Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Long Time Comin

Here is a brief summary of what I have been up to.

I took a two week vacation with five friends to Malawi, a fairly small country in southern Africa. Malawi is called the “Warm Heart of Africa” and lives up to its name with some of nicest people I have I ever met. It also sits on a very large lake which is situated in the Rift Valley (the same valley Rwanda’s Lake Kivu is in). Supposedly Lake Malawi has the best inland beaches in Africa too.

We left on August 7th, just two days before Rwanda’s presidential election, on a bus headed for Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. This is the same bus we took on our way to Zanzibar last December. It’s thirty five hours of mostly smooth pavement with about five hours of absurdly rocky dirt path that just happens to coincide with sleepy time. The bus did stop for about five hours around midnight in Dodoma (the capital of Tanzania) for the driver to sleep. I didn’t sleep though. Instead, a couple friends and I walked around and enjoyed delicious street food which is so tragically outlawed in Rwanda... along with seasonings I foolishly took for granted back home.

We stayed a couple days in Dar es Salaam waiting for our train and exploring the city. Ahhh, coconuts... lychee... and the best beer in East Africa, Tusker. The train was the highlight of the trip, for me. The six of us commandeered a second-class cabin and packed it with delectable subway sandwiches and drinks. The 1960’s era locomotive coasted us through some seriously rural areas in Tanzania including a nature reserve. Sometimes we’d catch a glimpse of a cattle herder clad in Massai warrior garb. At night, large tracts of the savannah outside were glowing like lava. It wasn’t like the kind of violent forest fires back home. It was a peculiarly tranquil burn. And inexplicably beautiful. Then after about twenty hours we stopped in Mbeya, Tanzania just north of Malawi and took a bus to the border.

We crossed the border and stayed a night in a small dark town in the north of Malawi and the next day we left it. After almost four days of traveling, we arrived at our destination (Big Blue Star Backpackers) in Nkhata Bay. We had our choice of stilted reed huts right on the water for only seven bucks per night. Incredible place! The best lodge I have ever stayed at by far. Now it was time to chill. We’d be here for a while.

Fisherman rowed around the lake in small carved out wooden boats and at night their kerosene lanterns would light up the lake like stars. Nkhata Bay has a small town and even a couple night clubs. We thoroughly enjoyed the chicken which is so much more tender and juicy than the chicken in Rwanda. We also, “enjoyed” a local alcoholic drink called Shake Shake. Basically if you left some milk in the sun for a day, then filtered it through a dirty gym sock, twice... you’d have Shake Shake. It’s a must try so you can at least say you tried it though. Or drank a carton of it. Yes, it comes in a milk carton too. Ingredients: Milk, Sorghum, Maize.

Some of us took a boat tour around the lake which included a fish eagle feeding session, cliff jumping and snorkeling. All which were very cool. I can now say that I have jumped from a mango tree into a lake too. We met a lot of really cool people around Nkhata Bay. Most days we just relaxed in hammocks or on the beach and partied in the night. It was just what I needed.

I ended up staying two extra nights after the rest of my group left and made my way back home alone. I managed to travel a lot faster alone too and really got to practice my Swahili in Tanzania. In Dodoma I shared coffee and ginger tea one night with a table full of Muslim guys who just got out of prayer at the Mosque. They also fed me Kachata which is basically a home made payday bar!! After Dodoma I went to Kahama (all this sounds like it is so simple but remember that each one of the spokes of traveling come with challenges such as the bus that passed me in Dodoma and the ticket for a window seat that ended up being an seat on the aisle floor, but I’m not complaining). In Kahama, I stayed at a sketchy hotel and got a bus the next morning to Rwanda.

Since coming back home I have been very busy with a host of activities such as:

  1. Camp GLOW~ Coordinating it this year has been challenging. It will be more than twice the size as last year and will be accompanied by a smaller boys camp directly afterwords.
  2. Perma-garden Project~ I’m working with a small group of farmers on building perma-gardens in each of their homes together.
  3. Health Fair~ Along with the other PCVs in Rwamagana we are planning a city-wide health fair in February.
  4. Peer-support Network- About 6 PCVs, including me, are setting up a peer-support network for future PCVs in Rwanda.
  5. Club GLOW~ With another PCV, I have been working with a club that we set up with girls who came to last years’ Camp GLOW.
  6. And playing music and learning many new songs with Emmett.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Updates: April to... now.

