Thursday, August 12, 2010

Photo Highlights - Ubuzima Bwiza - The Good Life

Last Post, and Belated

Now back in the US for several days, I admit that I slacked during the last couple weeks in Rwanda as far as posting. It was a busy time, full of work and seeing new parts of the country. I will just give brief highlights and pictures.

I took a trip to Lake Kivu on the Congo border - it was gorgeous. Apparently the lake has the potential to explode though.

Visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. My memory of it is overshadowed by one sign. "Please do not step on mass graves."

Ice cream at Sweet Dreams. Movie nights at my friend Jeremy's house. One of the best meals in Rwanda (I even enjoyed okra!) prepared by Amir, a living test of one's stereotyping. My last night a whirl of salsa dancing, old friends, and going home at dawn.

Thanks to everyone in Rwanda, Kenya, and the US who made this trip possible and made it the incredible experience it was, with all of its challenges, lessons, and rewards.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Hash Express

The past two weeks have been full of both work and fun. I finished the last of my site visits in the field and have moved on to the analytical stage of my project. My colleagues here have been very helpful.

On the 5th of July I was supposed to visit the genocide museum here in Kigali with some friends, but due to the declared public holiday, it was closed. We ended up heading to a bustling market in a part of the city called Remera. The name of the market is Kimironko if I'm not mistaken. To me, replacing a trip to the museum with one to the market serves as a metaphor for the optimism that is Rwanda's new calling card. This is not to say that the lessons of the genocide should be forgotten, or that everything here is a-ok, but that trends are positive. The market was arranged as a covered central area, divided into two sections: produce and textiles. The central area was ringed by a number of shops selling everything from meat to cell phones to a comprehensive DVD set of Bruce Willis' work. I picked up some carrots and giant avocados for a dinner with a UTEP professor that evening. Mimicking Bugs Bunny, I munched one of the carrots for quality control right there in the market, much to the amusement of my friends as well as the vendors.

The dinner that night was at a lodge called One Love, owned by a Rwandan who is married to a Japanese lady. In addition to being a lodge, One Love's mission is to produce prostheses for those who cannot afford them at traditional outlets. Dr. Sarah Ryan, a communications professor at UTEP, was a wonderful host and it was attended by Americans, an Australian, Rwandans, and people who would be hard to classify as being from any one country. Like the quote painted on a wall at the Kimironko market, "every meal is a story."

Wednesday of that week was another dinner at One Love, this time with Dr. Ryan's student group in attendance. It was fun to be the semi-seasoned person listening to descriptions of other people's first day in Rwanda, although a month doesn't get you anywhere close to actually knowing a place, nor would a couple years.

Last Sunday I found an Anglican church to be somewhat drier than the Pentecostal one I went to previously. One pastor did give us a ride into town though, which was a plus. It's always exciting to meet someone with a car who is happy to give you a ride somewhere.

Later that afternoon I met my friend Amir, an investment banker turned photojournalist, to see a couple art studios in the neighborhood behind my apartment. One of the studios runs a program that teaches kids dancing - there are two age groups, one from 5-15 and another from 15-25. Some of the kids have had the chance to go to international exhibitions. After watching a set of dances, we chatted with the artists and I was reluctant to leave my conversation chair, a carved wooden one with a sleep-inducing reclined angle. That night I helped my USAID friends prepare a pancake dinner, which was phenomenal. Thai coconut pancakes I believe, with regular syrup, a pineapple-mango-macadamia sauce, plain crushed macadamia nuts, sliced bananas, and nutella as toppings. I had never had nutella before - always wary of it, and now I know what I was missing.

Thanks to a suggestion from someone back in the US, I followed a couple links and found the contact info for Hash House Harriers here in Rwanda. For those of you who don't know, this is an amazing running/social club, started by some British officers in Malaysia in 1938. It's not for the faint of heart or the humorless. I found the contact info last Friday and immediately called. Got through to "Crazy Horse" (oh yes - after you have completed a certain number of hashes and led your own, you get a hash name) who offered to pick me up from one of the main shopping centers downtown on Saturday afternoon. I got weird looks from people as I waited in my sleeveless shirt and stubborn farmer's tan (I haven't done any swimming to take care of this), but adventure beckoned. Crowding into the backseat of a red hatchback, I was introduced to an American lady, a young Indian named Joshi, and Crazy Horse. We picked up two more, making it really crowded, but the mood was happy.

