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:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Some info on my new organization

Here's some articles that touch on Gishwati Area Conservation Program's work, and a youtube video about last year's environmental competition - this year's is coming up.

And here's a picture of the wooden canoe I almost sank in Kibuye last week courtesy of fellow PCV Jen O.

Friday, September 17, 2010

IST in Kibuye!

There was a gorgeous view, great company, redundant sessions, swimming on an island with several varieties of birds and almost sinking a boat carved out of a tree, and lots of lizards.

It's amazing how they cling to the ceiling! The two guys chasing the one with the moth in his mouth pursued him right up to the ceiling as well.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Don't use Facebook during working hours!

From the newspaper Umusanzu, an article about why Facebook should not be used during working hours. I particularly like the partially photoshopped graphic.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Kinyarwanda false cognate of the day: turifuza

“Turifuza,” which sounds an awful lot like “to refuse (ah),” pops up quite a bit in Kinyarwanda, especially during prayers. It’s the present first person plural of the verb kwifuza, which means to wish. Turifuza (too ree-foo-zah): we wish.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Rwandan etiquette

There are lots of things Rwandans do and say that seem rude when considered in an American cultural context:

- To get someone’s attention, say that of a waiter, a passerby in the street, or a potential customer in the market, many Rwandans make a hissing noise. It’s alarmingly effective.
- There is no word for “please” in Kinyarwanda. The word for “thank you,” murakoze, translates literally as “you have just done (done well).”
- There is no word for “excuse me” either. When people want to get by, they push you out of the way, usually gently.
- Picking noses and shooting snot rockets onto the ground are common occurrences.
- So is picking one’s earwax in public. Two recent experiences: the woman on my bus last month who bought a lollypop, picked her ear with the end of the stick, and then unwrapped it and ate it, and the guy who walked into the milk bar where I was eating a sambusa and wished me “Muryoherwe” (bon appetite) as he twisted a cotton swab in his ear - and then reached over to shake my hand.
- Upon meeting someone new, a Rwandan immediately asks “Are you married?” and “How many children do you have?”
- It’s also common to ask a near-stranger if they are looking for a husband. It’s not just men who ask me this, but women as well.
- Discussing weight is in no way taboo – I’ve been in multiple conversations where Rwandans have talked about each other’s weight, particularly in the context of “so-and-so used to be skinny before you were married.”
- One colleague once told me “your face is very nice without glasses but I don’t like it when you wear your glasses.”
- Another asked me what medicines I take at home.
- Asking how much money somebody makes isn’t taboo either.
- As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s quite common to answer one’s phone during a meeting, church, or anywhere else, and proceed to talk on it in hushed tones without excusing oneself.
- Rwandans have no issues with describing people by their skin color (be it Muzungu vs. Rwandan or a distinction between “brown” and “black” Rwandans).
- Rwandans throw food on the floor of their homes and others’ homes. Using a toothpick? Just spit out the food you’ve dislodged! Throw the toothpick on the floor too. This makes more sense when you realize how often they (or their houseboys) clean the floors, but it sure is off-putting to observe.
- Waiting on a Rwandan? Call to ask when they will arrive, and they’ll tell you a few minutes. Always, regardless of whether they’re actually going to be an hour or two late. It would be rude for them to say anything but Ndaje, ndaje “I’m coming, I’m coming,” even if they haven’t left yet.

This all takes some getting used to, but it’s normal here to be nosy about somebody’s marital status, and comments about physical appearance and skin color don’t carry the same weight as they would in the US.

On the other hand, there’s a number of ways in which Rwandans might find our culture quite rude. They greet everyone, while we hardly ever talk to strangers we pass in the street. Greetings often extend to discussing marital status, what one does, etc., so it’s a nice way to get to know the people I pass every day and the shopkeepers I’ve arbitrarily chosen to frequent. Rwandans also love giving gifts and will usually share food with guests. They also accompany guests to the front gate and sometimes halfway down the street - an American who stopped at the door when seeing guests out would be viewed as rude. There is a very nice tradition of randomly giving small gifts - buying a coworker or neighbor ears of corn or a bunch of bananas, for example.

