Stop and Stare

I figured I’d include a post about all the non-education related highlights of my

Traditional Rwandan/Congolese wedding

stay thus far. So I’ve compiled an eclectic assortment of thoughts, notes, and pictures to give you an idea of what life’s been like outside of the school!

Frustrating Transportation: I confess that I only half-believed my contacts when they told me that there were “no addresses in Kigali” – but that really is the case. The city is divided into regions and when you give directions, you state the region and then a nearby landmark. For instance, if I wanted to go home, I would tell the taxi-moto driver “Kimihurura, Topsec,” and after haggling the price down to 500 RWF (less than $1 US), I would further direct him down 3 blocks to my house. Imagine though, coming to the city without knowing any landmarks – it was virtually impossible to get around, so I was a huge baby for the first few days and had to rely on my wonderful friends, Belise and Ioana, to learn the ropes.

Authentic Rwandan food is hard to come by - Thank you, Belise!

Signs of Change: I knew before coming here of Rwanda’s intended shift from French to English and its investment in primary education to that aim. However, it is the little things that say the most about the transitional changes that are occurring – little things like how the older taxi cars seat drivers on the right, but all other cars have drivers seated on the left. Or President Kagame’s decision to give his speech in English on the opening night of the Pan-African Festival of Music (FESPAD). Or the countless numbers of English-speaking muzungus (means “white-person,” but is used broadly for all foreigners) that we’ve met here already – a family from a church in Virginia (the father was a NU alum!!!), teachers from M.I.T., researchers from the University of San Francisco, a PeaceCorps worker from Cornell, U.S. Army soldiers, plus countless numbers of people from England, Norway, Sweden, etc. Or even the cuisine and the music – I hear “I Gotta Feeling,” “Break Your Heart,” and songs by Jason Derulo, Beyonce, Akon, etc from passing

BEST BANANAS EVER!

cars, and the majority of restaurants I’ve been to serve french fries with Heinz Ketchup. DEFINITELY not what I expected – my students are more familiar with American hip-hop than I am! It’s been bizarre, to say the least, to see the amount of American influence in Kigali much less the value that is associated with American culture and products.

Culture Clash: A couple things that I’ve learned thus far:

  1. people care a lot about appearance – not just what you’re wearing, but also your hair and your NAILS. Living in Kigali is not cheap. A drink at Papyrus cost me $9. The costs of food, clothes, and toiletries are comparable to the States. But then there are anomalies, such as manicures, haircuts, and hemming that are dirt-cheap here – I’m guessing because of the demand. Many Rwandese women in Kigali go to the salon multiple times a week. I got a manicure yesterday for less than $3 and I was told that I could get my hair dressed for the same price. I’m not complaining 🙂

    MLK, Obama, and Kagame on one t-shirt

  2. don’t take pictures of people/don’t even look like you’re taking pictures of people – I stopped once to take a picture of a billboard with a political message, but the moment I got my camera in focus, a bunch of the men who were sitting beneath the billboard got up and started approaching me with angry gestures. I was terribly embarrassed and ashamed about the misunderstanding and I made the sobering realization that, if I were totake a similar picture in the states, Americans probably wouldn’t think twice that I was taking a picture of the billboard; but because of the numerous tourists and Westerners Rwandans have encountered who have snapped pictures of them (for instance, the all-too-common photo of the sad and malnourished African child) Rwandans automatically assume that the picture is being taken of them and take offense. 

A (Changed) Perspective on Politics: If the picture on the right is any indication, Kagame is a big deal here. His picture is EVERYWHERE – on bumper-stickers, framed on the walls of offices and classrooms, printed on pins, t-shirts, mugs, etc. I came to Rwanda strongly critical of Kagame’s government, which has stifled expression and prevented the rise of any real opposition. However, the more people I have spoken to and the more I have come to learn about Kagame and Rwanda, the more I realize why people love him and why 99% of the

2010 FESPA - Kagame gave a speech right there!

population will probably vote for him on election day. It isn’t that people don’t realize that the government is more of a benevolent dictatorship than a true democracy, or know that Kagame is spending most of foreign aid on the army when the majority of the population survives on barely $1 a day – no, it’s because people are willing to sacrifice civil liberties at the expense of stability and security. No leader is perfect, and granted there is a lot at fault in Kagame’s presidency, he has also accomplished a great deal of good for the country with his efforts to universalize primary education, provide every low-income family with a cow, and give every student a laptop. In addition, Kigali is clean, organized, and is working toward having the fastest internet in East Africa. People say that they are happy and they love Kagame … because they do. This is something that I will have to continue to mull over and learn more about – TBC.