Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Adventures in Training

I've recently decided to participate in the MS 150 bike ride, a two-day event to raise money for multiple sclerosis. That's right, over 75 miles a day. I'm not exactly sure why I decided this was a good idea, as my previous daily record is 66 and that was only by the grace of god and a very nice HMF.

So here I am.

Realizing that I may have bitten off more thant I could chew, I decided to actually try trainining for it. Not heavy duty, mind you, but follow a mileage schedule, and atleast get out on a bike every few days.

This would've worked out perfectly, had this little trip to Rwanda not come up.

It being Africa, bikes are plentiful here, but not the type you'd want to spend a long time training on. One gear. No pedals. Shoddily made. Break pads made out of used up tires. I had emailed our country manager before coming, asking if there were spin bikes available at the hotel gym. He didn't know, but he did offer to put me on a specially designed milk bike (to carry up to 40 liters of liquid milk to market) and let me ride around the hills of Kigali.

Um...maybe not.

When I arrived, it turned out the hotel fitness center was closed for renovation.

Me: "Where's all the equipment?" I asked.
Hotel clerk: "Storage,"
Me: "Could you pull out a bike..?"
Clerk: "No madam, it's in storage."
Me: "Are there any other hotels nearby with fitness centers?"
Clerk: "Yes."
Me: "How far?"
Clerk: "You could jog there in 5 minutes."
Me: .......
Me: "Can I use it for free?"
Clerk: "No madam, you'll have to pay $5"
Me: "Could I just jog there and back for free?"
Clerk: .....

I did manage to sneak in to the neighboring gym, under my co-worker's name, using his room number (he took pains to tell me that I couldn't actually stay there with him. That was one weird conversation).

Unfortunately, for all that effort, those bikes were crap. I managed a few piddly workouts, but overall, nothing good.

This week, my female coworker introduced me to her local gym. It has torn up carpet on the floor and no airconditioning, but the spin bikes atleast spin (although their seats leave something to be desired). On Sunday I managed to get in a whopping awesome ride, but I nearly did myself in.

I am a woman of the prairie. Kigali is 5,000 feet above sea-level. My first week, it felt like my wisdom teeth were trying to gnaw their way out my ear drums every morning. It's just one of those things I've noticed when in higher elevations. My body literally DOES NOT COMPUTE. But still, I completely forgot that I wouldn't be nearly as efficient with my oxygen as I normally am, and proceeded to wind myself into stars (and a few stripes). I managed to continue, but received no sympathy from my colleagues at the pool, who pointed out that I hadn't eaten much that day, either.

Ok, so I'm clearly not a training expert.

And then there's the clothing. Bikers aren't exactly known for their loose clothing. Knowing I'd put long hours in, I brought my spandex shorts with the padded crotch but covered myself with an appropriately loose tshirt, thinking this would hide me from prying eyes.


Tonight, I wandered into the same gym to meet up with my coworker, who was running late. Unwittingly, I walked into a gym full of African men, who were very pleased to see me (and my spandex shorts!) Not to be deterred, I pretended it was perfectly normal for a mazungu women to be wearing next to nothing in a room of men, marched directly over to the bike, and let it kick my ass. My co-worker arrived a bit later and laughed at me, the lone piece of dough in a sea of delicious chocolate chips. "That guy next to you is staring at your butt", she whispered.

"That's not all they're staring at!" I told her.

So, please, support my pitiful efforts and donate to fight MS on my webpage. I'll keep updating you on my adventures in training - my idiocy has got to be worth something, right?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Genocide Museum

Today I made time to go to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. It's tastefully done. I feel like I've visited all the awful museum's in the world : Aushwitz, the Holocaust Museums' in DC and Israel; the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. We humans do a good job of documenting our hatred of each other. I understand that it is so that we never forget our cruelty, so as we're not bound to repeat it again, but that doesn't seem to be working. Couldn't we start making museums to fluffy bunnies and kitten kisses? The world might be a better place.

Interestingly enough, I was patted down for firearms and made to go through a metal detector before entering. I asked the security guard if that was a problem and he just shrugged "You'd be surprised." Sadly, I'm not really surprised. From what I hear and read, there is still much healing going on within the government and among civilians. Few individuals have been convicted of perpetrating the mass slaughter of 800,000; most live in the same area, same region as those they tried or supported killing. There's still alot of work to do.

The museum itself walks through the history of the region, of Rwandan colonialisation and the activities leading up to, during and after the genocide (including the inaction of the UN). Done in three languages, it was informative without being overtly graphic, and factual without inciting futher debate.

The most difficult room for me was the children's memorial. Here they had chosen to larger poster size photos of beautiful children affected by the genocide, under which was listed:

Name: Claude
Age: 10
Likes: chocolate milk
Personality: Outgoing, smiley
Last words: UNAMIR will come for us
Died: Tortured to death

(PS UNAMIR came too late)

Name: Odette
Age: 5
Likes: butterflies
Personality: shy, kind
Best friend: her sister, Antoinette
Died: machete to head

Imagine a whole room of that, accompanied by smiling faces, shy smiles and chubby cheeks. I was in despair. I went outside to the surrounding gardens to catch a breath of fresh air. Each gardne has their own meaning. A rose garden stands to commemorate the victims, three gardens outlined Rwandan Unity, Discord and Reconciliation, respectively.

