Saturday, February 23, 2013

Some shit that is just ridiculous

The #1 tourist attraction in Rwanda is the gorilla trekking at Volcanos National Park.  You'd think they'd make it pretty easy to plan to do the #1 tourist attraction.

This is my second time in Rwanda.  I have been here now for over 2 months.  I have a guide book (Bradt) and have been using the internet for 2 hours and cannot figure it out.

I have a school holiday coming up March 31 to April 20 and I am planning to see some popular tourist sites in Rwanda over that break.

At this point I *think*
  1. I need to get trekking permits from an office in Kigali, that I pay at least some percentage of when I book.  This office is a simple acronym the ORTPN.
  2. We can take a bus from Kigali to a town ~20k (?) away from where we need to go that is interchangeably called Musanze or Ruhengeri.
  3. From there, there is no transit to a town called Kinigi, which is the entrance to the park.
  4. You need to be at the park by 7:00 AM on the day of your trek, so likely in Kinigi the night before.
  5. There is 1 guest house in Kinigi, as far as I can tell.
This is the guest house:

You'll note that the web site does not list any prices, or contact information.  If you want to stay there, you can walk up and ask for a room I guess.  If they are full, tough luck.

This paragraph below is illustrative of of the typical *information* you get while planning your trip here in Rwanda:
" The usual foundation for visiting the fascinating Volcanoes Park is Musanze previously well-known as Ruhengeri, which can simply be accessed by public transport starting from Gisenyi or Kigali on the very day of your tracking. You will be required to arrive at the headquarters of ORTPN in Kinigi, at the park entrance, by 7:00 am, although this is not a very dependable option for those who hope to arrive by public transport.  However, there isn’t any public transport from Musanze to the headquarters of the park at Kinigi."

Thanks for that.

So basically, I think I buy some permits, and then take a bus to Musanze/Ruhengeri the morning of the day before my trek, then spend the day in Musanze/Ruhengeri trying to get to Kinigi, and trying to find a place to stay in Kinigi.  Things here in Rwanda seem to generally take a lot of faith, and there is little confirmation, but so far, things seem to generally work out, so I'll hope for the best.

You would think Rwanda tourism would try to make this a little more straight forward, but nothing here is easy or simple, so I don't know why this one thing would be.

"Excellence in Execution"

Odds & Ends:
  • One bi-product of the pushup-off here in the village is that the Rwandan staff challenge me at random times to do pushups.  Today I did 30 pushups in the kitchen of the dining hall at 11:00 AM while I was chopping carrots when the Coordinator of Informal Education came to challenge me out of the blue.  Random!  (I won. The girls cheered.  He vowed revenge.)
  • This is a pretty solid website, and I have to admit the biting satire really hit home. I do like hot showers. I wonder if I would go to this personal risk to have one?  I doubt it, but I don't have access to one of these contraptions so, who knows:
  • Rwandan home remedies scare the shit out of me:  Today one of my girls was coughing a lot in the kitchen while she was chopping carrots, so one of the cooks brought her a bowl (like a full cereal bowl) of diced raw onion to eat.  It made her cry, but she ate it, and while she was crying she did cough less.  Later (5 hours later, same chopping session) one of the girls finally cut her finger.  My family mother ran over with a container of salt, and *literally* rubbed salt in the wound.  Thanks Mom!
  • This isn't quite as good (bad?) as the 2005 slogan, "Plan your Execution"  (We'll, I guess we'll need a firing squad, a priest, a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos...) but in a country about to commemorate 1 million violent deaths is 100 days, this doesn't seem quite right:

  • This is the Student Resource Center, where I work at ASYV:

  • And me helping a student work on her CV:

Things I Thought Would Be Difficult to Find in Rwanda: A Photo Essay

Iced Coffee and Chocolate Cupcake: The "cupcake" was pretty gross (had a garlicky taste?!?!) and cost 1200 RwF ($1.81). The Iced coffe was 1400 RwF ($2.12) and had lemon seeds floating in it somehow.

