Archive | February, 2012

This Vacation NOT Paid For With Blood Money

23 Feb

Consider this the prequel to my Zanzibar vacation

I went into Kigali a day early to take care of some stuff before we headed off to Zanzibar. The day just happened to be Chinese New Year so after a tasty dinner of Mr. Chips (Think American fair food: hot dogs, pulled pork, real burgers etc) we met up with some other PCVs at a Casino near Fort Peace Corps.

Now I’ve never been a fan of casinos and once I realized there was smoking in this one and the drinks were two times what they should be I got over being there pretty quick. So it’s a wonder that we ended up staying there for the rest of the night seemingly doing nothing.

I suppose I stopped caring that we weren’t leaving to go dancing when the free drinks started coming. How did that happen you ask? Well, an African gentlemen who spoke good English asked me to select a drink for the whole poker table. This sounds harder than you think because to order anything other than beer is an involved and expensive process that doesn’t always turn out for the best. I hesitated, polled the crowd and settled on Scotch. I mean if he was buying right? What we ended up with was Skol, Rwanda’s low sugar beer, and only enough bottles for the ladies. But I couldn’t complain.

The two of us who weren’t gambling ambled over to one of the roulette tables where I tried to convince the casino workers that I didn’t like gambling so it would be no problem to let me spin the roulette wheel, they weren’t buying it. Some Chinese guys came over to play roulette and asked us to help them decide what to bet on. So we picked our birthdays, favorite numbers, sports jerseys from high school and told them to bet on the birthdays and ages of their wives and children.

Then Mr. Africa came over and I asked what country he was from that he was flashing American cash and speaking English so well. He claimed the entirety of Africa was his country to which I called bologna. Then he handed me a business card that said he was chief of some area in Congo (can you say war lord?). Makes sense since the Congolese currency is worthless, there are no banks there and they use American dollars.

He was playing ALOT of $25 chips like they were nothing so I kept reiterating that he could’ve paid for my vacation so Zanzibar several times over. He continued to place chips down even after the dealer said not to so I had a lot of fun emphatically declaring, “Les jeux sont fait!” (Thank you very much Mr. Inman and high school French).

As I write this I’m afraid it’s not as entertaining to the reader as those who were there. Mr. Africa also offered to fly us wherever we needed in the Congo, said that if I called him the next day we could discuss his paying for our trip, and lot’s of other fluffy, impossible promises I don’t quite remember.

The most ridiculous part of the evening came when two of us ladies were freshening up after using the bathroom and in walks Mr. Africa. I don’t remember how the conversation started. But I brought up how he probably loved prostitutes (paying for sex is quite common) because it tends to put guys on the defensive. He said that he detested them and paid them a thousand dollars just to stay away from him. Then in the most non sequitur segue EVER he confided to us that he had a problem, that his genitalia was too long and reached for his belt.

As soon as he did that I nudged my friend forward, giggled at the craziness of the night and said repeatedly, “We gotta go. Gotta go NOW.” As he followed us out I reminded him that he still had to use the bathroom. He thanked me for the reminder (ludicrous) and backed off. For the rest of the evening we stayed one the opposite side of the casino but the beers still arrived whenever the previous one was gone.

This might shock some of you, but honestly this kind of ridiculousness happened to me even in America. All you can really do is laugh. Which is what I did all the way home when we piled entirely too many people into the cab.


The Holidays: A Recap

23 Feb

I’m wayyy behind on my bliggity bloggage, forgive me, I’ve been busy living life!

Originally I was going to go with a group of other PCVs to Uganda for some beach time and white water rafting over the holidays but the trip had to be postponed. This ended up working out for the better because I’ve found a dancing buddy in one of my fellow volunteers in the region and she was not happy at the prospect of spending her last Rwandan NYE apart.

Unlike in America, where the Christmas stuff comes out right after Thanksgiving, sometimes before….. mum was the word in the weeks leading up to Noehli in my village. I decided that rather than stay at my site I’d use the opportunity to visit some other volunteers and shadow them at work.

On the 23rd I headed into Kamembe to take care of some errands before I went to visit another volunteer. I was happy to see that some of the stores in town had decorated for the holiday. Christmas had a familiar vibe as my dancing buddy and I ran errands before going to spend the holiday at another volunteer’s site. To be on the safe side you have to catch a taxi car before 5 pm in order to get insure you can take one there. We intended to leave at a decent hour but the errands dragged out and before we knew it we were trying to argue a reasonable price with the driver who was not in the mood to accept it. So we followed a woman who was going to the same place over the twgerane park and waited, hoping it would fill up soon and we’d be able to make it that day.

