Monday, December 27, 2010

A Very Drunken Christmas

If I could describe my Rwandan Christmas experience in one word, it wouldn’t be “different,” or “Rwandan,” or “spiritual”…no…it would be “drunk.” Granted, I’ve had my fair share of drunken Christmases, with “caroling” at the Minturn Saloon, sneaking glasses of wine from Mr. and Mrs. Flowers, and having a fresh brew-ski at Two Elk Lodge…but nothing that would compare to the 24 hours that just happened to me.

Christmas started with a family Skype call – me on one computer, James on another, the rest of the family at 17 RFR – to read the Polar Express at 6pm my time and ridiculously early hours their time. This did mark the occasion as the first family Skype call this year where we did not all cheers a beer to each other during the call. I then went to the local Catholic Church to meet with the CCHIPs Project Director and her family for the service. It was an awesome service: there were sooo many people packed at all the doors, and even standing around a bonfire outside, singing Christmas carols – which all had the same tune, at least, of the common carols I know. The biggest frustration was recognizing the song, but not having a clue of the words to sing along…

Mitchell Family Christmas Photo!
(James on the computer)
My last fully sober memory of the 24 hour period was arriving at Jeanne d’Arc’s house, noting the lack of emphasis on presents/her absolutely beautiful crèche, and thinking how wonderfully religious a holiday Christmas is when it’s not marred with distractions of presents and stresses of vacations.

And then Jeanne d’Arc handed me a glass of Mutzig.

Let’s pause, as I introduce you to Jeanne d’Arc. Firstly, she is an absolutely amazing woman: she was the youngest of something like 30 children (her father had 4 wives), escaped her way out of 2 arranged marriages, became the most educated person in her family – by 10 years, and is now the Project Director of a growing NGO. She’s also incredibly nice, but in a frightening and demanding way.


- When I got sick, JD comforted me by saying “You will get better” but in a way that made it come off more like an order than words of comfort – in addition to getting sick, my newest problem was now the fear of how JD would react/punish me if I didn’t get better.

- At Elie’s brother’s funeral earlier this year, JD kindly took care of me, in a situation where I had no idea what was going on or how I should act. But, her way of taking care of me was by forcefully linking my arm and dragging me along with her saying “You will stand here now” and “Now we pray”…which again instilled more fear than comfort, as I started to worry of what would happened if I did not stand still, or pray correctly, or did not do exactly as she said – even though she was only saying it so that I felt more comfortable about what I did.

Let me also add that I only just learned recently that the story that she goes around beating up husbands who beat their wives is just that – a story. For about 3 months, I had fully believed that her way of “doing good” was actually beating up men.

Now, you hopefully understand why I HAD to drink the beer that was handed to me. And by handed, I mean JD walked up to me, pretending to put her arm around my shoulder and say something comforting to me, but instead grabbed my hand, pried open my fingers and forced a glass into my hand; set the still half-full bottle at my feet and forced me to sit down on the couch.

And then the game began. The game being: Eli trying to drink as little as possible to stay sober in front of her boss, and everybody else trying to make Eli drink as much as possible – either for the entertainment value or in order to be good hosts.

At first, I started to realize that every time my glass got about half empty, it magically became full again. This wasn’t good for me, because I like finishing things, and will generally continue drinking (or eating) if my glass (or plate) is still full – no matter how full or drunk I am. I’m pretty sure it’s genetic.

So I tried to drink a little more slowly. But the slower I drank, the faster my hosts re-filled my glass. It soon became difficult to take a sip without instantly being topped off.

Next, I started to realize a few more things:

1. I was drunk.

2. I was the only person that was drunk.

3. In fact, only one other person in the room was even drinking alcohol.

My tolerance is actually only about 2 Mutzigs. I was definitely 4 in at this point. There’s a fabulous video of me dancing to Shakira’s Waka Waka…a video that I must get my hands on if I ever have any intention of running for political office, or maybe even advancing within a company.

Around this point JD said to me “You will spend the night. Here is a toothbrush I bought for you.”Again, this is an example of JD not so much inviting me to do something as demanding it. I considered going home for one moment, before I realized there was no chance that I’d get home…so I agreed…and was awkwardly guided to a bedroom that had obviously been cleared out for the guest (I wonder how far ahead JD planned for me to stay? When did she buy the toothbrush?)…drunk dialed my parents…and fell asleep without even brushing my teeth.

Times when you don’t want to wake up at your boss’ house:

1. Ever

2. When hung over

3. After hooking up with your boss

…thank goodness Christmas morning constituted only 2 of these for me.

Secondly thank goodness JD’s family decided to give me until 1pm before starting again to force-feed me alcohol. This time including Scotch at the neighbor’s house…with the 4 single and eligible men. I can only describe this afternoon as slightly less nightmarish than the night before…because I had a better idea of what to expect ahead of time. It was only during the pause in my glass-refilling, caused by somebody running to the store to buy more beer that I was able to make the madness stop and get a word in before the next bottle was automatically opened, guilt tripping me into finishing it. By the time JD rolled me into the family car to go out to a restaurant for Christmas dinner, I was well on my way to drunk…again.

At the restaurant, I had to only hear the word “Mutzig” come off JD’s mouth as she ordered for me to yell “No! Please! No more beer! Just a tea! That’s it! That’s all I need!”

JD looked at me with the most confused expression: “You will have a beer” she said. Exhibit F of the 24 hour period of JD being forcefully nice.

Exhibit A of me finally standing up for my liver: “But JD…I’m drunk.”

Confused look from JD.

And then I finally realized…something I had forgot to think during this whole bender is that JD doesn’t drink. She has no sympathy or understanding for my lack of tolerance or ensuing drunkenness. So in the spirit of Christmas, I chose to forgive her for her lack of understanding, just not drink my beer when served, and thank her for my very drunken Christmas when she returned me home 24 hours after I first left the house.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Time?

Christmas really seems to be sneaking up on me. Not for lack of preparedness: I started receiving Christmas packages from my mom (complete with wrapped presents/stockings: MIT maroon for Marvin, Dartmouth green for me) over a month ago, we decorated our fake tree with tinsel 2 weeks ago, I’ve downloaded over 100 Christmas songs to my iTunes, and I’ve even read a relevant Bible verse or two. So what it really just comes down to…is HOW EXACTLY AM I SUPPOSED TO GET INTO THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT IF IT’S 70 DEGREES OUTSIDE?

Don’t get me wrong…the weather here is absolutely lovely. I’m pretty sure I could actually be perfectly happy living here my whole life and never suffer through another frigid New England February or a humid July. The problem is, I don’t think I’d realize I’d been here my whole life until my hair started graying or…those other growing old things started happening. Until I look in the mirror and realize that I’m old, I’m quite sure I’d go on believing that I only arrived one week ago because everything still feels like August, so it must still be August.

Because that is exactly the feelings I’m dealing with right now. Even though the weeks themselves – or the days, hours and minutes – sometimes proceed excruciatingly slowly, I look back at the end of each month and just wonder “How the hell did another month just go by?? How is it already September/October/November/December? Oh my!” I swear time in Rwanda goes faster than time elsewhere. Partially because we’re at the equator; so each day that the earth turns, my body goes like twice the distance/speed that it did in NH – so y’know, my frame of reference is off. And partially because my body is convinced that it is still August, so I’m having a hard time convincing my mind of anything else.

Nonetheless, here are some pictures of celebrating Christmas in 70 degree weather…the crazy thing that that is:

Our lovely, decorated Christmas tree. Note the presents and stockings from my Mommy. Once upon a time there were Candy Canes decorating the tree and the stockings. They have dissappeared. One of my housemates has the diet of an elf and starts eating chocolate/candy at 9am every day...the candy canes did not stand a chance.

So pretty when it's lit up! (I wonder what's happening to our electricity bill.)

Showing off my homemade PEANUTBUTTER BALLS! We ended up deciding to hide them during the Christmas Party becuase there were too many people and we kinda wanted them all for ourselves. OH MY GOODNESS I JUST REMEMBERED that I hid 3 for Amy and never gave them to her...I HAVE THREE MORE! It's like (a) Christmas (party) all over again!

At the CCHIPs Christmas Party at Volcana -- my fave bar. With Peace Corps Amy and Peace Corps Jess. (Jess lives in Kigali and is drinking water in this picture, that's why you don't hear about her too often.) Note the Rwandan earrings that Jess is wearing. Let me know if you want.

