Friday, November 2, 2012

Climbing Volcanoes

"Come on, Michael! You can do it! Keep climbing!" I looked up the bright orange tube at my cheering parents. I was trying to climb up a slide at the park around the corner from where I grew up. I was about three or four years old. This is one of my earliest memories and it came back to me as I slowly fought my way up Mount Muhabura.

Just as I never made it up that slide that day, I was not able to summit Muhabura--not for lack of trying. It was not a matter of will, but rather a lack of preparation. I'm a bit mad at myself for not bringing proper equipment and attire on the hike, which put me in physical danger.

The group I hiked with consisted of nine other PCVs. We reached the bottom of the volcano late in the morning. We hiked at a determined pace, aware that we would be turned around if we didn't summit by 1:00. As we trekked the steep hill through the rain forest we joked that we were on the master of stair masters. Muhabura is only the second-tallest volcano in Rwanda behind Kalisimbi, but our guides told us it is the most difficult to hike up. I can believe it!

At about 10,000 feet, we came out of the rain forest and into sparse trees and rocks. Then there was a section of waist-high grass. Then the grass disappeared into more rocks. The higher we got, the steeper and rockier the mountain got. We were all definitely feeling the effects of altitude sickness--light-headed, dizzy, nauseous, weak.

Then a lightning storm hit. The bolts were striking the mountain very close to us. The thunder roared almost simultaneously with the flashes of light. Without a rain coat, my clothes were soaked. I felt like I stepped into the shower for 30 minutes with my clothes on. Delirious and tired, I started to suck the water out of my sleeves and drink it. "Is that all you got?!" I cried out as I continued to stumble up the mountain. It was a mistake to provoke Muhabura, that vicious mountain.

The rain turned to hail. Frozen drops of rain pelted our faces. The mountain turned white and the trail vanished. It was at this point that I turned back, realizing that my body temperature was dropping too much for me to continue. When I came upon those who were behind me, I shoved my hands into my buddy's pockets and we huddled together for a minute. One of them advised me to retreat down the mountain as quickly as possible, saying that the temperature rises three degrees every 1,000 feet. I did as he told me and went down quickly and carefully.

Coming down was both difficult and easy. The altitude sickness went away almost immediately. But now the trail was muddy and hard to see covered in hail. I slipped at one point and my walking stick snapped in half. I'm glad I didn't impale myself on it! Luckily I came across a metal walking stick that someone left in the middle of the trail for fear of being struck by lightning during the storm.

I came down the mountain so quickly that I eventually lost the trail. Fortunately I saw the last guy making his way up the trail at a distance. I made my way back over to the trail, forging my own path through thick foliage and sharp rocks. I was able to meet up with my buddy Mike who was also making his way down.

My body was shaking uncontrollably. Mike told me to take off my soaked shirt and he gave me a spare T-shirt he had in his bag. I was grateful to run into Mike, who not only helped me to get warm, but gave me trail mix and water throughout the whole hike. One of my best buds here in Rwanda, he is someone who I will always call a friend.

Mike and I made our way the rest of the way down the mountain. We realized how far we had gone when it took several hours just to come down the mountain. When everyone reached the car, we all shared the experience from our personal perspectives. One guy said it was the hardest thing he's done in his life. That says a lot coming from a PCV!

Now it has been one week since the hike and the soreness is fading in my legs. One of my fingers is still numb from frost nip. Another might be broken (I thought it was just swelling, but it's a little crooked!). My camera is broken from water damage. Now that I know what it takes to climb Muhabura I am motivated to try climbing it again to reach the summit. If I do, I will remember the cheers of my parents, who have always supported me in all of my life's events. I love you Mom and Dad.

Friday, October 19, 2012


Hey, folks! I just wanted to say that I would like to post more photos, but the slow Internet connection where I live does not always allow me to do so. But don't give up hope! I might get some of these photos uploaded one day -- possibly before I return to America...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Teaching in Rwanda

Teaching in Rwanda comes with many challenges. Teachers are given a curriculum for their subject, which is an outline of what must be taught throughout the year. These curricula are usually unintelligible, contain outdated or non-existent terms and phrases, or ask the teacher to teach about things that are not at all pertinent to the subject being taught. Teachers have few resources to draw information from and they often resort to copying sections of text from a book and giving that as notes to the students. The time in the classroom is split between copying notes and giving explanation of the notes to the students. The students are then given quizzes to test how well they have memorized the information given to them. No creative thought. Just minds being treated as photo copiers.

