Friday, January 27, 2006

A Moveable Feast

That's literally what I am to these mosquitoes. They are everywhere.

I left Kigali on Wednesday afternoon with my new boss, who was moving up to Gisenyi as well. She's an international--a Kenyan. Like me, she doesn't speak Kinyarwanda, but she does speak Swahili, one of the fifteen languages or so that people here speak.

It was a three hour drive from the capital, with the most beautiful landscape imaginable. Rolling green hills were covered with a patchwork quilt of banana palms and trees. Small orange and red huts were built onto the hillsides, or tucked away under banana fronds. Women walked around with massive bags and baskets on their heads, and children begged for empty water bottles, so they could use them around the house. Then the hills gave way to a valley, and from the valley grew five massive, black volcanoes. They are active, and are spewing ash. The soil is black and sparkly from the volcanic rock and mica. Then we arrived in Gisenyi, where the land descends into a tranquil lake with a beach. From the shore you can see Goma, a town in neighboring DR Congo (DR for Democratic Republic, of which it is neither).

We got there after dark, so we had dinner at the second best hotel in town, the Stipphotel. (pronounced Steep-hotel.) Stipp in price is what it is. I had whole grilled tilapia with pili-pili sauce (pili-pili is Rwandan chili, and it is hot!). Using my fingers, I ate the meat right off the bones, which, I must admit, I've never done before. My mother would be proud.

Because Gisenyi is a resort town, it's near-impossible to find hotels on the weekends, or during conferences. So I was forced to stay in a place that wanted to charge me $20 for the night--and it was the worst night I think I have ever had. The "hotel" was expanding, so it bought a house and was transforming the rooms into bedrooms... and the renovation was still underway. There were no screens on the windows, so there were, conservatively, 10,000 mosquitoes in the room. But the thing is, these aren't just regular mosquitoes. They're attack mosquitoes. You walk into the room, and they dive like kamikazes. I was frenetic, and kept telling myself that I was lucky that no one was around to see me, because I was acting like a psychopath. (FYI--if ever you need to keep away mosquitoes, OFF! Spray is man's greatest invention.) I was covered in DEET, hair to toes. They kept trying to come close, though, and would buzz in my ear. It was HORRIBLE. I barely brushed my teeth, and didn't wash my face or anything, because as soon as I closed my eyes, they'd rush for my ankles or my ears.

The worst is that mosquitoes love to hide out in toilets, under the seat. This, of course, is terrible, because they're literally waiting to bite your ass. So I couldn't even go to the bathroom.

That night, I jumped under the mosquito net and hardly slept, for fear that one would get in.

The next morning, they were still around. There was no hot water coming through the tap, so a boy brought in a bucket of hot water. I had zero idea what to do with it. I supposed, correctly, that you just splash yourself with it. Well, this is problematic, because there were mosquitoes swarming in the bathroom, and when you're trying to wash up, your whole body is exposed. It was nightmarish. It didn't help that, since I have a lot of hair, it was impossible to wash all the shampoo out, and the water was scalding. The icing on the cake was that there was no towel, so I had to make a mad wet dash to my bags, fumble to open the lock, and find my towels, all the while dodging mosquitoes.

I moved out immediately. The hotel owner insisted that my driver and I have coffee with him, and we had a lovely conversation in which, in response to my statement that I wanted to learn Kinyarwanda, he said, "Oh? La meilleure façon est sur l'oreiller. Et je suis enseignant-candidat." He said it again in English, just to reiterate. For non-French speakers, that means, "Oh? The best way to learn Kinyarwanda is on the pillow. And I am a candidate for your teacher."

Disgusting old man. But he had good coffee.

I started looking for an apartment, and checked out a couple. All the apartments/rooms for rent here are operated by religious institutions. So we went to the Catholics, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, and the Methodists. (The Methodists were the worst.) The apartment at the Catholic church is the best...but it needs window screens and it doesn't have any cooktop. It's not furnished, either. It's $125/month, which is the best price I've seen so far. I'm going to borrow some necessary items from other people here at the office.

Speaking of the office, we're just moving in, so there wasn't any internet for 3 days (and sketchy power) because they're still setting it up. So I've been totally cut off from everyone at home (and that's why this post is so long). I've been pretty bored because I don't have a desk, computer, or anything to do, so I just putz around.