My first hash was organized by "Rambo," our hare for the week. The hare's job is to set up the trail. His rules were expressed on the course through piles of shredded toilet paper. One meant you were on the right track, and accordingly, you were to shout "On On" as you passed the marker. Two piles indicated a checkpoint, where the trail split, and you had to find the real one. This included trips down false trails, sometimes as far as 100m. These served to slow down the runners so that walkers could close the gap, keeping the group closer together. Three piles meant you were dumb and had reached the dead end of a wrong trail. Four piles equaled success and that you should rendezvous at the bar next to where we parked, where the back section was reserved for us. The Kigali Hash has good representation by both Rwandans and expats, and there were about 20-25 people yesterday.

I did well at the start, and it was the type of running I love - over mixed terrain, dirt that's easy on my knees, and glorious views of the surrounding hills and the marshlands below with a river winding through them. We were wrapping around a massive forested hill. I was near what I think was the front, although people were scattered all over the place, with Rambo running back and forth blowing his whistle, supposedly "guiding" people, though after getting to know him I am not so sure. Near the top of the ridge, the trail got really confusing, and I ended up picking the wrong direction with a Dutchman, who had been hashing for years, and I think should have known better. Either way, we ended up reaching the trail we had started on, and so we kind of backtracked towards where we thought people might be coming down the hill from, but seeing nobody, we headed back. Eventually we ran into some other lost stragglers, then the front-runners, who called us cheaters. We playfully lied that we had passed them, and raced back to the end point at the bar. Once there, it was discovered that only 6 or 7 people had followed the proper trail, which involved going through a swamp at one point, so it was easy to pick out the true hashers, both by sight and by smell. Of course, nothing but compliments for Rambo's trail. Overall a great group of people, and I wish I had looked for them earlier in my stay.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Road Trip

Watch out for those sugar daddies.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Akagera National Park

First flat, first hippos, first neck pillow as helmet. Dancing with giraffes.

Yesterday I Went to Heaven

…..Sadly “Heaven” was a rather posh café full of white people watching a football match projected on a large screen, which made it a little dull. Despite this, an incredible brownie with chocolate sauce and good company made up for it.

Happy Independence Day to everyone back home! – coincidentally, last Thursday was Rwanda’s Independence Day (from the Belgians), and the 4th is Liberation Day (when the genocide ended). Yesterday I volunteered at the American embassy’s Independence Day weekend community event, ostensibly helping with kids’ games. However, when I arrived at my station, light hilarity ensued. From the plastic-tipped darts which were unable to penetrate high quality American balloons to odd-tasting cheap balloons from Thailand with odd projections like cow udders and kitty faces on them (the darts were still ineffective), this activity seemed destined to fail. It was a good way to make friends though.

After giving up on the balloons, with the blessing and agreement of the person supervising us, my first American friends in Kigali and myself headed over to the buffet line, dreaming of the taste of summer. A huge decision faced each of us, since only a hamburger or a hot dog was allowed, not both. I went with hamburger, although in retrospect this was probably not the right choice since neither cheese nor green chile were on hand, and burgers can be found in Kigali, but hot dogs are another story. All the same, there were Heinz ketchup packets, which I had been betting on - having deliberately avoided purchasing Heinz at the store to make it all the better when I finally had some. I admit that I slipped a few into my pocket as a stock for the future. Potato salad was also on the menu. By the way, I’m not the only one who has a slight food fixation. One common topic of conversation was the meal each of us had planned for ourselves when we returned to the States, although all of us, including me, admitted becoming partial to the local cuisine to some extent.

It was awesome to be surrounded my tons of young energetic people, every one of them with a cool story and smiling enthusiasm. For me, it helped to put my time in Rwanda in context, and made me more fully appreciate the time away from and with other Americans.

