2017 Kigali Updates

The last few months of 2017 in Kigali are a blur now. It was a series of test dates, a final performance of A Christmas Carol, and lots of college acceptances, with some deferrals and denials. It’s also been a collection of mundane daily life tasks as life is everywhere as well as moments of fun with the people I’ve met since being here.

 

Big things that happened up to Christmas break 2017:

 

  1. I got a car.     So, I wanted to get a scooter, but when I asked around everyone encouraged me to buy a car. There are two rainy seasons, plus you can get out of town, plus you probably won’t die if you have an accident. All of these were perks. I do feel a bit bougey [bourgeois] having a car, but I guess I am, dangit. And everyone says (I don’t know who everyone is but I’m referring to them again) that cars keep their value in Kigali and I’ll be able to sell it easily when I leave. I have to say, despite the issues it seems to develop every few weeks, it has been nice to have a car and hopefully I’ll be able to get out into the countryside more often in 2018. That is, if it stops falling apart on me. I sure do miss my mechanically minded dad and step-dad.
  1. Students took the ACT and then the SAT and the SAT subject Tests and the TOEFL and and and….. yeah. They were over-tested. But it’s paying off! Although test-prep isn’t the most exciting to teach, it’s pretty necessary and it’s been exciting to find out the students’ results.

 

  1. I joined an orchestra.   Yep. There’s an orchestra in Kigali. It’s conducted by an expat couple who work at an international school. I had heard of two friends who had been in it before (There are different bands—Jazz, community, orchestra, etc). And I figured, why not? I still know how to play the flute, right? It’s only been….10ish years? I mean I’ve played it since then but not regularly or in a band. It’s amazing how much muscle memory I retained, but I definitely do need to practice more. My fingers aren’t as fast—or not at first until I practice I guess. It’s really fun though to be able to play music in a group. I didn’t really realize how much I’d missed it.

  2. I joined a Spanish conversation group at a Spanish restaurant. This isn’t exactly a formal “I joined” but they meet every Wednesday evenings and I go when I can (after orchestra). It’s fun to use my Spanish, and yes, I realize I live in Rwanda, and should probably be focusing more on Kinyarwanda and/or French (although French is really only useful with the older generations as people my age and younger generally speak English and French.) I won’t be in Rwanda forever, and Spanish is what I’ve got the best start in and I love it, so I’ll keep practicing it.

 

  1. We celebrated Halloween with the scholars by having a “Fall Festival” party, which resulted in them and me (and some other staff) dressing up hilariously. The students bobbed for apples and some of them nearly drowned the buckets were so deep. (Not really but when forced to keep your hands behind your backs it can get dicey!) *Also haven’t asked permission to share the full group photo, so I’ll refrain.
  1. We celebrated Thanksgiving the weekend before Thanksgiving at our executive director’s house. This was many of the scholars’ first experiences with casseroles and other such delicacies. It was delicious and I wore stretchy pants to accommodate. (TMI?) It was also the first time my little car made it outside the big city—about 40 minutes outside.
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Thanksgiving comfort food!

  1. I went to South Africa—think this might require a separate blog post. We got the Thursday & Friday of Thanksgiving off from work, and took an extra day and went to the Drakensburg Mountains and into Lesotho (a country inside of South Africa—I know, crazy!). It was beautiful and amazing and I’ll try to write a post soon.
  1. I found 3 scorpions in my house over 3 months. Twice in the shower. Once outside my bedroom door as if it were WAITING for me to step on it.   Freaky.

 

  1. I got a massage for the first time since living in Indonesia. (This may or may not be related to #8). Apparently people do this for fun, and although in my head I had this mindset that “I don’t like people touching me”, but I tried again. Seems like something that’s more affordable or excusable when you’re abroad somehow? Well, to be fair, I went twice. The first time was great. The second time was not. The jury is still out. But I do feel guilty somehow doing something indulgent like that—but when don’t I feel guilty?
  1. Had lots of College acceptances/ some denials / some deferrals.  These were by far the most exciting times here in Kigali. We’d get a heads-up sometimes from schools so we’d be ready; other times no one would have known, and other times schools made it public when their emails would go out, so we’d be waiting. I spent my last week in Kigali before leaving for Christmas at the students’ house a lot along with a few other staff members. The announcements would come in at 10pm, 10:30pm, 11:30, midnight, 1am and 2am and we’d stay awake, finally checking emails and then either screaming and celebrating or commiserating. The build-up is intense while everyone waits for the email check…. When there’s an acceptance seeing their joy for each other and how pleased they are for one another is so heart-warming. They always throw the successful scholar up into the air and every time I get so stressed out they’ll drop him/her! No drops yet, thank goodness. In teaching, it’s so rare that you ever know or find out if you really made an impact or even if you feel you did, it’s so intangible, and unable to be quantified. However, getting an actual result like a college acceptance is so gratifying. I won’t claim that I’m responsible for each of these incredibly bright scholars’ acceptances into university, though I did play a part. Yet ultimately it is their victory—they’ve worked so hard and it’s paying off.
  1. I danced a lot (at the acceptances). I’ve never been a big dancer—I blame my mother (just kidding). But seriously so many of my friends took dance classes! I don’t know that they’re necessarily great at dancing to modern music (the stuff the kids today are listening to!) Despite that, you can’t help but dance around with the scholars when they start their dance parties after someone gets accepted to university. There are some killer dance moves I’ll share with you someday…

 

  1. Our porch was taken over by bees. I can’t put it any better than my hilarious housemate, Marisa, who posted in the expat Facebook group for people living in Rwanda. Here is her post:

 

T-2 days: I sat on the porch next to our dog. She seemed somewhat agitated; I assumed nothing. 

