Saturday, December 25, 2010

Do they know it's Christmas?

My Christmas started off bright and early, as I opened amazing Christmas packages that my family had sent and ate leftover sweet potato pudding that I’d made on Christmas Eve (recipe below). I dressed in my Sunday best, then entertained myself with solitaire Bananagrams for a while as I waited for Bwiza and her mother to swing by and pick me up for church.

Bwiza finally came around 8:30, half an hour late, and we walked down to her house, where I explained the American custom of Christmas gifts. I presented her with a small gift and gave Adolph a wind-up frog toy my parents’ had sent. I have never in my life seen a child take such joy in a gift. He laughed hysterically every time the frog did its backflip. His 8-year-old uncle also got a kick out of the toy, and was a little more adept at winding it.

Bwiza explained that the Catholic church in our village had changed its program and was not holding services. Christmas mass would instead be at a church “ku mazi:” by the water. It would be a long walk, perhaps an hour and a half, so they were not sure I would be able to do it. “No problem!” I explained, “I just want to return home to change my shoes.” I changed from heels to chacos, threw a granola bar, water bottle, sunscreen and raincoat (you never know which you will need) into a bag, and we set off on our Christmas hike.

The road/path to the church was one I’d been meaning to explore for several months, and it was great to finally see the winding road towards the water. It was mostly downhill on the way there, and we traversed several bridges that consisted of only one or two logs: balance beams. As we drew near the church, crowds surrounded us in both directions. Some were headed towards our 10am mass while others were departing the earlier mass. As a white girl in a dress tailored form local fabric, I drew more than a few stares as I joined hands with Bwiza and her brother to weave through the well-dressed throngs.

The church is perhaps the biggest building I’ve seen in my district; there must have been three thousand or more worshippers from several sectors crowded onto the benches, which had long supports on the ground so that they could also be knelt upon for prayer. There was a group of boys drumming outside and a generator to power the Christmas light display and sound system.

Inside, the church was decked out with festive metallic streamers, a few pseudo-Christmas trees, and flowers. There was even a nativity scene!

Although Catholics have a reputation for short services (short meaning perhaps two hours), mass dragged for almost three hours. It was a sunny day and we were the third group of several thousand people to cram together under the tin roof, so it was hot. I regretted not bringing a fan. At one point Bwiza mercifully proposed that we go outside, “to take oxygen,” would be the literal French translation. She then got a taste of what it’s like to be a muzungu: as we rested in the fresh air and shade of the church, scores of children crowded within a few feet of us, impervious to commands of “musubire” (to move back).

We returned for the end of services, which included sitings of a Red Sox championship shirt and a Youkilis jersey, pictured (as the three hour mark ticked by, this was very entertaining to me). Finally we poured out of the church and greeted others from the village, including the health center titulaire and his wife, and Mama Benjamin.

We walked back, uphill, with Mama Benjamin and her son and a couple others from near Kinihira. It began to rain, so we sought shelter for a while in a stranger’s house. By the time we returned, maybe two and a half hours after we left the church, I was exhausted.

After a brief rest, Bwiza knocked on my door and invited me to dinner. At her house, she served me beef in a red sauce. Given that she probably buys meat only two or three times a year, it was an incredible honor to share this meal with her.

My evening was capped off with Christmas TV specials on my iPod, hot chocolate, wonderful phone calls from friends and family, and the making of a Christmas bananagram - it's imperative to play with the new toys on Christmas day!

Do they know it’s Christmas? Rwandans definitely knew it was Christmas, and some went to church or prepared a special meal, but for the most part they didn’t make nearly the fuss about Christmas that we do.

Sweet Potato Pudding

* 1 cup milk
* 2 eggs
* 2 1/2 cups sliced sweet potatoes (I grated them by hand, and because they are white threw in some carrot for the orange)
* 1 cup sugar
* 1 tsp cinnamon
* 1 tsp nutmeg
* 1/2 tsp ground cloves
* 1/4 tsp salt
* 1 tsp lemon or lime zest
* 1 tsp vanilla

In a blender, combine the milk and eggs; process until well mixed. Add sweet potato slices and process until potato is shredded fine. Add remaining ingredients; blend well.
Note: You may also shred the sweet potatoes finely with a shredder or food processor and beat ingredients with a hand mixer.

