Archive for the ‘Photos’ Category

Rwanda Nziza*: A Photo Essay

Translation: Beautiful Rwanda

Misty morning sunrise in northern Rwanda, on road from Kirambo to Base

Grain fields and morning mist in Kinigi, northern Rwanda

Meandering road and ominous sky near Lake Kivu on road from Gisenyi to Nkora

Colorful women on road to Lake Burera

Lake Kivu, Kibuye

Female gorilla from Kwitonda family

Baby gorilla from Kwitonda family

Silverback gorilla from Kwitonda family

Fishermen at dusk on Lake Kivu, Gisenyi

Breakfast still life at Paradise Malahide hotel, Rubavu/Gisenyi

"Ibiseke," baskets made by a women's cooperative in Gashora

View of Muhabura volcano from Lake Burera

Youth Intore dancing troupe in front of Sabyinyo volcano at Mountain Gorillas View Hotel, Musanze

Nyungwe National Forest, southwest Rwanda

Dynamic tea fields, between Gisenyi and Musanze

Tea field patterns, between Gisenyi and Musanze

Tea fields and checkerboard cultivation, between Gisenyi and Musanze

Tea fields and power lines on road from Kirambo to Base

Sorting coffee cherries before drying process at coffee washing station in Nkora, western Rwanda

Downtown Kigali viewed from Gisozi

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November was a crazy month, in all good ways. Three of my best friends from school, Mimi, Meg, and Charlotte, came to visit me in Kigali for an epic East Africa reunion. Meg lives in Uganda, Charlotte was living in Kenya and has since gone back to the States, and Mimi lives in DC. Needless to say, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and had a blast catching up and adventuring. The epicness of our reunion was only amplified by an epic adventure we embarked on: hike up Nyiragongo, an active 11,400-ft volcano just west of Rwanda in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and sleep at the top.

The volcano is located near the city of Goma in Virunga National Park, a park known for volcanoes and gorilla tracking that stretches from eastern DR Congo to western Rwanda to southwestern Uganda.

Charlotte, me, and a hiking buddy with an old bullet-ridden sign bearing the former name of the park

We set out around 11 am with a group of 10 hikers, 8 porters, 3 armed guards, 1 cook, and 1 guide. It was quite an expedition.

At the base

Me, Head Ranger John, and Mimi

The hike up took about 5 hours. It rained for half an hour but besides that the weather was comfortable.

Meg and me, halfway up

It was breathtaking in many ways – from the views of plains behind us to the unique flowers around us to the steep hike that left us breathless at points.

Taking it all in...note the angle of the mountain

We reached the top with an hour left of sunrise. It was freezing at the top, much to my dismay. I was hoping that the lava lake would act as a big bonfire, but I was forced to resort to putting on my 5th layer of clothing.

Charlotte and me being welcomed to the top

The volcano crater was covered in smoke at first so it was hard to see the lava lake.

First view of the lava crater with our guide, Pychan

As night fell, it became much clearer.

Babushka and the lava lake

The permanent lava lake inside of Nyiragongo is the biggest in the world, with an estimated 282 million cubic feet of lava. In 1977 and 2002, the lava lake overflowed from the crater, destroying a large part of the city of Goma.

Close up of the lava lake

Mimi and me basking in the fiery glow

We spent the night in little wooden huts a few meters below the ridge of the crater. Each hut had two beds and so naturally the four of us piled into one hut. It helped generate some heat but not enough.

Huts built into the ridge of the crater

The morning views of the landscape around us were just as breathtaking as the lava lake. We were essentially looking out on the land from the same perspective as an airplane would.

View of a crater formed from an old volcano, with Lake Kivu in the background

This is currently my desktop background

We started the hike back down around 7 and it took about 4 hours. It was easier on the heart but just as difficult on the legs, especially since the lava rocks could be a bit slippery and crumbly.

On the way back to the border, we drove through Goma and walked around to take in the sights. The Congolese presidential election was just held this past Monday, November 28th, so while we were there we witnessed a frenzy of campaign posters and political demonstrations in the build up. There were around thirty candidates in the presidential election and the incumbent was Joseph Kabila, who took office in 2001 following the assassination of his father, former president Laurent Kabila.

