Saturday, December 25, 2010

Do they know it's Christmas?

My Christmas started off bright and early, as I opened amazing Christmas packages that my family had sent and ate leftover sweet potato pudding that I’d made on Christmas Eve (recipe below). I dressed in my Sunday best, then entertained myself with solitaire Bananagrams for a while as I waited for Bwiza and her mother to swing by and pick me up for church.

Bwiza finally came around 8:30, half an hour late, and we walked down to her house, where I explained the American custom of Christmas gifts. I presented her with a small gift and gave Adolph a wind-up frog toy my parents’ had sent. I have never in my life seen a child take such joy in a gift. He laughed hysterically every time the frog did its backflip. His 8-year-old uncle also got a kick out of the toy, and was a little more adept at winding it.

Bwiza explained that the Catholic church in our village had changed its program and was not holding services. Christmas mass would instead be at a church “ku mazi:” by the water. It would be a long walk, perhaps an hour and a half, so they were not sure I would be able to do it. “No problem!” I explained, “I just want to return home to change my shoes.” I changed from heels to chacos, threw a granola bar, water bottle, sunscreen and raincoat (you never know which you will need) into a bag, and we set off on our Christmas hike.

The road/path to the church was one I’d been meaning to explore for several months, and it was great to finally see the winding road towards the water. It was mostly downhill on the way there, and we traversed several bridges that consisted of only one or two logs: balance beams. As we drew near the church, crowds surrounded us in both directions. Some were headed towards our 10am mass while others were departing the earlier mass. As a white girl in a dress tailored form local fabric, I drew more than a few stares as I joined hands with Bwiza and her brother to weave through the well-dressed throngs.

The church is perhaps the biggest building I’ve seen in my district; there must have been three thousand or more worshippers from several sectors crowded onto the benches, which had long supports on the ground so that they could also be knelt upon for prayer. There was a group of boys drumming outside and a generator to power the Christmas light display and sound system.

Inside, the church was decked out with festive metallic streamers, a few pseudo-Christmas trees, and flowers. There was even a nativity scene!

Although Catholics have a reputation for short services (short meaning perhaps two hours), mass dragged for almost three hours. It was a sunny day and we were the third group of several thousand people to cram together under the tin roof, so it was hot. I regretted not bringing a fan. At one point Bwiza mercifully proposed that we go outside, “to take oxygen,” would be the literal French translation. She then got a taste of what it’s like to be a muzungu: as we rested in the fresh air and shade of the church, scores of children crowded within a few feet of us, impervious to commands of “musubire” (to move back).

We returned for the end of services, which included sitings of a Red Sox championship shirt and a Youkilis jersey, pictured (as the three hour mark ticked by, this was very entertaining to me). Finally we poured out of the church and greeted others from the village, including the health center titulaire and his wife, and Mama Benjamin.

We walked back, uphill, with Mama Benjamin and her son and a couple others from near Kinihira. It began to rain, so we sought shelter for a while in a stranger’s house. By the time we returned, maybe two and a half hours after we left the church, I was exhausted.

After a brief rest, Bwiza knocked on my door and invited me to dinner. At her house, she served me beef in a red sauce. Given that she probably buys meat only two or three times a year, it was an incredible honor to share this meal with her.

My evening was capped off with Christmas TV specials on my iPod, hot chocolate, wonderful phone calls from friends and family, and the making of a Christmas bananagram - it's imperative to play with the new toys on Christmas day!

Do they know it’s Christmas? Rwandans definitely knew it was Christmas, and some went to church or prepared a special meal, but for the most part they didn’t make nearly the fuss about Christmas that we do.

Sweet Potato Pudding

* 1 cup milk
* 2 eggs
* 2 1/2 cups sliced sweet potatoes (I grated them by hand, and because they are white threw in some carrot for the orange)
* 1 cup sugar
* 1 tsp cinnamon
* 1 tsp nutmeg
* 1/2 tsp ground cloves
* 1/4 tsp salt
* 1 tsp lemon or lime zest
* 1 tsp vanilla

In a blender, combine the milk and eggs; process until well mixed. Add sweet potato slices and process until potato is shredded fine. Add remaining ingredients; blend well.
Note: You may also shred the sweet potatoes finely with a shredder or food processor and beat ingredients with a hand mixer.

Pour mixture into a well-greased 1 1/2-quart baking dish. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 1 hour or until knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve warm or cold, with whipped cream or ice cream.
Serves 4.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dirty grass

I felt like I was going insane yesterday. I was being told, by multiple colleagues and neighbors, that something totally normal and logical was completely unacceptable, nay, dirty.

I should have maybe seen it coming - but how could I have expected something so asinine? In retrospect, they were all trying to tell me that I was doing something wrong: my landlady when she barged in and weeded my yard and the 4-foot high hillsides to the south of my house, causing miniature mudslides and concerns about erosion, Robert when he found a boy to weed my yard although I’d told him I was waiting until closer to when my family would arrive, another woman who’d discussed working in my yard coming to pull the grass and weeds off my path without my permission, leaving me slipping, sliding and splattered in mud every time I went to the bathroom, and a few comments here and there about my grass.

That’s right: the root of my temporary madness was grass. Or rather, the root of my temporary madness was that multiple people were telling me, with the utmost conviction, something that was totally false in my worldview: my grass was unhygienic.

Apparently, what was growing in my yard was “unhygienic grass.” When my counterpart finally broached the subject directly with me, I asked about the grass over there up the hill, and he said it was “good grass.” What about the grass by the road? It didn’t matter, because I am in the village to teach about (among other things) good hygiene, and how could I tell people to wash their hands with soap after using the toilet and boil their drinking water if I had unhygienic grass in my yard?

(From my perspective, of course, how were people who don’t use soap to tell me my grass was dirty? The “good” grass at my office was more neat and manicured than my grass, but really? Good grass and bad grass? Dirty grass and clean grass?

I take a lot of care with my community reputation: I want to be viewed, in the Rwandan parlance, as a “serious” person. I’m careful to respect Rwandan cultural mores, not to drink in the village, usually to dress in skirts or wrap a sheet of igitenge fabric around my waist when I leave my yard. I regularly sweep my house and dress in clean clothes. So being told that I was unclean, unhygienic, especially by people who don’t boil their drinking water or wash their hands with soap, was a pretty big affront.