As much as I am frustrated by the Rwandan education system, I sympathize with the teachers. No, even more than that, I empathize with them. These teachers usually teach several subjects with little or no resources to use for creating lesson plans. The information in the curricula is sometimes so unintelligible that they often have to study the topic they are teaching just before teaching it. I'm certain that they really want to do more learner-centered teaching, but they are expected to get through so much information throughout the term that it is difficult to do anything besides hand over a bunch of notes and then give an explanation. I find myself often taking on the same teaching strategy and only throwing in a fun activity when I think of a good idea to try or I deem that I have enough time to have the students put their notebooks away and actually do something besides copy off of the blackboard.

Even though the education system in Rwanda needs a lot of help, I see no shortage of intelligent young people in this country. I am so proud of my students for the work that they put out when I push them to think their own original thoughts. Take my Senior 5 class as an example. Yesterday they had a debate during class. Rwandan students love doing debates. One of the students told me after class that we should hold a debate in class every week. I was happy to see that the students tried to involve everyone in the debate and they gave very reasoned arguments for their ideas.

After the debate I asked the students to hand in their homework. I had asked them to write five questions that they would ask their president, Paul Kagame, in an interview. I was surprised to see that very few of the questions were about personal things, such as hobbies and favorite things. Most of the questions were about current issues like: the conflict in DRC involving a group that the Rwandan government was accused of supporting; the recent creation of the Agaciro Development Fund, and how the government plans to spend that money - and why some people were told that contributions are mandatory when the government described it as voluntary; and how the president plans to utilize his final five years in office and who he thinks will run during the next election.

I get the feeling that I had an impact on the questions that were written. This term I gave this Senior 5 class very few notes. I assigned them one large project to work on throughout the term, which was to write and to give a speech. The speech is to be about what their dream is for Rwanda (after watching clips of MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech). Throughout the term I helped them shape their ideas by asking them questions like "What problems does your country face right now and how can you fix them?" or "What is important to you? What issue do you care about most?" It was very rewarding to see these minds open up, beginning with only giving a history of what they know about Rwanda, progressing to what their own creative ideas are for solutions to the issues the world currently faces. I am very excited as the end of the term draws near and I get to hear all of the wonderful speeches that these students worked so hard to put together.

At the beginning of the term, when I assigned the speech project, some of my students told me that it is so difficult. I explained to them that challenges are important for personal progress. After seeing some of the excellent work that these students have put together, I can't wait to ask those students after they give their speeches if it was worth it that I challenged them. Sometimes I feel somewhat useless here in Rwanda because I don't have several secondary projects under my belt like some volunteers. But then I realize the impact that I am having on these young minds by helping them to think critically. The next step is to share some of these teaching strategies to the other teachers so that the impact is sustainable. It is going to be challenging, but I know it will be worth it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Long Time Coming

It's been a while, so I guess I should update. I've been putting it off for so long because so much has been going on. But the longer I put it off, the more information I'm likely to leave out or forget. I gotta keep my readers happy! (I have 3,000 views on this blog even though I haven't updated it in three months, although 2,900 of those might be from my own mother)

During the school break two big things happened: GLOW Camp and Zanzibar.

GLOW Camp is a camp for girls where we teach them things like confidence, decision-making, career development, and how to prevent HIV/AIDS. We even taught them how to play baseball thanks to the resources of a fellow volunteer! Helping at GLOW Camp was the most rewarding thing I have done so far as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It was amazing (and exhausting) to see over 100 girls transformed from being meek and quiet to being loud and confident. The girls developed such a strong bond in just one week that they were all crying on the last day when they had to leave. And this is a culture where people don't show emotion outwardly. Now, the four girls from my school who attended the camp are starting a GLOW Club at school so that they can teach other girls the things that they learned. I'm excited to see how they put the things that they learned at GLOW Camp into practice.

The second big thing during break was my trip to Zanzibar. I went with a group of four other volunteers by bus to Dar Es Salaam, where we then took a ferry to Stone Town on the Zanzibar island. The 30 hour trip on the bus was not fun, but we forgot all about that by the time we reached Dar. We got to eat Western food! And Zanzibar was just heavenly. I could swim in the clear waters of the Indian Ocean all day!

The rest of the time during the break I spent visiting friends in different places in Rwanda. I also got to see King James, winner of the Primus Guma Guma Superstar competition in Rwanda, perform and I got to dance with him while he was singing.

Following the second week of school, my host family that I stayed with during training came to visit me. I feel very blessed to have them as a host family. They truly adopted me as a son. They came bringing gifts with more food than I could eat through the week. I took them to get brochettes and sodas (beer for me and Papa) but they refused to let me pay, even when I tried giving the money to the bar owner.

Over this past weekend I attended a basketball tournament that my school's boys team was playing in. They ended up winning the championship. It was a lot of fun, but I was burned and tired from being out in the sun all day without eating.

Well, that about does it for updates. I wish I could include more information about each event, but that's more work than I want to do at this point. Those who Facebook stalk me will have already seen lots of photos anyway. Hopefully I'll be able to give another update before three more months go by. Cheers!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Speak and Draw

Club SPEAK consists of students at my school who want to practice their English speaking skills. The club has been struggling to keep students attending regularly. In one of the meetings, I had the students who run the club brainstorm some of the reasons why students were not coming consistently. We decided to cut the club meetings down to one day a week instead of two and then we came up with some fun activities that would draw students in and make them want to return. One of those activities was the Speak and Draw competition.

Speak and Draw works by getting students to practice speaking and listening. Plus, they get to draw, so they love it! Students are split into pairs, one speaker and one illustrator. The speaker is given a picture (I tore some out of magazines; the more details in the picture, the better) which they cannot show to their partner. The speaker must describe the picture to the illustrator, who must then draw the picture to the best of their ability. At the end, the students vote for the best drawing, accounting for accuracy to the original picture. The students had so much fun and were challenged to use whatever vocabulary they knew to describe the pictures.

The winners of Speak and Draw! Unfortunately the flash on my camera washed out his drawing.

This boy's partner left before I could get his photo.

The accuracy of some drawings amazed me.

The students who helped judge.

The Michelin Man!

Rwandans have great smiles. The trick is getting them to do it.

I'm surprised this one didn't win.

This drawing got stepped on during the judging.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Religion in Rwanda

Religion in Rwanda is fairly diverse. Granted, most of that diversity consists of the many veins of Christianity, including Adventists, Presbyterians, Jehovah’s Witnesses [I refuse their tracts here too], and Roman Catholics, among others (although I’m wondering where the Mormons are?). Islam also has a place in Rwanda, and even though Muslims make up a minority in this country, I have seen more of them here than I have in America with all of its diversity. It seems inevitable to run into many of them while staying in a country the size of the state of Maryland which is home to about 11 million people. Strangely, there are no Jews or atheists—besides Peace Corps Volunteers.

Church is always interesting in Rwanda. It differs in every church. My first experience with church was during training. It was fun at first, but I didn’t realize it would continue for four hours. I can only handle being squeezed onto a bench (half my rear hanging off) and being touched by dirty children for so long.

My second church experience was during Christmas. There was no special Christmas service. In a way it was refreshing to get away from the three-month commercial build up to what consumer America has turned Christmas into. But at the same time it leaves me with that feeling you get when you’re pulling away from your house and you’re wondering if you locked the door or not. When I have my music library on shuffle I don’t skip over the Christmas songs. It’s as if Christmas never came last year.

I tried going to the Catholic church in my village because I heard that they have really short services. Too short, I guess. I made it just in time for the announcements. Mass ended five minutes later. It’s the thought that counts, right?

One of my friends in the village invited me to his church, so I went. I found out that he is also a pastor there. I had so much fun dancing to the music and I even gave a short introduction to myself in Kinyarwanda. Four hours didn’t seem so long after that day. I arrived at 9:00 in the morning and left at 5:00 in the evening, with a short break in between for lunch. Even after the service I played the radio on my phone outside and danced with the village children until the sun went down. That day was truly a Peace Corps experience.

My favorite place to attend church so far has been with my students at school. Late each evening, several groups gather in different classrooms “to pray.” [In Rwanda, they do not say that they are “going to church.” They say that they are “going to pray”, which always sounds like “play” of course]. Occasionally I will pop in for a bit when I am invited. Tonight was one of those nights.

I walked from my dorm room to the classrooms. I moved cautiously through the moonless night. I arrived to a small classroom that was absolutely crammed with students and a choir of about a dozen swaying back and forth in front. They had already begun singing and dancing. This school church is Pentecostal, headed by a student pastor who looks like a teenaged Obama. The singing and dancing gets very intense.

Pentecostalism seems a natural fit for Africa. The tribal beats of the music and traditional dancing mesh perfectly with the enthusiasm of the charismatic movement. The students sang songs about Imana, the Kinyarwanda name for God. Rwanda’s people are historically monotheistic, and Imana is the name of their traditional God. This made conversion to Christianity very simple when missionaries came to share their good news. Today the majority of Rwandans are Christian, believing that their traditional god Imana and the God of the bible are one and the same.