It's been a while and a lot has happened since I last posted on my activities so I will do my best to fill in the large blank spot.
I have been helping my partner organization AESD in several capacities. First and foremost, I help them with the health related activities by giving presentations. AESD gets funding from larger organizations called PSI (Population Services International) and several other larger organizations. Their focus is on BCSM (Behavior Change and Social Marketing). Under BCSM, AESD trains groups around Rwamagana district such as Model Couples (married couples that show good life skills like family planning etc.), Peer Educators (out of school youth who train kids their age), Coach Capitan (out of school youth trained to train others at sports events), Compassionate Community (elected members who identify community needs and discuss ways to solve them) and they also train religious leaders. All of these groups are trained in HIV/AIDS prevention, family planning methods, malaria prevention and some times other subjects like safe water (how to sanitize water for drinking) etc. I help AESD do this. Peace Corps trained us all in Public Health which deals with all of these topics. At these training events I give interactive lectures with the help of my counterpart Jules. For family planning (FP) I teach people about the different methods of FP but especially the male condom. I give demonstrations, using wooden penises, on how to correctly use a condom as well as some basic information on condoms. During this time I try to dispel some of the myths surrounding such sensitive topics. The youth center project has been put on hold due to the difficulty finding funding for building projects.
So I have done this off and on. It sounds like a lot but it turns out that there's still more time. On the side, I helped create a club for the girls from Rwamagana who attended our Camp GLOW in December. With the club, I have helped train (with the help of two trusty volunteers Colleen and Kara) the girls a little bit further on health topics which can be pretty broad. We do a lot of work on something we call "Life Skills". This includes relationship skills, communication skills, career development etc.
Even after this... I still have a lot of time on my hands. With the help of another PCV I have successfully installed a program that allows me to play Nintendo 64 and Super Nintendo on my computer. I have mastered Mario Kart 64!! I have been playing A LOT of guitar too! I still play a lot of Flamenco of course but I have actually been focusing on learning to play and sing at the same time. I have learned a bunch of tunes that I love from Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash and even the White Stripes! Emmett and I have started an unofficial duo (I play and sing, and he sings). Little by little I am learning but it is difficult to play and sing at the same time.
Here's a short list of the things I have done.
  • Got Schistosomiasis (a parasitic disease caught from swimming in contaminated waters). I took the meds... I'm okay.
  • Learned Dolly Partons hit "Jolene". "Jolene, I'm beggin of you please don't take my man!"
  • Went to Gisenyi for a week-long training on Human resources management. I was told it was a mental health conference. (the infamous language barrier got the best of me)
  • Learned how to say ambulance in Kinyarwanda. "Imbangukiragutabara". Yep. Not braggin or anything. Just sayin...
  • Went to MSC (Mid-service Conference) for Peace Corps for a week in Kigali with access to a pool. Sweeeeet.
  • Swam in lake Kivu once again.
  • Watched the world cup matches!!
{Pics} (left) the picture on the left is from the camp site I stayed at. (right) how Rwandans transport traditional cows with huge horns.

...Until next time. Ijoro jyiza na ishya (good night and good luck)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cultural Notes

  1. When getting to know a person here a common question is “do you have parents?” I think I’m correct to infer that this is directly related to the huge two-fold impact that the genocide and HIV/AIDS has had on Rwanda.
  2. When you are served drinks anywhere, the waiter/waitress will always open the bottle while you are present. This is to prevent poisonings which are surprisingly common here. The rule is that you must be able to see the bottle being opened in front of you. If it isn’t, it is perfectly acceptable to send the bottle back and ask for another one. But its never happened to me.
  3. Honestly, Rwandans love guilt trips. It’s not meant to be taken personally though. If you don’t visit someone promptly you will never hear the end of it. In fact one of the most common phrases that I’ve heard is, “warabuze!” (literally, you’ve been missing). Now this person has no intention of making you feel bad and probably had no intention of visiting you but regardless it will kinda make you a little defensive. So what I do is try to beat them to it and tell them “warabuze!” before they can. (mwah-ha-ha)
  4. When people call you, they (the callers) have to greet you first!! Not the normal American interaction where the receiver of the call says “hello?” before the caller says anything. So what ends up happening to me every single time I call someone is there is an awkward silence for the first moment while I’m waiting for the person to say something like “hello?”. And when others call me, I still answer “hello?” impulsively, which I say at the same time they say “hello”. This is an awkward way to start every phone conversation.

