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 already...it 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 wwhps.org)

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 nh.gov 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.