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: