and mashed), plantains called matoke (boiled or mashed), cassava, meat (beef, goat, and pork), meat sauce, a porridge-like dish of cassava leaves called sembe, a spongy bread made of cassava or corn flower called ugali, and fresh vegetables like avocado, cabbage, eggplant, onions, and carrots. While it’s not the most exciting cuisine I’ve ever tried, it’s tasty and diverse enough and it’s grown on me. I’ve been eating Rwandan food several times a week for lunch and haven’t gotten sick of it yet!

There are definitely lots of rice and beans to be found in Kigali, but luckily this city has quite a nice array of international dining options – including Italian, French, Greek, Ethiopian, Chinese, Indian, and more. (Several of these restaurants, along with Kigali accommodations, bars, and neighborhoods, are reviewed by the great new site LivinginKigali.com.) One unfortunate near-universal fact about eating out in Kigali is that the wait for food often feels like a lifetime, though it’s almost always worth it (or maybe I’m just always that hungry by then). That’s why I often choose to go to buffets, where the food is the one waiting for me.

Since a picture says a thousand words, I’ve taken photographs of my favorite meals from the past few weeks for your viewing pleasure. Many of the buffets look quite similar, but if you look close each plate has its own unique character. Bon appetit!

Buffet at Karibu, in town

Buffet at Corner View, in town

Buffet at Lavaroma, in town

Buffet at Fraternity, in town

Buffet at Ma Colline, in town

Buffet at Yummy Restaurant, in town

Update: Upon reading this post, my mother called me in disbelief that I’ve been eating such huge plates of food. Yes, I’ll be honest: I almost always win the cleanest plate award at buffets and I’m consistently in awe that I haven’t gained any weight here. If you think these starch-tastic plates are full to the brim, you should see some of the Rwandan men who manage to pile on twice as much in a strategic tower structured with perfect weight distribution. I imagine it only comes with years of practice.

Bean and cheese burrito from La Sierra, in town

Lunch at Hotel St. Jean in Kibuye

Lunch at New Happy, in Nyamirambo

Mediterranean sandwich from Simba Cafe, in town

Goat cheese and rosemary pizza from White Horse, in town

Grilled tilapia and potatoes from Green Corner, in Nyamirambo

Chicken Tikka Masala from Zaafron, in Kiyovu

Vegetable Jalfrezi from Zaafron (again)

One of my favorite dinners to make at home: Chapati-avocado-sauteed eggplant-onion fajita

"Sambusa" snacks (samosa)

Potluck feast from a party a few months ago

And on some unfortunate occasions, the meat isn’t always to my liking. Although I’ve become less picky since living here, there are some things I still can’t stomach…

Meat with so many tubes it looks like a water park

Rwandans aren’t huge on dessert and when they do indulge it’s usually fruit like pineapple, passion fruit, or mini bananas. However, there are a few places in Kigali with decadent desserts like ice cream and chocolate croissants. My personal favorite is from La Sierra, where the croissants are baked fresh daily and the bittersweet chocolate inside is as gooey and rich as the outside is crisp and flaky. It’s always nice to end on a sweet note…

Chocolate croissant from La Sierra

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This past Friday morning, all of Kigali was excused from work to vote for local government officials at the village level. A friend of mine who volunteers for the electoral commission invited me to join him on his task of observing local elections. As I had the morning off from work and I’m always a fan of participatory democracy, I jumped at the offer.

After a bumpy 15-minute moto ride into the deep hills of Nyamirambo (an area that I now think of as “The Road of a Thousand Moguls”), we arrived at the grounds of a school for primary and secondary students.  In the field behind the school, a few hundred people were gathered in clusters of about 30-50 people, all quite engaged in animated group discussions.

Some people taking refuge from the bright mid-morning sun under parasols

Never having observed any kind of elections outside of the U.S., I wasn’t sure what to expect but I imagined there would be some kind of ballot or booth system. However, my friend and his fellow election supervisors soon corrected my misconception, informing me that this type of election at the village level does not use any ballot or secret voting. Instead, groups of villages (called “umudugudus”) meet at one site to discuss amongst themselves and come to a group decision to elect some candidates for local leadership. A village is made up of about 50 households. A cluster of villages comprises a cell (called an “umurenge”). This particular cell was made up of nine villages from around Nyamirambo, the neighborhood of Kigali where I live.

The positions that village residents were campaigning to fill included one Village Chairperson and four representatives in charge of Social Affairs, Development, Security, and Information. These uncompensated positions are held for five years and it is mandatory that women comprise at least 30% of the leadership for each village.

After discussing amongst themselves about the merits of each candidate, the voting was ultimately achieved by village residents lining up behind their candidate of choice. The winning candidate was the one with the most people lined up behind him or her. As my friend explained, this non-secret voting system is used because a) there is no government budget for paper ballots or machines at this local level and b) since everyone in the villages knows one another the process is more of a collective discussion (and occasionally debate) amongst neighbors and friends.

Voting in "The Line"

The simultaneous group discussions were punctuated by occasional cheering and outbursts, as people came to a decision and elected leaders. Groups of villages carried some of the winning candidates on shoulders to signify their approval and excitement at having ushered in a new generation of local leadership.

After the nine villages elected their individual leaders, they joined together to elect leaders for the entire cell. Through the same process of lining up behind candidates, they elected representatives in charge of similar areas, in addition to positions like Representative for Women’s Affairs and Representative for Youth.

People lining up to vote for Representative for Women's Affairs

While observing the elections, I asked my friend if he was planning to run for any position. “No, I’m too busy,” he responded. To my surprise, he called me up a few hours after I had left the site and told me that he had been elected the Representative for Youth. His friends and neighbors had persuaded him and, as an upstanding citizen and all-around serious person, he felt it was his duty to assume the position on behalf of his community.

As I do stand out amongst a sea of Rwandans, several people took note of my presence and asked me if I was running for any position. I’m fairly certain they were joking, but it would be quite a good story indeed if, by some fluke I ended up being elected to a position. Perhaps I could be the Representative for Mzungu Affairs?

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