And last night, everyone in the office went out to drink beer at an outdoor bar. We were talking in four languages (Kinyarwanda, Swahili, English and French) and watching soccer. It was Africa at its best.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


I'm off to Gisenyi in 20 minutes. I had my official security briefing and got my badge today. I don't know my blood type (and neither does my HMO--they never tested for that, which I'm pissed about) so my badge says I'm O Positive until I go to a clinic to find out what my blood type really is. To be truthful, I don't want to be anywhere near a needle while I'm here. I hope I don't need a blood transfusion anytime soon.

I got really sick last night--the whole kitten caboodle. I think it was because it was 90 degrees and suffocating all day, and despite my attempts to stay hydrated, I was far from it. I was bedridden from 7 pm until 7 this morning. I feel fine now, but I was really in a bad way last night.

And this morning, getting on the matatu bus to the office, some kids (well, 13 year olds, probably) tried to take stuff out of my backpack. An old man then swiped at them really hard and started yelling at them. They ran off. I was really thankful. Kigali's safe in general, but like any place, it's subject to petty theft. I laughed later, because I don't know what they could have feasibly taken from my bag. It's stuffed to the gills and I can't even get into it.

Okay, that's all for now. They're probably waiting for me...

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Kigali, 4:42 pm

As you can see in the distance, there are houses every five feet on the hills...Rwanda has the densest population of any country in Africa.

L'Auberge Beauséjour

This is the Auberge Beauséjour in Kigali. My room is the one in the turret on the right... Lots of fresh flowers everywhere, and breakfast is tree tomatoes (an acquired taste), passionfruit, pineapple, canteloupe, some unidentified fruit, toast and some kind of jam that is made of a fruit that I've never heard of before.

I also have the benefit of having a cat meow outside my window all night, and a crazed bird that likes to screech at exactly (no joke) 5 am. Not the best wake-up call. But at $27/ night, it's a pretty nice place if you're only here for a short time.

Voyage to the Embassy

Security in Rwanda is nothing like the security in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, every NGO and private compound had blast walls, barbed wire, security guards, sandbags, and the like. Here, sometimes the wall of a compound is crowned with shards of glass, and every once in a while, there is razor wire. But in general, you don't see much of that.

Today I ventured to the U.S. Embassy to let them know that I'm here. The Italian consulate (it's not even an Embassy) is located in the bottom of an industrial park (I'm not kidding) and the Canadian Embassy is a quiet compound in a quiet area on the edge of the city center. The U.S. Embassy? Right smack in the middle of everything. It's at the corner of two of the few named streets in town, and both are huge boulevards. It's not just a walled compound; it has roadblocks, barbed wire, several guard houses, Marines, and the like. The funny thing is--truthfully, this is one of the smallest U.S. missions, and yet, we still manage to have the biggest, most imposing, most secure embassy in town.

After I registered, they put me on their mailing list. The U.S. Embassy organizes events for all American expats at the American Club, which is down the hill from the Hotel des Mille Collines (I think I mentioned this before, but that's the Hotel Rwanda hotel). They send out a newsletter called the Gorilla Gazette with all the activities. Last Saturday, they had a pancake breakfast, and this Friday, they're showing the Constant Gardener. Oh, and there was a Marine Housewarming Party and an International Tennis Tournament!

Too bad I won't be in Kigali. No pancake breakfasts for me.

I walked around the city center today after I finished at the embassy. The city is dusty, and everything is brown, except for the bright shirts and Nesquik/Firestone/Coca Cola painted advertisements on the buildings. Everyone stared at us, but no one really bothered us--just tried to sell us newspapers and gum. One of my friends needed to exchange traveler's checks, but apparently NO ONE takes them. So fyi, if you're coming to Rwanda, don't bring them. The only place we found that would accept them was the Novotel, one of the expensive hotels. (There's no American Express in town!) She got a really bad exchange rate, but I guess since they're the only place in town, they can do that. Contrary to popular opinion, you also can't withdraw money against your Visa. I brought cash, and I am damn happy I did.

I found a place to live in Gisenyi, at least temporarily. The sister of a woman who works here owns a bunch of auberges up there. It's $20 a night for a room with a bathroom and three meals a day. It's two doors down from the office. So that's about $600/month. I won't be able to afford staying there for long...but I'm going to see if I can bargain.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Rwandan food

So it's my first day on the job, and I finish my security briefing on CD-ROM. (Anecdote: This program is for UN gives advice on how to be safe in the field. During one part, it said, "In many countries, public transportation should be avoided." Alongside was a picture of the Metro, the orange line. Virginia's not that bad!) I finished at about 1:30, and looked for my supervisor, so I could tell her.

The entire place was empty. You could have heard crickets.