Marvin and I are just *so excited* for the CCHIPs Christmas party -- but Marvin is way better at hiding his enthusiasm than I am. GREAT NEWS: Note the difference in hair between this picture and the previous one. That's becuase we FOUND A HAIRDRYER in the CCHIPs house. (These pictures are not in sequential order.) I am now looking good every day (that I shower = 3 days a week).

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Let’s Call it…Insurance

It was inevitable that I was going to mess up somehow and run out of birth control without pre-warning my mom to send some over a month in advance. But I actually did consider this fact much ahead of time, and addressed it by picking up some “back-ups” – like Plan A.5 – some patches to use if my actual birth control ran out. Which, of course, happened.

It was only when I realized that I did not have another pack that I realized the patches I had gotten in the US expired in October. Guess they weren’t expecting me to keep them around for a year as Plan A.5.

No problem. We have a doctor on staff. And almost more out of laziness, I just wanted her to deal with this dilemma.

“NATHALIEEEE!” I went crying out of my room. “Marvin, earmuffs. Nathalie, my birth control has expired. What do I do?”

I don’t know what Nathalie thinks I do with my spare time, or maybe it’s just so engrained in her head that every woman must be on birth control unless she is married and has less than 2 children (this is a health metric in Rwanda), but her reaction was a lot more intense than I was expecting. …and before I knew it, I was handing her the pack of expired patches, which I had never actually used before, showing her the expiration – and not having the time/willpower to explain that I had actually been using different birth control.

Ultimately, my laziness of deferring to Nathalie did not work in my favor:

First, Nathalie did not handle it. She instead sent me to the District Pharmacy BY MYSELF to buy replacement pills. “But Nathalie, what if they don’t speak English?” “They won’t, but they will understand the active ingredient.” At the District Pharmacy, enough was communicated to learn that: (i) since I was white, I must have been sent by Dr. Nathalie, and (ii) they did not have the active ingredient I needed, so (iii) they were going to send me to the slightly more sketchy pharmacy down the street.

I had the joy of being accompanied to this pharmacy by a young gentlemen, up-and-coming pharmacist who wanted to work on his English, and his knowledge of pharmaceuticals. I know you should feel free talking to your doctor about anything, but he wasn’t my doctor, and I know that Rwanda doesn’t quite follow the same confidentiality standards as the US – so I just ignored him.

The next pharmacy first handed me a box that cost ~$40. Given that many NGOs essentially fly planes over developing countries, and let it rain birth control, I knew this was an outrageous price. I communicated as much. (Rough translation of what I was able to say: “No. How much two” [air-draw three zeros – to represent 2,000, ~$4.)

They came out with a box that said “Contraceptive Urgence.” Not caring if this was butchered English or French, I know that Emergency Contraception is illegal in Rwanda, so I wasn’t about to fall for that trick. Finally, I pulled out my “white girl insurance” and just called Nathalie, asking her to translate to the pharmacist. They handed the phone back to me, where Nathalie explained that they don’t have birth control with the same active ingredient as I “need”, so we’d have to go to Kigali. I asked why I couldn’t just buy the cheapest kind they had and call it a day.

I could practically feel her roll her eyes at me through the phone as she launched into an explanation about how I wouldn’t want to do that to my body as I was already in a foreign country and at altitude blah blah blah…and that it might not work if I switched active ingredients.

“Work”?? I’m just going to throw it out there that I only take the things to keep my boobs big and so I have some sense of when I will have my period.

Obviously, after this lecture, I was too intimidated to inform Nathalie that the box I showed her was not even the same active ingredient as the birth control I had actually been using…so I just stayed mum and let her do her doctor thing.

After this initial disaster, Nathalie called Jeanne d’Arc, who was in Kigali and explained “the situation” to her. As a good doctor would, Nathalie also texted JD the name AND concentration of the active ingredient in “my” birth control – so that my replacement could “match” as closely as possible.

JD called us when she was in PHARMACY NUMBER 5 to report that she had finally been able to find the proper active ingredient, but not the correct concentration. (Maybe that’s because the concentration in the patch is a lot higher than in a pill?)

“No worries,” said Nathalie, “we’re on our way to a health center now.”

When we arrived at the health center, Nathalie went straight to the pharmacy, where she did I-don’t-know-what-but-not-just-steal-a-box-of-pills-for-me and called JD to talk in Kinyrwanda some more. I do know that Nathalie became very concerned with the concentration. Apparently, the box I showed her has a much higher concentration than anything available in Kigali. This was not good because anything of lower concentration would not “work.” (WHAT DOES WORK MEAN?)

At the 7th pharmacy, JD finally found an acceptable replacement, for ~$20 for a one month supply. So I’ve effectively now paid more than I would have in the states, for birth control that very closely matches my back up, but in no way resembles that kind I had actually been using.

Let’s just add to the story, that this is what the packet looks like:

And HOW am I supposed to know where to start?!?

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Given that my last mani/pedi was in June, I only just hit my threshold/6 month limit and decided that it was absolutely vital that I pamper myself. To the point where, for about 15 minutes this morning, I was considering driving 2 hours to and from Kigali just so I could treat myself to a mani/pedi at one of the hotels while Marvin was dropping off Ro and Zack at the airport. Thankfully, Nathalie corrected my assumption that there was no place for a mani/pedi in Musanze before I jumped in the car headed to Kigali.

So instead of a 2 hour, vomit-inducing car ride (update: I’ve developed motion sickness since moving to Rwanda), I took a 2 minute moto-ride into town. Consolate led me to her usual hair “saloon,” and, I can only assume, told them that the white girl in tow wanted a manicure and pedicure. In retrospect, I realized that I probably didn’t really need Consolate to chaperone/translate for me, since I rarely understand manicure/pedicure artists in the states, but it was nice to have her guidance to navigate through the crowded and stuffy saloon.

The mani/pedi itself was surprisingly nice. I was initially skeptical when I wasn’t put in a massage chair with a bubbly basin at my feet, and Consolate translated for me that the guy doing it asked “What do you want?”

“Umm, what do you mean what do I want? A manicure and pedicure…does he not know what that is?”

Whatever clarification he was looking for, I didn’t give it to him – but he still functioned quite well. Complete with nail strengthening serum, a wash basin of warm soapy water, and a hand massage.

I felt delightfully pampered – which is much, much more than I can say about all the other women in the salon. Everything they were doing just looked … so painful. This was not the peppy, bright Vogue-ready salon that I’m used to. First, it was very dark and crowded. Second, most of the stylists were (straight) men – and there was a soccer game playing in the background. (Potentially because nothing else is ever on the 3 TV channels.) Third, I think all the women were one threshold of pain away from screaming and punching their stylist.

They were all either getting their hair relaxed or braided. I’m going to go ahead and say it: I’ve never been happier to have limp, greasy, bone-straight, only partially blonde hair. Because at least when I go to the hairdresser, it does not take two people to pull at my roots hard enough to make sure that my braids are in tight. Nor does somebody use an actual needle to thread extensions into my roots. And I just can’t talk about the ones who were getting their hair relaxed; suffice it to say that I will forever have nightmares with visions of the worst hair day possible, and being forced to comb through snarls with the finest toothed comb imaginable. WHO WOULD DO THAT TO THEMSELVES?! IS BEAUTY ACTUALLY THAT IMPORTANT?! (Oh right…I guess it is.)

Not only was I a sight because I’m white (over it)…but I’m sure that all the women I the salon were staring at me in wonder of why I would come there to enjoy myself. How could you associate the place that pulls your hair out of its roots – en masse – with pampering and comfort?

Je ne sais pas (update: I haven’t gone to French lessons in like 3 weeks – so much for that attempt), but maybe I’ll start asking. At ~$4 for a fairly decent mani/pedi, I might start going through this routine a little more often than once every 6 months.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Culinary Delights

My mommy sent me a package with all the makings for her Christmas specialty: peanut butter balls! The package had absolutely everything I needed (crunchy Skippy peanut butter, powdered sugar, Rice Krispies, chocolate, wax, and wax paper) – except for the double boiler for melting the chocolate. Of course, no matter how crystal clear my mom could make it (I was surprised the powdered sugar and Rice Krispies weren’t already measured out into baggies for was the case with the Thanksgiving pie ingredients…), I found a way to mess it up.

You see, I was supposed to melt the chocolate in a “double boiler.” I’ve seen this done before and I understand the importance of it in order to not burn the chocolate. And I’ve been warned about getting water into the chocolate and “turning it” or something of the sort. So this was very stressful – because unless I wanted to wait another month for a replacement package, I had no choice but to not mess up the chocolate. But my mom’s directions seemed to assume that I had unlimited access to things like “double boilers.”