T-1 days: My roommates and I noticed a number of bees buzzing around the large, empty chest on our porch that we use as a coffee table. We avoided the porch but figured all was normal.

Today: The bee situation continued. Leah and I investigated the porch and noticed a number of bees flying in and out of the chest. “Of course nothing’s in there,” I said. “It’s never been opened,” I said. “Nothing is inside,” I said. 

We opened the chest.

Inside, there was a swarm of ~1,000 bees. 

We closed the chest.

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Update 12/12 8:42am: they woke up (mad) and returned to the porch, we’ll be in touch with the people in the comments. Thanks!

Update 12/12 6:45am: never mind, our guard calmly relocated the hive while they were asleep. 

 

This wasn’t on her post, but an update after that—they RETURNED without the chest being there. I woke up and walked out of my room to see our guard on the porch with a broom that he had lit on fire as he tried to smoke them away! They weren’t happy about it and we had to leave by the backdoor that day.

By the time I got home that day, they were gone. According to Marisa, our guard had said that he had “taught them a lesson”. So that happened.

  1. My drama Class performed A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens! I taught an elective in the fall—drama—and for our final performance the students performed A Christmas Carol. It was amazing—they did such a great job. They memorized some very old language—to do that when English isn’t your first language is so impressive. They came up with costumes and props, took on their characters’ personalities and made everyone laugh (at the right times!) and applaud at the end. I felt so proud of them. They did this in the midst of applying for college and taking the SAT and finishing their research papers. It’s good preparation for university when they’ll have a million things to do at once though.

 

  1. There were many gatherings with friends including a farewell brunch before many of us headed out for the holidays. Moving abroad is always hard, but I remember why I love it when I have moments gathering over food with people from all over the world enjoying each other’s company. There are so many interesting and wonderful people in the world.

 

 

So that’s a recap of 2017.  I’ll try to do better in 2018 (a great NY resolution).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why I’m here

Sorry blogging world, I know I’ve dropped off the face of the earth, but really I’m still here. Still truckin.

Sometimes sitting down writing can feel quite daunting, although upon reflection it might be the reflecting that seems daunting.
When people ask how things are going here, I say they’re good. Unless they’re very close friends or family, and then I might confide that things are mostly good but sometimes hard.   To be honest, that’s kind of how things are regardless of location, so I suppose that’s worth noting.

 

I sometimes feel like I’m not doing my students or my position justice, and that I’m not doing everything I could or should do for my students or the program. I think most teachers can probably relate—you can spend hours on one lesson plan, on giving adequate feedback to an essay or a presentation, on stepping back and trying to plan the big picture—a full term’s schedule. And it never feels like enough. I think I’m feeling it even more so in this position because my students are so incredibly hard working and deserving.

 

October is a pretty hectic month; our scholars (we call the students at B2R scholars—which they are!) are beginning to take their standardized tests—the TOEFL (a test needed by all international students who want to study in English) has been staggered, with some students taking it different times. We’ve had 14 out of 37 scholars take it so far and they’ve done really well. We’ve still got quite a few to go, and then they all will be taking the ACT on the 28th of October, so they’re pretty stressed out. (And so am I). At the same time, they’re all writing their personal statements for their college applications, and so us teachers are reading over and providing feedback on organization, content, and of course sentence structure, grammar, and vocabulary. Reading their essays is so interesting though, because it gives a glimpse into their lives and backgrounds that I wouldn’t necessarily know from my daily interactions with them. Many of them have incredibly powerful stories and experiences.

I’m slowly starting to feel like I’m getting to know the scholars. 37 is just so many to keep up with! They had a karaoke night a few Fridays ago, and I got to perform my favorite—Wagonwheel, as well as take in some of their amazing performances. One of the quieter, less confident in terms of speaking, students got up and did some air punches, kicks and slid his back down a pole in the middle of their common room during his performance! Magical is a word I would use to describe that moment.

 

 

The scholars all do community service once a week as well. Many of them tutor underprivileged children—some go to local orphanages, and some go to hospitals to help out. A few weeks ago I got to go with a group of about 10 students to their community service on a Saturday morning. They go to an NGO center that helps underprivileged kids who can’t afford school books or uniforms—kids who come from very poor backgrounds—no electricity, running water, dirt floors, families of 6 crowded into a 2 room hut with no door.  We walked through some of the area where many of these kids live—they call it Brazil locally, for what reason I have no idea… Walking through the area is a very sobering experience. The poverty is stark—especially when you look up and see massive, expensive houses on the hills looking over this valley. Many of our scholars come from poorer, more rural areas, so to see such poverty smack in the middle of the rich capital of Kigali—where so many go to make a better living—was surprising for many of them. Some of them were explaining to me that the poverty they’re used to or have seen in the countryside is different because at least at the end of the day people own their homes or land. I’m not sure how true that is across Rwanda, but that’s what a few of my students’ experience told them.

This NGO sends a bus to pick our scholars up from their ‘hostel’ (as they call it). When we arrived, tons of kids came running up to the scholars to hug them (and me!) A few of the very small ones (4-6 years old) were pretty thrilled to hug me—the foreign aspect is hard to resist of course. The scholars split the kids up into different groups according to their grade in school, and began tutoring. The little ones were taught colors and body parts in English by one of the scholars. Other kids had more intense homework from school—the parts of a leaf and issues of deforestation vs reforestation, and the secondary school kids were working on challenging subjects like math and writing essays. I’d say 100% of these kids do not speak English at home, yet their education is in English, so there are noticeable gaps in knowledge. It’s such a cool aspect of our program that part of the reason the scholars are selected to be part of the program is because they already have demonstrated this interest in community service and giving back.