16th Annual Genocide Memorial Week

The genocide memorial week begins April 7th each year. This date marks the night that the presidents plane was shot down over Kigali. Along for the ride was also the Burundian president. Within minutes road blocks were erected all around Kigali with militias and the government troops manning them. By the end of the first day, 8,000 people were dead. Tutsi leaders, such as journalists or political leaders, were targeted first.The killings happened at ten-times the rate as the German holocaust and in only one hundred days around 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were dead.

This holiday is one of the most important in Rwanda. On this day, events are held around the entire country at local government offices to remember that fateful day. People give their testimonies, guest speakers talk about the importance of unity, the President of the Republic makes a public speech and people gather to remember their lost loved ones.

On this first day of memorial week everything is closed all day. Then on April 8th-12th, work continues as usual in the mornings but in the afternoons places shut down again and memorial activities are held. During the entire week no amusement or entertainment activities should be done. The 13th is the official end of memorial week but people never forget. In the following months there are memorial activities around the country and many people take journeys back to the places where their friends and families were killed. All in all, these months are bleak. And during these months we as visitors in the country need to be particularly understanding.

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

When there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

And where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console;

To be understood as to understand,

To be loved as to love;

For it is in giving that we receive,

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

And it is in dying that we are

Born to eternal life.”

St. Francis of Assisi

Monday, April 12, 2010

Camp GLOW Website

I spent a good chunk of time creating this website for our project Camp GLOW. And now I am very excited to announce that it is up and running although there is one page that is still under construction. Click here!!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Quick Update

I haven't made a blog post in a while. I received very good feedback on the cultural notes posts so I will do my best to continue those. There's plenty more to tell... for now I just want to overview the happenings since my last post.

As some of you might know, my birthday was March 5th. I celebrated it with close friends and at a benefit concert in Kigali. The concert was planned by fellow PCV's to raise money for the Books for Africa project they had started a while back. It's a big project to bring tens of thousands of books to Rwanda for schools and libraries around the country. For the concert, many top Rwandan artists volunteered their time to play free of charge. I was very happy to be a part of it. Unfortunately, a rumor spread around Kigali that there were three grenade attacks that night (f.y.i. Kigali has been the site of several grenade attacks in the past several months that have killed several and injured dozens more. It's thought that the attacks are related to the presidential elections that are planned for this August.). The rumor had no factual basis but it was enough to prevent many people from coming to the concert. Luckily, the concert was still a success.
Also in March, I attended a training of peer educators in Rwamagana for one week. At the meetings I gave presentations on the transmission of HIV, reproductive health and other topics. I also had the youth (ages 14-18) put anonymous questions in a bag for me to answer the next day. The questions revealed a lot about what information, misinformation, or lack of information Rwandan youth receive. In the first round of questions, over half concerned the proper use of condoms! This was quite revealing. Rwanda, along with many African nations, still shy away from the use of modern contraception and especially condoms. Just the Kinyarwanda words for penis and vagina can cause a room full of people to laugh hysterically. This is changing little by little. When it comes to a persons health, people must be serious. HIV is no joke. Over 28 million people are infected and Rwanda is no exception. So, the next day I paid a visit to my good friend Justine who is the head of community health in my sector. She gave me a wooden penis and a box full of condoms (a few female condoms too). I gave demonstrations on the proper use of the male condoms. I was facilitated by my counterpart Jules and a guest. I also had a stockpile of condom flyers that PSI (Population Services International) gave to me a while back. It went well and I felt accomplished.
I later learned that all 32 of the youth at the meeting are out of school! I was appalled. Many expressed interest in continuing school but they just don't have enough money! This is outrageous. Honestly, I saw 32 kids... most of them survivors of one of the worst conflicts the world has seen... denied of what I consider in unalienable right has a human. The right to a decent education. Most of them have only completed some elementary school.
The month passed as other have in the past. With plenty of peaceful interactions with my community, a few rocks in my rice and as always the constant reminder that I'm a muzungu... thanks kids. All in all, I'm still loving it here. Sometimes things may bring me down but every morning, as I am drinking my tea or coffee... my tiny 1 year old neighbor waves and calls out, "Mwaramutse Blandoni!" (good morning Brandon!), waving both of her tiny hands at me and standing in a worn out pink dress... I then realize why I'm here and why I've chosen this life.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Traveling continues III…

