Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category


For better or for worse, my time in Rwanda has come to a bittersweet end. At the moment I am in the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam on my way home to NY/DC. It is surreal for me to be leaving Rwanda for “good”, though it’s unclear to me whether this is earlier or later than planned – I’m still not sure what my plans were. While I am excited about embarking on the next chapter of my life, I’m heartbroken to be leaving all of my wonderful friends and the wonderful life I’ve found in Kigali. Rwanda is a truly special place and I now understand even more why so many visitors come for six months or a year and end up staying for five years or permanently. I have definitely permanently fallen in love with Rwanda and its charms, so I think it was necessary for me to be extracted by an incredible opportunity that I couldn’t turn down.

The incredible opportunity I’m now pursuing is joining the U.S. State Department Foreign Service as a political officer. I began the multi-exam, multi-stage process over two years ago (while still at Tufts) and I was never quite sure if/when I’d get “the call.” Well, I got it last month with an official appointment offer to join the May 21st training, which I accepted. This essentially means that I will begin my orientation and training at the end of May, find out what my first assignment (country and job) will be at the end of June, and possibly live in the DC area for a few months before shipping out, depending on language training. Once I arrive at my post, I’ll be a junior officer and work at an embassy or consulate on political and/or other issues. I’m unbelievably excited to start training and dive headfirst into learning about and living the fields of diplomacy and U.S. foreign policy.

In an effort to find some “closure”, I’ve made two top ten lists that sum up my experience in Rwanda and what I’m most looking forward to about coming back to the States…

Top 10 List: Things I am most excited for in the U.S. (besides friends and family):

  • Fitted sheets
  • Delis, or being able to order a sandwich in less than 10 minutes
  • Fast internet
  • Anonymity
  • Paved roads or dirt roads that don’t turn into sticky mud pits when it rains
  • Answering machines
  • Season 4 of Parks and Recreation and Season 2 of Game of Thrones
  • Rules of the road (i.e. cars don’t turn left into oncoming traffic and buses don’t try to pass other buses with 5 feet of visibility around a sharp curve)
  • Doctors offices where you don’t have to fight with old ladies to keep your spot in “line” or carry your own specimen to the lab
  • Seasons, specifically autumn leaves and snow

Top 10 List: What I will miss most about Rwanda (besides friends and honorary family):

  • How ubiquitous and delicious milk is, and the fact that it is considered a meal
  • Perfect weather that is like a mild spring or summer day 85% of the time
  • 16-cent avocadoes twice as large as my fist
  • Going to the African bagel co-op Saturday mornings for delicious fresh donuts and bagels
  • Traveling around Rwanda’s beautifully lush and rolling countryside
  • Brochettes from the Hotel des Mille Collines
  • Jamming to Rwandan/East African music on a regular basis – especially Kitoko, Radio and Weasel, Urban Boys, Dream Boys, Kamichi, Knowless, and P Unit
  • $1.50 beer as the norm
  • Having the chance to interact with and make friends with people from all over the world – Netherlands, Germany, India, Mauritius, France, Canada, Spain, UK, Luxembourg, Bosnia and Herzegovina, DR Congo, Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, South Korea, and probably more I can’t remember or wasn’t aware of because their English was impeccable
  • Living in a place that constantly awes, fascinates, teaches, and impresses me with its tireless efforts towards peacebuilding and visible economic development less than two decades after self destructing

If you’d like to keep up with my future adventures in the Foreign Service, check out www.helaina.com after about a month or so – I will redirect that address to point to a new blog. However, I’ll leave up this blog at helainainrwanda.wordpress.com so that people can still read about my experience and use it as a resource about life in Rwanda.

Thanks very much to all of my loyal readers for your thoughtful comments, feedback, and encouragement over the past year and a half. I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride as much as I did.

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One of the most visible differences between the developing and developed worlds is the abundance of labor and labor-intensive processes in the developing world. Nearly every day in Rwanda I observe someone doing a job that was mechanized or automated at least one or two decades ago in most parts of the developed world. The abundance of cheap labor and the unreliability of electricity here combine to create employment in tasks that are menial and sometimes downright comical. I suppose the bottom line is that when you can’t rely on machines, you rely on people. Here are some examples:

– All buses around Kigali are staffed by a driver and a conductor who collects the bus fares from passengers. The conductor also functions as the bus route display screen by shouting the bus destination at every stop.