I don’t.

But I made my own. It consisted of one pot half floating, half wedged into another pot of boiling water. For the first 5-10 minutes, this system worked great. Then…the water started boiling.

Don’t ask why, but I thought this would be a good time to call Amy: “OH FUCK SHIT!!!” I exclaimed right as she picked up the phone.

“Well hello to you too?”

The boiling water not only bubbled over INTO the chocolate, but it also completely eliminated the gas flame. I’m not really sure how gas stoves work, but I didn’t think it was a good thing for the gas to still be on and flame put out by overflowing water. I did pretty easily re-light the flame, so I don’t think I caused any permanent damage to the stove…which is good…because this incident happened three more times. (I don’t learn from my mistakes?)

I was comforted by reminding myself that I was mixing together butter, sugar, chocolate, and peanut butter, so, ultimately, it would be pretty difficult to mess up.

At the same time, Gabby was making egg-rolls, baking in the oven. This just delighted my little/large Chinese-food craving stomach, even if it didn’t make sense to me why he was baking, rather than frying the egg-rolls. In an excited tiffy, I ran out to the table the second Gabby left to indulge in these egg-rolls. My first thought was that they were pretty doughy. But they had green onions in them and I poured myself a plateful of Soy Sauce, so this was okay. And then I started to get curious about what Gabby actually put into the egg-roll, until I finally came across it: a hard-boiled egg. The egg-rolls were literally eggs baked into rolls!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Visit to the East

Last weekend I finally had the opportunity to experience actual small town living in Rwanda. With its 5 bars, Musanze is a large town by Rwandan standards…I had not realized this because my only comparison up until last weekend had been Kigali, which has 5 NIGHTCLUBS.

Early Saturday morning, my Peace Corps friend and I met up at “our” Tea House (it’s a toss-up for if we are more regulars at the tea house or at the local bar – usually because one (the bar) implies we will go to the other (the tea house) the next morning) for some tea and chapatti before our 2 hour bus ride to Kigali – followed by a 2 hour bus ride into the rural Eastern Province. (Keep in mind that Rwanda is about the size of Rhode Island – but the mountains/hills, the poor road conditions, and the poor road network (all roads lead to Kigali) makes the drive about 3 hours longer than it could be.)

“Wow, it’s really flat” was my only comment as I looked out the windows and saw further than I’ve seen in 4 months.

We got off the bus in a town the size of Norwich – no, Etna – and quickly started playing “spot the other muzungu” because Jessie wasn’t waiting for us. Turns out she was at the market so we just wandered down the road to find her. Thankfully, Saturday was market day (another luxury of “large town” living is that we have a market every day), so we were able to enjoy a feast of vegetable and bean stir-fry on (more) chapatti, while downing some boxed wine that Amy had carried from Kigali.

More thankfully, Jessie managed to find a man to bring water to her house, so we weren’t waterless for the weekend – although I was prepared with handi-wipes and large water bottles. (Another luxury: running water.) The handi-wipes came in common because the bathroom was actually a hole in the ground in a little building outside her house. (Another luxury: toilets.) I’m unsure how I have managed to avoid such “toilets” since coming to Rwanda, but I have. After peeing in the complete dark, the only question I had for my host was “what happens when you have to poop, but you can’t?”

“I crouch for as long as I can, and then I stand up and take a break. And then I crouch again.”

Dear porcelain goddess, Even if I can’t flush toilet paper down you and I keep on forgetting, making me scared that you’re going to break and everybody will blame me, I love you. And will never flush toilet paper down you again, because I have no idea what I would do without you.

Our evening entertainment consisted of staring at stars and watching movies because in a small town it is highly inappropriate for girls to go to a bar unaccompanied by a man and impossible to go outside after dark (another luxury: and I thought Musanze was sexist! NEVERMIND!). I will give credit to the Eastern Province: the stars were actually amazing. I am from New Hampshire, and have stared at stars in the middle of a dark lake…but I have never seen as many stars as I saw that night. All 3 of us just stood outside of Jessie’s house for 15 minutes, mouths open, staring in awe at how many stars there were. If you stared at any “empty” space long enough, you began to see more stars.

In a stark comparison, the next day I treated myself to an afternoon of luxury at “The Manor” in Kigali. It’s a hotel reminiscent of Constant Gardner luxury in the middle of poverty: pure white, an everlasting pool, and multiple terraces and bars. I felt right at home, if not slightly embarrassed for my dirty fingernails, greasy hair, and unwashed clothes.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Mother Child Week

Last week was “Mother and Child Health Week” throughout Rwanda. Which contrasted nicely as I was “reading” (ie – listening to) Jodi Picoult’s House Rules on my iPod.

Let me flesh out that comparison:

Mothers, potential mothers, and children under 5 receive amazing healthcare in Rwanda. Absolutely all preventive visits are free, even without insurance. Community health workers are employed to track pregnant women and children: to give the women vitamins and mosquito nets, to track the children’s growth, to remind the mothers of vaccination appointments at the health center. During Mother and Child Health Week, these efforts are multiplied…let’s just say tenfold as a hyperbole.

This focus on mother and child health has produced impressive results: its maternal mortality rate was 383/100,000 in 2009 – down from 750 in 2005 and much more impressive than the 440 in and 560 in neighboring Uganda and Kenya, respectively. Similarly, under-5 mortality is down from 152 per 1,000 live births to 103 – much less than the 130 in both Kenya and Uganda.

These results do come at a cost. Health centers are pressured/forced/required to achieve 100% vaccination coverage – under threat of not receiving vaccinations the following year if they do not. According to herd immunity theory, only about 85% of a population needs to be vaccinated against a disease for the others to be protected from it. Yes, these vaccines are free for the recipients (under 5), but they do come at a cost to somebody/something. I wonder if it’s the best use of NGOs’ monies to demand – and then pay for – 100% vaccination coverage, when 85% will do the trick.

(A particular frustration of mine is that vaccines are free only for children under 5. Rwandans must pay for – and most insurance does not cover – booster vaccines (tetanus for example) or annual flu vaccines. The international focus on the “under-5 mortality rate” has seemed to decrease national focus on the under-10, under-15, or “preventable” mortality rate. I wonder if aid money could be better spent vaccinating 85% of children, and also providing discounted vaccinations to the older population.)

In Rwanda, it seems, that the only reason a child would not be vaccinated is because the health center is too far away, or because the vaccination day falls on a particularly lucrative harvest day/market day, or because the mother forgot the appointment (hard to keep track of these things when your society doesn’t use calendars).

And finally, the connection to House Rules…a book (so far) about an autistic boy. Being about an autistic boy, the point of vaccinations causing autism is obviously discussed. In the US, it seems, there are 2 reasons a child would not get a vaccination: the mother cannot afford it, or the mother has the luxury of choosing to not vaccinate her child, for fear of autism. And given public school requirements…it might actually only be the fear of autism that keeps children from receiving vaccines.

And I laugh. Because this seems to quintessentially capture the difference between Rwandan culture and American culture. While Rwanda struggles to achieve its goal of 100% coverage, trying to overcome the hurdles of distance, ignorance, and enforcement (when you’re also struggling to get 100% attendance at primary school…do you really want to add requirements – such as vaccination – in order for them to attend?), Americans struggle to avoid vaccination requirements – by enrolling their children in private schools, or fighting lawsuits.

I did make the point earlier about herd immunity – so I don’t think that these “overly-protective” parents are putting other children at risk by not vaccinating their children (unless the over-protective ones start to exceed 15% of the population). But I just had to smile, when the argument against vaccinating a child came onto my ipod, as I was tallying Shingiro health center’s vaccination coverage rates (94% in 2009!) because it is…so…American…to fight vaccination.

Dear America, I miss you.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Rwandan Culture 101

Because I am generally not an attentive person, and because I live in an America-land compound, I got very excited today when I obtained a "Rwandan Culture 101" document from my Peace Corps friend. Peace Corps people are also actually trained about culture, social things, etc. Personally, I've been mostly functioning in social situations by making a fool of myself -- mostly what I've picked up on is Rwandan humour which is pun-heavy and make-fun-of-muzungu-heavy. I've been relying on the second.

