Archive for October, 2010

This past weekend, Mary, Caitlin, and I ventured to the shore of Lake Kivu to visit Gisenyi, a resort town on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Map of Rwanda with Gisenyi in the west

A popular weekend getaway for both Rwandans and expats, Gisenyi has been referred to as the “Martha’s Vineyard of Rwanda,” a title that I found curious until I witnessed some of its breathtaking shoreline views and sprawling luxury hotels.

We arrived on Friday night so that we could maximize our weekend time for exploring Gisenyi and its surroundings. It was quite an eventful weekend and, thanks to the weather and other exciting adventures, featured much less basking on a beach than I had expected. We started Saturday morning with a delicious breakfast at our hostel.

Onion omelette for $.84 and thermos of coffee for $1.18...I could get used to this.

Then we set off to the neighboring town of Kabari/Mugongo to visit the Imbabazi Orphanage, started by an American named Roz Carr after the genocide. The orphanage was a bit farther from the bus stop than we expected (7 km sounds shorter in the guide book than on foot). As we trekked along the road, we made lots of friends and amassed a herd of curious kids.

Caitlin and Mary surrounded by our herd

We also saw some breathtaking views of Lake Kivu, farmland, mountains, and volcanoes.

One of the mountains in the background is a volcano

Upon arriving at the orphanage, we were brought by one of the guards to the main office, where a young American woman on staff greeted us. She gave us a tour of the 100-acre orphanage, which also sustains itself by working as a flower farm serving Kigali.

Some of the flower beds, à la English Garden

On the way back from the orphanage, we decided to give our feet a rest and catch some bicycle taxis. I was shocked to find out at the end of the 30-minute, 7-km bike ride that my driver, who was drenched in sweat and had visibly struggled to get my American body up the hills, only asked for 200 francs, about $.34. In comparison, one of those touristy fifteen-minute bike rides around New York city usually costs something like $15.

Once we arrived back at the hostel, we got our swimsuits and sunscreen on, only to be drenched by a sudden torrential rainstorm on our way to the beach. We retreated to our hostel bar, where we had a drink and ended up meeting a reporter who had just returned from Goma, in the DRC. He shared some shocking and horrific stories about accounts of rape and marauding militias he had encountered. In sum, he told us “The time I spent in the Congo was the worst two weeks of my life.” To hear that and to know that Goma is about 3 miles from Gisenyi created an eerie sense of calm. It’s unsettling and morbidly ironic to know that right across the border from the beautiful vacation town of Gisenyi is a city ravaged by war and overflowing with internally displaced people.

The next day, we met up with a Rwandan friend of a friend who lives in Gisenyi and took us on a walk around the shoreline. Intrigued about the fact that we were literally one mile from the DRC, we went on a little walk and saw the border checkpoint (I’m sure much to my mother’s displeasure). It was surprisingly mundane looking, with lots of security guards, a passport and immigration station, a Porsche driving through the checkpoint from Congo, families with suitcases crossing over in both directions, and trucks carrying goods stopping to be checked. We also saw a few U.N. trucks heading into Rwanda, presumably for some R&R on the beach. Unfortunately no pictures were allowed at the border checkpoint – my friend showing us around said he had been arrested last year for taking a picture (he was detained for 7 hours but in the end the police just made him delete his picture and then let him go). We did get a picture with a nearby sign down the road.

Decisions, decisions.

The luxury hotel in the background is in the Congo

After getting our fill of excitement in for the day, we walked along the road that leads to the beach and finally saw why Gisenyi is called the “Martha’s Vineyard of Rwanda.” Peeking into the grounds of the Stipp Hotel, right on the water, we saw a tropical wonderland awaiting lucky visitors:

Outdoor restaurant at the Stipp Hotel

Our walk took us along the beach and finally to the Lake Kivu Serena Hotel, one of the nicest 5-star hotels in the country with branches in both Kigali and Gisenyi. Here’s an image I found online of the Gisenyi Serena by night:

We ended our adventure sipping a drink on the Serena lawn, overlooking the beach and Lake Kivu, before heading to catch our 3-hour bus back to Kigali. The bus ride ended up being one of the most entertaining 3 hours of my life, thanks to Deo, an eccentric and talkative professor-diplomat-philosopher sitting next to us. A native Rwandan who had spent much of his life in the Congo, Deo had a contagious enthusiasm for classical Greek mythology and referred to me as Helen of Troy throughout the ride. Our conversation spanned across Greek mythology, Congolese history, Rwandan diplomacy, French and English philology, development, the Ice Age, and everything in between. Upon hearing about my background and interests in diplomacy and peace and conflict studies, Deo invited me to come with him to teach at the university in Goma, DRC, an offer that I politely declined.