I ended up going with a small group of friends to an Indian restaurant, where we were joined by probably 4 other groups to total around 17 people. Some of the people in each group had just met each other, and all of the groups were just meeting each other, and it made for an entertaining dinner. About half of the people were beautiful Peace Corps women who were tearing into the most food they had seen in probably a month, generously paid for my one of my newfound friends, who was seriously impressed with the PC personalities and efforts. The restaurant was ridiculously nice, and the food was delicious. In typical style for Indian dining, our table ordered probably a dozen things off of the extensive menu, as well as baskets of nan. My friend who orchestrated the whole dinner secretly arranged with the staff to inflict the whole birthday ceremony on one of the girls whose day was coming up. Towards the end of the entrees, the lights went out, initially making people believe it was a power outage, but then outrageous birthday music began squealing through the restaurant’s speakers, and a chain of wait staff danced out with celebration paraphernalia. The entire restaurant stared at the hapless girl, who gamely danced and wore her birthday hat while we all clapped and sang happy birthday 7 different ways. After blowing out the candles on her fruit and ice cream platter, she sadly announced that she was allergic to pineapple. Seated next to her, I got her to at least take a spoonful of ice cream that wasn’t touching any pineapple slices, before commandeering the platter myself and passing it around the table.

After this wonderful dinner was when we ambled over to Heaven.

This morning I spent the 4th on safari in Akagera National Park on the eastern border of Rwanda. At least a decent game park, I saw hippos for the first time, and documented strange interactions between a couple friends and a family of giraffes. Also experienced my first tire flat in Africa on the way to the park. When we asked our driver how many tires he had changed, he said too many to count. Afterwards, we had lunch on the edge of a lake at the Jambo “Beach” restaurant and boat tour area. Something about the majestic scenery inspired plans for opening restaurants, dowry discussions, and small-time piracy.

I honestly don’t know how to stop telling stories were food is mentioned.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pictures from the Third Week

Food and Football

Life becomes more routine after almost a month –  it has now been longer than any other period of time I’ve spent abroad.

I have been unfair in calling the meals expensive – one can get a healthy buffet for about $3 plus $1 for a drink. As yet I haven’t tried out any pricey places that might serve more exciting fare. I stand firm on my opinion of the monotony of the food – but it can’t be said not to be nutritious or filling, and I have yet to get sick from eating anything even in rural towns. Yes I make a big deal about food – and my roommates and family can attest to my occasional fussiness :). This past weekend I happily joined a Zambian friend in his apartment to watch football (I’ll use the more widely used term for soccer as long as I’m not in the US) and eat lunch. The guy, Greg, has a Japanese wife and is really worldly – we connect pretty well. I had some ugali, rice, tender meat, cooked vegetables, and real chile peppers that Greg had brought up from Zambia. One of the best meals here so far.  

This evening I made beef with bell peppers and onions, beans, and raw sliced tomatoes. The tomatoes here are small, beautifully bright red all the way through, and delicious with a great firm texture. Not always what you get in the US. I had my friend Greg over and his young son came along, and we happily cheered Japan’s victory over Denmark. Unfortunately I didn’t impress them with my food – his son apparently found a weevil in one of the beans. Frustrating as I had carefully sorted through all the beans before cooking them, tossing out pebbles, stems, twigs, bad beans, and other detritus. Not sure if this happens with beans in the US as my parents have always cooked raw beans – I’ve only done it from the can. Oh well they said they liked the meat.

Apparently the nice houses I ran by a couple weeks ago cost about a quarter of a million US dollars. This from another American staying at the apartment who has been here about a year.

Even though I only have 16 channels here at the apartment, I enjoy the TV more than I do at home. In part because it is a conduit of Western culture when I’m alone here at the apartment, but also because in that 16 channels is more stuff that I actually want to see. No shopping channels! A music channel that actually plays music videos all day long, from America, Europe, and African stars. 3 sports channels, currently playing either the World Cup or rallies across the Australian Outback. I get both Animal Planet and National Geographic Wild, which I know makes Dad extremely jealous. CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera feed the news, and I even have a couple of channels that play off-beat American movies and for some reason, sci-fi in the form of Caprica (apparently replacing Stargate SG-1, sorry Carilli). Rwanda has a national channel, but it is usually in Kinyarwanda or French. Sometimes I watch French game shows on TV-Monde – they are entertaining  even with minimal understanding.

The American victory over Algeria the other day was extra sweet because I obtained some sour cream & onion Pringles beforehand! Oh processed joy.

Take care everyone.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Picture of the Week

Picture of the week sounds more prestigious than it is. Mostly I'm just uploading one for the moment because of the limited internet.

For those of you with short attention spans or who think I’m a pompous windbag with my previous lengthy entry, I’ve condensed the first couple weeks of life into the lists below.

