Sunday, August 29, 2010


It’s been a long time! I’m sorry I’m so behind - I was in Nyanza for a few weeks in August helping improve the Kinyarwanda materials in preparation for the next training group - I took the lead on writing a Kinyarwanda grammar, which was very exciting because I’m a nerd. It’s never been done before and the language is incredibly complex. It made me appreciate the Latin I was required to take in high school, which gave me a solid grammatical foundation for learning any other language.

I’ve got a whole bunch of pictures and blog posts to come, hopefully before Friday when I’m moving - and of course I’ve got to explain the big move! I hope to do a whole bunch of back-dated posts this week to make up for lost time, but for now, here’s a few anecdotes.

It’s been dustier than I could imagine here. Green Rwanda has turned to brown, and there’s dust everywhere. I don’t dry my clothes on the line outside because they’ll just get dusty. Everywhere I walk my feet are brown with dust. Early Thursday morning I was awakened at 2am by the sweet sound of rain. In the rainy season I slept right through it, but the thunder of rain on the tin roof was so foreign that it kept me up for an hour. Last night I was with a group of PCVs in Musanze (an hour and fifteen minutes from Gisenyi) and multiple people got texts from friends saying “It’s raining in Rwamagana!” or “It’s raining in Nyanza!” It rained again this morning and I was able to walk down to the 5 star hotel to use internet - and my feet were clean when I got there! This may not sound very impressive, but I haven’t been able to walk around here for months without my feet instantly being covered in filth.

Good Afternoon
It is every Peace Corps Volunteer’s basic mission to teach people that saying “Good Morning” after noon is incorrect. We all go around correcting people with “Good afternoon. (translated from Kinya) After noon, in the afternoon, you say 'good afternoon.' Do you say mwaramutse (good morning) now? No. You say mwiriwe, which is 'good afternoon'."

So last night well after dark, there’s about 10 of us walking down the street together after dark in this town, and a Rwandan teenager says “good afternoon.” Well after dark. I guess it's better than "good morning."

Today on the bus I was sitting next to a very well dressed lady. There’s a vibrant middle class here (largely created by NGOs) and I’m pretty sure her outfit was the $300 variety. Half way through the trip, she opened her handbag and puked into it. Which I suppose is better than puking on me or on her expensive outfit.


In the last few weeks I’ve seen people selling bags of strange things that look like seedpods. Finally this afternoon I asked what they were and was told they were fruit. At 100 francs a bag it was easy to satisfy my curiosity. The little seedpods are as soft as leaves and easily rip open to reveal a cherry-like ball. Inside it’s the texture of a cherry tomato, complete with little seeds. The taste is somewhere between a cherry tomato and an actual cherry, with a hint of Thai spices. Pleasant and different. I’d love to see them growing on a tree.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Peace Corps TV

Materials: one iPod with video, one pair of extremely loud headphones, one clip case attached to one tshirt tied around one bent leg.

Got Jesus? This guy does

Virunga bus station, Kigali

Gorillas Hotel, Musanze: menu goofs

With reasonably priced ($5) and generously portioned pasta dishes and fantastic half-frozen chocolate mouse, Gorillas Hotel may be your best bet for non-Rwandan food in Musanze before 4pm (when Volcana starts serving pizza). The English side of the menu provides the laughs:

Unfortunately neither fish with crazy salad ($7) nor evil shrimps ($17) are in my budget so I can’t tell you if they’re any good. I can recommend the pasta with mushroom, ham and cheese.

Musanze Market

Butcher’s section with a volcano in the background.

Friday, August 20, 2010

"Tigo is stealing all of our time"

Tigo remains the cheapest phone option, last weekend offering a promotion of 5 RWF/minute Tigo to Tigo calls (that’s less than a cent a minute). They’ve also earned my love for their 30 RWF/minute rate to call the US – that’s less than 6 cents a minute!

I’m told that during a recent church service in town, the pastor had something to say about Tigo. To paraphrase, “With MTN we used to speak quickly. You would say only what was necessary and hang up without even saying goodbye. Now with Tigo, we talk and talk and you cannot get someone to hang up. Tigo is stealing all of our time.”