Pour mixture into a well-greased 1 1/2-quart baking dish. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 1 hour or until knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve warm or cold, with whipped cream or ice cream.
Serves 4.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dirty grass

I felt like I was going insane yesterday. I was being told, by multiple colleagues and neighbors, that something totally normal and logical was completely unacceptable, nay, dirty.

I should have maybe seen it coming - but how could I have expected something so asinine? In retrospect, they were all trying to tell me that I was doing something wrong: my landlady when she barged in and weeded my yard and the 4-foot high hillsides to the south of my house, causing miniature mudslides and concerns about erosion, Robert when he found a boy to weed my yard although I’d told him I was waiting until closer to when my family would arrive, another woman who’d discussed working in my yard coming to pull the grass and weeds off my path without my permission, leaving me slipping, sliding and splattered in mud every time I went to the bathroom, and a few comments here and there about my grass.

That’s right: the root of my temporary madness was grass. Or rather, the root of my temporary madness was that multiple people were telling me, with the utmost conviction, something that was totally false in my worldview: my grass was unhygienic.

Apparently, what was growing in my yard was “unhygienic grass.” When my counterpart finally broached the subject directly with me, I asked about the grass over there up the hill, and he said it was “good grass.” What about the grass by the road? It didn’t matter, because I am in the village to teach about (among other things) good hygiene, and how could I tell people to wash their hands with soap after using the toilet and boil their drinking water if I had unhygienic grass in my yard?

(From my perspective, of course, how were people who don’t use soap to tell me my grass was dirty? The “good” grass at my office was more neat and manicured than my grass, but really? Good grass and bad grass? Dirty grass and clean grass?

I take a lot of care with my community reputation: I want to be viewed, in the Rwandan parlance, as a “serious” person. I’m careful to respect Rwandan cultural mores, not to drink in the village, usually to dress in skirts or wrap a sheet of igitenge fabric around my waist when I leave my yard. I regularly sweep my house and dress in clean clothes. So being told that I was unclean, unhygienic, especially by people who don’t boil their drinking water or wash their hands with soap, was a pretty big affront.

Eventually, after angrily shoving some cuttings from a flowery bush into my naked and eroding hillside, I came around and accepted what I’d been told. Just as I think it’s crazy for people who don’t wash their hands with soap to tell me I’m unclean for having grass in my yard, I am losing credibility with them when I try to teach about proper handwashing because they believe my yard is unclean. So I’ve accepted the irrational, counterfactual cultural belief and submitted to it: negotiating “good grass” to be planted in the front yard, planting “good” grass on the paths and stairs, and hiring the rogue path-weeding lady to turn most of the rest of the yard into hills for planting (it’s been a long time coming).

Friday, December 10, 2010

"Fruit" salad

On Thanksgiving I taught Robert how to make fruit salad. He had never encountered the concept (“Where do I put the banana?” “In that bowl.” “But that bowl has the pineapple!”). Still, it was a big hit. When we returned from the day trekking chimpanzees, Robert was gone for the night but had laid out Rebecca’s dinner, including this artfully layered fruit salad of mango, pineapple, cucumber and carrot:


Rebecca, the scientist who is studying Gishwati’s chimpanzees, kindly offered to take me out with the research team for a glimpse of the chimpanzees. This group of about 20 is at the very beginning stages of habituation, meaning that they are not entirely accustomed to human visitors. Very few people have ever seen these chimps. It was an amazing opportunity.

We set out around 10am to meet the morning team, which had presumably been following the chimps since daybreak. When we found them around noon, after a brisk uphill hike that left me embarrassingly winded, the morning team had lost the small number of chimps they’d been watching. We did hear a few chimps hooting in the not-too-far distance, so we went off-trail, up and down steep hillsides that further reminded me I need to work out more. We were hot on their trail - following the paths of trampled bushes and broken vines they’d left in their slides downhill, noting wads of spit out bark or bites taken out of leaves. I was exhausted and thinking of exiting the forest with the morning team to try again another day when, very nearby, a great chorus of whoops rose from the trees.

