Birthday Fundraiser

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Akagera National Park

In July, I went with Sarah and our friend Lia to Akagera National Park to see all those special animals that you probably picture in your head when you hear “Africa.” It was awesome. Zebras are my clear favorite, followed by giraffes. When we saw the two together at the same time, I believe what I blurted out was, “It’s a dream come true!” It was pretty cool. Beyond that, I don’t think I can say anything about the experience that can’t be conveyed by my Facebook pictures. So, let me share some interesting and unobvious facts I’ve learned about Rwandan animals that can’t be told through pictures.

After the civil war in the 90s, many refugees came back over the borders from Uganda, Congo, Burundi, etc. to resettle in Rwanda. Now, Rwanda is a tiny and densely populated country and land is precious. When people started coming into the post-war country, they filled in wherever they could, notably in the National Park area. Today, the park is almost fully fenced – the animals live in a protected and uninhabited area. But that wasn’t the case back then. Thus, people lived alongside some pretty serious animals.

Maybe you’re not surprised by this. After all, everyone knows that lions, tigers, and zebras, are wandering all over Africa and the tribesmen hunt them in order to bring the meat back to their huts...

Okay, back to reality - As we all know, that is not reality, but that’s why I was surprised to hear stories that borderline come close to that depiction.

Today, there are no lions in Akagera, but there used to be. During that period in which people were coming to live there, the lions posed a threat – not just to people, but to their cattle, which were the basis of their livelihood. To eliminate the lions, they would wait for a lion to kill just one of the cows. Luckily, lions don’t eat their prey right away; they leave and come back for it later. So when the lion left, the people would poison the cow. When the lion returned for its snack, it would poison itself. The outcome: no more lions in Akagera. (Note: they’re importing some from South Africa next year.)   

I also learned about leopards. Apparently, they are friendly creatures, if you treat them right. Like the lions, you can leave a cow around for them to kill and eat. You don’t necessarily have to poison it, because if you just take care of it (feed it) and avoid threatening it, it will develop a protective bond with you. This is what I’ve been told, anyway. Apparently they’re more effective than a dog or a gun or a home security device. Anyone want a domesticated leopard?  

The buffalos, though, are extremely dangerous, and have been responsible for many deaths. I’ve heard some firsthand attacks of buffalo encounters that sound terrifying. One student somehow escaped an attack that killed his neighbor who he was walking with. According to his account, he was traumatized for three days.
Finally, there are the hippos. I had to ask about hippo survival tips because I watched a particularly enthralling documentary about hippos years ago with my college friends and have been terrified of them ever since. Did you know they can run faster than humans (despite their weight and stubby legs)? [Usain Bolt: 23 mph; hippo: 30 mph.] In fact, during our tour, I was convinced that I knew better than the tour guide that we should not go near them, even in a car. (He said we were safe.) Anyway, if you are ever being charged by a hippo, change directions. When they run, their ears flap over their eyes so they can’t see. If you change directions about three times, they’ll lose your scent and you’ll survive.

So there you have it – the animal facts that I have found most interesting. Arguably more interesting than touring the park in a comfy vehicle. Hope you agree!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Thank You!

Thank you so much to everyone who donated to Action for Fundamental Change and Development (AFFCAD) in honor of my birthday! I really appreciate it, and AFFCAD will appreciate it even more! Here are some pictures of the people who will benefit... 

I'm still dying to share some videos, but I guess they'll just have to wait. 

Meddy, co-founder of AFFCAD


Winners got a pencil. This is Jaffar, co-founder of AFFCAD.

A volunteer Excel School teacher

Saturday, July 14, 2012


I feel compelled to write a post about one specific person I’ve met at ISAE. His name is Shumbusho. He has a sister named Nyirahirwe. They are 12 and 9 years old, respectively, and attend primary school every day. They clearly have a lot of love for each other.

Now for the shocking part: They live alone and take care of each other. The 12 year old is the bread-winner for the family – Going to school and also finding enough money to buy (and cook) meager amounts of food for himself and his 9-year-old sister. He spends a lot of time at the ISAE campus. That’s because he can find small jobs to do here. For example, he catches rats and moles when they’re eating people’s crops. For each one he catches, he gets 200 Rwandan francs (about 30 cents). 

The next shocking fact: He’s a sweet kid. In my opinion, he doesn’t have to be given his life circumstances. But he’s one of those types of kids that makes you think, “wow, what a polite child.” Usually, I think you can credit the parents for teaching good manners, or something like that. But this kid has no parents. Apparently, it’s just natural.