Campaign billboard for incumbent President Kabila, promising ambitious modernization

Supporters of another candidate dancing on a float

Campaign posters lined the sides of the roads

A man asked me to photograph him supporting his candidate

If you are interested in going on this trip, the man to know is a local tour operator named Emmanuel Munganga. He did a great job organizing everything for us (visas, transport from Rwanda, permits, security updates, etc.) and gave us quite reasonable prices. His e-mail is emmanuelrufubya@yahoo.fr. This was truly an incredible adventure and will be something I remember forever!

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Touring around Rwanda

As promised, I’m finally posting photos from my trip around Rwanda with my mother and sister last month. Sorry for my silence these past few weeks…I’ve been packing up my stuff, moving to a new house (in Kigali), figuring out what I’ll be doing next, and traveling to Ethiopia to visit some friends and then home to New York. I’ll be here in the U.S. for a bit before I return to Rwanda next month for a new and exciting adventure. (More on that to come.)

In preparation for my family’s visit to Rwanda last month, I put together a 9-day travel itinerary that included most of Rwanda’s tourist spots and a variety of sights: beach, mountains, jungle, and plains. Touring around Rwanda is quite easy and fun, given the country’s security and the government’s efforts to encourage and facilitate tourism. We started with a few days in Kigali, of which the highlights included visiting the Ivuka Arts studio, going to an Independence Day fair at the U.S. Embassy, hitting up some delicious buffets and restaurants, and my family riding motos:

Mom getting on a moto

My sister, Julia, giggling with anticipation and excitement

Our first stop out of Kigali was Nyungwe National Park, East Africa’s largest protected high-altitude rainforest. It is home to hundreds of species of birds and primates and became an official protected National Park in 2005. The hiking trails and canopy walk inside the forest were truly breathtaking, not to mention the lush green rolling hills covered in tea bushes surrounding the forest.

First view of Nyungwe Forest and rolling tea plantations

Our first activity, traversing East Africa's only canopy walk

It was terrifying but awesome

Stein ladies hiking

Desktop background worthy

Waterfall hike

Colobus monkey tracking

Meandering through tea fields

Julia and our driver, Elias, taking a rest on tea pillows

The hotel we stayed at, Nyungwe Forest Lodge, was surreal and surprisingly reasonable. Check out their photo gallery to see shots of individual bungalows overlooking the forest, infinity pool, massage center, and exquisite central common room.

Fitting for a hotel built in the middle of a tea field to have an awesome gourmet tea pot

After three days at Nyungwe, we drove north to Gisenyi, a quiet resort town on Lake Kivu that I visited and blogged about several months ago. We stayed at a lovely hotel called Paradise Malahide and didn’t do much besides relax on the beach.

Julia reading at the beach

Fishing boats that go out at dusk and come back at dawn

Some of the paradise at Paradise Malahide

Our next stop was Virgungas National Park, home of the world-famous critically endangered mountain gorillas that Dian Fossey studied and helped to save in the late 1960s until her murder in 1985. The park is home to around 600 surviving mountain gorillas, who have miraculously survived  poaching, loss of habitat, human disease, and war. The Rwandan government’s current efforts to protect the gorillas are laudable and are largely supported through the revenue from gorilla permits ($500 each for foreigners, $250 for residents, around $70 for Rwandans). There are around 60 gorilla families that reside on the foothills of the Virungas volcanic mountains and only about ten of them have been acclimated for human interaction. We visited a family called Umubano of around 13 gorillas, including one adult silverback and one adolescent silverback. It was truly awe-inspiring to be so close to such majestic creatures (with whom humans share 98% of our genome!).

Our first sighting was of a mother nursing her tiny baby

Close up

The silverback

The whole family reunited!

On the way back from the gorillas we stopped at a cultural village and saw performances, reproductions, and presentations of traditional culture and practices.

Medicine man or witch doctor, depending on your perspective

Me grinding some sorghum flour

Back at the hotel we saw traditional dancing by an exuberant youth troupe.