The songs are very repetitive, but I somehow don’t get bored with them. As they continue singing, the students’ voices rise as if they are trying to be heard from heaven itself. The cramped room pulses with energy as the students sway back and forth and jump up and down. You can’t help but be pulled into the excitement. This is my favorite part. And that’s why I leave when the music stops.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

You've got brains, kid

The power went out in the village so I went to go buy some candles at the boutique nearby. On my way returning home, I passed by the teachers’ house. I saw a flashlight bouncing through the darkness, so I called out a greeting. It was one of the teachers. He shined his flashlight in my face as I approached, then said, “We need your torch.”

He grabbed my flashlight from me and brought it to where a couple of other teachers were cooking. One of them was hacking away at a goat head with a broken machete. I thought for sure the old man was going to take one of his thumbs off. The power soon returned, but I stuck around to see how they planned to prepare this goat head.

While we stood around the boiling pot that smelled like a distinct mixture of beef and wet dog, an interesting conversation ensued. This particular group of teachers is all Congolese. I discovered that they segregate themselves from the others because they are not Rwandan. The distaste that they have for Rwandan culture became more and more apparent as the conversation progressed. The two groups get along on the surface, but they don't like to spend extended amounts of time together.

I learned all about Congolese cuisine. It seems they will indiscriminately eat any kind of meat in the DRC, including small birds, tortoises, monkeys and rats. One of my Congolese friends explained to me that there is a certain organ in crocodiles that is extremely poisonous and must be removed under the supervision of the local authorities. When they remove this particular organ, they must throw it into a 30 meter-deep pit, dump gas into it, light the gas, and then bury the hole again.

When I finally tried to leave, my friends asked me to stay and eat with them. I obliged. Goat brain is now the strangest food I have eaten. It made the cassava paste seem normal. One of them described it as smooth. I would say goop describes its texture best.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


The students in one of my classes asked me to support them monetarily so that they could compete in an inter-class football tournament. I accepted with the condition that they would let me be their team manager and coach. I love it when they call me coach.

Here are some of the things I had to avoid on the field the last time I played football:

  • patches of tall grass
  • holes
  • lumps
  • cow pies
  • goats crossing the field
  • a cow
  • a motorcycle
  • the ball - it was waterlogged from the rain and weighed about five pounds

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Every Peace Corps Volunteer must learn the local language of their host country. In Rwanda, that language is Kinyarwanda. In some ways, it is a simple language; yet it is also in some ways very complicated.

During our three month training period here in Rwanda, we sometimes faced up to six hours a day of language lessons. One of my language teachers described Kinyarwanda as a “poor” language. What she meant by this is that Kinyarwanda has few words. This makes it difficult, for example, to find parallel words from English that have the same meaning in Kinyarwanda. While this may be true of all languages (look at the trouble modern scholars go through to give a proper translation of ancient texts), it is compounded by the lack of choices for words in Kinyarwanda. So whenever we would ask her to translate a word from English to Kinyarwanda, this teacher would pause and look at us while thinking, and then give us some word that we were already familiar with as a translation of some other word. This is why she called Kinyarwanda a “poor” language.

Here are some examples. Examine how many words are in the English language, especially the number of adjectives. When we derive pleasure from something, we could describe it as good, nice, sweet, superior, excellent, and so on. By contrast, there is one root word in Kinyarwanda that expresses the sentiment of goodness, -za (the beginning of the adjective changes depending on the class of the noun that it is describing, e.g. neza, cyiza, beza). There is no differentiation. What's good is good.

Another example is our expression of the five senses as verbs in English: to hear, to see, to feel (by touch), to smell, to taste. There is much less distinction in Kinyarwanda. The verb kumva can be translated as to hear, to smell, to taste, to feel, and to understand. Often Rwandans who are learning English will come up to me and tell me that they are understanding some music, pointing to the headphones over their ears. A common phrase that I hear Rwandans say to each other is “Urumva?” This could mean “Are you listening?”, “Can you hear me?” or “Do you understand?”

Interestingly, Kinyarwanda does have a word for delicious, -aryoshye, from the verb to taste good, kuryoha. This word seems to be related to another verb, kuroha, which means to be easy or to be soft. The spelling and pronunciation of these words is very similar, and I believe they could even be substituted for each other. I recall one night during training when my host mother told me in English to eat some meat because “it is easy.” I’m not sure which word she mistranslated. She may have been trying to tell me that the meat was delicious, or that it was soft (which it was, and it was the first time I had tender meat in Rwanda), or both.