Our last trip was to Akagera park in the Eastern Province of Rwanda and an unique area due to the changing landscape from the rocky hills of western Rwanda, to the vast Savannah's of Kenya and Tanzania. We unfortunately had problems with our tour company which I won’t go into but the tour guide at the park proved to be very good. She showed around to see about 16 species of large animals (not including the tons of birds we saw). At the top of the list was giraffes, zebra, buffalo, hippos, crocodiles, and antelopes. We had a great first day. When we took a break for lunch we set up our tent and met a group of Libyans who proved to be some of the most hospitable people I have ever met. They fed us freshly cooked chicken, beef, Libyan pasta, Arabic coffee and even a little sheesha (sp?). They were so kind and really made our day. The food was some of the best I have had in over a year. We camped that night on the lake. We could shine our flashlight around and see the eyes of crocodiles shining back at us. All night we could hear splashing in the water from hippos and crocs. The hippos also make grunting noises. Our fire kept everything at a good distance but I won’t lie, it was a little unnerving. Hippos are the most dangerous land animal (even though they spend most of their time in the water). They are generally harmless as long as you don’t get between them and the water when they are on land feeding. The most dangerous creature in Africa is actually the malaria carrying mosquitos. The next day we searched for elephant but all we saw were tracks and poo. The drive was beautiful though. Unfortunately our tour company, Akagera Tours & Travel (be warned) ended our day at noon. However, we were highly satisfied with the number of animals we saw. Rebekah left the next day. :(

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Traveling Continues II…

After going to Uganda we took a trip again to the north but this time to Musanze, (aka Ruhengeri) the place where Diane Fossey once lived amongst the endangered mountain gorillas at the foot of a string of volcanoes that divide Rwanda, the DRC, and Uganda. This place is one of extreme beauty. We came to visit the gorillas but we weren’t sure if it would be worth the $$. We hiked about 1½ hours through a tone of stinging needles and left our walking sticks and other items so that the gorillas didn’t suspect we were poachers. Our guides made calls to let the gorillas know we are friendly. Then… we came across 1, 2, 3… about 15 mountain gorillas. We were allowed to get up to about 20 ft to them but in reality they got up to about 12 ft from us. They were relaxing, sitting down and eating wild celery or other things. They continued as if we weren’t even there. The silver back (an adult male and head of the harem), was effortlessly gnawing on the bark of a very large branch he had ripped down. As Rebekah and I turned our backs to an adult female to take a photo of us with the gorilla in the background, the gorilla decided to approach us. From studying the gorillas at the zoo in Albuquerque (a university class), I suppose the gorilla thought we were inviting her to groom us. The guide quickly got us to move further away. The gorilla then gave her own grooming invitation to us. This whole time I felt completely unthreatened by them, even though they could potentially and effortlessly rip us to pieces. They knew we weren’t there to hurt them. If anything we were a minor disturbance to their nap time. Furthermore, I was very impressed at the vision of conservation that the park shared. The tours are expensive but it keeps the number of visitors down thereby protecting the gorillas. Supposedly, a large percentage of profit flows into adjacent communities thereby showing the community how the tourist attraction can directly benefit them and reduces poaching. Lastly, the park is constantly monitored through a collaboration with the military to prevent poaching. Over the years the number of mountain gorillas as steadily climbed due to this vision of conservation.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

...Traveling Continued

Rebekah came to visit me for about a month in Rwanda. The first trip we took was to a town called Gisenyi on the northern coast of Lake Kivu in Rwanda. I brought her there to show her an acrobat troupe that I had seen there before. We spent the day juggling with them and swimming in lake Kivu. Rebekah taught them a bunch of juggling tricks and they showed us their incredible acrobats. I also showed her around Rwamagana of course. 
Second, we went to Uganda. After a 13 hour sleepless BuMpY bus ride we arrived in the capital of Uganda, Kampala. We walked around town for a couple days exploring the large sleepless city and feasting on cheap delicious indian and ethiopian food. We stumbled on a beautiful hindu temple that was decorated for the Hanuman (Hindu monkey god) feast day. We took our shoes off and wondered around the beautiful temple adorned with statues of gods, elephants and buddhas. After our quiet walk through the temple, we walked through the largest thatch structure in the world where 4 Ugandan kings are buried. Our tranquil  tour guide walked us through the history of the site, Kasubi tombs, slowly and allowing time to explain everything in detail. After a couple nights, we went to another city called Jinja which sits at the mouth of the Nile as it flows out of Lake Victoria, away from the equator and eventually through Egypt. The moment I touched the Nile was one of the most memorable moments of my life, in part because I was on the end of a 145 ft bungee cord elbow deep in the water. Soon enough, I was completely submerged in its massive rushing rapids holding tight to my raft and paddle. We managed to do an extremely difficult complete backflip the first time we flipped our raft. The second, third and fourth times were relatively unexceptional... except for the second flip which happened at the bottom of a class 5 rapid where I, along with all but two passengers (one of them Rebekah, an ingrained childhood circus skill I imagine) became detached from the boat and had to swim my way back to it. After lunch on a private island we continued on with only four passengers, we lost three in part due to an injury. We continued on, down more high class rapids including a waterfall that dropped probably about 15ft. About this time it started raining. The waters were calm at this point but the sky was all but calm. Soon the rains and winds had drastically dropped the temperature and we all jumped out of the raft seeking the warmth of the Nile and hoping nor crocodile would disturb us. Lighting was striking all around us... and very close I might add. For a minute I thought to myself, “so this is how I go, huh” and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. The rain caused visibility to drop just as drastically as the temperature leaving us seemingly alone and our safety boat and kayakers and the other raft were completely out of site. As we floated down the river holding on to our raft, we started swimming as hard as we could perpendicular to the river trying to reach land that we knew was somewhere beyond the thick cloud of mist but could not be seen. Our progress couldn't be known but what we did know is that a 6 class (the highest of all classes) rapid lay somewhere downstream. With no idea of how close it was, we jumped back into the freezing raft and paddled as hard as we could toward land. After a while we reached our destination point where we walked around the class 6 rapid only to get back in for a class 3 and 4. Then we finished... exhausted, shivering, adrenaline pumping and smiles of two kinds... of relief and of satisfaction.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Adventures, Adventures and… Adventures

