A blog for people who aren't me.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Day Trips around Rwanda

So, one of the best aspects of my job is that I get to travel A TON. We have nine teams working in different hospitals around Rwanda (see link below for map). During the week, I make day trips to different cities to check on the teams. I am constantly seeing different problems with different pieces of medical equipment, which is really fun. Unlike the teams, I see new technical problems every day and don’t have to deal with the multi-day frustration that can accompany a tricky repair (though, I had my fair share of frustrations last year. I’ve don’t my time).


In addition to the exciting technical work, I am privileged to have the opportunity to see so much of this beautiful country. Gerard Prunier, the author of “The Rwanda Crisis, A History of Genocide”, describes the Rwandan landscape better than I can…

“From the west to east we first have the depth of the Rift Valley, mostly filled big lakes (Tanganyika and Kivu) separating Rwanda from Zaire, then the sharp bluffs of the Zaire-Nile divide in the 3,000 m range, then the main Rwandese landscape, the ‘land of the 1,000 hills’, and finally, further east, the gently sloping lower lands, partly filed with large marshes, which extend all the way to the Tanzanian Border. Most of the population lives in the medium-altitude area, a land of breathtaking beautiful vistas dotted with countless hills.”

So far I have visited Rwamagana, Gitarama/Kabgayi and Byumba. First impressions:

Rwamagana: A somewhat sleepy town that is a launching point for safaris to Akagera National Park.
Gitarama/Kabgayi: A fairly large town. The elevation makes riding through town nice and cool.
Byumba: A smaller town. There isn’t a straight-shot of road on the way there. Amazing views.

The countryside is so picturesque, I decided I wouldn’t even try to take a picture of it. It just wouldn’t do it justice. Instead, here is one from Google (I know, I know) that is the best photo representation I have seen so far.

Yes, it is this beautiful. I often wonder what Rwandans would think if we dropped them off in west Texas.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Power of "Muzungu"

If you have light skin and visit a Bantu country, you will no doubt be called a “muzungu” at one point or another. I have heard a few different stories about the origin of the word.

1. It just means someone with light skin.

2.  It can be translated to something close to “always spinning”. People who travel (foreigners, typically white) are always “spinning”, never settled. Therefore, if they somehow end up in East Africa, they are spinners/foreigners and therefore muzungu (Note: I have never heard an African visiting from a different country be called a muzungu).

 3. A name originally for imperialists who took over the East African kingdoms. People who are light colored are generally in East Africa to “take over” in one way or another, right? (I really hope this is not what babies are thinking when they yell “muzungu” at me from the fabric bundle on their mothers’ backs).

Regardless of where it came from, it has a very concrete meaning in East Africa today: I am light-skinned, I might have a lot of money, and my business is important.

A muzungu goes through approximately four stages of awareness upon learning the word…

Everyone wants to touch my hair and skin. Cool! Little kids love me and I can make their day just by giving them a high-five. Awesome! People acknowledge me when I walk by. Great! One starts to feel somewhat like a celebrity.

Short-fused (somewhat irrational) Annoyance
Please stop touching me. No, I do not have any money that I would like to give you. I cannot help you find a job. It is even less likely that I can find you an American wife (not joking here). I hate overpaying for transport by 40 cents just because of my skin color and my complete lack of knowledge about standard prices (woe is me!).  

I am rubber you are glue and I no longer hear you when you yell at me.  

Then things start to feel a bit…weird. You realize that you can, and probably have been, taking advantage of people and/or situations because of your skin color. That’s right, you complained and complained, but it really has made your travels easier. Possibly at the expense of others.

People let you go first. Even cutting in line isn’t out of the question (just look confused). “Authorized personnel only” does not apply to you. Want to stroll on into a hospital? Well, if you’re a muzungu, go right ahead (you’re a volunteer, right?)! People are simply less likely to question your authority, especially if you walk with intent. Is it possible that our actions of entitlement are nurturing the very persona we denounce -- the muzungu? Well, duh… We want the perks, we just don’t want to admit that we want them.

