Friday, October 29, 2010

An atypical day in the life

I had to see the doctor Thursday in Kigali, so I left Kinihira Wednesday morning to run some errands in Gisenyi in preparation for moving next week. I traveled to Gisenyi in 2 overcrowded taxi-vans (matatus), which was relatively comfortable compared to the alternative: the puke-green bus of death.

In amongst arranging to buy some furniture I’d been eying for a while (a cushioned chair and a few coffee tables, one of which will be a book shelf on the cheap), I visited the post office. I got my parents’ Halloween package, as anticipated, but there was no sign of my absentee ballot - way to go MA! However, there were about 14 newly delivered mailbags, so I asked if I could wait and see if there was anything more for me.

Although they weren’t doing anything else, it took the post office employees 30 minutes to get around to opening the mailbags. I occupied with fresh copies of the New Yorker, courtesy of my grandparents, then turned to watch as they dumped the bags unceremoniously onto the floor with painstaking slowness. The bags themselves were quite interesting: they originally came from France, with a few from Great Britain and the US, but seem to have been appropriated by the Rwandan Posita. There was still no sign of the absentee ballot, but my parents’ Thanksgiving package had made it to Rwanda in about 16 days - a record! The post office workers kindly offered me a French mailbag so that I could carry both packages home, and allowed me to trade it for an American one (which has a neat little Velcro closure at the top). After a 30 minute climb uphill I made it home with the USPS sack of packages slung Santa Claus like over my shoulder just as it started to rain. Phew!

At dusk I went and picked up the remainder of my furniture and as I was going to buy cushions in the market had to fend off a teenaged ass-grabber with a slap. But the excitement was only just beginning.

That evening I went to my old boss’s new mansion for dinner. Much to my surprise I found a new used car in the driveway! Papa Rene, as he is called, is a proud member of Rwanda’s NGO-funded upper-middle class. Although I was 45 minutes late, I still waited over 20 minutes for he and his wife to come home from work, which I occupied with phone calls to friends, wowing the housegirls with my rapid English, and by playing with the cutest 3-year-old on earth, Glory. When Papa Rene arrived he informed me that before dinner they’d be visiting his family in Brasserie (where the brewery is, 6km away) and said “I think we can move together,” indicating that I was to join them in the car.

Much to my surprise his wife (who is about 26 and the mother of 3, the oldest of whom is 8) got into the drivers’ seat. “Does Mama Rene know how to drive?” I asked. “She knows buhoro buhoro,” said my boss. If you don’t recall, buhoro buhoro means slowly by slowly and is the phrase I use to describe my Kinyarwanda abilities. Did I mention it was dark out? Needless to say I found the only working seatbelt in the backseat, buckeled up, and made the 3-year-old who preferred to tumble all over the backseat sit on my lap where I could keep a firm grip on her.

The car stalled 5 times as she backed it out of the gold-painted gate and up the steep street, and another time as she attempted to pull into traffic. With Papa Rene calmly coaching his wife in Kinyarwanda, we made it out of Gisenyi town and turned up the hilly and curvey road to Brasserie. For the next 6km I texted goodbyes to a few friends as Mama Rene slowly wound her way to our final destination, the outer tires running off the road only a few times and the breaks being slammed once as she got scared by oncoming headlights, though they were safely on the opposite side of the road.

We finally arrived at the family’s house and I unclenched my fingers and texted news of my ongoing existence to a friend. At the family’s house, I introduced myself, showing off my Kinyarwanda, and then accepted a Fanta and mostly tuned out the conversation in favor of children-watching. Papa Rene’s 3-year-old was playing with her cousin, an 18-month old, precariously feeding him orange Fanta straight from the bottle as mothers sometimes do to their young children. Note that mothers usually have a lot more arm strength and coordination and do not attempt this act over their shoulders. Miraculously she didn’t’ spill any before her mother stepped in with a plastic mug. The 18-month-old was playing with a plastic toy truck, which was marked UN in large letters, I kid you not.

After the Fantas were empty and family business was concluded and a bag of eggs was given to my boss’s family (they gave it to the tired 3-year-old to carry, and I carried her) we returned to the car. I was dismayed but not surprised to see the tired and slightly frustrated Mama Rene slip back into the driver’s seat for the trip back to Gisenyi.

