Archive for March, 2011

Adventures with Felines

After a few weeks of contemplation and searching, last Thursday Caitlin and I took the plunge and adopted two sister cats named Simba and Chewy. Little did we know that taking them home would unleash a twisted saga of surprise, frustration, and despair…

Photo from ad: Chewy (L) and Simba (R)

The previous owners had left Kigali a few weeks ago, leaving the fully-vaccinated house cats with a couple who acted as foster “parents” for them for about a week. After confirming that we were officially adopting them on Wednesday afternoon, Caitlin and I set off readying the house and making preparations, such as cooking up a kilo of ground beef and cabbage and researching creative alternatives to kitty litter (we’ve settled on dirt from outside, which is working surprisingly well – something the kitty litter industry doesn’t want you to know).

Arriving at home with the cats, who had been in a box for the last hour of transit and hand-off, is when our troubles started. As Caitlin opened the box, Chewy sprung out like some sort of crazed jack-in-the-box, smacked into the back door, and then managed to squeeze through the impossibly small 2-inch space underneath it to sprint away into the wilderness of Nyamirambo.

Thursday evening and night was quite a trying time. We spent hours searching, calling her name, alerting neighbors that our “injungwe” was missing, and comforting Simba (who we have since renamed Keza, or “beautiful” in Kinyarwanda). Here’s a picture of her:

Keza on the prowl for either her sister or some ground beef

We left a plate of food and a trail of sardines out Thursday night in an attempt to attract Chewy back and told our night guard, Eric, to be on high alert. Around 2 am, I started hearing plaintive meows emanating from what seemed like right under my window. Strangely, after going outside three times between 2 am and 5 am, I could never find the cat. Then at 5:30, I was awoken by Eric, excitedly knocking on my window and shouting “Pussy! Pussy! Pussy!”

Caitlin and I scrambled out of bed and ran outside with a flashlight. Following Eric’s directions, I peered under the car and saw yellow eyes and a scared face peering back at me. It had most likely been on the roof or hiding in the drain near my window. To coax the cat out, I took the plate of food and nudged it gradually closer, while Eric kept crooning “pussy, pussy, pussy, pussy!” As it crept within grabbing distance, I readied my clutch and was about to swoop in when Caitlin shouted “THAT’S NOT CHEWY!” All our excitement deflated as we realized it was only a hungry neighborhood stray and that I could have gotten rabies or fleas.

Over the next few days, as Keza settled in and showed off how much she loves to cuddle and purr, we became increasingly filled with despair about the possibility of Chewy returning. Our only glimmer of hope was based on the thought that Chewy would most likely miss her sister, with  whom she had spent her entire four years of existence, enough to come back…right?

There’s one last harrowing twist to the story: Late Saturday (read: 3 am), we returned home from a night out on the town to find Keza extremely excitable and scampering around the house. As I walked into the living room, I heard loud meows coming from under the table, which weren’t characteristic to Keza. I peered under and found – no, unfortunately not Chewy – THE STRAY CAT! It had entered through an open window and I imagine it was trying to a) make a friend, b) reproduce (if it’s a male; I didn’t get close enough to tell), c) find some food, or d) terrorize Keza for encroaching on its territory. In the ensuing screams and chaos (“What if Keza was raped?!”, “Eric, help!”, “Where are the dish gloves?”), the cat scampered back out the open window and left us feeling quite violated and unsettled.

Since then it has been fairly uneventful in the house, except for Keza peeing in a few inappropriate places (next to Caitlin and my beds). Chewy is unfortunately still nowhere to be found. We’ve comforted ourselves by reasoning that if she was so wild and antisocial, perhaps it’s better for her to live outside. However, it is surely difficult for Keza to lose her sister. We’re looking into getting a kitten to keep her company, so there will most likely be a Part II to this saga…hopefully it will have a happier ending.

Read Full Post »

Fun with Liquids

English is not an easy language to learn, especially when it comes to pronunciation. A common issue for East Africans speaking English, as well as for millions of people around the world (Asians in particular), is distinguishing between R and L when speaking and writing. In phonetics, R and L are considered “liquids,” consonant sounds in which the tongue produces a partial closure in the mouth, resulting in a resonant, vowel-like consonant. R and L are the main liquids of English, although M and N are sometimes also included.

Indeed there is only a slight difference in the pronunciation of R and L  – the lips stay halfway open for both and the difference is the tongue placement. For R, the tongue doesn’t touch the top of the mouth and the sound seems to come more from the throat. For L, the tongue touches the palate just behind the teeth and the sound comes out of the mouth. Many languages around the world have no distinction between these nuanced pronunciations, which is why acquisition of them for non-native English speakers is so difficult.

The ambiguity between R and L also provides some very entertaining typos and mispronunciations. Here are some of my favorite misspelled signs and mispronounced words from around the region…

Dry Creaners

Manicule & Pedicule



Lice and beans for dinner

Groly be to God (Following the same logic, my mother’s name would be Grolia)


“I am very pleased to corrabolate with you.”



Heraina and Caitrin


And then my all-time favorite…”Did you vote in the last erection?”