During the first month, our group of 22 studied at a school called IPRC. Everyone is required to show ID when they enter the gates. Everyone, that is, except us. Graham, a friend from high school studying in Kigali, and I had a conversation the other day about how the American passport is the like Holy Grail of identification. Unfortunately, you can get away with more if you say you’re American.

The other day, I was walking down the road and saw a small child almost get hit by a car because they wanted to run over to me. The car came so close that I don’t know if the child simply slipped out of their flip-flop or if the tire pinned it to the road. This experience was terrifying and I felt slightly responsible. It is also what made me write this post.

Regardless of their intentions, muzungus need to realize how their presence affects the environment around them. At the very least, recognize the fact that you will be treated a bit differently. If it’s positive, be grateful. If it’s negative, brush it off because the scales are probably still tipped in your favor.  

Friday, June 20, 2014


These pants deserve their own post. If you ever visit East Africa, get some clothes tailored with their awesome fabrics.

Sorry about the poor picture quality. But trust me, they are rad. More pants are definitely coming.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Getting to know Rwanda

Sorry I am waaay behind on blogging! I blame my lack of posting on the hilly landscape and the exhaustion that follows walking anywhere. It took me an hour and a half (up and down hills) to walk to the city center today. NOT doing that again.

The first weekend in Kigali was devoted to experiencing Rwandan culture and learning about its history. Of course, the genocide plays a large part.

We took a tour with a company called New Dawn Associates (NDA). Their slogan is something along the lines of “Rwanda, not just gorillas”. I love it! The tourism industry is quite small here, especially compared to Tanzania. People come mainly for the (pricey) gorilla tours and often overlook other exciting aspects of Rwandan culture and landscape: food, music, dance, art galleries, food, hiking, tea & coffee plantations, lakes, food, foreign institutes hosting a long list of activities, sports. Did I mention food? NDA organizes tours that show the “real” Rwanda and a portion of the proceeds go back to the communities they visit. Henry, our guide, is an aspiring musician and sang a few of his songs for us along the way.

We spent Saturday exploring the sector of Mayange, in the eastern province, about 45 minutes outside of Kigali. They label cities and things a bit differently here. They have five provinces (Kigali, North, East, South, West) which house districts, which house sectors (equivalent to cities I believe), which house villages. I’m hoping this is not totally incorrect and that I am not completely misinforming you. Still haven’t quite figured it out. What I do know is that each village has a chief that helps to “govern” the village and is highly respected (I imagine them as ├╝ber-HOA presidents who aren’t despised). Francis, our Kinyarwanda teacher, is about 30 and is a very very young chief.

At Mayange, we visited a primary school. They have something like 1500 students and 17 teachers. Not ideal. We also stopped by the Mayange Health Center. There are a number of Health Centers around the country. These facilities do not have doctors, but are more along the lines of quick care clinics with a maternity ward. Anyone requiring more attention is referred to a hospital.  

Next, we participated in a Rwandan custom called umuganda. On the last Saturday of every month (from morning until noon) Rwandans are required to stay in their villages and do community service. Everyone comes together to work on what the village needs most. This is where a leader, like a chief, comes in handy. It is illegal to travel during umuganda and we were stopped at multiple roadblocks on our way to Mayange. The policemen waved us on once they saw we were just a bus full of mzungus. The village we visited is a new community of genocide refugees who were forced to leave Tanzania and return to Rwanda. I cannot imagine how it must feel to be displaced twice in a lifetime, let alone 20 years. We were only supposed to observe umuganda, but our wonderful group of EWH participants jumped right in to help! And when I say “jumped right in”, I mean it literally. They took off their shoes and started mixing mud with their bare feet and hoes. No toes were lost. The rest of us started hauling large jugs of water from the water truck to distant parts of the village, where they were mixing more mud, which would be thrown against the existing houses as an outer layer of wall/insulation. The villagers were very amused by our efforts. They smiled, sang, and definitely laughed at/with us. I tagged along with an 18 year old girl named Cremantina (sp?). I could barely manage one full water jug, and she carried two like they were as light as feathers. I also taught the children how to play “Yes, yes no” (aka duck, duck, goose. Like I would possibly know how to say that in Kinyarwanda!). Slipping and literally eating dirt is always a promising way to build good relations with the locals.

