Thursday, August 28, 2008

Quick update

I've admittedly been silent for a while, because I have sadly returned to the States again for my next adventure--grad school. (I've been delaying it long enough!) While exciting for me, others probably wouldn't find reading posts about statistics and how creepily preppy my university town is as interesting as reading about Rwanda.

That said, I have a couple more things I plan to share, as soon as I find the time to write them. I'm also updating the "Things to Do in Rwanda" page as well as the Kinyarwanda-English Dictionary!

Will write soon!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Playing by the rules

Don't even think about throwing that bottle

The Rwandan government is known to be responsible and responsive—if they see a problem, they try to fix it. And the best way to do this, of course, is to set down new laws. Some of the laws, perhaps most of them, would never be accepted in the United States. But Rwanda is very different—rules are rules, and people follow them. And when you hear about a new law, it's almost never surprising.

Here are some that I am aware of:

Umuganda. Essentially, it’s mandatory volunteerism. The last Saturday of every month, all Rwandans must volunteer in their communities, cleaning up shared spaces, picking up trash, fixing a road, etc.

No plastic bags. Since plastic bags have been identified by other countries as a litter problem (and was becoming a problem in Rwanda as well), plastic bags have been banned. Now, when you go to the store, your groceries are placed in narrow paper bags. The no-plastic bag rule goes for expatriates as well—if the police at the airport see you come in with a plastic bag, they will take it from you.

No cutting down trees for firewood. Erosion has become a big problem in Rwanda, because of its numerous hills, almost all of which are cultivated. With the population size as it is, people have been cutting down trees for firewood; in other places, they will burn the wood and make charcoal from it. The deforestation was so severe that the government has banned cutting trees for firewood, and people now use dead brush or charcoal to cook their meals. (This has been a problem for many.)

If you have a paved road in front of your house, you must grow a garden with flowers. Whether you’re a little boutique selling matches and water, a humble residence, or a large mansion, if you have a paved road in front of your building, Rwandan law now states that you must grow a garden with flowers to beautify the road.

No marriage until 21 years of age. This one not always followed, especially in the rural areas, but I’m assuming this rule was instituted as a family planning initiative. None of my Rwandan friends were married before 21 (the ones who did get married were about 25 or 26) and told me that they thought it would be crazy to get married earlier than 21. Quite different from most developing countries I have seen.

No razor wire or broken bottles cemented on the tops of walls in Kigali. This is the newest rule of all of them—apparently someone in the government decided that these security measures were ugly and unnecessary, so now it’s unlawful, and people are being asked to get rid of this stuff.

Motorcycle taxis must be registered and carry an extra helmet. Across Kigali, moto-taxis (also called “ipikipiki”) wear green and yellow vests and green helmets. They also carry an extra helmet for passengers. Failure to wear a helmet, I have heard, is 20,000 FRw (about $40).

No bottle throwing from cars. Around the country, children often beg for water bottles by the side of the road, which they use to carry water to school, to store oil, or to resell in the market. Matatu passengers used to throw these from the van windows to the kids, but this was outlawed when the government realized that kids were running into the roads to get them, endangering themselves and drivers.

No goats by the road. Same justification as above. The part about endangering drivers, of course.

And then, of course, there’s the biggest rule—No discussing ethnicity. I’ve talked about this rule a bit on this blog. Essentially, the government has instituted a policy that ethnicity doesn’t exist anymore—that everyone is Rwandan. Discussion of the different groups is unlawful and you can stand trial for it. They call it “genocide ideology.” Every expatriate has an opinion on this rule—some say that it’s bad, because you’re ignoring the problem (and therefore, it could get worse, and history could repeat itself), and others say it’s good, because the country was so divided that this is a way to bring some semblance of unity. I do believe it’s a good rule, at least for the immediate term of post-conflict reconstruction, with the caveat that some of the underlying differences must be addressed, such as access to secondary and higher education, as well as to the health care system (Mutuelle de Sante). If the Rwandan government is interested in really moving forward beyond the ethnic divide, I believe an affirmative action system based on socio-economic status would be an improvement (which would disproportionately aid Hutus, and yet would be a way around the ethnic labels).

Monday, August 04, 2008

Scenes from around Rwanda

The beach in Gisenyi, at the Serena Kivu.

Fabric at the market in Kimironko (a neighborhood in Kigali)

Tea plantation by the side of the road on the way to Gisenyi

A neighborhood in Kimihurura...Is this California or Rwanda?

Not what you'd expect to see on the back of a truck in Rwanda...

The center of Ruhengeri town

The amazing view from the Belvedere Hotel in Gisenyi

Sunset over Goma, DRC

Friday, August 01, 2008

Mushanana At The Wedding

When I arrived here in June, I found out that Fred, one of my closest friends in Rwanda, was getting married on the last weekend of July. I couldn’t believe my luck—I would actually be able to attend! He was excited, as well.

To make the event extra-special, I decided to wear a traditional Rwandese dress, called a mushanana. Other than “umudugudu,” this is probably the best word in Kinyarwanda. I have made a goal of saying “mushanana” as much as possible.