Read Full Post »

I just returned from a week in Nairobi, Kenya, where I met up with some other Princeton-in-Africa Fellows for a mini-retreat and also spent time with one of my favorite people in the world, Rachel Brown. Rachel is the founder and director of Sisi ni Amani, an innovative, inspiring, and important SMS peace-mapping initiative in Nairobi.

First of all, for those of you who are as uninformed as I was, Nairobi is a SERIOUS city with essentially all the services, attractions, and amenities you can find in the capital city of a developed country (in addition to the typical slums and poorer areas you would find in most cities). It has shopping malls, high rise luxury apartments, gourmet restaurants, an impressive skyline, and tons of skyscrapers like this one:

An office building in downtown Nairobi

The week was full of exciting adventures, ranging from kissing giraffes to accompanying Rachel into some of Nairobi’s slums for meetings with community peace groups to having a serendipitous reunion with another one of my favorite people in the world. I’ll let the pictures do the recounting…

Theresa, Allie, Tony, me, and Chris at our delightful hostel, The Wildebeest

There are a total of around 25 Princeton-in-Africa Fellows posted on yearlong fellowships around the continent, some of whose blogs I have linked to in my sidebar. If you’re curious, check out the blogs of the Fellows whom I met up with in Nairobi: Theresa at the Mpala Wildlife Research Center in Kenya, Allie at the UN World Food Program in Ethiopia, Tony at the Lutheran World Federation in Burundi, and Chris at Nyambani Village in Kenya.

Our first excursion was to an elephant orphanage just outside of Nairobi.

Baby elephant so young it doesn't have any tusks

We weren’t able to touch them but we got pretty close and saw them being fed milk, taking baths, and lounging around in the water.

Allie, me, and elephants

Next, we visited a giraffe park, where we could admire them from up close and feed them little pellets.

Explanation: the giraffe's ear was tickling my head

Then I got to kiss a giraffe! (Read: hold a pellet of food in between my lips to entice the giraffe to lick my mouth.) Who knew that giraffe’s tongues are 18-25 inches long?

Not the most enjoyable kiss I've ever had, but definitely the sloppiest

In keeping with the theme of exotic animals, we had dinner at one of Nairobi’s tourism institutions, a restaurant/carnival/shrine to meat called Carnivore. Each table is given a white flag and until one “surrenders” the flag onto the table, servers continue circulating with a variety of meats, some more delectable than others and some purely for shock value. Recent laws prevent eating bush meat like our four-legged friends above, but you can find a few exotic offerings on the menu below.

The menu

Upon tasting ox balls (yes, testicles), it took all of my willpower to not regurgitate all over the table. However, the camel was surprisingly moist and delicious and the crocodile wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. It tasted like fish and had the texture of chicken.

Meat cooking station, modeled after hell

The flag claiming possession of my carcasses

The next day, after we had all sufficiently digested, the group of Fellows headed to the Maasai Market to pick up some trinkets and souvenirs.

An impressively persuasive vendor who sold me two necklaces

Then we went to the Village Market, a gourmet outdoor mall/food court that felt like we were in L.A. Did you know Nairobi had places like this? I didn’t.

In between bites of Italian gelato, I had a bit of culture shock

Visiting Kenya wouldn’t be complete without a trip to…a water park(?)! Though a bit disconcerting because of Kenya’s current drought, next to the Village Market there was an impressive water park where we spent 2 hours reliving our childhoods.

I forgot how much fun water parks are

After the reunion weekend was over, I spent a few days with Rachel to learn more about Sisi ni Amani’s work. We traveled to a few of the areas in and around Nairobi where Sisi ni Amani has partner organizations and it was exciting to see firsthand what Sisi ni Amani does.

Strategizing with a community group in Korogocho

Essentially, Sisi ni Amani “strengthens and maximizes the work of Kenyan peace leaders through enhancing communication, coordination, and conflict preparedness.” It is currently setting up an online platform through which existing community peace groups can use SMS technology (cell phone texts) to spread awareness about peace events and civic education. The ultimate goal is to avoid a repeat of the 2007 election violence in the upcoming 2012 elections. Sisi ni Amani’s work is extremely important and I urge any of you interested to find out more or make a pledge to donate. Even $10 would go a long way, enabling local peace groups to update 800 vulnerable individuals about upcoming peace events or educate them about their civic rights via text message. Please e-mail me at helaina@helaina.com if you are interested in supporting Sisi ni Amani’s work.

Another unbelievably cool thing I did was visit a hot glass factory with Rachel. Called Kitengela and founded by Germans, this place is a cross between Alice in Wonderland, a glass factory, a museum, and a series of bungalows – all tucked away in rolling fields just outside of Nairobi. At Kitengela, “Everything is unique and nothing is wasted.”


They take glass like this and turn it into...

Vases like these

And trinkets like these (Rachel not included)

Lastly, I had an unexpected reunion with Charlotte Bourdillon, another one of my best friends from Tufts. She happened to be passing through Nairobi for about 12 hours on her way to rural Kenya to work at the Kakenya Center for Excellence as a Fellow with the Advocacy Project. As always, it was incredible catching up with her and sharing our life updates of the past few months.

Charlotte in all her glory!

After such a whirlwind, it’s nice to be back in Kigali and settling back into my routine here. Weekend nziza!

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »