Archive | September, 2011


10 Sep

I’ve spent quite a few hours traveling here in Rwanda and I still have no idea what the ‘rules of the road’ are.  The drivers seem to have their special language involving blinkers, beeps of the horn, and light flashing. It is not uncommon for drivers to wave and call out a greeting to each other. One of the drivers for Peace Corps informed me that when drivers honk at each other it’s usually a greeting. Blinkers do not function in the same capacity here, what’s more is that I’ve yet to figure out exactly how they work which can prove dangerous when I forget while trying to cross the road. I’ve seen vehicles use blinkers/hazard lights when they were the only vehicles on the road as if they were signaling something to the pedestrians.

The speed at which they drive is ridiculous. Imagine Mario Kart but instead of trying to avoid bad guys, it’s oncoming traffic. There are white lines marking lanes on the paved roads but they seem to be more suggestions than rules.  Drivers don’t really think more than fifteen or so feet in front of them. The roads here aren’t great and I’ve seen many a driver punch the gas after passing an obstacle only to have to hit the brakes 20 yards later. I’ve also been in a car playing leap frog with a giant diesel semi. We’d pass it as it crawled uphill only to have it barrel past us minutes later on the downhill. The last time I went to Kamembe I saw a truck and trailer that didn’t make one of the curves and was upside down on the opposite side of the road.

In many places it’s so rural and the roads so terrible that motorcycle taxis are the primary form of transportation. This is the case in my area, there are a few buses that come through at unreliable times but if I don’t plan it well I have a 30 minute moto ride to the nearest taxi station. Motos are also really common in Kigali which I think is even more terrifying than riding on a primitive dirt road as I see them weave in and out of traffic. PCVs are only permitted to take motos if absolutely necessary due to the rural nature of their sites, and forbidden to take them in Kigali except in emergencies.

More terrifying still is the women who take motos with their babies tied in blankets to their back. This is the default method of carrying children and frankly a genius cheap alternative to a baby bjorn. Except for when they’re speeding along on a moto. Thankfully there are surprisingly few traffic accidents (at least that I’ve seen) in Kigali and Rwanda in general.

Between the poor condition of the roads outside of Kigali and the ridiculous volume of traffic in Kigali, I am relieved that PCVs are not allowed to operate vehicles


Adventures In Cooking

8 Sep

If imitation is the highest form of flattery then I hit a homerun when I cooked for my host family. Since they cook over a fire, I cooked only two meals for them. Then hoped that I wouldn’t have to cook over a fire at site because I can’t keep one going to save my life.

The first meal I prepared for them was pasta and a ragu sauce with lots of garlic, bell peppers (which aren’t available at my site), onion, and tomato. I also used some of the rosemary they grew which functioned like MSG for me at that meal. I was nervous about how much they would like it, and if they would be honest but I knew when my sister made the dish again that I had been successful.

The second time I cooked for my host family I made omelets, which is the only way people eat eggs around here aside from hardboiled.

At site I haven’t done a lot of cooking on my own aside from making pancakes a couple Saturday mornings. Cooking the typical Rwanda meal routinely takes 1.5 to 2 hours, longer if you aren’t good at lighting the charcoal. I plan to buy a kerosene stove when I’m in Kigali this weekend along with some other ingredients so I can start cooking more non-Rwandan meals. Currently I share meals with my roommate, it will be interesting to see what happens when I start cooking more. I’m really looking forward to buying ginger root and garlic in Kigali to make a tasty stir fry when I return.

The Food

7 Sep

I’ve written a lot about my feelings and experiences but I still get a lot of questions about what Rwanda is like so I thought I’d do a series of posts on Topics like the food, weather, and such. I’ve scheduled them to post every day so stay tuned!

My friend Kelly has been faithfully writing me letters every couple weeks, in one of them she asked me what the most interesting thing I’ve eaten. I told her that Rwandan cuisine wasn’t particularly elaborate but that I had eaten a lot of dirt and rocks. Beans and rice are staples in Rwandan diet but neither go through much processing so it’s the cook’s job to sift through for small pebbles and other foreign objects that may have been included as a bonus. The thoroughness of the search varies from cook to cook though. I the first time I ate at a local restaurant and several bites of gritty greens that tasted as if they’d gone straight from the field to the pan without a rinse.

I’m part of a project called Snapshots of Service, featuring 50 PCVs in various countries. We all wrote short bios for the blog and plenty of volunteers answered the question about a special food/dish they were looked forward to trying in country. I wondered why in my extensive review of staging materials, and PCV Rwandan blogs I hadn’t read anything about Rwandan food. That’s because it’s not particularly remarkable. Though according to the Israeli backpacker I hosted there’s much more variety than in nearby Kenya and Tanzania.

The basis of Rwandan diet is starch and in comes in a variety of forms: potatos, sweet potatos, rice, cassava, green bananas (similar to plantains), and less frequently pasta. Depending on the family, there may be one or more of these present at a meal. For vegetables there’s cabbage, dodo (greens), peas, eggplant, and some terribly sour small eggplants. Tomatos, carrots, onions, and garlic also grow in Rwanda though they’re used in small quantities in dishes and sauces. For protein there are beans, meat and eggs, though eggs seem to be a luxury only the middle class eat with any frequency. Bread is also available but generally consumed only on special occasions. With almost every meal there’s a sauce, either a ground peanut (NOT tasty like Thai peanut sauce) or tomato based sauce.

The women in my host family stuck to the basics when it came to cooking so the food was pretty plain Jane. We rotated starches and had beans and cabbage with pretty much every meal. The cabbage is actually pretty good. They cut it so it’s pretty close to shredded, steam/cook it in oil with a small amount of tomatoes and onions. We ate the ground peanut sauce every day for a solid month, at the time it wasn’t so bad but I can’t bring myself to eat it anymore. Sometimes I’d find myself gagging from the repetitive taste and texture of the food and I hoped my host mom and sister didn’t notice. I’m rather embarrassed to say I developed an unhealthy love for ifrites (Rwandan French fries) because the taste and texture was so different from any of the other food I ate. I ate more than my fair share on the days when they were served for lunch. While fries are something I love, they weren’t something I indulged in very frequently living in the US

There was one meal that I absolutely loved when my family made and that was ubugali with meat sauce. Ubugali is a doughy substance made from cassava flour that you eat with your hands dipped in the tomato sauce. It’s what I asked to eat for my first dinner back from site visit when I called to tel my host family how much I missed them. It’s also the only time, except for a couple meals shortly after my arrival, my family would eat meat. In fact, it was really the only time I would eat meat because my host sister would pick out pieces that had the least fat and gristle for me. There are some things that I would rather go without than have poor quality, and meat is one of them. Occasionally I’ll have a brochette- which is basically a goat ka-bob and the bar food of choice, but even those can be on the fatty side. So mostly I go without.

At my site I have a house worker who does most of the cooking. She does pretty good when she doesn’t use too much oil and where my host family only used salt, she uses Rosemary when she can get it. My host family grew Rosemary but only used it to make ichai (Rwandan black tea). I eat pretty much the same thing for lunch and dinner every day a starch, beans, cabbage and a tomato sauce with onions and carrots in it. My roommate and I share meals for the time being though my house worker is going back to finish school in Dec/Jan so I hope to start cooking more after that. Another welcome addition to my meals here is pepper. I bought some at swear-in in Kigali and apply liberally at every meal. I thought it would be rude to do at my host family’s.

For snacks there are peanuts, amandazi aka fried dough, keke aka a sweeter and cakelike version of amandazi, ‘biscuit’ similar to animal crackers, sambusa (like tapas) and chiapati. Chiapati ranges from a corn tortilla to naan in similarity depending on who made it. With the exception of the biscuit, these snacks are all oil heavy.

Fruit is the one bright spot in a rather bland Rwandan foodscape. Bananas are the most readily available and I eat at least one every day. I’m curious to see if I’ll ever get sick of them. Passionfruit are also widely available and pretty cheap. There’s also pineapple, papaya, and mangos. I don’t know when mango season will start again, but there are two kinds, Rwandan which are smaller and stringier, and Kenyan which are like the ones you might traditionally think of.

I was worried about getting enough protein here but between peanuts, avocados, eggs, powdered and regular milk, and beans I hoped it would be ok. Lately at site though I feel really sluggish and tired all the time, it seems I’m getting an idea of what less than optimal nutrition is like. My hair is also falling out with increasing frequency. Thankfully I haven’t noticed any bald spots, yet because I don’t exactly have a lot of hair to lose. The prenatal vitamins are supposed to help with this but sometimes I forget to take them with meals. Lately I’ve been taking two a day since vitamin supplements aren’t efficiently absorbed most of the time. The other bad news about my protein sources is that they’re all high in fat, some of them good fats at least. Just have to make sure I get plenty of exercise.

Home is Wherever I’m With You

6 Sep

I’ve heard people talk about homesickness and complain of suffering from it but I’m not sure I know what it is. My parents divorced shortly before I started school so for half the holiday break and for six weeks in the summer I visited whatever parent I wasn’t living with at the time. We also spent many a summer visiting relatives and were fortunate to have a bevy of older cousins who made excellent playmates, entertainers and babysitters.

Long story short I learned early on to be self-sufficient and to ‘bloom where planted’. These days I find myself incredibly nostalgic. It’s difficult to tune in to very long conversations in Kinyarwanda, instead I find myself thinking about memories with friends and fantasizing about things to do together when I get home. I don’t suppose it helps that work is slow going and one of my time killers is to check facebook on my phone because it’s free and the only website I can reliably load on my phone. Makes me wonder if maybe this nostalgia isn’t a tinge of homesickness.

A fellow PCV’s brother is turning 21 which sparked a discussion about how we feel left behind by those we knew in America because we’re so far on the periphery of people’s lives. But we haven’t been left behind, rather we began traveling on a different trajectory the minute we boarded a plane for staging in Philadelphia. Part of me feels left out that I’m part of an ever dwindling minority that lacks a long term partner, children, and a homestead. Mostly I’m jealous of those people with kitchenaid mixers and food processors.

This time of the year is also a time of many milestones for those close to me. Half of my family has their birthdays in September and there are also a lot of wedding anniversaries in August and September. It’s weird to observe them from so far away.

The thing I, and probably many new-ish volunteers take for granted is that we’re not alone as we move on this trajectory. I am part of a 50 year tradition of service-minded individuals who sacrificed the comforts of Western life for the unknown in faraway places. I can’t forget the conveniences volunteers possess have only increased through the years. Right now it’s difficult to recognize fellow travelers on this trajectory and to enjoy fellowship, but as I spend more time with volunteers who have been in country longer than me I am touched by their kindness and wisdom. Seeing their bonds with other volunteers fills me with hope for my own developing in-country support network.

Added to all this is the realization that the chances of making my high school 10 year reunion are slim. My service will end in mid-July 2013 after which I’ll most likely want to do some traveling for a month or so. I’ve yet to process my feelings about this and I imagine they will change over the next couple of years. Who knows what the future can bring and it’s entirely possible that I’ll make it home, or not feel the need to go. For now, I should probably not let it occupy too much of my time.

Despite my longing for home and the people I care about I feel an incredible sense of contentment. I truly believe that I am sowing seeds that will bloom into a fulfilling experience here. I also suspect that the end of my service will come quicker than I’d like.