Although sometimes I am frustrated by what might be considered rude behavior, it helps to take a step back and remember the cultural context. Except when I’m told I’m getting fat - it may be a Rwandan compliment, but that’s just not fun to hear.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Onontracom bus trip

The big green "gift from Japan" Onontracom buses go to the more remote areas of Rwanda. I took one from my new site to IST in Kibuye. The front windshield gives the impression of eyes with a unibrow, with two big square windows and a long thin one above. My ears were filled with rattling of the lose door and lose ceiling panels and consistent hissing of the breaks as we went around the many curves, these loud and ominous sounds so loud I could barely here the engine. I could barely get the door open to get on when it pulled up in my village (it comes from Gisenyi towards Kibuye between 8:30 and 9:30; today it was 9:30). I counted 94 people (6 babies, others small children, but at least 75 adults) when I got on. This is on a vehicle smaller than your average city bus (even before the extra-long jointed fuel efficient kind rolled out, more circa 1970). As for scent, it was puke and armpits. It was worth it because it was much faster than goinv via Kigali, but mostly for beautiful glimpses of the lake and layers of gray mountains, the green farms and clay roof tiles and banana groves, the glimpses of lake Kivu with a heavy gray-black cloud settling over it, the cold blasts of lake air when the door was opened (by way of removing a loose metal rod from the latch) but perfectly cozy on the crowded bus.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Home depot

My new house is right next door to the GACP field station/office/house. It’s maybe 12 or 14 feet square, divided in half and then one of the rooms in half again: one small room (in front, to be my bedroom with another, more distant view of Nyiragongo LINK) and two smaller rooms. The walls are mud with plaster on the inside, the floor is cement (most floors here are dirt), and the roof is tin (most here are ceramic tile). The garden behind the house is huge and I can’t wait to plant some vegetables and herbs (the only veggies in the market here are the occasional cabbage, corn or avocado). I’ll leave some of the banana trees in place but I’m going to get rid of the ones that block my view of Lake Kivu.

Today we met with the landlady, who was wearing a Home Depot sweatshirt - perfect! We discussed the alterations to be made: the 2 windows will be expanded and they’ll put in metal doors (with windows, giving me 4 windows). They’ve already put in a cement gutter around the house. I’ve put in a request for the walls to be painted white or yellow (many walls here are painted a torquoise-green, ugh). They’re going to build a bamboo fence around the property, joining it to the fence around the GACP property, and we’ll put a gate between the two. They need to build a toilet and shower, but in the meantime I can use the ones on the office property.

I’m hoping to be able to move in the week of the 20th, after IST.

Ants in my Pants - again

Remember the scene in the Poisonwood Bible where ants swarm through the village, devouring food, chickens, small children, and everything else the fleeing Congolese villagers left behind? Fortunately, their Rwandan cousins are less vicious, or maybe just less numerous, but they still draw blood when they bite.

Today’s hike to the villages that surround the forest didn’t even bring me inside the forest LINK, just within a few meters, but the ants are still 2/2. My counterpart and I hiked for 6 hours, visiting several villages that abut the forest. He was checking on the type of crop they’re growing; last September there was tension because the chimps were crop raiding in fields of corn, so GACP is trying to convert these fields to potatoes. (They also might try to convert some to pastureland for cows; I suggested tea to be sold to the nearby Pfunda tea company.) For me it was a good opportunity to introduce myself to people in some of the other villages near Gishwati. 

Monday, September 6, 2010

A busy first weekend

I arrived in Kinihira Friday. Saturday I walked 50 minutes to the nearest market town with R., the scientist’s houseboy (she’s on leave in the US). Gakere isn’t much, but it’s got more going on than Kinihira - there’s actually fruit for sale, there’s a butcher shop and a bar that sells brochettes, and some of the milk bars actually sell sambusa (in Kinihira it’s just bread and donuts). There are a lot more houses, but still no power. R. makes great company - he’s incredibly smart and eager to improve his English but also a great Kinyarwanda teacher. Although he’s 24, he still has a year left of secondary school - he’s been working to save money for it.

Today was Inauguration Day. Apparently each umudugudu was given 50,000RWF ($90) to celebrate - in Kinihira the entire sum seems to have been applied to sorghum beer, with maybe a few Fantas. There’s got to be at least 25,000 imidugudu in Rwanda - that’s a lot of beer money!

