Sunday, May 30, 2010

Go Celts! A Sports Scavenger Hunt Update

First of all, go Celtics in the NBA Finals!

MLB: Red Sox, Angels, Yankees, Cardinals, Pirates, Diamondbacks, Marlins, Blue Jays, Orioles, Pirates, Reds, A’s, Dodgers, Mariners, Braves, Phillies, Dodgers, Mets
NBA: Kings, Celtics, Bulls, Pistons, Sonics, Sixers, Blazers, Rockets
NFL: Eagles, Patriots, Colts, Broncos, Texans, Jets, Rams, Raiders, Packers, Cowboys
NHL: Maple Leaves, Penguins, Bruins
Other: WNBA Beat, MLS Galaxy

Spotted around Gisenyi: A Brady Jersey, a very faded Bruins cap, a Bruins jersey, a Sox cap, and a “Faithful are Rewarded” Red Sox 2004 shirt worn by the shoe repairman who sits on the corner of my street. It makes my morning to see that t-shirt on my walk to work each day.

The Bruins cap completed the hunt for Boston teams, the first city I’ve completed – probably because I am fine-tuned to spot our logos. Similarly, I’m not sure if MLB is leading the scavenger hunt because I’m most familiar with MLB teams, or because they have better penetrated the Rwandan second-hand clothing market for some reason.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Promoting participation in the coming election

Rwandans will vote for president on August 9. As a PCV I can’t share my opinions on politics, but I can write about the procedures and the government’s efforts to promote participation. This election awareness logo is popping up on t-shirts everywhere. It incorporates the date of the vote, colors of the Rwandan flag, and a thumb that I assume represents the ink that will mark those who have participated.

Primaries began last month for the ruling party, the RPF. Following Umuganda on the last Saturday in April, the governor and mayor of Nyanza spoke to the assembled crowd about the organization of the coming elections, informing them of the schedule and encouraging them to participate. From what I can gather, each umudugudu voted on two candidates, before advancing to subsequent votes at the cell, sector and district levels before provinces voted on the two candidates (I posted about Rwanda's administrative organization here).

Current president Kagame won the national RPF primary. According to the New Times (Rwanda’s main paper), the national election commission said "As far as we are concerned as the electoral commission, we are not informed of any opposition." However, the campaign officially spans from July 20 to August 8.

In addition to speeches at public gatherings such as umuganda and numerous radio messages, Rwanda is conducting rather unique get out the vote efforts. Barbers and moto drivers, Rwandans who come in to contact with high volumes of captive customers in their lines of work, have been trained to conduct get-out-the-vote outreach with their customers. Pretty creative!

If you are interested in learning more about the upcoming election, much has been written and many perspectives exist. I recommend googling for more information; Peace Corps prevents me from saying more.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

There’s an active volcano in my backyard

I moved to Gisenyi on May 11, but my temporary house wasn’t ready until the 16th and then I left town for a permagarden training (more to come on that topic). Now I’ve had a chance to get settled a bit, although I’m still waiting on furniture.

Besides sharing the house with my sitemate, which is not ideal for my language development, local integration, or identity formation as a volunteer in Gisenyi, I love the location. The neighborhood children are wonderful, the neighbors in general seem nice, and this is the view from the chair in my room where I’m writing this:

That’s Nyiragongo, the active volcano that lies about 20km (12 miles) over the Congolese border (which is maybe half a mile from my house). Did I mention it’s active? It glows red at night, lighting up the smoke billowing from its plateaued peak. You can also see the big dipper in this picture:

The intensity and shape of the red smoke cloud change by the minute, providing me with endless after-dark entertainment. The novelty might never wear off.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


From The Petite Prince, Butare’s nicest hotel, where I was asked unexpectedly to attend a training for CHF/Higa Ubeho, the project I’m working under with AEE, my local Rwandan partner. Every public toilet in the hotel had a Toilefs sign.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Win a cow!

A promotion if you open a savings account with Rwanda Commercial Bank. Sadly they only had photocopies of the original brochure.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Administrative organization of Rwanda

Rwanda has five provinces (intara, “in-har-ah”): North, East, South, West, and Kigali (which lies roughly in the middle). Each province is broken into districts (akarere, “ah-kah-ray-ray”), of which there are 32 in total. Each district has 8-12 sectors (umurenga, “oo-moo-reng-ah”), which are each broken into about 10 cells (akagari, “ah-kah-gah-ree”) and finally cells are divided into about 10 umudugudus each. Umudugudu may be translated as village, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. An umudugudu is an administrative unit that can be a rural community aptly called a village or an urban administrative unit without a distinct identity or somewhere in between.

