Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I miss all the excitement

According to the New Times, several would-be bank robbers were killed in my city in the middle of the night.

Scavenger hunt update

MLB: Red Sox, Angels, Yankees, Cardinals, Pirates, Diamondbacks, Marlins, Blue Jays, Orioles, Pirates, Reds, A’s, Dodgers, Mariners, Braves, Phillies, Dodgers, Mets, Cubs, Astros, Twins, Indians, Rays, Giants, Nationals
NBA: Kings, Celtics, Bulls, Pistons, Sonics, Sixers, Blazers, Rockets, Knicks, Suns
NFL: Eagles, Patriots, Colts, Broncos, Texans, Jets, Rams, Raiders, Packers, Cowboys, Browns, Giants, Vikings, Falcons, Bears, Dolphins, 49ers, Seahawks, Buckaneers
NHL: Maple Leaves, Penguins, Bruins, Sharks, Canadiens
Other: WNBA Beat, MLS Galaxy, Yankees Suck, Charlotte Hornets
Sox bonuses: A Nomar jersey and an Ortiz shirt this week!


Found by my sitemate/housemate in a bush Sunday. Their eyes aren't even open yet so we think they're less than a week old. We're feeding them cow's milk from a tube.

Sandal repair!

I bought these flip-flops 5 years ago in Ghana for about $.60. With the exception of that time I got off an overnight train from the beach and forgot to change into better urban-exploring shoes and they blistered the soles of my feet (over an inch in diameter) while wandering Bucharest, they could not have served me better. I was pretty bummed when one broke a few months ago, but I finally got around to taking them to the shoe repairman who sits under an umbrella at the end of my street - the one who wears a Red Sox World Series shirt. For a whopping $.15 he repaired them, and let me take pictures!

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I climbed my first volcan today: Bisoke. At 3,711 meters, Bisoke’s is the middle height of Rwanda’s five volcanoes, but the trail covers the biggest altitude change in one day and is said to be among the hardest and muddiest climbs. (I’ll let you know how it stacks up after I get around to climbing the other four.) Bisoke is most notable for the crater lake at its summit.
We left Gisenyi before light and were treated to an amazing view of the rising sun over fog-filled valleys, above. Upon arrival at Volcanoes National Park, we paid or fees and drove 30-40 minutes over a terrible road, littered with volcanic rock. Patience, our wonderful guide, called the bumpy ride an “African massage.” We set off at about 9:20, a late start.

During the first hour or so we climbed past neat rows of crops and entered the forest. It’s possible to see animals like buffalo and occasionally gorillas on the hike; the closest we got was seeing their excrement. (Buffalo, left; gorilla, right). To protect us against any animal encounters, however, we were accompanied by several soldiers who did the grueling hike with rifles. They assured us the safeties were on.

About an hour into the hike we reached a clearing where the bath to Diane Fossey’s Karisoke research camp diverges from the path to Bisoke’s summit. From there, it was over two grueling hours to the top.

Along the way, we passed through several distinct vegetation zones. In the dense part of the forest there were plenty of stinging nettles growing close to the path. As the guide said, “Nature is well organized;” the leaves of the plant below produce a milky substance that somewhat reduces the pain caused by the nettles. (When I say somewhat, I speak from experience: on the way down they got my elbow and finger.)

This huge tree right by the path was at least 400 years old, according to Patience.

The path eventually changed from thick mud through the forest to a mud-and-grass mix with more open space.

Towards the top there was a beautiful turquoise bird.

There were times throughout the last hour when I thought I wouldn’t. get to the top, but I made it! I had to get bundled up; it was cold. Fog rolled in and out at a rapid speed, sometimes obscuring the bluff on the other side of the lake.

The vegetation at the top was really interesting:

Here’s a panorama. It was really gorgeous, but I had to pass on the offer to hike down to the water: there’s no way I could have made it back up again. I did walk a few minutes up the hill until the soldiers said to stop: Bisoke lies on the Congolese border, and the highest point is technically in Congo.

The way down was tough, and took almost as long as the way up. During the ascent, mud represented a threat to forward progress and the volcanic rock made convenient steps. On the way down, the rocks became death traps and mud was a friendly cushion for sore legs and knees. I soon gave up on being clean and competed with one of my friends for who could fall the most. Between exhaustion and the thin air, much giggling occurred on the way down.

After we passed the Diane Fossey clearing, we took a different way than we’d came: a narrow path through dense jungle. Along the way we passed this rainbow cucumber-like fruit that the guide said is a favorite among gorillas.