Sensodyne Pronamel Toothpaste:  Yeah I am really roughing it.  This was kinda expensive at 4700 RwF ($7.12) but I can't really remember how much it costs at home.

 Vaseline Body Lotion: 5450 RwF ($8.26).

Colgate Total Toothpaste: 2100 RwF ($3.18)

OB Tampons Original 56 pack for 6900 (RwF) (~$10.38).

In sum, pretty much anything you would need, you can get here.  Really.

The only exceptions so far that I find myself missing are are good chocolate, dryer sheets, and cheap sunscreen.

An Open Letter to Gracie Elder (very belated)

So, I recently* received some mail:

* Sorry about the lengthly delay in my reply, Gracie.  Things have been pretty busy here and there is not always electricity, which we need for both computers and for the dern temperamental internets.

Some context for you non-Gracies out there, Gracie is 9. She is my cousin Matthew's daughter.  She is adorable, as are all the mini-Elders:

She asks some good questions.

1)How is it in Africa?
Well, this is a bit broad and there are many lengthy textbooks on the current state of political stability and economic development of the 52 nations on the African continent.  Somehow, I doubt this is what Gracie meant, so I'll just say that things for me in Rwanda are going pretty well.  I am working a lot and spending time with the girls from my family when I can.  Most days I am up early for meetings, and then I work in what is basically a guidance counselor's office every Monday through Friday from 3-8.  After that I have dinner and usually some scheduled activity. Power and water outages are infrequent enough to be pretty easy to manage so far. When I go in to Kigali, every other weekend, I buy Snickers bars to supplement the beans and rice I eat in the dining hall at 2 and 8 PM each day.  I still don't love cold showers.  Today is a Saturday so I woke up at 5 AM to go running with the entire village and then worked in the kitchen, mostly stringing beans and chopping carrots from 7 AM - 3 PM and came home after that to do my laundry in a bucket.  I am tired.

2) Are there lots of bugs?
Yes!  Lots and lots and lots.  As I write this, there is a big green grasshopper in my room maybe 1 meter from me.  There are four visible spiders: one big and spindly like a daddy long legs in a corner, one about the size of a quarter, but much thicker than the big one, he's on the wall and two tiny, almost clear spiders crawling on my chair.  There is also a cricket that I suspect might meet his demise to one of these spiders. Sorry Jiminy! When I work in my office, we have a lot of flies, and some bees that come in, as I joke, for help with their college essays.  When we weed in the banana planation I see many new types of bugs I have never seen before.  I don't take my camera to the farm, or I'd have a photo of this giant beetle that is the size of a walnut or so that makes me scream when I see him and all my girls laugh and laugh at me because it  is so silly to be afraid of a bug.

What I like to think about all the bugs, is that they are really, really important.  Rwanda has so many beautiful birds.  Like this one:

I think the birds have the time and energy to grow such beautiful feathers because they have plenty of bugs to eat all the time.

(Luckily, I have had a pretty good stretch with the mosquitos, which I attribute to all the bug spray and leave in clothing treatment I got from my sister and my mom for Christmas this year.  Knock on wood.)

3) Can you see wild animals out the window?
This is a good question.  No, I cannot see wild animals out the window.  What I see out the window looks like this:

There are lots of birds, but right where I live there are no giraffes, lions, hippos or rhinos.

One way to think about it, is that it is a lot like home.  There are lots and lots of horses in Louisville, but you can't see any of them right out the window.

If I got into a car are drove about one hour east to Akagera National Park, I could see giraffes, lions, hippos and rhinos on a safari.