In the afternoon I joined R. in his reading group. He admitted 10 kids to the yard and we read a picture book to them, R. assisting my attempts to translate. More kids peered at us from behind the fence. Afterwards I passed out crayons (thanks Auntie K + Uncle C!) so the kids could draw a scene from the book. The book was about a tree that’s to be cut down in the Amazon, and the reasons the various forest inhabitants give about the tree’s importance. The snake’s plea was ineffective here: he said his fathers and his fathers’ fathers had lived in the tree. 16 years ago this village didn’t exist, so the importance of an ancestral home has little resonance in Kinihira.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Rwanda book reviews: Pagan Babies by Elmore Leonard

Pagan Babies by Elmore Leonard is perhaps the worst book I have ever read, and I can confidently declare that it’s the worst book ever written about Rwanda. It combines terrible, stilted prose, one-dimensional characters and a flimsy illogical plot, topped off with the perpetuation of incorrect ethnic stereotypes and graphic, exploitative references to the genocide. It’s both tacky and offensive. At the same time, the author displays solid knowledge of Rwandan geography and culture.

The synopsis of the book calls to mind madlibs and will do a better job than I ever could in conveying how ridiculous the plot is:
Father Terry Dunn thought he’d seen everything on the mean streets of Detroit, but that was before he went on a little retreat to Rwanda to evade a tax-fraud indictment. Now the whiskey-drinking, Nine Inch Nails T-shirt-wearing padre is back trying to hustle up a score to help the little orphans of Rwanda. But the fund-raising gets complicated when a former tattletale cohort pops up on Terry’s tail. And then there’s the lovely Debbie Dewey. A freshly sprung ex-con turned stand-up comic, Debbie needs some fast cash, too, to settle an old score. Now they’re in together for a bigger payoff than either could finagle alone. After all, it makes sense (no, it doesn't - ed)…unless Father Terry is working on a con of his own.

Here are a few choice excerpts - by no means the worst the book has to offer:

Ethnic stereotypes

“Father” Terry, who’s pretending to be a priest to hide in Rwanda from charges of cigarette smuggling for the Detroit mob, is hearing confession. On page 3, A man tells him that the guy who murdered his family has come back.
Terry said, “Is the guy bigger than you are?” “No, he’s Hutu.”
Terry is sleeping with his housekeeper, but don't worry - he’s not really a priest anyway (his most priestly duty aside from hearing the occasional confession seems to be consuming imported whiskey, a tradition that is quit). On page 15 is the first of many unnecessary references to Terry’s housekeeper’s stump.
She brought the bottle of Scotch under her arm - actually, pressed between her slender body in a white undershirt and the stump of her arm, the left one, that had been severed just above the elbow. Chantelle seldom covered her stump. She said it told who she was, though anyone could look at her figure and see she was Tutsi.

African stereotypes and bad economics
Another scene from confession, page 2:
“Bless me, Fatha, for I have sin. Is a long time since I come here but is not my fault, you don’t have Confession always when you say. The sin I did, I stole a goat from close by Nyundo for my family to eat. My wife cook it en brochette and also in a stew with potatoes and peppers.”
Pretty savage English, huh? Also, any guy starving enough to steal a goat would not have the money to buy peppers.

Or so it’s called, on page 234 and again (!) on page 320.

The sex scene
In which Terry shacks up with Debbie, the private investigator who just got out of jail and is out to get back the money her ex-boyfriend conned from her. Debbie wants to be a stand-up comic, but is not remotely funny, although Terry thinks she is (p. 233 - “There was no question in his mind Debbie could be the right girl. Christ, look at her. And she was funny. How many girls were funny?”). To be generous, perhaps Leonard never intended her to actually be funny - it would add a little bit of sad complexity to her desperate, stupid character.
They left the lamp off but could see each other in the light from the hall, where the bathroom was. She said, “It’s been so long for me.” And said, “I know, it’s like riding a bike.”
Only a lot better. But Terry didn’t tell her that. He wasn’t a talker in bed.
So romantic! So cumbersome to read. Page 128 if you need more.

The prose

If anything in the book is more offensive than the ethnic stereotypes, it might be the prose the reader is forced to endure. On page 149 is a prime example:
Her cell phone, a faint sound coming from her handbag. Debbie got it out and for the next few minutes listened to a lawyer, a good friend of hers, answer a question she had left with his assistant two days ago. As she listened she said “Yeah?” a number of times. She said “Oh?” thinking oh no. She listened and said, “Oh,” a few more times. Listened again and said, “No, I’m outside, on Frank Murphy’s front steps,” and looked up at the building against a dead-pale sky. “I’m with a friend, a smuggler.” Had to explain that, then listened for more than a minute and said, “Get out of here. Really?....
It keeps going but it hurts to keep typing such drivel.

