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Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

Onward…

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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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

Skillz

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

Zebras

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

Excitement

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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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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This past weekend I went on a trip with some friends throughout southwestern Rwanda and explored a few more parts of the country. We started out in Butare, a town two hours from Kigali where the National University of Rwanda is located. Besides being a cozy college town, Butare boasts one of the country’s main historical ethnographic museums and an enormous, lush arboretum run by university agricultural researchers.

Traditional banana leaf dwelling at National Museum

The inside of the hut was surprisingly spacious and the banana leaves gave it a really nice smell. I wouldn’t mind living in one.

Me on the banana leaf "bed" holding an agaseke, a traditional multipurpose Rwandan basket

Next, we set off to take a walk through the arboretum and ran into some entertaining locals…

Monkeys!

They were quite comfortable with humans and didn’t seem to mind the passing students or even the clicking and flashes of cameras. I think they are Vervet monkeys.

National Geographic-worthy perhaps??

The arboretum at the National University of Rwanda, technically called the Ruhande Arboretum, covers 200 hectares of land and was first planted in 1933. It is home to about 200 deciduous trees and conifers, both indigenous and imported species. It’s often full of students relaxing or studying, especially during exam period.

Shimmery and fragrant eucalyptus grove

This next one is for you, Gloria the Fern Thief/Liberator:

Fern grove

Later that night, we discovered a funky bar/club tucked away behind a restaurant in Butare. It’s called Space Place and the ambiance and DJ were so good we danced for three hours straight.

Proof that I have friends besides the monkeys

Unfortunately, a trip around Rwanda is rarely complete without a visit to one of the numerous genocide memorial sites spotting the countryside. On Sunday morning, some of us headed out to Nyamagabe/Gikongoro, a beautiful hill town that is also the site of the Murambi genocide memorial.

A lively welcome, in contrast to the sites and stories inside

I’ve visited several genocide memorials and this was by far the most graphic, in addition to being heart-wrenchingly tragic. The building pictured below was constructed in the early 90s to be a technical school, but before it could open to receive students the genocide broke out in Gikongoro. Over the course of the killing spree, more than 50,000 Tutsis were slaughtered and thrown into mass graves around the technical school. What’s even more disgusting is that French soldiers, who were deployed in Operation Turquoise to essentially protect and assist the genocidal government, arrived at the site towards the end of the genocide and played a game of volleyball on top of fresh mass graves. Because of French support to the Interahamwe murderers in this area, the genocide was actually prolonged in the southwestern part of the country only.

Murambi memorial site in Gikongoro

Behind the main building there are rows of school rooms that are now filled with whole preserved skeletons of actual genocide victims in various positions of anguished death. Some of them still had tufts of hair or disintegrated clothing on them and many of them were the tiny skeletons of murdered children. The majority of those murdered at Gikongoro were re-buried with proper burial rites, but a few hundred are now on display in one of the most graphic and disturbing sites aimed at ensuring people never forget.

Happy reminders of the new generation, dirty but adorable and smiling

After decompressing and digesting what we had witnessed, we headed to Nyanza, a town on the road back to Kigali that hosts another official museum of Rwandan history and culture. There, we visited the site of the former king’s residence: a much larger banana leaf house surrounded by several other houses, in addition to a building constructed by the Belgians to win over one of the last kings and secure his support and conversion to Christianity. Unfortunately no pictures were allowed, but here’s a link to see the banana leaf house.

It was quite an adventurous weekend and it’s nice to be back home in Kigali. Now I can say that I’ve visited most of southern/western Rwanda – Butare, Gikongoro/Nyamagabe, Nyanza, Gisenyi, and Kibuye. Next on my list are Nyungwe forest (where the most remote source of the Nile has been identified), Akagera National Park, and Virunga National Park. For such a small country, there is a surprising number of sites and attractions to visit!

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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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