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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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Or all of the above?

As an American, my perception of Gaddafi has always been a negative one – even before his recent campaign to squash the Libyan uprising by brutally slaughtering his own people. The words I usually use to describe him include tyrannical, ruthless, bizarre, rambling, cruel, insane, and more of the like.

It wasn’t until I started berating Gaddafi in discussions with Rwandan friends that I heard any other words to describe him. To my surprise, most Rwandans – and according to them, most Africans – respect and admire Gaddafi for his Pan-African vision and his financial commitment to Africa’s development. This was serious news to me. In multiple debates with friends here, Rwandans have pointed out the significant political and economic investments that Gaddafi has made on Africa’s behalf: not only has he worked passionately as the African Union head to realize Kwame Nkrumah‘s independence-era vision of a united Africa (albeit with an added anti-West flair), he calls himself the “King of Kings in Africa” and has invested billions of dollars in Africa’s development.

U.N. Resolution 1973, which stipulates the freezing of all national Libyan assets, has been felt all the way in Kigali. In the hospitality sector, the Libyan government-owned LAICO Umubano management company that has been running a high-end Kigali hotel has had its assets frozen. In the telecommunications sector, the 80% Libyan owned Rwandatel service provider has had its assets frozen, although its failure to comply with contractual obligations was also cited as a cause for its mobile license being revoked.

Libyan investment in Rwanda is only a tiny piece of the pie: a sparsely-populated country that enjoys extensive oil wealth, Libya holds billions of dollars in assets in Africa through subsidiaries of its $70 billion sovereign wealth fund. Libya is one of the leading regional shareholders in the African Development Bank, with nearly 4 percent voting power and $370 million in its account. It is also one of the biggest contributors to the budget of the 53-country African Union. Here is a comprehensive list of Libya’s investments in Africa, broken down by country. In addition to business investments, Libya has financed a great deal of public infrastructure projects in support of weaker governments, like hospitals and universities in Burkina Faso and numerous other countries.

“His name is scattered across the continent: a Gadhafi street here, a Gadhafi mosque there, several Gadhafi high-rises. Many African nations have named buildings and infrastructure projects after the long-time Libyan leader and the frequency with which the Gadhafi name appears underscores the powerful influence he still has over large swaths of the continent…[Libya’s] investments range from large to small, from schools and hotels military arms to a saw mill, poultry farm and gasoline distributor. The countries where Libya has invested cover the entire continent, from Chad and Mali in the north down through Togo and Kenya to Zambia and South Africa.” – Deutsche Welle online.

In fact, the African Development Bank’s Libya economist recently declared that Libya is one of the bank’s most important investors. For this reason, as of March 24th the Bank had no intention of following the example of western countries and the U.N. by freezing Libya’s assets, an act that the Bank acknowledged would be a detriment to development throughout Africa.

Gaddafi throws UN Charter at the Deputy Secretary General and President of the General Assembly during his 96-minute rant at the UN in 2009

The result

This sustained and tangible commitment to African solidarity and development is likely the answer to the question that Rwandan journalist Shyaka Kanuma recently posed in the Rwanda Focus: Why is there such little African outrage about Gaddafi’s acts? Kanuma discusses the typical African criticism against western intervention in Libya, which my Rwandan friends have also provided: “Americans are only after Gaddafi’s oil” and “It is the usual imperialism of American and Europe; why is it that no one else is attacking Libya?” However, Kanuma makes the cogent counterargument that “the same Africans who sit and do nothing about crises on their con­tinent would soon begin whining that the international community cares little for Africa if the same West they are berating did nothing as the Libyan leader slaugh­tered everyone of the protesters, as he had vowed to do…”

One thing can be sure about Gaddafi: he is not a champion of democracy – both inside and outside of his country”s borders. Looking closer at Libya’s foreign projects, it becomes clear that Gaddafi has also propped up tyrannical regimes and brutal rebel movements ranging from Idi Amin in Uganda to Charles Taylor in Libya. In an article in the Atlantic, Howard French describes how Gaddafi reshaped Africa and recounts the numerous dark regimes and conflicts that have benefited from Gaddafi’s patronage. (In an ironic twist, both Gaddafi and Rwanda had a hand in the D.R. Congo’s internal politics by supporting Laurent Kabila, an obscure revolutionary turned rebel leader who would be responsible for the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko.) Quoting Howard French, “As such [Pan Africanist] dreams crumble along with his power, Qaddafi will leave a final destabilizing legacy for the continent.”

While many Rwandans may choose to ignore Gaddafi’s tyrannical tendencies in favor of admiring his Pan-African vision and development support, it is encouraging that the Rwandan government has come out in support of western intervention. Citing the Rwandan genocide as an example of the cost of the international community’s failure to intervene on humanitarian grounds, President Paul Kagame lends moral weight to the intervention: “From what the world saw on the sidelines of this conflict, had this action not been taken, the bombardment of that country’s towns and cities would have continued, Benghazi most likely would have borne the brunt of a furious administration and hundreds of thousands of lives could well have been lost. Given the overriding mandate of Operation Odyssey Dawn to protect Libyan civilians from state-sponsored attacks, Rwanda can only stand in support of it.” Kagame concludes with a warning to all undemocratic leaders: “The uprising in Libya has already sent a message to leaders in Africa and beyond. It is that if we lose touch with our people, if we do not serve them as they deserve and address their needs, there will be consequences. Their grievances will accumulate – and no matter how much time passes, they can turn against you.”

The short answer is that Gaddafi is most certainly a mixed bag.

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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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