We finished around 5pm, walking like drunks with legs of jelly. I’ll be sore all week!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Rwanda's (in)famous Brochettes

Perhaps Rwanda’s most famous food, brochettes are basically meat on a stick. They’re typically goat, but sometimes fish or beef are available for a bit more money. One brochette costs anywhere from 250-600 RWF ($.40-$1), depending on the place. Some eat them with French fries ($1 and up), but the much cheaper option is two halves of a potato, fried until crunchy, for 100 francs. You can also order them with bananas, below.

Brochettes are unpredictable. Although some bars are more reliable than others, you never know when you’re going to get a delicious tender brochette or one that’s so chewy or fatty as to be inedible. Some bars season the brochettes before cooking them, and of course they’re always served with a bowl of homemade urusenda oil.

Beware. Many Rwandans consider the stomach meat, pictured on either side above, to be the best part of the goat. When I’ve asked why they prefer it, the answer usually is that it’s softer: a tough brochette can be a workout for the jaw. Because of this, when ordering a brochette, it’s important to say “sinshaka inyama yo mundo” (I don’t want meat of the stomach) or “sinshaka zingara.” The meat is called izumubiri.

The president visits Rubavu

Disclaimer: As per Peace Corps policy, I have no opinion on the coming elections, the political parties, or the candidates. Here I’m simply relaying what I’ve seen around town in the buildup to the election.

On Tuesday I heard that the president was coming to town for a campaign event. Wednesday I was having lunch with a group of travelers who were interested iny seeing him, so I started asking about details on their behalf. We must have asked five different people who gave us five different answers – he’d be here Thursday morning, or afternoon, or Friday, the only agreement was that he’d be in Nyundo, a sector 20 minutes down the road to Musanze/Kigali. One person said he was in Gisenyi right then (Wed. afternoon), down by the lake. We all laughed at the lack of consistent answers. While I was asking around, I also had to dodge a parade of trucks, their beds full of people decked out in RPF gear.

Finally a consensus emerged: the president would be speaking in Nyundo Friday morning. Offices in Gisenyi would be closed and transportation would be mostly tied up bringing people to the event. Yesterday I spotted army cars and even a tank at the gas station by the market; rumor had it the president spent the night at Serena. Not long after 6am this morning I heard trucks drive by outside blasting music. When I emerged (to take advantage of my morning off with a little language tutoring) countless people were walking in the general direction of Nyundo, decked out in either their Sunday best or t-shirts bearing the president’s face (or both; t-shirts substituting for tank tops underneath the fancy one-shoulder dresses). Most motos are flying RPF flags and many taxi buses have Kagame posters on their back windows. Along with the ubiquitous t-shirts are paper RPF hats.

My friends who attended said it was a lot of waiting. There were songs, dances and skits throughout the morning, and the president finally spoke briefly at 2pm.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


5 km outside of Gisenyi, in a beautiful spot on the lake, is Bralirwa: the factory that brews all of the Primus, Mutzig and Guinness sold in Rwanda. They use roads and a boat to distribute beer all over the country. The factory is run on methane extracted from Lake Kivu.

Tours are currently available on Thursdays. We weren’t charged, although I’ve heard that it sometimes costs 5000rwf. We showed up just before 11 and were asked to write a letter requesting to tour (this might be better done further in advance, but my hasty English and Kinya translation on a piece of notebook paper did the trick). After a short wait, we were allowed to join a group that seemed to have planned in advance (maybe they paid?). The tour was mostly given in French, and the employees were very amenable to answering questions. I highly recommend it if you’re anywhere near Gisenyi.

Here are some covert snaps – the sign is unfortunately blurry, but on either side of the guy’s gaping arm wound are gears.

Sugar waiting to be added to beer. Ew.

I think this is the fermenting hall. Most of the tanks were making Primus, with a few on Mutzig and Guinness. They said it takes 2 weeks to make a batch of beer, including fermenting and then cooling.

The very modern lab has a typical wooden bottle opener. They test the beer to make sure it conforms to the formula, has the proper alcohol content, and is free from pathogens.

The coolest part of the tour was the bottle room. They gave us protective glasses because sometimes bottles explode. Here there are machines that take empty returned bottles from the crates, steam clean them, fill them with new beer, cap them and label them.

The tour ended in the office area, where there was a bar complete with a dart board. I managed to finish off a Guinness and a couple small Mutzig before they cut us off. Below, the Bralirwa business model – take a look, it’s good unintentional comedy.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Rain in the dry season

I was looking forward to the dry season – no more dragging my raincoat with me every day, and the skies would be clear every night for Nyiragongo-gazing.

