Friday, February 17, 2006

Adventures in Kigali

My weekend was spent in Kigali, taking care of a few items of business. I took a matatu there, a van called Okapi Car. For little more than $2, they’ll take you straight into the center of Kigali. The catch is, they want to make sure that their little white vans are full, so they oversell their seats. This usually works, because people come early, and as soon as the van is full, it leaves, even if it’s supposed to leave a half-hour later. So it’s in your interest to get there early. However, my matatu arrived a half-hour late, so every person who had booked a seat was packed in. This meant four or five people crammed onto seats that were meant for three. Worse, the woman next to me was not particularly….thin, so I had no place to put my arms, and I had to rest one foot on the other because there was no room for my feet.

They say that Rwanda is the land of a thousand hills, which is true around Kigali, which has a relatively flat geography compared to the northwest. Up around Gisenyi, their “hills” are actually mountains, and our matatu whipped around the curves and bends, honking its horn and nearly taking out numerous bicyclists. Jamaican music was blaring from the stereo, and as people finished their bottles of water or juice, they threw them out the window. (Here, it’s a crime to do so, not because it’s littering, but because kids are so desperate for this trash, particularly water bottles, that they will go so far as to kill each other for them. They also run out into the road to beg for them from passing cars, which is very dangerous.) We stopped on the way so that our driver could pick up two yellow jerrycans filled with what we suspected was banana beer. I thought for sure I was going to die that day.

We are required to display our blood type on our badges, in case of emergency. I didn’t know my blood type, and my HMO didn’t either, so I had to have it tested. I didn’t want to get anywhere near a needle here—I don’t mean to offend, but it’s a very different environment when a third of the population has HIV/AIDS (and 50% of the population in Kigali has HIV/AIDS as well). I decided that the one place I could count on in all of Rwanda to be very excessively safe was the UN clinic. The doctors are all national staff, and they were very competent—with the small exception that they couldn’t find my vein, so the woman kept stabbing the needle deeper into my arm, as if mining for blood. I cringe to think about it. (Mom, dad, I’m AB+.)

I also went shopping for items for my apartment. I’m only here for six months, so I don’t want to buy expensive things. My friends took me to their Mecca in Kigali, called T2000. Don’t ask me what it stands for. It’s a store run by Chinese people who have imported everything you could ever imagine from China. Everything from towels that leave fuzz all over you, to glittery vases, to those little porcelain cats with one paw raised. Of course, they also have cheap plates, glasses, pots, and pans. I stocked up, and even bought myself a bottle of soy sauce (I can’t believe I lasted this long without it). When you check out, they give you a Chinese chocolate bar called “Chum,” which approximates what it tastes like.

A big group of internationals (mostly Canadian) went to the Cactus Club, which is a restaurant serving French and Italian food, despite its name. They had some rare items on their menu—frogs’ legs, escargot, and chocolate mousse! I can report that the chocolate mouse was no more than Jell-o chocolate pudding. Since it was before Valentine’s Day, there was a sign up advertising the V-Day menu—3 courses with drinks for $15/person. I laugh to think about the prices we pay in the U.S. Doesn’t a salad and a drink cost $15 at Cosi?

The next day, Thierry, one of my Rwandan friends, took me and my Canadian friend to Nyabugogo, the Mother Of All Markets. It’s not open-air—you descend into a cavern whose roof is made of sloppily-piled corrugated metal, much of which is rusting. It is a veritable maze. Each vendor has a cubicle about 4 feet wide, and clothes are hung for your shopping convenience. Don’t count on finding the same item in another size, though—these are secondhand or factory rejects that inexplicably made it to Rwanda. We passed the towel section of vendors, through the shoe section, past the bag section, to the women’s section. My friend wanted linen pants, and boy, did she find them. All the (50? 100?) vendors crowded around us holding every linen item in their collection. It was overwhelming. Thierry, small as he is, played bodyguard, and I made sure my bag was zipped up tight. We were whisked away to a changing room of sorts, where my friend tried on pants by Ann Taylor Loft and J.Crew. The vendors wanted to charge her $56 for each pair. We loudly scoffed (this is the technique to use if you are bargaining—you have to laugh loudly at the absurdity of their proposed price). My friend had wanted to buy 2 pairs of pants and one shirt, but as a price-lowering tactic, we left. Thierry went back and managed to wrangle a price of $50 for everything, which is still too much. Muzungus have to pay a 10% tax for their skin color, I guess.