Eventually, after angrily shoving some cuttings from a flowery bush into my naked and eroding hillside, I came around and accepted what I’d been told. Just as I think it’s crazy for people who don’t wash their hands with soap to tell me I’m unclean for having grass in my yard, I am losing credibility with them when I try to teach about proper handwashing because they believe my yard is unclean. So I’ve accepted the irrational, counterfactual cultural belief and submitted to it: negotiating “good grass” to be planted in the front yard, planting “good” grass on the paths and stairs, and hiring the rogue path-weeding lady to turn most of the rest of the yard into hills for planting (it’s been a long time coming).

Friday, December 10, 2010

"Fruit" salad

On Thanksgiving I taught Robert how to make fruit salad. He had never encountered the concept (“Where do I put the banana?” “In that bowl.” “But that bowl has the pineapple!”). Still, it was a big hit. When we returned from the day trekking chimpanzees, Robert was gone for the night but had laid out Rebecca’s dinner, including this artfully layered fruit salad of mango, pineapple, cucumber and carrot:


Rebecca, the scientist who is studying Gishwati’s chimpanzees, kindly offered to take me out with the research team for a glimpse of the chimpanzees. This group of about 20 is at the very beginning stages of habituation, meaning that they are not entirely accustomed to human visitors. Very few people have ever seen these chimps. It was an amazing opportunity.

We set out around 10am to meet the morning team, which had presumably been following the chimps since daybreak. When we found them around noon, after a brisk uphill hike that left me embarrassingly winded, the morning team had lost the small number of chimps they’d been watching. We did hear a few chimps hooting in the not-too-far distance, so we went off-trail, up and down steep hillsides that further reminded me I need to work out more. We were hot on their trail - following the paths of trampled bushes and broken vines they’d left in their slides downhill, noting wads of spit out bark or bites taken out of leaves. I was exhausted and thinking of exiting the forest with the morning team to try again another day when, very nearby, a great chorus of whoops rose from the trees.

I stuck around, and was treated to several hours of chimpanzee viewing: a mother and infant eating in a tree, the bold male who I thought of as the class clown selecting the closest appetizing tree to us for his meal, chimps swinging from trees and vines, the very unappealing swollen red bottom of a chimp in heat, chimps wadging bark, chimps eating leaves, chimps scratching and grooming, chimps building nests. What incredible creatures they are, and it is a privilege to work with the organization charged with protecting them.

Kinyarwanda slang of the day

My favorite bit of Kinyarwanda slang originated at the National University of Rwanda in Butare, to which the country’s most elite students are admitted. When I break this out around NUR-educated Rwandans (and others the slang has spread to) I invariably am received with hearty laughter.

Gutera akadobo (goo-teh-rah ah-kah-doe-boe) means “to throw the little bucket”: to reject someone’s advances. The first time I encountered this phrase, I was told it referred to a woman rejecting a man. I asked if it could also refer to a man rejecting a woman: “That cannot happen!”

Apparently there are levels of rejection. You’ll recall that “aka-” denotes the diminutive class. Therefore, gutera indobo “to throw the (regularly sized) bucket” is a deeper rejection. Most painful, following a relationship of several years, is gutera ingunguru: “to throw the big metal barrel/oil drum.” Ouch.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Water project!

Great news! My water project proposal got approved. I already have the money in hand, because the charity gives money up-front for “shovel ready” projects and then fundraises. You can read about it here (and donate if you wish):

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hannukah in Rwanda

I’ve been celebrating Hannukah here in Kinihira, using the opportunity to do a little cross-cultural sharing with my friends and colleagues.

Sunday I taught my adopted family dreidl with dried beans. It was a big hit, from age 5-50! I’m planning to pass out a few dreidls now that the holiday is over; my dream is that in a few years some Jewish tourist will pass through the village and wonder why there are kids sitting on the side of the road playing dreidl in the middle of August.

On Monday my coworkers and I did a potluck dinner. I made applesauce, taught Rebecca’s houseboy how to make latkes (potato and white sweet potato), and we coupled these with a few Rwandan dishes. I explained the origin of the holiday, lit the candles, and then they dug in. I’m happy to say that there was not a single latke left and one notoriously picky coworker even asked for the recipe! We played dreidl with desert.

I’ll take this opportunity to talk a little bit about matches in Rwanda. Matches here absolutely suck. They are far inferior even to those paper matchbooks that are impossible to use: basically rolled pieces of paper with tips that often fly off when you strike them, lit or unlit. Lit tips make a bit of a fire hazard and really hurt when they stick to your finger (which you must use to press the tip against the striking surface because the matches are too feeble to strike without this).

On the first night of Hannukah I went through about 12 matches before I got one to light; I was starting to think I’d need a Hannukah miracle to get the menorah going. The next day, running low, I set off to buy another book of matches, in search of a different brand. The first store I went into had “S.H.U.M.U.K.” matches - no joke! However they could not break my 500 franc note for the 15 franc matchbox. I went to another store, bought a pack of Sunny matches there (brand diversity = insurance against cold dinner), and then returned to the first store with change so that I could light my menorah with Shumuk matches (which were slightly more cooperative than the last brand I tried).

Community needs assessment: household surveys

Part of my job (for both Peace Corps and GACP) is to do a community needs assessment in Kinihira and some of the other villages surrounding Gishwati. The first phase of this is a household survey we designed, featuring questions on education levels, land and animal ownership, house and toilet situations, hygiene, market access and use, nutrition, water access and use, health issues, banking, etc. We ask about the household’s situation and also ask what they would like to improve.

I’m one house away from finishing the survey in Kinihira (we’re targeting about 15% of households; as the houses have numbers on the doors I’ve selected multiples of 6: we’re waiting on #24). It’s been an eye opening experience to be welcomed into so many homes and I’ve gained a much deeper understanding of the poverty that people in my community face.

Some issues have not surprised me: I share their problems with market access, my eyes have told me that many kids have worms, and I strongly suspected that most people don’t regularly use soap when washing hands or boil drinking water.