There are governors for the Provinces, mayors for the districts, and executive secretaries for sectors and cells as well as umudugudu leaders. Services are organized by these units: hospitals in districts and health centers in sectors, offices to register various entities like cooperatives, etc.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Acrobats and teenage hospitality

I made it to site! More on that to come, it’s been a bit busy and I don’t have much time to write.

A PCV friend of mine who’s been to Gisenyi a few times promised to introduce me to a group of acrobats. I don’t know what I was picturing when I heard there were acrobats in Gisenyi, but I was surprised. They’re a group of youth ages 8-20, mostly male but with some females. They practice after school. We met them in the evening, and they showed us to their clubhouse – a small house near my future temporary home with a sitting room decorated entirely with Christmas decorations, including a fake tree, lights, and mistletoe! (We decided not to get into a cross-cultural lesson about mistletoe.)

We hung out with four of them, talking in English and Kinyarwanda, and they showed us pictures of their performances. They’re self taught and I can’t wait to see them perform live (watch this space at some point for pictures/video).

It was then that I experienced the most incredible moment of hospitality – this group of teenage boys served us not only tea and sugar but beans and chapatti! They can’t possibly have very much money, and yet they essentially fed us dinner. A prime example of Rwandan hospitality.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Fun in the Nakumatt book aisle

Nakumatt is the better supermarket in Kigali. A Kenyan chain, it is an East African-owned business that went international when it opened here in 2008. They’ve got it all, some things outrageously cheap and some hilariously expensive. A stroll through the book aisle, in photos:

To recap: Used babysitter's club books (less than $2), Harry Potter as "self help," and a variety of terrible looking but quite explicit erotic literature being sold in this very conservative country.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

On development, empowerment, and my responsibilities as a Peace Corps Volunteer

A few months ago, Texas in Africa wrote a post on celebrity humanitarianism. As fan of U2’s music, performance, and politics (I refer to the band’s general political outlook, not Bono’s specific policy stances, because I don’t much care for Jeff Sachs), I cringe a little every time this comes up. From the abstract of Riina Yrjola’s original article on the subject:
The article argues that, while Geldof and Bono do push for economic changes for Africa, the spatio-temporality of their imaginaries and interpretations on Africa elaborate a colonial imaginary by (re)producing Africa as a specifically Western project and calling. By repeating and circulating the vocabulary of humanitarianism as a moral duty in combination with the engagement in power politics, these discourses not only serve a purpose in the maintenance of hegemonic Western activity in Africa, but are also instrumental in constructing consensus for the existing world order, where the global South is, and remains, in a subordinate position to the West.
I haven’t had a chance to read the whole article, but the above paragraph eloquently clarifies why I feel such revulsion when Bono talks about this issue (in contrast to the joy U2’s music brings me). Bono’s heart is in the right place, but good intentions are not enough (the author is an RPCV) if a development actor's actions worsen a situation or entrench bad conditions.

It’s an important thought to keep in mind as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Our communities do not exist so that American volunteers can develop professionally and as individuals, see the world, and get some culture, even if these things are personally rewarding and motivate many PCVs (myself included).

Not all Peace Corps projects are successful, and I expect to blunder through my share of failures before I succeed. It’s incredibly scary to step into a community as a development worker knowing I’m stepping into a minefield of problems I might exacerbate. No matter how small my projects, I have a responsibility to ensure positive outcomes, and I don’t know that I’m qualified for or deserving of that responsibility. If anything I work on perpetuates or worsens a problem, fosters dependence, or creates negative unintended consequences that outweigh positive progress, I might as well go home now.

How will I attempt to avoid these pitfalls? Before I start any projects, I will conduct a variety of community needs assessments. As per Peace Corps philosophy, all of my projects should be planned in collaboration with my community and implemented in partnership with members of the community. Ideally I will merely be a facilitator for sustainable projects, a mentor and capacity builder for my already-quite-capable counterparts.

Post script: Last week, after I had written the above, Texas in Africa wrote a series of posts about the “savior complex” versus the “empowerment paradigm” (her final post on donor governments and aid politics is also worth reading).  As dictated by Peace Corps philosophy but also my own beliefs on development, my job should be defined by many of the elements included in her empowerment paradigm. It all boils down to a core Rwandan development value, embodied by the oft-heard phrase “kwiteza imbere,” or “to better oneself.”