The dry season, which started in June, is harsh. My feat are beyond filthy. My clothes absorb more dust than 3 buckets of water can soak out of them. My skin and mouth are dry. My feeble gardening attempts have failed. Worst, a depressing haze sits over town: the dust blocks the blue sky and views of Nyiragongo.

For Rwandans, this is a time to dry out corn, rather than grow new crops. Cooperatives we work with complain that it’s hard to feed their cows and goats. Although Gisenyi’s water supply is dependable, my colleagues in other parts of the country face regular water outages.

It hasn’t more than drizzled for weeks. But finally, today, it rained. The dust has temporarily settled, the skies are temporarily visible, the air is temporarily clear.


I met a traveler who’s crazy enough to be taking a heavy homemade Congolese bike, called a chukudu, down the lake. Here’s a look at the bike. The back mudflap features an interesting pairing of marajuana symbology and a biblical citation.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Primus is Rwanda’s most popular beer, although this fact is unrelated to the taste of the beer. Primus celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. It’s 5% alcohol, and the ingredients include the usual water, hops and malt as well as sugar, sorghum and co2. Although you a 33ml bottle is available, the overwhelming choice is the 72cl bottle, which starts at 600rwf (just over $1 – but more upscale or urban bars charge more).

Practically every village in Rwanda has a building painted Primus blue. One of Nyanza’s “blue bars” is pictured below. “Guma guma” means “strong.” The other slogan, Dusangire ubuzima bwiza, means “let’s drink to good health/life.” Ubuzima bwiza, or ubuzima bwacu (our health) – Cheers!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

T-shirts from home

Yesterday in Kigali I got on the wrong bus. City buses in Kigali cost 180RWF, or about 30 cents. Or almost two sambusa! It ended up being entirely worth it when the bus drove past a guy wearing a genuine Yankees Suck t-shirt. In Remera, Kigali. Made my day, but I didn’t have my camera out.

Then today at a market in the middle of nowhere I ran across a t-shirt for Haverford College women’s tennis. Haverford is a sister school of my alma mater, Swarthmore, so it was rather uncanny.

Friday, July 16, 2010


- An article about Rwanda’s attempts to support small businesses, particularly those run by women.
- The Independent asks if Rwanda is an African success story.
- Another article on One Laptop Per Child in Rwanda, this one in Time. The article correctly points out that the long-term impact of the program has not been proven, and discusses the benefits and challenges of operating in Rwanda.

A volcanic view

I’m at a training in a fancy hotel in Musanze, the district that’s home to volcanoes national park. Here are three. From left to right, Sabinyo, Gahinga and Muhabura.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Poison follow up

Here’s a follow up to the poison post I made last week.

B. says his sister is getting better but still in the hospital. However, they moved the kid to their brother’s house, and he’s recovered.

On the way home from the World Cup third place game, I asked my colleague W. about poison; specifically if he believes it is the cause of B.’s sister’s illness. W. unleashed a lecture about poison, paraphrased from memory below.

“It’s real. It’s powerful. I’m telling you it’s real. There are cases I have heard, you cannot deny them. It is why we cannot allow you to stay with these people who invited you [members of a rural cooperative we work with]. You cannot know what people will do. You must always watch your drinks.”

He told me a few stories about poisoning, which often seems to be the Rwandan term for witchcraft in general. According to W., some farmers put “poison” on their corn. Then, when a thief tries to pick an ear, his hand gets stuck to the corn and the thief can’t move until the farmer returns.

Another story involves a truck driver who suspected his wife was sleeping with other men while he was away. He left poison in the bedroom, and she and the man were stuck “in this way, somehow together, like the man and the corn,” until the truck driver returned home to catch them.

Brain fruit!

While hiking in Gishwati, I encountered a most delicious and novel fruit. My Rwandan guides in the forest called it umwufe. My coworkers, as we watched the World Cup final and munched on its kernels, said that it's icyufu. I don't know if it has an English name, so I'm dubbing it brain fruit, because that's what it looks like - anyone know what it really is? It's a yellow-brown assemblage of partially edible kernels around what I think is an inedible (or at least unappetizing) core.

To eat it, snap off kernels and suck on them. The taste is a bit like the little sour-but-sweet Chinese cherries. Each kernel has a pit in it, some small enough to eat and others as big and hard as a marble. I ate the slightly stringy fruit inside the kernels and threw out the leathery skin.

Green ones on a tree, and ripe ones on the ground waiting for chimps to eat them.

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