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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.”

Welcome

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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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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Wedding Part II

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Rwandan weddings have three parts: a traditional introduction ceremony, a religious church ceremony, and a civil ceremony. Last month, I was a bridesmaid for my neighbor Janet’s traditional introduction ceremony to her fiance Vedaste and this past weekend I had the honor of participating in their religious ceremony, again as a bridesmaid. At this ceremony, bridesmaids wore more modern garb instead of the traditional mushanana. The color theme of the wedding was pink: the bridesmaids’ gowns, groomsmen’s ties, decorations, champagne, cake, and even the napkins were all shades of pink.

Me trying to strike a serious Rwandan face

The church ceremony, held at Janet’s Pentecostal church, was quite dynamic with a lively chorus and a priest preaching exuberantly in Kinyarwanda. After the ceremony, it is the custom here for the bridal party to travel to the reception in a caravan of SUVs decorated with ribbons (in this case, pink). At the front of every wedding caravan is a pick-up truck with a camera man filming the whole procession.

Before entering the reception area, the bridal party and later the entire family participated in a photo shoot outside. After photographs of every permutation possible were taken, the guests entered the reception hall and awaited the bridal party. Janet and Vedaste entered through a formation of bridesmaids throwing flower petals, groomsmen holding cracklers, and family members creating a canopy of calla lilies.

Guests taking pictures of the wedding procession

After passing through the procession and cutting a pink ribbon, Janet and Vedaste assumed their seat at the front of the room on a stage. Along with the rest of the bridal party, I followed suit and joined them on stage at what felt like the royal dais. Per the custom here, the rest of the guests sat in audience-like rows and settled in for the long haul of speeches, present-giving, Fanta, cake, sometimes singing. Unlike American wedding receptions, there is very rarely dancing and even more rarely do the guests get a meal. (I was lucky to be on stage with an unlimited supply of cake for the bridal party.)

As an interlude between speeches, there is a ritual present giving, where all the guests with presents line up to give them to the couple. Some of the presents were wrapped but others, home goods ranging from hangers to cauliflower to brooms to chickens, were presented simply on the heads of guests. (I have a feeling that the chickens seriously resented being part of the wedding, as they started squawking and thrashing violently during the only silent prayer of the reception.)

Guests lining up to bestow assorted household goods upon the couple

Janet, her husband, Vedaste, and a chicken.

La vie en rose

After the reception the bridal party and some of the guests drove to the couple’s new home for the last ceremony of the day, called “gutwikurura.” It is the tradition here for the woman to leave her home to move in to her husband’s house the very day of the marriage. He is expected to furnish the home completely and she is expected to bring household goods (like the wedding presents, rice, garbage cans, etc.). Gutwikurura is the ceremony in which family members and friends come to the house to congratulate the newlyweds and bring them food and presents in traditional Rwandan baskets (“ibiseke”).

Also at their new home the evening after the wedding, the couple respects other rituals that have evolved over the years. I was told that in the past, wedding guests waited while the couple consummated the marriage to find out if the woman was a virgin. That is thankfully no longer the case (at least not in Kigali – I think it may still happen in the some rural parts of the country). Some variations on the wedding evening rituals include the man cutting a piece of his wife’s hair to symbolize that she belongs to him, a young bridesmaid being given to the bride as a symbolic little sister to help out for a few days, an aunt or godmother putting a mosquito net over the couple to symbolize their union, the man chasing his wife around the house, and more.

It’s been quite an experience to participate in all of Janet and Vedaste’s wedding festivities and I really appreciate having such an intimate lens into Rwandan culture. With the wedding season dying down, I guess I’ll have to find other activities to fill my Saturday afternoons!

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Last weekend, I had the unique pleasure of attending two Rwandan weddings, one on Saturday as a guest and another on Sunday as a bridesmaid. (Coincidentally, both brides were named Janet.)

Weddings are extremely frequent here, especially during the two wedding seasons of November-December and June. I’ve been trying to figure out why weddings happen so often and my unfounded speculation is that there may be a demographic bulge of 20-30 year olds. Because of societal norms and pressures, women tend to get married fairly young here, generally between the ages of 22 and 26. Men, on the other hand, have a longer single shelf life and may frequently be 5-10 years older than their wives.

Rwandan weddings have three parts: a traditional introduction ceremony, a religious ceremony, and a civil ceremony. The wedding that I attended on Saturday was the religious ceremony, a full day affair that started at a church and ended in a reception hall. After a fairly typical Catholic service (illuminated by a near-constant stream of photographs), everyone drove to take more pictures at a nearby garden. Next, everyone returned to the church grounds and the couple entered the reception hall by passing through an arch and cutting a ribbon at the entrance. Unlike the freeform receptions at American weddings, this reception consisted of the guests sitting in audience rows watching members from the wedding party on stage give effusive speeches in Kinyarwanda. The whole reception was a type of dialogue between the two families, in which relatives discussed why the union between the couple was a good idea and why they supported it. At one point two bridesmaids approached the front of the stage where a tower of cakes was waiting and lit sparklers to put in each cake. Everyone was served some cake and Fanta and the sugar highs they provided were instrumental in keeping me awake during the rest of the two hour affair.

The wedding on Sunday was the traditional introduction ceremony, a very dynamic and symbolic event in which the husband is introduced to the wife’s family and vice versa amidst lavish African decorations and often hundreds of guests. It was the wedding of my next door neighbor Janet and the festivities for me started when her sister whisked me off to the salon up the street to have my hair done in a popular style known as a “coq.” It was quite an experience and the end product recalled my late grandmother Marilyn’s hairstyle. See below:

In the process...

Once the hairstylist was finished (read: once he gave up trying to squeeze my stubborn lion’s mane into the smooth puffed wave that the other bridesmaids had), I was led to Janet’s aunt’s house (where the ceremony was held) and taken into a bedroom where the other three bridesmaids were getting ready and flitting about in a typical pre-big event whirlwind. With impressive skill, they quickly helped me into the traditional garb we would all be wearing, called a mushanana: a dress/toga made of silk-like material and draped over one shoulder. Here’s the end product:

Ndi munyarwanda kazi!

As we were getting ready and waiting with Janet, sounds from the ceremony outside wafted through the windows that I kept trying to peek out of. The introduction ceremony is very complex and consists of numerous speeches from both sides of the family in which they discuss why the couple should marry, the giving of the dowry (in the past it was a cow but these days it’s usually just money), traditional dancing and singing, storytelling, and the official introduction of the couple to the public.

Photo shoot of the bride and her maids before our debut

Traditional Rwandan dancers

The groom (dressed as hunter) being officially introduced to his fiance's family

About an hour into the ceremony, it was time for the bride to make her debut, flanked by the four of us bridesmaids bearing gifts for her to give to her fiance’s family.

Me as one of the royal gift bearers

Along with the other bridesmaids and groomsmen (who were also dressed as hunters) I spent the rest of the ceremony sitting under the wedding canopy on a straw mat, trying to keep my mushanana from getting too dirty or crinkled. It was a delightful surprise when everyone at the wedding was served a full meal of meat, pasta, fries, and Fanta. The ceremony continued with family members from opposite sides exchanging gifts and bestowing praise and wishes of success on the couple.

The happy couple sharing a very red drink

It was a true honor to be so intimately included in Janet’s special day. I’m looking forward to her religious ceremony (and three more weddings) next month, where I’ll be wearing the mushanana again – maybe by then I’ll be able to put it on by myself!

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There seems to be a hydroponic plant growing out of my sink:

And then I found this character hanging out by my shampoo.

Who needs to go outside when nature comes to you?

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