When we’d safely made it back inside their gate and Mama Rene had almost but not quite hit the side of the house as she brought the car to a stop, Papa Rene turned around and said “You see, Agatesi, she knows!” “Yes, she knows!” I agreed. 8 months in Rwanda have at least taught me to lie as well as Rwandans.

Dinner was delicious and thankfully it was my boss who drove me home, otherwise it might have ended up all over the new-used backseat of the car.

As a postscript, today I found my ballot in the Peace Corps office in Kigali, shipped by UPS express. The address was my Gisenyi PO and didn’t mention that I’m a PCV so I have no idea how it found its way to the PC office, but I guess MA is no longer as delinquent as I thought. I’d already voted by email, though.

Baby Ineza Lily

One of my new friends, Mukesha, is 24. She has a 5-year-old girl and a 2-week-old newborn. Mukesha had already decided that her daughter’s Kinyarwanda  name would be Ineza, but she asked me for an English name that wasn’t common here. She wanted a short name, and Rwandans also want names that have meanings, limiting my options. After a few suggestions I came up with Lily, which Mukesha instantly took a liking to.

Baby Lily’s father is in the Rwandan army and currently in Sudan. He won’t be able to see his new child for several months. Saturday I took a few pictures of Lily, Tuesday I got  call from Darfur and Papa Lily gave me his email address, and I just sent him the pictures!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Typical Rwandan shop

This is a typical larger shop in a town, with room for a table and chairs so customers can enjoy a cold fanta or warm milk. I took this in Nyanza during training.

Monday, October 25, 2010

My new house!

My new house is finally finished and Peace-Corps-approved! I’ll move in in about a week. In the mean time, here’s a picture of the bathroom/shower in progress, the finished product with Lake Kivu in the distance, and a view of the side of the house, front yard and fence which will soon be blooming with flowers I planted yesterday!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Handwashing day

Held a bit belatedly, on October 19 (International hand washing day was Oct 15), at Kinihira primary school.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Volcanic view from Kinihira

The colors in the panorama didn’t stitch together evenly, but besides that I love this picture. From left to right, Nyiragongo, Mikeno, Karisimbi.

I can still see Nyiragongo glowing at night from Kinihira, but with less detail in the wafting red smoke.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Electricity coming to Kinihira!

The poles have been up for a few months but today they strung up the wires. Power has yet to flow through the wires, but it’s progress. Rumor has it that we’ll be connected by December but I’m not holding my breath.

Pictured, men pushing around the heavy cables (the front of my house, left foreground) and the cables freshly hung as a storm roles in.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Kumara masenge

Back in the days when the Rwandan franc went a little further, it was subdivided into 10 amasenge. Baby bananas, more commonly called imineke, earn their nickname kumara masenge, “finish your pennies” because they are so delicious that you can’t help but spend all your change on them.

Nowadays, a bunch of 12 or so skinny ones goes for 150-200 rwf, depending on its condition, the location and your bargaining skills. Plumper bunches go for 300 ($.50).

Note that when bargaining for produce, sellers will very rarely lower the prices on pre-arranged groups of items (bananas, stacks of 4-5 passion fruit or tree tomatoes or oranges, piles of carrots or tomatoes). However a skilled bargainer can get something extra thrown in - convince the seller to part with 6 instead of 5 passion fruit for 100rwf, add more carrots to the pile, throw in a couple little green peppers with the stack of cucumbers. Items like pineapples, papayas, and mangoes can usually be bargained for (and sellers always start with a particularly steep markup on mangoes).

Malaria prophylaxis: did you know?

There are three common types of malaria prophylaxis: Mefloquine (a weekly hallucinogenic, see below), doxycycline (daily, also an antibiotic, and with the ironic side effect of increased sun sensitivity) and Malarone (daily, few side effects outside of the hit to your wallet).

Prophylactic pills keep you from getting sick with the symptoms, but malaria is likely still in your blood. After you leave a malaria zone, one type of malaria goes away after each time you have it while the type that lives in your liver should be flushed out with a dose of drugs (which cannot be taken if you have a G6PD deficiency, explaining why Peace Corps requires that obscure test).

The mefloquine (brand name Larium) that I’m on is a weekly pill that is known to cause vivid, sometimes hallucinogenic dreams and/or sleeplessness. I have trouble sleeping the night I take it, but I’ve gotten used to it, dreams of fires and murders aside. Anxiety, depression, psychosis or neurological symptoms such as walking crookedly have been known to develop, in which case you can switch to doxycylcine, a daily pill which has the ironic side effect of increased sun sensitivity. But guess what’s worse than side effects? Malaria.