I stuck around, and was treated to several hours of chimpanzee viewing: a mother and infant eating in a tree, the bold male who I thought of as the class clown selecting the closest appetizing tree to us for his meal, chimps swinging from trees and vines, the very unappealing swollen red bottom of a chimp in heat, chimps wadging bark, chimps eating leaves, chimps scratching and grooming, chimps building nests. What incredible creatures they are, and it is a privilege to work with the organization charged with protecting them.

Kinyarwanda slang of the day

My favorite bit of Kinyarwanda slang originated at the National University of Rwanda in Butare, to which the country’s most elite students are admitted. When I break this out around NUR-educated Rwandans (and others the slang has spread to) I invariably am received with hearty laughter.

Gutera akadobo (goo-teh-rah ah-kah-doe-boe) means “to throw the little bucket”: to reject someone’s advances. The first time I encountered this phrase, I was told it referred to a woman rejecting a man. I asked if it could also refer to a man rejecting a woman: “That cannot happen!”

Apparently there are levels of rejection. You’ll recall that “aka-” denotes the diminutive class. Therefore, gutera indobo “to throw the (regularly sized) bucket” is a deeper rejection. Most painful, following a relationship of several years, is gutera ingunguru: “to throw the big metal barrel/oil drum.” Ouch.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Water project!

Great news! My water project proposal got approved. I already have the money in hand, because the charity gives money up-front for “shovel ready” projects and then fundraises. You can read about it here (and donate if you wish):

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hannukah in Rwanda

I’ve been celebrating Hannukah here in Kinihira, using the opportunity to do a little cross-cultural sharing with my friends and colleagues.

Sunday I taught my adopted family dreidl with dried beans. It was a big hit, from age 5-50! I’m planning to pass out a few dreidls now that the holiday is over; my dream is that in a few years some Jewish tourist will pass through the village and wonder why there are kids sitting on the side of the road playing dreidl in the middle of August.

On Monday my coworkers and I did a potluck dinner. I made applesauce, taught Rebecca’s houseboy how to make latkes (potato and white sweet potato), and we coupled these with a few Rwandan dishes. I explained the origin of the holiday, lit the candles, and then they dug in. I’m happy to say that there was not a single latke left and one notoriously picky coworker even asked for the recipe! We played dreidl with desert.

I’ll take this opportunity to talk a little bit about matches in Rwanda. Matches here absolutely suck. They are far inferior even to those paper matchbooks that are impossible to use: basically rolled pieces of paper with tips that often fly off when you strike them, lit or unlit. Lit tips make a bit of a fire hazard and really hurt when they stick to your finger (which you must use to press the tip against the striking surface because the matches are too feeble to strike without this).

On the first night of Hannukah I went through about 12 matches before I got one to light; I was starting to think I’d need a Hannukah miracle to get the menorah going. The next day, running low, I set off to buy another book of matches, in search of a different brand. The first store I went into had “S.H.U.M.U.K.” matches - no joke! However they could not break my 500 franc note for the 15 franc matchbox. I went to another store, bought a pack of Sunny matches there (brand diversity = insurance against cold dinner), and then returned to the first store with change so that I could light my menorah with Shumuk matches (which were slightly more cooperative than the last brand I tried).

Community needs assessment: household surveys

Part of my job (for both Peace Corps and GACP) is to do a community needs assessment in Kinihira and some of the other villages surrounding Gishwati. The first phase of this is a household survey we designed, featuring questions on education levels, land and animal ownership, house and toilet situations, hygiene, market access and use, nutrition, water access and use, health issues, banking, etc. We ask about the household’s situation and also ask what they would like to improve.

I’m one house away from finishing the survey in Kinihira (we’re targeting about 15% of households; as the houses have numbers on the doors I’ve selected multiples of 6: we’re waiting on #24). It’s been an eye opening experience to be welcomed into so many homes and I’ve gained a much deeper understanding of the poverty that people in my community face.

Some issues have not surprised me: I share their problems with market access, my eyes have told me that many kids have worms, and I strongly suspected that most people don’t regularly use soap when washing hands or boil drinking water.