Lots of energy


Our last stop was on the other side of the country at the Akagera National Game Park, a savannah grasslands reserve on the border with Tanzania that has a much different feel from the rest of Rwanda’s mountainous landscape. It is home to a wide variety of game including elephants, lions, zebras, hippos, crocodiles, giraffes, impalas, and many more. We took a 6 hour drive through the game park and saw some incredible sights.

Majestic giraffe

Some impalas or reedbucks...I forget the name

Hippos creeping on the shores of Lake Ihema

Baboons near our hotel


Last but not least, the 43-year-old elephant...

...who got a little too excited!

After 9 days of traveling around Rwanda, we ended the trip with a few more days in Kigali. We visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, hiked up Mount Kigali, shared a whole grilled tilapia, and ate delicious brochettes at the Hotel Mille Collines.

Adorable and pensive kids at a pre-school on Mount Kigali


Stein girls on Mount Kigali

It was wonderful to show my family around Kigali and explore new parts of Rwanda together. Now I can safely say I’ve seen pretty much every part of the country. For anyone considering an African safari, I highly encourage a stop in Rwanda and I would be happy to share my advice for planning a trip around the country!

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Living in the city of Kigali, it’s easy to forget that 90% of Rwanda’s population is involved in (mainly subsistence) agriculture. Rwanda is, after all, a primarily rural country and agriculture is its dominant economic activity. According to Rwanda’s Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI), Rwanda also happens to be the most densely populated country in Africa with 300 people per square kilometer (and up to 600 people per square kilometer of arable land). The country’s main agricultural products include coffee, tea, bananas, beans, sorghum, potatoes, and livestock; however, only coffee and tea are exported. According to the CIA World Factbook, agricultural production has increased significantly over the last three years and as of 2010, Rwanda was self-sufficient in food production. (Prior to 2010, Rwanda depended on food imports to close the gap between production and demand.) In 2008, minerals overtook coffee and tea as Rwanda’s primary export.

Last weekend, I had the chance to get out of the city and accompany a friend to his fields on the outskirts of Gitarama, a small city just south of Kigali. Etienne, a man who sells vegetables to my office every week, had invited me to come see his fields just south of Kigali and even help cultivate a bit. The two of us set off with his brother, who also cultivates his own fields and sells his produce around Kigali. I learned that the two brothers actually supply produce for one of the best grocery stores in town, a German butchery called La Galette.

After a 20-minute bus ride from Kigali, we got off along a road meandering through lush mountains and valleys and set out walking through fields and hills. Along the way, Etienne and his brother, Jean Damascene, took me on a tour of their fields, which were spaced out over several miles and different hills.

Beginning of the journey

Etienne and Jean Damascene grow a wide variety of produce, including peppers, eggplant, sweet and regular potatoes, tomatoes, onions, avocado, passion fruit, oranges, peanuts, bananas, green bananas, cucumbers, corn, sorghum, cassava, watermelon, pineapple, garlic, and coffee.

Etienne showing me his pepper plant

I’ve bought the final product several times and it’s incredible how succulent and fragrant the green peppers here are.

A beautiful naturally-occurring plant that cures malaria when boiled into a tea

I always imagined that pineapples grew on trees but I stand corrected…

Baby pineapple!

Sorghum, a major source of grain and feed for livestock

After about a 45-minute walk to the hills, we started hiking up and came upon some houses in a clearing.

Not a bad view

Along came two boys carrying jerry cans full of locally-produced banana beer.

Each 2.5-gallon container of beer costs about $8 (5,000 Rwf). That comes out to a price of about 53 cents for 1 liter.

We wound our way up the hills and continued to find more plots of Etienne’s fruit and vegetables scattered about.

Peanut plants (L) and potato plants (R)

Fresh amata...yum

Along the way, I helped pick some eggplants and corn, which Etienne let me take home as a gift.

Running away from the camera

After another 45 minutes of hiking, we arrived at Etienne’s prized watermelon patch. Yielding about $3.30 per piece, watermelons are Etienne’s most profitable item. He currently produces about 500 per season and is planning to expand his fields next year.

