Birthday Fundraiser

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!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


I have now arrived at my new home in a place called Busogo. This is in the Northern Province. (There are five provinces in Rwanda – Northern, Western, Southern, Eastern, and Kigali City.) Busogo is part of Musanze district. Musanze is close to both the Uganda and DRC borders. It is famous for two things – its volcanoes and mountain gorillas. This area attracts a decent amount of tourists who come to see these attractions. People seem to be proud of these attractions. Such landmarks as “Lava CafĂ©” can be spotted in Musanze.

The drive from Kigali to here took about two and a half hours and the scenery was beautiful. I had an idea of what it would look like after having visited the part of Uganda that borders Rwanda and my expectations were pretty much fulfilled. This part of the country is characterized by giant rolling green hills. This is a farming economy, so on each hill, there are plots of land carved out for farming and/or terraces built into the hills. Rwanda is nicknamed the “Land of a Thousand Hills” and the whole country is hilly. People even describe their homes based on which hill they live on. When someone described Kigali as “flat,” I laughed. But in comparison to the north, it is comparatively flat.

The university I will work at is called ISAE. (It’s a French acronym but in English it translates to the Higher Institute of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry.) I was a little anxious about arriving on the campus, but I couldn’t have been happier with the welcome. I was introduced to a few people at the university and they were all welcoming and friendly, but not in an overwhelming way. The director of continuing education, with whom I will be working most closely, did a great job of taking me under his wing for the day. We went into town to a few groceries and to start getting to know the place. At night, I was invited to his home for dinner. Also invited were my next door neighbor who is a female animal science teacher and another food science teacher. Over the course of dinner, I found out that this man actually spent the summer of 2007 studying at Cornell! It was funny to hear him talk about the buildings he worked in and lived in and to be able to picture it exactly.

That was Day 1. Day 2 was different because with the director having traveled to Kigali, I was on my own. I woke up and took a long time unpacking and organizing things. I made for breakfast some eggs and bread and butter and brewed a little of the Dunkin’ Donuts coffee which (along with peanut butter) was the luxury food item I decided to bring (even though I’m sure the coffee is great here). I was a little intimidated to leave my apartment. I cooped myself up for most of the day, intimidated by the prospect of going out and calling attention to myself. I admit it was silly, but I had basically decided that it was acceptable to stay in for one day and venture out the next. By 5:00 PM, though, I realized I was being ridiculous and that I should get out and go for a short walk around the compound I live on. I’m so glad I did! This campus is beautiful. Every walkway is lined with flowers. There is a constant red/purple plant interspersed with occasional yellow, red, and blue. The fragrance is the best part. You can see those giant green rolling hills in the distance.

The best thing that happened was that I met another neighbor, a Korean woman whose husband works at ISAE. I met her briefly – enough time for her to invite me for dinner. I had pretty much decided to make a peanut butter sandwich for dinner so I quickly and gladly accepted the offer of a real dinner. We had a very nice time. She has good English (though she doesn’t believe it), but is not fluent. So I got to taste some Korean food. Today, I had lunch with her and her husband and she gave me a tour of the vegetable gardens she keeps. Actually her garden is right outside my door. My Rwandan next door neighbor who I already mentioned is also great and she and the Korean woman are already friends so being with them together feels like being part of a little group.

So things are good so far and I learned a good lesson to take a chance and GO OUTSIDE. I think that comfort zones are only imagined. Something that seems uncomfortable when you think about it can actually prove totally comfortable once you actually do it. That goes for walking out the door as well as coming to Rwanda (and anywhere else) in general.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

"I like Kinyarwanda"