Top 5 Things I like About Rwanda

1. Having time to reflect
2. Riding motorcycles as cheap transportation
3. Perfect, I mean perfect, weather
4. Beautiful views
5. A music video channel that actually plays music videos all day long (even if it doesn’t come from Rwanda)

Top 5 Things I Dislike About Rwanda

1. Expensive meals
2. Tough meat
3. Lack of chicken
4. Eating chips (French fries) too often
5. The party doesn’t start till midnight

Top 5 Things I Haven’t Decided On Yet

1. The immense popularity of Eminem
2. My old school Nokia phone
3. Mobile Broadband Internet
4. African soap operas
5. All cash transactions

Settling In

Over the past week I spent some time in the field with the second Alex I have met in Rwanda. This one is a Rwandan who works for the Rwandan Agriculture Development Authority (RADA).

On Wednesday night I spent the night in a place called Huye, and it turned out that Eric Dwyer, a contact I was put in touch with before coming, lived there in Butare, which is essentially the same place as Huye. He was having dinner with a friend when I got in touch with him, and he invited me over. Hilda, a Belgian woman who worked with vocational education programs, was dining with him. She told a story about a Rwandan named Jean-Pierre, who apparently could be a world-class marathon runner, but instead of pursuing a career in this, runs a camp for kid athletes.

Eric had a story about arranging for trash to be picked up. After moving into a house in Butare paid for by the university, he started to notice trash in the backyard. Eric thought it might be blown by the wind or thrown over by some kids, until it kept piling up. Turns out, it was HIS trash, and the guy who helped with the house, Israel, didn’t think it was that big of a deal.  Talking to the university, they told him that the previous tenants had just dug a hole for trash. Eric felt like he was demanding too much, but he just couldn’t deal with a hole. A university administrator agreed to come look at the situation in a week. Too long. Eric found out about a woman who ran a trash pickup service. When he met her, he encountered a beautiful woman dressed in regal traditional dress. What a trash lady! However, she charged 25,000 Rwandan francs (amafaranga in the local lexicon; exchange rate approx 580 RF = 1 USD) for a month of weekly service. There was a plan for a family of 4 for 5000 RF…Eric was baffled by the difference, but then the woman said, “Well, you people make more trash.” When Eric told Israel, he said he would go talk to her. Israel proudly stated, “I am African, I am cheaper!” Eric joked with Israel that he had just spent all day at the 7th Day Adventist  church and was ready to lie for Eric. Anyway Israel ended up finding a 17-year-old boy with a large bag who would pick up the trash three times a week for 2500 RF/month. It was the boy’s first job…After the first week of blissful trash removal, a thought crept into Eric’s head, and he tentatively asked Israel what the boy did with the trash. Israel answered, “He – have – hole!”