Shumbusho and his sister are orphans. They have different fathers. Their mother abandoned them shortly after the birth of Nyirahirwe. She didn’t leave them all alone – they were left with their grandmother. Two years ago, the grandmother passed away, leaving them on their own. They have no other family – at least family who cares about them. The mother is around, but doesn’t care to see them.

I don’t think I need to give too much commentary about this. You can draw your own conclusions. But isn't it amazing how the way people experience life can vary so much??

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Linguistic Musings

When teaching English, it can be really interesting to see how non-English-speakers hear and think about the language. When you don't know a language well, you become very creative in the way you use it. 

Here are some superb new words and phrases that I learned, for example, while grading final exams at the university: 

"Himselvely" = By himself 
"Talk the brag" = Brag
"Steal man" = Thief 

Is it just me, or would you also love to incorporate some of these words into your everyday vocabulary? You know, you have to know a thing or two about English grammar and conventions to develop these. Actually, it takes a lot of creativity to come up with this stuff!  

Now, on a somewhat related note, I have a fun little game for you: 

When tutoring the National Cycling Team of Rwanda in English, I asked them, in groups, to make a list of words that start with a particular letter. I was particularly entertained by the "P" group. This game is called, "What Did They Mean?" What do you think these words were meant to be? 

1. Poleche 
2. Porbureme
3. Pepo
4. Penebara
5. Porgeht 
6. Phalmoce
7. Pecha 

So that I can put a little space between the questions and answers, let me give some helpful advice. For speakers of Kinyarwanda, and many African languages for the matter, it's extremely common to mix up the R and the L. In fact, it is often acceptable to interchange these letters in Kinyarwanda (and Luganda, etc.) words. In  other words, both spellings can be acceptable. This is funny because in American English, R and L are totally distinct sounds. But for many Africans and others, they are more or less exactly the same. Evidence (from Uganda, not Rwanda): 

Now here are those answers: 

1. Porridge 
2. Problem 
3. People 
4. Peanut Butter 
5. Project 
6. Pharmacy 
7. Picture 

Didn't see "peanut butter" coming, did you? :D


Tour of Kigali

Now it’s time to travel to Kigali. We’ll take this Kigali Bus Service (KBS) bus. These buses very recently arrived here, I believe from China. I don’t know this for a fact, but there are sometimes Chinese movies playing on the bus (entertaining no one expect an occasional Chinese tourist, I suppose). And I’ve never been to China but this bus kind of represents how I picture China in my head. I don’t personally like these buses because they are actually city buses – like MTA or TCAT style. To me, this sort of bus doesn’t make sense for 2+ hour trips. But apart from me, other people think they’re really new-fangled and cool. And when they’re not playing Chinese movies, they play music videos which I appreciate very much.

Perhaps you noticed in the picture the men selling drinks and snacks. If you didn’t, look now. This is a very convenient way to purchase your trip snacks. In other countries like Uganda and Burundi they usually have things like chapatti and corn and brochettes (meat), but street food is outlawed in Rwanda, so they stick to packaged cookies and biscuits.

Well enough of that introduction to the bus. Here comes the journey. First we need to get out of the bus park. We’ll pass by these motorbike (moto) drivers on the way out.

I’ll skip the pictures of the road because I have a lot of Kigali pictures ahead. 

2 hours later, we’ve arrived at the bus park in Kigali: 

And now we will hop on one of those motos and go to town. This is like the “city center”:

In the background of that picture, you see the slogan of the 18th commemoration of genocide, “Learning from our history to build a bright future,” in Kinyarwanda and English. Below is Hotel des Mille Collines, made famous by Hollywood:

Nakumatt is a big Kenyan supermarket located in two locations in Kigali:

Across the street, the Church de Sainte Famille. I went here on Palm Sunday. It's possible to learn some history through Google. 

Now we’re going to go to a place called Kacyiru which has two interesting attractions: the American Embassy and…. drumroll…. a really beautiful, brand new, very modern public library. To me, it’s exciting because I happen to love libraries and I think it should be a requirement for all cities. If you went to Cornell, it reminds me of Mann. So here it is:

And right across the street is the American Embassy (not the highest quality picture but I like how the flag looks):

And here is a bit more of the Kacyiru area:

King Faisal Hospital, opened years ago with the support of the Saudi government. A good place to access medical care: 

Here are some pictures showing the residential landscape. The first is my friend Ian in front of his house (in the distance):

You must have noticed the cleanliness and general beauty of Kigali. Here’s why (garbage cans):

So there you have it. The tour of Kigali. It is not complete. There is far more to see, but I don’t want to bore you. (And as I mentioned in the last post, taking pictures can be rough, at least for me…).