 

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Community service-tutoring- in action

 

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Scholars at community service

Another time I get to spend free time with the scholars to talk about things unrelated to their tests, college essays, and research papers is at lunch. We have lunch every day from 12:30-1:45 under a big tent outside, and unlike in the classroom where they tend to sit in the same place every day, at lunch they mix it up and sit with different people—and sometimes me! They often use the opportunity to ask questions about the US or my experience of “Africa” (which is interesting to me, as all I can really say I’ve experienced is Rwanda and Kakuma Refugee Camp). On Thursday I sat with a few scholars while the rain poured around us and many others ran inside to escape the sideways spray. It felt amazing after so many long weeks of dry, dusty air. They started asking me about my experiences of living in different places and how I adapted culturally to all the places I lived. I said it wasn’t too difficult in Prague, but maybe it was just so long ago. I told them all about the “Hello, Mister!”’s I would get in Indonesia—basically anytime I left the house—as well as teaching at an Islamic university. They were impressed that I had been to 6 continents, but I assured them I had no plans to go to Antarctica. They asked me what I thought about Africa and what needed to be done here. What a question! I truly don’t even know how I responded. I think I said something about having only been here for two and a half months and that they were the ones who should be answering that question! Another time I sat next to a scholar who loves politics and we discussed all the current events happening in the United States (not exactly uplifting, but still interesting to discuss with an 18 year old Rwandan whose perspective was spot-on in my opinion). Needless to say, there’s rarely a dull moment at lunch, and it’s so enjoyable to have the extra time to talk to them individually or in small groups about life.

 

Spending any bit of time with the students reminds me of why I moved here, and it encourages me to do my best to help them become better scholars before heading to university. Even though I sometimes feel like I’m not doing enough, the moments of karaoking, community service and meals shared with them help to ground and humble me.

 

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Good life advice

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Trip to Nyungwe Forest

A few weekends ago I went with some people to Nyungwe National Forest, which is actually a rainforest.

 

As before, the drive through the countryside was beautiful and provided a peek into life outside Kigali.

 

We had Friday off for Eid al-Adha, so we set off Friday morning and stopped in Kibuye, which is a town on Lake Kivu. The roads between Kigali and Kibuye, and then from Kibuye on to Nyungwe were incredibly twisty and curvy, but growing up in the mountains of Virginia (somewhat) prepared me.

 

We had planned to hike to see some chimpanzees in Nyungwe Saturday morning, and in order to do that you have to reserve places, and then go in and pay at their office Friday before 5. We accidentally drove halfway into the forest to one of their information centers, only to find out that the place we needed to go was at the entrance of the national forest that we had driven past. We sped back about a half hour, and made it by 4:50 (they closed at 5). We paid for passes and were told our guide would be at our guesthouse at 5:30am the next morning, so we went to our guesthouse—Gisakura Guesthouse.

 

The guesthouse was nice, and we saw a monkey outside, which despite having one in my hostel room in Bali, I still get excited about. The guesthouse had a buffet dinner of rice, curry, and fish. We had some beers and played cards and had an early night.

 

Saturday we were up super early and our guide was waiting outside the guesthouse. He rode with us and we set out while it was still dark. The drive to get to the forest where we were going—not technically in the national park—was about an hour and a half’s drive—mainly because of the poor quality of the roads. They send trackers out early each morning—trackers who had been with the chimps the previous evenings so they knew where they had last seen them. They go out and radio locations to the guides so we are pretty much guaranteed to see them. Obviously they cannot know for sure how long the chimps will stay at any one place, but they’ve got it pretty figured out.

 

We drove through very beautiful countryside, with lots of fields growing tea. It’s pretty rare to see dense forests since the country is so populated that most land is used for farming. But we got to the edge of the forest we were going into, and there were about 8 trackers there, one of which agreed to guard our car from potential attempts to steal parts. We agreed to pay him for that once we were back. Our guide offered us walking sticks that the trackers were holding for us, which most of us took. I was really glad I did because a lot of the hike was pretty steep with narrow trails.

 

We set off into the forest going up and down hills along narrow paths. It was pretty rain-foresty (that’s an adjective, I’ve decided). I didn’t hear as many birds as I’d think—I feel like I hear more outside my window here at home. It was still pretty densely crowded with trees and plants.   After maybe a half hour or forty-five minutes we came to where one of the trackers was, and I saw a chimp walking up the path away from us. There were still a couple chimps nearby in the trees though. We spread out to try to get a better view of them as they were high up in the trees. We watched one chimp climb up and pull some large leaves off the tree and put them down among some branches to make himself a bed of sorts, and then he lay down and stretched his arms wide in an incredibly human manner. It was so weird to see.

 

We watched them for maybe a half hour and we ended up following some of the trackers to where a lot had moved further in. We got a to a big tree where there were maybe 10-15 up there. Occasionally you’d hear a chimp calling from afar—the head chimp. (I’m sure that’s the official term… or alpha male?) The other chimps would call back and everyone would be yelling. Our guide told us that there were confrontations between the baboons and the chimps in the forest, and often the yells would be between those two groups. At one point the male chimps walked off into the forest—according to our guide to deal with the baboons—and a while later wandered back, walking right past us back to the tree. It was like watching a bunch of men back from battle. They walked past, then went up the tree and started eating the fruit on it.