Baby watermelon

I asked Etienne how he manages to cultivate so many fields spread across miles of land. He told me that he hires people to help him so that even when he is away in Kigali people back in Gitarama oversee his fields.

The end

When I asked Etienne if he enjoys farming, he replied enthusiastically in the affirmative. He explained to me that his parents and grandparents were farmers on this very land and he has been farming since he was a very young boy. He’s proud of being a farmer and of producing high-quality (and deliciously organic!) produce for people around Gitarama and Kigali.

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Kwita Izina

Rwandan names have deep significance and offer a unique lens into culture and family here. For those of you who share my fascination with etymology of words and names, Kinyarwanda names provide a trove of discoveries.

There are three types of names that an individual can have, including a Kinyarwanda given name (surname), a name from the father’s side (family name), and a Christian or Muslim name, depending on the religion. Some Rwandans keep all three names, but it is more common for people to choose only two as their official name – in some cases, parents let the child decide which combination of names s/he wants to be called. Some parents give all of their children names with with the same root to have a familial theme. For Catholics, a Christian name is given only at the baby’s Baptism.

About one month after a baby is born, the family holds a naming ceremony, called kwita izina. At this ceremony friends and family gather to celebrate the birth and offer suggestions of names for the child. I recently attended the kwita izina of a friend, Olivier, whose wife, Jeannette, had just given birth to a baby girl.

Olivier, Jeannette, and their newborn baby

Each of the 40-some guests present stood up and suggested a Kinyarwanda name paired with a Christian name.

A guest offering a name suggestion

My name suggestion was Umutesi Helene.

Jeannette, her almost-named baby, and me

Ultimately, Jeannette and Olivier unveiled a name that they had already chosen: Keza Mporera Arnica (pronounced KAY-zuh mm-ho-RAY-ruh AR-ni-ca). Keza (“beautiful”) is her Kinyarwanda name, Mporera (“compassion, mercy”) is her family name from Olivier’s grandmother, and Arnica (a healing flower) is her Christian name.

I’ve started working on a list of some Kinyarwanda names and their meanings. There are a few themes, primarily variations on the root imana, or “God”, and variations on the root kunda, or “love.” It is still a work in progress, so I kindly request that any Rwandans reading please correct mistakes I’ve made about meanings or gender. Names from this list may be either one’s family name (name inherited from the father) or Kinyarwanda given name (surname). Here it is so far:


  • Ganza – be prosperous, be known
  • Gatanazi – strong
  • Gatera – invader, attacker
  • Habamenshi – people talk a lot
  • Hitimana – named by God
  • Kamanzi – warrior, hero
  • Mbarushimana – I am luckier than you
  • Mugabo – man
  • Mukunzi – lover, sweetheart
  • Ndabarinzi – I am protecting you
  • Ngoga – courage, speed
  • Nshizirungu – has friends, not lonely
  • Ntampaka – no disagreement
  • Ntarugera – safe, no worries
  • Rukundo – love
  • Shema – pride
  • Shyaka – commitment, courage
  • Turatsinze – we are the winners


  • Giramata – has milk
  • Girinka – has cow
  • Gisa – meaning unknown, from old Kinyarwanda
  • Imbabazi – sorry
  • Isaro – bead, jewel
  • Kabatesi, Umutesi – stubborn
  • Keza – beautiful
  • Kirezi – jewel, brilliant, beauty
  • Kundwa, Mukundwa – be loved
  • Mpore, Mporera – compassion, mercy
  • Nkunzi – be loved
  • Nzayisenga – I will worship God
  • Safi – clean, pure
  • Umubyeyi – parents
  • Umulisa – meaning unknown, from old Kinyarwanda
  • Umutoni – elite
  • Uwase – for the father


Kunda (“love”) root:

  • Bakunda – they love
  • Iradukunda – God loves us
  • Nkunda – I love
  • Nyirarukundo – something else with love, not sure…
  • Tumukunde – let’s love him/her, lovely
  • Uzamukunda – you will be loved