This last month and a half has been one of vacations. In late December, I decided at the last minute to go to Zanzibar (an Indian ocean island off the coast of Tanzania) with a group of friends for Christmas.
We (PC friends and I) took a bus from Kigali (capital of Rwanda) to Dar es Salaam (capital of Tanzania) at 6:00 a.m. on Dec. 19th. But we weren’t to arrive until about 3:30 p.m. the next day. At around 10 p.m. “sleepy time”, the road became a bumpy dirt road making it very difficult to sleep. The landscape was beautiful and very African looking. After arriving in Dar, we took a boat that evening to Zanzibar (2 hrs). We arrived in the Stone Town, a beautiful city that I’ll describe later.
The electricity was out on the entire island due to the explosion of a transformer (or something). I found a cheap hotel with a generator and unloaded. I met with two friends that night for dinner. We walked aimlessly along the ancient winding streets only to come across a park on the sea lined with dozens of tables lit by lanterns and manned by men in chefs hats. Big eyed and curious we walked up to the first table. “Welcome, please take a look”, the short charismatic chef said in his charming African accent, “as you can see we have the freshest shark that is cooked by our amazing chef, and octopus, crab...” he continued to list the types of seafood that lay on the table for a couple minutes (there must have been 20+ varieties to choose from). We ate like kings and sipped on delicious fresh squeezed sugar cane juice.
The next day we stumbled upon the ruins of an ancient palace. Went to a beautiful beach and walked out to sea only to get our feet scratched. We came back bleeding a little but still satisfied. We also got to see a Taarab band (traditional Zanzibar music that basically sounds middle eastern except the lyrics are in Swahili). We wandered around the streets of stone town admiring the elaborate doors that had been carved out of wood with large elephant stopper spikes sticking out. The streets were tiny and dark. The electricity was supposed to come back before christmas but it never happened but we had a great time still. Our group did a secret santa gift exchange for christmas which we spent at a friends house in Zanzibar and on the most beautiful white beach I’ve ever seen. I guess we had a white christmas after all! This time we walked in the water again past the seaweed farms trying to get to the tide which was hundreds of feet out. We didn’t make it before a friend was stabbed by a sea urchin and then stung by a jelly fish almost simultaneously… so we went back satisfied just to eat mangos on the beach.
I left the group to return to Rwanda a little early to begin my next journey. The bus ride back was pretty rough though. Conclusion… Zanzibar is incredible. It is literally a mix of Africa, the Middle East and India all in one. By far, it was the most unique place I have ever seen.

Cultural Notes

1. The only day that people have weddings is on Saturdays. It’s a common sight to see caravans for weddings, but only on Saturdays.
2. Due to the fact that 90+% of Rwandese are farmers, one of their first questions to me about America is “do you have cows at your house?”, “what do you grow?”, “are there many farmers in America?” and “do you grow this [pointing] in America?”
3. Many women tend to wear headgear of two types: a.) a tight head scarf around the head can signify that she is muslim whereas b.) a larger more decorative headdress signifies that the woman is married.
4. Women tend to wear traditional African dresses whereas men almost always wear modern style clothing.