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Archive for February, 2011

Mutual Misperceptions

Based on conversations with Rwandan friends here and American friends at home, I’ve come to the conclusion that most people have very little idea of the world outside their immediate reality. Granted, depending on individuals’ interests, access to information, and initiative to do research, there are certainly exceptions. But the majority of people depend on media and second- or third-hand accounts to learn about life outside their borders, sources that too often paint simple pictures stemming from a single story that metastasize to become accepted as the norm.

I’ll start with the perceptions held by some of my Rwandan friends and acquaintances here. In general, when I tell people that there is poverty in the U.S., they are in disbelief. Thanks to a combination of media stories, ever-popular American music (in particular rappers’ odes to their billions of dollars and fleets of Escalades), and snippets of information from friends abroad, most Rwandans believe that the U.S. is a land of glory, peace, and prosperity. Slums, gangs, racism, drugs, unemployment, domestic abuse, poverty, morbid obesity, AIDS, and other unsavory elements of the current American reality are not included in the image that most people hold of the U.S. People here are even more surprised when I tell them that most of New York state is in fact rural and has an extremely depressed economy.

On the other side of the coin, before I left for Rwanda, a friend from home asked me if there were cars in Africa. Again, thanks to the media and the human brain’s need to simplify the world, most people in the U.S. think of Africa as a land of hardship, despair, poverty, disease, famine, and war, where everyone lives in mud huts or slums and has AIDS, and where all men practice polygamy. I don’t mean to downplay challenges facing Africa’s development or speak on behalf of an entire continent larger than Western Europe, America, China, and India combined, but this blanket perception is generally false and is not helpful for Africa’s development. Africa has some seriously developed and cosmopolitan cities like Nairobi, Kampala, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Accra, Cairo, and Abuja, to name a few. In ten years, I predict that Kigali will join their ranks and will have a reputation as the cleanest and safest of all African metropolises.

As I try to convey through my blog, life in Kigali can be surprisingly easy, fun, and interesting for expats and middle- and upper-class Rwandans. After each of my posts about wedding celebrations, resorts and beaches along Lake Kivu, and Kigali’s diverse dining options, my father has e-mailed me saying, “This does not seem like a depressed and impoverished country at all.”

No doubt, there is still backbreaking poverty in rural areas and the slums of the city – I’m not trying to discount that by any measure. For many Rwandans, life is very tough. I may unintentionally paint a rosy picture of life in Kigali and, by extension, Rwanda, but that is in part because the government takes special care to keep the city clean, safe, and free of beggars through various government initiatives. Even so, there is a universal sense of forward momentum and excitement about the country’s future that seems to transcend social classes. I attribute it largely to President Kagame’s visionary leadership and the remarkable progress that the country has made in the past seventeen years.

Ultimately, I think the issue boils down to humankind’s subconscious reluctance to confront complexity, especially when it involves lands halfway across the world. Instead of seeing a rich and intricate tapestry, when people in the U.S. imagine Africa and when people here imagine the U.S., they see a simple sketch in black and white. Although it is difficult to replace long-held misperceptions with the truth and although I’m only writing about one African country out of 54, I hope that my blog does help chip away at them little by little, post by post.

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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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