Archive for the ‘Life in Kigali’ Category

In addition to sleeping late (until 9 am), one of my Sunday rituals is going shopping at the Nyamirambo market up the street from my house. Kigali has about four or five markets, which offer mainly the same things at mainly the same prices (although the prices universally inflate about 20-30% for white skin).

At the Nyamirambo market, there are about 50-100 vendors selling fruits, vegetables, meat, flour, eggs, home goods, cooking materials, clothing, shoes, sunglasses, fabric, charcoal, and more. Visiting the market is always a stimulating experience and it’s great to start off the week fully stocked up on fresh fruit and vegetables.

The market is organized in a sort of concentric squares structure, with vendors selling home goods, shoes, sunglasses, etc. lining the outer square.

Technicolor home goods

Passing into the wooden structure in the front of the market, you meet an elaborate series of vendors selling essentially the same vegetables. Sometimes I wonder why merchants don’t specialize and break up into unique clusters or cooperatives of potatoes, tomatoes, onions, etc. Following the laws of supply and competition, the prices are fairly uniform across all of the aisles. I suppose in the end it would be difficult to orchestrate and maintain a division of vegetable offerings.

Stands at the entrance to the vegetable labyrinth

Going to the market as a mzungu has not been as overwhelming as I was expecting. People occasionally call out and hawk at me but are generally calm and let me browse through the aisles at my own pace.

A merchant who sold me some garlic

There are in fact a few merchants who stick to one or two vegetables and sell in bulk, like the onions below.

Onions galore

Outside of the wooden structure there are stalls to buy raw meat like goat, beef, and chicken. This next picture may not be suitable for vegetarians…

Yes those are goat heads

Crossing into another wooden structure brings you to the fruit stands. Here is a kind woman who sells me my mango and passion fruit. The reddish-yellow oval fruit on the left is some sort of tree plum which is quite bitter on its own but delicious in juice form.

I just couldn’t not take a picture of this scene:

Walrus baby amidst plantain bushels

Heading toward the exit, you pass by several stands of used vintage shoes. These most likely come from foreign donations that end up sold to merchants or given as surpluses. Although it makes westerners feel good, sending old clothing and shoes to Africa is actually one of the worst things we can do for local economies.

Recognize any old shoes?

Sunday’s trip was quite fruitful and I left with a cornucopia of eggplants, onions, carrots, mangos, passion fruit, curry powder, and goat heads. I kid, no goat heads. (Haha, two puns in one paragraph.)

It’s unique to have such an array of fresh and succulent produce at my fingertips in addition to fully stocked grocery stores where I can buy western comfort food like cream cheese and Rice Krispies (albeit at a premium). On that note, the bagels from Friday’s culinary adventure were a great success! I ended up eating all three of my bagels within 15 hours (two for dinner and one for breakfast…don’t judge.) As I was heading to a meeting in a new part of town yesterday I passed by a megastore with a banner that read “MADE IN ITALY: IMPORTED CHEESE, WINE, MEATS, OIL, SAUCES, ICE CREAM, AND MORE.” I have a feeling that will be my next grocery adventure!


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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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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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