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As I mentioned back when I was just embarking on my adventure in Rwanda, Kinyarwanda is definitely one of the most difficult languages I have ever tried to learn. Understanding Kinyarwanda grammar entails learning 16 different noun classes (delineated by 16 unique prefixes) and verbs whose conjugations and objects are inserted before the root, as well as navigating the dangers posed by the fact that Kinyarwanda is tonal (slightly varied intonations completely change the meaning of words with the same spelling). Kinyarwanda is a Bantu language and a member of the Niger-Congo language family. It shares some grammatical structures and vocabulary with Swahili, but seems to be infinitely more complicated and daunting to learn.

Since nouns are classified in 16 different groupings, there are almost as many variations in the adjectives used to describe nouns. Below, I’m going to enumerate the numerous forms and ways to use the word “good” (depending on the context, it can also mean “beautiful,” “cute,” “delicious,” and “nice.”) There are 12 different forms of this adjective, each ending in -eza or -iza. (Note: the noun root without its classification prefix is  found by looking at the second or third letter of the word, which I’ve bolded below.) It’s fairly complicated and took me a while to wrap my head around, but it’s also quite an interesting and useful system. Here they are:

beza (bay-zah)
example: abana beza – good children, abantu beza – good people
usage: plural descriptions of humans

bwiza (bghee-zah)
example: ubuki bwiza – delicious honey, ubuzima bwiza – good health/life
usage: generic or abstract nouns or states

byiza (bjee-zah)
example: ibijumba byiza – delicious sweet potatoes
usage: general or large plural nouns

cyiza (chee-zah)
examples: icyumweru cyiza – nice week, igitabo cyiza – good book
usage: general or large singular nouns (singular version of byiza above)

heza (hay-zah)
example: ahantu heza – nice place
usage: for places

keza (kay-zah)
example: akana keza – a cute baby, agaseke keza – a nice little basket
usage: singular diminutive form of other nouns, for small or young people

meza (may-zah)
example: amata meza – good/delicious milk, amateka meza – good history
usage: for things in quantities or liquids

mwiza (mwee-zah)
example: umwana mwiza – nice child, umwarimu mwiza – good teacher, umukobwa mwiza – beautiful girl
usage: singular descriptions of a human (singular version of beza above)

neza (nay-zah)
example: agenda neza – he drives nicely/he goes nicely, fata neza – be careful (with a thing)
usage: adverb, nicely

nziza (nn-zee-zah)
example: inkoko nziza – good chicken, inshuro nziza – good time
usage: singular or plural animals, plants, or ideas

rwiza (rgwee-zah)
example: Rwanda rwiza – beautiful Rwanda, urugendo rwiza – bon voyage
usage: miscellaneous, generic or abstract nouns

twiza (twee-zah)
example: utwana twiza – cute child
usage: plural diminutive forms of other nouns, for small or young people (plural version of keza above)

I’m sure I’ve made a few mistakes, so I ask that any Rwandans or Kinyarwanda speakers reading please correct them!

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Somehow it’s already been a month that I’ve been back in Rwanda. It’s been a great first month back – jumping into my new job, reuniting with friends, celebrating my birthday, exploring new bars and restaurants around town, furnishing my room, watching lots of Modern Family, etc.

As for my new job, I’m working at Eos Visions, a social enterprise that pioneers experiential educational travel programs across East Africa (Rwanda, Kenya, Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, DR Congo). To quote our website, “Eos Visions offers exceptional educational and enlightening travel experiences in combination with first-class destination management services in East Africa.” Eos Visions essentially provides an avenue for international professionals, students, advocates, donors, and interested individuals and groups to learn, exchange expertise, and make an impact in subject areas like health, law & governance, business, gender & children, and the environment & energy.

Eos Visions’ overall philosophy is to help people contribute to sustainable development by going beyond regular tourism or even service learning and helping facilitate engagement in constructive, meaningful, responsible and unique ways that support local development initiatives and empower local hosts. As for the name, “‘Eos’ is the name of the Greek Goddess of the Dawn. Mythology has it that she brought light to mortals as well as immortals. We desire to be part of Africa’s new dawn and to create visions that bring light to our international guests as well as the people of the African continent.” What makes Eos Visions a social enterprise, and why I was particularly drawn to it, is that it strives to achieve a ‘more-than-profit’ model that adds a strong socioeconomic value generation component in all aspects of its business and work.

As a junior business development consultant, I work in a few different areas. So far, I primarily conduct research and develop the content for thematic tours in subject areas related to development, governance, public policy, and post-genocide reconstruction. Part of this entails identifying local partners and stakeholders and acting as a liaison between them and Eos Visions. My other main area of work is in international outreach and marketing of tours to potential clients abroad. An exciting part of the job is that the whole team goes on test runs of tours before officially including them in itineraries, so I have had the opportunity to travel around Rwanda and go on several test tours already.

One of the tours involves a visit to a women’s basket weaving cooperative where visitors have the chance to watch how baskets are made and then try some weaving themselves, before buying copious amounts of beautiful banana leaf products.

Mesmerizing

So if you or anyone you know is looking to travel to an exotic destination and/or have an enlightening learning experience in East Africa, you know where to find me.