I am happy to report that I did go out to one of Kigali’s nightclubs. It’s called Planète Club, and it exceeded my expectations, which admittedly were not very high. There were several pool tables, a mingling bar area, and a dance floor surrounded by mirrors. I believe that Rwandans are obsessed with Beyoncé and Sean Paul (this was evident not only from the music at the club, but EVERYWHERE). They had blacklights, sketchy people (many salty old white men staring at the Rwandan women), girls wearing skirts that barely covered their asses, and bathrooms without toilet paper. Just like a club in the U.S.

I discovered La Galette, a European supermarket. I was overjoyed to see it, for many reasons. First, when Rwandans talk about their local supermarket, they mean the alimentation générale, which is a store with a counter behind which are shelves of dry grocery items. It’s full service—point, and the guy behind the counter will climb a ladder to get it for you. Now, in Gisenyi, there is one alimentation générale—and to give you an idea of what it carries, I asked for black pepper, and they didn’t know what that was. Okay, so back to La Galette. Now this is a supermarket. There was a great butchery with fresh sausages (nevermind the cockroach crawling around. Funny how I’ve gotten used to such things) and a cheese counter. Imagine—a whole counter with cheese! Nothing like Whole Foods, I’m afraid—but I was ecstatic.

Prices aren’t cheap—they sell everything you could want from Europe and the U.S., but import fees and Rwanda’s taxes have made some of these products unreasonably expensive. Nutella is $10. Corn Flakes are $14. Want chocolate cereal? Cocoa Puffs are an unpalatable $16 a box. That’s the price of comfort food.

A couple staff from my office in Gisenyi came down on Tuesday, so I left with them that evening. On the way, we had some brochettes (kebabs) at a tiny kiosk outside the city. Their specialty was goat kebabs. Of course, if you really want their best kebabs, you can order the goat intestine kebabs. As an added bonus, they’re stuffed with stomach! Yum.

While we waited, everyone had beer. One guy ordered a Guinness and an orange Fanta, which he mixed together. I was appalled. As a Guinness lover and purist, how could any respectable person drink that? It’s like using a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape to make mulled wine. Of course, I had to try it. It’s actually quite tasty (if you can get over the sacrilege!)


Blogger Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

I just discovered your blog and find the posts most intriguing. You really know how to draw a reader into your world.

I am bookmarking you so that I can read future posts. Best wishes to you on this adventure!

2/17/2006 11:44 AM  
Blogger casper the friendly ghost said...

Hey, this appeared in the WP today. May be of interest:

2/17/2006 7:02 PM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

dcs, thanks for the kind words!

Casper, I read the article. Really fascinating--thanks for posting the link. I hadn't heard about suicides in great number. I also wonder whether some of those people who have committed suicide did so not out of guilt, but because of the weight of such be accused of genocidal acts here is so serious that the community will shun you whether or not you actually are guilty. (And the prospect of being shunned by your community can often be enough to resort to drastic acts.)

2/19/2006 11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey I'm from the UK. Your article is really interesting. I will be in Kigali in April and look forward to reading your blog in the future. Take Care.

2/19/2007 3:38 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I found your site very interesting. I will go to Kigali at the end of june. Where should I stay? Can you give me some tips? I am a hospitality club member but apparently this network doesn't work very efficiently there. So I'll have to stay at a hotel/hostel. Looking forward to your reply.

5/24/2007 2:47 PM  
Blogger JoGo said...

Hi Morgan,

I spent the summer in Rwanda in 2005 and relate so much to your writings. It is great to read and I really appreciate your compassionate observations. Funnily enough too some Rwandan friends of mine visited the US recently so I feel a little more connected than usual. I also live in the DC area - keep writing!

8/26/2008 2:18 PM  
Blogger Djamila Selamawit said...

Hi Morgan!!
i've been to Kigali twice this year and i felt in love with the country, the weather and the people.
you are a very good writer

7/15/2009 2:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting website. Quite helpful. Love the dictionary. However, some exaggerations. According to research, the HIV prevalence rate in Rwanda is 3.1% and around 8% in the capital. The 50% rate is maybe found in high risk groups like sex workers.

Unless Rwandans are to be classified in that category.

Kids don't kill each other over empty plastic bottles.

4/19/2011 7:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

3.1% may be the rate now in 2011but in 2005/6 it wasn't anywhere near that low. It wasn't 50% either but it was very high. In the kigali hospital where I worked at the time almost 70% of patients were admitted for opportunistic infection associated with HIV. Now I work in a rural hospital in the north and the incidence of HIV related infection has certainly dropped off.
Adn maybe kids didn't kill each other over plastic bottles but they certainly got killed over them - on the roads. And world war 3 would break out among a group of kids if there was only one bottle to be had

11/11/2011 3:07 AM  
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