There cannot be a better way for connecting to people than by learning their language. I’m saying this based on 9 months in Oman and a few days in Rwanda. It’s funny that language seems to divide people on one hand but bring us together on another. In Rwanda, I’ve found that people respond very well any time Kinyarwanda is used, especially anything more than “hello” or “thank you.” It might be the case that foreigners don’t often show the desire to learn the language – after all, the knowledge can’t really be transferred anywhere else and it’s very complicated. I figured, though, I might really benefit from it, living far away from the capital. During my stay at a hotel in Kigali, I saw an opportunity to test out a few Kinyarwanda phrases that I picked up during the first few days. There was a woman who works in the hotel’s restaurant and serves breakfast in the morning. Two days in a row, she sat down with me and gave me a lesson for maybe an hour. Learning the language is good for many reasons. First, it seems to make people respect you by demonstrating an interest in the culture you are visiting. Second, it is a survival mechanism and allows independence. Third and most importantly, it is really fun. Arabic and Kinyarwanda both include sounds that are pretty hard (I won’t say impossible) for a native English speaker to pronounce. In Oman and already in Rwanda, I’ve found that there is no better way to facilitate a friendship and feel genuinely comfortable with another person than to sit and make strange and repetitive noises together. In the case of the Rwandese woman at the hotel, it was the Kinyarwandan sound indicated by “nk” that really let us bond. In my opinion, this sound has nothing to do with an N or a K. It is one sound that comes from the throat and depending on the dialect might even have a hint of an H sound. 5 or 10 minutes spent trying to master this sound meant making a series of terrible guttural noises and looking to my mentor for approval while she repeated the sound for me and laughed. It was worth it – now I can confidently say, “Nkunda Ikinyarwanda!” (I like Kinyarwanda!).

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

First 24 Hours

Well I have officially completed my first 24 hours in Rwanda and I have to say I am not disappointed. I realized as I was traveling that the only thing I was really worrying about was lugging my bags from the baggage claim. Oddly enough, this tends to consume my mind when traveling to a new place with lots of luggage. I guess it was the only challenge I could predict for sure. Maybe it’s a way of pushing other fears out of my mind. Anyway, I successfully overcame this hurdle and after that was, greeted by someone from the US embassy. To my surprise, shortly thereafter, an old Rwandan friend, Yves, who I had met in Uganda in 2009, appeared in front of me. I was not expecting him at that moment but I have to say it was very nice to see a familiar face! I was dropped off at the hotel I am staying in for the next 5 days, and though I was tired, went out with Yves to see a really tiny bit of the city and get something to eat before going to bed. The small act of seeing someone I knew worked wonders for making me feel like I belonged in the country and I was immediately comfortable. In fact, I felt—and still feel—like I’ve been in Rwanda all along. I can’t put my finger on it but there’s a kind of naturalness to being here.

Today I woke up bright and early for my first day of Fulbright orientation at the US embassy. By bright and early I mean that I woke up at 5 and finally got out of bed at 6, even though my alarm was set for 7:30. I woke up to the nonstop (and pretty) sound of birds chirping and I guess that convinced me that I couldn’t avoid getting up to look at my surroundings any longer. It was beautiful of course… though I know I ain’t seen nothin’ yet! I got to the embassy for orientation, which was particularly welcome since I missed the first orientation in New York due to being in Oman. I feel satisfied with the day and I feel like I’ve learned a lot about Rwanda, including my first Kinyarwanda language lesson. The Rwandan and American people leading the orientation really helped to make it a good day.

I learned a lot in particular about the education system in Rwanda. If you want more details or deeper thoughts, just ask. The most important thing to note is that in 2009, the Rwandan government decided to switch the language of instruction in schools and universities from French to English. There were a variety of interplaying reasons but one of them is that Rwanda joined the East African Community (EAC), which includes countries where English is widely spoken: Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania (and Burundi which is French-speaking). In the past, English was taught as a subject. To put this in perspective, imagine taking Spanish as an elective in primary school and high school and then one day all of your classes from math to history are in Spanish! Since university study lasts 4 to 6 years and this policy was enacted 2 years ago, older students had their primary and secondary education in French and also passed their national exam in French and are therefore not used to being taught in English. From what I understand, some students really struggle. And it is not just the students, but the teachers, too.

I think it will be interesting learning about Rwanda. Hopefully I will be able to share some of the lessons. But for now, the day has been long so for now I will say mwirirwe (goodbye!).