The whole experience was reminiscent of Christmas Eves past, last minute shopping for stocking stuffers, and staying up late into the night after the traditional Christmas eve dinner to wrap presents and watch a White Christmas. We arrived in the dark to my friends site so I didn’t have a good idea where she lives, except that it’s with nuns behind walls and gates which delightfully keep many of the obnoxious people out.

We greeted the nuns, were shown to our room, and shortly went over to the priests’ house for dinner. I had heard that priests have a reputation for pushing the booze and found it to be true. There was wine, beer, and whiskey in addition to the ubiquitous fanta. One of the priests poured me a large glass of red wine and I made sure to nurse it in order to not have to drink another so as not to wake up on Christmas with a hangover.

Many of the priests I’ve met have bellies and I understand why, because they eat very well. The meal we had was delicious and the thing that sticks out in my mind was the Akabenze, which is the name for pork. It was the first time I’ve had it and so far I’ve not eaten any to rival its deliciousness.


I’m not typically big on Christmas though I do enjoy participating in the traditions of my family and friends. However this year I felt like I had to pick up the slack of the people around me. Which meant that in the week before I left site I found myself singing carols at work, amazed how much of the French ones I still remember from high school. I found myself also wanting to sing a carol at dinner with the priests but not wanting to sing a solo since the other volunteers did not want to sing. So Go Tell It On The Mountain remained unsung.

It started to get late and the head nun was clearly very tired, we started discussing if she would rally the troops (nuns) to go home before she dozed off at the table. Finally she did and the priests escorted us across the grassy field back to the nunquarters. It wasn’t long before we called it a night.

After waking up, we went to breakfast bearing gifts of cheese and agasha, which is a juice concentrate. Breakfast was DELICIOUS, with warm bread, honey, and coffee to name some of the highlights. Then we headed off to the 7:30 mass.


It was absolutely beautiful walking through the grassy field, the sun still low in the sky and the air and grass still heavy with moisture. I wanted to take a picture of the people walking through the field lit by the sunlight but I didn’t have my camera and I’m always wary of taking pictures of strangers here.

The church for this particular parish in on the small side and we walked past many people seated and standing outside to listen to the mass on the speakers. Despite being guaranteed a seat because we were with the nuns, it was a squeeze. Catholics have the shortest church service in Rwanda, but it still clocked in around 2 hours. Impressive considering how many people took communion. Mass is probably the church service that closest resembles its counterpart in America because of the uniformity worldwide. After mass it was a bit of a stampede to exit the church and when we did my breath caught a little at the sheer number of people standing outside, waiting to enter for the second mass.

Basically we spent the rest of the day eating, being full & hot, watching movies, and playing with the almost three year old orphan boy who lives with the nuns. First we watched Elf and after lunch we watched Baby Momma. The latter isn’t exactly Christmas material but 2/3rds of us hadn’t seen it, and it’s reaaaaaally funny.

After breakfast on the 26th AJ and I headed back to Kamembe and Gillian headed back to site. A girl from my group came to visit and we had lots of fun hanging out and I even did a holiday art project. I modgepodged some containers I used for pens and makeup using igitenge. I figured my mom would be proud of my holiday craftiness since that’s kinda her thing.

I headed to Gillian’s site the afternoon of the 28th. We did P90x (I’ve since fallen off the wagon), I accompanied her to work one day, and we hung out/cooked with a coworker she lives with. I also helped him put music on his shuffle and in the process got a bunch of random/awesome Rwandan music. This coworker is a delightful young man, I can’t even really explain him except to say it’s like sunshine emanates from his eyes. He’s so serious about his studies that he deleted all the girls from his phone because he didn’t want the distraction. Only sometimes it backfires because he doesn’t know who is calling. We had a lot of fun one night cooking dinner, ubugali from corn flower, a tomato sauce and imboga.

It was lots of fun spending time with Gillian because we both like to treat NYE and birthdays as special. So the focus was on hydrating and resting so we could be at our most gorgeous for NYE.

