Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Chanukah number two in Rwanda! Which means another ridiculous D.I.Y. menorah fashioned by yours truly. (Click here in case you missed last year’s masterpiece.) I unfortunately can’t reuse last year’s bottle cap menorah because our cat, Keza, relieved herself on it and it was beyond salvaging.

This year, I was going for a flower theme and managed to create something relatively aesthetically pleasing with only aluminum foil, toothpicks, and duct tape. Check it out:

Flowers or swans? I'm not sure.


Happy Chanukah!

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Mobile Miracle!

Last Monday, my phone was stolen from my pocket as I walked to lunch down the street from my office. It was quite a shock because not only am I very familiar with that calm street, but I had never been pick-pocketed before. Even though it could happen anywhere and happens to almost everyone at some point in life, the sense of personal violation and helplessness is overwhelming and frustrating. I also really loved my phone, a simple but user-friendly, practical, and durable Nokia 1200 that I got in Uganda in 2008.

Instead of a camera it has a flashlight. Now that's what I call a smart phone.

I spent the rest of the day kicking myself for not putting the phone in my purse, while at the same time breathing a sigh of relief that it was only my phone stolen and not my wallet, camera, passport, or laptop – as I’ve heard happen to expats and Rwandans alike.

While I was lamenting the loss of my wonderful number (it ends in 3366!), contacts, saved messages, calendar reminders, and high scores on Snake, a friend told me about a service that the mobile provider MTN offers: SIM swap. I went to the MTN service center later that day and, after answering some questions to validate that that number was indeed mine, they issued me a new SIM card with my number for a whopping 83 cents. I was happy to learn that I would be able to keep my number, and even happier when the MTN representative told me that they have a partnership with the local police to track down stolen phones.

A bit skeptical but hopeful nonetheless, I went to the police station and filed a report a few days later, which I then brought to the MTN service center. From my phone number alone, MTN was able to find out the serial number of my Nokia 1200 and track the new number that was using it. Once they populated the list of that number’s recent calls, MTN sent the information to the police, who went about calling the contacts of the user to find out where he was. Ultimately, the police, using “tricks” to lure him out that they couldn’t disclose to me, apprehended the man using my phone and brought him to the station. He unfortunately wasn’t the thief and simply had had the bad luck (and judgment) to buy the phone on the black market for about $13 one week ago. But he rather graciously and apologetically handed over the phone. I do feel a bit guilty for taking away his innocently-purchased phone, but he knows where to find the thief-seller and plans to work with local authorities to pressure him into giving back his money.

Joyous reunion

Although my original SIM with my contacts and messages is gone, I’m happily reunited with my phone. I’m also extremely impressed with MTN and the Rwandan police. Within one week of my filing a report, they tracked down my phone and returned it to me – a phenomenon that I’ve never heard of happening anywhere. And, in contrast to what most people envision about African police and bribes, the only money I had to give the police was about $6 to pay for airtime to call the contacts of the man who had purchased my phone.

Being pick-pocketed isn’t fun, but it was a gentle reminder to not let my guard down too much. Given that I’ve been here for almost 9 months, it’s a fairly good statistic and a reflection of Rwanda’s impressive situation that this is the only time I’ve run into any issues regarding personal security – and that it was resolved within one week. All in all, it was a pretty enlightening experience.

Back in mobile bliss

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Adventures with Felines

After a few weeks of contemplation and searching, last Thursday Caitlin and I took the plunge and adopted two sister cats named Simba and Chewy. Little did we know that taking them home would unleash a twisted saga of surprise, frustration, and despair…

Photo from ad: Chewy (L) and Simba (R)

The previous owners had left Kigali a few weeks ago, leaving the fully-vaccinated house cats with a couple who acted as foster “parents” for them for about a week. After confirming that we were officially adopting them on Wednesday afternoon, Caitlin and I set off readying the house and making preparations, such as cooking up a kilo of ground beef and cabbage and researching creative alternatives to kitty litter (we’ve settled on dirt from outside, which is working surprisingly well – something the kitty litter industry doesn’t want you to know).