I think most offensive of all is that the reader’s supposed to buy the plot, which twists in turns in ways that are never remotely plausible but somehow predictable anyway. The greatest point of suspense in this “crime novel” is why it was ever published and how the hell it was able to print “New York Times Bestseller” across the front without being sued for false representation. Sad to say, I read all 350 pages and it’s still a mystery.

Friday, September 3, 2010

First day in Kinihira

(It’s pronounced “kee-nee-hee-rah” - I’m learning that around here “k” and “g” are almost always hard.)
This is a lot more like what you might picture when you hear “Peace Corps”: There are a few water pumps in town and only the distant one reliably works. The only electricity comes from the solar panels at the health center and GACP field station (where staff - all 4 of us - are allowed 1 computer charge per week). There are erect power poles awaiting wires. I’m told they were put up before the election as a sign of progress; the power station itself is months from being finished.

The field station and my future house are located on the main street, which is lined with shops and houses. The bulk of the village is a dense collection of houses stretching down the hill behind this street. The surrounding view is beautiful: emerald tea fields, plot being tilled as the rainy season begins, cow pastures, glades of eucalyptus. Behind all this, if it’s clear, Nyiragongo bellows smoke and Karisimbi disappears into the coulds). On the other side of the street, from the field station, Kivu is visible on a clear day.

Cows are an even bigger deal here than in the rest of Rwanda, which is saying a lot. Milk costs 30% what it does in Gisenyi - 120-150RWF/liter ($.25). Cheese in a neighboring village is 1800 RWF/wheel - by far the best price in Rwanda.

This morning I started walking down the street and met sme girls carrying roof tiles on their heads. I asked why they weren’t in school and they said “it’s cold,” though I may have misunderstood. It was cold but that’s a pretty poor excuse. They gave me a tour of the village, introducing me to pretty much every adult who was home. Along the way we gathered 20 or so children - I felt like the pied piper. One gave me a very green passion fruit; another a piece of sugar cane. I was welcomed by a village elder, Francois, who wasn’t actually very old. Upon leaving his house the kids and I came across a circle of people around an open space. What could be more interesting to stare at than the new muzungu? It was a neon green snake. Francois came over and killed it with his walking stick.

I also met Bwiza (“bgiza,” meaning good). She’s 23 (my age) and has a 5-year-old son whose father is in Kigali (I think). She welcomed me into their small house and gave me a sweet potato and a cup of milk. She lives with her parents and some of her siblings - 9 people in total. They have a dirt floor but are fortunate to have a tin roof.

In the afternoon I visited the health center with my new counterpart, M., to meet the titulaire (director). Then I tried to read while kids gawked at me through the fence, so I talked to them a bit. The scientist has been here two years, so you’d think they’d be used to a white woman by now. At the afternoon market (4-6pm daily) there were only irish potatoes and sweet potatoes. This is typical. If I’m lucky I might find cabbage, corn, or avocadoes - you can see why I’m eager to start a garden!

I was able to carry on a decent conversation with many people here: the extra four months of Kinyarwanda since swearin make a huge difference. Many adults also speak Swahili and some speak French because the majority of the population was repatriated here from Congo after the genocide. I’m hoping my French will get some much-needed practice and I might try to pick up some Swahili.

It was a great first day. Because inauguration is Monday, I’ve got a 3-day weekend to explore and make more friends (or at least continue building my army of children). I’m really excited about many potential projects here!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Goodbye to Avenue y’Amahoro

Among the things I’ll miss about Gisenyi (market with fruits and vegetables, beach, power and internet), I’m going to miss my street and the kids who run up and hug me. There’s an old VW van on my street that serves as a sort of playground for the kids. Below are pictures by Jenny (the good one) and me. In my picture you’ll note that someone has used toilet paper to write a message on the hillside.

Big Changes!

There’s some big changes to announce for me! I’ll be changing jobs and moving sites. Although it’s a bit unusual in the Peace Corps, Rwanda is a new country with new placements and it’s fairly common here for volunteers to move around a bit. I’m glad I’m doing it now, 4 months into my service, rather than after a whole year. This way I’ll still have 20 months at my new job.