I had a dress made for the party we were going to and I’m really pleased with how it turned out. Though I’m waiting for another occasion where I can wear it. It’s also on the shorter side for the village, but I can just wear leggings with it. Which was my original plan, but I was feeling gutsy so I just decided to go bare legged.

For NYE, two friends of PC Kamembe, who happen to live together and near us both have birthdays in December so they had a party. At the party there was dinner and of course plenty of speeches, and beer. I kept trying to rally the troops to head out to the dance club for dancing but we kept getting ushered inside. Finally it was Peace Corps’ turn for a speech. We all stood up and introduced ourselves and our leader gave a speech in Kinyarwanda which was impressive considering how beers they’d had. Though it was repetitive but that’s the style here. There was dancing, more brochettes, more speeches and then finally midnight struck and we were all dancing and jumping around. A tray of peanuts appeared, apparently some kind of tradition? I soon found myself trying to throw them into fellow party goers’ mouths and trying to catch them in my own.

Sometime after 1 am a group of us headed down to the dance club to confirm my worst fears. Paco was the lead singer of the awesomeness responsible for our dance teacher rasta man, and all the sweet reggae jams we spent our Friday and Saturday nights dancing to. His contract with the hotel ended earlier in December and he was snatched up by another hotel in Rwanda. Another Congolese band was brought in to replace him, which is what we saw on new years. They were not impressive and luckily it wasn’t long after we got there before the band finished and we got to dance to the top hits of Rwanda. I accomplished my goal of dancing until 4 am, though at times it was pretty crazy. Rwandans on the whole are not one to drink to excess, sure there is the odd overly drunk guy. On this night though, lots of guys were drinking lots of beer which resulted in a number of fights and I saw a lot of guys walking around in the days following with black eyes. Needless to say I was extremely happy to be in the company of some very good guys.

While I didn’t learn anything groundbreaking from my colleagues’ work, it was extremely heartening to see the way they interacted with their coworkers and people in their community. It gave me hope for the budding relationships in my own community because I still felt a guardedness.

My birthday (which is like a holiday) fell on a Thursday so I was at site and it wasn’t particularly remarkable. Work was slow so I spent much of the day watching episodes of The Office and relaxing. I wasn’t feeling particularly motivated so I just ate the chocolate pudding I had been saving for the occasion for dinner. The next day I headed into Kamembe to celebrate with friends. I spent Saturday down by the lake with a friend. Later we went out for dinner and gave the new Congolese band one last try. Still underwhelmed and not sure how we’ll spend the rest of our Friday and Saturday nights. I can’t complain though since I didn’t pay for a drink all night and got called up on stage and sung happy birthday to. There’s even a snippet of video that I’ll try to get uploaded when I can find a decent internet connection. Fun fact, few people use toilet paper in the bathroom, but it IS a popular tool for decorating. Case in point, I had shredded toilet paper thrown on my head at the end of the song. There was a girl there with her family celebrating her 16th birthday who was also sung to. The whole joint birthday thing was incredibly awkward.

It was like Christmas came at my birthday because when I went to the post office on Friday I had a bunch of packages to pick up. One from Lu-dawg, a very important one containing funfetti birthday cake mix from Tracy, and two from the WCHD care package team. I was a happy happy lady, especially since the WCHD one came with an adorable dress which solved my problem of what I should wear for my birthday. I also got a package from my grandma and my mom’s cousin on Christmas Eve. And another between the holidays from my Aunt and Uncle. Thanks to all my family and friends for putting in the time and effort to put something together for me.

Funfetti is somewhat of a birthday tradition for me so I made sure to bake it right away on Friday and we thoroughly enjoyed it Saturday after coming back from the club.


A Graduation Ceremony

23 Feb

(I started writing this back in December but never finished. It’s not as bad as the post about church I started in September but have yet to finish. Please forgive any disjointedness)

This past weekend I experienced many things typical to Rwanda. Thursday December 1st (also World AIDS Day) my host sister graduated from the Kigali Institute of Education with a Bachelors of Arts. This was something we’ve all been looking forward to for a long time partly because I promised to visit for this particular occasion before I moved to site.


I arrived in Kigali the afternoon before and had some business to take care of. Like the naïve umuzungu (foreigner) I am I foolishly thought it appropriate to arrive in a timely manner so I left Fort Peace Corps to catch a taxi an hour before the ceremony was supposed to start at 8 am. Of course I was the first one of my party to arrive calls to my host sister produced vague answers of, ‘I’m on my way and yes I’m close.’ Eight am came and went still no one I knew had arrived. My host mom and her oldest grandson M were the first to arrive. It was so good to see my host mom, I had seen her in nice igitegne to go to church but for this occasion she wore the traditional Rwanda outfit for special ceremonies, called an umushanana (probably not spelled correctly).


