Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Kinyarwandan euphemistic verb of the day

In Kinyarwanda, one adds “na” to the end of a verb to convey that it is done “together.” Kugenda (Koo-dgen-da, “to leave”) can be made Kugendana (“to leave together”). Kubyina (Koob-jee-na: “to dance”) becomes Kubyinana (“to dance together”). And so forth.

There are some idiomatic exceptions. Gusoma means “to read,” but gusomana means “to kiss.” Let this be a warning to all the parents of teenagers who think their kids are “reading together” during those after-school study sessions.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


Bill Clinton recently cited umuganda as one of the reasons he admires President Kagame. On the last Saturday of every month, Rwandans do volunteer projects in their communities. This morning we joined a group of several hundred people in preparing a field to plant cassava. We started around 9:30 and by 11am most of the field had been hoed. The group celebrated by singing and dancing, and then several people made speeches and recognized participants including the Peace Corps, contingents from various umudugudus (villages) and a group of secondary school students.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Rwanda links

- Postcardjunky is perhaps my favorite regional blogger, and his latest satire is amazing as always. The last fictitious quote, “We are grateful for the gift of your blond nubile daughters and your bright-eyed sons willing to work for slave wages,” hits a little too close to home for this Peace Corps volunteer.
- A filmmaker documented the genocide-related trauma in Rwanda, and was interviewed on UN Radio. The film brought together people from both sides, and the interview discusses the liberation that comes with understanding that feelings of trauma are natural and shared. My development worker would like to apply some monitoring and evaluation to their claims, but at the very least it’s an interesting exercise in peace building and a local, low-cost mental health intervention.
- President Kagame gave a speech at West Point, where his son is a student. Anybody know the history of and rules governing foreign citizens attending West Point?
- A photojournal of Rwanda on a Wall Street Journal blog. 
- Kigaliwire links to a podcast describing the Murambi memorial, which I visited a few weeks ago. I can't access the audio, though.
- It’s true, Rwanda’s roads are in shockingly good condition. The paved roads here are probably a smoother ride than post-winter roads in Boston right now. No idea how the bridges measure up

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Retail therapy. The cheerful light blue/orange/green will be curtains in my eventual house. The others I’ll have tailored

Monday, March 22, 2010

PC training notes

This will be a long one. For anyone who’s curious about my day-to-day activities during training, here’s a brief rundown.

In a few days I’ll find out my permanent site, and next week I’ll meet my supervisor and visit site for 4-5 days. I’m incredibly excited.

Aside from the week of site visit, the 36 trainees live together in 4 houses in Nyanza, which is a mid-sized town. My house just might be the luckiest – we have padded furniture in our living room (we may or may not have fleas), it’s a very reasonable 8 minute walk to the center where we have classes and meals, and most of the time we are spoiled by running water and electricity.

LCFs (Language and cross cultural facilitators) live with us, and I want to take a moment to acknowledge how amazingly helpful they are. In addition to being great classroom teachers, they are always willing to take time to answer questions about language or culture, so are pretty much on the job 24/7. Plus they are all really great people and it’s a pleasure to get to know them.

A kitchen staff prepares our meals, and I understand that the previous group’s requests have paved the way for our relative variety. Breakfast is bread, butter and fruit, sometimes with peanut butter or avocados or omelets. Lunch and dinner are either Rwandan (some combination of meat or fish, greens or carrots, rice or plantains or cassava or potatoes prepared in innumerable ways, occasionally salad with mayo, and almost always with a runny tomato sauce that I love) or Rwandanized American food (onion-heavy guac with beans and rice, pasta with ground beef but no tomato sauce). From Sunday dinner through Saturday lunch, we receive an allowance to buy food for ourselves (brochettes!).

Breakfast ends at 8. We have 2 hours of class, a half hour tea break with samosas or chapatti, and another 1.5 hours of class. Then we get 2.5 hours for lunch, 2 more afternoon classes that end at 5pm, and either free time or practical lessons (e.g. how to do laundry) before dinner at 7pm. Sometimes the afternoon is set aside as “language application,” either with our resource families or wandering around town. Curfew is 10pm, and in evenings I can be found either studying, grabbing a beer, or with my computer.