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Kinyarwanda word of the year: akabenzi

I’ve been in Nyanza for much of the last couple of weeks, first helping prepare Kinyarwanda materials for the group of trainees arriving in October and then at a 2-day in-service language training with half of my group. It’s been a fun time hanging out with my favorite Kinyarwanda teachers and other PCVs. I’ve really gotten my nerd on while writing a Kinyarwanda grammar book.

In this time, I’ve learned quite a bit of Kinyarwanda vocabulary and grammar. The single new word I treasure most is akabenzi.

Felicien, the language coordinator for PC Rwanda, is a jovial man in his mid-20s whom I’ve been calling marume (“uncle”) since the second week of training. Among his many wonderful qualities, he’s smart, funny, a gregarious dancer, and has the absolute greatest beer belly known to man.

The beer belly, you see, is a status symbol for men: it shows that a man has the money to eat and drink well and the leisure not to work it off.

In Kinyarwanda, noun class 12 is the diminutive class. Roots of other nouns can be combined with its prefix, aka- to convey an idea of little, e.g. indobo (bucket) becomes akadobo (little bucket), etc.

Akabenzi literally means “little Benz,” as in Mercedes Benz. It's the little status symbol a man carries around with him: akabenzi, the beer belly.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Killing a chicken

During language training, I went with Jenny and a few other friends for a dinner visit. We’d bought eggs, cheese and bread, intending to make egg and cheese sandwiches. They, however, had bigger plans.

When I’d visited the previous week the most noticeable changes from 3 months ago when I left Nyanza were how big Teta has grown and the dozen or so chickens running around the backyard, providing a new subject for Bosco’s antics. They keep the chickens in the room adjoining their kitchen, the window outfitted with chicken wire that is impressively if inexplicably electrified (as if the chickens could get through non-electrified chicken wire?).

In our honor, they decided to kill a chicken. I was the only one excited enough to watch, and in fact I’m planning to adopt the med school axiom of “see one, do one, teach one” next time I get a chance. Here are some pictures, not for the faint of heart or vegetarians.

It was roasted a bit before we butchered and stewed it. Below right, Jenny reacts to below left.

The chicken was delicious, even though we didn’t eat until after 11pm.

If you think this is gruesome, I'm still in the Peace Corps Minor Leagues compared to my high school friend St. John who helped butcher a pig in Paraguay! (This post is backdated so yes, that link is in the "future")

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Clubbing in Muhanga

This post is rated PG 13 for adult language and content.

Last night I went to a club in Rwanda’s second largest city, Muhanga (sometimes called Gitarama). There are sadly no pictures beyond the mental images permanently burned in my brain. After waiting 10 minutes for my change (cover: 1000 francs, or less than $2) and being felt up by the security guards, I entered the club. Impressively, it was a split level, so my companion and I retired to the second floor where I promptly spilled half a 1500 franc beer (aka very expensive) when I leaned on the rickety counter it was sitting on.

The upper level offered an excellent view of the place. Picture a dark and dingy split level club, decorated with eclectic posters (a basketball star, an action movie, Bob Marley). As is typical wherever there is a Rwandan bar with a TV and music, the music videos did not match the music that’s playing. On the upper dance floor were two guys taking advantage of all the empty space to find a happy medium between dancing and seizuring. On the lower level were lots of Rwandan men, but not a woman to be found, so the men were grinding on each other. And I do mean grinding as in crotch-to-leg contact (remember, kids, homosexuality doesn’t exist here).

Eventually more friends arrived and we moved to the lower level where the male in our party was subject to aforementioned male-on-male grinding. (“I think I might have felt his penis.” “If you think you felt it….you did feel it.”) About 3 Rwandan women eventually arrived, but it was still a mostly male affair. One guy we were dancing with offered to buy drinks, and in a classic Rwandan manner, brought the unopened bottle and bottle opener onto the dance floor so he could open the beer in front of me so I would know it wasn’t poisoned.

The music was a nice mix of danceable hip-hop and 2-year-old pop songs that were fantastically fun to sing along to. Despite the auspicious start (gropey security guards are always so charming) it was a fantastic night, topped off by the 3am discovery that my 5000 franc ($9) hotel had half-frozen water bottles in their fridge.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ice Cream in Butare!