Due to the large number of people arriving for the ceremony my host sister got stuck in a traffic jam and I bet it was somewhere close to 9 am when she arrived. Next we moseyed towards where the ceremony would take place only to find quite the line to enter the ceremony. Fortunately it moved rather quickly but as we got closer I could see the CF unfolding inside. In order to get into the ceremony you had to pass through a gate which they were using to control the number of people entering at one time. Because once inside you had to squeeze between a mass of people already seated to grab a white plastic chair to sit on. Perhaps at one point there was a method to the madness but by the time we arrived it was pure chaos. Rwandans aren’t much for lines and I experienced my first full on ‘mob’ when the guards tried to close the gates and my host sister grabbed me and more or less shoved us through the crowd and gates. It was a bit scary, but not too bad.


The whole process of finding a place to sit proved a bit overwhelming for my host mom so we hemmed and hawed about where to sit, sent M to get some chairs, only to call him back. Despite my progress in Kinyarwanda, it’s still a struggle to communicate with my host mom because she’s just plain difficult to understand most of the time. Ultimately we sat under one of the tents set up for the graduates. We weren’t supposed to sit there but after some convincing on my part it ended up being the best decision we made because the ceremony was long and while I thought for sure it would rain, the sun was rather fierce. Not to mention that we were able to sit close to my host sister. Sometime between 10 and 10:30, almost two hours behind schedule the ceremony got under way.


The only way I had any idea what was going on was because I had a program that was thankfully printed in English, though a lot of the ceremony was also in English. Miraculously once things got started they were pretty close to the printed timetable. The ceremony was rather anticlimactic. There was no walking across the stage, handshaking, and accepting of a diploma cover. Considering that the number of graduates there numbered in the thousands I suppose it was for the best. Instead they read off the names of graduates by department/major and after each one that particular group would give a little cheer.


I don’t remember how long we stayed, however we left before the ceremony concluded, but after they read my host sister’s name. The rationale being that we wanted to avoid the rush of people trying to leave all at once. Some relative had volunteered his taxi services so we set off to meet up with him. In the process however my host mom’s grandson M disappeared. They spent several hours looking for him around the university and store he went into to grab a snack. I met my host sister’s godparents while they looked for him, the rain came so we ducked into the little boutique we were standing in front of. Finally, I decided there was no point in me being cranky and hungry just because he was missing so I went in the back and had myself a little snack to try and distract myself from the worry.


Finally, after calling the house in Kamonyi, for reasons I don’t understand we hopped in the taxi and headed home. My host brother and some of his friends stayed behind to look for him. It was weird making the 45 minute trip by car since I hadn’t been in a regular car for that amount of time since I was a trainee. Busses, twegeranes, and motos being my main forms of long distance transportation now. I’m guessing this relative was a fairly new driver because he wasn’t as aggressive as others I’ve ridden with so we found ourselves stuck behind quite a few slow moving trucks on the uphill. I also noticed he struggled shifting gears a bit. Can’t complain too much though because it was a free ride in a car which was infinitely better than squeezing into a twege.


We arrived at my oldest host brother’s house to find family and friends gathered. It was a bit overwhelming, but ultimately very nice to be greeted by neighbors. It was also a bit strange to be called by my given name, Heidi since everyone at site calls me Mahoro. There were also people who pretended that they knew me well that they knew me well and were happy to see me. After greeting lots of people and seeing all the ‘neighborhood’ kids I took a seat of ‘honor’ and the party started. Now parties and pretty much any event in Rwanda are quite long and very ceremonious. A cousin that I know served as the MC. I can’t remember what exactly was said, even though I had a woman sitting next to me translating. I was asked on the spot to give a speech and I did, mostly in Kinyarwanda. The MC offered to translate for me from English to Kinya, but my host sister insisted I do it in Kinya and really what I had to say was pretty simple. It was something along the lines of we are colleagues now since we both have degrees, how I was very proud of her, and how I know the family are good people because I lived with them and they took good care of me. I missed the memo where I was supposed to introduce myself and where I came from, but the MC took care of that for me. I learned then that I was a bit of a guest of honor because I had traveled all the way from Cyangugu which is a great distance and expense.