I think this is very telling of the diet in Rwanda. When discussing food, I am often told by my colleagues that many Rwandans prefer quantity over quality. They would rather eat a large amount of beans and cassava root and have a full stomach than eat a lighter amount of a full range of vegetables and rice. For many Rwandans, this is not by choice as they live in poverty. But as Rwanda develops, I see a continuation of the old dietary habits, even among those who can afford to eat better and eat less. Compare this to our own disproportion of meat to vegetable ratio and even portion sizes in America, even though we are less physically active than previous generations. Dietary habits are difficult to change.

But back to my point, in Rwanda it seems that food preferences can best be described as foods that are “easy” to eat rather than foods that are “delicious” to eat. I watch in awe whenever I see a Rwandan eat; especially when they eat meat. Rwandans make no differentiation between muscle, ligament, fat, veins, and intestines. If it’s not bone, then down the hatch it goes. I try my best to match these eating habits, especially if I’ve paid for an expensive round of brochettes (goat kabobs) at the bar. But I just can’t seem to always get it down with the same ease as my Rwandan friends. If it’s a large piece of “meat” that I can’t chew down, I don’t even try to swallow it for fear that I will choke and die. I suspect that Rwandans prefer “easy” food because it fits their liking of eating a lot of food quickly.

There are many other examples I could give to show that Kinyarwanda has very few words compared to English, but I think I’ve made my point. While some might say this makes Kinyarwanda a “poor” language, I like to look at it from a more philosophical standpoint. There’s beauty in simplicity.

We might say that adjectives in English can be placed on a scale. After all, we have comparatives and superlatives (e.g. good, better, best), a concept that appears to be absent in Kinyarwanda. We could, for example, place the word good at the bottom of a scale, then move up that scale to words like great, superb, excellent, and so on. Each word, as we move up the scale, intensifies the concept that we wish to communicate, yet we are still communicating the same basic concept of goodness. Kinyarwanda seems to exist in a world of black and white, throwing out the scale completely. If something is good, then it is good, no matter how good it is. The same goes for something that is bad.

Sometimes I think that we over-complicate our messages in English. We use grandiose vocabulary to express concepts that could often be simplified to “good” or “bad.” Yet, at the same time, one can find satisfaction in the richness and depth of the choice that we have in vocabulary in the English language. Imagine how drab poetry and literature would be if we didn’t have such a wide range of words to choose from. This may be a large factor in the lack of literature, besides the bible, which is written in Kinyarwanda.

Nevertheless it is nice at times to stop for a moment while reading in English and imagine how the text could be translated into simpler words, such as those used in Kinyarwanda. It can make the complicated problems of our world seem so silly. After all, the simplest answers are often the correct solution.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Just Another Weekend

So it’s been awhile. But that’s a good thing. It means I’ve been busy. And it also means that the time has been flying by. I can’t believe that I have been living in Africa for six months now. School is on break right now and I have a little time to breathe and relax. And to update my blog!

Keeping a blog is proving to be more difficult than I expected it would be. I’m running into the problem that so many Peace Corps Volunteers before me have run into. The weird things that we are confronted with every day simply become normal to us after repeated exposure. Writing about my experiences just doesn’t seem interesting most of the time. But I know that people back home would still be interested in my adventures here in Rwanda, and so we continue. It has been so long that it is difficult to know where to start, so let me just tell you about my weekend.

My school finished administering exams on Thursday. This means that all of the students were leaving school to go back home on Friday because we are a boarding school. I decided to go to the nearest town with some other teachers in order to celebrate the end of the term. We made the forty minute walk down our dusty red dirt road to the main paved road to catch a bus into the city. We met quite a sight when reached the main road. Hundreds of students lined each side of the road. They climbed into the backs of pickup trucks, buses, and any other vehicle whose driver would give them a lift. We managed to get onto a bus, but they increased the price because the demand was so high. Luckily everything in Rwanda is cheap and the price increase was a whopping 17 cents.

When we reached the city, we met up with another teacher who was waiting his turn to get some money at the teachers’ bank cooperative. The other teacher who I was with lives in the city, so he ran home to change clothes while I waited with the teacher who wanted to get his money. I find that I do a lot of waiting in Rwanda. I am coming ever closer to mastering the skill of entertaining myself using only the thoughts rattling inside my own head.

Once my teacher friend got his money, we hit a local restaurant and got a little snack. He had meat and beans, I had ciapati (flat bread) and Fanta Orange. I was saving space for inzoga (beer), chips (fries), and brochettes (goat meat) at the bar. And it was worth it. I love goat meat.