"Rolling circle on waist"

I bought a hula hoop for under $4 at Simba, the lesser of the two supermarkets in Kigali. The guys who work at the supermarket clearly had no idea what it was for, but were very helpful as I sorted through the pile to find one that wasn't bent. It came from China, and the receipt and packaging were pretty  hilarious:

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Rwanda Links

- Madonna sponsors yoga aimed at reducing trauma in Rwanda.
- A pilot writes about flying into Rwanda, with pictures – of particular note is his observation that the increase in population density was striking when he crossed the border, with land either inhabited or cultivated. And he was in the southeast. My area of the country, the northwest, is the most densely populated part of Rwanda.
- Rwanda in the NY Times, twice, plus a slide show.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Ndi umukorerabushake wa Peace Corps!

Translation: I am a Peace Corps Volunteer! Yes, the word for volunteer is eight syllables long. That's "oo-moo-core-air-ah-boo-shah-chay."

I was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer yesterday in a lovely ceremony at the US Ambassador’s residence. After months of training, I was incredibly happy to take the oath. And eat the cake, lasagna, mac and cheese....

The event was filmed and aired on TV that night, and I’ve received multiple comments from other muzungus, the ladies at the bank, etc saying they saw it. Today’s New Times has an article including a picture I’m in – check out my tailor-made dress.

Now I’ve got the weekend in Kigali to enjoy the food (Indian! Ethiopian! Pizza! Burgers! Ice Cream! Mutzig Draught!) and shop for my house, plus build a pantry of goods from the Indian stores and Western supermarkets (cous cous, lentils, spices, chick pea flour, healthy oil…)

Then it’s off to Gisenyi Tuesday to get to work.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Farewell Nyanza

Nyanza was a beautiful town in which to spend my first 10 weeks in Rwanda. Here’s some photographic evidence:

Monday, May 3, 2010

More evidence Africa doesn't need your 1 million T-shirts

Some guy thinks Africans need Americans to waste everyone’s time and money sending Africa 1 million unwanted T-shirts. If the arguments regarding sustainability, efficiency of donor dollars, and undermining existing local markets didn’t do it for you, the availability of this t-shirt for $0.80 in the market should settling things.

TIA provides alternatives to a proposal that was widely criticized all over the web.

I know I'm late to the criticism party; I’ve been busy studying for my end-of-training Kinyarwanda exam.

Off the beaten track: the Nyanza market

If you’re traveling in Rwanda and want a unique local experience, you might consider visiting Nyanza at about noon on a peak market day. Peace Corps Volunteers and our fabulous trainers come from all over the country, and everyone agrees that the best and cheapest second-hand clothes shopping is found in Nyanza. On Monday and Thursday, the back section of the market is crowded with women sorting through clothes heaped on tables or piled on tarps on the ground.

Brand names abound: Gap, H+M, American Eagle, Zara’s, J Crew, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, etc. Just be sure to inspect for stains, holes, and missing buttons. Counter intuitively, silk and other blouses are cheapest, as low as $.09 (RWF 50), while T-shirts and tank tops (Old Navy and Target abound) might cost you as much as $.70 (RWF 400). On the male side, Armani and other designers can be found for $.90 (RWF 500). In addition to great clothes, you are sure to find some laughs at relics of errant fashions past, be they neon or ruffled.

Nyanza is also home to the former King’s residence and the Rwesero Arts Museum, both worth a visit.

The district capital, the town of Nyanza lies just off the main Kigali-Butare (Huye) road, with buses directly from Kigali (2 hours, RWF 1400) and Butare (40 minutes, RWF 500). The Volcano bus station is across from the market in a courtyard with the Nyanza Sun buffet, a solid post-shopping lunch option (RWF1000). If you’re feeling like Western food, head just uphill from the Kobil station to the Hotel Heritage ($2.50-$5; croque madame and ham sandwich recommended but avoid the “Pizza”).

And if you feel like making a detour on the way to Nyanza, be sure to check out Gatagara Pottery.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Musical chairs

At our end-of-training goodbye party for our (amazing, fantastic, incredible) Kinyarwanda teachers, we played musical chairs. All I can say is, a Rwandan could easily become the adult champion of competitive musical chairs. Watch out for the hip check, and when there’s a tie, it’s a battle of strength for who wins the chair.

Goat notes

By Rwandan law, goats must be tied up when left to graze. People mostly adhere to the law, much to the chagrin of this particular goat.

Incidentally, it is taboo here to drink goat milk. Rwandans’ disdain for goat milk stems from their utter reverence for cows; goat milk is seen as a disparaging substitute for cow milk. People who consume goat milk do so in utter secrecy for fear of being shamed by their communities. In a country where many struggle with malnutrition, this situation is particularly unfortunate: goats cost $10-20 whereas cows cost at least $100.

The taboo against dairy products does not extend to goat meat, which is a common food, although many Rwandans believe goat meat will cause women to grow beards.

If you’re curious about cows in Rwanda, my Colleen posted an excellent essay on the topic.

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