One issue I knew about in theory have really hit home: talking to many women about poverty, problems paying for school fees and buying food and how little time they have between farming, cooking and fetching water but knowing that their husbands are up on the main road drinking away precious time and money. And as I’ve sat in houses with rusty old tin roofs and packed-dirt floors, on a chair that’s one of just 5 pieces of furniture in the whole house, listening to people talk about how they’d like a bigger house, or a cement floor, or to replace the roof, I realize that as much as it sucks that I’m fighting a mold invasion in my own comfortable house filled with plenty of food and furniture and books, life could be a lot harder.

Among the interesting things I’ve learned: People who can’t afford candles or kerosene to light their houses at night take a burning stick and shake the ashes around (with a packed dirt floor and sparse furniture, this isn’t a fire hazard). Anyone over the age of 25 struggles with the concept of a 1-5 scale to gauge the comparative magnitude of their problems.

Questions that often make people laugh: How often do you eat meat? How do you save money? (“What money?”)

Next steps: input and analyze the data, carry out the household survey in other target villages, and organize focus groups (different groups for men, women, youth, community leaders, etc etc) to do collaborative assessment activities, identify community strengths and prioritize problems.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Meet the people in my village!

Bwiza and my adopted family
On my first day in the village, I was led down the hill and among the houses by an ever-increasing gang of children. I was completely disoriented by the time Bwiza invited me into her house “to give a sweet potato” (which she was cooking) and a glass of milk. Bwiza is my age (23), unmarried, and has an adorable 5 year old son. Her family, like so many in the village, came here after years in the Congo. Bwiza finished secondary school in Goma and speaks little English: we mostly communicate in French and Kinyarwanda. She is the second oldest and only girl of 8 kids (ranging from 25 and studying medicine in Goma to 8, just a few years older than his nephew). The family is very intelligent and hard-working. The 22 and 12 year old brothers in particular speak impressive English and are very studious. Bwiza is my village best friend - I’ve enjoyed showing her pictures of friends and family and narrating for her the North American seasons on a virtual tour of Boston via my calendar. We trade food, gossip, stories, comparisons of life in America and here, and English/Kinyarwanda lessons.

Philip, the primary school headmaster
Philip is Bwiza & co.’s uncle. He is the headmaster of the primary school (660 students and expanding to cover the first 3 years of secondary with 60 more students expected). We primarily converse in French. He’s been incredibly welcoming, and helped facilitate my English class, grantwriting, and other projects.

Kayihura is the chief of the umudugudu (village). When I first met him he called me “umukobwa wanjye.” He’s always happy to greet me and we’ve been collaborating on the needs assessment, water project, etc.

Robert is Rebecca’s houseboy/cook/fixer/extraordinaire. He’s been so helpful for me, showing me to the market town 50 minutes away, helping me find eggs and plant flowers and fruit in my garden, and generally just being good company.. One of the smartest Rwandans I’ve met, at 24 he still has 2 years left of secondary school (he’s saved his money and will return to school this January). Robert’s English is excellent and he loves learning slang and expressions, leading to many a discussion about gold digging, keeping up with the Joneses, odd ducks, etc etc.

Mama Benjamin
Mama Benjamin (of the toothbrushing lesson LINK) has a shop is across the street from my office and house. Every time I visit, she gives me a Fanta (I take citron) and refuses to let me pay. The room where she receives guests and customers is decorated with various Catholic images with origami-style frames made from Primus beer labels. (Fitting for a Catholic, yes?)

Mama Shakuru
Mama Shakuru lives behind the office and my house. She can often be found in her kitchen, where she’ll offer me a sweet potato or cup of ikivuguto (Rwandan yogurt). Her family owns a cow and if I ask a day in advance I can usually get a good deal on a liter of fresh milk - 100rwf ($.15 - it’s 200rwf in shops here and 400rwf in Gisenyi). Sometimes I literally stand there with my empty bottle watching Shakuru, 16, milk the cow. I take the milk home, strain the stray hairs out, and boil it. Once in a while they won’t sell me milk - “we need it for Muhirwa (moo-hee-rgwa),” she’ll say, nodding to her affable 3 year old son, belly swollen with worms. How can I take milk from him? A few weeks ago I used some of their milk to make carrot cake pancakes, so I made 6 small ones for every member of their family (I made 7, actually - Robert raved about his). When I brought them over and said they were like amandazi (donuts) but with milk and carrots, 5-year-old Luisa and 7-year-old Samuel went nuts with excitement. Their mother ordered them to wash their hands and all 3 young kids took a pancake. Samuel’s was gone in 2 bites; Luisa made hers last a few seconds longer. Muhirwa took a few nibbles, and his mother asked for a bite. She liked it, but he didn’t - “he doesn’t like sweet things,” she explained, “not even sweet little bananas.” Luisa and Samuel nearly knocked each other over fighting over Muhirwa’s leftovers; apparently they like sweet things.

My English Class
Since mid-November I’ve been teaching a twice-weekly English class to secondary school students, who are on vacation. My class has dwindled from 20 to 5-10 regulars who often show up 10-15 minutes late, but I try not to take too much offense. Some of the kids are top students, others I’m told are cow herders who aren’t currently attending school. Nearly all are boys; I’ve struggled to get girls to show up with little success. We do fun (I hope) activities - fill in the blank, vocab and interpretation of hip hop songs; the human knot to practice directions, listening to American radio stories, debates, etc, working in lessons in life skills and setting goals. I’ve told Robert, who’s a regular, that the class is sometimes like “pulling teeth” - the education culture here is that of rote memorization and little participation. Getting students to interpret song meanings, compare Rwanda to the America of an NPR story, or guess at a new vocabulary word from context can be a painfully slow process.

The market ladies
Each afternoon, just before 4, women start laying out old plastic sacks on the road with piles of cassava, or buckets heaped with sweet potatoes, or bags of irish potatoes. If I’m lucky someone will have avocado, corn, cabbage or soy flour; on 2 occasions I’ve seen miniature mangoes and onions and once each bananas, urusenda hot peppers, and tomatoes. (Pineapples can sometimes be bought from a passing trader.) It’s the only market within nearly an hour’s walk, and as such, many women shop at the market on a daily basis. Various village women sell their surplus starchy roots. I check it out most days because you never know what you might find. Mostly I just find calls of “Agatesi (that’s me), buy potatoes,” “Agatesi, soya,” “Agatesi, come look at the avocado.” The first time I saw mangoes I was with Bwiza, on my way to visit her house. I bought us 10 for 100rwf ($.15) and we sat at her house, peeling fruits the size of a child’s fist and getting their hairs stuck in our teeth as she showed me pictures of her in school, her son’s father, and her “sweetie.”