We have class Monday morning through Saturday lunch. About half our classes are language classes with 3-4 students. Tech sessions inform us about the Rwandan health system and health challenges here, tools we’ll use as health volunteers, and projects such as kitchen gardens. We also have medical sessions (e.g. food and water safety, causes of fevers), safety and security sessions, and cross cultural sessions.

Other general Peace Corps Rwanda news: Our excellent PCMO is leaving, and being replaced by an expat PCMO and a local hire to accommodate PC’s growth here. The new Rwandan doctor is named Doctor Elite, so I’m clearly in good hands. The next staging class in October with have 70 (!!) education volunteers, both TOEFL and math/science. Rwanda has a huge need for English-speaking teachers because they switched the instructional language from French to English at the beginning of the 2010 school year. The health stage that follows us will be pushed back to the summer of 2011; PC doesn’t want to continue holding training during the genocide memorial period.

Market Day

Sunday, March 21, 2010

This picture speaks for itself

That's Einstein, Jesus and the Fonz below the crucifix. Anybody know who the others are? I suck at pop culture.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


- A solid, accessible summary of several important development theories. Tim Hartford’s column is always entertaining and educational.
- Check out the Hands Relief International blog for great aid satire.
- Bad news for beer drinkers in Africa.
- Things Seen and Heard wrote about the colorful versions of “no comment” in African newspapers  Shortly after I read the blog post, I came across a Rwandan example.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Crowdsourcing: Who is this army dude?

Among the gratuitous American memorabilia at Jenny’s host family’s house is this picture. Does anyone know who it is? The button on his jacket says “Chief of Staff.”

Not that my blog has a big enough readership for this to really constitute crowdsourcing.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Rwandan Cooking: onion salad with a dressing of giardia and salmonella, anyone?

This morning I went with Jenny to her resource family’s house, centrally located near the market. Her mom had invited us for a cooking lesson. We headed to the market for produce and then set about preparing the meal.

With an audience of 6 (the mom, dad, 15-month-old Teta, 9-year-old Mami, houseboy, and grandmother) in hysterics, I attempted to peel filthy potatoes with a dull knife. I was actually pretty glad it was dull, because I could have cut off a finger with a sharp one. By the time each potato was peeled it was filthy from the dirt that had been on the skin, but Jenny and I just rolled with it.

I believe the picture speaks for itself: knife sharpening on the back stoop in full America-loving regalia.

We also helped pick over the rice, chopped carrots, removed skins from boiled tomatoes, cut up the potatoes and threw them in oil to make ifiriti, and got smoke in our eyes. When the delicious looking carrot-bean dish was almost finished, we watched in horror as Jenny’s host mother chopped up an onion for salad and then plunged it into a dish of unboiled, very unsafe water before returning it to the salad plate. With the meal of rice, fries, and carrot-bean-deliciousness on the table, they heaped some unrefridgerated mayonnaise onto the giardia-infested onions. We both turned the salad down, but the rest of the meal was delicious.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Murambi Memorial

The hills surrounding the Murambi Memorial are striped with fields in countless shades of green and dotted with small houses. The site was a secondary school in the southern district. Over the course of several weeks in April 1994, Tutsis were encouraged to seek refuge there. Food and water were almost nonexistent, and as their numbers swelled they were severely weakened by hunger. In late April, the Interahamwe surrounded the compound. They tried to defend themselves with rocks and sticks, but the Interahamwe had machetes, knives and guns. The 50,000 bodies were buried in mass graves on the hill.

A few months later, the French Operation Turquoise had a base of some sort at the school. Today there is a sign among the class buildings where the French flag flew, and another among the mass graves where they say the French soldiers had a volleyball court.

In 1995, some of the bodies were exhumed, set with lime, and laid out in the classrooms. Many have cracked skulls. Some bodies are only three or four feet tall. The image that is stuck in my head is of the baby in its mother’s arms.