Further on, below the main hall, are large slabs of concrete and a wall of every growing names. These are the mass graves. Over 250,000 people are buried at this museum. As they are exhumed from other places, they are brought here. Some are identified, some not. The museum is a tribute to educate, but also to honor those who were so disquietingly dishonored.

I left with a heavy heart, needing a hug, but glad I came to pay my respects.

The Story of Sebastien

These days, mention Rwanda, and the most common reference that springs to people's mind is the Genocide. In 1994, after the mysterious plane crash President Habyarimana on April 6, Hutu radicals began a country-wide massacre of Tutsi's and Hutu moderates which ultimately wiped out or displaced over two-third's of the country's population. Famous after the fact, like so many things, the Rwandan genocide has become the stuff of hellish nightmares - an African Holocaust that quite horrifically, occured right under the nose of the UN.

In the years following, while the memory has faded for us in the west into the stuff of great heart-wrenching hollywood films, its aftermath remains very real, and very painful, for everyday Rwandans. Today, one is not allowed to identify themselves by ethnicity, and it is not allowed to deny that the genocide exist. However, it's not something you bring up over coffee either. Its certainly awkward for an outsider like me to ask around the office "How was your life affected?" but little dribs and drabs come out.

I discovered from one of our expat staff that in one way or another, everyone has been affected. A few staff take the entire Memorial week off, to spend with what family they have left, or just to mourn. Our country manager had lived in Rwanda during the 1980's, returning home before the genocide, and shared with me his frustration on being unable to help his Tutsi friends escape.

But the story that gave me goosebumps was that of Sebastien.

Our country manager met Sebastien's father in the 80's, they kept in touch, and became close friends. During the genocide, he called every single day to find out if his friend was still alive, and what was happening. Some day's, he couldn't get through. Other times, they described their increasingly alarming situation. As interhame stormed the streets of Kigali, they had to find food wherever they could, often going hungry. They lived in the shadows, in fear. One day, he stopped answering his phone. Our country manger feared the worst.

Year's later, back in Rwanda, our country manager began looking for his friend. The ICRC and other international agencies had set up registration processes and photo boards to help individual's reconnect (think about it - without a cell phone or a photo, or a home to return to, how would you find your family?). Eventually, he found a friend of his friend, who confirmed the worst - he had killed on April 28th, his body most likely dumped in one of the many shallow mass graves around Kigali, or left to rot in the sun. (Interesting side bar: there are few dogs in Rwanda. After feasting on the dead bodies, dogs were systematically hunted to prevent the spread of disease).

However, a son - Sebastien - survived. He was found, and convinced to come and work for our company. It's not clear to me how he survived, but he is a delicate fellow. He's bright, but there's a shadow behind his eyes. I'm told he only made it through because everyone thought he was crazy. Our country manager happened to have photos of his parents from when they were friends in the 80's and Sebastien broke down. He didn't have a thing left to remember them. The interhamwe had destroyed - obliterated - everything.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A visit to Nyagatare

Today, the first day after the conference, we drove up to Nyagatare, two hours north of Kigali, to visit our project sites. Rwanda is breathtaking, achingly serene. The graceful, gentle hilltops slope delicately, nobly, like the cheekbones of a Tutsi woman. Even Kigali, with its overpopulated smog-filled roadways, twinkle invitingly around the valley in the evening.

Like most of our projects, we help dairy farmers collectively bulk and sell their products through training, cooperative development, and small grants. We spent the day visiting bits and bobs of whom we've helped in the past two years. First,we visited a milk collection center, whose compressor struggles to cool all 5,000 liters of milk when it arrived at once (apparently, they are made to take it a little at a time).

Next, we visited a group of entrepreneurs - small grants recipients - who sell molasses to farmers, which they sprinkle on their fodder, making it more nutritious to the dairy cattle. Their shop was a tiny, windowless storage until at the corner of the open market in Matimba. A group of predominantly wazungu walking through any African market draws attention, and this was no different. Talking with the shop keepers, we were instantly surrounded in a fishbowl of curious onlookers. Nonetheless, I was able to break away and walk around the marketplace, which sold everything from tiny anchovies fresh from Lake Muhazi to women's undergarments (no packaging).

On the outskirts of town was Elias, a Muslim farmer who lived on a large plot of land and had a thriving family. Our project gave him an inkind grant of napier grass, and he choose to invest some of his own money (besides land and labor) to purchase more. As we walked through his impressive banana grove, we could glimpse the scrubby Ugandan countryside across the valley. We had just missed meeting his cow, who had gone into heat that morning and was rushed to find the nearest bull. I shook his hand and offered my congratulations. He laughed. A successful calf would double his dairy production, and was good news indeed!