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

HIV/AIDS in Rwanda

On this, World AIDS day, I'd like to share a few statistics about HIV/AIDS in Rwanda.

Rwanda, like other Sub-Saharan African countries, sees the greatest incidence of infection via heterosexual transmission and mother-to-child transmission. Rwanda has a generalized epidemic at a low to moderate level: official records state about 3% prevalence in the country, which is lower than levels in Washington, D.C and lower than all of Rwanda's neighbors. The brunt of Rwanda's AIDS epidemic is in cities: 7.3% in urban areas (11.5% in Kigali and 5% in other urban areas) with only 2.2% prevalence in rural areas.

Rwanda has made great strides in recent decades in lowering transmission rates, through sex and especially from mother to child. The age of first sexual encounter here is about 20, which is older than Rwanda's neighbors. Rates of risky sex are also lower here. During the course of a year Rwanda manages to test about 10% of the population, including required testing for pregnant mothers. ARVs here are free, although the fact that 2/3 of ARV patients are women implies that there are some men who are reluctant to seek testing or treatment. Stigma is relatively low at this point in the epidemic, but it does exist.

The largest and growing risk group is 15-19 year olds in Kigali. Risk factors include that it's a regional transportation hub, Kigali's appeal to young Rwandans looking for jobs, the sugar daddy/sugar mommy phenomenon, and Rwanda's rapid urbanization. The Sugar Daddy issue, in which girls in secondary school receive tuition and other goods like cell phones and phone credit from much older men in exchange for sex and have little power to ask to use condoms, explains the otherwise counterintuitive fact that there is a higher prevalence in HIV among women achieving secondary education: 6.4%.

There are other challenges: some people believe the HIV/AIDS rate is underreported here and may be as high as 10% (and that neighboring countries also have underreported rates). Also, Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) are at a huge risk for HIV around the world, but recognition that they exist at all has been slow to come, let alone services tailored to educating this group and reducing their risk.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A taste* of Rwandan popular music

Here are a few songs that are ubiquitous here, if you’re curious about Rwandan pop/hip hop:

Amayobera means something like “that thing that cannot be explained/articulated.” A love song, obviously.

Igipimo means balance - as in the refrain: “it’s a balance really, a balance.” Another love song.

*see post on kumva

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sports scavenger hunt update!

New discoveries (in bold) have been coming more slowly. In my village I regularly see the 4-year-old with the Ducks sweatshirt, the older man with the Redskins NFC Champions shirt, and a youth with a Red Sox shirt. With the recent hockey additions I’ve now got all the New York teams, unless you count the Nets. I’ve got almost the entire MLB. I'm worried I'll never find the pour (sic) Brewers - I don't think I've even ever seen Brewers paraphernalia in the US! It’s little surprise that I’m most attuned to the MLB and NFL; I’m sure there are some hockey teams I’ve missed simply for not recognizing the team name or logo - eventually I might have to study up. But buhoro buhoro I think I’ll get them all!

MLB: Red Sox, Angels, Yankees, Cardinals, Pirates, Diamondbacks, Marlins, Blue Jays, Orioles, Reds, A’s, Dodgers, Mariners, Braves, Phillies, Mets, Cubs, Astros, Twins, Indians, Rays, Giants, Nationals, Royals
NBA: Kings, Celtics, Bulls, Pistons, Sonics, Sixers, Blazers, Rockets, Knicks, Suns, Magic, Pacers, Spurs
NFL: Eagles, Patriots, Colts, Broncos, Texans, Jets, Rams, Raiders, Packers, Cowboys, Browns, Giants, Vikings, Falcons, Bears, Dolphins, 49ers, Seahawks, Buckaneers, Lions, Redskins
NHL: Maple Leaves, Penguins, Bruins, Sharks, Canadiens, Ducks, Islanders, Rangers, Avalanche
Other: WNBA Beat, MLS Galaxy, Yankees Suck, Charlotte Hornets
Sox bonuses: A Nomar jersey and an Ortiz shirt; the official 2004 World Series shirt
Pats bittersweet triple word score: 19-0 Perfect Season t-shirt
U2 bonus: Zoo York

Thanksgiving in Rwanda

I managed to turn a day of feasting into a full week here, so I think I’ve done pretty well for myself.

On Tuesday I “catered” a party for GACP’s forest research staff: pizza, bean dip and guac, pudding. We (the researcher Rebecca and I) explained that America is a nation of immigrants who’ve brought their food with them, creating a diverse culinary scene including Italian pizza and Mexican bean dip and guac and English (sort of) pudding. In keeping with the Rwandan love affair with beans, the bean dip was the biggest hit. I think they enjoyed beans that had a little more going on than just being boiled to death.

Wednesday we had a little vegetarian Thanksgiving in the village. I taught Rebecca’s house boy how to make garlic mashed potatoes and stuffing in a frying pan, and talked about the origins of Thanksgiving. When we went around the table to say what we're thankful for, he said "for the delicious food Tuesday and Wednesday."

Thursday I got together with my Peace Corps posse in Musanze and we made a delicious instant Thanksgiving from packages - canned cranberry jelly (also good on muffins the next day, FYI), stove top stuffing with instant turkey gravy and canned chicken, and heavenly Betty Crocker sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows. Friday I stuffed myself until I felt sick at an expat Thanksgiving that included turkeys freshly killed on Wednesday! And Saturday my boss, Rebecca and I had a girls’ night at a restaurant in Gisenyi. Topics of conversation included the difficulties of finding and managing housegirls/boys and email identity theft.

There was also shopping - a quick Black Friday trip to the Musanze market (I got the cutest aprons! $.12 each!) and today while waiting for an appointment I found some nice clothes in the Gisenyi market. Bet you can’t get $11 DKNY jeans in the US, even on Black Sunday (alas if I were a different size DKNY could have been Diesel for $11).

So have no fear, I’ve already started working on my holiday weight gain and consumerist binge, even in Rwanda.

I want to say how thankful I am for my amazingly supportive family and friends from home who spoil me rotten, my wonderful friends and colleagues here, and for being born into such incredible privilege in America.