Shopping in Butare

Butare is a university town, and besides Kigali, one of the most cosmopolitan cities, not that that means much. In the market I bought a lightweight Promod jacket for 2500 francs, or $5. It probably goes for 35 Euro in France. At the Lebanese grocery store, I held back from $4 Pringles and Nutella but got some cheaper potato chips (chili lemon and cheesy onion) plus, of course, pineapple waragi (Ugandan gin). For lunch I bought a pizza bread for 35 cents, yoghurt for 40 cents and fresh passion fruit juice for 95 cents. The supermarket has a great restaurant with quality burgers, tuna sandwiches, and ice cream, but I’ll wait until I’ve been here a few months to splurge on that kind of stuff. All told, I spent more money today than I have spent during all of training combined (excluding my cell phone), about $15.

Left, ground meat anyone? From the Lebanese super market on the left in the right photo, where you can find Western food. Also note in the right photo that Google has apparently branched out from their internet business and opened a stationary store.

Butare national museum

The national museum houses some amazing artifacts from Rwanda’s history: an intricate traditional woven hut that is just too cool to describe, ingenious hunting traps, an amazing array of crafts, as well as photo exhibitions on the making things like of banana beer and pottery.

The pottery comes out perfectly round without the aid of a wheel, and fired in the ground by building a fire underneath the pots and covering them in burning leaves. Perhaps even more impressive are the baskets, ranging from small enough to store an item of jewelry to taller than me for backyard grain storage, most with intricately woven patterns. These are still used today. Curved woven panels with beautiful patterns were also made to divide rooms inside huts.

I ran out of time, so didn’t get to see the exhibits on musical instruments, sports, or religion. I’ll definitely be coming back with anybody who visits me, though!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Rwanda links

- A recent article about Rwanda's successful program in providing cash incentives to meet health care performance goals. I'll probably see this in action when I start work.
- Rwanda's daily has an article on the country’s need for more trauma counselors – there are 2000 in country, and estimates say 45,000 are needed. We’ve talked about Rwanda’s gap in mental health care during our tech sessions: although there is a much-lauded network of nurses and community health workers throughout the country spread down to the village level, mental health care is far less accessible. There are 40 districts in this country of 10 million; each has a hospital with a mental health nurse.
- Kigaliwire is a great Rwanda news aggregator. This week they collected links to a BBC series on Rwanda. Check it out if you have better internet access than I do.
- Kigaliwire also links to a radio program on Rwanda. I can’t access it at the moment, but it looks good.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Nyoko! Or, your mama! A lesson in the (Kinya)Rwandan family

Kinyarwanda is a notoriously hard language. We’ve barely touched on the complications of the 16 noun classes (and how all adjectives, possessives, verbs and objects must match each class). Several sounds exist that don’t exist in English, and the spelling is sometimes inconsistent.

Family relations have been a particularly confusing topic, so much that I’ve heard multiple trainees swear they will tell people they have no family. Some of the confusion is due to the fact that Rwandans categorize family relationships differently.

An example of the different categories: to discuss siblings, there are 4 words.
- Mushiki (mu-shee-chee) is used to refer to a male’s sister. 
- Musaza refers to a female’s brother.
- Mukuru is an older sibling of the same sex, so a male’s brother or female’s sister.
- Murumuna is a younger sibling of the same sex.

Manageable? Try stepping up to cousins and nieces/nephews.
- Babyara is cousins – but only from your father’s sister or mother’s brother.
- Abavandimwe banjye (literally, “my siblings”) is your cousin by a father’s brother or mother’s sister.
- Similarly, Abana banjye (“my children”) are nieces and nephews from a same-sex sibling’s kids.
- Bisengeneza banjye are a woman’s brother’s kids.
- Bishywa banjye are a man’s sister’s kids.
- Nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles by marriage (e.g. your husband’s sister’s kids) have no appellation.

Complicated! Aunts and uncles are similarly divided – there are separate categories for a father’s sister, mother’s sister, father’s brother, and mother’s brother.

It is understandable that such a different culture and language might have evolved such different concepts of extended family relations and therefore the words to describe them. I can see the internal logic in the system.

What I can’t wrap my head around is that there are separate words for my father/mother/aunt/uncle, your father/mother/aunt/uncle, and his/her father/mother/aunt/uncle. Where English has 4 words for these concepts, Kinyarwanda has 18. If I talk about my mother’s brother, I say marume (ma-roo-may), but if I want to ask about your mother’s brother I must use nyokorome (nyo-ko-ro-may), and a third party’s mother’s brother is nyirarume (nyee-rah-roo-may). At least all possessive nouns don’t function this way.