If you want a longer tour, my arms are open for welcoming visitors (wink, wink)!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tour of the North

I was thinking about a blog post or two purely meant to give a visual of Rwanda. I guess I’ve kind of left such descriptions to the imagination. So here is a photo tour starting where I work/live at the Higher Institute of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry (ISAE) in Busogo and ending in the city near where I live, Musanze. The next tour will pick up in Musanze and continue to the capital city of Kigali. Note: Some of these pictures were majorly embarrassing/difficult to obtain (well mostly just the ones in Byangabo and the market) so I hope you appreciate each one. Enjoy…

Here is the inside of my house:  

Step outside my house and here's what you'll see: 


There are a lot of people working around the university whose job is to keep the place looking beautiful (they succeed, wouldn’t you say?). These are the children of one of the ladies who is usually working around my house:


Now we’ll meander up to the academic part of the campus. Here are just a couple images of the campus:


The place where I’ve been spending a lot of time recently is the newly-created “career center.” Here students can find career guidance (well, ideally), practice their English, and use the Internet. Have a look:


It’s an agriculture school in a rural area, so of course there are animals everywhere (and people to take care of them). They are used for teaching and also produce milk, eggs, etc. which are sold in the community:


And if we continue up, we’ll find the recently-built administrative building. I have an office in there, in which I spend very little time now that the career center is my unofficial office:


Now we’ll leave the campus and move to the nearby city of Musanze. First we'll have to walk to the small town of Byangabo. Here's Byangabo: 

Byangabo has a market day every Tuesday and Friday. People come from neighboring villages to sell the vegetables they grow (and clothes, utensils, etc.). This is where I buy my fresh fruits and vegetables. Here's the market: 

Now it's time to go to Musanze, so we'll take a taxi like this for about 30 minutes:


Here’s what you might see along the way:

We'll just stop at one village along the way. Getting to one of the villages usually involves moving down a big hill from the main road. This happens to be a celebration of "International Women's Day" from a while back. One of the handful of times I've ventured into a village like this one. 

And back to the road:

And now here’s our destination -- the “big city” of MUSANZE:  

Next stop: to the bus park, then Kigali. Hope you're excited! 

Thursday, April 19, 2012


This past week, Rwandans commemorated the 18th anniversary of the genocide which took place in 1994. Every year during this week, everything pauses in Rwanda and there are widespread events to commemorate that time in history. I’m glad I could be here to take part. Without talking too much about the events themselves, I’ll just talk about the thoughts in my head now, post-commemoration.

I have been thinking about one thought more than others: It is so easy to look at things that happen in the world and pause and think, “Oh, how horrible,” and then move on with our lives. We may even do so in a completely genuine and truly heartfelt way. But eventually, after this short pause, we just get on with what we were doing because the truth is, even the most empathetic of us won’t really be affected in any major way after that brief moment of sadness. The thing is, we see the news and especially the books and movies as a sort of story. No matter how true you know something to be, if you were not there, to some extent, it remains a story. Nearly everything I have learned about the genocide has been learned in Rwanda itself. Because I have done my research here, while looking out at Rwandan landscapes, having already met Rwandan people who were affected, I thought that I was in a pretty good position to see the issue as a real event affecting real people. But I’ve realized that after 3 ½ months of being here, I’m only just beginning to grasp the true “realness” of the events. The reason is that I’ve had more opportunities to talk to good friends and people I’m close to, and see that these normal, regular, fun people are the ones who lived through this. They are the ones I read about in the books. Not some sorry people “over there,” but these people who I hang out and joke around with. People who today, on the surface at least, are no different than me.

There is a movie, Sometimes in April, which I believe gives a good depiction of events. One of the things I appreciate about it is that it juxtaposes life in Rwanda with life in the USA at the same time. It not only shows the decisions (or lack thereof) being made by politicians, but it also shows images of ordinary Americans going about their daily business – jogging in the park, playing soccer, etc. I think these are important images because they make you think. For me, it's about being a 5-year-old in that peaceful world, totally unaware that there were people my age in the world, destined to become my friends, who were struggling for their lives and losing their families.