After “taking one” at the bar, we headed to a village nearby to visit another school. I quickly made friends with all of the teachers and the headmaster there. (So this is what it is like to be a hot girl… I had a conversation with some other volunteers about this. One of them said that here we are treated like circus animals. The other, who has already served as a volunteer in Swaziland, agreed and said that in that Swaziland he was treated like a wizard when he proved his worth by accomplishing some task. But here, the host country nationals simply note that a change has taken place, then they continue to stare, poke, and prod. I receive this treatment from some, but I wouldn’t classify myself as circus animal here. At first I couldn’t quite classify it. I thought celebrity, because as I walk down the street, people stare, children call out my name, and everyone assumes I must have a lot of money. But I give no autographs. Then it hit me. Everyone wants to be called my friend. Everyone wants my phone number. Everyone tells me how beautiful my hair is – and they become upset when I cut it off. I am the hot girl. Anyway, this was a long aside. End parentheses.)

Where were we? Oh yeah, the school we visited. We ate a whole bunch more food, which consisted of every Rwandan’s favorite foods: boiled plantains, mushy rice, and terrible cuts of overcooked cow meat. After chatting for a bit, we all hit another bar. Really, there’s not much else to do in the village for entertainment besides bar hop. At this bar, I got to talking with one of the older teachers, who explained to me that he is the former inspector for the whole entire district. He sipped on Ugandan Waragi, or gin, as he talked to me. The bartender brought the 8 oz bottle out to him and punched a hole through the lid with a pen and slipped a straw through the opening. I took a sip just to see how it tasted. It was like a concoction of pine sap mixed with turpentine. When he asked me if I take Waragi, I answered with another question. “Why would I pay someone to give me a headache? At least beer taste good.” The old teacher continued to brag when he saw I wasn’t impressed by his boasting. I may have offended him when I pulled the pen from his breast pocket without asking to write some notes about our conversation. But this is such a passive culture, I guess we’ll never know. Unless I find out several weeks from now from a third party who drops hints about it.

After “taking one” again, I headed back into the city with my teacher friend who lives there. Guess what we did while we were there? That’s right, we hit another bar to “take one” again. We’re not alcoholics, I promise. With the wait times here, these were spread out over many hours. But here comes the interesting part of my story, which takes place in this bar.

In Rwandan culture, it is taboo for girls to drink beer. The bars are usually filled with old men, and sometimes old women. But even if a young woman visits a bar, she is only seen drinking Fanta. I was disappointed to see that things were not any different in this city from our village. We walked into a bar full of drunk old men. There was a room with loud music playing for dancing, but who wants to dance with a bunch of drunk old men? So I asked my friend where all of the girls were. And he took care of it.

After he had a short conversation with one of the bar staff, we were seated at a table outside. Five minutes later, I was being introduced to a pretty young woman. But this didn’t seem right to me. Then the proposition came. Turns out, she was a whore. And she was the most modestly dressed whore I’ve seen in my life. An awkward exchange ensued, I declined the offer, she left the table, and my friend and I finished our beers in uncomfortable silence.

It was late when we finished our beers, so I stayed at my friend’s place. I felt so dirty sleeping in his bed with him. It wasn’t because I was sleeping with another dude. I once slept in the same bed with three other guys back in California. I’m secure with my straightness. And it wasn’t because the sheets were dusty or possibly infested with bed bugs. It was because just one hour earlier I had been offered to use the same bed to get down and dirty with a hooker. I couldn’t help but think of the nasty things that took place on this bed I was sleeping on. But I made it through the night.

We woke up to pouring rain in the morning. We waited for a bit, since the buses wouldn’t be running for awhile. We stopped in at a restaurant for breakfast. Here we ate the Rwandan version of menudo. It was a stew of boiled plantains, cow tongue and intestine, and tomato sauce. I couldn’t stomach the meat, but the rest of it was pretty tasty, despite the awful smell. After breakfast, I headed home and continued my mundane habits of cooking and watching “How I Met Your Mother” on my laptop.

On an unrelated note, today I drank coffee with latte art on top for the first time. I was in a coffee shop in the city and ordered an African coffee (espresso, ginger, steamed milk and foam). I was a barista for about five years and I’m a bit of a coffee snob, so I have visited many coffee shops in America, but I have never had the pleasure of experiencing a true coffee artist's signature in the foam of my cuppa. That’s why I was surprised to see a perfect rosette on top of my coffee in the middle of Africa. And it tasted pretty good too.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


I woke up this morning at 5:30 to go running with a group of students. I wish I had brought my video camera! About 100 students ran down the street towards the sunrise, singing and chanting different songs as they ran. And run we did! My legs are sore.