Kinyarwanda verb of the month: kumva

When speaking English, Rwandans often make mistakes like “I hear it” when referring to food, or “I touch it” when talking about a sound. This is because Kinyarwanda has only one verb for feeling, tasting, touching, hearing, and even understanding: kumva (koom-vah) “to sense, to understand.” Therefore, simbyumva means “I don’t understand it” but also “I don’t hear it,” “I don’t feel it,” etc etc. It takes some getting used to for Rwandans learning English, but also for those of us learning Kinyarwanda.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Book Bleg

A bleg, for those of you less blog-obsessed than I am, is a blog that begs. I’ve been reading 3-4 books a week because after dinner is cooked there’s little else to do here at night. So here is a list of books I would love to read, as recommended by a September issue of Time Magazine, the Slate gabfests (an amazing podcast I highly recommend) and various friends. Question marks indicate that I’ve probably spelled the name wrong but I’m surge google can figure it out.

The Story of Jane
Never Let Me Go (also a new movie)
The Secret Lives of Bees
Skippy Dies
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
Last Call
Sam Lipsyte The Ask
The Lost Books of the Odyssey
The Empire Strikes Out
The Surrendered
The Post Birthday World
Matt Devanturn(?) The Book of Right and Wrong
Seth Stevenson: Grounded (travel)
You Can’t Go Home Again
War is a Force that Gives us Meaning
The Big Short - Michael Lewis
Michael Shaven’s Wonderboys
City of Velk(?) by Zoe Tevoras (?)
Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich
The Immortal Life of Henry Edilar (?) by Rebecca Schute
The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget by Andrew Rice
The Song of Ice and Fire series
Addam Ross’s Mr. Peanut
Gary Steingard’s Supersad True Love Story
Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists
Chris Cleave’s Incendiary and his newest book (see below)
Dennis Lehane - anything I haven’t read

Feel free to send pre-read copies! In addition any classics you might find at a tag sale - Dickens, Austen, Updike, the Russian greats, etc. would be welcome, just email to make sure I don’t already have it here. Or anything else you’ve enjoyed lately, from great literature to fun beach read to interesting nonfiction. I can assure you that any books you send will circulate among Peace Corps Rwanda Volunteers for decades to come.

That issue of Time also advertised the new Kindle with 3G (which we have in Rwanda, allegedly) and a month-long battery - long enough for the village! Just think, I haven't even ever laid hands on an iPhone 4g or iPad, though I saw a Chinese guy using the latter once at Bourbon.

I’ve got a few recommendations as well. Chris Cleave’s Little Bee (also published as The Other Hand) was absolutely incredibly and moving and as a side effect reminded me that while I’m pretty disillusioned with the development industry from my time here, I still fiercely care about refugee issues. The fantasy trilogy Mistborn was fantastic and entertaining and I can’t wait to read it again. I also recommend The Perfect Storm.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Is this what JFK had in mind when he came up with the Second Goal of Peace Corps?

The second goal of the Peace Corps is to u a better understanding of America and its peoplehos within the host country. Usually I fulfill this with casual conversation, sharing American food, or explaining pictures of Boston and home. Often, Rwandans ask me questions about how things are done in America, and I’m put in the position of distilling our massive and diverse culture into a neat answer that can be conveyed with my meager Kinyarwanda vocabulary.

I had the funniest conversation the other day with my counterpart and the head of my village. They asked me if men in America can take more than one wife, so I explained that they can’t do so at the same time but they can after a divorce, of which we have many (and likewise, women can take a second husband). And that some men, and some women, take girl/boyfriends despite being married, but that I think that happens in Rwanda too and usually it’s frowned upon in both cultures. They asked me if sometimes men might have kids with different women and therefore a few different families. They asked me who would get the kids so we got into court arbitration, child support, etc. I told them that there is a slight bias towards the mother getting the kids, and they seemed to think there would (or should?) be more men getting custody. I said usually a man (particularly athletes and rappers) who has children with several different women would rather find new women to have relations with than take care of the existing kids so usually the mothers get the kids.

I kid you not, the head of my village then said he wants to go to America some day and impregnate a woman. (Good luck dude, you’re a great village leader but with your middle-age paunch, your total lack of English and money you would not have so much game…)

Throughout the conversation, they kept asking my opinion on all of this and I kept navigating between keeping up my reputation as being “serious” and culturally appropriate while speaking for all of America on the topic with some semblance of nuance.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Slightly Stale Links

Don't forget to check back before my last post  - I just backdated some posts from late October and early November.

First, some slightly more recent links:
- Reuters’ regular Rwanda Factbox
- My boss’s American boss on his visit to Kinihira 
- And more from GACP about my village (and me!)
- On Rwanda’s lesbians. I’d love to read the document.

Some old ones I never got around to posting:
- KigaliWire on gacaca, Rwanda’s local court system
- Ratio’s September Rwanda brief
- BBC on mountain gorilla politics in Rwanda
- A NYTimes series from a few months ago on a social scientist’s research in Rwanda has some nice descriptions of the country and its water issues. The link is to the final piece, but it links to all 5 in the series.
- I don't remember what this Texas In Africa is about, but I wanted to link to it a while ago. As always I recommend the entire blog.
- The Guardian's photos of Rwandan tea fields
- Hip-hop loving pigs: Bizarre, hilarious, and takes place at one of my favorite Rwanda sites - a Rwandan-style truck stop between Kigali and Gisenyi.

Kinyarwanda insult of the day: muzungu kuruhu

Muzungu kuruhu means literally “white person in skin only.” It is an appellation given to white people who do not accede to the various demands for 100 francs, bonbon (candy), bottles, pens, etc. Basically, it’s an insult that means you’re stingy. I like to take it as a compliment - literally, if I’m a muzungu in skin only, I must be very well integrated into Rwanda! On occasion I refer to myself as a muzungu kuruhu to make the point that I don’t have money to give away or sometimes as a bargaining tactic, and when it comes out of my mouth it invariably inspires riotous laughter.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Umuganda, village style

The primary school in my village (years 1-6) is expanding to include the first 3 years of secondary school, meaning it will provide all of the free “basic 9” years of education. The secondary school is targeted to open with the new school year in January, so umuganda in my village has become a weekly activity that occurs mostly on Thursdays, as far as I can tell. A month ago and today I participated by carrying giant pieces of stone to the latrine hole, down a steep 100-meter slope covered in underbrush and stumps of eucalyptus trees (the air given a healthy perfume for the workout as the tree trunks are burned nearby to produce charcoal). Each time I’ve hauled my fair share of stones down the hill, a great cardio and arm workout. The first time I was feeling great about my contribution until a young woman in flipflops with a baby on her back passed me carrying a humungous stone weighing at least 40 pounds on her head.