Mefloquin Dreamin’

5 Sep

Mefloquin is a malaria prophylaxis notorious for its side effects, primarily incredibly vivid dreams. Though there were some trainees in our group that had to switch medications because of the extreme anxiety and hallucinations it caused. During PST we kept on hearing cows mooing as if they were being strangled. In reality, they were probably just hungry but the group of people I spent the most time with took to joking about them because you could hear them but not see the through the plethora of foliage. Mefloquin became the explanation for the bizarre, zaney, and unexplainable things in Rwanda.

Last Saturday I had a mefloquin dream of my own and I don’t even take the stuff. In my dream there were hunky ROTC guys, a contest I won that allowed me to spend time with a band I like, talk about life in Rwanda as a PCV, a staff meeting with my former coworkers, talk of a crush from high school, and the strangest illness I’ve ever come across. The dream was like an everything bagel of every last thought in my mind.

It was the last part that was the most disturbing. I dreamt there were teal scales on the bottoms of my feet between where my toes connected and the balls of my feet. I remember very vividly they looked similar to a ripe pineapple. I also remember registering a feeling of pain like you would feel when peeling off a newly formed scab. I also distinctly remember knowing there was a difference between registering the pain and actually feeling it, which I didn’t. Then the hysteria that set in when a former coworker calmly informed me the scales were a result of a staph infection. I began to lament about supergerms, how in the world did I contract such an infection and would I ever recover?

I’m no stranger to vivid or surreal dreams but this is the first the link between what had been on my mind the past few days and what I dreamt was perfectly clea


5 Sep

Work is still rather slow going and I still lack a clear idea of what I’ll be doing in the long run. I did a long stint working in the department responsible for handing out ARVs. It didn’t take long for me to grow tired of counting out meds to put in little baggies so I migrated over to the ‘data management’ side. Basically I’ve spent the better part of a month as a glorified file clerk. While it seems silly I would come all this way to be a file clerk, it’s been really good. I feel a sense of accomplishment when I quickly locate a patient’s file and put the files back with incredibly efficiency. It’s also been valuable for my coworkers to see that even if I’m struggling with language there ARE things that I know how to do. Overall, it’s been a good confidence booster. Staying in one service for an extended amount of time has also given me the chance to get to know some of my coworkers better since we have a lot of downtime in the afternoons.

I realized that another reason I enjoyed working in ARV so much was that I knew what to expect. In the first couple of weeks at site I felt a sense of dread every morning when I woke up because I had no idea what to expect from the work day. I decided it was time to step back outside my comfort zone and shadow another service so I spent about a week and a half working in the ‘Community’ department.  They call Rwanda the land of a thousand hills and I have a panoramic view of a great many of them at my site. Working in ‘community’ meant that we ventured into many of the hills/mountains I see from the health center to visit homes and businesses to inspect the hygiene. I have a feeling that in a year’s time there won’t be an area in my region I’m not familiar with considering it’s like the Chuckanuts only less forested and three times as big, I say that’s pretty impressive.

At the end of October I will have my In-service Training where I’ll receive technical training in the areas I’ll be focusing on through my service. In preparation for IST I’ll be conducting a Community Needs Assessment. Peace Corps has given an outline of what it should contain along with a plethora of tools to complete it. This week I started strategizing with my titulaire and coworkers on how to go about completing it. The assessment will include reviewing data as well as individuals with residents to discuss what’s important in their lives. If I’m feeling really ambitious, there’ll be a community meeting where with some visioning exercises. My Kinyarwanda isn’t really up to snuff to do all this, but the two guys who work in the ‘community’ department will be really helpful.

The rainy season has apparently arrived and people are busy getting crops in the ground since this is the time to plant. That includes myself, well I’ll have a garden but I paid a woman to clear the weeds, form the beds and do most of the planting. I don’t know that I trust her to do the planting for the veggies that aren’t native to Rwanda.


As I post this I’m in the capital city of Kigali taking advantage of some unlimited internet and help a friend celebrate her birthday.