Sunday, June 29, 2008

An Expat’s Life

Something doesn’t feel right. I have it pretty good.

This time in Rwanda, I’m working for a big organization. This means I’m based in Kigali, and, unlike the last time I was here for an extended period of time, I’m actually paid. So my life is quite a bit...different. It’s a little difficult to reconcile.

When I first arrived, I tried to stay at the Auberge Beausejour, my favorite hotel in Kigali. Apparently my little secret is no longer, because it was fully booked...for the entire week. So I stayed at Chez Lando for $80, which was just too expensive for what it was. It’s a fine hotel, of course, but at four times what the Beausejour charges, I couldn’t bear it. So I moved out the next day and stayed with two American friends at their house for the next several days. It was more the style of life I was used to. It was a typical Rwandan house, and had just what you needed—hot water, electricity, screens on the windows, mosquito nets. They even had high speed internet. They hung their clothes out to dry behind their house, and the house always smelled fresh from the cross-breeze of their open doors and the freshly-baked rosemary bagels that my friend made.

Then the unexpected happened. An American woman needed to go to the U.S. for personal reasons, for an undetermined period of time. She asked me to housesit for her in her absence, which just might be for the entire time that I am here. She said I could stay for free, so I moved in on Monday.

I’m sitting in front of a television with digital satellite TV, with my feet on a Persian rug. There is a full kitchen with two refrigerators. The cupboards are full of taco shells, there was a pack of Oreos on the counter, and there is red wine in the fridge. Perhaps this means nothing to those who are in the States, but when you know the price of each of those (red least $13 for something worth $2; Oreos cost $8 a pack; and taco shells? I think these are the only ones in Rwanda. Therefore...priceless), it is almost too much to bear. Not to mention the cold water distiller which provides fresh, cool water without the hassle of boiling and filtering.

There are two sitting rooms, an expansive garden, a washer and dryer, a formal dining room with cherry furniture, and—a housemaid that lives on the compound with her family, cleans the house every day, and prepares dinner. And I don’t have to pay her, either, just the ingredients for the food that she prepares.

I’m very lucky, so I can't really complain.

Most of my workday is spent in an air-conditioned office, in an ergonomic chair, in front of a computer with a flat-screen monitor, an enormous window, and an expansive view. Quite a change from sitting in the dining room of a small rural house, with a prehistoric computer that roared like a lawnmower.

Yesterday, I literally had cabin fever and had to leave the office for a bit. I felt too boxed in, too constrained, too far from the people who benefit from the work of our organization. I couldn’t go back to my desk for a while, which ended up working just fine, since we have half-days on Fridays.

I guess what strikes me most in all of this is how possible it is, working and living in these environs, to never feel like you are in Kigali, let alone in Africa. This may sound strange, but I’m here, and yet, I miss Rwanda.

I miss walking around. I miss going to the market and bargaining over the tomatoes. I miss sitting in the little buvettes, the small shops that sell beer and brochettes, and talking for hours about God-knows-what and jotting down new Kinyarwanda words. I miss working and living with Rwandans.

So yesterday, I asked my driver to drop me off at the top of my road. He thought I was crazy, but I told him I just wanted to walk a bit. So I did. I stopped by my local kiosk to introduce myself and to buy a phone card. We chatted a bit in Kinyarwanda. I checked out the buvette near my house. I said hello to people I passed.

And that night, I received a call from Faycal asking if I would come see him sing at the Serena or the Mille Collines. All the presidents of the East African countries are in town, and he was asked to perform for them at the Serena. My friends and I weren’t sure we’d be able to get in, so we went to the Mille Collines later on to see him perform there.

On the top floor, at Stan’s Bar, he was singing to a packed crowd, mostly Rwandan with the occasional muzungu. And as the music changed from Top 40 covers to Congolese rhythms, everyone started dancing and laughing. In some ways, I felt like I had found what I was missing.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

From Francophone to Anglophone

The Rwandese speak English. Sure, they were a Belgian colony. Sure, the secondary language used to be French. But there has been a major turnaround, even since 2006.

I used to be entirely reliant on my French. My work was in French. Conversations at the buvettes over beers were in French (with some Kinyarwanda). Hotel reservations were in French. Meetings with officials were in French. I ordered food and drinks in French.

But that was in 2006.