But to no further ado...if you've been curious...these are apparently the cultural norms of the country where I've been living for 4 months, followed with my commentary in italics:


Greetings are probably the most important formality to Rwandans. Even children hold out their hands when they see someone they know (or want to know) for a handshake or high five. Don’t be surprised if random kids or adults (especially old ladies) come up to you and hug you—you get used to it.
When you first meet someone, you go into a loose hug and touch your cheeks together 3 times (starting with right cheek to right cheek) then finish the greeting by briefly shaking right hands. For less formal meetings or to greet someone you already know, you can just shake hands or touch shoulders then finish with a hand shake/loose hand grab.

You must greet someone you know/say goodbye to someone you are leaving with at least a handshake every time. Although everybody shakes hands all the time, it's the limp-fish handshake...I think their lives would be consumed by shaking hands if they actually gave firm handshakes...but limp-fish handshakes still give me shivers and now nightmares.

I’ll teach you some basic greetings in Kinyarwanda which will make people extremely happy and scream “Eeeeeehhhhhhh bazi Kinyarwanda!” (aka, they know Kinyarwanda). Then you can just smile, nod and say “yego, ndakizi” which translates to yes, I know it. You’ll fool them in no time! Interesting...just learned that's what that means.


When someone invites you to eat or drink something, it is very impolite to decline and implies that you do not trust them not to make you sick. Be expecting everyone whose home you enter to offer you a Fanta, water or beer. warm

Don’t sniff or smell your food! I know you’ll want to, but it’s highly culturally inappropriate. If you do be prepared for a lot of quizzitive and/or angry looks. Didn't know this

It is also impolite to leave a lot of food on your plate, so try to keep your host/hostess from piling food on your plate by serving yourself. Otherwise, be expecting a 6” high pile of food to get through. Though I’m not sure if we’ll be dining at anyone’s house, so you might not have to worry about this. This fact was especially painful on my birthday when the family I was visiting kept piling on food.

It is not standard practice to tip at restaurants or bars in Rwanda, but I usually leave a little something behind in places that I frequent. I used to do this...and then I saw a waitress wearing a sweater that I lost. That $70 will suffice as my tips for the rest of the year.

If you order a bottled beverage (fanta or beer) the waitress must open the drink in front of you. Poisoning is taken very seriously around here. Knew that they always opened it in front of me. Didn't know why.

Traditional foods

The Rwandan Buffet: Towns are covered with them, these hole in the wall buffet restaurants that cost about $3. I’ll take you to my favorite one in Musanze, where you can pile your plate with starches (you’ll have a pick of fries, pasta, rice, plantains, cassava), beans, veggies, salad, fruit, and if you’re feeling like splurging, some meat. The trick is that you're only allowed to fill your plate once -- the "skyscrapers" that some Rwandans build require years of practicing the art of piling food.

Brockettes: Grilled meat on a stick. Usually goat (“ihene” in Kinyarwanda). But some places have beef, pork or even fish. Fish brouchette is my jam.

Akabenzi: Also known as…pig. Not sure if we’ll have this (since I nixed Butare from our itinerary) but it’s grilled pork mixed with onions and spices and it’s wonderful.

“Ibitoki” – plantains, usually cooked in a tomato or peanut sauce The peanut sauce is purple...took me a while to learn what it was.

“African tea” – made with a base of milk, hot Rwandan tea, sugar and ginger, a delicious favorite but very heavy and filling. If you’re at a small milk house (again not sure if we’ll go to one of these) it’s called “icyayi”. So yeah...I thought this was actually Chai...pronounced in a Rwandan way (adding extra syllables)

Rwandan snacks (Which way do you want it fried?):

• Samboussas – fried pastry with either veggies or ground meat, onions and spices inside aka...somossa

• Amandazi – fried balls of dough – kinda sweet, crunchy but soft, great dunked in icyayi aka...doughnut

• Chapatti – similar to a tortilla, but not. I make my own at home, not to brag or anything aka...tortilla

• Imineke – little bananas. Not fried. They’re tiny, sweet, and amazing. And the reason that I’ll probably never be able to eat a banana again when I return to the states. bananas


Rwandans dress conservatively, but as they say “smart”. Their clothes are clean! But they will wear the same outfit every day for 3 days. Haze would love it. You’ll see a huge difference between how people of a certain education or professional background dress (quite Westernized) and abaturage (village people) who will wear igitenge (traditional fabric) and plastic shoes (or no shoes at all). It’s a fascinating aspect of Rwandan culture, so make sure to observe people. Besides, they’ll be staring at you, why not stare back? Becuase it's awkward and I don't like staring back. I once thought that this would make them feel uncomfortable and look away. Turns out it just encourages them to stare more.

That being said, many Rwandans have a poor view of tourists because of their unkempt appearance and clothing. So, my only request is for the days we’re at the health centers and at the market in Musanze that you don’t look like dirty American hippies in tattered clothes or all “safari-ed out”. You know what I mean, right? Shoot...I've given in and have stopped tucking my shirts in etc.

Things that will make you go “huuuuh?!” but please don’t embarrass me by reacting too much: ...this was written for her parents

People pick their noses; intensely and constantly and in all contexts; even when you are having a full out conversation with them Have seriously NEVER noticed this
People don’t make lines and will push you out of the way; you’ll probably only notice this on the buses, but don’t worry, I’m Rwandan now so I’ll do my best to push ‘em out of the way first. There's also no sense of "women first"...actually...maybe it's "women last"?

There is no personal space. People will touch you as soon as they’ve met you, sit super close to you on the bus, possibly even with their arm around you or leg on yours. This is nice though because it means that it's also totally acceptable for you to curl up with your busmate and sleep on his shoulder.

People smell. Yes, some people smell good, but most don’t. I don’t really notice it anymore, but I’m sure you will. Be prepared. I still notice it.

You sit 4 to a row at minimum in mutatus (mini buses); not sure if we’ll get on any of these, but something to be aware of. They’re Kinyarwanda name means “let’s squeeze together” so you know…

People will call you muzungu, so just deal with it. Often it will be in amazement, but must often it will be in making fun of you or even being a little aggressive. Try to ignore it, but don’t worry too much about it.

People will stare. They will stop and stare, jaw gaping. If we are walking down the street we will attract a crowd, if we are sitting in a car we will attract a crowd, if we go to the market we will attract a crowd, if we visit a health center we will attract a crowd. For those 5 days in Rwanda you can officially consider yourself a celebrity. Embrace it! They will walk across the street just to be closer to you so they can stand and stare. They will run up in front of you just so they can turn around and stare. They will walk right next to you, staring.

Don’t feel bad when people, especially children or disabled people, beg or try to sell you trinkets. Just say no thank you (“oya, murakoze” – I’ll give you a pronunciation lesson when you get here!)

You will see machete scars on peoples’ heads, faces and hands.

Rwandans are extremely clean and will be seen sweeping dirt, scrubbing their floors and windows, washing their shoes every day, etc.

Of course you can take photos (especially of those glorious volcanoes), but don’t take photos of a specific person or group of people unless I ask them first. Often they’re going to say no, or ask that we give them money, which I will not do. Taking a picture in town where people are milling around is ok, but just don’t be too obvious. This rule gets thrown out the window when you’re hanging out with any of my neighborhood kids. They’ll beg you to take photos of them!!

Men hold hands. Men and women usually don’t. PDA’s are rare, except sometime at twilight when inshuti’s (boyfriend/girlfriends) are out for strolls.

Weird things Rwandans do that you may also see me doing because I’ve become one of them: Saying “eeehh” or “mmmm” as a response (it’s sometimes just like saying “oh” or “yes” in a conversation, but they also use it when they are surprised); teeth/lip smacking (don’t know how to explain this in word form, you’ll understand it when you hear it);

If we’re walking around we’re going to pass people carrying two things that can be a little unsettling at first: machetes and machine guns. Many workers carry machetes as they go from job to job or field to field. Trust me, it’s not threatening, but I still find it strange sometimes. And any policeman, prison guard or soldier (and there are many of those all over the country) will be carrying a large gun. Obviously have never seen them use it, but just to be warned.

People will grab your arms/hands to lead you around. Or just grab your arms and hands because they want to.

People will call you fat—don’t be insulted; it’s actually a compliment, usually to say that you are strong or healthy. I actually rarely get the compliment these days, people keep scolding me for losing weight. Alternatively, your house cook will tell you you need to diet...this is not actually meant as a compliment, and is a little awkward coming from the person who prepares all of your meals.