 

We saw a few chimps mating (very briefly) as well, and our guide told us that unlike many other mammals, chimps mate only for procreation purposes. Interesting tidbit there. We also saw a female chimp with a baby clinging to her front. After they were a bit up the tree, the baby jumped off and started swinging from the limbs, testing out its abilities it looked like. We also heard one of the chimps let out a long fart, which was pretty hilarious—very human.

 

It was really cool to hear them and watch them interact and just be. Their motions and movements were so human-like. Chimps and humans share something like 96-98% of their DNA. It’s pretty wild.   After watching them for about 45 minutes or so, we headed back through the forest. I had a minor incident with a stinging ant in my pant leg. (Yep, ants in my pants, although technically just ant in my pant…) But I got it out, and all was well with the world.

 
When we got back to town, we were all pretty exhausted, so we made our way to a little restaurant in the village and brochettes (meat on a stick) and chips/ fries/ potatoes and beers. After eating we were standing outside the car, and lots of kids swarmed us. Most didn’t really ask for anything, just wanted to stare I guess. One or two tried the word “money”. They were cute.   We then drove through the national park to the eastern side where we were going to camp that evening. At one point there was some kind of monkey on the road, so we stopped and looked at it crossing, and then its friend who no one had seen, jumped on the hood of the car and almost stuck its head in the front window that was open. It did not seem afraid at all—in fact it seemed expectant. It stood outside our car for a minute or two looking like it was waiting for some food. It seemed to be missing a hand as well. Poor guy.

 

 

We continued, and it was seriously beautiful. It was just a bunch of mountains covered in trees, and in a way reminded me of home.

 

Our campsite was beautiful. It was a new place called Kitabi Eco-Center, and it had a 360 panoramic view of the rainforest as well as the outlying villages. They set up tents for us, and there was a bonfire and you could order tea or drinks and they made personal pizzas in their pizza oven. (It’s owned by an American doctor who now lives in Rwanda, hence the pizzas). It was a calm, peaceful, kind of chilly night on top of a mountain, and it was glorious. I do love exploring new places, but this one kind of reminded me of home and made me homesick—but in a good way. You take things for granted for sure, and although we camped some the past few years being back in Blacksburg—we should have done it more. However, it’ll still be there when I’m home!

 

Sunday we got up and had a lovely long breakfast with a view and lots of coffee and tea. We got back to Kigali in pretty good time. The drives through the towns and villages were great, although I had to grade papers a lot of the way. We actually passed a refugee camp which hosts Congolese refugees. I still have a ton to learn about the region and country, but getting outside Kigali is always interesting and fun.

 

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The Little Victories

So, the move to Rwanda hasn’t exactly been a super easy transition, which is shocking, I’m sure. I think going into it, I just kept thinking—well I moved to Palembang, Indonesia, which 1) was not the capital of Indonesia and 2) had the saddest/ most depressing Lonely Planet review for a city. (I think it was something along the lines of “the smell of concrete, fertilizer and <insert some bad-smelling thing here> will greet you as you step off the plane in Palembang… (Meaning: Don’t come here!)

Kigali seemed like it’d be a breeze—it’s the capital, lots of expats and returned Rwandans who had already brought in the cheese, croissants, and (somewhat) good wine. (Maybe I should be moving to France??) I also think that it is likely that people have a tendency to only remember the good things in past experiences—whether they’re relationships, trips, or places you’ve lived. My mom assures me that I didn’t settle in that easily into Palembang either—but I remember it differently. And to be fair, I was only there for a week and then all us fellows met for a week (?) orientation in Bandung, and I cemented some seriously wonderful friendships that I still have 5 years later. Maybe knowing that I had lovely people in the same country going through the same ups and downs helped. Or maybe I’m not remembering the loneliness, discomfort, and confusion that moving to a new country brings.

Kigali is an easy enough city to be an expat in, but it’s been a little difficult. It’s been about a month now, and I’m finally starting to feel settled and content. I’m not a person who relishes time spent alone—in fact it’s a characteristic about myself I’m working on. I am a pretty hard-core extrovert, who probably needs some introversion but is terrified of it. I’ve had a lot of alone time here—mainly because the house I moved into was in transition with people moving in and out and on vacation. I’ve spent quite a bit of time here alone, which again, isn’t bad—I lived on my own in Indonesia and in the states, but I just wasn’t really prepared for it here I guess.

 

That being said, it has been good for me. I’ve had to be alone with my thoughts and myself, and I’ve had to reflect on what I want and what is important to me. I joined a gym (which is shocking in and of itself). I had prided myself up until now by being able to say “I’ve never been a member of a gym”—as if that is a badge of honor—which it is to me! Or at least it was…. But it gets dark so early here, and the hills are mental, so my running-self thought it best. Plus the real reason I decided to join this gym—Waka Fitness—is that they have a deal with the Mille Collines Hotel (Hotel Rwanda) where you can use their pool for free. The Milles Collines Hotel pool is lovely and not far from my house; it has a great view and nice seating and hammocks, so I thought that a wise investment.

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View from a treadmill

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The real reason I joined a gym

I also decided to buy a guitar, which first required me locating a guitar shop. There’s one in the center of town, where there are lots of little shops and tons of people walking, moto-ing, and driving around. Congestion city. So I gathered my courage and got a moto to the rough address of where I had read the shop was. There were about 10 men standing inside/outside of the shop and all started beckoning me in as I approached. Very stressful shopping. It was like they were competing to sell me the guitar, but they were all in the same shop. They started pulling some down and I just said “how much” and “what’s the cheapest?” Ha. I just cut to the chase really.  They showed me the cheapest one and said it was 70,000Rwandan Francs ($83ish). I told them I’d pay 50,000. ($59ish) They said 60K. I said ehhhhh and decided to walk away (to go to the ATM where I’d withdraw whatever they wanted because I didn’t want to come back and go through this again). But when they saw me walking they said 50K was fine. I should have gone lower! Ah well. I thanked them and told them I’d be right back. So I bought myself a guitar, and have been fiddling (guitaring) around on it—remembering my very tiny repertoire—and yes, I obviously played Wagon Wheel immediately. I should have started busking.