We stopped for a simple lunch at the Savannah cafe in Nyagatare. Our choices were starchy - rice, mutoki (banana), chips (french fries), mashed cassava or sweet potato (the white kind, not what you'd find in the US). For protein, there were eggs, beef, beans or mashed up ground nuts (peanuts). I got the rice and groundnuts, and was surprised only for a moment when a bowl of purple mush showed up, until I realized that they'd blended the nuts without the shell, but with the skin on. So basiclaly, I had purple peanutbutter rice for lunch.

(My colleague got so much rice that the waitress actually came back and "reposessed" some of it for another lunch order when she wasn't looking. No explanation, she just plopped her spoon right in the rice when Gretchen wasn't looking and took it away... kept a firm hand on my peanut butter mush after that...)

After lunch, we visited a very friendly lady and her neighbor, both living with HIV/AIDs. She had used our small grant to create silage to feed their only cow. Although there was a language barrier, we sat and chatted in the shade of her house for several minutes. She was embarassed that we were sitting on (essentially) her stoop, and it wasn't very clean. I liked this woman the best, because she took our hands and laughed with us. Plus, she asked alot of questions, and was clearly excited to have us see her cross bred cow, which provided nutrition and income for her family. Cows in Rwanda (and Uganda) tend to be either Ankole (local), Freisan (Holstein) or a mix.

We walked up the road to a small milk shop, where this woman sells her milk every day. Betty (the milk shop owner) buys 15 liters of milk a day, and sells it to other neighbors after boiling it. There doesn't seem much incentive to sell to Betty, but community members do it, rather than sell directly to their own neighbors. (I didn't quite understand that, but there must be a reason). Next door is a women's sewing cooperative, which decided to buy a cow and collectively care for it. I enjoyed watching them work on the old fashioned Singer sewing machines (pedal pump) circa 1890 (and in good condition!)

We stopped for a sunset beer on Lake Muhazi on the way home, but it was clear we were all knackered. Overall, it was a great way to spend a day, but I was happy to hit the bed when I arrived 'home'.


I've arrived in Rwanda, land of a thousand hills, and been immediately thrown into stress. There's usually a certain amount of smudge around - being from headquarters, one is often see as a "spy", not really understanding the "realities" of the field, and treated with some circumspect. This is normal, and can usually be overcome by the first or second beer, and some disarming humor.

However, this time around, the weirdness was also doubly stuffed with dynamics brought in by an important conference, and some surprising staff changes back home. Add dusting off some underutilized French skills while worrying about an ill mother and a newly purchased home (what if it burns down while I'm away?) and you've got a week that not even a gin and tonic can fix.


The conference ended yesterday, and I celebrated by crawling into my hotel bed and pulling the sheets up over my head.

There are things about Rwanda, though, that have not escaped my stressful orbit. One, there is very little garbage. Smog, yes; garbage, not so much. Paul Kagame apparently runs a very tight ship around here, and it's appreciated. It is also very hilly - they weren't kidding. Watching the cloud shadows play through the numerous valley's in the early morning sunshine is a pleasure worth taking.

Two, any mention of ethnicities is completely forbidden. In the wake of the Belgian's requiring culutural identification on national identity cards in the early 1900's, contributing to the bifurcation that precipitated the 1994 genocide, it is now illegal to openly discuss one's ethnic background, for better or worse.

Three, Rwandan French is much, much easier to understand than West African French.

Four, I am three degrees below the equator and should've packed more sunscreen.

Five, the universe still conspires to find goodness, even amongst stress.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Random Country Number 582: Rwanda

I leave tomorrow, for two weeks. I haven't had much time to do any research, but that's what planes are for, right? I'll be hanging out here: . So far, the only thing I know is that for the first week, I'll be staying at Hotel Rwanda. Yes, THE Hotel Rwanda, aka the Mille Collines.

As usual, from our friends over at Wiki:

The Republic of Rwanda, known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, is a landlocked country located in the Great Lakes region of eastern-central Africa, bordered by Uganda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania. Although close to the equator, the country has a cool temperate climate due to its high elevation. The terrain consists mostly of grassy uplands and gently rolling hills. Abundant wildlife, including rare mountain gorillas, have resulted in tourism becoming one of the biggest sectors of the country's economy.

Rwanda has received considerable international attention due to its 1994 genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed.[4] Since then the country has made a recovery and is now considered as a model for developing countries. In 2009 a CNN report labeled Rwanda as Africa's biggest success story, having achieved stability, economic growth (average income has tripled in the past ten years) and international integration.[5] The government is widely seen as one of the more efficient and honest ones in Africa. In 2007 Fortune magazine published an article titled "Why CEOs Love Rwanda." [6]

The capital, Kigali, is the first city in Africa to be awarded the Habitat Scroll of Honor Award in the recognition of its "cleanliness, security and urban conservation model." [7] In 2008, Rwanda became the first country to elect a national legislature in which a majority of members were women.[8] Rwanda joined the Commonwealth of Nations on 29 November 2009 as its fifty-fourth member,[9] making the country one of only two in the Commonwealth without a British colonial past

Monday, May 03, 2010


I found this poem last year...and liked it. Author Sheenagh Pugh.


Sometimes things don't go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail,
Sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen; may it happen for you.