Rwanda book reviews: Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

Baking Cakes in Kigali shares the cheesy cheerful tone of the #1 African Ladies Detective Agency, another book written by a white person with extensive experience in Africa. Angel is a bubbly Tanzanian living in Kigali who bakes cakes that are described in tantalizing detail. She is a heartwarming character surrounded by a stereotypical but interesting supporting cast. Angel meddles in her friends’, neighbors’ and customers’ lives in the best possible ways, fixing up relationships, finding solutions to one friend’s problem in another friend’s problem, and dishing out life lessons.

The book is full of authentic Rwanda details - sometimes too full when it seems to go on about the contents of a shop or the specifics of a location for the sake of description that does nothing to enhance the plot. However, these details are mostly accurate, so for someone less familiar with Rwanda, they may be educational as well as atmosphere-building. This includes items such as that the “last” Rwandan name (which isn’t a family name) is stated before the Western name, a haunting but not overdone scene about the Murambi memorial, a description of the police and army trucks that have a long bench down the middle of the bed so that soldiers sit facing the sides of the road, and (close to my heart) complaints about wasteful expat salaries and unproductive development programs. Although I must warn that if you only start preparing cassava leaves only a few minutes before serving them, as is done at one point in the book, you will end up serving your children poison for lunch.

One detail that seems exaggerated are the constant references to HIV/AIDS as an unnamed spectre or “the virus” or “the illness.” Although it was published in 2009, the book takes place in 2000, and I don’t know what level of stigmatization and fear about HIV/AIDS were prevalent in Kigali at the time.

Another slightly irksome feature of the book was that the dialogue was peppered with oddities: “somebody” (never person, or woman, but somebody, as in “professional somebody”) and “late” in constant and exclusive reference to the deceased, most confusingly used in constructions like “her baby was late.” This may be a relic of a literal translation from the Swahili spoken by many of the characters, or a misguided attempt to sound African, but these words took me out of the book a bit whenever I came across them.

All in all, it’s a charming but not profound book. I recommend it, but it’s not one I’ll read a second time.

Monday, October 4, 2010

It's a very small country

Towards the end of July a friend visited me in Gisenyi, and we found ourselves in a bar on a Saturday afternoon partaking in beer and, eventually, brochettes. There was a small wedding party at the bar and I remember commenting to my companion that we were the token muzungus in their wedding pictures.

Fast forward to this week. I’m living in a new village and working with a new organization. In my new village I carefully guard my reputation, turning down alcoholic beverages when they are offered because a “serious” unmarried girl does not consume alcohol. Two of my Rwandan colleagues live in Gisenyi on weekends, and are more modern, so I occasionally drink in the privacy of the office/guest house dining room if my counterpart offers.

Today one of my colleagues told me today that he had something to show me on his computer. Back in July, before we’d met, he’d loaned his camera to a friend in Gisenyi to photograph a wedding party, and he had just looked at the pictures this weekend.


Sunday, October 3, 2010

Chicken transport

From the Nyanza market, months ago. Packing up to go home.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Kinyarwanda verb of the day: Now that’s what I call a Saturday night/Sunday morning

In Kinyarwanda, the verb “to be drunk” is gusinda (goo-sin-dah) and “to be successful” is gutsinda (goo-tsin-dah). These words are dangerously close, although for some notable people the two concepts seem to be intertwined.

Complicating things further, “to pray” is gusenga (goo-sen-gah). In the past tense there is but a subtle vowel difference between narasinze (nah-rah-sin-zay) “I was drunk” and narasenze (nah-rah-sen-zay) “I prayed."


I don’t know when the project will be finished, or if it will actually give me faster/better internet access (fingers crossed), but all over Rwanda for the past few months I’ve seen people digging sometimes perilous ditches by the side of the road, preparing to lay giant spools of colorful fiberoptic cable. It’s part of East African and Rwandan development plans to bring high-speed internet to the region.

Here are a few pictures I’ve snapped over the last few months. I first saw the cables in the East (first picture), back in May, then in Gisenyi in July (subsequent pictures). In September I’ve seen them digging near my new site in Rutsiro district, including the last photo of the yellow “fiber optic cable” post.

At least if it doesn’t make a difference in internet quality/speed it’s been a great temporary employment scheme for the country.

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