– Every morning Kigali’s streets are full of women employed by the city to sweep the sidewalks and the streets.

– Instead of parking meters, the system of paying for parking is much more entertaining: once you have finished your business and you turn your car on, someone in a yellow vest will chase after you flourishing a ticket whose price correlates to how long you were parked. Some people believe it’s optional to stop backing up and pay.

– Cell phone airtime is prepaid here and not on a monthly plan. To reload airtime, you physically purchase a scratch card from one of the brightly-vested airtime sellers found at nearly every corner of the city. If you request, the sellers will even scratch off the gray covering to reveal the code for you.

– I believe I have seen a lawnmower once or twice, but I still want to share this example because I’m sure it wasn’t the only time this happens: I once watched a man cutting a sizable plot of grass with a pair of office scissors.

– Instead of alarm systems (or sometimes in addition to), nearly every big office and well-to-do home employs a security guard to keep watch (read: sleep) at night. Guards for homes are rarely armed, while guards for offices are from official security companies and have a night stick or gun with them.

– And now for a hybrid situation: At the airport there is an automated ticket machine where you press a button at the entrance to take a ticket. Since the machine is too far from most cars, there is often a person there to press the button for the driver and hand over the ticket. I find this hysterical for some reason.

Now I must say that at times I appreciate and enjoy the benefits provided by the human over the machine. Instead of fumbling with a MetroCard on the bus and getting flustered if I don’t have enough credit, here I can wait for the conductor to ask me to pay and sometimes I even negotiate a cheaper fare if I’m going only a few stops. Then again, if I’m transferring to another bus line I don’t get the discount that my MetroCard would accord me.

It will be interesting to see if and how fast these jobs become phased out to machines and virtual systems as Rwanda progresses towards its goal of becoming a middle income country by 2020.

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A few months ago, I rode a bicycle taxi for seven kilometers in a rural area of western Rwanda. While I had a blast relaxing on the comfortable cushioned backseat of the bike, the driver was visibly exhausted from pulling me over the meandering dirt road’s rocky hills. I even had to get off at a few points so that he could push the bike up the steepest parts. At the end of the 30-minute ride, he asked me to pay him 200 Rwf, or 33 cents. I was shocked by his request for such meager compensation, which my Rwandan friends told me was the going rate for that distance.

After thinking about it, I realized that 33 cents couldn’t possibly allow him to replenish the calories he exerted in the 30-minute trek, unless perhaps he bought 33 cents worth of pure cooking oil and drank that. 33 cents could buy 2 chapati or maybe 4 small doughnut holes in some parts of the country. However, judging by the rivers of sweat dripping down the driver’s face and body, I estimate that would replace about only half of his calories exerted during the ride.

That encounter got me thinking about all of the underpaid physical labor that happens across the world. I’m no labor wage or nutrition expert, but the clichéd statistic of more than one billion people living on less than one dollar per day has some truth to it. The type of person earning $1 per day is probably not working in an office or using his critical reasoning skills (unless he’s an unpaid intern); he’s using his hands and body to manufacture, harvest, or carry things. It’s doubtful that a salary of $1 a day can buy enough food to replace his calories lost, let alone feed the (most likely numerous) mouths of his hungry growing children at home.

The concept of a caloric replacement standard intrigues me as a minimum wage idea. What if all compensation for physical labor was based on how much it would locally cost to replace the calories exerted? Or even better – what if compensation for physical labor was based on how much it would locally cost to replace the calories exerted and provide enough nutrients to help maintain a healthy body? It sounds obvious and a bit idealistic but if applied in practice or as a calculated law for minimum wage standards in developing countries, it could be a potentially powerful instrument for reducing malnutrition and overexertion-related diseases and maintaining healthier populations.

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After a short hiatus, I’m back in blog action. I spent the past few weeks on vacation with my mother and sister, who were visiting Rwanda – and Africa – for the first time. It was wonderful to see them, show them around Kigali, adventure around the countryside, and watch my sister, Julia, pick up Kinyarwanda like a pro. Some of the trip’s highlights include seeing Rwanda’s famous mountain gorillas, walking on a canopy bridge high above Nyungwe Forest, and introducing my family to the delicious grilled tilapia of Nyamirambo. Once my internet hopefully improves, I’ll dedicate a full post to the trip and put up some pictures. But first here, I want to write about an interesting phenomenon that I witnessed all around rural Rwanda.