When we returned from our jog, I went to the mess hall where the students shared some porridge with me. Porridge is more of a beverage than a meal. As I sipped it from a mug I imagined that I was drinking a liquid corn tortilla.

After breakfast was Umuganda, the required community service that takes place the last Saturday of every month in Rwanda. But on the way to Umuganda, I noticed a group of students going into a compound. I entered to see what they were doing.

As I stepped through the gate, I saw a field leading up to a large ramshackle house with a fireplace on its exterior. Two small cows grazed the property, which was bounded by a brick wall at its perimeter. In one corner stood a water tank; in another, stables for cows. I joined my students in exploring the area.

It was apparent that the house had been first-rate at one time. Someone important had once lived here. As we wandered through the stables, the courtyard, and the house, one of my students explained to me that the property was once owned by the man who founded our school. But now he is in prison in a neighboring country for crimes which he committed during the genocide.

Exploring the compound brought back memories of the disc golf course in Washington that I visited with my dad and brother-in-law just before coming to Rwanda. The course was built on the grounds of an abandoned insane asylum. The old buildings there had become legendary and a place for teenagers to explore and to scare each other in. This compound in Rwanda has its own legend. According to my students, the former owner buried a large sum of money somewhere on the premises before he was taken away to face trial, but it has never been found.

My community is littered with abandoned buildings like this. In my mind, it is a physical manifestation of a society trying to rebuild itself. I get a sense that, much like these buildings, many people here feel torn down. We are here to help them build themselves back up.

Some people call the subject of the genocide “the ghost in the room.” You might go about your entire day without noticing it. And most days you won’t. People do not talk about it often, but it is on everyone’s mind. Yet, I am so impressed with the ability of the Rwandan people to move on and take such strides forward in development after such a terrible event.

Walking through that old, run-down house reminded me of something my headmaster told me one night over dinner: “People were killed in this school during the genocide.” Great dinner conversation! And now I know not only that people were killed here, but also that they were killed by the very man who ran the school. What an abominable man! I noticed that the closets in that man’s house were the same style as the one in my room. It brings these questions floating back up into my head: Was anyone killed in this room I sleep in? Did anyone try hiding in that closet? But the fact that I still have to wonder is an indication of Rwanda’s ability to pull together the pieces that remain and rebuild them into something that only vaguely resembles the split society it once was. Turi kumwe. We are together.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Money, Family, and Fried Food

“Money makes a good servant, but not a good master.”

“A person cannot improve the standard of living of their family without money.”

“Man makes money, but money does not make a man.”

“A poor family has no respect.”

Saturday night, Club Speak had their first debate. The topic was “Money is more important than family.” I acted as Corrector, which meant that I sat between the two sides and listened to their arguments while taking notes on any mistakes that they made in pronunciation, sentence structure, or the clarity of their messages. At the end of the debate, I shared these mistakes with those participating and gave them tips on how to improve their English. I had a lot of fun participating in this event and I’m looking forward to future debates.

Even though they were speaking English, sometimes it seemed as if the debaters were speaking a foreign language. It is strange how people learning a language together can make sense to each other, and yet, even as a native English speaker, I was sometimes unable to determine what was being said. They use sentence structures and accents that make sense to each other, but not to a native English speaker. It’s almost as if they are speaking a third language, somewhere in between English and their native language. But that is why I am here: to expose my students to American English so that they can one day communicate with others outside of their country.

I was going to go to church Sunday morning (I swear!) but I had no water to bathe with, so I stayed home and cooked beans. Cooking beans can take half a day. I also read three books.

And I made tortillas and assembled some bean burritos! These babies are 100% hand-made. No measurements, no rolling pin. Now I’m cooking like my granny used to. She didn’t have recipes to tell her how much of what to use. She only had her own experience. Food is art!

Yesterday I was told that I will be teaching a class today. I didn’t have a lesson planned, so I just marched into the classroom and started talking to the students. I introduced myself and had them make nametags so that I could call on them by name when they asked me questions. I wasn’t planning to stay long since I didn’t have a lesson, but the hour was up before I knew it. By the last five minutes of class I found myself giving a crash lecture on marketing. I guess I’m more ready to teach than I thought I was! I just hope my students are this attentive for the whole term.

As usual, I have some photos for your viewing pleasure. Mostly of food, but you know where my priorities are. But my camera does not get out much because it is very conspicuous. But I promise one of these days I will sneak it out and get some more photos outside. Anyways, enjoy!

My electric water kettle, preparing some hot water for hot chocolate. I’ve got the perfect ratio down: 4 scoops Ovaltine, 1 scoop powdered milk, 1 scoop sugar.