I wasn’t sure where to get one—it seemed to be the kind of thing you could buy off the rack. It’s just an elastic-banded long skirt, a colored tank top (usually--but not always--white) and a length of material tied over a shoulder. Women can technically wear it whenever they want, but it’s typically omnipresent during big occasions like weddings, funerals, baptisms, and church services.

After talking with several people about where to get a mushanana, I found that 1) it’s not cheap, and 2) you have to have it made. (You can rent them, but I figured I may as well have one for future occasions.) Apparently they cost between $70-100. Youch. The price really depends on the quality of the fabric.

As for where to have it made, Laetitia, the housekeeper, offered to go with me downtown to help me through the process. We went to the middle of town, where people hustled and bustled and cars jostled for parking and loud music blared from every shop. We went from store to store, about 8 in total, to look at their fabric.

If there’s one thing I can say with certainty, it’s that mushanana fabric is generally hideous.

It’s a gossamer polyester, generally—a chiffon weight. And it comes in all kinds of undesirable colors, like sea green, puke brown, and magenta. The patterns are really what make these stand out, though! Some fabric had a gold embroidered scalloped edge (think grandma’s tablecloth), most had flowers, others had planets, and one—I kid you not—was pink with strawberries, hearts, umbrellas, and sickles. Yes, sickles. Who knows.

I was a little worn out (and worried that I couldn’t find anything—even the pink strawberry-sickle fabric was $50, and I couldn’t justify paying so much for something so hideous) when we wandered into a larger fabric store. One of the mannequins was wearing a zebra-esque mushanana. I tried it on and decided it looked pretty good, certainly compared to the alternatives. I negotiated and bought it for 20,000 FRw (roughly $40) along with enough white fabric for a slip (about $3) and Laetitia and I headed toward her tailor.

What a sight! There were about 20 tailors in a shop so narrow that you could barely move between the sewing machines. The tailor, obviously tickled (as was everyone else) that a muzungu was having a mushanana made, took some quick measurements and told me to come back the next day. I held my breath when I asked how much it would cost for labor.

“Ibihumbi bibiri,” she said, which means “2,000 Francs.” About four dollars. Awesome.

The next day, I had my dress and tried it on. Laetitia had to show me how to tie the top part. (There is an art to it.)

I looked like a fat zebra. Mushananas are not intended to be flattering. All in all, I liked it, although I must admit that it makes me look like the stereotypical muzungu that goes to Africa and has a dress made. Meh. It couldn’t be helped.

So this past Saturday, I wore it to Fred’s wedding in Gisenyi. I brought my friend Victoria with me. Walking down the road to the church, strangers smiled and told me in Kinyarwanda that I looked nice. It was all very sweet.

The church service was conventionally Catholic, with a chaotic communion. It was also surprisingly short. Fred, dressed in a white suit that drowned his tall, skinny frame, led Vivian down the aisle and out to a Mercedes that he had rented for the occasion. The bridesmaids all wore matching green dresses (very J.Crew-esque, actually) and hopped into another car. Both cars were decorated with ribbons and bows.

As a side note, one of the interesting things about Rwandan weddings is that the groom is expected to pay for everything, from a cow (in Fred’s case, two) down to his bride’s wedding dress. And as an orphan, Fred has had to do it on his own, without any support from his nuclear family. It’s remarkable.

After the wedding, the wedding party went to a studio for photos, and met the guests at a reception held at the ULK, the private university in Gisenyi.

At one end of the hall was a stage, where there was a table for the bride and groom, and chairs for the bridesmaids and groomsmen behind them. There was a big dance floor (not for guests’ dancing, as in the U.S.) and on the left and right sides were chairs for the groom’s family and the bride’s family. (I’m still not quite sure who was representing Fred’s family—his uncles, maybe?) All the guests were seated classroom-style—the reception is not the dinner. The dinner is just for the wedding party and the family.

When Fred and Vivian entered the hall, they walked down the aisle between the guests, under white arches. The first had a ribbon across it, which they cut together before proceeding. Traditional Intore dancers jumped and sang behind them, and performed several times during the ceremony. Neither Fred nor Vivian spoke, because the ceremony was more about their families than it was about them—the purpose was for each family to tell the other family how happy they were about the union. They did that for about two hours, interspersed with dancing and a distribution of Fantas. To solidify the union of the two families, they had to drink together! They also cut some banana cake and shared it with everyone.

After the speeches, the newlyweds came down to the floor to accept wedding gifts from the attendees, which they did while the deejay played one of Faycal’s songs. The Intore dancers then dragged the newlyweds to the floor to participate in a traditional dance. Fred, having grown up in Uganda, obviously had no idea what he was doing, in a very charming way.

Seeing Victoria and I, the Intore came to us next, pulling the two muzungus onto the floor. I danced my heart out! I kicked off my shoes, mad cow horns with my outstretched arms, and stomped my feet, all the while trying not to trip on my mushanana. When we finished, I was exhausted. You need to be in perfect shape to be an Intore.

The ceremony closed with another Fanta for everyone (they call it “agashingurachumu,” or “one for the road”) and then some people went out to Fred and Vivian’s house to give them housewarming gifts. Victoria and I had made plans with friends for dinner since we wasn’t part of the dinner group, so we headed back to the hotel. Later that evening, many of the guests went to the Jungle Party, the monthly all-night beach party at the Serena Kivu. But that’s another story.