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Archive for August, 2010

Settling in

The past few days have been a great introduction to life in Kigali. I’ve had the chance to get my bearings – both physically and mentally. A day of wandering around town on Thursday started off very promising, with me making a new friend somewhere on the road between Nyamirambo and Kigali center. Stephanie, who approached me out of a mixture of curiosity and kindness, took me on a guided tour of the city to show me her favorite spots and then invited me to her house to meet her family and have a drink. Most Rwandans I’ve met so far have been very friendly and curious like Stephanie – and then there are the others who make me feel like a circus freak as they stare and shout “muzungu! muzungu!” (“white person! white person!). A phrase that Tim taught me and which has proved to be very useful is “Ntabwo nitwa amuzungu” which means “My name is not muzungu.” I really enjoy people’s surprised reactions when they see that I can speak more than one word of Kinyarwanda.

My first day at the Generation Rwanda office on Friday gave me an introduction to the organization and its history and a brief training session, which I will continue tomorrow. I think after this week I’ll have a clearer idea of what I will be doing for the next year, so stay posted on that front. One of the best parts of Friday was going out to lunch with some of the staff at a restaurant up the street aptly named Ma Colline (“My Hill” in French), which serves a daily buffet lunch. For 1,500 francs (about $2.50) I found myself in front of a cornucopia of delicious Rwandan food ranging from fresh avocados (they’re creamy here!) to purple sweet potatoes to beef in a savory tomato-esque sauce. After devouring the delicious colline I had made for myself, I decided that this restaurant would have to become an integral part of my daily dining experience.

On Saturday, I spent four hours visiting the Genocide Memorial in town. It was an extremely powerful and informative memorial and went into detail about not only the Rwandan genocide but also the genocides in Cambodia, Namibia, Bosnia, and Armenia, and the Holocaust. A room with glass cases full of bones and skulls is an image that will stick with me for a long time. Because the genocide was so recent and pre-genocide family photographs in color show people dressed in today’s styles, there is something so raw and close about the events. Visiting the memorial was especially difficult because it’s hard to put up a wall of history to distance myself from the events that happened in the very city I’m in a mere sixteen years ago. The genocide is something I’ll probably discuss in better detail in a later post, once I’ve been here long enough to gauge and understand current views, reflections, sensitivities, and dialogue on the subject.

Last night was a great first Saturday night out on the town – Tim, his friend Tharcisse, and I went to Executive Carwash, a unique establishment that functions both as a car-wash and an outdoor bar/restaurant/sporadic dance club. (Because really, why not??) After having a beer and grooving to some African beats, we decided the scene was a bit too tame so we headed back to Tim’s Nyamirambo favorite, Bar L’Etoile d’Or. There, after watching a few music videos of Enrique Iglesias (“Hero” is HUGE here) and Michael Jackson, we broke out into a spontaneous medley of song and dance that the whole bar soon joined in on. It was definitely a night to remember.

On getting my mental bearings: The concept of living somewhere outside of the U.S. for a full year was until now foreign and incomprehensible to me, but it’s finally hitting me that I will be living here in Kigali for a year. Normal anxieties and apprehensions about being so far from home aside, I’m looking forward to having time to really understand a new place, a new city, and a new culture and, above all, to expand my comfort zone exponentially. I’ve been developing a list of non-work-related goals for myself for the next year, some of which include: become proficient in Kinyarwanda, make friends with local Rwandans, visit a few of the Great Lakes and nearby African countries (hopefully to see Meg in Uganda and Rachel in Kenya!), never feel too cut off from my friends and family back in the States and around the world, and if possible find or create some kind of community here. I’m sure the list will continue to grow.

I’m excited for my first full week of work to start and I’ll be sure to check back in soon. Turongera! (See you next time!)

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From NY to Ny…

After 25 hours of transit, here I am in Kigali – the vibrant neighborhood of Nyamirambo to be exact. As several locals that I met today pointed out to me, I’ve traveled from one NY to another Ny, so I should feel especially at home. And I definitely feel most welcome here. Since noon today, I’ve met about twenty of my neighbors, local shopkeepers, and other curious and friendly Nyamirambo residents. As someone who thrives in the presence of new people and stimulating environments, I can already tell I’m going to like it here. And, as I expected, the real language of day-to-day interaction isn’t French or English; it’s Kinyarwanda. After picking up a few colorful phrases here and there, I’m definitely up to the challenge.