Imana (“God”) root:

  • Akimana – precious daughter/son of God
  • Dusabimana – let’s pray to God
  • Habimana – something else with God, not sure
  • Habyarimana – God produces
  • Hakizimana – God gives wealth
  • Ndagijimana – protected by God
  • Nsabimana – something else with God, not sure
  •  Uwimana – God’s daughter/son

And other unisex names:

  • Abayisenga – worshippers
  • Hirwa, Uhirwa – be lucky, lucky one
  • Ingabire – grace
  • Kwizerwa, Mwizerwa – trustworthy
  • Muhire, Umuhire – blessed, happy
  • Ndayishimye – I am happy
  • Nkurunziza – good news
  • Nzabamwita – we will name him/her later (funny one)
  • Tumurere – let’s educate him/her
  • Tuyishimye – we are happy
  • Uwamahoro – peace, serenity

Most Christian names in Rwanda are Francophone. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Chantal
  • Emmanuel
  • Eric
  • Jacqueline
  • Jean + something (m): Jean de Dieu, Jean Damascene, Jean d’Amour, Jean Aimé, Jean Baptiste, Jean Bosco, Jean Paul, Jean Paulin
  • Justine
  • Olive (f)/Olivier (m)

On a personal note, I have falled in love with the word Amata (ah-MAH-tah) and I’ve added it to my ongoing list of names for a potential future daughter. I find it special for multiple reasons: In Kinyarwanda it means “milk,” in Hindi it means “immortality,” and in Latin it is the feminine perfect passive participle of amare, meaning “loved.” It’s also a beautiful name and if my potential future daughter decides it’s too “weird” she can just shorten it to Amy! (I also like Izina (ee-ZEE-nah), which ironically means “name.”)

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Generation Rwanda’s 2011 new student selection process is officially open! Last week we finalized our applications and sent them off to our ten partners, organizations around Kigali and Rwanda that act as intermediaries in order to avoid an inundation of thousands of hopeful students at our office.

Mountains of paper (11,000 pieces to be exact)

In recent years, student selection has been an extremely competitive process because the Generation Rwanda scholarship is essentially the best university scholarship available in Rwanda (I’m biased, but it is). It provides university students with full tuition, housing, healthcare, monthly living stipend, English training, computer training, career development services, counseling, leadership training, entrepreneurship training, and more. It comes as no surprise that last year we had a 2% acceptance rate: out of 1,500 applicants we accepted 30 who began university this past January.

This is the beginning of an extensive two-month process that will end in June. Once we receive completed primary applications, we judge them based on applicants’ scores on national examinations, secondary school results, financial status, and motivation. Successful candidates will be required to sit for a language exam in English or French and complete a secondary application consisting of essays. Applicants who pass the second round of qualifications will then be invited for interviews at the Generation Rwanda office. One of the last steps is a physical verification in which staff members visit the homes of successful students to verify that their financial claims are true and that they are indeed vulnerable and unable to afford university any other way.

Sorting and stapling took a long time...

For students in Rwanda who are interested in applying for a scholarship, first make sure you meet these basic criteria: You graduated secondary school in 2009 or earlier (students who graduated in 2010 must wait until next year to apply), you are not currently studying at a university, and the combined average of your S5 and S6 results is 65% or higher. In addition, you must meet specific criteria regarding your national exam score. Select from the locations below where you can pick up the application (note: you will have to return the application to the same location so make sure it is the closest to you):


  • SOS Children’s Villages – Kacyiru, close to MINAGRI
  • Uyisenga N’Manzi – Kacyiru, close to King Faisal hospital
  • Gisimba Memorial Center – Nyamirambo, near Green Corner restaurant
  • FAWE – Kiyovu representative based in the RAUW office at KIST (the gate across from Handicap International)

Southern Regions

  • JAM Orphanage – Shyogwe, Gitarama
  • SOS Children’s Villages – Gikongoro office in the Nyamagabe district

Northern and Western Regions

  • SOS Children’s Villages – Byumba office in Gicumbi district
  • CARITAS – Ruhengeri, at the Bishop’s residence

Eastern Region

  • CARITAS – Kibungo, next to Bishop’s office/house and across street from UNATEK
  • Hope and Homes for Children – Bugesera town

Completed applications must be returned to the organizations by 3 pm on Friday, May 6th, so don’t delay! Feel free to contact me with any questions at helaina@generationrwanda.org.