Three Thursdays ago there was a different activity: helping to lay the brick walls of the 4 new classrooms. That day I attended umuganda without a translator and there were many more participants to gawk at me. Through hand motions and Kinyarwanda littered with building vocabulary I do not possess I came to understand that I should take a trowel and scrape the 6 faces of the homemade bricks before handing them off to men who’d lay them in cement. At first I thought this activity was rather pointless, then I thought it might be good to dislodge loose irregularities from the bricks so they’d better stick in the cement, and then I went back to thinking I was useless when I saw that some brick layers skipped this step and my bricks were usually done again.

I wasn’t entirely useless, though - not only is it good community relations for me to participate in umuganda, but I provided much needed entertainment for various workers and allowed a soldier who was helping out (at least he was helping, others lingered idly on the hillside) to practice his pickup skills - and believe me, they needed practice. In the end I went and held an umbrella for my friend as she used a homemade notched metal grabber-thingy (see, I even lack the English vocabulary!) to bend pieces of metal around nails into squares that would be used to shape cement pillars. I made a quick escape around noon as I saw my soldier-suitor approaching.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

I found the Holy Grail!

A bit over a month ago I walked into Gisenyi's posh western restaurant (rare steak! pizza!) and was literally rendered speechless by the man standing at the bar in this T-shirt. I offered to buy it and after a little discussion he and his friend agreed to give it to me for free after laundering it. It took me several phone calls over the course of a few weeks to follow up on it, but I am now the bittersweetly proud owner of this shirt!

As for other news, I finally moved into my new house and I'm planning to put in some quality time in the village. I'll keep typing blogs but not sure when I'll have the time online to upload them, especially blogs with pictures.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A lesson in dental hygiene

Last week when I went to Gisenyi I took the bus with Mama Benjamin, who lives across the street, and her 7-year-old daughter. They were headed to the dentist because the daughter’s teeth are in a painfully rotted state. Remembering that I’d taken a bag of 75 toothbrushes from a case another volunteer had left up for grabs in the Peace Corps office, I promised them a toothbrush and brushing lesson when I returned.

Today I wandered over with a handful of differently colored toothbrushes. At Mama Benjamin’s table were teenaged son Benjamin and another woman from the next village over. Benjamin went to find his little sister and I was ironically served a Fanta. I explained that Fanta and sugar were primary causes of problems with teeth and offered them all toothbrushes (Benjamin snapped up the pink one; there’s no feminine connotation with pink here). I gave out 6 to Mama Benjamin and 6 to the other mother, who has 5 kids but no husband.

Then I took one for myself and explained that it was important to brush for 5 minutes, and to get the inside, top and outside of the teeth on top and bottom, going from one side to the other with each surface. Kinyarwanda has limited direction words and I have an even more limited grasp on them, so this was a bit complicated. To clarify I said that there were 6 steps and proceeded to brush my teeth covering each of the 6 surfaces from right to left, drooling slightly on myself as 4 people stared at me. I emphasized that they should use “good water” when brushing their teeth, although I’m not sure they even drink good water, but that’s another project for another day. Then I asked the little girl to demonstrate as I finished off my Fanta.

Later in the day the family gave me a piece of sugar cane (irony, take 2) and a bag of bananas as thanks - a pretty good trade for toothbrushes I got for free and the joy of spreading dental hygiene!

Friday, October 29, 2010

An atypical day in the life

I had to see the doctor Thursday in Kigali, so I left Kinihira Wednesday morning to run some errands in Gisenyi in preparation for moving next week. I traveled to Gisenyi in 2 overcrowded taxi-vans (matatus), which was relatively comfortable compared to the alternative: the puke-green bus of death.

In amongst arranging to buy some furniture I’d been eying for a while (a cushioned chair and a few coffee tables, one of which will be a book shelf on the cheap), I visited the post office. I got my parents’ Halloween package, as anticipated, but there was no sign of my absentee ballot - way to go MA! However, there were about 14 newly delivered mailbags, so I asked if I could wait and see if there was anything more for me.

Although they weren’t doing anything else, it took the post office employees 30 minutes to get around to opening the mailbags. I occupied with fresh copies of the New Yorker, courtesy of my grandparents, then turned to watch as they dumped the bags unceremoniously onto the floor with painstaking slowness. The bags themselves were quite interesting: they originally came from France, with a few from Great Britain and the US, but seem to have been appropriated by the Rwandan Posita. There was still no sign of the absentee ballot, but my parents’ Thanksgiving package had made it to Rwanda in about 16 days - a record! The post office workers kindly offered me a French mailbag so that I could carry both packages home, and allowed me to trade it for an American one (which has a neat little Velcro closure at the top). After a 30 minute climb uphill I made it home with the USPS sack of packages slung Santa Claus like over my shoulder just as it started to rain. Phew!

At dusk I went and picked up the remainder of my furniture and as I was going to buy cushions in the market had to fend off a teenaged ass-grabber with a slap. But the excitement was only just beginning.

That evening I went to my old boss’s new mansion for dinner. Much to my surprise I found a new used car in the driveway! Papa Rene, as he is called, is a proud member of Rwanda’s NGO-funded upper-middle class. Although I was 45 minutes late, I still waited over 20 minutes for he and his wife to come home from work, which I occupied with phone calls to friends, wowing the housegirls with my rapid English, and by playing with the cutest 3-year-old on earth, Glory. When Papa Rene arrived he informed me that before dinner they’d be visiting his family in Brasserie (where the brewery is, 6km away) and said “I think we can move together,” indicating that I was to join them in the car.