Soooo....I was deserted during my first lunchtime. I had heard a rumor that there was a cafeteria, so I went in search of it. No luck. I ended up eating at some tiny place behind the UNHCR building, where the staff didn't speak English and barely spoke French.

There was a buffet, but I had no idea what anything was. What I thought was a potato in tomato sauce was actually a banana in tomato sauce...Some lime-looking fruits or vegetables that I have never seen before were stewed with collard greens and God knows what other spices. They were cringingly tangy and bitter, but I put some salt on them and tried to force them down. I always lecture people that they should finish their food because there are starving children in Somalia, so I have to clean my plate while I am here so as to avoid being the world's biggest hypocrite.

Cost? 75 cents.

Genocide: The Taboo Topic

All the guidebooks and our UN security briefing all say the same thing: don't bring up the genocide. Everyone thinks about it, but no one talks about it, so avoid all allusions to it.

Of course, this can be really difficult. It's like trying to ignore the elephant in the room.

Some Rwandans have brought up the genocide of their own accord in conversations with me, saying that they returned 11 years ago. Sometimes they call it the genocide. Sometimes they simply call it "the war." It can be tough, though--I had to dance around the subject when I was speaking with a Rwandan woman on my plane. I told her how interested I was in Rwanda, and that I have been for years. She laughed and asked why. I wanted to say that it was because I wanted so desperately to do something to help the Rwandan people, even now. But that, of course, implied that it was because of the genocide. So I told her that I had read a lot and was fascinated by the people. It's true, but it's not the whole truth.

I also brought the Philip Gourevitch book "We Regret To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda" with me. I hadn't realized that I basically have to keep this book out of sight, because it's kind of rude to leave it around.

I was talking to a Ugandan yesterday, who expressed to me the Rwandans' frustration with the issue of the genocide--that they want to move on, but people keep bringing it up. When outsiders think of Rwanda, they don't think of the Virgin Mary's apparitions at Kibeho, or about the gorillas. They think of the widespread massacre. Ethnic labels have been removed from identity cards, so no longer is there a written distinction between the two main groups. I don't sense any overt tension between them here in Kigali, but I have been told that in Gisenyi, where there are a lot of Hutu returnees (many who fled because they were génocidaires--that is, people who committed or facilitated murder during the genocide), some still maintain genocidal beliefs.

For those who aren't familiar with the genocide, here is a brief and incomplete summary of events:

There are two main ethnic groups in Rwanda: the Hutu (majority) and the Tutsi (minority).

The Hutu generally have darker skin and wider noses. The Tutsi generally have lighter skin, thinner noses, and are taller. These are complete generalizations, as there are many exceptions to both, there is a lot of ethnic mixing, and to my untrained eye, I can't tell the difference at all. (I'm not about to ask anyone, either.)

The Belgians colonized Rwanda, and empowered the Tutsi minority because they were viewed as more European.

The Tutsis abused the Hutus. The Hutus were pissed about this but couldn't do anything. There were some violent clashes.

The Belgians picked up and left, and the Hutus assumed power. There were more violent clashes (Tutsis wanted power back, etc.).

A group of Hutu extremists, including the Rwandan military, staged a coup d'etat. It is presumed that they shot down the Hutu president's plane because he wanted to negotiate an agreement with Tutsi rebels.

After the president's assassination, Hutu extremists, the Interahamwe militia (similar to the Janjaweed in Sudan) and regular Hutus went on a killing spree, killing roughly 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days, the most effective extermination plan in recorded history.

The UN was relatively powerless, with few personnel and a limited mandate. The U.S., France, Belgium, etc. stood idly by (actually, the French armed the Hutus). It was the Tutsi rebel forces that retook the capital and ended the genocide.

Many Hutus, both génocidaires and innocents, fled the country, fearing retaliation. They are still returning. These are the people that I will be helping. I have the feeling that it will be a trying experience.

Please feel free to correct my account of the genocide if I have misspoken.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

p.s. on the beverages here

No one in the International Security Program at CSIS would survive a day in Kigali...they've never heard of Diet Coke!

Money, money, money

I’ve finally found a halfway decent internet connection and have settled into Kigali a little bit.