4) Is everyone nice?
Well, in a word, yes.  Everyone is really, really nice.  Rwandans are very friendly and polite.  They ask strangers as they pass how they are doing.  Everyone asks how you are and your family and they really mean it.  You typically cannot do business, like walk in a shop and purchase some sugar and some laundry detergent without first asking how someone is doing and exchanging pleasantries.  As a New Yorker, I sometimes find all this friendliness a bit tedious, but I am hanging in there.  Everyone in the village where I work is super nice to me.  The 16 high school girls in my family are all vulnerable orphans, and would have good reason to be grouchy sometimes and instead, when they see me they smile and greet me like I am the best news they got all day.

I hope you had a great Valentine's Day.  Thank you so much for your letter.

Additionally, I'd like to compliment you on your strong spelling and I hope you enter your school spelling bee when it comes around.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Mud Swallow Nest Construction

There is a bird building a nest out of mud on the ceiling of our front porch.  This is an abbreviated study in the process:

Day 1? (or when I first noticed):

Day 7

 Day 14:

(i'll add to this post if i remember to take more photos.)
* as promised updates on 2/23:

Day 20:

Day 27:

Do the last two even look different?  Perhaps this is just another construction start that could not secure the next round of funding.  I'll leave this little project for now and let you know if things pick back up.

Here comes the sun

I need to let you know that the reason I am giving this girl (Grace) in my family 8 greeting a weak sauce, one-armed hug on the ASYV blog is because I am holding the family 8 banner with the other hand.  Otherwise, it would have been a full-on bear hug.  I just had to clear that up.

Since you asked, I'll let you know that  Megatrade has been suspiciously quiet.  I can only assume they are working on chartering a jet to get my replaced coffee mug to me as soon as possible.  Hey my Scripps pals, if you are in Nashville, please go by their office and get me a status update. Thanks!

Big time, Timmy Tim, I guess all things have to change but this news just about broke my heart:

I watched the Super Bowl from Rwanda's only mexican restaurant from 1:30-5:30 AM.  I was excited to watch sports for the first time since arriving here but soooo tired.  There was a decent ex-pat turn out at Meze Fresh.  I was glad the Ravens prevailed.  (Sorry Julie).  The weirdest part was that the international feed of the game was on some weird ESPN cable that did not have all the typical commercials but instead showed spots promoting bowling, boxing, and bass fishing, the 3 Bs of cable sports I guess.

There is a new solar panel here in the village.  It provides energy to the village and also a surplus to sell back to the grid, making the whole operation more sustainable and more financially independent.  Also we might be on CNN's the Next List for our big new solar panel.  I'll let you know.

Can you outrun that malnourished, barefoot 9 year old? (No. No, you can't.)

Let's take a check point: I've been here in the village since December 19, and in Rwanda since December 14, so almost 2 months.  I'm over my jet-lag and mostly over the dysentery-like symptoms I had for the first few weeks in the village.  (Tip: Buy stock in chewable Pepto.)

Pretty much like all my blog posts I guess, what follows is a mish-mosh of my observations to date.

(Setting the scene: no power or water in the village as I type this.  MacBook battery at 58% so I should be fine for a while…)

The difficult questions that keep popping back up for me are who should get help, who gets help and why, and what are the outcomes of help?  Luckily, much smarter minds than mine are applying a lot of effort to this question.  Check out the Aspen Institute.  My specific questions come up with the interaction of the village (ASYV) and the poverty of the surrounding area.

I go running a lot.  (See just about every other blog post).  This is something of a novelty here, which makes a lot of sense if you think about it.  In a place where hunger and malnutrition are real daily challenges for many people, the thought of expending calories on a frivolous leisure pursuit is pretty absurd.  So when I go on my run up and down the hills, I may as well be carrying a bag of rice and throwing handfuls on the ground.  "I have too much to eat, so this is how I waste it, see?" my jogging shouts.