I found a moto to take me home and clutched my work bag in my lap and held tightly on to my guitar with one hand and onto the back of the bike with my other. My arms hurt the next day, but I felt I had scored a small victory!

 

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My guitar on the streets of Kigali

I think what I’m starting to notice is how these “small victories” make up life.
Yesterday was a public holiday so I worked from home. I got a bit restless working at home; I spent most of the morning grading and planning for a drama class I’m going to teach in the fall. So eventually I decided to continue working on everything from a coffee shop (the extrovert in me craves just being near people), so I got a moto to a coffee shop not too far. (I would have walked but so many bags and hills). After doing work at the coffee shop, I got a moto to the gym. (I realize this is ironic.)  I ran about 4 miles on the treadmill—overlooking the city, showered there, found another moto to take me to Sawa City—a grocery store that I hadn’t been to yet but I knew had the best bread. The moto driver didn’t know where it was, and he started calling someone on his cellphone as he was driving me and I waved my hand in front of him (very safe—but safer than phoning while driving?) and said I will show you. I directed him there from the gym, bought my bread and such—tried to prevent a woman from holding my shopping basket for me while I had my workbag on one shoulder and gym bag on the other—looking like a packhorse. I paid, started walking down the busy road (on the sidewalk, don’t worry), and eventually saw a moto without a passenger and waved him down. He picked me up, and I carefully balanced three bags—one on each shoulder and one in my lap—and directed him to my house. As I was getting that last lift home, I just thought to myself about how far I’ve come in this past month. Yes, going to a coffee shop, gym, and grocery store all in an afternoon and navigating the transport really doesn’t sound like a big deal—in fact it’s a typical, boring (privileged) day really, but it was a collection of small victories as well.

(Sorry if you thought that long story was going to have some kind of conflict or climax… Alas, just an epiphany.)

 

There’s a Bill Bryson quote I love in which he says:

 

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.”

 

This is part of why I love living abroad—as hard as it is at first. I know I take so much for granted in my day-to-day life, no matter where I am. Living in a foreign country, you’re pushed outside of your comfort zone to such an extent that going to the gym and grocery store can seem like an exciting accomplishment.  In my life, going to the gym anywhere in the world is an accomplishment (it’s just way more exciting to get there on the back of a moto).

 

So here’s to the small victories, which we all have every day. We just have to remember to look for them.

 

 

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Akagera National Park

I finally got outside of the big city.
There’s a facebook group here called “Expats in Rwanda” for foreigners living in Rwanda, and people post stuff for sale, restaurant recommendations, the occasional complaint, and also requests for people to fill their safari truck for a day trip! Someone posted a week or so ago, asking if anyone wanted to join in a day trip to Akagera National Park. They had figured out the transport, cost, etc, and so were trying to fill up the car to make it cheaper (and more enjoyable I’m sure!)

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Without knowing much about it, but having heard of it, I responded that I was definitely interested, and so on Saturday, I woke up at 4:15am and met at the house of one of the women at 5am. There were 6 of us, plus the driver, in a big safari-type truck thingy (I’m so good with names and types of vehicles). It was one of those that you could actually lift the full roof up and stick your head outside and just stand up in the car (not advisable in Kigali traffic, but very useful in the park when you want to get that elusive shot of the warthog and also stretch your legs).

 

Unfortunately, it was difficult to keep my eyes open at the beginning of the trip—which was about 2 and a half hours. Leaving the city was so interesting though—so many people were awake and up and going about their daily business. Lots of kids were running around, there were many women and kids carrying yellow canisters that people use to fill water at “water stations” (I think I made that term up), and men using bicycles to transport large loads of banana stems. (I definitely had to google the term for a large number of bananas straight off a tree and in fact spent more than several minutes and I’m still not sure that’s right—have you heard of a “hand” of bananas? Wonderful! More Hand puns!) Luckily, I have photos, so you don’t have to try to sift through that digression.

 

There were goats and cows, with kids herding both… There were women walking along the road with baskets on their heads. The houses are made of concrete, and as it’s the dry season, everything is pretty dusty. I saw women sweeping the dirt ground around their homes, and through every village, people (men, women, and children) gathered around water pumps.
The countryside is beautiful. It’s called the land of a thousand hills for a good reason. Again, as it’s dry season, it was a little brown, but still beautiful. I’d imagine once the rain starts, it’ll be a gorgeous green.

 

 

It took a few hours to get to the entrance of the park. The park runs north-south, along the Tanzanian border. The way it works is you enter in the south, and drive through the park heading north—about 5 hours according to the people at Akagera, but it didn’t feel like that long. We stopped some, and since we could stand in the truck, it didn’t get too cramped, plus it was pretty spacious inside anyway.

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As we entered, we were asked by our driver if we wanted a guide, and we agreed we did, and all chipped in to hire one of the “rangers” (not sure if this is the preferred nomenclature here). He rode in the front seat with the driver and told us about the park and the animals found there, etc. When we got going into the park we saw a herd (?) of giraffes—gosh I’m going to need to work on my quantifiers—such a bad English teacher. We saw loads of zebras, different types of antelope, impala (not the car), monkeys, hippos, crocodiles, baboons, buffalo, warthogs, and lots of different types of birds (sorry birds, you’re all the same). In the park there are rhinos, lions (very few), and elephants, but unfortunately we did not see any of those. Next time?