But can we help not knowing, not feeling the full extent of the struggle? Today, I feel I can almost empathize with the people in Rwanda, but it took being here – for a long time – and really getting to know people. Before that, it was not possible to grasp, even though I thought I could. I guess that's reality. 

Monday, February 27, 2012


Before the month of February ends, this post is in honor of Black History Month. Recently, the American Embassy opened a new “American Corner” at one of the universities near where I live in the Northern Province. The American Corner is a small library/conference room where anyone can go to read books about the US and other topics, find study resources for standardized tests, and more. Last week I attended the grand opening of the “corner.” In honor of the opening, the embassy sponsored the screening of a movie about the civil rights movement in America.
It was a good movie, but what I found most interesting was the responses of the Rwandese people. Even as I myself watched the movie, I was thinking about parallels between this event in the US and the genocide in Rwanda. Obviously, they were separate events that played out in very different ways, but the idea of ethnic/racial hierarchy that spurred each and the fact that lives were lost over the concept are some things that relate the two. It seemed at the end of the movie that the Rwandese people watching also viewed the movie through this lens.
During the question and answer period, I noticed that the theme was justice. For example, “Was Martin Luther King’s killer found and how was he punished?” and “Was there a special system put in place to penalize the people responsible for murder during the civil rights movement?” After the genocide, it was necessary to put a new “genocide law” in place to deal with the complicated issue of punishing people when so many were guilty at various levels. This is a challenge that Rwanda still faces.
Most touching was the fact that one administrator at the school was moved during the movie to get up and retrieve his guitar. Eighteen years ago, after the genocide and in response to it, he had written a song about embracing love and not hating. Spontaneously, he decided to perform his song (twice) for the crowd. It wasn’t planned but it really seemed to bring closure and cohesion to the event.
No matter where you are, hatred occasionally rears its face. And even though the magnitudes of the civil conflicts that emerge vary greatly, we’ve all had our low points in history. More importantly, we all learn from these low points and move on, however difficult or slowly, towards understanding.

Friday, January 20, 2012


Today marked ISAE’s 5th-ever graduation ceremony. 800-something students graduated with either an advanced diploma or bachelor’s degree in the faculties of Agriculture and Rural Development, Agricultural Engineering and Environmental Sciences, and Veterinary Medicine. It turns out I arrived at the perfect time because I got to take part in the ceremony with the teaching faculty, donning a green cap and gown with blue trim to denote my Bachelor’s degree. It brought back memories of my own graduation, not that long ago. In the morning, the faculty gathered and then the procession began. There’s a dirt road that connects the administrative building, the academic buildings, student dorms, and staff housing. It’s a public road where you see a lot of foot traffic by local people most of the time. Walking in lines down that road behind a marching band that came from Kigali for the occasion felt like being in a parade. Towards the end of the procession, as we entered the stadium, I gathered that we were supposed to march in step with the band and I was totally having a marching band flashback. (Except that it was a little harder to march downhill, over rocks, in heels.) This was obviously an exciting event for the community. Many people were lining the roads and children were running alongside the band. While slowly proceeding I had a lot of time to let my mind wander; wearing a cap and gown, marching behind a marching band, looking up at the beautiful rolling hills, and watching people from a different walk of life line the road, I had a moment where I was like, “how did I get here??” It was a little surreal.

The main administrative building at ISAE, with some graduates in the foreground

The ceremony itself was nice. Pretty much what one would expect at a graduation ceremony – similar to a graduation ceremony back home (speeches, calling of names, etc.). One different thing was the incorporation of traditional Rwandan dances. Entertainment breaks are great for keeping spirits up at such long ceremonies – I think American universities should consider it. At this modern graduation ceremony, I was thinking about how here and in many other places the traditional intertwines with the modern so naturally. This goes for clothing as well. You can easily see a person in traditional dress next to someone in “modern” clothing and it’s perfectly natural. This was absolutely true in Oman, as well. I love how people can move with the times while maintaining tradition and culture at the same time.

Me and my next-door neighbor

Finally, this event was a good way for me to meet a lot of people. I feel like it came just at the right time, as I have been here for about a week. Today I was introduced to a lot of great people – particularly some of the younger teachers in their 20s – who I can tell I’ll have a good time getting to know. For all of these reasons, it was a good day!