Friday afternoon I went on my first run in Africa. After slathering on sunscreen, putting on my running clothes, and plugging myself into my iPod, I headed out on my mission. Turning left outside the apartment gates, I went just a few feet before turning down a dirt road that went almost straight down a steep hill. Already I drew stares as my feet pounded and I breathlessly uttered “Mirwe” (hello) to people I made eye contact with. After reaching the bottom of the hill below the apartment complex, my first target was in site, a beautiful golf course with a large reservoir at the end near me. It was strange to see people golfing after I had just run down a dirt road past extremely poor people. I ran past the golf course, which was in a valley, and part of the way up another hill, to arrive at the front gates of beautiful mansions – at least what I would call mansions with my upbringing in the US. These places were nicer than almost anything you could find in Las Cruces, though not at the level of a Hollywood celeb’s. Tall fences, heavy gates, armed guards, and manicured lawns. As I ran along the curving street in front of these houses, I passed a fitness club where the children of the elite were swimming and playing tennis while uniformed staff waited with drinks and tended a barbecue. A while later and I was looking for a road to try to get back to the apartment. The roads in Rwanda follow the contours of the hills, and so there are few cross streets – not really any grid to speak of. I took the first one I reached, a dirt road that twisted in the general direction of the apartment area, which I had lost sight of – significant when one considers that it is on the crest of a tall hill, which I was beneath. Running through slums once again, I received a mix of cheerful, amused, impassive, and slightly annoyed looks. Some children would try to run behind me until their mothers called them back, and nearly all of them would cheerfully shout “Muzungu!” (white person – not sure if it’s the same for males and females). Some would also call out “Muzungu, amafaranga, give me money!” Most mothers didn’t even glance up from their work when I went by. Men would either wave, do nothing, or stare with a what-the-hell-are-you-doing-here look – a question that I did not fail to consider. And maybe I was being stupid or arrogant – running with good shoes (though not particularly fancy by American standards), my ipod headphones in my ears, sweat pouring down my face, and even the fact that I was running for pleasure and fitness, declaring the fact that I had plenty to eat, in fact an excess of nutrition readily available to me. All the same, I don’t know how to justify not running among all types of people (especially in a country as safe as Rwanda) and confining myself to a health club (which I can’t afford) or just the main streets, where I would choke on exhaust, hurt my knees from the impact on hard bricks, and bother pedestrians. Anyway I didn’t have a choice mid-run, and kept going even though I didn’t know where the road went, except uphill, which is what I needed. To my chagrine, it petered out into a one-person-wide footpath after about 10 minutes, and I did not want to retrace my steps. After hesitating for a second, I started straight up the hill, essentially walking through people’s “front yards,” within inches of their doorways on the hard-packed earth which I am sure is used exclusively by people who actually live there. The first person I ran into I said hello to in Kinyarwanda and pointed up, asking Kacyiru (area where I live), yes? After understanding that I was trying to get back to the main road through Kacyiru, the woman pointed and confirmed my guess. I bowed my head, said “murakoze” (thank you), and headed off. Immediately after, I heard singing and sure enough, spied a group practicing in a church. This was one of those wonderful moments you hope for, and I stopped to listen for a moment, as I have been out of shape and out of practice. After a few more twists and turns, I reached the top of the hill and was immersed in the busy-ness of Boulevard de l’Umuganda, which led straight (although no path in Rwanda is straight) to the apartments. Cars and motorcycles whizzed by, yellow-shirted guys sold airtime for Rwanda’s three mobile phone operators, and well-dressed professionals and young people stared at me: sweaty, dusty, eyes stinging from sweat  and sunscreen, sleeveless shirt, farmer’s tan and a smile.

Friday, June 4, 2010

First Impressions

First thing I hear in a taxi pulling away from the Rwandan airport: “Shawty’s like a melody in my head…” It’s like the spirit of Kyle O’Neill reaching back to his birth continent.

Rwanda is a beautiful place with large hills everywhere, hence its name “land of a thousand hills” or, in poorly-spelled French “pais de mille collines." The plane from Brussels arrived at night, so I didn’t get to see the country from the air, but one could get the sense of the landscape from the pattern of the lights of Kigali.

The next morning was an early one, as I accompanied the wrap-up field trip of a Landcare workshop up to the Northern Province to visit some farms and see the countryside. The views were stunning as we climbed up into the highlands of a country made up of highlands. From bigger hills the layout of the country became clearer – lush hills, many of them terraced for farming. The only bad part was I had the seat over a wheelwell of the bus and so my legs cramped from being folded up, but this made the walks when we stopped all the better.

Our group visited two farms, and on one of them there was some very animated conversation about the long-term viability of the projects that had been implemented – whether or not the small farmers could keep the projects going and expand them on their own without donor support. The group of professionals in the Landcare workshop were from Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Rwanda, and Zambia (not sure on Zambia).

On the trip we got to see several extinct volcanoes, one of them incredibly massive and covered in fog on the border with Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This is the area where the famous mountain gorillas reside. Apparently there is a gorilla baby-naming ceremony this Saturday which is pretty cool, but I think I have some field visits I have to make instead…But I hope to plan a trip to go hiking in the area where tourists can have a shot at seeing them. The gorillas usually don’t attend the ceremony anyway :).

Yesterday I met with a couple people and for the first time saw, in person, one of the runoff harvesting ponds that I am going to be assessing. The first exciting part of the day was without a doubt riding in a matatu (minibus taxi) with Eminem blasting on the system followed by a ride on the back of a motorcycle point-to-point transport. If I can find fast internet at a café or somewhere, I will try to upload the video. The second exciting part was eating “flamingo” – roast chicken basically or perhaps cuka choma, nicknamed flamingo because of the scrawny legs from running all over the place, unlike American factory-raised chickens. It was absolutely delicious and mouthwatering. One of my supervisors, Alex Odour, and an advisor, Wilfred, and myself all tore into the pile of chicken like it was our last meal. This was at a place called Chez Lando.

Until next time.