I arrived at the Kigali airport to find that UNHCR wasn’t there to pick me up. I figured that it was because I hadn’t reconfirmed that I would arrive that day. (Turns out they were late, and my plane was early. Imagine. I was early!) I exchanged some money and took a taxi to the auberge where I was to stay. Word to the wise: Africa isn’t always cheap. Nothing is free, and taxis basically commit highway robbery. It’s the same as DC, and considering my expectations, that’s a lot! You have to negotiate, or else they’ll charge you a ridiculous amount of money because you’re a muzungu, or “white person.” (By the way, people call this to you in the streets. It’s very charming. Yeah.) So $10 later, I arrived at my auberge, which is really beautiful. It’s a turret-shaped room with its own bathroom. I have pictures, but this computer is so slow that it's not uploading them. Gah.

The woman at the reception desk proudly announced that the auberge had hot water. Well, the water in the bathroom sink is a slow (cold) drip…the shower doesn’t so much have hot water. Really, it’s sort of tepid, the same way cold pool water feels after you’ve been in it for a while. I count myself as lucky.

I visited the UNHCR building, which it shares with the Food and Agriculture Organization. The people are very friendly, and I have befriended another intern (she’s from Ottawa…Canadians are everywhere!) and a junior program officer who’s from Italy. We all arrived at the same time. I am one of two Americans working out of this office, which is pretty interesting. I had dinner last night with a Spaniard, the Canadian, the Italian, and a Swiss guy.

Transportation here is an interesting experience. Everything in Kigali is spread out, and oh, by the way, there are no street names! This place reminds me of Kabul more and more every day. We took a matatu today from the city center out to the auberge. The are hundreds of matatus, or city buses (they’re really white vans) around the city. They don’t have a schedule, and if you don’t know where they stop, you’re out of luck, because the stops aren’t labeled. Oh, and there aren’t any route maps, so you don’t really know where you’re going. But we talked to the driver, and figured out which van to take. It was stuffed to the gills—people were sitting on each other and hanging out the door. We ended up being charged 150 Rwandan Francs (muzungu price).

We three had all thought we would primarily be relying on UNHCR’s cars in Rwanda…but it appears that UNHCR is severely underfunded. They only have one car and one or two drivers. I can’t fault them for not paying me—they can’t even afford to buy pens! Everyone keeps telling me to guard my pens like I guard my money.

Speaking of which, I am having a HELL of a time figuring out the money. It’s 550 Rwandan Francs per US dollar, so imagine how difficult it is figuring out how much something that’s 48,000 francs is in dollars. (It’s somewhere between $85-90). That was how much my cell phone cost, and that sucks.

The power just went out in the internet café, but God seems to be on my side tonight, because about 5 computers weren’t connected to the same power source. They just turned on the generator.

I will be in Kigali until Wednesday, when I leave for Gisenyi. Apparently it’s the Florida of Rwanda—everyone goes there on vacation. I’m preparing my swimsuit.

Friday, January 20, 2006

The Land of a Thousand Hills

I made it! 18 hours of flying, one night in Nairobbery, Kenya, and a hop over into Rwanda, over gorgeous Lake Victoria. I have a lot to say but not much time. I'm staying in an adorable auberge and am struggling to set up my mosquito net, so generously provided by my officemates in DC. I'm covered in DEET and am about to walk home from the UNHCR office...everyone here is excessively nice, and, equally importantly, speaks French. I'm trying to keep up.

OK, so I'm off for now, but will try to write later. The fatigue is killing me, and I'm starving. Already many stories to tell.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Repacking. With clubbing clothes. No joke.

I talked to the girl who interned at UNHCR again. I casually asked her about dress. I mean, I have stacks of khakis, jeans, frumpy shirts, and the like.

She said, "Everyone dresses up to go to work. Polo shirts and khakis. Loafers."

Therefore, I am moving from DC to......DC.

Then, she said, "But they won't fault you for only having frumpy stuff. I mean, you only have one suitcase."

I immediately started repacking my suitcases in my head. I say "in my head," because it's 5 am on the day of my departure and I haven't packed yet.

And then she added, "Oh, and don't be afraid to bring some black pants and some going-out tops. Like the kind you'd wear to a bar downtown. Rwandan women go out, and they can whore it up even better than we can." This is a direct quote. I believe I wrote it down when she said it.

She recounted a time when she wore her frumpy stuff into a chic lounge (cover charge: $6, which is REALLY expensive for most Rwandans) and was nearly stared out of the place.

Similarly, shorts are a no-no unless you're 1) 12 years of age or younger, or 2) running. Apparently they remind people of colonial days...and people will openly make fun of you. Again, mental repacking.

T-13 hours, packing incomplete, nerves at about 98%. I'm mentally ready to go, but I'm going to miss everyone terribly, and that's been harder to deal with.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Murphy's Law Dictates...