Since then, there has been a major push to make Rwanda a trilingual country: Kinyarwanda, English, and French. From primary school, students can opt to learn English or French, and most, it would seem, are choosing English. Rural Rwandese officials, many of whom speak very little English and fluent French, will often opt to conduct meetings in English. The service industry outside Kigali is also ramping up its English skills.

As a result, in restaurants, bars, hotels, and the like, it is generally English that is spoken, not French. And when I choose to be obstinate, and greet people with a “Bonjour,” I almost always receive a “Hello” in reply. In one case, I greeted a female police officer with “Bonjour,” and she responded, snippily, “I don’t speak French.” She was clearly offended. I switched to my American English to show her that I meant well.

How did this happen—and how did it happen so fast?

My theory is that it’s largely due to culture. The Rwandese, in general, respect authority. President Paul Kagame is beloved by the vast majority of the population, and—surprise, surprise—speaks English. I have heard that he doesn’t speak a word of French (though this may also be for political reasons, which I will discuss). President Kagame is incredibly sharp—he recognizes that English is the language of commerce and technology, which essentially means that it’s the language the country needs to advance its development. One of my friends, who is Francophone but is taking English classes, said to me the other day (in French, no less): “What have the French and the Belgians done for us? Phoot. Nothing. Why do you think Kigali is growing so fast and Rwanda is developing these last years? Because we realized that the British and the Americans help us so much more.”

Hence, the push for English. And the people, who understand Kagame’s intention, have taken up the task.

There’s a lot of history behind the question of language in Rwanda. Many attribute a large part of it to the genocide. Before the war, Rwanda was a Francophone country. It was the language of the educated, and the diplomatic language of the government. The government had strong ties to France, who provided financial as well as military support. But in the 1980s and early 1990s, the strength of the Uganda-exiled Tutsi population’s rebel forces grew, and as they made small and large sorties across Rwanda’s northern border, the French came to the aid of the weak Rwandan military, fending off the Tutsi rebel forces. The French, it is said, viewed Rwanda as a battleground for the survival of the French language in East Africa, and the victory of the Tutsi forces would mean a victory for English, since the populations in Uganda learned English.

Of course, after a lot of bloodshed and continued intervention by the French, the 1994 victors were the Tutsi rebel forces (Rwandan Patriotic Forces, or RPF). A new government was installed, and the French nightmare came true—the evolution to English began.

In the past couple of years, the language question has continued to be a prominent one. In 2006, the Rwandan government launched a commission to investigate France's role in the genocide. Shortly thereafter, Jean-Louis Bruguière, a French human rights judge, declared that President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down under orders from Paul Kagame and the RPF, which essentially meant that the RPF was responsible for starting the genocide. Following his controversial declaration, the French diplomatic mission was ordered to leave Rwanda. They now operate out of neighboring Burundi. The French school was closed, as was the French-Rwandan cultural center.

The President has taken this one step further, by officially requesting that Rwanda join the British Commonwealth. Apparently this has never been requested by a country that was not a British colony. I suspect it’s more symbolic than anything else—it’s like Rwanda is officially throwing a little extra salt on France's wounds. And given France’s role in the war, you can’t really blame them.

Of course, there are controversial undercurrents from anti-government elements. Some believe that English is the language of a Tutsi government—a government regarded as Tutsi primarily because of its head. My sense is that this is a small minority. Otherwise, some French speakers have told me that they feel left behind—the country has moved so quickly that they have not felt able to catch up. Whereas linguistically, they had been the elite, this is now no longer the case.

My language advice? Bring your French dictionary if you would like. But I’ve learned the hard way that unless you can speak Kinyarwanda, start every conversation in English. If they tell you that they don’t understand, then use your French. Because you’re much less likely to offend.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Pop Idol

My best friend in Rwanda, Faycal Ngeruka, is now officially a regional pop idol. I’m still pinching myself. How was it that my friend, to whom I once served clumpy macaroni and cheese (Rwandan cheese does not work so well) in my Gisenyi apartment, is now all over East African television?

As I write this, I’m sitting on my bed in Nairobi. The last time I was in Rwanda, I remember Faycal saying that he had saved up money to travel to the Idols auditions. Idols is the East African version of “American Idol”—with all the same music, etc.