One issue I knew about in theory have really hit home: talking to many women about poverty, problems paying for school fees and buying food and how little time they have between farming, cooking and fetching water but knowing that their husbands are up on the main road drinking away precious time and money. And as I’ve sat in houses with rusty old tin roofs and packed-dirt floors, on a chair that’s one of just 5 pieces of furniture in the whole house, listening to people talk about how they’d like a bigger house, or a cement floor, or to replace the roof, I realize that as much as it sucks that I’m fighting a mold invasion in my own comfortable house filled with plenty of food and furniture and books, life could be a lot harder.

Among the interesting things I’ve learned: People who can’t afford candles or kerosene to light their houses at night take a burning stick and shake the ashes around (with a packed dirt floor and sparse furniture, this isn’t a fire hazard). Anyone over the age of 25 struggles with the concept of a 1-5 scale to gauge the comparative magnitude of their problems.

Questions that often make people laugh: How often do you eat meat? How do you save money? (“What money?”)

Next steps: input and analyze the data, carry out the household survey in other target villages, and organize focus groups (different groups for men, women, youth, community leaders, etc etc) to do collaborative assessment activities, identify community strengths and prioritize problems.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Meet the people in my village!

Bwiza and my adopted family
On my first day in the village, I was led down the hill and among the houses by an ever-increasing gang of children. I was completely disoriented by the time Bwiza invited me into her house “to give a sweet potato” (which she was cooking) and a glass of milk. Bwiza is my age (23), unmarried, and has an adorable 5 year old son. Her family, like so many in the village, came here after years in the Congo. Bwiza finished secondary school in Goma and speaks little English: we mostly communicate in French and Kinyarwanda. She is the second oldest and only girl of 8 kids (ranging from 25 and studying medicine in Goma to 8, just a few years older than his nephew). The family is very intelligent and hard-working. The 22 and 12 year old brothers in particular speak impressive English and are very studious. Bwiza is my village best friend - I’ve enjoyed showing her pictures of friends and family and narrating for her the North American seasons on a virtual tour of Boston via my calendar. We trade food, gossip, stories, comparisons of life in America and here, and English/Kinyarwanda lessons.

Philip, the primary school headmaster
Philip is Bwiza & co.’s uncle. He is the headmaster of the primary school (660 students and expanding to cover the first 3 years of secondary with 60 more students expected). We primarily converse in French. He’s been incredibly welcoming, and helped facilitate my English class, grantwriting, and other projects.

Kayihura is the chief of the umudugudu (village). When I first met him he called me “umukobwa wanjye.” He’s always happy to greet me and we’ve been collaborating on the needs assessment, water project, etc.

Robert is Rebecca’s houseboy/cook/fixer/extraordinaire. He’s been so helpful for me, showing me to the market town 50 minutes away, helping me find eggs and plant flowers and fruit in my garden, and generally just being good company.. One of the smartest Rwandans I’ve met, at 24 he still has 2 years left of secondary school (he’s saved his money and will return to school this January). Robert’s English is excellent and he loves learning slang and expressions, leading to many a discussion about gold digging, keeping up with the Joneses, odd ducks, etc etc.

Mama Benjamin
Mama Benjamin (of the toothbrushing lesson LINK) has a shop is across the street from my office and house. Every time I visit, she gives me a Fanta (I take citron) and refuses to let me pay. The room where she receives guests and customers is decorated with various Catholic images with origami-style frames made from Primus beer labels. (Fitting for a Catholic, yes?)

Mama Shakuru
Mama Shakuru lives behind the office and my house. She can often be found in her kitchen, where she’ll offer me a sweet potato or cup of ikivuguto (Rwandan yogurt). Her family owns a cow and if I ask a day in advance I can usually get a good deal on a liter of fresh milk - 100rwf ($.15 - it’s 200rwf in shops here and 400rwf in Gisenyi). Sometimes I literally stand there with my empty bottle watching Shakuru, 16, milk the cow. I take the milk home, strain the stray hairs out, and boil it. Once in a while they won’t sell me milk - “we need it for Muhirwa (moo-hee-rgwa),” she’ll say, nodding to her affable 3 year old son, belly swollen with worms. How can I take milk from him? A few weeks ago I used some of their milk to make carrot cake pancakes, so I made 6 small ones for every member of their family (I made 7, actually - Robert raved about his). When I brought them over and said they were like amandazi (donuts) but with milk and carrots, 5-year-old Luisa and 7-year-old Samuel went nuts with excitement. Their mother ordered them to wash their hands and all 3 young kids took a pancake. Samuel’s was gone in 2 bites; Luisa made hers last a few seconds longer. Muhirwa took a few nibbles, and his mother asked for a bite. She liked it, but he didn’t - “he doesn’t like sweet things,” she explained, “not even sweet little bananas.” Luisa and Samuel nearly knocked each other over fighting over Muhirwa’s leftovers; apparently they like sweet things.