So...there you have's ready to come visit?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

So it's not just me...from the NYTimes:

Sierra Leone: Outbreak of Mysterious Blisters Is Case Study in Spread of Panic

An outbreak of mysterious blisters in Sierra Leone illustrates how panic can be stirred by a combination of overwrought journalism, listless government and traditional witchcraft.
The Inquirer, a Sierra Leone news site cited on ProMed, an epidemic-alert service, reported that “the wild spread of the contagious skin disease” was taking over a rural county, with 75 people affected. It quoted local residents blaming polluted water, “poisonous bacteria” or “contamination of the underground,” and said a government minister had “warned people with the disease to cease all movement.”
In fact, a careful reading of the article suggested that local doctors had identified a plausible cause and suggested a sensible solution. But that point was obscured by the purple “Fear Grips City” prose.
The blisters, the doctors said, were from “Nairobi flies,” and their advice was to just blow them off, not slap them. The “Nairobi fly” is actually a red-and-black beetle of the genus Paederus that is found from India to West Africa but hatches only rarely. It does not bite, but contains pederin, a stinging acid, to drive off predators. Smacking it on the skin releases the acid, which can leave a nasty welt; touching an eye with the acid can blind it for days. The condition is, of course, not contagious.
While this brouhaha may seem minor, others have had serious consequences. Nigeria’spolio vaccination drive, for example, was derailed by journalists spreading rumors that the vaccine was a plot to sterilize Muslim girls; polio then spread from Nigeria to more than a dozen other countries.

Here's a picture:

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Experience: check

During last Monday’s staff meeting, after announcing that the CCHIPs Thanksgiving would be celebrated on Friday, Celestin (see side Dictionary) announced that Kabere would be having a “thanksgiving” for him at 10am on Wednesday. This sounded interesting, and I was impressed that America had penetrated Rwanda to the point of Rwandans celebrating Thanksgiving as well. (We already have the same Independence Day and Nathalie once got very defensive when I called Canada our 51st state. “No it’s not! Rwanda is!” she exclaimed.)
So on Wednesday morning, as I sauntered into the office and Jeanne d’Arc asked me if I was going to Celestin’s ceremony, I, of course, said yes. (Also because I tend to say yes to everything…generally, in life, I should probably learn to say no every once in a while.)

Two hours later, I was in a car with Jeanne d’Arc and Elie, wondering why nobody else decided to come along. Only along the 30 minute car-ride did I learn that we were not going to “Thanksgiving,” but to a mass to give thanks – in Kinyrwanda. Not entirely what I thought I had signed up for.

In classic Rwandan fashion, we arrived late (thank God) and quickly found seats on these miniscule little benches. They literally came up only to my mid-calf, and made my already questionably short skirt (covered only half the knees) entirely inappropriate when I sat down and my knees came up to my chest, essentially showing off my butt unless I help my skirt up to under my knees.

Not surprisingly, I proved to be more interesting than the service, and quickly became the center of attention in my section of the church. This proved to be most awkward during the songs – because I, in fact, cannot sing, or dance, or carry a rhythm. Rwandans can do all of these – at the same time. It took me about 2 minutes to get the clap down for each song – I swear that this was no easy clap – clapclap – clap – clapclap that you would come across in the US. Each pattern was 10 claps at least, and seemed to change the beat after I felt confident in what was coming next.

The next awkwardness came when Celestin was making a speech at the end of the service. He seemed to be thanking people and having them stand up. (The more alert readers might know where this story is going caught me by surprise.) At one point, a lot of people turned to stare behind me. I turned to follow their stares, but I was sitting in the back row, so there was only a wall and a door. I tried to look out the door to see what they might be looking at. (Less alert readers should know by now where this story is going…seriously…at this point…I was still confused.) But then I heard the magic word: “CCHIPs” and I immediately turned around. Oh! Look! They were all looking at ME! Elie and Jeanne d’Arc were already standing and Jeanne d’Arc was violently pulling me to stand up, so we could wave and accept our applause. I’m not sure exactly what I was thanked for, but it was nice to be stared at for a reason besides being a muzungu.

Something that appears to span cultures is my awkwardness at Catholic services. As the congregation said the Lord’s Prayer, I tried to follow along in English, only to find myself rushing and in shock at the end at how quickly they finished it – only to 1 minute later remember that Catholics take a 1 minute break halfway through the Lord’s Prayer. I’m also accustomed to politely clasping my hands and looking down during the Lord’s Prayer; forgot about the whole hand-holding thing, and had an awkward second when Jeanne d’Arc grabbed my hand and pulled it up.

After the service, there was still no Thanksgiving. But Jeanne d’Arc and Elie started socializing with all of their friends, leaving me to awkwardly stare back at the children that were all awkwardly staring at me. After a full minute of awkward silence, I decided that my morning had already been too awkward, and that I needed to do something about it. To appease the situation, I started to drill the kids in English:

“Good morning” I said to them.

They stared back at me. I know that all Rwandan children know English to some degree. Technically, it’s the only language their teachers are allowed to use in school. In reality, the teachers all received one month of English training before this law was put in place.

“Good morning” I tried again, and then pointed at one of the children.

“Good morning teacher” he shyly said back to me.

“Oya oya – I am not your teacher – you just say ‘good morning’ back to me. For example: ‘Good morning’” I said to the group, I then pointed to an empty spot, sat down in the spot, pretended to be a child and said “good morning” again. “Okay so now let’s try: good morning” I pointed to the same boy.

He stared at me and ran away. At which point another child started crying. Awkwardness multiplied. At this point, I finally decided to just cut my losses and sit in the car as I waited for Jeanne d’Arc and Elie, hoping to pretend this morning did not happen.

Unluckily for my awkwardness, Celestin decided he wanted to start introducing me to people, so Jeanne d’Arc dragged me out of the sanctuary of the car and forced me to meet more people. In case you’re interested, my language skills have not progressed past the “how are you?” “good” that I learned before coming. Result: lots of staring, lots of laughing (because that make sense), and lots of “how are you?”s and “good”s “very good”s.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving in Rwanda

Don’t you fear, I was still able to celebrate America’s best holiday while in Rwanda. CCHIPs invited about 30 people over, including Americans (of course), Rwandans, French, Germans, and South Koreans, for an afternoon of Kill Bill II and appetizers, and an early dinner of ridiculous portions and variety of the classic Thanksgiving dishes. It would have been more, had most of the NGOs in Musanze not been busy repatriating gorillas to Congo…nbd. Zack’s mom came to visit and packed with her Thanksgiving decorations galore and all the American necessities for a good meal: cranberries, brie, and wasabi vegetable dip. (Okay, maybe not necessities, but all fabulous.) We were also armed with all the Thanksgiving meal makings that came in a package from my mother: 2 pie pans, pie crust mix, canned pumpkins, canned cherries, gravy packets, boxes of stuffing, canned green beans, mushroom soup, fried onion rings, canned cranberry sauce, and instant mashed potatoes.* (I hid the hollandaise sauce for later/Eggs Benedict.)
Pros of celebrating Thanksgiving in Rwanda: Ability to talk about how happy the first Thanksgiving of Pilgrims and Indians was without anybody correcting me; Killing my own turkey.
Cons of celebrating Thanksgiving in Rwanda: The power went out an hour before dinner started, making carving the turkey really hard and identifying the dishes harder; the kitchen sink got overwhelmed and broke, making clean-up the next day a ridiculous mess of bucket washing dishes; not seeing my family.
Memorable cultural interaction: As the Americans were destroying the FOUR baked bries, eating each in one bite per person, Marvin explained to the Frenchmen present: “See, this is what Americans do to French things: we take something that you think is really good, and we make it better.”
Line that most made me miss my brother/Dan Wheelock: Given that we had French and Germans present…and we were watching The Expendables: “Don’t worry about it; Americans are used to covering for the French.”
Traumatic experience of the evening: Watching Zack’s mom bring out the canned cranberry sauce – which she had mashed up with real cranberries to make it look less…processed. I had joked with her earlier in the evening about how the ridges in the cranberry sauce were my favorite part of Thanksgiving. She either did not take me seriously, or doesn’t love me.
Most adult experience of the evening: Not crying when I saw the non-ridge cranberry sauce.
Frattiest experience: Almost instantaneously turning one of the “dining tables” (aka, office table) into a pong table after dinner, courtesy of a package from Abbe Sokol and an appearance by Dani Levin.
Déjà vu/are you me personified in an older man experience: Libbey’s roommate lost his phone on the bus from Kigali to Musanze, so he just showed up in Musanze and started looking around for a Thanksgiving party. I was oddly reminded of the time I did this in the Hamptons for 4th of July.
I-love-my-brothers experience: Both times I Skyped with my family on Thanksgiving day and during Mitchapalooza, John had a beer in hand. Better, John couldn’t actually talk with me during Mitchapalooza because he was on table. I back those priorities, but now that I can play pong at my house, we need to figure out a way to Skype-pong – 4D communication anyone?
*Please note: Potatoes is the staple dish of Rwanda. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Newest African Experience

Today...I killed my Thanksgiving turkey.