In summary: My mother? Mama. His mother? Nyina. Yo momma? Nyoko!

(An aside for anyone who’s curious about how I’m describing my nuclear family – The word for mother, mama, is conveniently similar to the word for aunt, mama wacu (wah-choo), which literally means “our mother.” Nobody has been surprised that my ˆ lives with us, or pursued the fact that I don’t have a father. Many people here have conspicuous gaps in their family trees, and it’s rude to pry.)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Red Sox sighting

Wednesday while out for a run I passed a guy in a Curt Schilling Sox shirt, torn and faded to pink. Sadly, I don’t take my camera jogging, being a muzungu running down the road attracts enough attention.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Resource Family!

I met my resource father on the second day of training at a party involving beer, fanta, cheese, peanuts. It was a joyful occasion with an impromptu dance party as the whole neighborhood watched us in the training director’s fishbowl/backyard. I was very relieved that he spoke French, although I do find his African accent a little hard to follow.

My resource father runs (owns?) a bar that serves beer, waragi (imported Ugandan gin) and pork meals. It’s located right behind the Catholic church. I’ve been there a few times between class and dinner to go over my Kinyarwanda. Usually he asks me if I want inzoga or Fanta (which they use to mean all types of soda) and I’ll say “whatever you’re having” and we’ll split a Mutzig beer. In some circles it’s a bit taboo for women to drink in public, and the evening when he had several other customers he only offered me Fanta.

This Sunday I was able to go to his village, which truly feels like the countryside despite being a 10 minute walk from Nyanza’s paved road. I was shown how to use the traditional kitchen, fed a delicious meal, and given a workout in Kinyarwanda and French. My host father and I then shared a beer and spicy brochettes in the little shack that serves as the village convenience store, bar and restaurant. I hope in the coming weeks we’ll be able to shift our conversations from French to Kinyarwanda. My resource mother doesn’t speak French, so that should help.

Monday, March 8, 2010

International Women's Day

We marked international women’s day by attending a ceremony in Nyanza’s stadium. We arrived at the designated time of 9am. One school group was there, and by 9:30 we were out of the stands and dancing with them in the field to the music of their voices as the stadium filled up. Eventually loudspeakers and a generator appeared and at maybe 10:15 or 10:30 the performances and speeches began. They were excellent. Several dance troops of children and adolescents performed, giving us our first look at Rwandan traditional dance.

An LCF later translated the cell representative’s speech – she said that for many years after she became a village and then cell representative, her husband beat her and her kids on international women’s day to prevent her from attending events such as this. Eventually she got a divorce from the government and moved back to her family, and she’s successfully putting her kids through school on her own.

The problem of domestic violence is daunting in Rwanda, and divorces are difficult to obtain. This women’s problem is still common, despite Rwanda’s provisions for gender equality and international renown as the country with the highest percentage of women in parliament. Sadly, Rwandan women share the plight of domestic violence with women around the world and in the United States.

In the evening, I was in a small group that organized the trainees in a discussion about women’s roles, achievements and challenges around the world. Our Rwandan dance lesson that followed soon transformed into a dance party.

L, R and foreign words

For native speakers of Kinyarwanda, there is little to no distinction between “l” and “r” sounds. The sound is some combination of the two and “d.” I understand that this presents a challenge for my English-teaching colleagues (nobody wants their students discussing the lice they eat for dinner). It is also challenging when learning the language, partly because “l” and “r” seem to be inconsistently used in spelling.

The l/r issue did present a breakthrough for me with regards to remembering the word for “students.” Umunyeshuri was tripping me up until a different teacher wrote shuli instead of shuri for “classroom” and I suddently saw the German word for school, schul. Of course – the first school teachers here were Germans and Belgians. There is, however, a native word for teacher – umwarimu. Colonists were not the first to impart knowledge to others.

Other foreign imports include ibiro for office (bureau), ifromagi for cheese, ikositimu for suit (French costume), ijaketi for jacket. Kinyarwanda has no other commonalities with anything in my linguistic background, except these colonial imports.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Kigali Genocide Memorial

I put off posting about this because I’m not really sure I have anything to say about it.