The hippos were pretty awesome to see—yawning in the middle of the water. We saw them emerge at “Hippo Beach”. There were maybe 10 or so, and a number of them trudged out of the water onto the beach. They’re massive, and apparently pretty dangerous.

 

 

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Embarrassing story alert:

We spotted a warthog running, caked in mud, below our truck, and the guide said “Pumba!” And silly me, asked something along the lines of, “Is that what you call them?” He replied, “No, it’s from the lion king.” <cringe> I knew that….

I am ashamed to admit it, but being “on safari” (albeit a smaller one)—the lion king was definitely popping up in my mind.  But maybe I can blame the guide for putting it in my head… Don’t worry; I didn’t start singing the circle of life (but I did sing it in my head).

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Hey Pumba!

 

The guide also told us a bit about the history of the national park. At one time it was twice as large, with many more animals—including lions. However, in the late 1990s after the genocide, thousands of refugees who had fled in the 1960s and 70s flooded back over the border from Tanzania and settled in large parts of the savannah. These returned refugees ended up killing many of the wild animals in order to protect their livestock. Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa, so the returned refugees really needed land. The government ended up halving the park, to supply people with land to settle on.

Since the early 2000s, there has been great investment in the park—patrolling, protecting, and maintaining it. They’ve re-introduced some animals. They brought lions from South Africa to replace the ones that were killed off, as well as black rhinos.

Like so much in Rwanda, the park has been through a lot, but has survived and is now thriving.

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A note on Charlottesville

I sat down tonight to write a blog about my trip to Akagera National Park in Eastern Rwanda on Saturday. I started it, and I’ll finish it, but I just can’t focus. On Saturday, I was heading into the countryside, set to enjoy the day—and I did. I wasn’t connected to the outside world—it was glorious. But after a long (great) day in the national park looking at incredible natural beauty, we were on our way home, and my phone started buzzing—news alerts from BBC, Washington Post, texts from home. From Virginia.

 

I was just in Charlottesville about a month ago—on an overnight trip with my mom and step-mom (yeah we’re that cool) to enjoy wine country and hang out before I moved to Rwanda. Charlottesville always struck me as a bigger, richer Blacksburg, but equally open-minded (read: liberal), beautiful, and fun.   It’s only a few hours north of Blacksburg—situated in our beautiful mountains. It had been infiltrated recently by white nationalists, but I hadn’t heard or realized how big this demonstration was shaping up to be. I had seen the tiki-torch raising, polo-shirt wearing young white frat boy types (no offense to all polo-shirt wearing, frat boys out there) marching and terrorizing the night before. People were mocking them, especially the fact that they were using tiki-torches—clearly a culturally appropriated item. But Saturday, it got ugly.

I’ve been obsessively reading story after story, reading posts from friends who were there, scrolling through Heather Heyer’s facebook page.

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I hate that I’m not home. I wish I had been there. Marching against Nazi, racist scum.

But I’m here. I’m in Rwanda. You see (or don’t see) the scars and wounds caused by ethnic hatred that resulted in a genocide—a hatred that was taught, by the way, and fomented by European colonizers who knew that it was easier to control a population when you divide it against itself. These are lessons that we MUST learn from history.

A photo-journalist I know from Blacksburg, Laura Saunders, was in Charlottesville, documenting and she shared a post reflecting on her experience. Here’s an excerpt:

I keep hearing people say how shocked they are, particularly that this could happen in a city like Charlottesville. To deny the white supremacist history of Virginia, is to erase the fact that this nation was built on its very ideals. It is to erase the genocide of indigenous peoples and the slavery that built this nation’s wealth. It is to erase the generations of trauma and suffering lived by the communities of color who continued to be excluded, persecuted, ostracized, and criminalized in the centuries since. These are not facts we learn growing up in this commonwealth of Virginia despite it being home to the capitol of the Confederacy. But guess what? We now know the agenda of the folks who wrote our textbooks- and to deny this for another minute longer is nothing short of an endorsement for white supremacy to thrive and for these events to continue spreading like a disease.

When I hear otherwise good people say well there were two sides, or what about Black Lives Matter—I truly find it hard to not explode in tears or screams of frustration. To compare a group that is fighting AGAINST racial discrimination and for equal rights for ALL (Black Lives Matter) with people whose whole mission is to segregate if not outright kill those who are different from them is just completely unjustifiable and ridiculous. We all have a duty to educate ourselves on these things.

 

BLM does NOT mean your white life doesn’t matter. It means, hey, we’d like some equal rights over here, and to not have to watch black people be killed and imprisoned for things white people do all the time. (I went to college—and visited friends’ colleges. White men do drugs at a rate similar to black men—yet who has higher imprisonment rates of 6 times higher?) Who is more likely to be pulled over?

According to the BLM website: “The statement “black lives matter” is not an anti-white proposition. Contained within the statement is an unspoken but implied “too,” as in “black lives matter, too,” which suggests that the statement is one of inclusion rather than exclusion. However, those white people who continue to mischaracterize the affirmation of the value of black life as being anti-white are suggesting that in order for white lives to matter, black lives cannot. That is a foundational premise of white supremacy. It is antithetical to what the Black Lives Matter movement stands for, which is the simple proposition that “black lives also matter.” The Black Lives Matter movement demands that the country affirm the value of black life in practical and pragmatic ways, including addressing an increasing racial wealth gap, fixing public schools that are failing, combating issues of housing inequality and gentrification that continue to push people of color out of communities they have lived in for generations, and dismantling the prison industrial complex. None of this is about hatred for white life. It is about acknowledging that the system already treats white lives as if they have more value, as if they are more worthy of protection, safety, education, and a good quality of life than black lives are. This must change.”