I have a feeling I’ll be back in Gisenyi soon – there’s a lot left to explore, like visiting the Bralirwa Rwandan beer brewery, indulging in the the nearby hot springs that are said to have curative powers, and maybe even lying on the beach to soak up some sun.

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When reality knocks…

Last night, Caitlin and I arrived home after a long day, passed through our compound gate and entered through the front door, which we locked behind us. We were about to prepare dinner when we heard a persistent knocking at the back kitchen door of our house. A bit apprehensive, I ventured into the kitchen and saw a young girl standing outside our window, wearing a head scarf and murmuring something plaintive in Kinyarwanda. I soon deduced that she had snuck in through our gate after us and was begging for money or food. Caitlin recognized her as the same girl who had accosted us earlier that night on our walk home, tugging at Caitlin’s sleeve and begging. For some reason that I can’t fully articulate, I suddenly became very angry and indignant. How dare she follow us home and invade our private space, our locked compound, our comfort zone, the only part of the city where we should be able to feel sheltered from the stresses and exigencies of the outside?

I called to our neighbor in the compound, who came up and escorted the girl out of our compound. When he returned he told us that he had smelled alcohol on her breath but that she was probably not a street child – he said many people leave their house to beg all day and then come home after a day’s work. As my anger and resentment subsided, I started to feel guilty and ashamed at my reaction. I thought out loud: Maybe we should have just given her the two over-ripe bananas on top of our refrigerator? But at the same time, I told myself: I’m here doing altruistic development work with a vulnerable population for most of my waking hours, aren’t I allowed some peace and quiet and time for myself at night? Moreover, I’ve always believed that band-aid handouts only create dependency and there are much better ways to fuel development and alleviate poverty.

This episode brought me face to face with the reality that over 60% of people in Rwanda live in poverty. Despite that fact that most of Kigali is a bustling and cosmopolitan city, featuring skyscrapers, a 24/7 mall, beautifully paved streets, and an array of expensive dining options, there is still an underbelly to the development and progress that has been made since the 1994 genocide. It’s fairly easy for the wealthy and the expats to exist in the layer of Kigali that is the face of Rwanda’s success in post-conflict redevelopment; the layer of the city where you can buy Camembert cheese for $12 and easily spend $50 on an Italian dinner. However the part of Kigali where I live, Nyamirambo, is known as not only the oldest and most vibrant part of the city but also the poorest. And I’m sure that once I venture more outside of Kigali, I’ll see real rural poverty similar to what people imagine when they think of the quintessential “poor African village.” After all, the incidence of poverty is much higher in rural areas (66%) than in Kigali (12%).

Rwanda currently finds itself at a crossroads of development and progress. Vision 2020, the national development manifesto, acknowledges that: “Although Rwanda has made significant progress from the devastated nation that emerged from the 1994 genocide, it still remains a severely under-developed, agrarian based economy with around 60% of the population living under the poverty line.” The vision of Vision 2020 is to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country that is united, globally competitive, and whose population is healthier, educated, and generally more prosperous. To achieve this ambitious goal, Vision 2020 identifies “six interwoven pillars: good governance and efficient State, skilled human capital, vibrant private sector, world-class physical infrastructure and modern agriculture and livestock, all geared towards national, regional and global markets.”

The way I’ve heard people here frame it, Rwanda essentially wants to become the Singapore of East Africa by 2020. It’s a lofty goal but one that may in fact be achieved, as long all the layers of the country are included in every step of the process.

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A Day in the Life

My day usually starts around 7:30, or earlier if my neighbors decide to play their radio particularly loud. First thing after waking up, I step outside to fill up my shower bucket with water and heat up a kettle to mix in and warm it up.