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A Bujumbura Getaway

I just returned from a trip to Burundi, Rwanda’s southerly neighbor that is often referred to as its twin country. Both nations share related histories full of tragedy and Burundi only recently emerged from its most recent conflict in 2006. While Burundi’s official language is still French, its local language, Kirundi, is mutually intelligible with Rwanda’s Kinyarwanda.

At the border crossing

I stayed in the capital of Bujumbura, a city of about 300,000 people. Its untouched colonial architecture and wide boulevards create the feeling of time warp, especially considering the modernization that other East African cities have undergone. As Bujumbura is located on the northeastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, its most alluring attractions for tourists and Burundians alike are its exquisite beaches and waterfront resorts.

The majority of my time in Bujumbura was spent lounging at the resorts of Saga Plage, like this one:

Bora Bora Resort, where nearly the entire expat community of Bujumbura can be found on Sundays

And gazing at breathtaking sites like these:

The serenity of the lake was only interrupted by the occasional sailboat, motorboat, or jet ski

Mountains of DR Congo across the water

Along other shores of Bujumbura – luckily far from these beaches – there live hippopotamuses and crocodiles. One waitress recounted the story of Gustave, a killer crocodile who has eaten over 200 people.

While eating some delicious fresh grilled fish, I was entertained by this performance:

Traditional drumming troupe

Away from the beachfront and in contrast to its luxurious amenities, most of Bujumbura is essentially a poorer, hotter, and less developed version of Kigali.

A street downtown

At the central market

Central Bujumbura viewed from main cathedral spire

An experience that I found quite instructive was a bus ride I took to the center of town. To begin, the sliding door was so rusted that it could not fully shut and left a 6-inch space between the door and the platform. In order to start the bus, the conductor had to reach down into the engine behind the driver’s seat and pull a metal chain; presumably a part of the engine that had come loose over the course of the past 15+ years the bus had been in use without maintenance. The coup de grace was that the driver was using a padlock key to start the bus, a fact that even the Burundians on the bus found entertaining. As the bus was turning into the town center, it was stopped by traffic police because the driver wasn’t wearing his seat belt. Avoiding what should have been an official 20,000 Burundian franc fine ($16), the driver slipped the policeman a 2,000 note ($1.60) and got off for a tenth of the cost – something that would never happen in Kigali. Watching this ensue from the back, one man turned to me laughing sardonically and said “C’est l’Afrique.”

Burundi has an annual GDP per capita of about $160 USD, making it one of the ten poorest countries of the world. The contrast I saw between the standard of living for most Burundians and the luxuries found at Bujumbura’s beachfront is quite uncomfortable and not unique to Burundi. In most of the world’s underdeveloped countries, there are small privileged elites and exotic luxury destination spots off the beaten path. The petty corruption I witnessed on the bus is anything but unique to Burundi, often indicates systemic corruption, and usually goes hand in hand with weak governments and large gaps between rich and poor.

With its strategic waterfront location, Bujumbura has serious potential to be a tourist destination. That is, if the government can successfully transition from post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction to establishing political stability and accountability, improving security, and attracting more foreign investment. It might take a good decade or so, but if Burundi needs a good model or any advice it need look no further than its northerly twin, Rwanda.

Here are some interesting photos from the trip. The first three are from the side of the road in rural Burundi after my bus to Bujumbura hit a parked car, delaying the trip by an hour as we all waited for the traffic police to arrive.

The final product, a beef brochette, was delicious

Daring bicyclists getting a lift up a hill

Composition in orange

This last one is as funny as it is sad:

Joe the monkey getting drunk at Saga Plage...his caretakers said he loves beer and I suppose he needs something to help him enjoy his captivity.

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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!

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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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