Source: http://blacklivesmatter.com/11-major-misconceptions-about-the-black-lives-matter-movement/

So STOP with that argument.
There were NOT two sides to Saturday. There were Nazi/KKK/ white supremacists, with an intent to terrorize (see the military gear) and those there to stand against them and stand up for the rights of all people.

Further, we CANNOT ignore how this was made possible. Yes, obviously it’s been there all along. But Donald Trump has given these racist people a platform and has encouraged them. They elected him with his promise of taking America back. (Back from whom? Non-whites clearly). His rhetoric against Latinos, Muslims, refugees, immigrants, women, LGBTQ, people with disabilities—you name it! He has slammed, insulted, and degraded all these groups—but NOT white supremacists. The one group he doesn’t enjoy insulting on twitter? Those who put him in that office have a responsibility to denounce him when he fails to denounce the domestic terrorists who wreaked havoc in Charlottesville on Saturday.

It is not surprising to any of my friends or family that I’m talking about this in such an open way. It may not have any impact whatsoever, except that it makes me feel a little bit better and a little bit closer to home if only for a moment.
But what I urge my friends and family, who are not so politically vocal or active, is to become so. Now is not a republican vs. democrat fight. This is a fight for the very soul of our country. I can’t believe that I know anyone who would condone this violence. And if you say “but there were two sides”—that is YOU excusing the white supremecists.

Reach out to a local organization. Get involved with an organization that supports disadvantaged communities. Or if you can’t spare the time, maybe you can spare some money for one of these groups—especially in Charlottesville (or in your own community).

http://www.belovedcommunitycville.com


Step out of your comfort zone.
Read something you wouldn’t typically read and try to understand the issues (Which I know is hard). Here’s a list posted following Charlottesville:

https://www.bustle.com/p/in-the-wake-of-charlottesville-every-american-should-read-these-20-books-76366?platform=hootsuite

POST something on Facebook or twitter—many of my friends have more politically diverse friend-groups than I do. Talk about it. Your friend or aunt who voted for Trump—ask what they think about this. The whole “don’t talk about politics” is not an option right now. This isn’t politics. It’s humanity.  Be willing to have those hard conversations (I’m telling myself this too), and not necessarily on Facebook–face to face is even better.

Speak out. This is the time.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke

“To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all.” -Elie Wiesel

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Muraho (hello) from Kigali!

Well helloooo. This Hand is across the water again, but this time, in Kigali, Rwanda.

 

I had promised friends and family that I’d keep a blog to document my experiences here in Rwanda. For some reason it’s been more difficult this time around to get started. I still feel a bit in a daze for some reason. But here we go anyway!

 

The job:

 

Before I left, there were definitely more than a few people who said some version of, “Why?!” “Why Africa?!” “Why Rwanda?” And in fact some students have asked the same question, but with a very different tone-ha!
So, to answer: it wasn’t so much, “I want to go to Rwanda!” (Although I had read a lot about it in the past.) It was a matter of the right job. I had been looking to teach abroad again, and after perusing and applying and investigating and being interviewed, the position at Bridge2Rwanda seemed ideal.

 

What B2R does, according to the website:

“Bridge2Rwanda Scholars is a rigorous program that identifies and prepares Rwanda’s most talented and promising students to compete for international scholarships.

Once they are awarded a scholarship, B2R connects the students to local host families, communities of faith, academic counselors, career advisors and internship opportunities. The goal is not only to prepare B2R Scholars to succeed as international students, but to live with purpose as future leaders of Africa.

B2R creates jobs and opportunities to help the Scholars launch their careers in Africa. B2R is building a network of potential employers in Africa, including local, foreign-owned and multinational businesses, NGO’s and governments.”

See, that sums it up better than I could have rambled about.

My position is the Lead English teacher, which of course requires teaching, but also more administrative tasks. Very similar to my job at Virginia Tech, the students come with a certain level of English, and the academic prep team’s role is to help them learn more academic English, including reading longer more intense articles and books, taking notes on longer academic lectures, writing essays and research papers, giving speeches, and developing more critical thinking skills rather than the rote memorization that many have been used to.

 

The scholars I teach (38 of them) are from Rwanda (most), Burundi (2), the Democratic Republic of Congo (2), and South Sudan (5- including two who were living in Kakuma Refugee Camp—where I was last summer). The woman who I replaced in this job (who went back to the US to get her PhD) explained the scholars like this: “Imagine a class of 38 valedictorians”. I don’t think I’ve ever taught such motivated, hard-working students. Well, not a whole class of them at least. They know what the stakes are, and they have all had education as a priority in their lives. They had to apply to this program, and were interviewed in large groups and then individually. They had to show a level of modesty and community-service. They all live together in a house near the campus, and are trained from the beginning (they started in March) that they will only succeed if they work as a team—which goes against a lot of the competitiveness of a student who is used to being at or near the top. That hard job has already been done with this cohort—Group 7. It’s now August, so they’re about four months in.

 

So far, I’ve felt a little overwhelmed in the job, just trying to make sure I’m getting everything done, but I’m starting to feel like I’ve got my head around (most) of it. At the moment the main class I’m teaching is a test-prep class—preparing them to take the TOEFL exam (which is a requirement of most US universities that shows their English level). So, that leaves a little less room for creativity, but the spring and fall classes have a bit more space for that. They’ll take the exams starting early fall, so it’s pretty much crunch-time now.