Arriving at home with the cats, who had been in a box for the last hour of transit and hand-off, is when our troubles started. As Caitlin opened the box, Chewy sprung out like some sort of crazed jack-in-the-box, smacked into the back door, and then managed to squeeze through the impossibly small 2-inch space underneath it to sprint away into the wilderness of Nyamirambo.

Thursday evening and night was quite a trying time. We spent hours searching, calling her name, alerting neighbors that our “injungwe” was missing, and comforting Simba (who we have since renamed Keza, or “beautiful” in Kinyarwanda). Here’s a picture of her:

Keza on the prowl for either her sister or some ground beef

We left a plate of food and a trail of sardines out Thursday night in an attempt to attract Chewy back and told our night guard, Eric, to be on high alert. Around 2 am, I started hearing plaintive meows emanating from what seemed like right under my window. Strangely, after going outside three times between 2 am and 5 am, I could never find the cat. Then at 5:30, I was awoken by Eric, excitedly knocking on my window and shouting “Pussy! Pussy! Pussy!”

Caitlin and I scrambled out of bed and ran outside with a flashlight. Following Eric’s directions, I peered under the car and saw yellow eyes and a scared face peering back at me. It had most likely been on the roof or hiding in the drain near my window. To coax the cat out, I took the plate of food and nudged it gradually closer, while Eric kept crooning “pussy, pussy, pussy, pussy!” As it crept within grabbing distance, I readied my clutch and was about to swoop in when Caitlin shouted “THAT’S NOT CHEWY!” All our excitement deflated as we realized it was only a hungry neighborhood stray and that I could have gotten rabies or fleas.

Over the next few days, as Keza settled in and showed off how much she loves to cuddle and purr, we became increasingly filled with despair about the possibility of Chewy returning. Our only glimmer of hope was based on the thought that Chewy would most likely miss her sister, with  whom she had spent her entire four years of existence, enough to come back…right?

There’s one last harrowing twist to the story: Late Saturday (read: 3 am), we returned home from a night out on the town to find Keza extremely excitable and scampering around the house. As I walked into the living room, I heard loud meows coming from under the table, which weren’t characteristic to Keza. I peered under and found – no, unfortunately not Chewy – THE STRAY CAT! It had entered through an open window and I imagine it was trying to a) make a friend, b) reproduce (if it’s a male; I didn’t get close enough to tell), c) find some food, or d) terrorize Keza for encroaching on its territory. In the ensuing screams and chaos (“What if Keza was raped?!”, “Eric, help!”, “Where are the dish gloves?”), the cat scampered back out the open window and left us feeling quite violated and unsettled.

Since then it has been fairly uneventful in the house, except for Keza peeing in a few inappropriate places (next to Caitlin and my beds). Chewy is unfortunately still nowhere to be found. We’ve comforted ourselves by reasoning that if she was so wild and antisocial, perhaps it’s better for her to live outside. However, it is surely difficult for Keza to lose her sister. We’re looking into getting a kitten to keep her company, so there will most likely be a Part II to this saga…hopefully it will have a happier ending.

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Fun with Liquids

English is not an easy language to learn, especially when it comes to pronunciation. A common issue for East Africans speaking English, as well as for millions of people around the world (Asians in particular), is distinguishing between R and L when speaking and writing. In phonetics, R and L are considered “liquids,” consonant sounds in which the tongue produces a partial closure in the mouth, resulting in a resonant, vowel-like consonant. R and L are the main liquids of English, although M and N are sometimes also included.

Indeed there is only a slight difference in the pronunciation of R and L  – the lips stay halfway open for both and the difference is the tongue placement. For R, the tongue doesn’t touch the top of the mouth and the sound seems to come more from the throat. For L, the tongue touches the palate just behind the teeth and the sound comes out of the mouth. Many languages around the world have no distinction between these nuanced pronunciations, which is why acquisition of them for non-native English speakers is so difficult.