And I'm not sparing the details: I chopped its head off and then had to tackle it to the ground as its wings continued to violently flap for a full minute following the beheading. Oh yeah...and I had blood all over me. And then I de-feathered it. Plucked all the feathers out. Actually...more like TORE all the feathers out. It was not pretty. None of this was pretty.

Especially for somebody who was vegetarian before coming to Rwanda.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Newest African Disease

Say hewwo to "Nairobi Eye", which was either caused by me squishing a poisonous looking bug and then immediately rubbing it into my eye (don't remember doing that), or Emi (the dog). Okay okay...I'll give the dog a break and say that it probably did not actually cause this, because it can apparently only be caused by a poisonous looking bug thing; but when I returned from my meeting with District Supervisors around 9am this morning (between waking up and the end of the meeting, my eye had gone from normal to disgusting), everybody in the office informed me that I had Nairobi Eye, that I probably looked like an idiot during my meeting with the District Supervisors, and that Emi (the dog) once had Nairobi eye and they had to get a plastic cone for baby orphan gorillas from one of the gorilla NGOs for her to wear so she didn't scratch it.

Personally, I don't know what Emi was thinking -- Nairobi Eye isn't actually itchy and touching it kind of just makes it hurt more. So besides the stares (which I've gotten used to anyways) and the pain every time the crust breaks...I must say that the worst thing about Nairobi Eye is that I've developed an eye twitch as a result of my eye being so swollen that my muscles don't have the energy or power to keep my eyelid open.

If the eye twitch becomes a long-term effect of Nairobi Eye, I'm not sure I will ever recover from my year in Rwanda...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

FuFu Carbonate

One of the more exciting aspects of having an Oliver Wyman consultant come work with CCHIPs for a week was that it gave me an excuse to be a little more touristy than usual. I quickly jumped into the position of tour guide – and quickly regretted it when she began asking so many questions that I couldn’t answer. (“What that thing he’s carrying?” “What does that sign say?” “What souvenirs should I buy to bring home?” etc.) I suddenly felt like a very inadequate tour guide.
This inadequacy continued even when I took her to one of my favorite hang outs (Gorillas Hotel, which I personally think has the best internet and definitely has the best service) – I laid down my instructions at the beginning: “I get the tomato soup and salad every time because the croutons in the soup are amazing; Zack always goes for the half chicken; and you cannot go wrong with the fries. They have homemade pili pili sauce that is out of this world, so as long as you order something that you can put the sauce on, you’re golden.”
These instructions proved to not be good enough; she was soon questioning every item on the menu. I, embarrassingly, could not answer any of her questions. I had never even really looked at the menu because I order the same thing every time.
So she asked the waitress when she returned: “What is Fu Fu carbonate?”
“Oh…I am sorry…my English is not very good. But I can explain how it is made? First they take the brains of mice and then they put it in boiling water –“
“I’m sorry – did you just say brains of mice?”
“Yes – they take them and put them in boiling water. And then they mash it together –“
Christina ordered the half chicken.
I sat in amazement through this encounter. I had never ever heard of mice being served anywhere in Rwanda. In fact, goat is the strangest thing I’ve come across – and that’s now an unoriginal staple. I was in disbelief that I had not known my favorite hotel served mice brains. But, given that I’ve eaten mice before, and that I was the guide, I just put on my best “that’s Africa” face and laughed it off.
But just to confirm, I texted Consolate: “What is FuFu Carbonate?”
Response: “I don’t know, but fufu is made from cassava flour.”
This didn’t sound like anything that would be associated with mouse brains. Now I was suspicious, but also unwilling to ruin my hard-guy reputation by asking the five-lingual and ever-present owner for a translation. (We frequent the same bars: can’t ruin the friendship by introducing a server-customer relationship.)
Mmm -- definitely not FuFu Carbonate. (Although that is goat on the left.)

After speculating for our whole meal how cassava flour could be cooked with mouse brains, Christina called the waitress over again: “I’m really sorry, but can you explain again how FuFu Carbonate is made?”
She took a deep, exasperated breath: “Well first they take the brains of mice –“
“And how do they do that? How do they get the brains of the mice?”
“They just cut it. And then they mash them together.”
“They mash together the mice brains?”
“Yes and then they put the brains in boiling water.”
“Did you just say grains?”
“Like grains, not brains? Like GRAINS OF RICE – not BRAINS OF MICE?”
Our waitress just looked at us, confused, and definitely not understanding the intricate but significant differences between the two phrases. When I returned home and talked to Consolate in more detail, we did indeed determine that fufu is a mixture of cassava flour and maize (“grains of rice”) – jury’s still out on the carbonate part.

Friday, November 12, 2010

English Lessons

(Straight from my blog posting at

Name: Eli(zabeth) Mitchell
Position: Data Manager, Communications Coordinator
With CCHIPs Since: August 2010

When I started looking at opportunities to volunteer abroad after college, I had one criterion to follow: I did not want to teach English. (Okay, I actually had many others that led me to realize that CCHIPs was the best opportunity for me – but not teaching English was a pretty firm standard I set for myself.) Even though I loved teaching ESL when I worked in Mississippi, I felt that teaching English in a foreign country only helped arm people with the tools needed to leave that country – quite counter-intuitive to development.
Rwanda’s recent adoption of English as a national language, however, creates a need for English teachers, even among individuals who want to work in and help develop Rwanda. This, paired with the motivated nurses at Shingiro and Kabere health centers has created the ideal teaching situation: the nurses are motivated to learn English in order to understand official documents or official presentations, which are increasingly done in English; I am happy to teach them because I know they will be able to use it in their current jobs – and because teaching brings back great memories of coaching lacrosse or of teaching at St. Paul’s School’s summer program.
So every Tuesday I head to Kabere Health Center and every Wednesday to Shingiro Health Center. Following Dr. Nathalie’s medical training, I commence an English lesson. As I already said: these lessons are quite ideal for any teacher. Unlike others who might be teaching English to a large group of unmotivated and distracted 11 year olds in an overcrowded, hot, and loud classroom – I teach to a mature group of motivated nurses who all take notes and ask questions and try to practice their English as often as possible. Even after the lesson, in the car ride back to town, they will continue to try to converse in English and are unafraid of pointing at objects to ask what they are.
Although I’m not quite sure where English lessons “fit” into the CCHIPs model of developing rural health centers, I am happy that I have the opportunity to work at Shingiro and Kabere each week, and to interact with the nurses. Their eagerness to learn, during English and during Dr. Nathalie’s lessons, and their good spirits during the car ride home serve as my weekly inspiration for my work, and a reminder of its importance.
Highlight of the Week: The Ministry of Health announced that they will adopt the CCHIPs Management Organization Structure in all health centers by March 2011! CCHIPs will work closely with the MOH between now and then to finalize position descriptions for managers and ensure that both groups are approve of the finalized organigramme.

Best Meal of the Week: Toss-up between Marvin’s pre-melted double-grilled cheeses and the cookies I baked last night. 

Friday, November 5, 2010

Biomass Expert and Political Target

I think that when my public policy group decided to do our project on the standards of biomass boilers in New Hampshire, we all secretly believed that it was the least politically polarizing topic of the given options. Little we were expecting to find ourselves in a political bloodbath* a few months later. Even more, the side that was tearing us apart was the side that we all personally agreed with.
I had flashbacks to when I received that email tearing apart our biomass boiler presentation when I walked into the District’s data manager’s office earlier this week…because who ever thought that adding and dividing some numbers to put into a 6 month report could be so politically controversial. Let me rephrase that, given that the 6 month report was written before I even started here, all I actually did was make sure that numbers in it looked pretty and matched each other. But when I walked into the data manager’s office, I was bombarded with questions and accusations about how we came up with our numbers in the report. In a panic, I pulled out my computer and started clicking through the 10+ tab interlinking Excel sheets that Lauren had meticulously created months ago, explaining away why we used certain denominators or numerators or absolute values instead of relative values in as simple English as possible to a group of people that doesn’t actually understand English and all the while realizing that at least it was a good learning experience for two reasons:
1.       Listing assumptions is really important – especially when somebody is forced to explain your calculations 4 months later.
2.       I can appreciate now why accounting might actually be a stressful profession with multiple results drawn from the same data. Love ya Pops.
*By standards of the NH State Legislature.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Don’t Even Talk to Me About Chinese[Food]

It’s a rare night that a nice Gabby-cooked dinner is not sitting out on the table at 6pm. And an even rarer night that this is not because we’re all going out for dinner. Actually…I think that in my 3 months (gasp! That long!) in Rwanda, tonight was the first time that this happened. And just to add to the horror, we had absolutely no food in our locked cabinets or locked refrigerator. (Gabby had the whole day off, I had a grilled cheese for breakfast and a grilled cheese for lunch…and was not the only person on the team to do so.)