We visited the memorial on 2/27/10 bearing roses and lilies, as is customary. Peaceful gardens surround mass graves that contain an estimated 250,000 bodies. The museum contains histories of other genocides, of the lead-up and sequence of the Rwandan genocide, a small section on those who saved and hid others, and videos of survivors reflecting as well as remnants such as clothing, bones and photographs of those lost. The photo exhibit of children is one of the most powerful and well-done exhibits I’ve ever seen. The museum was incredibly moving, and also interesting to compare to other memorials as an institution that seeks to educate Rwandans and visitors. One thing that struck me is that In contrast to Bosnia, where I’ve spent some time, Rwanda is addressing this period of its history very directly and with an aggressive education campaign.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


They are the best avocados I’ve ever eaten. Not shriveled from darkness and age, but big and green on the outside with a smooth, supple skin and a huge pit. Creamy and perfect. I'm told they cost about 50 francs, or 8 cents. In fact, when I'm done at the internet cafe I might swing by the market and buy one to have for breakfast tomorrow.

Major fail from the Onion

When an article from The Onion popped up on my Rwanda newsfeed, I was pretty excited. But the article, which I'm not even going to link to, was in incredibly bad taste. That is all.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tree tomatoes

You cut off the bottom and squeeze out the seeds and the flesh. They’re not very sweet, or very sour, or very anything. The seeds aren’t crunchy like passion fruit, but soft like large roe. The juice is bright red and looks like it would make a nasty stain. I’ve heard that you either love them or hate them, but I feel pretty neutral: I won’t be buying them in the market if there’s other fruit around, but I wouldn’t turn one down.

EDIT March 10: Ok, the most distinctive aspect of the flavor is a nice sourness. I have come to like these strange things, and I will in fact buy them at a market.

Monday, March 1, 2010

(Toilet) Training: Rwandan Taboos

We had one of our first sessions of training today. The highlight was our training director performing a pantomime of using a so-called squatty potty.  So far I’ve avoided the squatty potty, because we have what appears to be Western-style toilets in our training buildings, which are scattered throughout town.

Photo Caption: This shot from my house displays some of Rwanda’s unique approach to bathroom architecture.

However, the plumbing is not Western, so not only do you flush manually by pouring water into the toilet bowl, but you must abide by the crucial rule posted in all the bathrooms: do not throw paper in the toilet. Instead, you are supposed to put used toilet paper in a trashcan. This isn’t new to me, having had the same situation in Ghana, but it is a hard habit to reacquire. 

After the toilet talk, the training staff talked to us about taboos in Rwanda. To introduce the concept of a taboo, they asked the trainees to share an American taboo, and one guy shouted out “Putting used toilet paper in the trashcan.”

I’m still laughing. The trainers then showed us signs with Rwandan taboos, such as “Don’t overdose in alcohol consumption” and “Don’t buy things in the market without bargaining.”

My favorite was “Be flexible in frustration and discouragement situations.”

Ni kibazo? Si kibazo. Nta kibazo!

Before I left, I printed some Kinyarwandan vocabulary I found online. Today, I was talking to a few of our LCFs (Language and Cultural Facilitators, one of many PC acronyms). One asked how I found Kinyarwanda. Eager to impress, I grinned and declared it Ni kibazo! (Nee CheeBahZo)

That means “No problem!” Or so I thought.

My comment inspired riotous laughter, which is always encouraging when you’re learning a new language, and an emphatic Oya! (Oh-yah) which might sound like agreement but actually means “no.”

Turns out, ni kibazo means “it is a problem.” I was confusing it with si kibazo (See CheeBahZo), which actually means “it is not a problem” in response to something. You can also say nta kibazo (Nhah CheeBahZo) which means “no problem.” Subtle distinctions.

Ni kibazo and si kibazo now pop up frequently in our conversations, to much amusement.

Lady Gaga has arrived in Rwanda

Heard on the radio this morning in the market. I have also arrived in Rwanda and am enjoying it immensely. I'll post some first impressions and such later (Sunday?); the timed internet and countdown clock are not conducive to good writing.

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