The ambiguity between R and L also provides some very entertaining typos and mispronunciations. Here are some of my favorite misspelled signs and mispronounced words from around the region…

Dry Creaners

Manicule & Pedicule



Lice and beans for dinner

Groly be to God (Following the same logic, my mother’s name would be Grolia)


“I am very pleased to corrabolate with you.”



Heraina and Caitrin


And then my all-time favorite…”Did you vote in the last erection?”

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Sniffing glue to survive

Along some streets in Kigali, I witness a very disturbing phenomenon at least a few times a day: dazed and shoeless street children – called “maybobos” in Kinyarwanda – roam aimlessly, holding bottles of glue under their nose that they inhale, essentially for survival. I would estimate that the children, all boys, range in age between 8 and 16, although it is difficult to discern individual ages because their growth has been severely stunted. A group of these children spend their days and nights sniffing glue and begging on the streets of Nyamirambo, the area that is considered the poorest part of the city (where I live). Some can also be found in the center of town, near the taxi parks and industrial areas. As one AllAfrica.com article discusses, street children like these often sleep in groups for security and emotional and social support.

Social workers who take care of Kigali’s street children estimated their numbers as high as 6,000 in 2004 and I would guess that number has declined significantly to well under one thousand today (largely thanks to an occasionally controversial government initiative to rid the streets of “undesirable persons” by taking them to rehabilitation or retention centers). Many of the older street boys are orphans from the 1994 genocide and the younger ones are most likely victims of social and economic vulnerabilities typical of capital cities in developing and post-conflict countries.

The glue that these street children sniff is mostly shoe repair glue, which is readily available, cheap, highly addictive, highly toxic, and extremely powerful because of the neurotoxin toluene. Many of the glues available over the counter here are either illegal or require a license in developed countries. There have been a few cases of socially responsible glue companies like Testors who, upon learning how their products were being abused, introduced a noxious chemical that made their solvent-based adhesives impossible to inhale without immediately vomiting. Unfortunately these safer non-addictive alternatives are often ten times the price of their addictive counterparts.

As an online forum on glue sniffing in Nicaragua discusses, “The glue is inhaled, not as some assume, because the sniffer merely wants “a high”. The fumes reduce one’s concept of reality, minimize fear, and nearly eliminate pain. The glue is usually, at least initially, sniffed to elleviate hunger pains, or and/or to tolerate cold weather or other physical ills.” This is definitely the case for most of the glue sniffing children in Kigali, who are all extremely skinny and dressed in tattered clothing like clearly donated American t-shirts and ski jackets.

Once addicted to sniffing glue, which happens fairly quickly, users experience not only suppression of pain and hunger but also a boost in confidence, reduced social concern, and reduced physical control. Glue fumes give a temporary intoxication with hallucinations that can lead to either good “high” feelings or nightmarish depression. This explains why some of the street children I encounter are often singing, dancing, frolicking, darting across busy streets, shouting nonsensical exclamations, or attempting to engage in petty thievery. Long term effects of glue sniffing include liver and/or kidney failure, permanent brain damage, and early death.

Some children around Kigali have devised clever ways of positioning the glue containers so that they don’t even have to hold them to sniff the fumes, like tucking bottles into their shirt collars. One of the more disturbing sights I’ve witnessed was a young child sitting at a bus stop who had tied a glue bottle to a pole behind him so that he could sit on the bench and inhale like a horse with its feed bag.

Unfortunately the problem of glue sniffing among street children is not unique to Kigali. Along with gasoline sniffing, it happens in many other African cities, as well as most cities around the world where there is extreme poverty and concomitant desperation. I remember seeing little plastic bags discarded along the streets of Managua, Nicaragua as signs of the pervasive issue of glue sniffing there too.

Fortunately, there are some organizations working to alleviate this issue by providing support to street children in Kigali. Two of them are Street Kids of Rwanda and Centre Marembo. Here is an excellent opinion piece written to the Rwandan newspaper The New Times about the need for people to take this problem seriously.