Behind my house (the little house is where our guardien lives)

Around 8 or 8:30 Caitlin and I head out for the half-hour walk to work. If we’re too hungry to walk to the grocery store near the office, we stop by Alimentation Beautiful, our neighborhood grocery store.

Caitlin excited for her morning yogurt

Then we set off on the walk from Nyamirambo to town, always lively with people greeting us, cars and motos whizzing by at alarming speeds, and the varied sights, sounds, and smells of morning.

Me walking in Nyamirambo

On the days that we don’t stop for breakfast at Alimentation Beautiful, I go to the BCK (Boucherie et Charcuterie de Kigali) in town for a fresh whole grain roll (150 franc = .25) and vanilla yogurt (350 franc = .60).

Caitlin buying her breakfast at the BCK

I arrive at work between 8:30 and 9:00.

At Generation Rwanda (with our office manager, Becca, stepping out)

I usually spend the mornings working at my desk.

Sylvia, the career development officer, and me in our office

The women in my office have a tendency to wear eerily-similar, matching, or corresponding outfits at least once a week.

Mary and me in corresponding earthy tones (note the shoes)

Around 12 I head to lunch with my coworkers. Since my first week, we’ve gone exploring and we’ve managed to expand our lunch options to a rotation of three delicious buffets.

Enjoying our colorful heaping plates at Ma Colline

After lunch, I teach English classes twice a week. In class we work on pronunciation, listen to speeches and music in English, have discussions on topics like leadership, gender, Rwandan culture, etc., prepare for future debates, and discuss movies.

Me leading a discussion on The Secret Life of Bees

I leave work between 5:30 and 7. After work I often stop by a shop near our house to buy things like bread, toilet paper, drinks, dish soap, etc…all very reasonable and squeezed into a very small space.

Me with Jackie, our friendly neighboring shopkeeper

One essential part of my day that I unfortunately haven’t yet captured in photos is stopping by the neighborhood chapati/brochette/tea stand. Stay posted for a photo at some point…

Lastly, although this wasn’t a typical day in the life, here’s a snapshot of my birthday party this past Tuesday night. It was quite festive, with over 25 people, lots of dancing, singing, Primus (Rwandan beer), cake, presents, and general merriment.

Me and friends celebrating my 22nd

That should give all of you an even better idea of what it is I do every day!

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As you can imagine, I stand out here. I’ve grown accustomed to hearing “muzungu!” about once every ten minutes when I’m out in public. Curious about the etymology of my new moniker, I did some Wikipedia research and here’s what i found:

Mzungu(pronounced “Mmm-zoo-ngooo”) is the southern, central and eastern African term for “person of European descent“. Literally translated, it means “white person”. The term was first used by Africans to describe early European explorers…The etymology of the word stems from a contraction of words meaning “one who wanders aimlessly” (from Swahili words zunguzunguzunguzungukazungushamzungukaji – meaning to go round and round) and was coined to describe European explorers, missionaries and slave traders who traveled through East African countries in the 18th century.”

I suppose it’s a fitting term for me, given that I’m often wandering, traveling, strolling, or looking for something that turns out to be far from where my directions took me. (I’d say I now have about 70% of Kigali’s layout down pat but venturing through the other 30% does usually end up in aimless wanderings.)

It’s an interesting phenomenon to always be on display. As I was recently discussing with Mary and Caitlin, this must be what being famous feels like: people approach me all the time to shake my hand, greet and welcome me to their country, hand me their babies, pet my hair, sometimes even ask for a picture with me, and take the time to practice whatever English they know, regardless of the time of day. (I can’t help chuckling when people shout “Good morning!” when they pass me at 9 pm.)

It used to bother me more to always be pointed out but now I’m fairly unfazed and simply take it as a greeting from curious people. Rwandan friends of mine tell me it isn’t meant to be offensive at all – shouting “muzungu!” is usually intended as a way of welcoming a foreigner, showing excitement or surprise, or just trying to get our attention. I equate it to the way kids love pointing out an airplane – though they’ve usually seen it before, it’s still exciting and a fun thing to share with friends.