Ramen noodles and orange juice. They say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. I see no problem here.

A teaching aid I put together for teaching on giving speeches.

I was at the field one day playing football and one of the village boys came up to me and gave me a light bulb as a gift. The most worthless items become invaluable with a little sentiment.

Grease! My taste buds thank me, but my arteries hate me. We’ll see how my stomach feels tomorrow. The string beans reminded me of eating fried okra back home.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Welcome to the Jungle

Here is a video showcasing the beautiful road up to where I live. Enjoy the view!

I'm hoping to capture some video of other modes of transportation as well, such as the moto and the squeeze bus.


So this is another boring post about cleaning again, but that seems to be what my life is about right now besides going to the market and cooking. But there are pictures!

The other day I spent three hours finishing scrubbing the walls. But this time I was smart. I bought a deck brush in town to make things go much more quickly than just wiping the walls down with an old sock.




And above the closet you can actually see the paint now! So many spider corpses...

This is what it looked like before.

And this is where I poop. I need a break from cleaning for a while before I try to tackle this beast. There's no running water, so the shower is completely useless and the toilet is flushed by dumping water into it. Notice there is no seat. I prefer the latrine. And I'm pretty sure that crack in the floor is a sink hole forming under the foundation. The hole in the shower basin is where I saw a mouse and a roach crawl out from (yes, at the same time).

Other than cleaning, I have actually been enjoying going to the different markets and exploring what is available for me to buy. It is intimidating at first to shop in the market, especially when dealing in a foreign language, but once you get the hang of it, it is a lot of fun. I get a kick out of playing the game of walking away or forcing the merchants next to each other to compete on price.

I am working on clipping some video together now so that you all can see more of the actual country and not just my room. Hopefully it doesn't take too long to upload!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Note on Cooking

Part of experiencing a new culture is tasting the food of the country you are staying in. I love to try food from different parts of the world and to see the unique ways that people prepare the same simple ingredients. Unfortunately, Rwanda is not known for fine cuisine.

Food in Rwanda tends to be bland and overcooked. Rwandans prefer quantity over quality. I believe that the food is cooked to a mush because Rwandans do not like to chew. The goal is to cram down as much food as possible before your stomach tells you to stop. Chewing only slows this process down.

Even worse, the umukozi who works for my headmaster uses about five times as much salt as normal. Thank God I'm able to cook for myself now! The gas stove that I bought is the best investment ever!

Here is what the umukozi cooked last night.

And here is what I cooked (reheated from the night before).

Now, granted, they don't look too much different. They are the same ingredients, after all. But the difference is in the texture. And the seasoning. Even though the soup I made was brothy, the vegetables were still more crisp and tasted like more than just salt.

I have a desire to teach people about nutrition while I am here. There is an availability of good, fresh food and spices and it is all fairly affordable. And when food is not overcooked, it retains its nutrients, which means that more money can be spent on flavorful spices rather than on more bland food. And when you don't overcook your food, you spend less time cooking. This means that you can eat at a reasonable hour, as opposed to eating right before going to bed, which is terrible for digestion and metabolism.

Here is an example. I cooked this for dinner tonight. It took me less than 30 minutes.

Spicy penne and vegetables

And I know that most Rwandans don't have the luxury of a gas stove, but cooking over fire shouldn't add more than 15-30 minutes to the cooking time. I have seen cooking go on for 2-3 hours!

Here's to hoping that I can teach some Rwandans how to cook.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Umwaka Mwiza!

Happy New Year, everyone! I had a busy weekend celebrating, but I've still managed to get a lot done around the "house" (my room at the school). I'm probably not going to get a house of my own, so I've been settling into this place the best I can. I have been accumulating things little by little to make myself more independent.

I had a guy come over and build shelves for my closet. It has really helped me to get organized. It was interesting haggling with the carpenter to agree on a price. He asked for 3,000 FRW. I offered 1,000 FRW. He refused and left. I called him a few minutes later and offered him 2,000 FRW. He gladly accepted. It's strange that 1,000 FRW seems like so much to me. It's equivalent to less than $2.00.


I think I have as many hangers here as I did in the States! Thanks, Peace Corps, for a decent move-in allowance.

Welcome to my office. The baskets alone are probably worth a tenth of my monthly allowance, but worth it for the organization. I hate seeing my things randomly dispersed throughout the room.

My next step will be finishing cleaning the walls and above the closet. Then, I will move on to the bathroom. The bathroom is a place where I hear the music from the shower scene in the movie Psycho whenever I open the door. It will be interesting trying to clean it up.

Well, I hope you all had a great New Year's celebration. See you in two years, America.