Seeing young children whose tragic existence is both tortured by and dependent on sniffing glue is not something I think I’ll get used to.

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A D.I.Y. Chanukah

To no one’s surprise, there doesn’t seem to be a single menorah in all of Kigali. Few people here have heard of Chanukah, let alone Judaism. So I decided to take matters – and materials – into my own hands. With the help of my trusty neighbor/handy man, a civil engineering student whose ingenuity never ceases to amaze me, I spent the past few days fashioning a menorah out of a wood block, nails, and beer bottle caps. It may sound a bit sacrilegious, but at least they’re the right colors…

Kids, don't try this at home

Happy Chanukah!

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When reality knocks…

Last night, Caitlin and I arrived home after a long day, passed through our compound gate and entered through the front door, which we locked behind us. We were about to prepare dinner when we heard a persistent knocking at the back kitchen door of our house. A bit apprehensive, I ventured into the kitchen and saw a young girl standing outside our window, wearing a head scarf and murmuring something plaintive in Kinyarwanda. I soon deduced that she had snuck in through our gate after us and was begging for money or food. Caitlin recognized her as the same girl who had accosted us earlier that night on our walk home, tugging at Caitlin’s sleeve and begging. For some reason that I can’t fully articulate, I suddenly became very angry and indignant. How dare she follow us home and invade our private space, our locked compound, our comfort zone, the only part of the city where we should be able to feel sheltered from the stresses and exigencies of the outside?

I called to our neighbor in the compound, who came up and escorted the girl out of our compound. When he returned he told us that he had smelled alcohol on her breath but that she was probably not a street child – he said many people leave their house to beg all day and then come home after a day’s work. As my anger and resentment subsided, I started to feel guilty and ashamed at my reaction. I thought out loud: Maybe we should have just given her the two over-ripe bananas on top of our refrigerator? But at the same time, I told myself: I’m here doing altruistic development work with a vulnerable population for most of my waking hours, aren’t I allowed some peace and quiet and time for myself at night? Moreover, I’ve always believed that band-aid handouts only create dependency and there are much better ways to fuel development and alleviate poverty.

This episode brought me face to face with the reality that over 60% of people in Rwanda live in poverty. Despite that fact that most of Kigali is a bustling and cosmopolitan city, featuring skyscrapers, a 24/7 mall, beautifully paved streets, and an array of expensive dining options, there is still an underbelly to the development and progress that has been made since the 1994 genocide. It’s fairly easy for the wealthy and the expats to exist in the layer of Kigali that is the face of Rwanda’s success in post-conflict redevelopment; the layer of the city where you can buy Camembert cheese for $12 and easily spend $50 on an Italian dinner. However the part of Kigali where I live, Nyamirambo, is known as not only the oldest and most vibrant part of the city but also the poorest. And I’m sure that once I venture more outside of Kigali, I’ll see real rural poverty similar to what people imagine when they think of the quintessential “poor African village.” After all, the incidence of poverty is much higher in rural areas (66%) than in Kigali (12%).

Rwanda currently finds itself at a crossroads of development and progress. Vision 2020, the national development manifesto, acknowledges that: “Although Rwanda has made significant progress from the devastated nation that emerged from the 1994 genocide, it still remains a severely under-developed, agrarian based economy with around 60% of the population living under the poverty line.” The vision of Vision 2020 is to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country that is united, globally competitive, and whose population is healthier, educated, and generally more prosperous. To achieve this ambitious goal, Vision 2020 identifies “six interwoven pillars: good governance and efficient State, skilled human capital, vibrant private sector, world-class physical infrastructure and modern agriculture and livestock, all geared towards national, regional and global markets.”

The way I’ve heard people here frame it, Rwanda essentially wants to become the Singapore of East Africa by 2020. It’s a lofty goal but one that may in fact be achieved, as long all the layers of the country are included in every step of the process.

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