 

On my first day I was greeted with welcome signs, applause, and a song. Pretty hilariously, they applaud after some lessons (but don’t after others which starts to give you a complex). Although I’m pretty sure it just takes one student to start and the rest follow suit, it’s pretty funny. They might just be clapping that class is finished though….

So, onto…..

 

The City (Kigali) First impressions:

 

I’m going to go ahead and make the analogy that I’m in the NYC of Rwanda. Someone trying to explain US culture and life to his or her friends and family after moving to New York City would probably miss a lot of “typical” American culture. (I truly do love NYC, but it’s pretty damn different from the regular small-mid-size towns in the US.) So, I’ve moved to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, meaning I haven’t really seen how “typical” Rwandans live in the rest of the country. Kigali has maybe a little more than 5% of the population of Rwanda.
Kigali is a strange mixture of skyscrapers with fancy hotels and pools (including the famous Hotel des Milles Collines—which the movie Hotel Rwanda was based on) and then more “working class” (for lack of a better expression) neighborhoods. It almost feels like two separate cities that exist on top of each other.

In a lot of ways, life is not hard here for a typical expat. There are a lot of restaurants (although some people who have been here longer say there really aren’t that many….but they’re not from Southwest Virginia). There are Indian restaurants, American/European, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, “Mexican” (kind of not really), and of course African/ Rwandan. Beyond that, there is a food delivery service where you can order food online and it gets delivered by motorcycle. So, yeah. Life truly isn’t that difficult (if you have money).

 

There are lots of groceries, and although not everything is familiar (the sweet potatoes are white inside!) you can pretty much find most things. I was luckily warned of the lack of dark chocolate (I’m such a princess) so I brought my own. There is red wine, which after a year in Indonesia without (except for random trips to bigger cities & Bali) I am forever grateful for it. It’s not necessarily what they’re known here for, but it’s available. The avocados are plentiful, huge, and cheap and there’s even an avocado tree in my front yard, although I do need to figure out how to get them before they drop and rot. Climb the tree? I’ll google it.

 

There are coffee shops, several of which have rooftop seating with incredible views of the city. The great thing about a city built on a bunch of high hills is that lots of places have amazing views—including the house where I live.

(Views from coffee shops)

Most middle-upper class Rwandans (and probably all expats) have housekeepers and guards (who sometimes also work as gardeners). The house I’ve moved into (with other expats—all of whom I haven’t met yet—another story) has a guard and a housekeeper. The guard lives here full time, in a room at the back of the house. He’s in his early 20s, and is nice and helpful, especially when I get back late and stupidly can’t open the gate. (I’m working on it). The housekeeper does laundry, washes floors, and does dishes. I’ve only seen her once since I’m usually at work, but she’s also nice. This is one thing that is a bit strange for me. I know it’s the norm, but there’s just an uncomfortable element of colonialism in it. Although of course many Rwandans in Kigali have guards and housekeepers too. In Indonesia I had a housekeeper as well, because my Indonesian neighbors said I should—and I mean, it truly was great to have someone else do the cleaning! (It’s definitely not my forte.) However, like I said, there is a certain aspect of two different Rwandas, which I feel especially when it comes to things like that. But that being said, there are two different USAs in many ways, which in my middle-class existence I haven’t had to experience. SO yeah. There’s that.

 

Some of the challenges (for me anyway):

 

Transportation: Well, I don’t know if it’s technically a challenge. I mean, it’s not too hard to flag down a moto driver. (Moto = motorcycle taxi). Probably the bigger challenge is explaining where you want to go when you don’t exactly know (something I should be able to get better at) AND when the driver sometimes doesn’t understand you (fair). It’s also a bit challenging to not have any other options besides motos. (And walking, but did I mention the hills?)—Oh a quick aside: Even if you DID want to walk, and the place you want to go is directly below your house, you will still have to walk SO far out of the way because the streets don’t connect. Like, the street will go parallel to the one you want to be on and you have to walk all the way down and around the hill, not straight down. (Can I paint a visual or what?) It’s very frustrating. Anyway, back to the motos— their helmets are always too big and sometimes the drivers aren’t the most sensible (although neither are the drivers of cars—which doesn’t help). I’ve been encouraged to look for a car if I’m planning to be here for any length of time, but how does one who has been spoiled with two mechanical fathers buy one’s own car?! I ask you. Maybe a scooter?

Views from the backs of motorcycles (and a helmet selfie)

 

Language: Actually not too big of a challenge, as a lot of people have at least some English. However, life would be much easier if I spoke Kinyarwanda or even French, although a lot of the younger generations have less French, since the whole Rwandan school system switched over to English about 5(?) years ago—not too happy with past French influence.

This challenge I intend to (somewhat) overcome. I’ve enrolled in an 8 week Kinyarwanda course (3 hours a week) at my favorite coffee shop which will be Tuesday/Thursday from 6:30-8. Although I’ve heard over and over how difficult this language is, I’m hoping to get at least a basic sense of greetings, food (!), numbers (haggling), etc. In general, I think it just shows a certain amount of respect to at least attempt to have a basic level of language. Plus, it gives you insight into so much more if you’re able to communicate with more people. I don’t know how much I’ll really need it, as it’s pretty easy to get by in Kigali anyway without it., but it’ll definitely help with transport and just being a nice Kigali-resident really I guess. However, I’m hoping to travel more to the countryside and then it’ll be especially useful.

 

I’ll try to have some adventurous escapades to write about here, which could end up being simply a trip to a grocery store or a neighborhood run where children run in front of you like some backwards pied piper. (That already happened, but not total blog-post worthy).

 

Anyway, I’m happy to be back on here and hope you enjoy reading!

 

 

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