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.