Around 6pm, when we realized we couldn’t even make ourselves plain pasta, we started to brainstorm our options…meaning…listing the three hotels down the road and trying to decide whose fries we were most in the mood for. (Answer: Hotel Muhabura because we steal their internet less so it’s less awkward to go there.)

And then…nobody made a move. The thing with restaurants in Rwanda is that you’re making a 2 hour commitment by going to one. And we were all lounging on the couches before the workday was even over. Today was not a day for me to put on legitimate clothing (that covers my knees) and sit up straight at a table for 2 hours. Nor was it for anybody else. And that’s when we went to THE BAD PLACE.

The bad place is when you start talking about what you miss from The Land of the Plenty (also known as the land of the Right Side in Congress – woo!). The bad place is also the name of one of the Class V rapids on the Nile where Marvin (who only learned to swim to pass his test to graduate college) got stuck during our rafting trip. But…we went to the first bad place:

“You know what would be great right now…pizza.”

“C&A’s pizza.” [Am I home?? Am I hearing voices?? I was not the one that said that!]

“The number for EBAs is 643-6135…do you think they’ll deliver to Rwanda?”

“It’s before 2am there…they must!”

“You know what would be better than pizza delivery? Chinese take-out.”

This hit me hard. Much harder than I thought. But with tastes of twice fried noodles and dumplings in my mouth, I freaked:


Yep…we had definitely gone over the edge of the bad place.

And worse, once we went there, there was no going back. Once we started talking about how easy life is in the land of the plenty, there was about no chance of us rallying to sit in uncomfortable chairs until 9pm waiting for food. So, we did the only thing we thought we could do in such a situation…we called one of our Rwandan team members and we asked him to order take-out for us, with the expectation that everything is possible if you’re Rwandan. The biggest difficulty here was coming up with what we wanted to order. Not only does Gabby’s timely cooking keep us from realizing that we eat rice and beans every evening, but it also allows us to happily go through life without having to make any tough decisions as they relate to food. Having to decide what to order proved to be too difficult for most of us…resulting in 4 orders of fries and 12 orders of sabusas.

Sure enough, HALF AN HOUR (this is unheard of) later, we got the call that they were packing up our food and we should come pick it up. The result can only be described as nothing less than amazing. Obviously, Rene had no idea what we were talking about when we desperately asked him to call a restaurant and order food that we could take-out. And neither did the restaurant. They sent Zack home with a full box of food…and only once he got back did we realize that in the box they packed a table cloth, silverware, and our orders on actual plates.

Check it out:

It was pretty good. And the convenience (given that nobody actually trusts me to drive even though I am proudly DRIVER APPROVED) was fabulous. But…it was definitely NOT Chinese food.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Sorry I’m not as dedicated as this guy.

I actually did not vote in Tuesday’s election. But really, not for lack of trying. First, it took me about 2 days to download all the forms off the website. And then it took me another 2 days to figure out how to print the recipient material ONTO an envelope. They were very specific that taping, gluing, or stapling the form onto an envelope would negate it and the USPS would just throw it out. So at this point...I was already sending in the materials a week later than I intended. Risky business in Rwanda, for time-sensitive materials.

And then I took it to the post office [Royal “I” = somebody on our staff who speaks Kinyrwanda.] and learned that it would cost 5,000 francs to send…because the “prepaid postage” for the international absentee ballot is only prepaid if mailed within the US.

At this point, I decided to update myself on the NH Senate election and learned that I couldn’t even vote for Bill Binnie. And so my decision was made…it wasn’t worth $10 to abstain from voting.

With all the excitement of turning 18 and being able to vote…I’ve only taken advantage of it once…to vote for the school budget…and I’m pretty sure that that tally resulted in a re-vote anyways.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Flat Tires & Bad Internet

For most things in life, I would defer to a Rwandan/man…tilling a field…fixing a broken pipe…bucket flushing a toilet…changing SIM cards in a cell phone…but I’ve recently decided that there are two things I am just more confident doing myself: changing a car tire and fixing an internet connection.

Simply, I think I just have more experience with both. Most Rwandans haven’t really grown up driving cars or dealing with wireless internet. I’m not going to pretend that I have THAT much experience with either…but enough. This has become strikingly obvious on 2 occasions:

First, we were driving back from the health center when we got a flat tire. Elie pulled over onto a hill. He seemed to know what he was doing, so I felt that I shouldn’t say the obvious point: that you’d have to jack up the tire twice as high to get it off, since the flat was on the uphill…and that the jack would probably sink into the dirt. Ten painful minutes later, I suggested that maybe he should pull onto flatter ground, maybe on the pavement.

And then we ran into the problem with the bolts. In classic chauvinistic Rwandan fashion, the men could not let the women near the car to help. So I just watched as the tightened the bolts, and tightened them more, and more…and just continued to make it harder on themselves for once they finally got around to turning the bolts in the correct direction. Finally I broke down: “It’s an American car: righty tighty, lefty loosey – turn it the other way!” I only got skeptical, critical scares, but Rene did try the other way, and the bolts did come loose.

By the time we got around to putting on the new tire, I felt it might be best to hold my tongue and not point out that they should tighten opposite bolts to keep the tire aligned. But by the time we got back to the house, we were back to taking off the tire and re-aligning it.

Second, the internet never seems to work. Our administrator always calls the MTN guys who show up and walk around the house for a bit and then tell us that they need to check all our computers because one of them is creating a block on the internet (what?) and they blame my computer because I refuse to let a random person with no credibility take over my computer for half an hour. Finally, we set MIT grad on the mission to figure what was wrong with the internet: “well that’s strange,” he says, “the input was plugged into the output. It should probably work now.”

Americans: 2, Rwandans: 0

Other teams: 5 (6?), Bills: 0

Republicans: Tea Party, Obama: Daily Show

Monday, October 25, 2010

Two Fun Facts about Rwandans

1. Rwandans don’t get acne. They just don’t. Therefore, it is completely acceptable to point at somebody when they have a huge zit that they’re obviously trying to hide and say “what’s that?” No societal standards of pretending to ignore zits. None at all. In a 24 hour period, I had every Rwandan on our staff and every Rwandan on the house staff ask me what my zit was. Fabulous. (Life update: still getting acne at 22.)

2. I recently learned that “Rwandan time” is actually different than “American time,” or however you would call time that means midnight is 12am/pm. It turns out that conveniently…1am Rwandan time actually coincides with 1am EST. This is because in “Rwandan time,” the day starts at first sunlight, around 6am. Hours are counted from there, so 7am is actually 1am, one hour after sunrise/the start of the day. This actually makes sense to me, yet I only learned about it after 3 months of being in Rwanda. What’s coolest about it is that according to America-time, Rwanda is 6 hours ahead of EST  I’m now on east coast time!

Friday, October 22, 2010

My Favorite Language!

Nope – that’s not evidence of my badassness requiring bail out of a Rwandan prison, it’s actually the receipt that I have to bring with me when I start French Lessons at 9am tomorrow (yep – that’s Saturday morning).

After almost 3 months of pretending to understand French by smiling my way through conversations, every once in a while saying “ahh oui oui je sais,” I decided that, concretely, one of the best things I could do for myself in Rwanda would be to actually learn French. It would perhaps be the most transferable skill I could bring to another job (or at least that I could use to insist that another job let me travel).

So, yesterday morning, I jumped in the car with our logistics coordinator and went to go sign up for my French lessons… at the Ruhengeri Prison. Even though I’ve already written a blog about this, let me quickly reiterate the fact: prisoners in Rwanda are FRIGHTENLY unmonitored. You would never actually call the prison a prison, by any standard of the word. Our compound of a house if more secure than the prison: we have barbed wire, we have a guard, we have a gate that closes AND locks. The prison had…kind of a wall that separated the inside from the outside, but no physical gate…and one guard who sheepishly asked me if I had a cell phone on me. When I said no, he didn’t question any further.