Although I loved my coworkers at my old job, there wasn’t a lot of space for a Peace Corps Volunteer to work with their office. They were very diligently fulfilling donor requirements,  or making it look like they were fulfilling donor requirements, and added projects I was discussing would have been outside that scope. I was also frustrated by the relationship with the inefficient NGO funding my project, and with all of the waste (see Jen’s blog for more Mostly, I was frustrated by the fact that my office didn’t even work in Gisenyi but in surrounding sectors. My job involved sitting on the back of a moto, riding through the beautiful country to visit groups for an hour or a morning in order to fulfill donor requirements and give “trainings” and pay out per diems before returning to town. I joined Peace Corps to do grassroots development work in the community in which I was living, but I felt like an outsider doing a modified version of the NGO-worker-in-a-Landrover activities I wanted to avoid.

In July I met an American who is here with Iowa-based Great Ape Trust and their local Gishwati Area Conservation Program, based in Gisenyi (my current city) and Gishwati forest, where they are trying to reforest and where they look after 15 or so chimps. They were vaguely interested in a PCV to do more broad community engagement work in the villages around the forest. After my hike in Gishwati LINK and some discussions with GACP and Peace Corps, I’m switching jobs. I'll be doing a broad-based needs assessment with my new counterpart, working with their environmental clubs in schools around the forest (and I hope to start health and girls' clubs), working with the local health center a bit, and trying to combat diseases shared between humans and chimps (meaning community-based education on sanitation, safe drinking water and good hygiene), and perhaps trying to bring bio-briquettes to the villages because they currently cook with wood which is bad for both the forest and their health.

I move to the village of Kinihira into the GACP field station guest room on Friday. I have my in-service training in Kibuye September 13-18, and then hopefully my tiny little house will be ready (they are doing things like knocking windows into the mud walls and building the latrine). I'm going to have a huge yard for gardening, sloping downhill with a view of Kivu on a clear day. Although I love Gisenyi, I’m getting what I wanted originally- to live and work in a rural village. There's no electricity (there are poles, so it’s coming) and I'll pay someone to fetch my water. There's an American woman who's been there a few years researching the chimps, and the local research staff live in the town, so I have a welcoming community already.

My blogging frequency will definitely decrease without electricity, but I’ll try to update in batches whenever I’m in Gisenyi. Kinihira is 75 minutes from Gisenyi on the road that goes to Kibuye. GACP has a car that goes back and forth to Gisenyi on Mondays and Fridays, and bedrooms in their office, so it will be free and easy for me to get back to Gisenyi 1-2 times a month - the best of both worlds! I’ll have the same address and I still appreciate mail, email, and phone calls.

As for the blog, I have quite a few entries written but I'm out of time! I'll be posting them from IST on the 12th, backdated, so at that point be sure to scroll down for older posts if you're not using an RSS reader.

Lots and lots of links

It's been a while...

- A must read on Rwandan male prostitutes.

- My friend Jen has a great post on the ways NGOs waste money in Rwanda - she hits on a lot of the points that have disgusted and disillusioned me here over the last few months. To add to her post, the training and per-diem culture here that stretches from expat NGO staff to middle class Rwandan staff to poor beneficiaries means that people are attending trainings not for knowledge they might gain but for the food and money - a truly terrible incentive that all too often takes away from the point of these trainings.
- A blogger on perspectives and conversation in Rwanda. A very good post on why everyday conversation here is sometimes confusing or difficult.

- NPR did a lazy story about connectivity and the Peace Corps, using only 2 PC Rwanda staff and 1 volunteer based in Kigali, the plugged-in capital. It’s very true that Skype, internet, phones, and cell modems have changed Peace Corps, but not everyone is as well connected as volunteers in the capital (writes a volunteer using wireless internet at a fancy hotel where I’ve befriended the staff, although I have no electricity at my new site 75 minutes away). Also, I love mail, and it still takes “weeks or even months” for letters and packages to arrive.

- Reuters has the latest on Rwanda news summarized here.

Rwanda also continues to make appearances in the foreign press, including the Huffington Post, Financial Times, Economist three times, CNN on cell phones for health workers, Time on the “Killer Lake” I regularly swim in, The Guardian on the killer gas and other topics, the NY Times on the election and recently leaked UN report, Kigaliwire has some original analysis, Reuters too, the Irish Times on gorillas (they say tourists in Rwanda are rarified…haha). Time has a wonderful slideshow on Rwanda’s dressed-up polling booths.

As usually I recommend checking out Congo Siasa and Texas and Africa for their excellent Rwanda analysis.

Finally, a verycharity project that's even more half-baked than usual: building ovens to burn wood (which is scarce enough) to bake bread (which most Rwandans don’t eat) to fight hunger (when what’s really needed is balanced nutrition and not more empty carbs).

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