Back in the Hillyhood

After a month+ hiatus, I’m back in Kigali – and with lots of updates. I have a new job and a new house, and the city has several updates itself. It’s remarkable how many visible changes can take place in one city in a short six weeks. It reminds me that there are developments happening every day and week that I have become subconsciously acclimated to on a daily basis. Here’s a short rundown of the changes and developments I noticed upon my return:

– Kigali Bus Services has a new fleet of buses capable of triple the capacity of their former buses. They even have digital screens on the outside to theoretically project the bus line (for now they only display random flashes of Arabic or Chinese lettering).

– At least five major intersections have brand new electronic crosswalk and traffic light systems that not only count down the amount of time remaining for pedestrians to cross but also the amount of time until the red or green light changes for cars. New York doesn’t even have that. Pretty revolutionary!

– A major shopping plaza downtown called the Rubangura House now has a metal detector at its entrance. (Not sure if this development reflects positively but it is noteworthy.)

– There are three new storefronts in my neighborhood of Nyamirambo, one down a dirt side street made of fancy-looking glass.

– A major construction site in the center of downtown Kigali has added two more stories and is well on its way to becoming a shopping plaza.

 

– Another major construction site downtown that is slotted to become an insurance building is almost finished (the second highest building in the header picture of my blog, taken about 3 months ago). It now boasts a new triangle/spire on its top that definitely changes Kigali’s skyline.

Updated and almost ready for business

– A fence around a construction site in Nyamirambo that was made of corrugated metal and bottle caps (I believe they were covering nails but I’m not sure) is now made of brick. And the construction site transformed from a skeleton (which was ambiguously in the process of either being built or torn down) into a near finished plaza-looking building with shiny reflective tiles and windows.

– Construction broke ground for Kigali City Hall, an ambitious project downtown that had only been an empty lot 6 weeks ago. Now it has two stories and the structure isn’t too far off from the projected plan posted on the wall.

– A huge construction site, slotted to become the New Century Hotel under Marriott management, has made visible progress by adding several stories and also looks closer to the projected plan posted on the wall.

– A construction site on one of the main arteries leading to downtown is now about 90% finished, with new white tiling and reflective blue windows. It turned into an architecturally interesting building with a little wave extending from the roof.

Coming back to a place after a month and a half away certainly makes the contrast of past and present more noticeable and palpable – especially a place undergoing such rapid development in its infrastructure and business environment. As for my own developments, namely what my life in Rwanda Part II entails, stay tuned for next time!

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!

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.

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.

Ironies of Rwanda

Even after ten months of observing Rwanda and Rwandan culture, there are still many things that I will never understand or that will never cease to entertain me. Here they are…

1. Many Rwandans, like many Africans, have a perception of time that is different from westerners and tend to be late.  “African time” is not just a stereotype; it’s based on reality. However, drivers here always seem to be in such an incredible rush that they can’t stop for pedestrians and in fact often pull out of parking spots while pedestrians are right behind them. Drivers gun the engine even when they are approaching a traffic light, pass each other all the time – no matter how treacherous the turn, and generally speed like NASCAR racers.

2. During the rainy season, household water is less reliable. In fact, whenever it rains heavily there’s a pretty high chance that the pipes will be empty. After months of bewildered frustration, a friend told me that it’s because the heavy rains wash mud into the pipes, clogging them.

3. As I mentioned in my post about culture, it is a serious taboo to eat in public. However, public urination (for men) and nose picking are not taboos at all. It’s hard to go a few days without spotting someone digging for gold or a man peeing in bushes in public sight…Hence the importance of Purell.

4.Meeting a member of the opposite sex for a drink at a bar is considered very serious and gives people the impression that the two are a couple – even if it is a work-related meeting or catching up with a friend or neighbor. However, inviting a member of the opposite sex into one’s home is less serious. (Because people can’t see and so they won’t start spreading rumors.)

5. It is not typical for men to give flowers to women. In fact it is more appropriate for women to give flowers to men. Go figure.

6. Cows play an important role in Rwandans society, having influenced the development of different social classes based on the number of cows one owns. Milk is abundant and delicious here. However, there is a serious lack of variety in cheese options and very few good cheeses.

7. Rwanda is known for growing delicious coffee, yet most people drink Nescafe. This is because most coffee is exported and the remainder is served at expensive cafes or sold at a premium at grocery stores.

8. Rwandan men and women alike are notoriously soft spoken. I often have to strain to hear people when they come to my office and whisper a message to me. However, there is no concept of “noise pollution” when it comes to other sounds: music and radio are blasted at painfully loud levels at any hour of the day – in public, at home, on buses, in shops, etc. I guess people need something to fill the silence.

9. Most Rwandans don’t eat sweets or dessert and say that they don’t like sugar. However, based on my observations, Rwandans put on average 3 heaping teaspoons into their morning tea and drink Fanta and other sodas to diabetes-inducing levels.

10. People in Kigali, both Rwandans and expats, consider the poorer neighborhood of Nyamirambo as unsafe. In reality, I think it is the safest neighborhood because there are always people on the street at any time of the day or night. I actually find Kiyovu, one of the wealthier neighborhoods, to be the least safe because the streets are empty and people are always behind their walls and cars. If someone tried to mug me on the street in Kiyovu he would definitely succeed; however if someone tried to mug me on the street in Nyamirambo he would be apprehended and beaten up by more than one passerby.