My English Class
Since mid-November I’ve been teaching a twice-weekly English class to secondary school students, who are on vacation. My class has dwindled from 20 to 5-10 regulars who often show up 10-15 minutes late, but I try not to take too much offense. Some of the kids are top students, others I’m told are cow herders who aren’t currently attending school. Nearly all are boys; I’ve struggled to get girls to show up with little success. We do fun (I hope) activities - fill in the blank, vocab and interpretation of hip hop songs; the human knot to practice directions, listening to American radio stories, debates, etc, working in lessons in life skills and setting goals. I’ve told Robert, who’s a regular, that the class is sometimes like “pulling teeth” - the education culture here is that of rote memorization and little participation. Getting students to interpret song meanings, compare Rwanda to the America of an NPR story, or guess at a new vocabulary word from context can be a painfully slow process.

The market ladies
Each afternoon, just before 4, women start laying out old plastic sacks on the road with piles of cassava, or buckets heaped with sweet potatoes, or bags of irish potatoes. If I’m lucky someone will have avocado, corn, cabbage or soy flour; on 2 occasions I’ve seen miniature mangoes and onions and once each bananas, urusenda hot peppers, and tomatoes. (Pineapples can sometimes be bought from a passing trader.) It’s the only market within nearly an hour’s walk, and as such, many women shop at the market on a daily basis. Various village women sell their surplus starchy roots. I check it out most days because you never know what you might find. Mostly I just find calls of “Agatesi (that’s me), buy potatoes,” “Agatesi, soya,” “Agatesi, come look at the avocado.” The first time I saw mangoes I was with Bwiza, on my way to visit her house. I bought us 10 for 100rwf ($.15) and we sat at her house, peeling fruits the size of a child’s fist and getting their hairs stuck in our teeth as she showed me pictures of her in school, her son’s father, and her “sweetie.”

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

HIV/AIDS in Rwanda

On this, World AIDS day, I'd like to share a few statistics about HIV/AIDS in Rwanda.

Rwanda, like other Sub-Saharan African countries, sees the greatest incidence of infection via heterosexual transmission and mother-to-child transmission. Rwanda has a generalized epidemic at a low to moderate level: official records state about 3% prevalence in the country, which is lower than levels in Washington, D.C and lower than all of Rwanda's neighbors. The brunt of Rwanda's AIDS epidemic is in cities: 7.3% in urban areas (11.5% in Kigali and 5% in other urban areas) with only 2.2% prevalence in rural areas.

Rwanda has made great strides in recent decades in lowering transmission rates, through sex and especially from mother to child. The age of first sexual encounter here is about 20, which is older than Rwanda's neighbors. Rates of risky sex are also lower here. During the course of a year Rwanda manages to test about 10% of the population, including required testing for pregnant mothers. ARVs here are free, although the fact that 2/3 of ARV patients are women implies that there are some men who are reluctant to seek testing or treatment. Stigma is relatively low at this point in the epidemic, but it does exist.

The largest and growing risk group is 15-19 year olds in Kigali. Risk factors include that it's a regional transportation hub, Kigali's appeal to young Rwandans looking for jobs, the sugar daddy/sugar mommy phenomenon, and Rwanda's rapid urbanization. The Sugar Daddy issue, in which girls in secondary school receive tuition and other goods like cell phones and phone credit from much older men in exchange for sex and have little power to ask to use condoms, explains the otherwise counterintuitive fact that there is a higher prevalence in HIV among women achieving secondary education: 6.4%.

There are other challenges: some people believe the HIV/AIDS rate is underreported here and may be as high as 10% (and that neighboring countries also have underreported rates). Also, Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) are at a huge risk for HIV around the world, but recognition that they exist at all has been slow to come, let alone services tailored to educating this group and reducing their risk.

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