(Scene:  A spider just crawled across my keyboard and I didn't see him coming so I totally flipped out. Okay, back to the post…)

While I'm running, I see those images you probably imagine when you think of poverty in East Africa.  5 year olds carrying bright yellow jerry-cans on their heads; jerry-cans that are about the same size as the child.  Mud houses surrounded by crowds of tiny kids.  Most of the kids have no shoes, are wearing filthy, ripped clothes and look unwell (snotty, distended stomachs). They smile and wave, and as previously blogged about: run with me / chase me (depending on your perspective).  It's pretty common that they can hang with me for a while.  I restarted my Nike+ with a kid I couldn't shake and we ended up clocking 15:47 for 2 miles.  At that point I gave up and he took a hard left and ran up a hill laughing. 

This kid was about 9, barefoot, scrawny, and smiled and laughed and asked me questions in Kinyarwanda the entire time, in between shouting the ubiquitous, "Good Morning".  I kept trying to lose him to no avail.  I was amazed.

(Today I was outrun for about 100 meters by a 5 year old girl carrying an infant. No lie.  I'm averaging 8:57s on hilly terrain over 8 miles, so I'm no speed demon, but not a terrible pace either.)

Often when I leave the village, I am coming from some frustrating struggle over resources.  For example, I just had to teach a 2 hour class with no paper or projector or board to write on.  Or I am arguing for one of my girls to be allocated a second shirt, because she doesn't have one to wear while she does laundry.  Or several us are pushing a western agenda that the girls should be allocated bras.

[Side note on this:  The village provides everything that the kids need.  What the kids "need" is of course something to be defined and debated.  Maybe it's a western construct to wear a bra.  Who knows?  I trust some (many?)  'womyn's' study major has written her thesis on this.  One certainly doesn't need a bra to survive.  But some of the girls have them, if they came with them from their home village, and some of the girls don't.  ASYV makes the girls go jogging and play sports (volleyball, basketball, soccer).  Like all situations where some people have something and others don't, the girls who don't have bras are jealous of the girls who do have, and often ask for bras.  Frankly, I see their point.  Logistically, this might be an expensive nightmare for the village (what sizes?). I can see why it's not a 'need' but for the girls in family 8 who don't have them, I can also see why they would ask.] 

So I head out of the village with my mind on these resource struggles and within 5 minutes I'm confronted with much much more dire resource struggles that make the whole thing seem so arbitrary.  10 minutes ago I was trying to get budget for online ACT prep ($24.95) for some vulnerable youths inside the fence where I work.  Outside the fence, I'm now running with a barefoot, malnourished child who's entire family doesn't see $24.95 in a week. According to my friends at the UN,  about 77% of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day.   The scope of the poverty is staggering, and in some sense the 'poverty' is external, and introduced.  You don't really know you're poor until someone comes and tells you how poor you are.  

When I'm confronted with the resource struggle outside the fence, the resource struggle inside the fence seems comical.

It's only fair to point out at this point that 'outside the fence' has benefited from 'inside the fence' in many ways.  The long term volunteers and visitors to the village spend money in the local shops, ASYV shares a water source with several surrounding farms, and ASYV hires day laborers from the surrounding area.  The poverty I'm writing about isn't any worse because of the village, in fact it's slightly better.  My point is just the stark contrast between how much is being done for my students inside the fence and how little is available outside the fence.

[Stories about aid and disaster are so plentiful: Army core of engineers spreading BilharziaWHO digging arsenic wells in Bangladesh.  The maxim, first do no harm is a tough one to hold fast.  Meaning well and doing well can be so far apart.  Unintended consequences from 'helping' can be far reaching.  I'm reading Crazy Like Us right now, the section about mental health workers spreading PTSD after the Tsunami really cuts to the bone.  It gives one pause...]

In talks with the recent graduates, I've learned most live at a much higher standard when in the village, (3 nutritious meals per day, running water, electricity, computer labs) than when outside the village, which of course isn't surprising.  Now having graduated, they're returning to their villages where they've had 4 years of getting used to these amenities they likely won't have again.  Some students are a bit more angry than appreciative. They can't believe after all this, they have to go back to living like that. Maybe they won't; maybe they'll be motivated into entrepreneurship or some other path forward, some may qualify for national scholarships to university.  Some, of course, will not.