We visited a women’s basket weaving cooperative. Let’s just say I do not have a future in basket making. I’m sure the unfortunate girl that taught me had to undo all of my work and start over once I left. We ate fresh oranges and freshly dug cassava at a nearby farm.

The most intense, yet most important, part of the tour was the visit to the Nyamata Genocide Memorial. It used to be a Catholic church, but is no longer a church because of what happened there in the early 90’s. Something I greatly admire about Rwandans is that they do not deny that the genocide happened. In fact, they work very hard to assure that it is remembered. “Remember, Unite, Renew”. A description of the memorial follows. I hope it comes across as brutally honest, yet respectful.

More than 11,000 Tutsi people took refuge in and around this church. Imagine cramming thousands of people into something the size of a school cafeteria. They thought the church would be safe because it was a holy place that had given sanctuary to Tutsis in the past. Unfortunately, this was not the case in 1994. The bones of 45,000 Tutsis are now housed in the memorial. When you enter the memorial, they show the original iron door of the church, still on its hinges. The bars are bent and there is a large divot in the cement below the door. Evidence of the grenade that was used to break in. The pews are covered with the clothes of the 11,000 men, women, and children that were massacred there. They are tattered, dirty, and some are covered in blood. It is an intense visual representation of the tragedy. In a way, I admire their honest approach. I have never seen a memorial like it. Clubs, bullets and machetes used during the massacre are shown, along with skulls that displays wounds from the various weapons. The children hid and were murdered in a separate room. There are still stains on the wall. Many women were brutally raped, mutilated and murdered during the genocide. Sometimes, if they were left to live, they were intentionally raped by HIV+ men. One woman at the memorial is buried separately because of her horrific death, something I will not discuss here. Her burial commemorates all women who died in such similar, tragic ways.

This was a heavy experience, to say the least. But I feel like it was very important for us to see. We must understand where Rwanda has been if we are to help it move forward.

A handful of reconciliation villages were created after the genocide-- one of the many attempts to reconcile the country. The village we visited was started by a priest and houses genocide victims, perpetrators, and returned refugees (Please note, I did not create these categories, they were told to us). They all live and work together. They even performed traditional dances for us. Each home is neighbored by two houses of people from the other “categories”. Victim, perpetrator, refugee, victim, perpetrator, refugee… They have confessed, forgiven, and united. We heard the testimony of one perpetrator and one victim. I have never felt closer to the genocide that I did at that moment. I walk around the city and sometimes see scars and missing limbs and can’t help but wonder. But these reminders of the past are always accompanied by smiles and laughter of the Rwandan people. The young adults who are my age are intelligent and driven, yet were only a few years old when their lives were changed forever. Their faith and forgiveness amazes me.

This post was a bit longer and heavier than intended, but I hope it has helped you realize something you did not know before. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Life in Kicukiro (Ki-chu-ki-ro or Chi-chu-chi-ro)

The first week has gone by so quickly. I guess I’ll start by contrasting experiences from last year and this year.

Last year. This year.
Participant . One of the On-the-Ground Coordinators (OTGCs)
Homestay @ Mama Glory’s . Hotel Amani & apartment
Swahili . Kinyarwanda & French
Studied at language training center . Study at IPRC technical college
Month one was rural . Month one in the city
Tanzania is chaotic . Rwandans are reserved and fairly quiet
Lots of stray dogs . No dogs
Flat. Lots of hills

Of course, all of the locals are incredibly nice. They light up when you try to speak a little bit of Kinyarwanda to them. Little girls are fascinated by mzungu (basically, non-African) hair. I even had a group of young school girls come up and touch my hair, telling me how beautiful it was (“Uri mwniza”). I attempted to return the favor in Kinyarwanda – apparently very poorly because they couldn’t stop giggling at my pronunciation. They decreed that we were all sisters before continuing home J