Flipping through the channels, I somehow found Idols. The host was about to announce the voting results. And he prefaced it with, “Who knows who will go home today? The judges never thought Faycal would go home last week.”

Faycal had made it. He had made it to international television, and was officially a pop star.


I met Faycal at what was then the Kivu Sun, the fancy hotel in Gisenyi. He was a law student at the Universite Libre de Kigali (Gisenyi campus), and sang on weekends to help to pay the bills. I was new to town, and only had the company of my journal when he paused between songs to introduce himself.

“Francais? English?” he asked.

“Both,” I responded.

That was the beginning of a close friendship. He guided me through Gisenyi life. We spent hours together, just hanging out at the video store next to the Texas restaurant in the city center. I met his family—his cousins, his aunts, and most remarkably, his grandmother, with whom I could barely converse, but who was incredibly generous with her smiles and her homemade ikivuguto (drinkable yogurt).

Every weekend, I would go to the hotel to listen to him sing. When my expatriate friends were in town, I would drag them there, too. He had audiences with President Kagame, Don Cheadle, and Daryl Hannah.

And when I stayed at the hotel too long and it was too dark for me to walk home by myself, Faycal would walk me there, and we would sing together. Most often, it was Boyz II Men’s “Water Runs Dry” song. I would take the melody and he the harmony. I was often self-conscious because he was so much more talented than I (the pinnacle of my public performance was a middle-school talent show, during which I sang Aladdin’s “A Whole New World.”). I later taught him new songs, by Craig David. We spent hours trying to get the pronunciation perfect.

He would call me “his Lucy Liu,” or “Morgan Freewoman,” after one of his favorite actors. And while his girlfriends and female friends perhaps initially suspected that I was a threat, they soon realized that he was really just a very good friend. So good that he invited me over to his little apartment to listen to music and eat beans and rice (his favorite meal) and I visited him at the clinic when he was sick with malaria (again).

In June of 2006, he managed to secure a singing contract at the Intercontinental in Kigali. That proved so lucrative that he moved there, and secured a singing contract at the Mille Collines, as well. He has now switched over entirely to the Mille Collines, singing by the pool. It’s one of the hottest spots in town, and he became very well-known. His somewhat grainy music videos play on television, and his songs play on the radio. He has already won several competitions, which help to pay the bills, which are much higher now that he has added a new baby to his family. The last time I was in Kigali, I went to hear him sing, for old times’ sake. From the Mille Collines, we took a long taxi-moto ride a couple of miles to his new house. It’s fully furnished, with a baby room decorated with Pooh wall hangings. And just like old times, we had a delicious dinner of beans and rice, and drank boiled water.

He was, and continues to be, my closest friend in Rwanda. So imagine my surprise when I sat in my room in Kenya and heard Faycal’s name on television. He didn’t make it—he was voted off—but at the same time, he has made it. Knowing Faycal, this won’t be the last time we hear from him. It’s just the beginning.

Want to hear Faycal? He's online:

Friday, June 13, 2008

Heading Back Out!

I'm going back to Rwanda in the next couple of days, this time for a couple-month stint. This experience should be pretty different from my time with the UN, since I'll actually be paid and will be living in the capital. I haven't really ever experienced the life of an expatriate (and confess a certain disdain for those who have only ever experienced that, and haven't lived in the field), so I imagine it should be pretty eye-opening.

At the moment, I'm packing out my apartment while simultaneously packing my bag for Rwanda. I'm not really sure how to dress...I got away with Gap clothes and Doc Martens when I was living in Gisenyi, but now I'm going to have to dress "respectably." When I think of the word "respectably," I think "uncomfortably." But we'll see what I can rummage up from my messy closet.

Otherwise, I'm bringing my bug spray. And maybe some cereal. It's wicked expensive out there! One expatriate had about 200 boxes of SmartStart cereal shipped into Rwanda with his household effects because it was so overpriced. (Apparently, it is very tasty.) When he left, he sold off the rest of the boxes to the other expatriates. Pretty ingenious, but I think the Rwandan government caught on to this (as they always do).

My three goals this round: To take real Kinyarwanda lessons (since they are available in Kigali), to join the Kigali Hash House Harriers (the one aspect of expatriate life that I confess is pretty cool), and to exercise so that I don't go back to being a brochette-and-potato blimp.I'll keep you posted!