The voyage from the U.S. was quite enjoyable, despite being protracted over a series of exotic stopovers/layovers (NY to DC to Rome to Addis Ababa to Kigali). I think it had something to do with the surprisingly delicious food that Ethiopian Airlines generously provided at least once every four hours. (How did they already know my feeding schedule??) And by some miraculous stroke of luck or divine intervention, my two huge bags were waiting for me at the Kigali baggage claim. After passing through customs hassle-free, I found Michelle and Tim, two of the Generation Rwanda staff, waiting to greet me with a big sign with my name on it. That’s always a nice feeling.

Driving away from the airport, my first impression of Kigali was a sense of calm and order, particularly when I compared the nicely paved road we were driving on to roads I saw in neighboring Kampala, Uganda two summers ago. At the same time, I gleaned a sense of commotion and progress that attests to Rwanda’s reputation as a quickly growing economy. For example, construction workers were rebuilding the median on a bustling street after several months of enlarging the street to reduce congestion.

The Generation Rwanda staff house, where I’m living, is really quite nice and livable. Set back from the road behind a gate, its high points include nicely tiled floors, a spacious common room with comfy couches and chairs, and a wide selection of hot pink sheets and duvets to make beds with. Its not-so-high points include an extremely slow modem connection, the occasional mouse, and a temporary shortage of running water. After choosing which room I wanted and unpacking a towel, I took a refreshing bucket shower (that’s actually not sarcastic – with bucket showers you can take your time, you have complete control over water pressure, and you can easily make the water warmer by adding some boiled water to the mix!). Then I unpacked all of my worldly belongings and started decorating the room, which has a very nice energy and lots of natural light (and hot pink).

To top the day off, Tim took me out on the town to show me more of Nyamirambo, which really comes to life once the sun sets – another reason why I know I’m going to fit in well here. Tim took me to his favorite dinner stand, where we picked up some chapati and goat brochettes (grilled goat meat and onions on skewers) and then brought them to his bar of choice, the Bar L’Etoile d’Or. There, we serendipitously ran into some of the university students in the Generation Rwanda program. Small city indeed. As we sat outside sipping some ridiculously cheap Primus beer (700 francs = $1.23 for a VERY large bottle), the guava tree above us kept dropping its ripe harvest onto our table. Luckily I have a hard head and a fair amount of cushioning (though of course not as much as the legendary JuFro Stein). Looking out across one of Kigali’s valleys, taking in the vista of the glittering hillside of an illuminated residential district, I was filled with a sense of calm energy and curiosity to explore and understand as much of this country as I can over the next year.

As it’s after 2 am for me, I should try to nip this jet lag in the bud and count sheep until I fall asleep. If that doesn’t work I could also count the threads in the mosquito net that’s draped over my bed like a royal canopy of sorts. I don’t start work at the Generation Rwanda office until Friday, so tomorrow will be another day of exploration and adventure around town. After a good night’s rest and mosquito-free dreams, I’ll be revitalized and ready for whatever tomorrow holds in store.

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The countdown…

In about 3 days I will be landing in Kigali, Rwanda to embark on my Princeton in Africa fellowship. I’ve been spending the past week in a frenzy of organizing, packing, reading up on Rwanda, seeing friends and family, eating all my favorite foods, and mentally preparing myself for the exciting year ahead.

Through this blog I hope to keep all of my friends and family up to date with what I’ll be doing in Rwanda over the next year. The plan is that I will be working as a Student Services Assistant for Generation Rwanda, which may include any of the following tasks: assisting with new student orientations, teaching English classes and occasional computer workshops, advising student organizations, monitoring the student library, and other related tasks that come up. I’m really excited to start working on such important initiatives with an organization well-known for its unique approach to education and leadership development. The organization’s mission of helping orphans and other disadvantaged students pursue higher education really resonates with me, being a recent university graduate myself.

I also hope to use this blog as a general repository for my reflections and perceptions of Rwanda, development, living as a foreigner, the politics of the Great Lakes region, reconciliation after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and life in Africa. So pretty much whatever happens to be on my mind. In addition to the important work I’ll be doing with Generation Rwanda, I’m particularly interested to see what the political climate in Rwanda is like, given the country’s recent presidential election. As I go along, I’ll try to weave my knowledge of Rwanda’s troubled history along with my insight into the country’s now much-improved situation that many people look to as a beacon of success and development in Africa.

After a summer full of anticipation, I’m looking forward to arriving and getting settled in. Once I know my local phone number I’ll be sure to post it for all of you to have. If you’d like to receive an e-mail notification whenever I post an update so that you don’t have to check this blog sporadically, you can enter your e-mail address in the box in the right column. And please feel free to comment throughout my blog. Internet permitting, I hope to post updates once or twice a week.

I miss you all already and I hope you have a great year!

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