There is a lot more opportunity to be active here than there was in Tanzania. They have sidewalks and paved roads, which are much better on the ankles than the rocky roads were last year. Our campus has a VERY nice turf football pitch. People are always playing or running after class. Our group likes to throw the Frisbee around, something Rwandans have never seen before! There is a group of amazingly talented IPRC volleyball players that plays every evening on a cement court. They keep score in the dirt with a stick, play until the sun goes down, and are some of the most athletic people I have ever seen play first-hand. Their knowledge of the game and athleticism completely overcome their poor facilities. The coach, Damasco, invited me to train with them this past Friday. What a kick in the a** that was. We didn’t drink any water during the entire 2 hours! We “warmed up” with 6 laps around the pitch…ran some sprints, stretched, did some drills and started to scrimmage. We only had a few girls, so the guys joined us. They. Are. So. Good.  It was a great feeling, using a sport I love so much as a way to bond with locals. We all shared some beers after and Damasco invited me back to practice a few times a week. Maybe this will be a good way to work off the bananas and rice. In two weeks, there will be an International Genocide Memorial Volleyball Tournament in Rwanda. At least 10 countries will be participating, including Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and DRC. I’m excited to go watch!

Damasco, Adeline, Me, Lambert, Onorine, Laticia, and Winnie after practice.

The group went to the market on Thursday to practice Kinyarwanda. The experience was basically the same as it was in Tanzania with the addition of a lot of public (uncovered) breast feeding. Don’t be surprised if you see it when you visit.

This man at the market asked me to take his picture. 

Ben, a.k.a. Boss OTGC, has a car and has been nice enough to drive me around to good dinner spots within the last week.

Tela Vista. The local buffet we eat at for lunch. Most lunches are buffets here.
Meze Fresh. A chipotle knock-off but with better chicken.
Sole Luna. An Italian owned pizzeria (They actually have good cheese in Rwanda! Hallelujah!) 
Sundowner. A restaurant/bar/dance club with the best BBQ in town. We ordered a goat leg and they cut it right at our table (post-cooking, of course).

Tonight we are going to get Nile Perch somewhere. It’s big enough for a group, they serve it whole, and you basically just go at it with your hands. Please note, perch must be reserved in advance. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Kigali, Rwanda (pronounced Chigali, Urgwanda)

Finally here! After about 38 hours of travel, we finally landed it Kigali. This is an absolutely beautiful city that spreads across a few of Rwanda’s “thousand hills”. At night, the sprawl lights up and it looks like rolling hills of stars against a black sky.

Right off the bat, there were some obvious differences between Tanzania and Rwanda. Rwanda seems quieter, more reserved, cleaner and generally more developed. There is almost zero trash lying around, which is amazing. Of course, it’s good to keep in mind that we are in the capital city. I’m sure the countryside is a bit different.

Fun fact: plastic grocery bags are outlawed in an effort to keep them from filling gutters and getting caught in trees. Why hasn’t the US done this yet??

This experience is certainly going to be very different than last summer.

I have my own bathroom with a toilet, shower, and water heater.
They do not burn trash in piles on the side of the road.
I can walk around AT NIGHT with a backpack and feel safe.
I’ve noticed fewer children during the day. Which is great because it probably means they are in school.
It’s is definitely less chaotic than Tanzania.
Kinyarwanda is probably twice as difficult to learn as Swahili.

This year we are training at IPRC, an actual college that is roughly equivalent to a US technical college.

Eugene, the manager of the hotel I am staying at, says people come to Rwanda and say "This isn't Africa". I can understand why. Being in a country this safe gives you peace of mind, even when you are in charge of other people's safety and well-being. 

Pictures coming soon!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Doha, Qatar

The travel so far has been amazingly smooth! From JFK to Doha I sat next to a man who works for Hope Worldwide and is trying to set up a biomedical equipment technician training program in Cambodia. Small world! We arrived in Doha a few hours ago. Qatar Airways did an awesome job with our hotel accommodations. Fly with them if you ever get the chance.

We ventured out for a stroll along the water. I am so glad our layover is overnight and not during the day. For one, even the breeze it warm here. I can't imagine what the heat of mid-afternoon must feel like. And two, the skyline is incredible!
Museum of Islamic Art

 Stairs I want to climb

From the roof of our hotel

Oh yes, they deliver. Better yet, they deliver the Argentinian Angus Beef Patty in honor of the world cup in Brasil...