At some point the grandson who had disappeared in Kigali showed up. I tried to figure out what happened but my host sister told me that M was full of stories about what happened and how he got home. I was just happy that he was kidnapped or hurt. Apparently 10 years is old enough to be traveling around by yourself in big towns.


We ate and I had the fun of juggling a plate of food, a fanta, my favorite kiddo and her plate of food and fanta while squished in between a bunch of other people. I took some pictures and let the girl sitting next to me play with my camera a little bit. The ceremony concluded and a mob quickly formed around my camera. The little kids started pushing on each other and women started asking me to take pictures of them with their kids. Finally, I had to tell them that my camera had died.


After grabbing my bag from the house I stopped to sing a bit of the song on the radio and was delighted when the chorus came and all the neighborhood kiddos started singing and dancing. It was one of the moments I’ll always remember as I laughed and danced with them. Finally, with the last of the light I stated towards my host mom’s house. I could tell that many people wanted me to visit with them but I really just wanted to go home and be with my host family since I hadn’t really had a chance to talk with them before this point.


My youngest host brother Peter was home for the occasion which was a treat since he was mostly at university in Kigali when I lived there. I also enjoyed chatting with the trainee that currently lives there, though she has had a rougher time than I have. A lot of the current trainees who went to live with families who had trainees from our group found they had big shoes to fill, especially considering that hindsight is always 20/20. It was quite the full house and we passed the time chatting, listening to music on phones, looking at pictures and playing cards.


Now, my family was notorious for eating dinner rather late, typically after 9 and sometimes closer to 10. But this time, with having to clean up and bring furniture and other things from the party it was midnight by the time we finally ate ‘dinner’. I wasn’t all the hungry since we had eaten in the late afternoon but I couldn’t just go to bed because I needed to eat in order to take my malaria meds. It was a good diversion though because it gave us ‘kids’ an excuse to visit with each other.


It was weird being considered a ‘vistor’ in what I consider one of my homes in Rwanda. They took my shoes and made one of the cousins wash them. When it was time for me to wash my feet and face before bed I had to ask for a basin instead of just grabbing mine. What had once been a part of a routine that I was responsible for, was now in the hands of others. In a stroke of genius I had packed everything I would need for the night in my moto helmet/purse so that it wouldn’t be a pain to schlep it to the ceremony. As a result, I forgot to pack some crucial things like tp and something to dry off with. Thankfully the trainee came to my rescue.


As I struggle to feel connected to the people at my site there’s something so grounding and energizing about going to visit my host family. I felt it when I dropped in on them in November, and during this visit as well. Even though I struggled to feel connected to them while I lived there, I see when I visit them how much they really do care for me (it’s that 20/20 hindsight again). I can feel that they are genuinely happy to see me. I also realize the thing that I am most grateful for and that is that they’ve never ever ever tried to take advantage of me, a sharp contrast from my experience/perception at site. My host family has known me from my most vulnerable state, fresh off the plane and they have always been respectful of my space, my things, and my needs. Never once have they ever asked me for money, to buy them things or what have you. Whereas at site I’m living with a girl who would be up the creek without a paddle were it not for the things I bought to live/cook and not in a hurry to change, coworkers asking to come over to eat, for money or for the food I’m coming home from the market with.

Regrettably I had to head back to Kigali the next day to run some errands before I went home Sunday. It was a really good visit and my host sister said that she wanted to come visit me as soon as she could.

Ignorance Is Bliss

23 Feb

I find it funny that the morning after my last blog post I discovered that someone had stolen two can of sardines (cat food), my chef’s knife, the eight eggs I purchased the day before, my lighter and can opener.

No one seems to have an idea who is stealing from me and no is ever held accountable. The good news is that I’m moving! The official day is supposed to be Monday Feb 27th but I’m not holding my breath on that one.

I will be sharing a large and glorious house with a successful business woman and her three year old son. It’s  not the living situation I wanted, where it was just me… but she travels a lot of work and my assistant program manager and I both get good vibes from her. Besides, this woman has established herself and has everything she needs, unlike my current housemate who is young just starting out and thinks because I’m American that I have boatloads of money so she can take and use my things at her convenience with no consequence to myself.

Anyway, I’m back after yet another lengthy absence with some updates. Hope you enjoy!