Much to my surprise his wife (who is about 26 and the mother of 3, the oldest of whom is 8) got into the drivers’ seat. “Does Mama Rene know how to drive?” I asked. “She knows buhoro buhoro,” said my boss. If you don’t recall, buhoro buhoro means slowly by slowly and is the phrase I use to describe my Kinyarwanda abilities. Did I mention it was dark out? Needless to say I found the only working seatbelt in the backseat, buckeled up, and made the 3-year-old who preferred to tumble all over the backseat sit on my lap where I could keep a firm grip on her.

The car stalled 5 times as she backed it out of the gold-painted gate and up the steep street, and another time as she attempted to pull into traffic. With Papa Rene calmly coaching his wife in Kinyarwanda, we made it out of Gisenyi town and turned up the hilly and curvey road to Brasserie. For the next 6km I texted goodbyes to a few friends as Mama Rene slowly wound her way to our final destination, the outer tires running off the road only a few times and the breaks being slammed once as she got scared by oncoming headlights, though they were safely on the opposite side of the road.

We finally arrived at the family’s house and I unclenched my fingers and texted news of my ongoing existence to a friend. At the family’s house, I introduced myself, showing off my Kinyarwanda, and then accepted a Fanta and mostly tuned out the conversation in favor of children-watching. Papa Rene’s 3-year-old was playing with her cousin, an 18-month old, precariously feeding him orange Fanta straight from the bottle as mothers sometimes do to their young children. Note that mothers usually have a lot more arm strength and coordination and do not attempt this act over their shoulders. Miraculously she didn’t’ spill any before her mother stepped in with a plastic mug. The 18-month-old was playing with a plastic toy truck, which was marked UN in large letters, I kid you not.

After the Fantas were empty and family business was concluded and a bag of eggs was given to my boss’s family (they gave it to the tired 3-year-old to carry, and I carried her) we returned to the car. I was dismayed but not surprised to see the tired and slightly frustrated Mama Rene slip back into the driver’s seat for the trip back to Gisenyi.

When we’d safely made it back inside their gate and Mama Rene had almost but not quite hit the side of the house as she brought the car to a stop, Papa Rene turned around and said “You see, Agatesi, she knows!” “Yes, she knows!” I agreed. 8 months in Rwanda have at least taught me to lie as well as Rwandans.

Dinner was delicious and thankfully it was my boss who drove me home, otherwise it might have ended up all over the new-used backseat of the car.

As a postscript, today I found my ballot in the Peace Corps office in Kigali, shipped by UPS express. The address was my Gisenyi PO and didn’t mention that I’m a PCV so I have no idea how it found its way to the PC office, but I guess MA is no longer as delinquent as I thought. I’d already voted by email, though.

Baby Ineza Lily

One of my new friends, Mukesha, is 24. She has a 5-year-old girl and a 2-week-old newborn. Mukesha had already decided that her daughter’s Kinyarwanda  name would be Ineza, but she asked me for an English name that wasn’t common here. She wanted a short name, and Rwandans also want names that have meanings, limiting my options. After a few suggestions I came up with Lily, which Mukesha instantly took a liking to.

Baby Lily’s father is in the Rwandan army and currently in Sudan. He won’t be able to see his new child for several months. Saturday I took a few pictures of Lily, Tuesday I got  call from Darfur and Papa Lily gave me his email address, and I just sent him the pictures!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Typical Rwandan shop

This is a typical larger shop in a town, with room for a table and chairs so customers can enjoy a cold fanta or warm milk. I took this in Nyanza during training.

Monday, October 25, 2010

My new house!

My new house is finally finished and Peace-Corps-approved! I’ll move in in about a week. In the mean time, here’s a picture of the bathroom/shower in progress, the finished product with Lake Kivu in the distance, and a view of the side of the house, front yard and fence which will soon be blooming with flowers I planted yesterday!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Handwashing day

Held a bit belatedly, on October 19 (International hand washing day was Oct 15), at Kinihira primary school.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Volcanic view from Kinihira

The colors in the panorama didn’t stitch together evenly, but besides that I love this picture. From left to right, Nyiragongo, Mikeno, Karisimbi.

I can still see Nyiragongo glowing at night from Kinihira, but with less detail in the wafting red smoke.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Electricity coming to Kinihira!

The poles have been up for a few months but today they strung up the wires. Power has yet to flow through the wires, but it’s progress. Rumor has it that we’ll be connected by December but I’m not holding my breath.

Pictured, men pushing around the heavy cables (the front of my house, left foreground) and the cables freshly hung as a storm roles in.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Kumara masenge

Back in the days when the Rwandan franc went a little further, it was subdivided into 10 amasenge. Baby bananas, more commonly called imineke, earn their nickname kumara masenge, “finish your pennies” because they are so delicious that you can’t help but spend all your change on them.

Nowadays, a bunch of 12 or so skinny ones goes for 150-200 rwf, depending on its condition, the location and your bargaining skills. Plumper bunches go for 300 ($.50).

Note that when bargaining for produce, sellers will very rarely lower the prices on pre-arranged groups of items (bananas, stacks of 4-5 passion fruit or tree tomatoes or oranges, piles of carrots or tomatoes). However a skilled bargainer can get something extra thrown in - convince the seller to part with 6 instead of 5 passion fruit for 100rwf, add more carrots to the pile, throw in a couple little green peppers with the stack of cucumbers. Items like pineapples, papayas, and mangoes can usually be bargained for (and sellers always start with a particularly steep markup on mangoes).

Malaria prophylaxis: did you know?

There are three common types of malaria prophylaxis: Mefloquine (a weekly hallucinogenic, see below), doxycycline (daily, also an antibiotic, and with the ironic side effect of increased sun sensitivity) and Malarone (daily, few side effects outside of the hit to your wallet).

Prophylactic pills keep you from getting sick with the symptoms, but malaria is likely still in your blood. After you leave a malaria zone, one type of malaria goes away after each time you have it while the type that lives in your liver should be flushed out with a dose of drugs (which cannot be taken if you have a G6PD deficiency, explaining why Peace Corps requires that obscure test).

The mefloquine (brand name Larium) that I’m on is a weekly pill that is known to cause vivid, sometimes hallucinogenic dreams and/or sleeplessness. I have trouble sleeping the night I take it, but I’ve gotten used to it, dreams of fires and murders aside. Anxiety, depression, psychosis or neurological symptoms such as walking crookedly have been known to develop, in which case you can switch to doxycylcine, a daily pill which has the ironic side effect of increased sun sensitivity. But guess what’s worse than side effects? Malaria.