Not only do muzungus obviously stand out for aesthetic reasons, our skin color also comes with unshakable implications. What gets tiring is the way that some people, mostly street children, see my white skin and immediately see a dollar sign. I’ve also grown accustomed to but not as comfortable with hearing “Muzungu! Give me money!” I like to respond with “Umwirabura (black person)! Give me money!” That usually sufficiently confuses them and gives me enough time to weave my way into a crowd or dart across the street.

It’s a nice relief to occasionally find myself surrounded by mostly muzungus, which isn’t too uncommon with the bustling ex-pat community here in Kigali. One such case of bizarre but blissful blending in was a trivia night that I went to a few weeks ago at Sol e Luna, an Italian restaurant featuring a twinkling vista of the whole city, outdoor sprawling canopies that made me feel like I was in a Mediterranean tree house, and, of course, muzungu-priced pizzas. Caitlin, Mary, and I came in somewhere around 9th place out of about 20 teams.

I can’t claim that I now know how all minorities feel because being a minority in a place like the U.S. or Europe often comes with different implications. However I can say I know what it feels like to be a permanent outsider – though it comes with its stresses and frustrations, it’s a good feeling to know that I’m expanding my comfort zone every day.

In other news, Happy 10/10/10!

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Welcome to the Hash

Yesterday I was officially inducted into the Kigali Chapter of Hash House Harriers, “the world’s most eccentric running club.” The Hash House Harriers is an international and decentralized network of social running clubs and “hashing” is the term used to describe partaking in this unique phenomenon. Hashing originated in 1938 and there are currently 1,918 registered groups in the world, located in 1,250 cities in 183 countries.

I first heard about hashing from my friend Meg in Uganda, who is a member of the Kampala Chapter. After getting details about it from friends in Kigali and realizing that I really miss running regularly, I became more intrigued and went to check it out with Caitlin and Mary. Each Saturday a different “hasher” sets the running/walking/hiking trail through a part of Kigali and luckily for us, yesterday’s was right up the mountain in our neck of the woods, Nyamirambo.

Following the slightly enigmatic directions provided by the group’s Yahoo page, we trekked up to the meeting point, a lovely bar called Ten to Two with a panoramic view of all of Kigali and its encompassing valley. As the other hashers gathered at the meeting spot, people introduced themselves by their hash names, acquired through a naming ceremony that members reach after completing different requirements. It was kind of surreal and extremely entertaining to have grown adults introducing themselves as Rambo, Dr. Doolittle, Ganja Planter, and Sweet Cheeks, to name a few.

The hash itself was a trail set by paper markers snaking up Mount Kigali that weaved through banana fields, an evergreen forest, villages tucked into rolling hills, foxholes from the 1994 conflict, and the occasional cow crossing. The views throughout the 1-1/2 hour hike were seriously breathtaking and I hope to post some pictures when I find better internet. What made the hike even more fun was that the hash is set up in a sort of scavenger hunt system, with different markers meaning either “go ahead”, “guess which way is right”, and “turn around.” Given all the uneven terrain and steep slopes it was too treacherous to try to run. Luckily there are always groups of both runners and walkers, so the three of us weren’t left behind as we made the brisk walk up and around the mountain.

After the hash everyone regrouped at the bar, where the real fun started. While enjoying the freely-flowing beer, soda, water, and spicy brochettes (covered by the individual session price of 2,000 francs or about $3), we got to know the other hashers, who are about 2/3 Rwandan and 1/3 international. In a kind of cult-like manner, hashing is replete with ceremonies and protocols led by the chapter leadership, interestingly referred to as the “religious adviser.” In the traditional circle formation, we all sang drinking songs, heard the hashing news and upcoming events, and were given a brief introduction to the organization. Then the three of us were brought into the center to introduce ourselves as the “hash virgins” and chug some Mutzig to the chants of “Down, down!”. To top it off, we all met back up later last night at the Executive Carwash to continue the festivities.

All in all, hashing was an experience unlike any other and I’m glad I took the plunge and decided to check it out. I definitely plan to keep up with it and, who knows, maybe I’ll get my own hash name someday!

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