...That whatever can go wrong, will.

Such was Friday night, after I went to see a late movie with a friend. Driving home on Constitution Avenue, getting onto the ramp to the Roosevelt Bridge, a drunk driver swerved in front of me, jumped the curb and rolled his car down the hill next to the road. I put my flashers on and called 911. (911, for the record, is absolutely ridiculous. It took me 5 minutes to get through to the local police. Five minutes is a long time to wait if you're in an emergency!)

As I was talking, the drunk driver, whose car had been righted, actually tried to drive away, going the wrong way down the ramp. But his car got stuck in the mud (it was POURING). Then I noticed the cars coming up the ramp, and a car smashed into me.

The guy who hit me had also been drinking.

So--I saw my first drunk driver, saw my first accident, and had my first accident on Friday night. I didn't get home until 5 am (I was talking to police for 3 hours) and the damage is appraised at $6,000. But I'm okay, no physical injuries. It's just one more thing that I have to take care of before I go. Fantastic.

On another note, I talked to a girl who interned at UNHCR-Rwanda for the past several months. She just came home to Canada. I only had a short initial conversation with her, but I'll be talking to her again. She said that the staff at my office are really nice and fun to work with, but that the Rwandans, as compared to other East Africans, are more reserved and hard to get to know. That's what I've heard before. She also complained that the children, who are quite well off compared to other neighboring countries, have a begging mentality--"they see your white legs and come to you for money," was her direct quote. It sounds a bit like Afghanistan in that regard-- there's a lot of aid money and people are starting to expect some handouts--but incomparable in the sense that Afghans are much poorer than Rwandans.

She was only in Kigali, though, so I'm interested to see whether it's the same up north, where there is presumably less aid money coming through.

Friday, January 13, 2006

So much for J.Crew

I ordered some khakis and cords online, and paid extra for 3-day delivery, because otherwise, they wouldn't get to me on time. The next day, I got a package, and I was pretty impressed. But I opened it, and it was a pair of flipflops with martini glasses embroidered on them (huh?) and a large jacket.

So I called J.Crew, and they apologized and told me to send it back. Then they told me it would take FOURTEEN DAYS to process the return...and THEN they could send me my original order.

Jerks. So I'm off to Leesburg Outlet Center this weekend for a last shopping spree. (Last time I went to the J.Crew there, they were selling rubber boots with little Scotty dogs on them. Can I wear those in Africa?)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

My inaugural post!

Welcome! The purpose of this blog is really to make my life easier, so that I don't have to send annoying mass emails (annoying for you to receive them, and annoying for me to collect all the addresses to send them), and my friends can check up on what I'm up to whenever they can steal a free moment from their busy lives.

I invite all my friends to post responses if they feel so moved...It lets me know that I'm not writing just for the benefit of my parents, and besides, how else will I keep up with Washington gossip?

For those who don't know where I will be, I'm headed to Rwanda for seven months. I'm scheduled to get back in late July. I'll be working with the United Nations refugee organization (UNHCR). While I was supposed to work in the Kigali main office and compile information on the socio-political situation to send back to Geneva, my job changed looks like I'll be sent up to the north, to Gisenyi and Ruhengeri, to strengthen their returnee program there. They want me to help to reintegrate refugees that are still returning, 11 years after the genocide. I'll be interviewing them and monitoring their progress. I should be up north for at least a month. a result, I'm not sure how dependable my internet will be. Hopefully, I'll be able to find a dodgy internet cafe, or the field office will have a connection. We'll see.

I am to leave on January 18, and I have a billion things I have to do before then. I have my malaria medication in hand (doxycycline, not lariam, so I'll be sun-sensitive, but I won't be loopy), and have received every conceivable vaccination. Now I'm starting to pack. If anyone has any suggestions, they're totally welcome. My suitcase is dominated by t-shirts and cotton pants. (If you see rubber Wellies in the next couple of days, please let me know!! It seems like all the cheap stores (Target, K-Mart, Wal-Mart) only carry rubber booties for kids.)

I'm pretty nervous, though I know I'll be just fine. Besides, my first month in Rwanda will be spent in a town that's on the beach!

Here's a map of Rwanda:

(P.S. And if I don't post for a while, just know that this blog is an exercise in reformation....I'm trying to be a lot better about keeping in touch with people, but I have the feeling I might slip a little. If you know me, you know how hard it is to get me to return a call! I'll try to keep up with it, though...)

(P.P.S. Yes, I got the idea for the title of this blog from Michael Sulmeyer.)