Rwanda book reviews: Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

Baking Cakes in Kigali shares the cheesy cheerful tone of the #1 African Ladies Detective Agency, another book written by a white person with extensive experience in Africa. Angel is a bubbly Tanzanian living in Kigali who bakes cakes that are described in tantalizing detail. She is a heartwarming character surrounded by a stereotypical but interesting supporting cast. Angel meddles in her friends’, neighbors’ and customers’ lives in the best possible ways, fixing up relationships, finding solutions to one friend’s problem in another friend’s problem, and dishing out life lessons.

The book is full of authentic Rwanda details - sometimes too full when it seems to go on about the contents of a shop or the specifics of a location for the sake of description that does nothing to enhance the plot. However, these details are mostly accurate, so for someone less familiar with Rwanda, they may be educational as well as atmosphere-building. This includes items such as that the “last” Rwandan name (which isn’t a family name) is stated before the Western name, a haunting but not overdone scene about the Murambi memorial, a description of the police and army trucks that have a long bench down the middle of the bed so that soldiers sit facing the sides of the road, and (close to my heart) complaints about wasteful expat salaries and unproductive development programs. Although I must warn that if you only start preparing cassava leaves only a few minutes before serving them, as is done at one point in the book, you will end up serving your children poison for lunch.

One detail that seems exaggerated are the constant references to HIV/AIDS as an unnamed spectre or “the virus” or “the illness.” Although it was published in 2009, the book takes place in 2000, and I don’t know what level of stigmatization and fear about HIV/AIDS were prevalent in Kigali at the time.

Another slightly irksome feature of the book was that the dialogue was peppered with oddities: “somebody” (never person, or woman, but somebody, as in “professional somebody”) and “late” in constant and exclusive reference to the deceased, most confusingly used in constructions like “her baby was late.” This may be a relic of a literal translation from the Swahili spoken by many of the characters, or a misguided attempt to sound African, but these words took me out of the book a bit whenever I came across them.

All in all, it’s a charming but not profound book. I recommend it, but it’s not one I’ll read a second time.

Monday, October 4, 2010

It's a very small country

Towards the end of July a friend visited me in Gisenyi, and we found ourselves in a bar on a Saturday afternoon partaking in beer and, eventually, brochettes. There was a small wedding party at the bar and I remember commenting to my companion that we were the token muzungus in their wedding pictures.

Fast forward to this week. I’m living in a new village and working with a new organization. In my new village I carefully guard my reputation, turning down alcoholic beverages when they are offered because a “serious” unmarried girl does not consume alcohol. Two of my Rwandan colleagues live in Gisenyi on weekends, and are more modern, so I occasionally drink in the privacy of the office/guest house dining room if my counterpart offers.

Today one of my colleagues told me today that he had something to show me on his computer. Back in July, before we’d met, he’d loaned his camera to a friend in Gisenyi to photograph a wedding party, and he had just looked at the pictures this weekend.


Sunday, October 3, 2010

Chicken transport

From the Nyanza market, months ago. Packing up to go home.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Kinyarwanda verb of the day: Now that’s what I call a Saturday night/Sunday morning

In Kinyarwanda, the verb “to be drunk” is gusinda (goo-sin-dah) and “to be successful” is gutsinda (goo-tsin-dah). These words are dangerously close, although for some notable people the two concepts seem to be intertwined.

Complicating things further, “to pray” is gusenga (goo-sen-gah). In the past tense there is but a subtle vowel difference between narasinze (nah-rah-sin-zay) “I was drunk” and narasenze (nah-rah-sen-zay) “I prayed."


I don’t know when the project will be finished, or if it will actually give me faster/better internet access (fingers crossed), but all over Rwanda for the past few months I’ve seen people digging sometimes perilous ditches by the side of the road, preparing to lay giant spools of colorful fiberoptic cable. It’s part of East African and Rwandan development plans to bring high-speed internet to the region.

Here are a few pictures I’ve snapped over the last few months. I first saw the cables in the East (first picture), back in May, then in Gisenyi in July (subsequent pictures). In September I’ve seen them digging near my new site in Rutsiro district, including the last photo of the yellow “fiber optic cable” post.

At least if it doesn’t make a difference in internet quality/speed it’s been a great temporary employment scheme for the country.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Environment day!

As linked previously, GACP organizes a now-annual competition for the environmental clubs of 14 schools surrounding Gishwati forest. My counterpart organized this year’s for September 24, and I had the privilege of watching. The theme this year was “Students educating their families and communities about the environment.” Each school prepared a skit, song/dance and poem about the forest and environment. At the end they gave out awards in three categories: primary schools, 9-year schools (the first 9 years are free), and secondary schools. I had the opportunity to introduce myself to everyone at once, which was a decent tradeoff for the sunburn I got sitting in the sun for 6 hours.

Although I couldn’t understand everything (except for the primary school that had a kid who translated everything into English!), I thought the performances were great. Rwandans absolutely love drama and dancing, and the kids were extremely enthusiastic. Plays often touched on the topic of poaching (and kids had fun acting like chimps) or firewood (with even primary school kids setting fires in the middle of the “stage” which fortunately was a dirt field). I was excited to see that one secondary school group advocated using new low-fuel stoves. The song and dance routines were a mix of traditional Rwandan dance and modern hip-hop influenced music. One secondary school also painted a sign about protecting the forest, too!

A few pictures are below. Sorry about the timestamp, it wasn’t my camera. In the background of the pictures you can see Kinihira primary school.

A crowd assembles around the stage:

A very enthusiastic poet reading. It sounded good, even though I didn’t catch much:

The drunk man makes a frequent appearance in Rwandan skits and guarantees a few laughs:
 A man caught illegally harvesting wood is sentenced:
 Primary school kids dancing:

Most adorable?

 Environment rap.
 The kid on the left is a muzungu tourist with a banana-leaf camera:
 Secondary school kids dancing:

Students demonstrate a fuel-efficient stove. This skit was done entirely by boys, and the one in the pink shirt drew riotous laughter - note he’s gone as far as to stuff some cloth in the skirt to give himself a more feminine behind:

Poachers are caught as chimps look on:

The sign and my sunburn:

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