I finally got myself down to “Rwanda’s first ice cream parlor” in Butare. First let’s correct a few inaccuracies in the Gothamist article: Rwanda has had excellent (if pricier) ice cream at Bourbon for several years, this “ridiculously warm” country rarely gets hotter than 85 degrees and is usually a pleasant 75, I highly doubt they are locally sourcing processed sugar (and can you make ice cream from branches of local sugar cane?), and diversifying the market for milk-based products is all well and good but a scoop of ice cream costs more than what 60% of Rwandans make in a day and you can’t have an ice cream culture without widespread refrigeration which you can’t have without widespread electricity.

That said, they have decent soft-serve, with two flavors at any given time. Although I’ve heard rumors of mango and chocolate, when I visited there was vanilla and coffee. The vanilla was very milky tasting and the coffee was good but not strong. I’d rather pay a bit more for Bourbon’s richer and creamier offerings. However, you can taste the freshness in the ice cream in a way I’ve never experienced, and for that it’s a must for any itinerary that passes through Butare.

The granola topping is amazing, the banana cake is even better, but the absolute highlight is the real live bagels. I took one home, toasted it, improvised cream cheese from laughing cow cheese mixed with diced veggies and herbs, and enjoyed my first bagel in 6 months.

There were a few groups of affluent Rwandan university students enjoying ice cream when I was there. It was nice to see that the shop is catching on with some of Butare’s inhabitants.

Also, the women are very nice, take pride in their work, and the customer service was far and away the best I’ve encountered in Rwanda. For that alone it is worth the visit.

Monday, August 9, 2010


Spotted, on the way to use the internet on July 27, a small rally of about 100 people for an opposition candidate. Couldn’t tell which one, but it wasn’t the RPF colors.

For a description of what it’s like to be at a political rally here, check out this blog entry.

I spotted another one on Aug 4 in Nyanza, this time with loud music, t-shirts, and maybe 200 people (I didn’t get too close). Kigaliwire attended an opposition rally and blogged about it.

Today was the actual election, and it was pretty quiet. Most offices were closed and the streets were relatively empty. I played a game while walking around town - “spot the polling station.” Each cell had its own, and Gisenyi has about 10 cells. There were stations at the mosque, the catholic church, the university campus, and a big high school. Voters were dressed in their Sunday best and lined up with their ID cards ready; according to news articles they use thumbprints to vote behind curtains and then drop the “anonymous” ballot in a ballot box.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Flowers of Rwanda

Happy birthday Mama Wacu! More Rwandan flowers in my Picassa album here.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Cooking sambusa!

A few weeks ago I got in a friendly argument with the proprietor of a milk bar near the bus station. 300 francs for a half-liter of milk? Urahenda, you are extorting! Near me it costs 200. However the sambusas LINK, homemade by his wife, were delicious. Well, after discussing the cost of rent near the bus station and how he brings the milk from his own nearby farm, I set up my couchsurfers to go milk his cows and I made a date with his wife to learn how she makes her sambusas.

Mama Jennifer made the mincemeat the night before, grinding it herself and then cooking it with onion, garlic, urusenda and a flavor packet (think bouillon plus spices plus MSG).

When I arrived she was kneading the dough, which is made from flour, water and salt.

Once the dough was ready, she divided it into equal sized balls by pinching off a fistful of dough and smoothing it. Each ball will make 4 sambusa. I tried this step and failed. It’s important that the balls be equally sized so that after they are rolled out they can be stacked with a layer of oil between them. We stacked 5 pieces at a time and rolled them even flatter.
Each stack of 5 is partially cooked on a wok-like pan, using only the small amount of oil spread on them. By doing 5 at once, the dough is strong enough to be rolled thin and multiple layers at a time can cook. When one layer was cooked, it was peeled off and the stack was flipped to cook the next. The middle piece needed very little time.

These partly-cooked sambusa wrappers are re-stacked, halved and then quartered, and folded into pockets. These are then stuffed, sealed with a paste of water and flour, and deep-fried in oil. It’s important to make sure the corners are folded tightly to keep excess oil out.
At this point we were in a big rush because, for the first time ever, someone had come to the house to make an order - 20 sambusas to serve at teatime at his guesthouse. I joined the assembly line: as Mama J. folded and stuffed, I sealed them and handed them off to a niece (?) who fried them

Mama J. makes 80 sambusa a day. At 200 RWF each, that’s 16,000 RWF, at least 8,000 of which I estimate to be profit. She doesn’t work every day, but it’s still quite a middle class living, and one funded not at all by NGOs or foreign aid.

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