When we drove up, a group of prisoners was hanging out in the parking lot, outside of the non-gated entrance and out of “reach” of the one guard.

While my first reaction was awe, I was quickly brought back to reality when Elie said hello to one and shook his hand. I followed suit. And then, the shock hit. I could not stop myself from thinking “you’ve killed somebody – maybe a whole family – with a machete. And now I’m shaking your hand.” Shake hands with the devil much?

Elie navigated his way through the prison, to the “classroom” building, where a group of men who were once professors, teachers, doctors gathered. The one who appeared to know English best (fluently) spoke to me: (Apologies to those of you that don’t know French, but this conversation is hilarious if you do.)

Him: Que langue est-ce que vous voulez apprendre? (What language do you want to learn?)

Me: *desperate glances at Elie to no relief* Umm…le francais? Je pense? You just asked me what language I want to learn…right?

Him: Ahh d’accord. Et en que jours est-ce que vous avez les temps pour apprendent? (Okay. And on what days are you free for learning?)

Me: Trois ans. (Three years. – I assumed he asked me for how long I studied French.)

Elie laughed and told me what he said.

Me: Ah…toutes les jours?

Him: Je vous donnez un examen. Qu’est-ce que vous avez fait hier? (I will give you a quiz. What did you do yesterday?)

Me: Hier? Umm…j’ai allé a la centre de santé…de Shingiro…pas la centre de santé de Kabere ou de Muhoza…y…et…j’ai teach Anglais a les…gens…people…et… (Yesterday? [I only said this to check if it sounded like “yesterday”…and to stall while I remembered how to construct past tense verbs…to those of you who know French…I obviously failed.] I went [using a 5 year old’s verb construction] to the health center…of Shingiro…not the Kabere health center, or the Muhoza one [blatantly trying to speak for longer by using English words in a French way]…[Spanish] and…and I taught English at the people…people [English…just in case he didn’t understand me] …and …

He finally stopped me there.

Him: Consolate (girl I live with) is much better than you are.

Me: Well yeah. She’s from Rwanda and she studied French in college.

Him: You can only join her class if you take personal catch-up lessons.

Me (to self): You mean come to the prison of genocidaires by myself without a phone to call anybody in case something happens? Fabulous. Can’t wait. This better pay off and some job someday better send me to France.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Some Pictures!

Making use of that digital camera I got for my's what Rwanda looks like:

Lauren, Travis (Zack's brother), Me, Marvin, and Zack at Volcana, a nearby bar -- that also happens to be the most expensive in Musanze. Convenient.

Marvin, Kelly, Me, Lauren at the convent overlooking Lake Rohondo. I may look like an idiot in actual athletic clothing...but I was much more comfortable than Marvin!
When we spend full days at the health centers...I have to get creative with my work space. Here I am after I turned a consultation room into an office!

A porch meeting with Zack.

Being an incredibly attentive English teacher for the nurses at Shingiro Health Center.
I'd like to describe my teaching style as "laid back" rather than "lazy" for sitting on the table and drinking tonic.

Trying to determine just how ridiculous I looked in my *new* pink aviators using my *new* digital camera as a mirror. Say hi to Peace Corps Brandon in the background -- both of us escaped to La Palme (hotel) to use the fast internet for the afternoon.

Pool and Cheating

I realize I’ve failed in introducing my co-workers through my blog entries. Partially, this is because I won’t give them access to the blog; partially, this is because you can just go to the website ( and read all about them.

But it is important for this story to know that one of my co-workers, Marvin, went to MIT. Because I approve of stereotypes and he’s real nerdy. Last night, I played pool with him and a few other co-workers. I couldn’t help myself but laugh as he tried to measure exact angles for the ricochets and everything. He took it so seriously! I just drank my Waragi and laughed as he crouched at table-height to inspect the layout of the land, despite playing on an uneven table with a cue ball half the size of a normal one, with no chalk and a pool stick half the length of a normal one to account for the walls being awkwardly close to the table.

I am happy to report that street smarts, not MIT smarts won out as he lost to one of the Rwandans on our staff.

And next, buzzed Eli was up.

I started off the game strong: my break (losers break?) did not even hit the triangle of balls. I quickly covered up this mistake by claiming that I thought we were shooting for the break, (If we were, I would have lost this too, as my ball came all the way back and hit the far wall…) and they let me try again. It was another five shots before I got a ball – the wrong one – in a pocket. And probably another five before I got one of my own. Near the end of the game actually, I think all but one of my balls were still on the table, and only one of my opponents’.

Just like my mother playing pong though, I was not worried. Because I knew that there was always that chance that the other team would knock over a cup and lose the game by default; or, in this case, that my opponent would scratch on the 8-ball. Despite most of the rules for pool being different in Rwanda (if you knock your opponent’s ball first, your opponent gets two shots in a row; there are no table scratches; etc. etc.) … you still lose if you scratch on the 8-ball.

Eli wins. Take THAT Marvin.

Eli feels the need to celebrate her win and rub it into the exacting-MIT Marvin by absolutely insisting that they stay for another game, despite it being very past her bed time (about 9pm) on a work night.

The next game didn’t go too much better. I might have gotten a few more balls into the pockets, but more by luck than by skill. The only better part was that I was starting to understand the rules so my opponent had fewer opportunities to have rounds of 5 shots in a row. But the landscape near the end looked pretty much the same as the game before: dismal for me. And then…I kid you not…my opponent scratched on the 8-ball! (Different opponent.)

Eli wins again!
I quickly checked my outfit…no exposed kneecaps and not too much cleavage…I can’t even credit these chance wins on my…skill.

At this point, I was making history at the bar. The longest winning streak is 4 games…and I’m not sure a girl has ever won a game. I’m being loud enough about the fact that I’ve won two games in a row and quiet enough about the fact that they were both by default that people in the bar are starting to think that this muzungu girl is a real pool player. Hustler. (Seriously hustling though, as the loser has to pay for the game.)

And finally, Marvin, who has essentially taken on the role of boring/responsible older brother (I don’t have one of these in real life, so I can only assume that’s how one would act), gathers me and tells me it’s time to go home. At the time I’m mad…but this morning and all day at work…I’m madder that he didn’t make me come home earlier.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Reality Strikes

Before coming to Rwanda, I was warned by a “veteran” to not ask anybody about their families “because you cannot assume that they have a family – after the genocide.” I’ve taken this advice to heart and, in general, assume that everybody I meet lost family in the genocide.

Forgetting that during the genocide, the perpetrators constituted 85% of the country.

First reality strike: it’s true that most people lost family because the genocide. However, the reason for this, more often is that their families are in prison for being genocidaires, than that their families were killed in the genocide. I had to use my hand to keep my jaw shut when I learned about this over dinner one night. Given the simple math, this is something I should have assumed…yet it’s just easier to think of everybody as being a victim in recovery, rather than a perpetrator in regret.

Second reality strike came when I actually saw these prisoners. Almost every blog or personal reflection I’ve read about Rwanda talks about seeing the prisoners in their bright pink jumpsuits and how they are a constant reminder of the genocide. Given that I live in and hardly ever leave my isolated-not-exposed-to-Rwandan culture compound, I had not come across these groups of prisoners that I’d heard so much about until this week. I was driving into town with a few co-workers to buy bus tickets, and our car was right behind a truck full of prisoners. A huge truck. Absolutely packed with prisoners in their signature pink jumpsuits.

I had similarly been warned that prisoners in Rwanda are remarkably un-secure. That guards hardly feel the need to lock doors, because life on the inside of the prison is much kinder than the hate and guilt on the outside. Even so, it was shocking to me to see this truck full of prisoners, remarkably unguarded. Not even a gate or a lock keeping them in. And despite the fact that they’ve all admitted to killing/slaughtering others, nobody on the streets seemed fazed by their presence.

For me, however, these two incidents – within 24 hours of each other – served as a harsh reminder of Rwanda’s brutal history.

For me, Rwanda does not personify “genocide.” It is true that when I first learned that Wyman Worldwide worked in Rwanda, I immediately thought of Hotel Rwanda. After that…I couldn’t think of much else. But since I’ve been here, I’ve encountered so few concrete evidences of it, that it’s easy to forget; and, consequently forget that Rwanda is not only a developing country, it’s a country in recovery. Realizing that “your father killed a man, or two, or three…or more,” makes it all a little more real, and makes life tumble into perspective.