So my question is what is the point of helping these 500 youths?  What makes them so much more worthy than the kids I jog past?  Does opening more opportunities (sports) only create more needs (sports bras) that weren't even a concern previously? 

Running 'outside the fence' makes Rwandan poverty seem like a bathtub full of boiling water, and the work at ASYV is an eye dropper of cold water.  That eye-dropper full of cold water can't make a dent on the temperature in the tub.  To be sure, there are other eye droppers out there.  Every NGO in the world is on the ground here, and the Rwandan government has a strong development plan (read pending environmental disaster).

I'm hoping the point, if there is one to anything (highly questionable), is that maybe in the analogy the tub is supersaturated with salinity but in a state with nothing to form structure around.  Maybe the eyedropper contains particle seeds to trigger the solution to crystalize. Maybe the graduates of Agahozo will help to form a pool of future leaders in government and industry that pay it forward in their community. I suppose time will tell.

In other news, the cavalry is not coming.  There is no waiting this out. I need to be the change I want in the village if I want things to change. That is not really my style.  I go along.  I accept.  I see if I can hang in that chin pull just a few more seconds and maybe the issue will pass.  See 11 miserable years at Accenture.

(To be fair, my 11 'miserable years' at Accenture have been serving me pretty well the last 6 weeks.  I was recently asked to facilitate a management staff planning retreat where I led sessions in vision crafting, SWOTs, SMART goal setting and action plan creation.  It was like being back at St. Charles. )

One thought I've had run through my head a lot this week is, "Is beating your head against the wall for vulnerable youths any better than beating your head against the wall for silly for profit entertainment companies?" Progress is hard to come by, and I'm feeling discouraged because I haven't made any progress AT ALL yet in my role at the Student Resource Center.  Every day is a new crisis and we spend all of our energy in emergency management.  Power outages and internet outages further slow the tiny stream.  Maybe I'll turn that around this week.

Nothing worth achieving ever came easy I guess.  One thing I know for sure about Rwandan kids inside the fence and out: there is a lot of fight in them, and (to mix my metaphors) maybe that is half the battle.  

Play along at home

File this one under "By the way" but the biggest university in Rwanda's web page has been down since Jan 23.  Play along at home, click this link to see if it is back:

Also check out the Kigali Institute for Science and Technology, (but apparently not networking) to see if it is online:

Thanks Rwanda!

A qualified defeat...

As predicted, the pushup contest blew up in unpleasantness. 

I had been up for pretty much 3 days straight planning and facilitating the leadership retreat (excuse).  

We held the pushup contest and I lost 80-36. (80-66 with the spread). 

The results were hotly contested because a pushup is not an easy thing to define and not as black and white as you might think, or as I had thought. 

Your faithful blogger did slow pushups with good form and nose to the grass all the way to locked elbows.  In my opinion, and in the opinion of several attendees (who, in full disclosure, might well be biased towards me) the 80 done by the victor were quick, jerky little pushups that neither went to the ground or fully extended to straight arms.  The consequences are bad feelings all around and an implicit agreement never to speak of pushups again in the village.

Heroin is the foundation of dignity and development

Rwanda's National Heroes' Day was February 1.

We celebrated in the village with some team building games and an inspirational guest speaker from the Rwandan military.  

There is a national theme for the day published.  This year it was:
"Heroism is the foundation of dignity and development"

I don't know…  Is it just me, or does this feel like a slogan right out of 1984?  Thoughtcrime is doubleplus ungood. Heroism is the foundation of dignity and development.  

The slogan was painted on banners around the school. Originally this banner (pictured) read "Heroin is the foundation of dignity and development." which I think we can all agree is not quite right. 

As a fun little exercise, imagine yourself defining the word 'dignity' to a bunch of teenagers.  It's a bit harder than you might think.