It’s impossible to drive on a dusty road in rural Rwanda without causing a commotion. For people who live along the rural back roads, seeing cars is a fairly exciting event, especially when the cars have muzungus inside. People of all ages wave and children run after the cars, as well as ask for money, food, or other things. Throughout our trip around the countryside, one consistent request that surprised me was for “chupa,” empty water bottles. I would estimate that every third child we passed yelled excitedly at us “Chupa!” or  “Agachupa!” (small empty water bottle). At first I thought they wanted a Chupa Chup, but our driver dispelled that naive idea.

Empty water bottles are in such high demand by children in rural areas for a few reasons. First, they can fill them with water to take to school. They can also sell them to a local store for 20 francs (3 cents), so that the storeowner can fill them with oil, paraffin, or juice and resell them.

Talk about one man’s trash being another man’s treasure. Seeing children so excited about receiving what people driving by toss away as unwanted garbage reminded me of a blog post I read a few months ago by a blogger who works in the humanitarian aid industry. The anonymous blogger coined the term SWEDOW, or “stuff we don’t want” to describe his/her criticism of well intentioned but ill conceived and ultimately useless, self-serving, and occasionally harmful in-kind donations to Africa from developed countries. Some examples include used shoes and clothing, pillowcases, anti-ageing skin cream, and even breast milk.

This case of the empty water bottle seems to me like an extreme example of SWEDOW but with actual positive effects on the recipients. Granted, the plastic bottles may ultimately end up polluting the environment at a later date once they are discarded for good. But in the intermediate phase, they help children eke out a tiny livelihood or hydrate themselves while at school. And the people who discard these objects have essentially no use for them. In a country where plastic recycling has not yet become widespread or easily accessible, this seems like a decent small and localized way to recycle or reuse.

To be poetic about it, you could say this phenomenon is the intersection between waste management, supporting small-scale livelihoods, and constructive aid. But rural Rwanda isn’t going to be developed through a One Chupa Per Child policy, and I’m not advocating donating plastic bottles from abroad to rural Africa. It’s just some interesting drink for thought.

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Yesterday, April 7th, marked the 17th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide, in which around 800,000 Rwandans lost their lives within 100 days. The mourning period lasts for one week, during which there are memorial services, candlelight vigils, televised documentaries and radio broadcasts about the genocide, and public billboards about remembrance and commemoration. As purple is the color of mourning here, people can be seen wearing purple ribbons throughout the city. Businesses are closed, music is not played loudly, and the streets are virtually empty to observe the first day.

A somber time, this is the week when the entire country reflects upon, discusses, and relives a painful history that is generally kept out of public discourse the rest of the year. All of the Rwandans I know have been affected by the genocide in some way – losing close or distant family members, being displaced, fleeing into exile, having their schooling disrupted, or being traumatized from seeing horrors that no one should ever have to witness, let alone young children. However, despite all of the suffering Rwandans have endured, it is not what defines them.

This week and its commemoration events remind me of what it is easy to forget as a foreigner here: that Rwanda was ravaged by genocide a mere seventeen years ago. Going about my day-to-day events and seeing Rwanda from the surface, genocide and conflict is often the last thing on my mind. I think about a new project I’m working on, the development I see every day in the shape of new construction or repaved roads, or the clever and entrepreneurial ways that people manage to make a living. I find it extremely hard to imagine that the streets I walk every day in Nyamirambo were covered with corpses seventeen years ago. In fact, I rarely hear the word genocide spoken out loud and I only see it written in the newspaper occasionally.

Ironically, from the outside Rwanda still seems to be defined by its past: when people hear Rwanda they immediately conjure up images of skeletons in mass graves and the phrase “Never Again.” However from the inside, Rwanda defines itself as it envisions itself in the future: a peaceful and prosperous middle-income country, as articulated in Vision 2020. While it is important to remember the past and honor the dead, Rwandans have developed a collective coping mechanism of avoiding to speak at length about their troubled past, at least in public. That is, with the exception of during this week and through the government’s National Commission to Fight Genocide.

While it is important for Rwanda to continue moving forward and escape its past, it is equally important to remember and honor its past to ensure that “never again” is a reality.

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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.

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Mutual Misperceptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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